The Silver Pen

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
Every kid wants magic to be real.
Sam discovers just that after his Grandmother brings him a splendid and insidious gift:
A silver fountain pen.

Submitted: March 06, 2017

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Submitted: March 06, 2017

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Sam lived on a small farm at the foothills of a large range of mountains called the Drakensberg. He was about to discover that time was not as he thought, like a straight line, and also that magic was very possibly real, both light and dark, fun magic and scary magic. All of that would begin to happen once he received a splendid and shining gift from his Granny:  A silver fountain pen.

The farm he lived on with his parents was mostly wild, only a small part was used by the owners to keep their sheep. The rest was overgrown with long grass and alien gum trees leading all the way down to the wide, Mooi River. The owners let him and his mom and dad stay in an old thatched house in the middle of it all for cheap rent. His mom taught drama at the local school. She got the job through her parents who had taught there too, many years back when she was still a girl. This was her turning her life around after some rough years in the city, making a home for her young son and younger daughter. Sam had lived with his Granny from the age of four up until then. Now it was time for the family to reunite and grow together.

Sam knew that his mother was a teacher, (it would be hard not to, going to the same school she taught at) but he wasn’t quite sure what exactly his dad did, or was. It was a difficult question to answer in front of class. He made bags, this he knew. He made them out of the inner tubing of tires. They were quite beautiful. He would twist wire around the straps, and use cut pieces of it to clamp his creations together. He would also cut decorative holes into the bags with large, squeaking scissors. Somehow he made money out of them. Sam was too young to know that he would go off to a market and sell them to hip people. He remembered once thinking that he took them away and did some strange, adult thing, to literally turn the rubber bags into money, like some sort of wizard.

That was when his parents still lived in a flat in the city and Sam would only visit them on weekends. He was guilty about it, but he always preferred his Granny’s house because it had a pool and a nice garden and his Granny bought him clothes. It was safe there too, no Nigerians walking the streets, no loud angry noises rattling off the grey building sides, safe with dogs and garden, cartoons on a Saturday morning, away from the road.

It was better now though. Better than the noisy, angry city where his parents were also more noisy and angry. Sam liked the old cottage with its circle rooms.

Here they would do things together as a family, like sit in the garden and draw one another. His father was supposed to be an artist, but Sam wasn’t sure he really liked the drawings he did; he wanted them to be more exact and less messy. They would all go down to the river together and take the dogs with them too. One of their dogs was called Asheena, and she used to take a running jump and dive into the river whenever they went. They would laugh every time. His father built him a basketball hoop, but it was too high. They played cricket with cheap soccer balls and plastic baseball bats instead. His mother would sing song after song to him as they drove to school in their old Volkswagen. Once his younger sister cut her own hair and it looked ridiculous, they all laughed and took a photo.

Things were different here than they were in the city. His father didn’t drink as much, and his eyes were clear. He did a lot of physical work like digging a big pit for the rubbish, or making ladders out of stripped down pine trees and rubber. He liked his rubber. There were some times when he would drink with the local farm workers. Sam would know because he smelt funny and his eyes looked angry. But mostly he was fine. His mother was teaching full time again and getting steady money. She loved Drama and put on some sterling plays in the amphitheatre at school. Sam also enjoyed it and would act in most of them as well.

His parents themselves were also getting on well. They loved the house, his mother specifically liked that there were no corners. Sam didn’t see what was wrong with corners. They decorated it all in their own style because they had been given free reign by the owners. One room was the mirror room. They broke up mirrors and cemented it all over the wall. They also painted the floor. His dad made some curvy shelves and put them up. They enjoyed doing these things together. They wouldn’t shout at each other a lot. Only when his dad came back from drinking with the farm workers. Then they would shout, and then Sam would get nervous.

Sam’s favourite times were when his Granny would come to visit. He was still very attached to her from when he lived with her before. He would get very excited when he knew she was coming, and sit outside, waiting to see her white car coming down their bumpy, farm road. She would always bring huge shopping bags full of food because she knew they weren’t rich. In the bags were cool drinks and sweets for Sam and his sister. She would bring other gifts too if it was Christmas or one of their birthdays.

 

One year, just after he turned ten, Sam’s Granny came to visit them, and she brought with her a very special gift.

 

Sam was giddy.

With excitement, and because their driveway was so full of potholes. Clunk and thunk, doof and rattle, scrape of grass, scratch of branch and we’re home. His mother brought the car to a halt beneath the tall and ramshackle corrugated roof that was their garage. Sam lunged out of the creaking door and into the freedom of home. School was over, there was a new Asterix book waiting, and Granny was coming. Such good feelings!

He sprinted into his circular thatched house, the smells and sounds of the farm fresh on his face. After he dumped his school bag unceremoniously onto his bed, he grabbed his latest Asterix and made for the roof. It would be there that he would survey the farm and await his Granny.

The kitchen roof was flat on top and not very high. It had been added on later. Some bricks jutted out on the side and Sam used them to climb up. Once he was on the flat roof of the kitchen, getting onto the rising and falling slopes of the thatch was easy. He just had to watch out for spiders and slippery parts where the thatch was loose. He found a good spot where he could see all around his overgrown kingdom, alive with the promise of weekend.

To his right was the front garden. His dad was there, chopping the long grass with a panga.

Swish then chop, swish then chop, and the smell of fresh cut grass.

To his left was the back garden. The grass there was overgrown. His dad hadn’t gotten to it yet. His mother was there cutting his sisters’ hair, grass swaying in the wind around them like a green sea.

Towards the back of the house was a rondavel. There was a familiar smell wafting from it, mixing hypnotically with the chopped grass. John Sithole lived there.

He was an artist too. He made things out of wood. Usually he would chisel animals like snakes and tortoises. Then he would take metal sticks and put their ends in a fire. When one was red hot, he would take it out and burn marks into the wood, eyes and toes and things. He was a peaceful man, he also smoked cigarettes like Sam’s mom, but they smelt different, the smoke seemed slower. Sometimes his dad would go and sit with him and make some wooden stuff and smoke the slow smoke. From the sound of metal on metal clinking, Sam reckoned he was at it now.

Swish chop. Clink. Snip.

Satisfied with his observations, Sam took up his thick, Asterix omnibus with six brand new adventures waiting, and leant back on the dry thatch to read.

It wasn’t long before a sharp glint of sun and a distant rumble-thump stole his attention. He peered down their winding, choppy ocean of a driveway. The glint appeared and disappeared, as a white Nissan navigated the ups and downs.

His Granny was here!

He jumped, slid down the thatch (like his mother always told him not to) and flew off the side of the house, careful to avoid landing in the blackjack bush. He stood in wait. Trundle thump, louder and louder, until finally it smoothed out and the car rolled in. Abigail the small and black, and Asheena, the long faced and brindle, preceded the slow moving car with helicopter tails and spring-coil legs. When Granny opened the door she was swarmed by a blizzard of happy dog and then Sam, thumping a hug into her generous midriff. She laughed and made a noise pretending to be overwhelmed, then she told Sam to open the boot and help her carry and that if he did, she might just have something very special for him. Sam did as he was told, loading packet upon packet of goodies, as much as his strength would allow, and made his way to the kitchen while his mom and sister greeted Granny. He noticed that the panga sounds were still whipping through the air. His dad hadn’t come to greet.

Once his mother had said that Granny had fear for him. It was a cold memory that made his throat freeze.  He thought about it as he loaded the heavy grocery bags on the kitchen table and listened to the chatter of his family outside. Why would Granny be scared? He didn’t know the answer and if he did, he didn’t like it. Instead of dwell, he tried to find his present. There was one bag different from the rest, fancier. That must be it. He parted the opening so he could spy the inside. His eyes were greeted with all the colours of birthday and Christmas, but there was something a little darker, just slightly deeper in the bag that attracted him more, drew him in with a thick allure. Isn’t that the way any good story starts?

The rest came in then, so he didn’t have time to investigate. Granny insisted on one more hug before she went for a nap. It was a long drive for an old lady. After dinner they would open presents. Sam obliged happily and was quickly enveloped by her generous hugging parts. He helped her carry her own suitcase to his sister’s room where she would sleep and then it was back up to the roof to wait for dinner and a present that would change his life.

Swish chop. The panga whipped and whistled. Swish chop, swish chop.

 

The sun was getting low by the time Getafix had told Asterix that it was tea leaves he had given him for his trip to Britain. Sam could hear chatting through the thatch roof, stirrings in the kitchen, rustlings of plastic. It was almost dinner time. He was glad, it was getting chilly. He monkeyed his way down the side of the kitchen and skipped towards the door.  Just as he was about to open it and enter the fire and warmth, a sound caught his ear and stopped him. He squinted in the fading light towards this click and crash, smack and chop. It wasn’t the smooth whip of the panga anymore. This was heavier. There was a blurry grunting figure under the garage roof, lifting a gleaming something high and then bringing it down with a crash, sending two remnants flying in opposite directions, only to reset the operation slowly, deliberately, and then  smash another victim in two. It was strange because he knew it was just his father chopping wood, but sometimes when you’re young, your imagination can erase context and your eyes see images as new, making it a trip to zone out on. He stared for a while before finally shaking himself out of it and going inside.

In the sparse living room, he found the fire roaring. The country TV. He briefly wondered why his dad was even cutting wood at all with a crackly blaze like this already going, but he was quickly distracted. Granny was sitting on a chair near the fire, with wrapped up presents at her feet, like a woman Father Christmas. His sister was sitting near her, giggling at some story, and his mother was in the kitchen, doing a fry up for dinner. The sounds of the boiling kettle, the crackling fire, and the whistling wind outside made Sam feel very warm. The fact that he was about to get presents from his beloved Grandmother and eat breakfast for dinner also helped. He went and sat at her feet and she handed him his gift. It was small and heavy, wrapped in paper the colour of a new moon.

He was surprised at how heavy it was. For some reason he thought of old time golden coins. He wanted to just rip the wrapping, but he knew his mother liked to save it so he did it carefully, having a few issues with the sticky tape at first, but finally getting a nail underneath it and carefully pulling it off so as not to tear the paper. Then he held it in his hands for the first time. It was a box. Maybe it wasn’t fit for a king but Sam thought it was the most beautiful box he had ever seen. It was rectangular and silver, almost like the moon, absorbing, reflective and alive. It had a latch and he opened it. Inside was a black bed of velvet upon which lay a pen. His eyes went wide with wonder.

If you had asked Sam earlier what he thought his Granny might be bringing for his birthday, “I don’t know, but I think maybe some cool books, or some rollerblades… hey, maybe even a bicycle!” would have been his answer. Pens of any shape, size or intoxicating colour, would not have made it onto the list, not by a long shot. Furthermore, if you had been a spoilsport and told Sam that all he was getting was a measly, fountain pen in a silver box, he would have been quite disappointed.

He wasn’t disappointed now. There was something very treasure-like about this pen, something that made Sam think he could do great things with it. He held it up against the light of the fire and watched the flames shimmer and dance over its almost liquid, silver surface.

“What do you say?” warned his mother affectionately. “I know, I was just looking at it first,” Sam replied and went over to thank his Granny, still clutching the pen, mesmerized by its weight, its flowing shine.

“Thank you Granny,” he said, not looking at her, but meaning it.

“Do you like it? I wasn’t sure if you would, but I thought that seeing as you draw so beautifully and also write your own stories, that you would need a shiny tool, like a soldier with his beautiful sword!”

“I really like it,” Sam said, and she could tell it was true by the way he couldn’t take his eyes away. She smiled, satisfied with her excellent grandmothering.

 “Why don’t you go and get some paper and draw me something to say thanks.”

Sam didn’t need a second invitation. He carefully placed the pen back inside its box, said goodnight to his mother who forced him to say goodnight to his sister, which he did with great irritation, hugged and thanked his Granny once more, then rushed to his bedroom with a lump of excitement diving around in his chest.

He jumped onto his bed and then placed the pen on his pillow. He opened it and stared at it again for a bit. It seemed magic. It seemed to have a spirit. It radiated, thrummed. He was excited to try it out. There was a notebook on his bedside table. When he grabbed it he noticed that his hands were shaking, tingling with anticipation. He opened the notebook up, a fresh new page smiled at him, his heart was thumping. He picked up the pen, once more amazed at its weight. Heavy small things seemed so important. He felt rich. He pulled at the lid. It came loose without the pop of a ballpoint, just a smooth sound, a whisper slide, like a sheath. He held the pen above the page, looking at its sharp point, wondering what sort of sound it would make when it touched the paper. Maybe that scratching sound that feather pens made when olden day people wrote in movies. He breathed in and out a few times, trying to calm down his head. His mother taught him about that when he wanted to draw or write. He wanted to think about what to put on the paper. He was nervous.

After a few breaths, something very odd began to take place.

It was a sudden bubble. His breathing slowed down to the point where it was almost inaudible. He was chock still, not fidgeting one bit. His hand moved the pen down to the page with slow confidence, and began to write and draw, tenderly at times, furiously at others. The sound it made was scratchy, like the feathered quills, but it had more flow to it, it was less jerky. Sam might have been fascinated to find this out. He probably would have told his mother and gran all about it in the morning over breakfast. They would have spoken about why people used quills, why it sounded so scratchy, different types of paper, how Granny used to have an inkwell in her desk when she was at school. But that conversation wouldn’t happen the next morning because Sam had no idea about the sound of the pen, or even that he was writing, because instead of his eyes being on the page where they should have been, they were rolling in dreamland, far in the back of his head.

They rolled for some time as Sam drifted, his body getting heavier and heavier, until it felt like the blankets were enveloping him. He had strange dreams, dreams of everyday things, events, but clearer. The skies were bluer, he could smell and see things better. The smell of the cut grass, a dragonfly lulling lazily past him in slow motion, the gleam of a red ball, hurtling towards him, a splintering crack of wood. He felt in control of all the colours, all the sequences of events, even though he hadn’t planned them, he had. People were cheering him, shouting and screaming his name, like he had always wanted. He was a superhero and the world was a slow painting, swirling with colour and possibility, changing constantly, to whatever Sam wanted it to be. Then he felt a pinch and twist on his shoulder that were not from this world. 

It was his dad. He was angry and was grabbing Sam hard. “I said be quiet for fuck’s sake, Sam!” He realized he had been cheering, very loudly, in his sleep. His father’s eyes were half asleep. It was the same as when he drank beer, his eyes would go that way, slurry and angry and red. He loosened his grip on Sam’s collar with a jerk and Sam felt he would cry into his pillow as he watched his father climb back up the ladder to the landing that was his parents sleeping area. He didn’t though, he still felt like he could smell colour and make the world swirl. He stared at his pen, now on the side table again, shining subtly in the dark, and felt powerful.

 

The next day Sam had a cricket match against rival school Clifton. His mother and granny drove him there. He felt excited to have his granny watch him and he wanted to do well in front of her. Last night’s weirdness was mostly forgotten, although there was some ink left on Sam’s hand. Thick black ink. A smudged snake dragon. In the car on the way to school, he zoned out to his gran and mom speaking. His vision blurred as the sounds slowed and the snake dragon began to move. A bump in the road snapped him out of it and he moved on, like when he watched his dad chopping wood the night before. In moments like those, he felt there was just a small gap between him and something else other than the way things are, just the tiniest leap, within jumping distance. But that feeling came quickly and left even quicker. He was only ten after all.

In the cricket match, Sam was asked to open the batting. He got butterflies as he put on his pads, squeezing the Velcro over his calves. It was a beautiful day for cricket. The cold was melting in the afternoon sun, the oval was green with wafts of fresh mist lulling here and there, in the distance the Drakensberg was visible, snow on the very peaks. Surrounding the field were lots of big green trees, old and not really interested in the game. Bonga, a Zulu boy, the other opening batsman, told Sam it was time to walk on. He had been drifting again. It was something about the trees that brought back a quick flash of his dream the night before. He couldn’t hold onto the snippet, like sand through his fingers. Something about a tree.

Bonga and Sam walked on to the polite claps of the Clifton boys. Bonga leant into Sam and whispered dramatically, “Oh my word, Sam, you’re facing Miller!”

This wasn’t good news at all.

Miller had a reputation around the schools because he was huge and mean. He was taller than all the teachers, and he was the fastest bowler any of them had ever faced. There were stories about how he once bowled a bouncer at a kid and hit him in the head so hard he had to go to hospital.

Everyone on the sidelines hushed and craned their necks to look at this hulk of a boy. There were worried whispers and nervous anticipation as he measured his run up. Sam asked the umpire (his bearded maths teacher, Anton) for middle stump, after which he nervously tapped the ground with his bat and kicked an innocent tuft into dust. Anton’s arm was out so the bowler wouldn’t come in yet. He asked Sam if he was ready, and down came the arm signifying start of play.

Sam’s stomach was doing acrobatics. Miller’s face slowly came into view as he ran in from furlongs away, gathering more and more pace, like a teenaged avalanche of pain. It was not the prettiest face, his freckles were violent looking, black attack. His hair was like hard, brown straw and his eyes were like fat marbles of squid ink, seeing Sam as a shark sees a minnow, as a hawk sees a mouse. Finally he reached the bowling crease, towering above Anton as he jumped into the air for even more momentum. His hand came down from the sky with some snow on it from the Drakensberg peaks, and he let his arm rip through the atmosphere like a blade, releasing the ball, a bullet of shining red. Sam didn’t have time to think; he could only survive, or try to. When he heard the crack of the ball hammering into the pitch, he stepped to the side to protect his body, and swung his bat at face level, like he was trying to swat a giant fly with his eyes closed. He waited for the disappointing clunk that would mean his stumps had been smashed and he would have to walk off and watch the rest of his team’s innings from the sidelines. That sound didn’t come, instead a resounding, thunderous, great roaring crack of sweetness, a deep vibrating thrum in his hands which was like electricity, and then whoops and screams from the sidelines. Sam had smashed Miller’s bouncer.

He searched the sky, hardly daring to breathe. The first object he spotted was his very own well loved and taken care of Kookaburra cricket bat hurtling towards the square leg umpire, his Afrikaans teacher. Mr. Botha tumbled out of the way with all the grace of a baby deer falling to earth for the first time, much to the glee of the naughty little school kids watching. Sam didn’t laugh though. Where was the ball? He felt a frog squirming in his throat as he searched the sky for it, he was surely going to be caught out on the boundary and that would be that. He looked at the other team, trying to spot a catcher, but none of them were scrambling, they all stood with their hands on their hips, gawking high into the air, all in the same direction. The Record Tree.

It was called the record tree because the biggest six ever hit in the history of his school, landed just beneath that tree. That had been about fifty years ago, and now his was soaring in the same direction at great speed. Everyone was silent. Could an under-eleven break the all time school boy six record? That would be amazing!

The spinning red dot became smaller and smaller as it zoomed. No one made a sound. All were willing it to keep on going, keep on flying. It stayed in the air for impossibly long until, finally, there was a rustling crash. The ball had whizzed through the upper branches of the tree, leaving small hole through which sudden light came bursting. Sam had done it; he had broken the ultimate school boy record.

His whole team stood up on the sidelines clapping with their hands above their heads whistling, some even jumping, and chanting cheer songs. Bonga walked across the pitch to Sam and thumped his back with a look of shock and awe on his face going, “Yaw yaw yaw, I can’t believe it Sam!” Anton wore a stoic smile underneath his beard, arms still behind his back all umpire like, nodding slightly. Mr. Botha, although slightly disheveled from his dive, laughed and clapped as well as he collected Sam’s bat. Even the Clifton team was smiling and clapping in grudging respect.

Sam though, had other feelings. He felt strange, like he had drunk too much déjà vu juice and his stomach couldn’t handle it. All he could think about as his friends lifted him up at the end of the match and did victory dances with him, the hoisted symbol, the hero bouncing on their shoulders, was that pen. That pen.

 

On the way home Sam leant his head against the window and watched the green Midlands zoom by. He wasn’t thinking of his six. He was thinking of the night before. The silver that almost whispered, his father grabbing him and that hot sense of power he had felt.

Back in his room he dropped his cricket bat, enjoying the wooden thunk of the weight falling off.  He stood for a second, liking the quiet, when some shiny blackness caught his eye. It was coming from his bed. He had that sudden excited feeling like he had forgotten about something super cool, leftover pizza in the fridge style. Lying open on his pillow, full of ink work, was his notebook. As he approached he held his breath and tried to remember what he had written or drawn the night before. He was disturbed that he couldn’t at all, only his father pinching him and swearing. He picked it up and looked, not aware that he was still holding his breath.

What he saw made him feel dizzy. He sat down, his head swimming, wondering if he was dreaming. He closed his eyes and pressed his hands against them hard until he saw white veins. When he opened them again it was still there. How could this be? What did this mean? It was too much for his young head. He tried and tried but could make no sense of it. Maybe his dad drew and wrote in his notebook? No, that would mean he was at the match today, which he wasn’t, he had been outside making tortoises with Mr. Sithole, smoking by the rondavel. Could he have blanked out and done some drawing and writing himself just as he got back home? He thought back hard, and decided it surely didn’t happen like that. After a good long while of pondering, finally, a solution came to him that made sense.

He went to the window and looked out at Mr. Sithole’s rondavel. He was sitting outside it behind a smoky fire, working patiently with a chisel. His father wasn’t there. That was encouraging. Sam turned around, grabbed his notebook and pen and set off for the smoky, thatched abode of the African wood worker.  He remembered, as he made his way through the long grass, a time his father had come home from a trip to Johannesburg. He had told Sam that there were gifts for him. Sam had asked what and where of course. His father told him that he would find them all in due time. He liked this sort of thing. He was the same way with stories, not telling them all at once, waiting for the right time. It annoyed Sam a little. What boy wants to wait for a present? Anyhow, later he had found his first gift, a chocolate under his pillow. His father must have snuck off to the match in his Granny’s car, and then come home and left a strange kind of gift on Sam’s pillow. That had to be it. Any alternative was impossible.

 He smelled the familiar, strange smells of wood chippings, metal burning, tobacco and dagga as he approached John’s rondavel.

“John?” He called to the great figure working behind the smoke.

“Yebo!” He called back, friendly, looking up from hunching with a great big African smile. Sam went and sat down next to him on a piece of driftwood. He stared at the fire as John continued shaping his wood, waiting for Sam to speak.

  “Have you seen my dad?” He was afraid to ask the question, and watched the metal getting red hot in the fire instead of looking at John’s face.

“No, I not see today.” Said John slowly, his English wasn’t good, but he put it together with the same patience he used on his wood. Relief flooded Sam. He must have been right. His dad must have fibbed about spending the day with John so he could surprise Sam later. Not a gleeful surprise, a mysterious one. Sam breathed out and became light again, recovering quickly as children tend to do.

“What are you making?” He asked.

“This one it is a snake.” Sam looked at the hunk of wood trying to make out the shape of a snake.

“Really?” He said. “You cannot see? Look this,” He pointed to where the grain curved in the wood and ran his finger along it, finally tracing out a cobra hood.

“Oooooh! I see now!” It was like the picture of the wine glass which is also two faces, when you see it you can’t believe you once couldn’t. John chuckled at Sam’s wonder, picked up his newspaper- rolled cigarette resting on a stone next to the fire and took a deep puff. He went on chiseling with the cigarette hanging expertly from his cracked lips. Sam watched for a while. Happy to not be thinking about the strange gift that his dad left him and even happier knowing it was his dad who had left it.

He decided he wanted to show John his new pen.

“John, look what my Granny bought me,’ he held it up. The silver was like mercury in the flame. Sam smiled big in anticipation of John’s reaction. It wasn’t what he expected. The chiseling stopped. John glared at the pen, flame in his black eyes running. He clouted it out of Sam’s hand with a swipe. Sam’s smile disappeared into his throat as the pen flew.

“You go now”, John said. He usually always smiled, Big white teeth against his big dark features. This was the first time Sam had ever seen just how deeply lined his face could become, especially above his brow. His eyes became smaller, like his lids were defending them from evil. Sam was on the verge of tears. He felt the sting on his hand where John had slapped it, as he scurried to pick up his pen.

When Sam asked why, John said nothing. He sat and stoked the fire, withdrawn jerks, zoned away into an angry shell, waiting for Sam to leave.

Sam ran his hands over the long grass as he walked away from the rondavel. They were shaking. His skin was tingling in shock.

What started as a wonderful day had turned strange very quickly.

 

Dinner was Kentucky Fried Chicken that Granny had picked up on her way back, even though she was a vegetarian. The smells and chatting and fire inside the house helped Sam to momentarily forget the oddness of the day. His mother and gran were babbling away in the kitchen as they dished for everyone, and his sister was doing her homework in the living room by the light of the fire. There wasn’t much wood left.  He loosened a bit. He decided to tell his mom about John’s strange behavior. She might be able to make it not feel sore and strange.

She heard him out and then thought for a good long time about it, scrunching up her eyes as she always did when trying to find an answer. After a while she told him that it must be some kind of superstition and that he should help her take the plates into the fire room. Sam asked what superstition was as he picked up a few plates filled with chicken and chips. She said it was like believing good luck and bad luck came from signs and omens, or from doing or not doing certain things. He still didn’t understand he told her as he set the plates down near the fire. His gran was on the chair again, right near the fire with a scarf and beanie, darning his socks. She took over and asked Sam if he had ever heard of people saying that it is bad luck if a black cat crosses your path. Sam actually had in class not so long ago in a story Kempie told them.

“Well,” she said, “if you believe that, then you’re superstitious.” What else was there like that, Sam wanted to know, as he grabbed a crispy drumstick and dragged it through tomato sauce. His sister was moaning because she had to finish her homework before she was allowed to eat.

“If you break a mirror you’ll get seven years of bad luck is one,” said his mother. “Also you shouldn’t walk under a ladder, that’s bad luck.” Sam crunched at his delicious fried chicken and asked, with his mouth full, if any of them were true.

“It depends on what you believe,” said his gran, to which his mother replied,

“Nonsense, it’s all nonsense, do you know what nonsense means, Sam? It means it makes no sense.”His granny said she disagreed and that there has to be a reason if these ways made it through thousands of years. His mother was going to continue arguing when Sam brought it back to the topic at hand.

“But what about John,” he asked, “is there some kind of superpicion about pens?” Granny and Mom both hmmed indecisively and scrunched their eyes like mother and daughter, thinking.

“I can’t think of one,” Said Mom, “Me neither,” Admitted Gran.

“Although it might be a Zulu thing,” She offered, “They have their own superstitions, and they take them far more seriously than we do.”

His mother agreed, and told Sam she’d have a word. Sam said fine and finished the last of his chips. The fire crackled.

“Where’s dad?” He asked, quite casually.

The response was not casual. The two women exchanged serious looks, eyebrows raised heavily, before he got an answer. The strangeness had returned.

“We don’t know,” his Granny said; that and no more. His mom turned to look at the last of the deep red coals. He could see she wanted to cry. He stared at his empty plate, smudged with red tomato sauce, and felt sad and weird. What the hell was going on today? He wanted to ask more about his dad, if they knew about the gift he had left and did that mean he was gone for good, but decided not to.

The walk to bedroom was heavier than usual. Walking through the mirror room he felt the hardness of the paint beneath his feet. The lights hadn’t been switched on. He turned to look at his mosaiced reflection. All that looked back was a blurred figure with no eyes, holding a shining object, somehow illuminated: the pen in his hand.

He shivered, remembering once when he and his mother first moved down to Natal. In the beginning, they stayed in a small room at the school where the three of them shared a bed. One night, Sam woke up and it was pitch black. He couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. He looked around and saw nothing except for a small circle of red. It was still for a while and then it drifted slowly upward. It stopped and glowed extra bright and crackled, just for a moment, after which it returned to that low, coal red and drifted back down again, dormant. The same sequence happened every five or ten seconds.  Sam was hypnotized by it. He called to his mother and she responded. Of course she was up. She was merely smoking a cigarette. He told her he was scared that it was just her voice and the cigarette that existed now, and that his mother was gone somehow because he couldn’t see her. She didn’t help and freaked him out further by saying that yes maybe that was true. It didn’t last long, she reassured him and he went back to sleep.

Looking at himself and his pen in the broken mirrors, hard paint carpet room, he experienced that odd sensation. He wasn’t really there anymore. All that existed was the pen.

He began to jump up and down with vigour while making funny noises. This was his tactic to beat déjà vu. It worked, he felt a bit better. The comfy and every-day sounds of him being scolded for making a racket sealed the victory over his mind and off he went to bed.

 

There was the book, the gift his father had left him on his a pillow. A drawing and some words, done in his son’s style.

 A mysterious tribute. 

A show of love before he left again, perhaps this time for good.

as he changed into his spider-man pyjama pants, Sam wondered whether he should show his mother, but thought better of it. He saw the way she had looked into the fire, tears glowing against the coals. Perhaps she’d rather not hear about his dad for a bit. He stood by the main light switch, braced himself and then turned it off. In three frantic leaps he arrived at his bed and quickly turned on his bedside lamp before the dark could eat him up. Then he picked up his notebook and studied the picture and words glistening on the page.

It was a drawing of a boy with a cricket bat swinging. He could see from the scruffy hair, big teeth and eyes that it was supposed to be him. There were other boys drawn onto a cricket field, on their shirts was written ‘Clifton.’ The umpire was turning his head to look into the sky, as were all the boys on the pitch, as well as spectators, drawn small in the background, pointing. He had a beard and glasses. It was definitely Anton.  On the bottom left corner of the page, bigger than the rest of them, was a tree, gnarled and old, the record tree. It had a cricket ball drawn to be in flight and spinning right above it. On the top of the page, next to the small audience members, who were pointing and waving with their glossy black hands, were some words. They were quite matter-of-factly: “On the 17th of June 1999, Sam Marbrand opens the batting against Clifton. He faces a very dangerous fast bowler in John Miller. As Sam dreams, so it becomes. Sam smashes the first ball bowled by Miller for a six. It flies passed the old willow (Record Tree) and it breaks the record for biggest six ever hit at his school.”

He knew he was his father’s son, and he knew about genes passing down (He used to think his mother was talking about denim), but this was not much like his father’s drawing and writing and a whole lot like his own. That was what had freaked him out to start with. He didn’t know the word ‘tribute’, but the concept came to him, and he thought his father might have been doing that, drawing and writing with Sam’s child-like style on purpose, to please him somehow. He decided he would have preferred a chocolate under his pillow and slumped onto the bed with a sigh.

Even though he had a great moment in cricket, today had been all around strange, and had left him with feelings he didn’t know how to define. Like the word ‘tribute’. He lay on his tummy and breathed out, letting his shoulders slack as his thoughts and worries abandoned him, the joys of being 10. He picked up his pen, heavy and special, rolled it around in his hands a bit, feeling its weight, its cool smoothness on the skin of his palms. Quite out of nowhere, he started getting heavy eye lids. Heavy like the pen. Drooping, wanting to shut. It was that heaviness from the night before. He didn’t want to go to sleep yet, he wanted to draw, he wanted to write, watch the glistening ink become something under his own hand, forget about the day gone, his dad gone. But the pen was making him. This was something thought in the delirium of half- sleep, that other place we enter, the half way house where things turn upside down and inside out. The pen was making him, he half thought half dreamed, shining on his eyelids with its heaviness, trying to smooth him somewhere, like a dream boat in a deep, dark river of thick, black ink. Almost- dream ideas. He held on tight, not allowing his head to fall forward although it felt like his neck was an empty potato sack. The pillow is my mother, he dream-thought as he started scribbling with a loose wrist. He was supposed to be asleep, this was wrong. He felt naughty; his dad would surely come down and pinch him, “Fuck the shut Sam up to sleep boy now!” He would say. He scribbled; scratch scratch scratch, liquid ink and liquid eyes, dreams, skies, inky black, silky silver moon. Now he was flying. He could fly now. He didn’t need the broomstick. He discarded it and soared above his house, the dark thatch, sleeping dogs outside could not see him. He went off drifting and floating, doing somersaults with the wind like a feather, went through a kaleidoscope spiral just there in the sky, like a black hole, but not black. The Swirl-hole sucked him in. The colours surrounded his body, bathed him tight as he whirled and whirled and spun hurtled, and spat him out like an old car’s exhaust with a puff and a colourful cough. He was somewhere else now; or later. Somewhere he shouldn’t be, somewhere fascinating…

 

He smelt hot chocolate and his eyes blurred open. Light was streaming in through his bedroom window. Birds were twittering outside. Everything in his room was in its normal place, the cupboard, his cricket posters… He rubbed his eyes forcefully. He didn’t feel like he had just woken up, he felt like he had just come back. Returned from far away. He had been flying… His mother was in his room, rustling, shaking and folding; chattering away in a perfect morning sing song, created especially for her boy he knew. A generous cup was steaming on his bedside table.

“…So after you’re done with that, I thought we’d all go down to the river today and have a nice picnic.” She said as she packed away his fresh clothes. He grabbed the hot chocolate and took a sip of its sweet goodness, wondering where his book and pen had got to.

“After I’ve done what?” He asked, throat still dreaming. She turned around and looked at his face in silence for a few seconds, half frowning.

“After you’ve tidied up your room, Sam, like we talked about,” She said slowly. She abandoned the pile of clothes and came and sat down next to him on the bed, wearing a sincere expression of concern. She looked him deep in the eyes,

“I don’t want you to worry, OK my boy?” She brushed his fringe away from his eyes and squeezed his earlobes. Sam didn’t have to ask what she meant this time. He knew it was about his dad. This sort of exchange between them often was. He nodded and he knew she was proud, she would call him brave, but he really wasn’t worried at all. The only thing that was bothering him was his book and pen. Where were they? And that strange dream he had. There was a hole that pulled him; it was full of colours swirling without wind… His mother took his frown and thoughtfulness to be about his father, and gave him an undeserving hug of pride, before leaving and reminding him to tidy so they could go down to the river.

He did as he was told without much finesse, chucking his clothes into his cupboard and giving his carpet a rough sweep. He could hear his mother having a go at his sister from the other room. Something about the state of her room as well. When the botch job was done, he began to search for his pen and book, faded visions of the kaleidoscope still flitting in and out of focus. Where were they? Not under his bed, not under his pillow, not with his Asterix and Tintin comics… Where? Sipping the last of his hot chocolate, which was now cold chocolate, he realized the answer. His mother must have moved it when she put down the cup this morning, so the book wouldn’t get stained. He checked in the small drawer of his bedside table, and there they were, liquid silver and black on white, cylinder and rectangle. He felt relieved as he slumped back down and began to turn the pages. 

Looking again at the drawing of him smashing his famous six, he decided it was a good drawing, but not good for his dad. He must have rushed it, although it didn’t look rushed. It was detailed. There were at least thirty people in the drawing including the crowd and the Clifton team, and care had been taken on their faces and clothes. Usually someone rushing would make smudges for eyes and squiggles for shoes and shirts; not this picture. On the breast pocket of each boy’s cricket top, was the logo and name of their school: A rampant lion for Clifton and two guards with swords for King’s. Sam felt the befuddlement from yesterday creep back in. He drew his posture back up, stopped squinting and leaning, and took in the picture as a whole. That was when he noticed that something was different.

 Something in the picture had changed since yesterday, he was sure of it. What was it? He didn’t know. His eyes darted around the page but he couldn’t spot it; like the deviation only stayed in the corner of his eye; remaining one step ahead. He just couldn’t catch it.

“Sam, we are going now, I won’t say it again!”

It was his mother. She must have called at least five times. He remembered it now. A cloud on the side of his brain; muffled memory. His eyes lost the different thing as she shouted, so he tossed the notebook down on his bed and ran to grab his swimming trunks and a towel. On his way out of the door, whilst calming his mother down, letting her know he was on his way, he turned towards his bed and checked out the book one more time, one last spoonful.

Perhaps it was because he was at distance, or maybe it was the angle, but this time he spotted the difference immediately.

He felt awe tingling in all his veins like electric gold.

It wasn’t that the cricket picture had changed - it had, but not directly- it was that there was another picture on the other side of the page. The ink had bled into the cricket picture here and there, leaving it slightly altered. This might be huge. He thought that maybe his father hadn’t secretly watched his cricket game, come back home and left him the drawing as a goodbye gift. Maybe, and incredibly, it had been Sam all along.

 

His mother was tired of waiting. She yelled for Sam to come along and quit tarrying. That was fine. He felt he had all the time in the world and more to explore his new discovery. He took one last look at the silverness winking at him in the morning light before he strolled outside to join his family.

 “What’s the big smile about, slow poke?”

Granny was in her gear, waiting for him at the door. She had on her tinted glasses, a big round floppy hat, and a black one-piece swimsuit with a towel around her waist. She was smiling too, amused at her daughter’s impatience, it was old person, ‘I told you it wasn’t easy’ amusement.

“I think I have magic powers,” Said Sam with music in his voice.

Granny laughed at that one, her laugh always reminded Sam of marmalade and he didn’t know why. She told him of course he did, and beckoned him to follow her before his mother had a hernia.

On the way down to the river, as he and his family walked single file through the thigh-high grass, Sam had time to consider what he had just seen. There was another drawing on the other side of the page. Unless his father had snuck in last night, Sam was the artist. He thought back to the cricket drawing, the child like details. It was his style, there was no mistaking it. Yes, his father liked a bit of mystery, but not on this scale. He was in Jo’burg, Sam guessed, with the old crowd, doing things he wasn’t allowed to talk about at school.

He had left.

While this was usually a sad thing, this time it carried tremendous excitement too.

Sam watched Abigail bouncing up and down in the grass. She was trying to pounce a mouse dead and it looked like she had found a secret trampoline. All of them chuckled, and Sam put away his dizzying thoughts. He was not convinced. The further they walked, the less likely it seemed, like waking up does to a dream. But he was not willing to let the idea die. It was like an injured baby bird that Sam hoped with all his heart would survive. Whatever lay on the other side of the page would determine the fate of this idea. He would have to wait until they got back home. For now, he would enjoy the river.

Down on the bank, they set down the picnic mat in the usual spot. It was a tree with huge roots above the ground which formed a semi circle enclosure in the shade. Sam dropped his shirt along with his thoughts of super powers, lured as always by the rushing sound of the water. He and Asheena, the brindle one, raced towards the diving stone, a big rock between the rushes that Asheena dived off of. Sam got there first and jumped into the water, staying under until he saw the hound splash in right above him, legs whirring everywhere. He came up bubbling with laughter at his mad dog. She was already circling back out so that she could do it again. He swam towards the middle, found some shallow ground and stood with his feet on some smooth rocks, letting the water push all around his body.

Mom, Gran and Sister, not as adventurous as him and the dog were wading at a little shaded spot where the river cut in a little. Abigail was off trying to catch that mouse she’d been trying to pounce on since she learnt to run. Sam watched his family splash about in their little river pool. Becoming slightly zoned out, something that was happening a lot lately. When his mother caught his eye, he wished he hadn’t given her the opportunity. He knew what was going through her head when she didn’t look away. He rolled his eyes at the request before it was even uttered.

“Sam, come get your sister and take her out to the middle.” Hannah splashed and squealed with delight at the prospect.  Damn it!  He splashed his hands in protest, but sulkily swam over anyway. Now he had to look after the little idiot. She was going to scratch his neck when she got scared he knew she was going to!

“She better not scratch me this time!” He warned his Mother and Gran who put her hands up in the air to say she was innocent. Mom was smiling when Sam guided Hannah onto his back. She liked it when he spent time with her, a lot more than he did himself. She told them to have fun and be careful, to which he replied that he would be back in like thirty seconds, max. Granny snort-laughed at that and off they went.

Hannah held onto his neck and remained still at Sam’s annoyed command. He swam breaststroke very slowly, aiming for the shallow part in the middle. There he would let her paddle around and check out the silver fishies while he watched and occasionally barked at her to stay away from the deep areas. Before they got there, his prediction came true as his little sister tightened her tiny hands around on his shoulders, pinching him.

He thought of his dad

“Hannah, don’t!” He began, but she interrupted him with a scream that he knew was real.

During their lives together as brother and sister, Hannah had screamed and shouted a great deal. Most of the time, it was to get their Mom’s attention. It drove Sam bonkers because he knew when she was faking it. There were times though, when she was really hurt or properly scared. This was one of those times. Sam’s eyes darted around for danger.

He found it. At first he thought it was a long stick drifting in the river. It was going against the stream though. Sam also realized that the stick wasn’t drifting, it was gliding like a moving S. The top of the stick was pointing up above the water like an arrow head. It glinted green in the sun.

It was a snake, and it was headed straight towards them.

Sam did nothing for a second, thinking about colours, thousands of colours moving. Then his sister’s nails dug even deeper into his shoulders. She was crying now and he heard shouts coming from the other two. Barking dogs, shouts, colours, a gliding S stick with an arrow head coming at them, nails in his shoulders.

Sam turned to face his wailing sister and told her to take a deep breath. She hiccupped a few times in his arms, trying to calm down. He told her again, talking slower this time, fixing his eyes on hers so she wouldn’t look at the sliding demon coming to end their lives. She listened and took a deep breath as she had been told. Sam counted to three and then they went under where everything was quiet and clear. The current was dragging their bodies towards the snake that was swimming against it. They both looked up and saw its belly, not an arm’s length away from their faces as their air in their lungs pulled them back up towards the surface, against their will. They came up and breathed in, hacking. Sam was sure the snake’s tail slipped over the back of his head. They let the river take them down to a natural slow point where they could climb out, about fifty metres away from the picnic spot.

“Are you OK? Phew that was close!” His sister couldn’t reply. She was still crying and sniffling and she wouldn’t stop until she got a dose of attention from her mother.

They told the whole story to the anxious parents and dogs with their feet in the river and their bums safely on the rocks. Hannah stopped sniffling once mother gave her some tasty snacks and some love. Granny called Sam a brave boy, a hero, as he scratched behind the ears of both his dogs, each with one hand. His mother said he had acted like a true man of the house, protecting his sister like that. He looked down at his toes bubbling against the water as he swelled with pride. He still wouldn’t give his sister a hug though.

They sat for a while, relaxing like the setting sun, eating their picnic and chatting, before they decided it was finally time to head back up home. It had been a long and exciting day after all.

 

Back at home, lying on Sam’s bed was the reason he had been so worked up earlier, forgotten in the hullaballoo of the snake in the river. With his heart audibly pounding in his chest like a drum, He picked up the book again. It was still on the page of the cricket. He felt almost scared to turn it, afraid he would be disappointed. He sat in place for a bit, listening to the sounds of his family getting ready for dinner, sounding so normal, not knowing what was in Sam’s head.

A mystery. A secret.

Not the same as when he had smoked that cigarette with his older friend, Jeremy, not that dirty nervousness. This was clean and far more powerful. It filled him with a secret wonder. That it would turn out to be nothing, just a dream or a wild imagination, was the only thing that scared him.

Magic wasn’t real. He knew that. It was the saddest thing he knew.

The knowing didn’t stop his heart from climbing up into his throat and temple and pounding away, nor did it stop his fingers from trembling like a leaf as he plucked at the corner of the page, finally getting a hold of it. He lifted it up and turned it over. Halfway through the act, he decided to close his eyes. Ready for disappointment he took a deep breath and steadied himself, hoping against all hope that he would see something wonderful.

He opened his and everything went shock-soundless like a flash bang. Slow motion, stopping hearts, swirling colours, doorways.

There, in glistening ink full of arcs and swirls, was a winding and curly picture, round and gliding. Swirling like water.

Gliding like a snake.

The title of this picture made Sam’s head spin in the soundless flash bang room of whizzing colour. There, in his very own, unmistakable schoolboy handwriting, were words that shook Sam hard, right in the brain.

The Man of the House

He took a moment to let his stomach wriggle with delight. Here was a boy who now knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that some kind of magic existed. Not only that, but he was a part of it. He felt like he was awake in a soaring dream, and able to take control.

 

It was dinner time again, outside the sun was gone. Time had flown by. Time was strange, Sam thought, as he put away his book and followed his mother’s command that he join them by the fire. He decided that he didn’t want to tell anyone about the drawings just yet. But he did want to talk about magic and time with his Mom and Gran. They knew more than him. They could help Sam understand without finding out what was going on.

At the fire, Sam sat with a bowl of chicken and veggie soup in front of him, along with a side plate filled with half slices of hot toast with melted butter. Granny was on her chair. She had her knitted blanket around her shoulders and a green beanie snug on her head. His sister sat next to him, dabbing at her soup without relish. Mom was on her more upright chair on the other side of the fire. She had a long jersey on. She wasn’t eating, instead she read a book.

Sam finished his toast, and then, rather than take on the huge and pointless task of eating soup on its own, he came out and asked what was on his mind, addressing his question to the crinkling fire.

“What is real magic?”

Real magic. A difficult question. A question met with silence from the adults. Even Hannah stopped whining. The sound of their brains was the sound of the fire and the wind outside.

“What do you think it is Sam?” His Granny’s question was typical adult, but he knew the rules. He thought for a second, staring into the flames.

“It’s like being able to fly to disappear and stuff, like on TV.”

“But you said real, you know that’s not real.”

 His mother joined in now. She was leaning forward, interested in her son’s mind.

“Actually I don’t know. How do you know it’s not real?”

 He wasn’t ready to spill the beans, but it was boiling over. They wouldn’t understand, though. It made him feel alone for a sad second.

“He has a point my dear. Think about how it was fifty years ago. Imagine if someone had tried to tell you about the internet and mobile phones. That would seem like magic, you’d say it was impossible, but the truth is that you don’t really know what is or isn’t possible.”

“Yes Ma, I’ll give you that,” She nodded thoughtfully, enjoying the debate, “In that case magic is a word for something not yet understood, or believed to be real.

“So it is possible, to be able to fly and things?”

“She isn’t saying that Sammy, she’s just saying it isn’t impossible.”

Adults.

“Well, what do you think Granny? Do you believe in it, in magic?

She held her face in her hand and tapped her cheeks, thinking and rocking on her chair. The orange flames were blazing on her glasses. Sam thought her eyes must be nice and toasty.

“To tell the truth Sammy, it is hard to believe that absolutely anything can happen, like Superman flying, or a scientist inventing a time machine. When you get to be big, you start to not believe in things as much, or else you wouldn’t really be able to get on with life. But now that you’ve made me think about it, I would have to say that yes I do… only in theory.”

Again with the grown up stuff, flying might not be impossible, but getting a straight answer was.

“What does that mean… theory?”

“It means that I do think magic is possible. It can happen, but that doesn’t mean it does happen, or that it ever will. Do you understand?”

Sam thought for a bit and then nodded slowly. He liked when his Gran explained things to him. She always had a lot of time in her voice.

“If you think these things can happen, why do you?”

 He was lying down now on his stomach with his elbows on the floor and his hands cupping his head as he looked up at his fire-eyed grandmother.

“Because of our brains and because of the universe.” She knew she had him on tenterhooks and she was enjoying it. “We know hardly anything about them even though they are everything to us.”

Sam was totally intrigued.

“What don’t we know about the universe, Granny?”

“Where do I start?” She said this with a face animated by glass firelight and excitement. She was becoming inspired.

Mom was up and gathering plates. She was getting out of the conversation. Apparently she’d heard this all before. Hannah was getting bored and clinking her spoon. They both left in the next few moments to do their night time things, and could be heard pottering about as Sam and his Gran sat by the now dying fire, discussing magic and the universe.

“You know about beginnings and ends right?” Sam nodded. “How would you explain the idea of a beginning and an end?”

He bit his lip, making sure to think of his answers before he blurted them out, just like his Gran had taught.

“Everything begins and ends; the beginning is first, the end is last. The day begins at sunrise and ends at sunset. We begin when we are born and end when we die.” Granny smiled. “That’s a good answer Sammy. Now tell me, where are we now?”

He didn’t understand how this was relevant but he thought it must be going somewhere.

“In Natal?”

“Think bigger.”

“South Africa!”

“Even bigger…”

“Earth…”

“Bigger.”

Sam had to think about the next word. As he did, giant colours filled his brain.

“The universe,” He offered, after some swirling thought.

“That’s right! The universe. Now tell me young sir, where did the universe come from?”

He thought back to class with Kempy and remembered when they made big Paper Mache planets as a class project. They blew up balloons to different sizes and then plastered them with sticky strips of newspaper. When the balloons were dry, they painted them the colours of the different planets. Sam was responsible for earth. Then they had to stand up and do an oral about their planets.

“Is it the Big Bang? There was a big explosion out of nowhere and so the universe was born.”

“That’s about right smart boy child! Now let’s use our imaginations to picture the Big Bang. Let’s fling our minds back billions and billions of years right to the very beginning and envision the creation of all the stars and planets.” Her arms swung with enthusiasm as she mimed explosions and expansion. At the end she shut her eyes for dramatic effect.

Sam followed suit and imagined huge fireballs bursting and mixing in the sky, swirling rather like his dream kaleidoscope.

They sat quietly with their eyes shut, zooming through time.

“Do you see it?” She whispered

“Yes,” Sam whispered back, afraid to let their visions crumble with loud voices.

“Now, for the main event. Tell me Sam, what came before it?”

She peeped her one eye open and burst out laughing at Sam’s face. His utter dumbfoundery had made him look severely constipated. She wiped her eyes from the laughter, and continued.

“Don’t worry my boy, trying to imagine nothingness is impossible. Although I can’t say that can I? Not when I told you earlier that nothing is. But there you go. I am an old lady after all.”

Sam heard his mother calling. It was time to go to bed. He protested, wanting to hear more from his Granny, but it was non-negotiable. Granny said she was tired anyway and getting cold. She promised more for tomorrow and went off to bed, still chuckling a bit every now and then. She had enjoyed the conversation heartily. Sam had too, but he was still so full of questions. There was still so much he didn’t get. They hadn’t even gotten into the magic thing properly, especially his specific thing.

Walking through the mirror room he had a sudden rush of excitement.

His specific thing.

He hadn’t forgotten, but the fascinating talk with his Granny had put it from his mind for a bit. He opened the door to his room. It was dark all over except for one spot. His bedside table was screaming silver with possibilities. He was ready to enter the spinning colour wheel again.

He was so excited he could hardly stand it. Also nervous, because how could this be real? Someone would wake him up any second and tell him he was dreaming, surely. But he didn’t feel like he was dreaming, he felt very much awake as he stepped toward his silver wand. The magic was in the pen. And he was the one who brought it out. Like Harry Potter. He picked it up, felt its weight in his hand. Even though it looked cold and majestic, it felt warm, like a pet, not a normal one like a dog, but a secret one, like a dragon.

 

Usually, Sam bombed into his room, gunning his clothes off and bouncing under the covers, just as any healthy young lad tends to do, much to their mother’s dismay. On this night though, he tread like he was sneaking, and was silent and careful as he lay down on his bed. He was going to draw something. He opened his notepad to a fresh new page and slid the lid of the pen. It sounded like a whisper. An incantation. No one else could hear the voice of the lid, but it was loud and soft in Sam’s ears, and it changed the room.  A familiar feeling came over him, that heavy blur he had seen two nights in row returned. It would be different this time. He would try to stay aware, not let his eyes roll back into dream land.

He could feel his right hand scribbling, but he couldn’t see. The backs of his eyes had a white sheet of light that obscured his vision. Everything was swirling. Not only swirling, but vibrating, humming almost. Like a space ship rattling and rattling until you think it’ll burst. But it doesn’t burst. In the blinding white light of the explosions, it takes off, zooming up into the silent sky. That was what it felt like for Sam. He felt out of control, like everything was spinning, rubbing together causing electricity and sparks and wind. It was like that show Highlander, when the immortal gets the other immortal’s energy. He thought his hair must be standing on end. His head felt thick and getting thicker from the inside. His brains felt like popcorn expanding, putting immense pressure on his skull until, like the space ship, he was sure it would explode. But, like the space ship, Sam’s head did not explode. Like the space ship, Sam took off into sudden, floating silence. All the buzzing and spinning and friction stopped abruptly, Sam’s head was relieved completely of the pressure it had felt, and now he could see clearly, and he could hardly process the bizarreness of what he saw. He wasn’t ready for it.

He was looking at his own body. He was right above it, just idling in thin air. He saw that the Sam on the bed was scribbling furiously, so hard that the page was tearing. His bed wasn’t normal with straight lines. Nothing was definite, it was all moving, shaking, changing colours at a rapid rate. There was no doubt about what it was though. Floating Sam started to freak out. It was too much for him. He felt he’d be stuck there.

A ghost in the shaky world, forever.

He’d never see his mother again. He’d never even grow up. He began to cry when he realized he’d be stuck forever. He began to howl. He scrunched up his eyes and fists and wailed, trying to move, trying to get back to Sam on the bed. But he couldn’t. No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t move. He sobbed and sobbed and shook his body wildly for what seemed like hours, until he felt a familiar pinch on his arm.

It was a pinch from the straight lines world. He sat bolt upright, heaving with tears, wet in the face. He drew breath like he had just been held underwater against his will. Slowly, he realized he was back as one Sam in the world of definite lines. He took a while to relax and clear his bleary eyes. When he did, he noticed a dark figure on the end of his bed. It was the man who brought him back with a pinch. It was his dad.

 

“Dad? I thought you were gone.”

Sam was whispering, afraid of the mass of dark man that sat on his bed, even though it was his father, he could never be sure, like with his mother and the cigarette. He rubbed his skin where he had been pinched.

“I am gone.”

Finally he spoke. The words came from him like a sad surprise. Something he realized just then. Sam couldn’t see his eyes. He was facing the other way. His shoulders were round. Usually they were square.

“What do you mean?”

Sam was still rubbing at the pinch, it really hurt.

“I am, I’m gone. I… I don’t know. Sam?”

Sam’s breath caught in his throat when his father turned around to face him. He forgot about the sting of the pinch the second he saw his father’s eyes. He shouldn’t have been able to see them so clearly in the dark, but somehow he could. Lately, he seemed able to do a lot of things he shouldn’t, and tonight, for the first time, he wished that weren’t so.

His father’s eyes were all white.

It was not like they were rolling back in his head. It was more like clouds had settled over them. The clouds were wet. His father’s eyes were crying. They were filled with despair. His eyebrows were usually furrowed and dark above his eyes, black and serious. Now, for the first time, Sam saw them raised up in pure helplessness. It wrecked him to see his father in so much hurt and tears streamed down his own face for the second time that night.

“Dad? What’s wrong with your eyes, what’s wrong dad?”

His voice cracked like an egg. He wanted his dad to tell him everything was normal. He wanted this to be like the time his mother smoked the cigarette in the dark, just his imagination. But this wasn’t like that. He was in a new world now, for better or worse.

“Sam, I’m… I don’t know, I… I’m sorry my son. I’m sorry I pinched you, I… I think I have to go.”

The only word Sam could think to describe his dad’s voice was underneath.

When his father stood up, the clarity with which Sam had been able to view his cloudy eyes disappeared. The dark figure returned. The figure Sam had seen chopping wood two nights ago. Fear returned, replacing the ache ha had felt when he saw those eyes, those scared eyebrows.  Then he was gone.

Sam pulled the covers over his head with a chill, wiping his eyes on the pillow. The pillow was his mother. He frowned at the oddness of that foreign-familiar thought. It had been a scary night. He decided to tell his mother about it tomorrow. She would have an explanation. She always did, Sam told himself as he tried to shut his brain down and go to sleep. But, where his faith in his adult mother usually felt like a sure bet; now it seemed more like a shot in the dark. Things were real now, for better or for worse.

 

Sam spent the night tossing and turning, kicking the sheets and duvet all over the show. He didn’t know, but he was flying back through the colourful hole.

Morning speared in through the window and lanced Sam’s eyes. It felt wrong to be day. He scowled at the sunlight and rubbed his frowning face, yawning sulkily. Hot chocolate steam caught his nose. There was a hint of coffee in it. Sometimes his mom let him have some coffee when he looked super tired and his bedding was everywhere. The smell reminded him of last night with a slap.

Hovering above himself, his dad showing up and acting strangely, and a dream.

It had been a dream like before the pen, but he knew it meant more now. He dreamt was at Wimpy with all his family except his dad. They were eating burgers. His sister Hannah was playing in the kiddies section, yipping and whooping down the slide and into the pit of plastic balls. Sam wanted to go and join her, but he couldn’t because his mom was crying. Everyone in the restaurant was watching them, not eating their own food. His Granny was patting her back and wiping her eyes telling her that they would be fine, they didn’t have to worry. Worry about him. Sam must have spoken his mother earlier in the dream, told her something about his dad. That was why he couldn’t leave for the slides, because he was the one who had set her blubbing like this. He remembered feeling really upset and embarrassed, wishing she would stop for a thousand different reasons. Then the sunlight had burnt his eyes back through the hole.

He reached for the book, remembering the scratching from the night before when he had almost been forever trapped in a floating hell above his own body. As expected, the page was written on hard, so hard that the paper was mauled. There was no drawing this time. The writing said:

DON’T TELL HER ABOUT HIM. DON’T FEAR THE FLOAT.

He was warning himself. He shouldn’t tell his mother about his dad’s visit, about his white eyes, how he hadn’t seemed like himself. The thought of keeping the visit inside made Sam’s heart and mind feel heavy. He didn’t know if he’d obey.

The next part he was terrified and excited by. He (or the pen) was saying to try again, and this time, to not be afraid. Then he could go there, through the swirling hole of a million exploding colours, and be awake.

 

The milkshakes arrived. They were still waiting for their main meals. Wimpy was famous for its burgers, hence why it was named after the Popeye character. Sam was having a double cheeser with gherkins, Hannah was having a regular from the kiddies menu, and Mom and Granny were just having toasted cheese and tomatoes. They were at Wimpy Burger, just as Sam had dreamed. It was odd because he felt sure he should be at school today. He slurped on his chocolate shake, trying to think of the last time he had been. The last few days didn’t feel like normal ones that begin in the morning, have afternoons in between and end at night.

He looked at his mother’s face. She looked normal. Glasses, long brown hair, brown eyes. Brown eyes that were dry. He asked her if she was feeling OK. This puzzled her greatly. Young boys are not known for their concern over parents, perhaps they are better known for the opposite. She said yes with a quizzical frown. It was a long yes. Granny laughed at the awkward moment. So did Mom. They started teasing him about being a mommy’s boy who loves his mommy. It was kind teasing, but Sam felt stupid and annoyed. He turned his eyes and attention towards the shake, waiting for them to stop and the embarrassing moment to pass. Eventually they moved on and started talking about other stuff. Boring grown up stuff. It was about ‘relationships’. He looked around, curious to see if he’d be able to recognize anyone from his dream. He couldn’t. Although in his dream they’d all been staring over, wide eyed at his crying mom. He felt satisfied that he’d avoided something, swerved just in time, dodged a bullet, by listening to the pen. His mom was fine. No blubbering. No staring. No bad news.

The burgers came and all Sam could think about as he chomped on the beef and cheese, was following the rest of the pen’s advice. Don’t fear the float, don’t fear the float…

 

Outside the thatched house, in the long grass garden, there was a crude swimming area. It wasn’t a pool like at Granny’s house. It was smaller and deeper, made out of concrete. The water was darker and it was surrounded by overgrown bushes and reeds like at the river. Sam hadn’t wanted to swim in it at first, but now he loved it. When they got home from Wimpy (Whompy is how Hannah said it, a thick Natal accent being bred in her at school) they went out to the swim tank for a dip and a chat.

Granny and mom had their fold out chairs and hats and they sat beside the tank in an area where the grass was short.

His father hadn’t finished swish cutting it with the panga.

Sam and Hannah were in the water, Hannah only allowed to splash at the in step. Both seemed to have zero PTSD from the snake incident.

Sam went underwater. He loved being there. It was like a different world, quieter and louder. Quieter because you don’t breathe and there’s no one else. Louder because without breath and other people, you heart thumps in your ears, and your thoughts fill the water.

He thought about his dad, the uncut grass and the pinching wake up calls. He thought about his mother, how sad she seemed sometimes. He thought about Asterix and Obelix. He wished he could meet them, and also Dogmatix the dog, and Getafix, the bearded druid who brewed the magic potion.

Magic.

He thought about the book and pen, waiting heavily in his room,

Don’t fear the float.

The message had a voice in his head now. He considered it to be the voice of the pen. It was a whisper that wasn’t quite human, more similar to the unsheathing sound it made when he slid off the lid.

He came up for some air. It was time to carry on talking about the universe with Granny. Also something a little more pressing he hoped she knew about: Dreams.

He bubbled his way up to the top of the clean, dark water, and enjoyed the sun on his face as he emerged. The sun always felt best then. He waded off to the side and folded his arms over the concrete. Hannah was playing next to him on the step, babbling to her mermaid doll.

“Granny, remember we were talking about magic and the universe and stuff?” He asked.

Granny grinned mischievously and put down her book, ready to get stuck in.

“I do remember, of course. Did you find an answer yet, for what came before the Universe?”

“You said no one knows!”

She chuckled her marmalade chuckle. Sam loved that sound. He knew she was teasing him.

“Do you have a theory?” He inquired.

“Not really, Sam. But that goes back to what we were speaking about: Magic; things that seem impossible. How can we know what is and isn’t possible, if we don’t even understand the mysteries of where we live? Do you agree?”

Sam said yes he did, feeling so close to telling his Granny about the pen she had given him. Did she know what it could do? Where had she gotten it? Was Sam crazy or something?

“We look at time as a straight line,” she continued, using her arms to illustrate, “a beginning and an end. Boom, just like that. But it seems like it isn’t that way, Sam. It seems like it’s something far more mysterious and spectacular.”

“What do you mean?”

“That there are no beginnings and ends, not really. The universe has always been here and always will, at least as far as we understand the term always. Time passing is just an illusion.”

Sam had to let the words swim around in his head a bit, but at its heart, the idea made sense to him. Time and the universe were like a never ending swirling circle. They were the Kaleidoscope hole of colours he had flown into in his dreams. He had the idea that he would never have followed this conversation a mere couple of days ago, before the Pen.

Or had it been months?

“I think I get it actually Granny.”

“Well I’m impressed! I’ve always known you were a clever boy. But why so curious all of a sudden?”

There was a part of Sam that ached to tell her exactly why.

About his dad. About the float. Let it all out.

There was another part of him, though, that wanted this to be his alone. Like it was a treasure he had found, and he didn’t want to share it. The decider between Sam’s two parts was a certain whisper in his brain, a certain metallic, sword-like whisper that suggested, ever so gently, that he keep it to himself. He listened to the whisper. It would show him things.

“I don’t know Granny, I just like thinking about stuff.” He obeyed by brushing off the question.

“There’s something else I’d like to ask about.”

“Well, luckily I’m in the mood to chat with my favourite grandson!”

He was her only grandson but he was too into it to acknowledge the silly joke.

“Have you ever had a dream where suddenly you know you’re dreaming?” He asked, carefully.

“Yes, that’s called lucid dreaming. I’ve had it once or twice.”

Lucid.

The word hummed in his head and echoed gently.

Lucid, lucid.

He was relieved it was a thing. That meant he could go on with the talk without revealing too much.

“Well I had one… sort of. But I got scared. I felt like I’d be stuck there forever.”

Granny put her hands on her generous chin in a thinking pose, looking up at the gum trees and considering what the young one had just said.

“That makes sense.” She claimed thoughtfully, nodding in self agreement. “It comes back to time, Sammy. Time is a strange one. Did you know that a whole dream lasts only seven seconds in awake world?”

Seven seconds?” Sam gawked and frowned at this ludicrous information.

 “Wow, that’s so weird. Really?”

“Yes it’s true!” She exclaimed, “Time is different in dream world. Your brain is moving much, much faster. So time slows down. Or at least, the way we experience it.”

Sam had a shiver that wasn’t from the cold water when he remembered the horrible feelings he had, floating above his own body, unable to fly to the swirl, unable to get back to normal.

“So I was right to feel like I’d be trapped there forever?” 

He didn’t like that the idea of that. It was starting to seem like he’d have to overcome a great deal before he could consciously reach the spinning wheel in the sky again. The Time and Universe swirl. He didn’t want to feel like he had the other night ever again… or was it the other month?

“Not necessarily. The feeling makes sense, but I would say that your fear probably made everything worse, more intense.”

Fear.

Don’t fear the float.

“So if I’m not afraid, if I can calm down, it won’t be so bad?”

“Yes I think so.” And then after considering him for a second, “You are an interested boy aren’t you?”

He definitely was. He lay on his folded arms, the sun had almost dried his hair. It was a marvelous feeling. He was soaking in sunshine and Old Lady Wisdom. He thought to himself about last night and remembered that he had skipped the vortex and gone directly into what seemed like a normal dream. But it wasn’t a normal dream. The book had told him so. This led to a new line of questioning.

“Granny, do you know if there’s a way you can make yourself know you’re dreaming?”

Again, she put down her book and responded with all the time in the world, “Like waking up inside the dream?”

“Yes!”

She told him that was a very interesting question and stared up at the blue sky with a great patience, alien to anyone under thirty. She was trying to pull buried treasure from somewhere in the bottom of her brain like a sea trawler. Sam waited with his own type of patience. Eventually she found it.

“Yes, come to think it. I actually remember reading something about it. I never tried it myself though.”

This was good news. As usual, well worth the wait. Worth the wait in gold, Sam thought cleverly. She went on, with the boy-child intrigued as ever.

“When you’re dreaming there are certain things that aren’t the same,”

She began, “I can’t remember all the examples, but I do remember one: written words. Apparently, in your dreams, they’re all scrambled up and make no sense. So if you want to wake up in dream land, then I suggest you start practicing.”

Sam liked where this was headed. Training. Becoming a master. Learning cool tricks. Magic tricks.

“You have to ask yourself: Am I Dreaming? All throughout the day.” She explained, “Then you have to find a book. If you can make sense of the words you’re not dreaming. If not, you are.” She leant back on her chair again and interlaced her fingers over her belly, “If you do this when you’re awake, you’ll do it when you’re asleep. Do you see?”

“I see,” he said, “When I realize I’m dreaming, I have stop being afraid, and then I can do whatever I want, like flying and stuff!

She found this very amusing.

“Looks like ‘flying and stuff’ is possible after all!” She clapped, delighted with their master philosophizing, “See Sam, we cracked it!”

Sam laughed with his Old Lady for a bit and then thanked her and told her he was going to swim some more and hold his breath. She said no problemo and returned to her paperback. Hannah was busy being fascinated by her water-wrinkly fingers, showing them to her mermaid and chatting away merrily. Mother was on the other side, lying on a towel, shielding her eyes from the sun with a book. Sam dove back down, past the lily pads and tadpoles to the loud-quiet, where his hair flowed like a slow liquid fire. Inside his head, the metallic whisper was quieter and louder than ever.

 

Time ticked by. That strange and circle line. The grass grew back up high. Some crows were in the sky.

Sam was at Jeremy’s house. Jeremy was a friend who was a few years older than he was. They had struck up a friendship over cricket a few years back when Sam had first moved to the Midlands. Jeremy was a wicked fast bowler, and he knew everything there was to know about the game. He had loads of SA Cricket magazines, with articles and stats galore. His family had a big colour TV and they’d invite Sam around to watch whenever a big game was on. Jeremy’s family was whacky and cool. His dad was bald but he had a ponytail anyway.  He was a jiu-jitsu black belt and he spoke very softly and gently. His mother was loving with big bosom hugs. She wore full moon glasses and sang Johnny Cash songs as she cooked Italian food. His one brother was already twenty, and had been a rugby legend in his days at King’s, having run through the entire Clifton first team when he was just an under eleven. His other brother was nineteen and had wavy long blonde hair. He wore red tinted glasses like John Lennon and played the drums.

All in all, Sam was quite smitten with the whole family, who seemed have taken to him too. This was wonderful for him, as he sometimes felt a little isolated out on the rundown farm.

Yes, Sammy loved his good friend Jeremy like a younger brother might love the older, but there was one thing that bothered him, one tiny detail about his best mate that irked his competitive spirit no end. Jeremy would always, without fail, beat Sam at cricket. And the word beat, was a very kind word to use.

“That’s 1000 Jeremy. It’s my turn to bat. You promised.”

Sam watched the tennis ball disappear over the fence in Jeremy’s back garden. With it, his score moved from 994, to a whopping 1000. He had been slapping Sam’s bowling – which was quite well respected at school – all around the back garden and beyond. It had gone into the hedge multiple times, onto the red roof, into the Dudu the Maid’s living quarters. One time even into the mouth of Falcon, the family’s handsome Alsatian. It had taken them ages to retrieve it from the dog, who thought it was a game and constantly ran off.

“OK fine, but I’m bowling my fastest then.”

That wasn’t the deal. Sam got three outs and Jeremy had to bowl three quarters or he could do spin. Either way he’d win.

“Come on Jeremy!”

Jeremy sighed. He liked batting against Sam. It was a breeze.

“Alright fine then, three quarters.” He compromised, “But you only get two outs. You’re getting good now, don’t think I didn’t see that six you smashed against Miller!”

Sam beamed proudly and agreed to the terms. They met in the middle of the pitch and swapped ball for bat. Jeremy’s bat was a beautiful, varnished Zenith. Their mutual hero, Lance Klusener, nick named Zulu, used one of them to crack opposition teams’ attacks to smithereens.  Sam went to stand by the wickets - a turned around plastic chair – while his buddy measured his run up. He felt a little nervous, even though they were only playing in a garden with a tennis ball and Falcon the dog was their only spectator. Jeremy was a lot faster than Miller, even at three quarters, and Sam did not want to bowl to him again. He was tired of fetching.

Jeremy ran in. He had a long way to go as he had chosen to take his run up beyond the grass of the lawn, and into the trees near the fence in order to intimidate Sam. His flat, straight hair bounced along as he dodged branches. When he came into the clearing, bursting into the light, the pleasant afternoon ended abruptly when Sam was struck by a lightning bolt of oddness.

It came from nowhere. All of a sudden, he just felt off. Not sick, not nauseous, but like everything had changed in a split second, everything in the world and he could feel it.

There was a sound he couldn’t hear that was being shot at him, like an alien ray gun from the sky, radiating from something huge and into all. It was a dull sound, like a billion bees that were angry, but also lazy.

Lazy because they were dying.

Sam thought maybe they weren’t bees at all, but dead humans.

Oblivious… shells.

 He couldn’t hear it, he could feel it on his skin. It resonated inside his throat.

All the colours of the day, the green of the grass, the orange of the afternoon sun, the chirpy blue of the sky, all became slower somehow. It was like the colours had stopped to watch him. But they didn’t care. He was like an insect to them.

Maybe it was the colours making the dreadful soundless noise.

Jeremy had stopped running in. He was standing still. His mouth was open wide and he had dropped the tennis ball, who’s dull, haggard yellow stared terrifyingly at Sam. His friend’s eyes were some kind of writhing egg white, like worms . It looked like the soundless sound should be coming from his mouth, but Sam knew that wasn’t true. It was the other way around. Jeremy’s mouth was coming from the sound.

Sam was frozen with fear as the day lazily became a picture frame, getting ready to swallow him into this terrifying painting with loud, slow colours forever.

Then he spotted something black. It was a good black, it wasn’t slow. It wasn’t watching him although it was moving, shining in places, glistening with all the different shades of dark. It was alive where the other colours had been dead for countless years. The figure was a Stranger Sam had known his whole life. It said nothing, only watched. Sam took courage from this sentinel. He looked down and saw the plastic chair and Jeremy many feet below him.

He was floating.

The sound of lonesome, dull forever was crawling off his skin and out of his throat, being slowly replaced by that old whisper from another life, and that Old Lady’s voice from another world. Don’t fear the float, they said in unison. Louder and louder until the sound filled the sky and the watching colours began to break, allowing the real, imprisoned colours to flow out through the cracks.

Sam knew what he would do. The fear was still there, but now he could move.

And move he did. The details weren’t there during his trip into Jeremy’s house. Mundane things like the fact that he would have dropped his bat, walked across the short grass of the lawn careful to avoid Falcon’s boisterous piles of dung, that he would have reached the door and opened it with his hands, hearing that familiar creak, that he would have wiped his feet on their hard welcome mat in order to not anger Mrs. Maloney. Sam skipped these details and found himself inside the house with one purpose in his mind: to find a book. The soundless sound was gone now. Sam felt excitement in the pit of his stomach as he climbed up an infinite bookcase on one of his father’s homemade ladders. The books were thick and dusty, filled with mystery, wonderful facts and stories. He picked one. It was an Asterix book. He didn’t have this one! He wondered if it was a new title. Asterix’s golden moustache gleamed and Obelix’s wonderful menhir popped off the page. Dogmatix was trundling along. They were moving, walking down a Roman road and Sam was transfixed. He couldn’t wait to find out what they were up to this time. Where were they going? They’d already been to Britain, to Switzerland, Rome, Norway… even America where they met the Red Indians! Maybe there was an adventure waiting for them in South Africa, maybe even at the foothills of the Drakensberg in a little town called…

Sam was amazed to see that they were doing just that! They were walking down his little farm road with their big cartoon smiles. A speech bubble appeared above Obelix’s head as he met Sam’s Granny. Something clicked in Sam then and he remembered why he had run inside in the first place (although he couldn’t remember running). With immense and burning and shaking excitement, Sam tried to read Obelix’s words.

He couldn’t. They were all jumbled up, just like Granny said they’d be.

He knew he was dreaming. Even better: he had already overcome the paralyzing fear, he had cracked the dull colours he had created by being scared, and now he was the master of a whole new world. Absolutely anything was possible. Now he could do just as his imagination pleased.

Unfortunately, and painfully disappointingly, the results of this discovery and the mastering of his fear were anticlimactic to say the least.

Sam tried a thousand things and none truly worked.

It wasn’t as easy as he’d thought it would be. First he tried to fly. He took off into the air over Jeremy’s house (now changed to his own and now to the mountains from Lord of the Rings), but he only managed the hover and couldn’t control where he went, often falling suddenly. He tried going under water, really deep into the sea. He could breathe down there, but he would find himself getting dragged back up by air in his lungs that didn’t exist. When he tried talking to the fish, they replied, but he could clearly hear it was his own voice, not theirs. He tried playing cricket with Jeremy and slowing down the ball so he could smash it. He succeeded but ended up slowing himself down as well so he could only watch as the tennis ball trundled into his face in replay style slow mo.

He didn’t have complete control yet, didn’t trust fully in the fact that there were no laws here, only the ones he made. Being awake in his dream meant he brought all his doubts from the world of straight lines.

The Figure of the many, lively darks was always there. It existed always in his peripherals. He wasn’t supposed to see it, how could he see it? This was the question it radiated. Something was wrong. Sam felt pierced with a numb fear. Fear, it seemed, always found its way back. 

It was what was keeping him from flying, talking to the fish and smashing Jeremy at cricket. It wasn’t the acute dread he had felt the other night (or was it the other year?) above his body, it was more of a dull throb in his chest.

Slow butterflies, suggesting that he was in a place that perhaps he shouldn’t be. When the sound of the human-shell bees of oblivion crept back, Sam decided it was time to wake up.

 

The mist was cold and thick. Sam decided it would be dangerous to continue cycling down the long, pot-holed driveway, so he got off and pushed.

Through the land clouds.

It was lucky that he knew the ground, because he could hardly see his hand if he put it in front of his face. It made him feel like his mother in the dark; a burning cigarette the only evidence of her existence. 

Perhaps there was nothing else. Perhaps he was the only alive being, walking in a cloud of abyss.

He shook the thought away and concentrated on the road. His nose and knuckles were starting to sting from the cold and he had a good long way to go yet. He thought about his afternoon with Merva as he soldiered on. She had said a very curious thing.

Merva was Sam’s nearest neighbour, and lived a couple of kilometers down some winding dirt tracks. She was a tall young woman with short hair, a jeweler by trade, and one of the alivest people Sam had ever met. Children, particularly boys around Sam’s age, were her favourite (she used to say she was actually a nine year old boy, trapped in a twenty-eight year old woman’s body) so Sam used to hang out with her and they’d chat and play Chinese checkers and chess.

That morning, Mom and Granny had decided to do what they called a “spring clean”, and Sam knew what that meant. He high-tailed it out of there with half his breakfast still smushed in his cheeks like a squirrel. He found Verna in her workshop, goggles on, black hair waving and flopping as she sparked some new bracelet into existence. She was all too happy to see the young lad and take a break for some cream soda and a couple for games of chess on the back stoop.

 He is not a monster, Sam.

Her overly adult words had shocked him and played back in his head as he navigated the mist. Why would she say that?

An echo of a memory or a dream flicked before Sam’s eyes. Sparklers and fists and tears, a whirl of light, a crash, him sobbing in the corner under a lampshade made of hammered wire, the same one he had seen when Verna first spoke. He tried to hold onto this flash, but again, like the tree dream on the cricket field, it danced away from him like a feather on the wind.

He thought he must be getting close now, but he really wasn’t sure.  He wished he could see further so he could know how far. His knuckles were getting seriously cold now, freezing. Horror stories of climbers on Mt Everest succumbing to frostbite circled in his brain like vultures. Panic flushed over him for a short second at the thought of having his nose and fingers amputated.

Come on Sam, he berated himself, this is not Everest.

But he didn’t know that for sure, how could he be sure this wasn’t Everest?  Plain things, normal things, things to be sure of, guarantees. These were from the life before the pen. He carried on going, imagination running wild, until he heard dogs barking. A warmer sound he had never heard. He began to run, trusting his knowledge of the potholes. His afternoon with Merva jiggled about in his head.

There had been something different about her. It wasn’t her mood, Sam had experienced a lot of them and learnt when he was and wasn’t welcome (even adult kids get the blues). It was something else, something to do with him not her. There was no tickling or teasing about ‘chicks’ that Sam obviously ‘dug’. Instead she poured him his cream soda and asked quietly how his mother was doing now that his Granny was visiting. Her voice was like when the riding instructor spoke to a nervous horse. Sam found it very odd.

Yet another odd thing to add to the growing list. The list must be up to the moon by now, he thought.

The barking grew closer in Sam’s ears as he ran carefully with his bike in the thick mist. He couldn’t wait to take a warm bath. He was thinking about the hot water when he tripped over a big tree root that, by his memory, should not have been there at all. He tumbled over, tearing his trousers at the knees and cutting his hands on sharp rocks. He lay for a second, breathing hard, wanting to cry, mainly from the shock, and listened to the dogs barking.

They were not his dogs, he realized as he turned over to lie on his back, hot mist shooting from his mouth as he tried to calm his lungs. The initial adrenalin was wearing off and the pain was coming to his knees and hands, sharp in the cold. No, those dogs were mean dogs, big, angry, wanting to bite, he could hear it now, barks much deeper than his own two mongrels. Were they barking at him? Sam hoped not, but the barks were edging closer even though he had abruptly stopped moving. He hauled himself up and checked the damage. Not too bad, a few scrapes, stinging in the mist, and some torn pants. It was time to get away from those dogs and get back home, but he didn’t know which way to go. He was lost.

Merva had the bluest eyes. Sam remembered noticing them properly for the first time earlier that afternoon. They were more than the sky, warmer and colder. He had his bishop in his hand and the light was angling as the world spun towards dark. They were out on the stoop playing chess and slurping green sugar drink. When he placed his bishop in a cunning position, she looked up from the board and that was he had noticed.

“I want you to know something, Sam… I know I’m not supposed to say anything, but I feel like you need to know something.”

She was serious and for the first time Sam realized that she was a big person. He didn’t like the direction of the conversation; it made him itch behind the eyes. He found himself thinking of the figure he had seen at Jeremy’s house, the one that had followed him flying, diving, anywhere he tried to go. He had an inkling that the figure knew exactly what Verna was on about, and why it made his eyes itch and his throat clunk. Sam though, had no idea.

He decided that the best way to go would be in the opposite direction of the barking dogs. He would make his away along the old farm fences, feeling for a gap that meant a driveway that meant a hot bath! The mist was thicker than ever and so Sam was slower than ever. He found himself wishing away his stupid bike that was hindering him, and even thought of abandoning it. The dogs’ barks didn’t seem to be fading into distance. Rather ominously, they seemed to be getting closer. This was impossible, Sam told himself, as he had already turned around and gone the other way. Even in the mist he couldn’t have gotten that wrong, could he have? He knew his mind was running riot. He knew it would take a while to escape those heart-scraping barks with him moving slower than a snail.

Still, he heard what he heard.

Maybe the dogs were following him. He tried to look around himself to gauge where he was, or whether there were creatures sniffing after him (because after all, dogs didn’t need to see), but he could see not a thing, only the redness of his nose. He wondered if the figure, the one who looked like his dad but wasn’t, the one who was always there in the dream, was there now, watching him silently from just one or two invisible feet away…

“Your dad is not a monster, Sam!” Merva words were like a strange arrow, thumping into Sam. “All that stuff between him and your mother, I know it seems terrible, but it’s not all black and white, OK?”

He felt a stab of pain in his chest as a frog of tears hopped up into his throat with a croak, springing violently off his heart. He felt like the frog had been there for a long time but he hadn’t noticed it. Or he had refused to. The image came to him of sparklers and fists that slipped away just as it would later on the misty road (he thought ‘The Figure’ might be responsible for that). It was a fleeting moment of intensity which didn’t quite die, but went away long enough for Sam to regain normal confusion.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about Verna, my dad’s fine,” He replied, shakily I think he just went to Johannesburg to sell some bags. They didn’t even have a fight.”

Merva’s impressive brow turned into a thinking frown as she considered these words, her crystal eyes working through them. After a long time, she picked up her bishop and moved it, finally lifting her eyes from Sam’s words and letting them fall.

“Let’s not get into,” she said, “but there will come a time when you need to know that your dad was always trying to be a better dad. I know that some dark stuff happened.”

Sam didn’t ask Verna what dark stuff had happened even though the heavy pause hinted that he should. Instead he said nothing and surveyed the black and white battlefield beneath him.

It’s not all black and white.

Merva understood that perhaps that was enough and left it. She was right; Sam didn’t want to hear more about this dark stuff. He didn’t want to be told about it by Merva or by any other body. It was the frog that used to be on his heart, asleep, and now it was alive in his throat. It was his frog. He decided that he wanted to see it for himself.

He quickly wrapped up the game, losing on purpose, said goodbye to Verna who hugged him very solemnly and told him he could come by whenever, and got on his bicycle. He wanted to get home quickly. He wanted to go back in time.

The dogs barking mercifully faded and Sam’s feet and hands began recognizing the ground and fence. He felt the Figure now.

In the Mist. Just Beyond.

He had this knowledge that the Figure had guided him, accessed old skin memories, the feel of the dirt and the wood, all the small smells and sounds that subtly changed wherever you went, and released them in Sam’s body, sending him homeward with a magic ease. He knew he was on his own driveway now. His hands and nose felt as though they would fall off, bright red pins of pain stabbed all across his face, but he wasn’t bothered.

He could feel the Figure. He could hear the silver whisper from his room.

He would get home, take a long bath and have a big bite to eat. Then he would shut himself in his room, close the windows and lock the door so he wouldn’t be disturbed. He was going to go back and see this ‘Dark Stuff’.

It was like he was sneaking into a horror movie against his parents’ wishes, only it wasn’t a movie, and it starred his parents.

 

The Pen’s voice didn’t say words. It didn’t need to. The pictures were there and the words were whispered before they were. Everything was already fully formed all at once.

There’s a door inside the swirl, it is guarded by the figure.

Sam saw doors, millions of them splashing into his mind as he opened his own one, finally escaping the red cold. He knew there was an answer behind one of those doors. The one the figure was standing in front of.

Inside was the ‘dark stuff’ Verna was talking about. Sam felt sick with curiosity. He wasn’t old enough for that thought that comes after big knocks and bruises. Maybe it’s better not to go there.

He endured the fuss made over him by his Gran and Mom. All he was thinking of as they rubbed his hands and steered him towards the fire, was the float. He had awoken in the Jeremy dream by trying to read and realizing it was all mumbo jumbo. But that hadn’t been a pen dream. He hadn’t started that one out drawing. That heavy dread he had felt above his body still weighed somewhere in him. He hoped he’d be able to go through.

After he’d taken a bath and had some hot tea, Sam told his people he needed to take a nap. He went into his bedroom and shut the door and curtains.

How would it work this time? He didn’t know, but his body moved anyway, maybe it knew.

His hand reached for the black case in which the pen lay sleeping and opened the fancy latch, releasing the so-much silver into the room.

This would have to be different to the first pen dreams. He would have to use the Pen’s power, but in a different way. He was nervous as he took it up, sure it wouldn’t work. He sat at his homework desk and began drawing. Not really knowing what would come out, only that it would be something of a request to the Pen and a map at the same time. How did back in time look? He didn’t know. What he didn’t know just piled up. But he was drawing, fast and furious, despite his nerves and doubt. His body knew, his hand knew.

The pen knew.

Sam stayed conscious this time, because it was a different trip, and watched in amazement as the fast lines began to form into images. As his worries slipped, he found out that letting go leads to complete control. His first paradox.

Doors. Tonnes and millions of them in lines. Halls with doors zigzagged into being. This was where he was going. A land of a thousand doors. In front of one of these, the pen made a guard. Sam only watched, a spectator not wanting a breath to stop the magic. The guard had his father’s broad wiriness and height, but he was lighter, in hair, weight and tone. His nose was long. Sam knew it was impossible, but at the same time he knew it was true. The guard was the Figure, and now he knew who the Figure was.

Excitement, anxiety, fear, full awakeness. Not good ingredients for bed, but Sammy boy never fell asleep so easily.

The moon was silky silver, the lines began to writhe and swim like mercury, and Sam was flying like before. His house below him was a moving drawing, kids colours glowing in the night. Not browns and greens and blacks like normal days, but crayons, oil pastels, all dancing, all alight like fireworks. He thought, we meet again, when he saw the spiral, the time, the universe, the transporter in the Sky. He knew what was waiting through the hole, but that didn’t stop his heart from thumping like a bass drum. Thudding his ribcage to a frenzied beat. He had been here before, but that was only a dream.

Now he was awake.

 

The way this thing was whirring, it should have made a big big noise. Like a blender killing ice. But it was quiet. Like in space.

Sam drifted like an astronaut through a black hole. Impossibly heavy and imposingly silent. His fingers warped, became long and short, mirrors melting and setting, melting and setting. His skin was twanging like a never ending note from a bending guitar, as it became everything that it touched. He stretched and twanged and changed colour in the silent swirl of gigantic and forever, until finally he arrived. The Land of a Thousand Doors.

In the beginning, all the doors were open. There was nothing to hide. These were the good memories. When Sam would look in on one, it was as if he was watching himself from behind a secret waterfall. Sometimes he was on the outside of the memory, like a movie camera, and sometimes the door opened into Sam’s old eyes. He watched with fascination as the images behind one of the doors moved lightening quick. Trees sped past trees sped past houses sped past walking people while the clouds remained the same. He remembered that car trip, one of many from Natal up the highveldt and bustle of Gauteng.

It was light here. This was the good memories section. But he was headed for the dark at the end of the tunnel. Dark stuff Verna had said.

The doors on either side of this dream hall within the colourful vortex, steadily became less inviting, less open, ajar, and then closed. Old. Graffiti on one with a middle finger in crude shaped black, chipped paint and mould on one, poison ivy on one, snakes in front of one slithering in and out of the broken keyhole.

Sam ignored these all as they seemed to snap at his heels. He stuck to the middle and kept his eyes on the guard. He could see him now.

Just a Figure in the distance. Black in front of the swimming colours that were his background. He stood in front of the last door. Beyond that, the Swirl waited to carry Sam back.

The Figure leant calmly against the wall. The wall wasn’t a wall, but it was enough of one to be leant on. Beside him was a door. The door was solid black.

Dark stuff.

The figure had his head in his hands, he was crying it seemed. This disappointed Sam. He had always seen The Guard as a bit of a badass.

“You shouldn’t be here.”

They were face to face now. The figure was bending over to be almost nose to nose with Sam. His face was tear-stained and kind. A light version of his Father’s darkness, his furrow brood.

You shouldn’t see me, said his strange familiar face.

“But I am you.”

Sam realized for the first time that he was travelling both forward and back in time, all because of a silver present. It should have been a delightful thought.

He felt the wind of his light, long hair, as he shook his head with a resigning smile.

“No Sam, but I am you. You emphasized the wrong words. Listen.”

He put his hands on Sam’s shoulders. His own, older, hands on his own, younger, shoulders.

“There is a reason I put this one behind lock.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

Their older eyes glazed over. They lost something far away and their voice went off trail to try and find it.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have. It could have been the wrong move. Probably.”

Sam felt dread at his own, older eyes. Dread at the sounds now seeping out from new cracks in the door. Dread at the sounds so strange and familiar. They offended his heartbeat. Screaming, snapping bones, snapping hearts, snapping walls, TVs…

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, open it.”

And he let himself in the room from years ago. Where the Dark Stuff waited.

 

 

The Figure. Sam. The guard.

Remembered when he was a young boy. Sam. Now the Figure. Now the Guard.

Remebered, as he opened the heavy black door for smaller him, Sam. So that smaller him, Sam, could also remember.

He supposed knowing was better than not knowing. He reasoned that remembering was better than forgetting. But he, Sam, the Guard, did not have to like it.

He left the door open, and watched himself watching himself, a long time ago. He watched himself remember how his dad punched his mother’s face over and over that night in Johannesburg, sparklers in his hands. He could not see his face, only his small back, just through the film-like gap, the waterfall.

He watched himself remembering the wire light. A light shade, tall and silver, made of hammered wire, made by his dad. Spindly shadows all over the room. The room where Hannah had taken her first steps towards and empty Coke bottle. Painted and chipped, the noise of the Johannesburg streets streaming in through the balcony door, indifferent to their fight inside.

He watched the memories flood like a river of headache. How he had tried to climb into the corner, underneath the wire light. Climb away what was happening. Crying hope and help without.

The Figure, tall and big and Sam, also felt these no hope tears, these tears for nothing and unheard, can’t help. Not for himself, but for Sam, for the hopeless, headache remembering. How his mother had sounded, like an animal. How his father hadn’t cared even though he did. How his mother was a person. How he could do nothing to make her strong as she crumpled. As fists turned into boots. How everything felt worthless and weak, ready to die pathetically. All of them.

Remembering is better than forgetting, he told himself. Knowing is better than not knowing, he told himself.

But he didn’t have to like it.

In the corner of the room was something new, something glinting, something that hadn’t been there all those years back. It was silver and it sang a song of menace. Light from the wire lamp flickered over it as it watched the violence. Sam, the guard was astonished. He was sure it hadn’t been there the first time, this silver thing, wailing at the top of its malicious voice, a whispering voice that was like metal, lurking in the corner, watching.

It didn’t belong here. It belonged on the farm in the garage next to the spray painted golf and the uncut wood.

Surely it was just the light that made it look like his father’s axe was smiling?

He grabbed the boy by the shoulders and threw him out of the hallway back into the swirl. He knew he wouldn’t be able to close the door now. He thought Sam would be able to deal with it eventually, that he’d figure it out.

He didn’t know about the Pen.

Back at home, Sam awoke with a start. There was a brand new drawing on his desk.

 

The room was dark. His hands were shaking. Everything was real now.

Real and bad.

No matter how forcefully he pushed and pressed at his eyes, the room from the hallway remained. Burned into his brain.

His mother on the floor. His father hitting and hitting. Him in the corner, doing nothing. Whimpering.

There was a whisper in his head that he didn’t like anymore. He thought John Sithole must have heard it for what it was. That was why he slapped. The whisper was laughing. As though it had won. Sam tried to locate its owner. There it was, gleaming from the desk. Next to it was a drawing.

The final drawing, said the whisper. The last one. The triumph. The masterpiece. It wasn’t the hallway. Sam knew that. It told him.

So smug. So very terrifying. It sounded like a snake, coiled around his inside. Louder than his own thoughts. There was no escaping it.

He was shaking all over now. But somehow he rose from bed, into the real bad world. He had to see what was on that page. Somewhere inside him he knew, but he had to see for himself. He lugged his shaking body exactly where it didn’t want to go.

The page.

He didn’t put on the light. He didn’t focus his eyes, letting them blur the lines for as long as possible. He didn’t want to know. But the page, the slick ink like blood was in his vision, the book was in his trembling hands and the snake whisper was like a venomous fang, like an icicle piercing the softness of his brain. It said no words, only an all dominating hiss.

Finally, he looked at the drawing. The masterpiece of the silver pen.

It was good. Excellent detail, expert shading. Better than Sam had ever done in the past. Somehow the redness of the blood spatter shone through the black ink.

Sam squeezed the silver snake by screwing his eyes shut tight. This allowed him a moment to run. He had to find his Granny, he had to warn her. He grabbed the wall outside his room door to swimg himself into motion. It felt cold and sweaty. The hard carpet muffled the sound of his bare feet as rushed in perfect fear, making them sound like a distant drum beat. In the mirror room, his heels rubbed raw as he skidded to a halt. A thousand heavily breathing Sams stared back at him, wide-eyed, all realizing that it was too late.

His sister’s room was just around the corner. There wasn’t a ceiling in the house, only the thatched roof. This meant Sam was able to hear exactly the sounds that came from his Granny. Perhaps she had been napping, or doing a crossword. Perhaps she had been thinking of her next conversation with Sam about the universe, she may have even have been chuckling to herself as she watched her son-in-law enter. Sam didn’t have to see him to know his eyes were like they were that night. White, not his, confused like Frankenstein’s monster. Sam didn’t have to be in the room to know what he held in his hand as his Grandmother’s shouts of go away became less and less stern. The thousand Sams stood, rooted, terrified of their dad, heels stinging with pain as they listened to a clean swish cut the air in half. Sam gulped pathetically and the silver snake began to hiss again, filling his inside. He had never even heard his Granny cry before this. Now she was screaming. Her final shriek was mixed with a sick thudding crack, like a coconut filled with blood. The sound became thicker and wetter on the next swish and more on the next.

No sounds from his Grandmother anymore. No more marmalade chuckles, only bloody coconuts. 

Over and over again, the swish, chop, swish, chop and Sam began reading a poster on the wall, palm trees with coconuts cascading like a stampede in his mind.

The poster was of a cricket star named Shaun Pollock, swish.

 Beneath him was some writing, chop.

It said follow you dreams.

There was violent silence. The Axeman breathed in and out, in and out while Sam held his. The exhale was a rough, high pitched wail each time. A banshee too fond of whiskey and cigarettes.

 Sam looked at the poster again and wished he would just wake up, just wake up!

But he could read the words. Follow your dreams.

A thought filled his legs with adrenalin oil and he suddenly began to sprint. The other thousand Sams disappeared, running off the wall and into non-existence as he left the mirror room.  He had to find his mother. He motored towards the back door, ignoring the loose skin on his heels and the banshee breaths of his dad.  She would be there, painting something new on the car, and Hannah would be there too. They’d get in and drive off, away from this nightmare.

Trying to channel cats with their padded feet and quiet racing, he ran through the fire room which was attached to his sister’s.

The scream breathing went on and grew, turning Sam’s blood to ice, but letting him know he wasn’t being followed yet. He silently sprinted through the kitchen towards the back door. He tried to open it. It was locked. That was Ok, he was inside after all. But his hands turned to jelly when he noticed the breathing had stopped. In its place were slow footsteps and the dragging of something heavy, something metal. Something silver.

How the Pen was laughing. Laughing at Sam’s useless hand.

He tried his left. It didn’t work either. It was like the bones had disappeared. The footsteps stopped with a clunk and Sam turned around. He saw his father standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the fire room.

The fire room.

Sam had sat there with his Granny only a night ago, talking about magic and stars and time travel. How could that ever have been?

“Oh dad, please stop, what’s happening? Stop, please, why is this happening?”

His dad’s eyes were white now; the irises burnt into the back of his head, where the Pen made him see terrible things, Sam knew it. His chest was heaving. His mouth hung open. Blood from Sam’s beloved Granny, he was slick with it. When he lifted the axe above his shoulder, it made the sound of someone chewing, wet. Like a pole being pulled from mud.

“Sam.”His father said. “This is what you get.”

He spoke on a wailing exhale. It was like listening to the wind in a vacuum storm. Then he started to walk again. Clunk, scrape went the laughing axe, silver still, through all the red. Sam fumbled and fumbled at the doorknob, to no avail. Helplessly, he slumped against the door. His father’s feet, he used to dance on them, lined with rubber and wire anklets he had made himself. Sam had never seen him without them on. One of them made a specific noise, a kind of metal slush. That one he made from drink can lids. His father’s long feet, he used to dance on them. That was a life beyond the Swirl, before the Pen. Now it was being ripped from him.

Beside the slushing feet of his father, the axe approached, leaving a shiny trail of blood in its wake, scraping sharper against the hard floor. He checked out the bloody blade that would soon be snicking into his head like it had his dear Gran’s.  In amongst the dark red blood, nothing like tomato sauce, Sam noticed something and understood exactly what it was with a startling clarity that would end up saving his life. There were flecks of white wobbling. They looked slimy, like pieces of snot or some sort of fridge pudding. Sam understood quite sharply that it was none of those things.

The sight of his grandmother’s brains sent a freeze through Sam’s body and turned his jelly hands hard, like water to ice. He shot his arm up at the door handle and attacked it with his hand, finally hearing a beautiful click which sent him tumbling out of the house.

Pain was not an issue and he ignored his roasted elbows and dinged up back, pushing off the concrete with a swiftness afforded by the wobbling tissue on his father’s axe and the hot smell of blood like steam from a pot.

His mother’s multicoloured Volkswagen Golf, he had to get to it.

It was in the garage a mere fifty metres away.

The smell of gum trees filled the air, wonderful, bursting clouds filled the sky and sunlight danced on the shiny leaves. What a nice day, thought Sam absurdly as his feet screamed over the spiky stones that filled the driveway. The sound of the Axe dragging changed, becoming more of a rattle, and he knew his father was on the driveway too. He didn’t look back and ignored the lancing of his foot soles He wanted to see his mother. She had to be there. They both had to be there, his mom and sister. If they weren’t, he didn’t know what he would do.

The golf came into sight, the same sunlight that so gently glanced off of the smooth surfaces of the Eucalyptus leaves, also glared from the multiple fresh wounds all over the outside of the car, dozens of silver arrows zinged into Sam’s eyes.

The little Golf had been smashed to bits. All the previous spray paint colours were now dominated by the new silver gashes. The tyres were in ribbons like Sam’s heels and feet, and the windshield was totally caved in.

Just as Sam had wished, she was there; they both were there, his mother and his sister. The problem was that they were dead.

He could tell it was them only because of their clothes. Their faces were chopped away, red and brains, flopping skin, like sausages attacked by Rotweillers. Hannah was holding something, it was her doll. She used to say it could talk but Sam said that was ridiculous and didn’t allow her fantasy. It was a terrible memory now. His mother’s glasses had stayed intact somehow and lay hands which were folded calmly on her lap. It was the first time Sam noticed how small her hands were. She only had little hands, he thought.

“She only had little hands!” He turned around and screamed at his father, now barely a cricket pitches length away. His utter dread and terror transformed into a liberating rage with a surprising smoothness of transition.

Then, with a sort of drunken courage, Sam charged. 

 

Sam knew the pen was watching, savouring, but he didn’t care. He tore over the stones, a war cry of anguish issuing. The Axeman awaited him with open arms, raising his weapon with a zing, slicing into the air as his son drew nearer. Sam watched the blade start to descend, slowly, like a felled tree. Still he ran, shutting his eyes tight and always allowing his growing fear to fuel his ferocity. Images of his mother, mutilated, his sister, hacked to pieces, his grandmother’s head cracked open, propelled his cut up feet and his cut up scream.

In the distance of his mind Sam heard a door opening and smelt a billow of herbal smoke. In the far parts of his brain he recognized the galloping sound of someone else, someone big, running at full speed. Closer to the front of his thoughts, came another zing that was meant for him as the fell-tree axe was given more speed. He braced himself for impact and the next moment something smashed into his chest, knocking the wind out of him. He gasped and coughed and opened his eyes to the distorted image of his father in the driveway, the axe planted. It took Sam a few moments to realize that the image was getting smaller and that the axe was not planted in his chest, but in the ground. Beneath his arms, wrapped around his chest was a thick arm, black as the night. John Sithole had scooped him from the jaws of death. 

He watched his father, the picture bouncing urgently as John sprinted. He was trying fiercely to remove the axe from the earth. His wailing, banshee breathing had returned with extra rabidity. Through his father’s body, hot wax was being pumped, cooling only when his limbs did as they were told. Sam knew this.

With a skid and a slam, the image of his tortured father disappeared

John put a thick leathery hand over Sam’s mouth until he stopped his panic. the rondavel was dark and smoky. Sam wouldn’t have been able to make out a thing were it not for the low fire, burning in the middle of the circular floor. John removed his hand once Sam had calmed down, and gestured for him to take a seat next to the dim flames. Sitting down opposite him, John’s features were like shadows and clay in the smoke light. They sat in silence, John searching Sam’s soul with his musky eyes. Outside was inhale, exhale, sharp wind, rough scream.

John leaned over the fire and brought his stupendous face nose to nose with Sam.

Gruffly and very slowly he spoke to Sam. It would be the last time John said anything without an axe in his body.

“The thing you write, you have to rub it out.”

His breath was like a warm wind over Sam’s face. Perhaps a little zonked from the smoke, and with those intense, black eyes swimming around in his own, all Sam could think was that pen can’t be rubbed out. That was why you were only allowed to use pencil right up until standard three. 

But you can’t rub out pen, John, he wanted to counter. He was wondering if typex wouldn’t do the trick as the handle of the door flew by his left ear with a silent and dangerous whizz. The silhouette of his father soared over the fire and made an angry pig noise as he thunked the axe into soft neck.

“It’s OK Sam, just rub it out!”

John’s voice gurgled as blood ran into his vocal cords. The Axeman was making pig and scream breath grunts while he tried to finish the job and remove the axe. He had to finish the job. He had to stop the terrible movies, the hot wax like mercury in his veins. He couldn’t just chop himself. It didn’t work that way said a voice, a voice, a maddening voice!

Sam knew these things.

Now he had to do something unnatural. Like stepping into the sauna on a hot day, or jumping into an icy lake on a cold one.

He had to go back to his room.

He left his father in the rondavel, finishing up with gross desperation, and went back passed the butchered bodies of those he loved in the world. His tears were like salty waterfalls and he clenched his teeth against them as his feet scorched over the harsh ground, passed the smashed up car with gashes, through the kitchen door where his hand had once been jelly and then ice, over the trail of blood and brains that were painted on the floor leading towards his chopped up Granny, through the mirror room where a thousand Sams could do nothing to save their family, and into the room where the Pen was always laughing, cackling metal.

He slammed and locked the door, knowing it would do no good. He touched the paint. It was white and smooth and some was peeling near the handle. His dad had painted the door when they had first moved in. He remembered the smell. He had enjoyed its chemical freshness. He thought of his father’s feet upon which he used to dance and he thought of his mother’s hands that were only little and he turned around to face the desk upon which the silver pen lay.

It was shining malevolently. Warning against touch. But that wouldn’t work now that Sam had nothing to lose. He rushed and grabbed it. Without thinking, he shouted at it, perhaps just reacting to it shouting at him.

Seven seconds!” He yelled at the top of his lungs, voice rasp from when he had charged his father. He didn’t know why, but he yelled it again.

Seven seconds!”

The second time it came out of him, something clicked. A sudden optimism flooded his veins like the hot wax flooding his father’s.

He knew what had to be done. He figured out what John had meant.

The pen went into panic mode. It could be heard in the increase of the Axeman’s pain, doubling, tripling as he lumbered towards the door he had once painted.

Sam’s palm was burning and the Pen was so heavy he had to use two hands, but he started drawing, ignoring the sizzling smoke. The whisper of the Pen was in his head like an ice pick, zooming cold all around his brain so that the pain was almost stupefying.  He moaned loudly but continued drawing, even as the Axeman’s tortured cries and the scrape of his weapon got closer and closer.

Seven seconds, seven seconds, seven seconds, was Sam’s anti brain pain and anti finger-sizzle mantra. It worked.

 

Peace and quiet hit Sam like a soccer ball in the face. He could hear his breathing again, he could hear his heart again. Like he had just plunged underwater.

The metal whisper, the scream-breath, the burning fingers, the ice pick in his brain.

They were all gone and he stood again in the hallway of doors inside the Swirl. In front of him was The Figure. Silent, arms folded. Huger than ever. At least three times the size he had been the first time. So was the hallway. This was, after all, a mammoth task.

“What is it you seek?” Boomed the voice of The Figure, eyes alight.

“I need a door, I need to find a door and go in. Go in for good!”

For the first time, Sam could hear the Swirl swirling. A high, powerful wind that rooted him heavier to the spot instead of blowing him away. The Figure stood for what felt like an age, considering Sam. It had to be this way, Sam knew, it had to be big and scary.

“You may pass.” He decreed heavily.

His voice was like a cave collapsing. Sam thought of Aladdin and the cave of wonders. He ran past the shoe of his Giant sub-conscious, larger by half than his own thatched home. When he was in the hallway of doors, he turned back. The Guard, The Figure, The Giant, was closing the stone door, making thunder as he rolled it. Sam was never going back, and that was fine.

Because he was going back.

Seven seconds, he thought to himself as he looked through the doors. Watery film covered the memories so that the shapes behind it danced even if they were still. He began to wonder how he was ever going to find the right door, when he began to float. Some good advice the pen had given him once flitted into his mind like a cool breeze. Don’t fear the float. He didn’t. This was his world; his body and mind were starting to understand that as he turned corners and swished past waterfall memories, being flown. Finally he was put down in front of a closed door.

Somewhere, something screamed. Somewhere, fingers burnt and a door was being hacked in super slow motion.

He opened the door. It was heavy. Light spilled into the hallway, dancing. Fire light. Sam heard muffled voices and blurry figures. It was like he was underwater and they were above it. He remembered that he liked being underwater. He liked the quiet and how he could really think. He heard the crinkling of wrapping paper and knew where he was. He stepped in and gasped with throat tears when he saw his family. They were all moving and talking and alive. There was no blood on them. Their faces weren’t hanging off of their skulls in red ribbons.

His granny was sitting by the fire. She had on her green beanie and was talking to her grandchildren, lots of patient teacher hand gestures. His mother’s glasses sat neatly on her nose above a thoughtful smile, and one of her small hands cupped her chin while the other held a cigarette to the fire. His sister with her little face was lying on the floor on her tummy, staring up and listening intently to her Gran. Sam saw himself sitting on the floor, cross legged, gazing hungrily at a little gift that must already have been speaking to him. Insidiously worming it’s whisper into him.

“You like drawing and writing, don’t you Sammy?”

Watching Sam ran and jumped into Sitting Sam who breathed himself in with a rapid gulp, like an aeroplane window being finally shut. His looked struck for a second, stunned. But then his eyes swam back into focus, out from underwater, out from behind the waterfall. He looked at the fire, warm and dancing, he looked at his Granny’s face, lined and loving.

“No.”He said slowly

“I was thinking of focusing more on cricket, actually Granny.”

Granny’s eyes swam then. But Granny’s eyes came back too. Out from under water, out from behind the bloody waterfall, and with a final metal whisper into non existence, the gift in her hand elongated and bulked out.

A hunk of wood with no voice.

She looked down at the gift and handed it to Sam.

“Well aren’t you a lucky boy then!”

 

The end

 

 

 


© Copyright 2017 Sam Hardy. All rights reserved.

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Other Content by Sam Hardy

Coughing Octopus

Short Story / Religion and Spirituality

The Tightrope Walker

Short Story / Fantasy

The Silver Pen

Short Story / Horror

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