Neil shook on the sofa, knees pulled up, toes curled, watching his Gran swat away imaginary insects and invisible bats across on the other side of the room. She is just sick, his Mom always told him, just sick in the mind, no need to be frightened. He was constantly frightened, though. Gran saw things all over the place that no-one else could see. Things that no-one else would ever want to see. Each evening, as his Mom made dinner in the kitchen, Neil had to sit with his Gran in the living room and keep an eye on her, just to make sure she didn't wander or fall.
Gran told him awful, awful things. He tried not to listen, he told himself she was just sick, but she frightened him none the less. She told him about the shiny white people that visited her in the night, appearing inside her frilly old-lady clothes that hung in her wardrobe, growing into them until their long, bent fingers crept from the sleeves and whispering terrible words to her with their flapping black lips and flicking blue tongues until morning came. She told him about the long, wriggling snakes with human faces and the tiny, dark, snapping creatures that slithered and ran through the patterns in the carpet and the wallpaper, surrounding her and trying to bite her. Most of all, though, she told him about the heads in the fireplace that came up in the crackling orange flames and gave her messages. Messages that never seemed to make any sense. Sometimes the messages were for other people, but those other people were always dead people. His Dad. His Granddad. The poor old blind lady who had lived next door. More than anything else she talked about, Gran's talking fire heads scared him.
Neil hoped that Gran would stay busy shooing away the invisible flying things all around her and not pay attention to the spitting fire tonight. Remember, he told himself over and over, she is just a sick old lady; her brain doesn't work properly anymore. He didn't mind her so much when she was just slapping thin air. It was almost funny to watch. Almost.
Suddenly and inevitably Gran stopped flapping around in her saggy cloth armchair and became still, focusing her watery eyes on the popping, jumping fire. Neil groaned a little and wrapped his arms around himself.
“Oh Neil, they're talking about you tonight! All of them are looking at you and talking.”
Neil forced himself to glance at the fire and, as usual, saw no speaking faces. His Gran was completely entranced in the flames, slowly nodding her head and cracking her thin, colorless lips. The stupid sickness, thought Neil again, her mind is broken. Remember!
“They say you're a bad boy, son. They say they see you doing things that a ten year old shouldn't be doing.” Without averting her gaze, Gran feebly lifted one arm and pointed towards him, wagging one finger.
Neil looked back to the fire, wide-eyed. He couldn't see anything except the dancing flames and the hot, blackened wood glowing and splitting as it fuelled the tiny inferno. He knew he hadn't been a bad boy, the fire heads were lying. Silly, he immediately scolded himself, there are no fire heads, no people in the grate it's just her sickness, remember that always!
“They say they're going to get you Neil. They're going to get you tonight when you're asleep.”
His Gran sounded unusually sad as she spoke. It pushed Neil past his breaking point and he jumped up and started walking towards the kitchen, to the safety of his Mom with her boiling vegetables, baking pie and roasting beef.
“They want you to know one last thing!” said his Gran, loudly now. “They say to tell you that I am not sick. They say I am not sick and my mind is not broken. Now why would they say that?”
Neil stopped dead in his tracks, legs like ice and face like fire, feeling his Adam's apple roll all the way down into his belly.
Harper Hull was born and raised in Northern England and now lives in South Carolina with his Dixie wife and 4 vicious dogs. He started writing fiction in 2009 after doing it corporately for too long and has a delightful cross-section of work scheduled to appear in 2010 with hopefully more to come. His favorite authors are Ballard, Bradbury, Tartt and McCarthy. You can track Harper online at http://harperhull.weebly.com/