Today is Not

Originally published in Murky Depths #1 (2007). Reprinted in the Best Tales of the Apocalypse anthology from Permuted Press (2013).

There are days when Abigail doesn’t think about them at all, the Luminissmus, days when windows are windows and bottles are bottles, when glass is just glass. On those days, she cooks, cleans, shops, sends out job applications by the truckload and spends the remaining daylight hours in the cemetery. Those days are the exception. Today is not one of those days. Today, she is thinking about the Luminissmus. It’s all she can think about.

On some level–deep, deep down–she knows her grief councillor is right: the Luminissmus are a fabrication, something her wounded mind has conjured up to keep her busy and hopeful. On another level–deeper still–she knows they are very real. They must be: she’s seen them (from the corner of her eye and for just a second or two, but nevertheless…).

On days like this, she is careful to tether herself to reality before setting out on her search. She telephones her dad, listens to the latest developments in his feud with his next-door neighbour, Mr. Ballantyne. Despite everything–all the loss and horror–she can’t help laughing. She suspects there is no Mr. Ballantyne, that this feud is a fiction her dad has created entirely for her amusement, to bring a smile to her frozen face.

“You’ll never guess what the little bastard’s gone and done this time, Abi,” her dad says, all indignation and shellshock.

“What?” she asks, already grinning, knowing it’s going to be something ridiculous and improbable.

“He’s only gone and stolen my lawn. The whole bloody thing. I looked out the window this morning and it was gone. There’s just mud and worms. Christ knows what he’s done with it. Sold it, I shouldn’t doubt. You can get a fair penny for decent turf, these days.”

After her dad, she calls her friend, Alice, chats about the numerous affairs and the rampant backstabbing that characterises life in Datatech Limited’s Human Resources department, where Abigail used to work (before; way back when). She watches a little television, listens to a few records: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Roy Orbison, Sam Cooke. Sam tells her it’s been too hard living but he’s afraid to die, and she thinks, Sam, I know just what you mean. She has some lunch, drinks two cups of tea, eats three custard creams.

Before she sets out, she takes a bowl of vegetable soup and a cheese and tomato sandwich down to the man in the cellar. He’s too weak to beg now, a wilted thing, and she has to feed him herself. He’s sobbing when she leaves. She grits her teeth and, sounding like a poor ventriloquist, repeats over and over, “There’s no other way, there’s no other way, there’s no other way…”

As usual when she’s searching, Abigail loses track of time and place. She thinks she might be in Toxteth. Or possibly Kensington. Or Wavertree. At the very least, she’s almost certain she’s still in Liverpool. The light is starting to fade, so it must be around half-past four. This is how it’s meant to be, she tells herself. The search must be carried out in a trance-like state if it’s to yield any results. Only the lost can truly find a thing.

Something glitters on the road behind an old Ford Cortina. Somebody–a kid, most likely, bored stupid–has launched a breeze block through the car’s rear windscreen.

Abigail falls to her knees on the oily tarmac and starts sifting. She’s found two Possibles, a Probable and a Maybe, when a woman’s voice says, “Have you lost something there, love?” Then, “Bloody hell. You want to watch yourself: there’s bits of glass all over the bloody place.”

Abigail sighs, stands, turns to face the owner of the voice. It’s an old woman in a tartan coat. She has blue hair, and spectacles that make her look vexed.

“There are no ‘bits of glass,’” says Abigail. “There’s just Glass. With a capital ‘g’. There are no windows or bottles or television screens. There’s just Glass; a vast, smooth, flawless continuum which can never be broken.”

The old woman starts to back away, but Abigail is preaching now; she can’t stop.

“It’s an illusion, all these objects and fragments, and when the illusion shatters, all the illusory cuts will heal and the dead will rise and there will be Glass all around us; a single, polished sheet winding this way and that, through our homes and our workplaces and our lives. And we’ll all take off our shoes and slide around in our socks–me, James and Lily.”

The old woman has turned her back on Abigail, is scuttling away, muttering something about “bloody care in the bloody community.”

“The Luminissmus will shed their light on everything,” Abigail shouts. “They shed light the way we shed hair and skin. They’ll show us what we should have seen all along.” Her voice drops, suddenly devoid of enthusiasm. “That’s why I’m building the Fenestratum–to summon them.” She starts laughing but there are tears in her eyes. “It’s an excellent plan. Really, it is.”

She wraps her finds individually in paper tissues, pushing the little packages deep down into her coat pocket. Then, she tries to find her way home. She follows a straight line, as straight as the cramped terraced streets will allow, thinking this technique will lead her eventually to a main road, to people and buses and taxis. But the main road fails to appear. The terraced streets seem set upon keeping her from home, throwing unexpected dead ends in her path, leading her left when she is certain she needs to go right. Time and again, she thinks, I’ve been here before; I’m walking in circles.

After a while, she begins to suspect she’s being followed. She hears slapping, sucking footsteps, like someone running shoeless through mud, and there is a smell like melting plastic and burning hair. She casts a glance over her shoulder and thinks she sees a reedy silhouette dart into a side alley, and then she is on the high street and someone is telling her to watch where she’s bloody going.

Two buses and a short walk later, she’s home. The watch James gave her three Christmases ago says it’s nearly midnight. She goes straight to bed, placing the two Possibles, the Probable and the Maybe in the old cigar box her grandad had given her for keepsakes when she was seven. As she drifts toward sleep, she hopes tomorrow is one of the simple days, when the Luminissmus never enter her thoughts.

But the next day is the same as the one before. The Luminissmus are all she can think about. She skips breakfast but makes sure the man in the cellar has something substantial: a pint of milk, two bananas, an apple, four slices of toast and a handful of vitamins. “You’re going to need your strength,” she tells him and he starts to moan. “You’ll heal,” she promises him. “Anyway, it’s your own fault, you little shit. You put your hand up my skirt. And me in such a state, all snot and tears. You were supposed to be helping me. My grief , for God’s sake.”

She takes a breath. Then, calm and gentle, she says, “Anyway, we all have to do our bit.” She rolls up her sleeves. “See?” Her arms are crosshatched with scars. “I’d have carried on, just doing it to myself, but if I die, who’s going to summon The Luminissmus? Who’s going to reinstate the Continuum of Glass? If not me: who? Answer me that.”

She lets him rest for a couple of hours while she washes the Possibles, the Probable and the Maybe, then phones her dad for an update on the Ballantyne situation. (Mr. Ballantyne had told the local radio station that Abigail’s dad was a Nazi war criminal; he’d returned from a trip to the bookies to find a fully-fledged media circus pitched outside his house.)

The man in the cellar (it’s better she not think of him as Ken Hulme, slimy predator) cries when she tells him it’s time to get started.

Abigail takes the Maybe and presses it against the soft, stretched skin beneath his collarbone.

“Try not to think of it as a piece of glass,” she says. “Think of Glass; the Continuum. That might help.”

There is a thin, wet sound, and Abigail knows the Maybe (which was, if she’s being honest, only ever a Doubtful) is a Fake. She wipes the blood from her fingers, tapes some cotton wool over the wound.

The two Possibles also turn out to be Fakes. Next, the Probable. She applies it to his navel, to the left of a shiny, puckered appendectomy scar.

“They’re dead,” the man says suddenly, his voice high and reedy. “They’re dead. Please don’t do this. You need help. Oh please, please don’t. They’re dead.”

The more he pleads, the more Abigail finds it difficult to feel any sympathy for him, any empathy.

“I know they’re dead,” she snaps. “I was there. I know. Do you think I don’t know? Do you think I’d have forgotten, that it would have somehow slipped from my mind? I saw them die.”

It is etched into her memory, every detail of that day, the way an image is etched onto glass, burnt with acid.

She can see them, now–James and Lily–stepping out of Toys “R” Us. It was a cold day, but bright, the sun a white hole in a hard, polished sky. Abigail should have been with them, should have been in Toys “R” Us helping Lily spend the last of the vouchers she’d been given on her sixth birthday, two weeks earlier. She should have been with them, instead of sitting on a bench across the street because she’d worn the wrong shoes and her feet were screaming blue murder. James was wearing the rugby top he’d had for fifteen years. It had been a rich burgundy when he’d first worn it–way back, before they were married, even–but now it was a washed-out, threadbare lilac. Abigail had lost count of how many times she’d consigned it to the bin only to see it resurrected and defiantly worn. Lily was wearing the pea-green duffle coat she’d picked out herself from Marks and Spenser. She had her Bagpuss backpack on, which was filled with her drawing things and various works in progress (or “pictures that haven’t finished with me yet” as Lily called them). She was holding her daddy’s hand, or as much of it as she could–his little finger and ring finger. In her other hand was a Toys “R” Us carrier bag, the contents of which Abigail would never know. She often found herself wondering what it was her daughter might have bought with those last few vouchers. Probably some crayons and paints, some new brushes, maybe a couple of Charlie and Lola books–she was mad about Charlie and Lola, had even begun to emulate some of Lola’s speech patterns (“I absolutely will not never ever eat anything with onions in it, Mummy,” and everything was “ever so” and she was always “far too extremely busy”). Abigail had even gone so far as to root out the Toys “R” Us catalogue and asterisk all the things she thought Lily might have bought.

James pointed across the street at her, said something to Lily (Abigail was certain James’s mouth had formed the word ‘Mummy’). Lily smiled, waved, hoisted the carrier bag into the air as if to say, I absolutely can’t wait to show you all of the ever so lovely things I’ve bought, Mummy.

And then there was a series of stuttering flashes somewhere in the shop, as if a hoard of paparazzi had descended on some toy-buying child star, and the huge plate glass window behind James and Lily turned to frothing liquid and surged forward like a huge wave, which, instead of engulfing father and daughter, instead of washing them away, passed through them, cut through them. Shredded them. In an instant. And then there was a sound like thunder, like somebody’s idea of God roaring with laughter, and a thick, black tongue of smoke unfurled from the hole that had been the Toys “R” Us shop front and slithered out across the pavement, lapping at Abigail’s feet and the shoes she shouldn’t have worn.

“I saw them die,” she says again, and drags the Probable across Ken bastard Hulme’s flaccid stomach. She doesn’t care if it opens him up, doesn’t care if his guts spill out and coil on the floor between them. Doesn’t care.

But the Probable doesn’t cut him at all. She tries again, pressing harder. Not a scratch. Once more. Nothing.

“Oh,” she says, smiling. “We’ve struck lucky, Ken. A Dead-cert.”

She leaves him to his sobbing and takes the Dead-cert up to the spare room, up to the Fenestratum.

The Fenestratum looks like a bright-red hool-a-hoop with a circle of chicken wire tied to it by green garden twine. “Pieces of glass”–Dead-certs–have been placed in the chicken wire’s cells, using tape, putty and Blu Tac. It looks as if a lunatic has tried to make a window using objects pillaged from a dustbin. But Abigail knows the ridiculousness of her creation is illusory. She knows, once complete, the Fenestratum will be capable of summoning the Luminissmus.

She puts the Dead-cert in an empty cell, keeping it in place with a little silicone bathroom sealant.

“There,” she says. “Halfway.”

 

Weeks of this.

The man in the cellar doesn’t make it. He breathes his last as Abigail tries to feed him the vegetarian lasagne that James had always considered her speciality. She buries him in the back garden in the early hours of the morning. She has no idea what day it is.

With the man gone, she’s left with no choice but to test her finds on herself. One evening, she looks at her naked body in the full-length mirror in the spare bedroom. Her flesh is latticed with scars. She laughs; she looks as if she were caught in the same explosion as James and Lily and has been meticulously reconstructed from shatterings and fragments. Some of the scars are angry and purple; some are yellowish, seeping. She has a constant high temperature. Her head throbs.

She phones her dad infrequently now, having long since abandoned any serious attempt at keeping herself tethered to reality. In their last conversation, her dad had described his Errol Flynn/Basil Rathbone-style duel with Mr. Ballantyne, replete with chandelier swinging and overturned banquet tables. Mr. Ballantyne, he’d told her, had escaped through a crack in the wall, “the skinny bugger.”

Then, one day, the final “piece.”

She takes her time placing it in the one remaining vacant cell, relishing the moment of completion. When she’s finished, it still looks like a lunatic has tried to make a window from scavenged rubbish. For a few seconds, she feels panic rising, pushing her heart up against her larynx: she’s ill, she realises, very, seriously ill; a murderer; and her child and husband are dead, will always be dead.

Then, the hool-a-hoop, chicken wire, Blu Tac, putty, masking tape and bathroom sealant melt away; cracks and fissures fuse and mend; and Abigail is looking at something like a giant lens. It hovers a couple of feet from the ground, the Fenestratum.

When Abigail had first glimpsed the Luminissmus, in the dark, convoluted weeks following the funeral, they had been svelte, golden, shimmering things, with incandescent particles swirling all around them. There had been two of them, whispering secrets to one another, their voices like the musical chiming of the tiniest bells. They had been there–at the furthest periphery of vision and hearing-­-for no more than a few seconds, before vanishing with a sound like a pin dropping in an empty church. They had left behind the faintest scent of coriander.

Abigail waits, now, for that pin-drop sound or a dusting of light or chiming whispers, a hint of coriander.

Instead: the Fenestratum abruptly turns black as if scorched by a sudden, fierce heat. There is a terrible stench, like her mother’s breath when the cancer had burrowed deep down into her lungs and carved out its necrotic lair.

 

The first Pitchling says:

“The Luminissmus are no more. They shed the last of their light a long time ago, and now nothing remains but us: their fat, black, secret hearts. We are dark, dark things, to be certain. Picture a billion shadows overlapping at a single point, and we are darker still. We are the grime accrued beneath the curling nail of the filthy finger of fate. We are very, very bad boys. Nasty. Incorrigible. Quite, quite dreadful.”

“But,” says Abigail and drops first to one knee then the other. None of this is right. None of it. What are these creatures, these Pitchlings? Stringy things of steaming bitumen; voices thick and oily.

The second Pitchling says, “No. No ‘buts.’ No alternatives, no fork in the road. It’s all ours now; our vision. The way we see things with our blank and lidless eyes? That’s the way it is.”

The first Pitchling says, “And the way it is with you? Well, it goes like this:

“You were growing tired of it all, happy families. James was such a bore. And Lily? Always screaming; and that purple, boiled monkey face; snot everywhere.

“You were tired of it. Sick and tired. It was a relief when they died. A relief; finally puking after a lifetime of nausea.”

“No,” Abigail manages. “What? No. Not.”

The second Pitchling says, “And Ken Hulme, your grief counsellor? You came on to him, remember? You were all short skirts and low cut tops and too much perfume and make-up and ‘I’m so vulnerable, Ken’ and when he didn’t bite, you slid your hand between his legs. Remember?”

“No.” Abigail almost chokes on the word. She wants to tell them–these despicable anthropoid stains–she wants to tell them how precious they were to her, her husband and child, how vital, how holy. She wants to tell them about the perpetual ache in her chest as if her sternum has swollen and warped and is pressing against her heart until it’s incapable of all but the most rudimentary beating. Her heart: a thing of pieces held together by tape and bathroom sealant. She wants to tell them how she has always been able–at a glance–to decipher Lily’s wild and abstract drawings, seeing a tiger, instantly, where everyone else saw a scrawled slab of orange randomly threaded with black. She wants to tell them–these bastards, these absolute fucking bastards–so many things, but that word, that “no,” is lodged in her throat like a bone, like a knuckle.

“That’s how it is,” says the first Pitchling. “And we’re going to keep telling you, over and over and over and over, until you see it our way. The only way. The way it is.”

Abigail can’t speak, can’t move.

“And when we’ve finished with you,” says the second Pitchling, “we’ll move onto the next person. And the next person. And so on and so forth and blah-de-blah-blah until we have everything our way.”

The first Pitchling squats down in front of Abigail and says, “It goes like this:

“You were growing tired of it all, happy families…”

 

There are days when Abigail doesn’t think about them at all, the Pitchlings; days when she doesn’t think about the world in ruins, of the very air stretched and strained and almost shattering with the sheer, uncontainable volume of sobbing, wailing and shrieking; days when she doesn’t think about the football stadium suicides and the countless smothered-for-their-own-sake infants. On those days she loses herself in Liverpool and looks for Glass.

Today is not one of those days. Today, she is thinking about the Pitchlings. It’s all she can think about: the Pitchlings and the way it is; their blackly illuminated truth.

In the cellar, Mr. Ballantyne adds a whimper to the chorus of despair.

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