A coffee-guzzling journalist turned novelist and occasional poet, Mark Cantrell lives and works by the weave of his words. By day, he works for a media company in Manchester, England, where he writes about the social housing industry. It provides plenty of fuel to keep the old social conscience simmering. The rest of the time, Mark chases the literary dream. He is the author of two novels, a host of short stories, and a multitude of articles and thought-provoking essays. Over the years, his writings have appeared in a number of small press 'zines, websites, and multi-author collections. His fictional work tends to fall into the realms of science fiction and fantasy, with a little macabre horror thrown in for good measure, but he's not averse to touching upon social and political themes too. That's certainly true of Mark's first novel, the dystopian science fiction thriller, Citizen Zero (Indie release, 2010), but it's also there, twisted into the DNA of his second, the macabre urban fantasy, Silas Morlock (Inspired Quill, 2013). Born and bred in Bradford, Mark now lives in Stoke-on-Trent, though he remains proud of his Yorkshire heritage.
One For The Road
Deadly Night Shade
By Mark Cantrell
Copyright (C) January 1991
This is one of the earliest pieces of short fiction I ever wrote, so no apologies that it's not up to the standard of my later efforts. It's also the first story I ever had published, appearing in a supplement of my local newspaper back in 1992. The story was edited down to about 1,000 words but here I'm sharing the original in all its glory (or verbosity). Hope you like cheese -- and blood -- because a poor little seal is about to have a brutal encounter with its kind's worst nightmare...
A loud rhythmic boom echoed over the landscape, like the heart-beat of some gigantic creature. Snowflake huddled in the snow, quaking with fear, lost in the ice-flows. He cried faintly for his mother, then a new sound disturbed the little seal, causing him to peer fearfully. Somewhere, there was the source of that regular crunching sound of crushed snow.
Something was coming his way; a creature shrouded in the darkness of fear. Snowflake ran down an icy slope as the creature emitted a harsh guttural cry and increased its pace. Its pursuit was relentless, but Snowflake somehow managed to keep ahead of the nightmare.
Then a terrible sound ripped through the air. A cracking sound that rolled over the empty landscape. Ahead of the fleeing seal, the ice snapped open like hungry jaws. Snowflake slid to a halt and looked on in horror as a dark red liquid -- blood -- spewed up onto the ice. It seemed to absorb the ice and spread in a steaming pool. Deeper and deeper, the tide swept up the terrified seal and carried him across the ice wastes. Merciless, it swept him towards the source of his nightmare.
Snowflake screamed his terror as he looked up into the face of his pursuer. It was a shadowy form against the night sky, an amorphous patch of featureless dark, but given substance by a hideous red glow from the steaming blood. The creature appeared to grow until it blotted out the sky, until it was the sky and the whole world too, but for the patch where he cowered. Then the thing snarled and raised a limb high. The seal flinched as the limb came crashing down...
SNOWFLAKE squirmed and awoke with start from the crashing nightmare. There was no blood, just the crisp white glare of the ice and snow gleaming in the bright sun. The sea crashed against the edge of the ice fields and his fellow pups frolicked at play. Others were huddled at rest, barely visible against the snow, but for their black eyes gazing at their world. Entrusted to the ice-white camouflage until their parents returned.
It was another normal day. Quiet now, for most of the adults were out to sea, gathering food for the hungry youngsters. Elderly seals slept in the snow or basked in the sunlight. Younger seals too, yearlings and twice-yearlings moving amongst the crowd, or else slipping in and out of the sea. There was always a certain aura of sadness from his elder siblings, even on a day as bright as this. One day, he wondered if he might learn what created this melancholy spirit in the midst of this vibrant and dazzling world.
He moved slightly, to find a more comfortable position against the hard-packed snow beneath his body. Then, once settled, he gazed out towards the restless sea in the near distance. Swelling up and down, it sometimes battered against the ice's edge with a great clamorous roar that pounded his sensibilities with the first stirrings of wanderlust.
Yet still he trembled. Too young to perceive the watery mass as a source of adventure, he feared its mobile spirit. Eventually, he would forage beneath its surface, but still only a few weeks old, it seemed a terrifying prospect to venture into its hidden depths.
Fear and curiosity, the two seeds that in time would guide him into adulthood. No rush for that now, nestled in his icy bed. Maturity comes in its own good time. For now a rumbling belly barged aside concerns of future life. Food urged him to peer across the ice in search of his mother. As he stared across the white plains, it began to snow.
In the distance, there was an alien sound, buzzing and as monotonous as the snow. Consternation arose in his fellow seals, but he knew no reason for their fear. There was no hint of danger in sight, no alien smells to trigger alarm in his young mind.
The wind picked up to blow the snow across the ice field, lowering visibility. Snowflake mewed softly when he caught sight of his mother waddling fast across the ice. She seemed agitated. Frightened even. Snowflake felt his heart pound faster in response, though he had no idea why he should be afraid.
His mother yelled to him, but the wind tore the words from his ears before he might decipher the meaning. Only the harmonics of terror registered anything. He reared up on his flippers and mewled his agitation.
Then he saw them. Two alien figures moving across the icy wastes. Figures from his nightmares, moving on two ungainly limbs with a determined, searching motion.
A terrified scream sounded above the wind as his mother reached him and covered his body with a protective flipper. He wanted to ask about the alien things moving towards the colony, but her rolling, terrified eyes quashed his curiosity.
"They're here..." she whispered. A tremor ran through her blubbery frame.
Another scream vied with the wind. Snowflake turned in its direction. Even through the thickening snow, there was no hiding the horror. One of the alien things struck a pup as it lay helpless and naked against the snow. It fell silent and limp. Red stained the purity of its nest.
A brief silence was haunted only by the noise of the wind, then the storm of horror erupted. Mewling pups, barking adults, voices of terror and fear. The dreadful smacking and crunch of broken heads. Snowflake began to cry.
Then his mother tensed. Snowflake fell silent and heard it; the steady crunch of crushed snow. A startled cry from a stalking creature as his mother reared up roaring desperate rage. The thing fell back off its feet and crawled away. One other raised a limb and it cracked like thunder. His mother jerked. Blood exploded from her body. She stumbled and crashed into the snow.
The old seal screamed against the mutilation and pushed Snowflake down the opposing side of the rise. Two creatures approached, dark figures rising against the snow.
Through blood and sputum, his mother tried to speak. "Run... run ... and hide..."
She collapsed in pain, then her body jerked again and slithered down the mound of snow. Snowflake cried in terror and grief. Whimpering, he approached his mother's form and nuzzled her desperate. She didn't move. Tears welled up in Snowflake's eyes as he looked up the slope and saw the creatures gathering.
One of the figures pointed at Snowflake's huddled form and emitted a harsh cry. The terrified seal waddled across the ice, heart pounding, his ears filled with the deep guttural roars of these alien predators, the shrill screams of his bludgeoned kin.
For all the driving force of terror, his size was too small, his motion too ungainly to outrun the broad strides of these aliens. They surrounded his trembling body and he huddled fearful against the snow that was no longer any defence. The lead creature raised its limb. Snowflake flinched as he stared up at its tall frame, its eyes tiny orbs in the far heights. The limb crack against his head. Sharp, dizzying pain that made him squeal.
A second blow. Another. Still more. Something squelched. The snow was no longer pure, but Snowflake was beyond senses. Too far gone to understand now the reason for his older siblings' air of melancholy. The memory of previous visits, the murder of their brother and sisters by these alien mysteries from beyond the ice.
The survivors knew and they lived in dread of the coming of the season, when death stalked the snow.
Bradford, 5 January 1991.
This story was first published in a shortened form in the Telegraph & Argus, Bradford, Viva! Supplement (30 March 1992)
Copyright (C) January 1991. All Rights Reserved.
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