Kiss The Sky (Part 1/2)

‘Sam! Come back here and leave those nuts alone!’

‘Nnnnope! Sammy gonna play! Yeeheehee!’

Holly dashed after her infant son, but too late: Sam vanished out the window with a flick of his bushy tail. Holly gazed around at the jumbled mess of her home, the hollowed trunk of a broad oak. A willow-cane chair lay broken in the corner and her acorn cups were strewn across the floor, while an emptied bowl of honeyed hazelnuts mocked her from the windowsill. Holly sat down amid the wreckage and buried her head in her paws, cheeks wet with hot bitter tears.

How had it come to this? Barely three seasons since her family had arrived from the Northlands to their new forest home, building a fresh life amid the treetops. Then a pitiless winter that smothered the land in snow and ripped her dreymate Barkjon from their lives, leaving Holly to raise their son herself.

A distant ripple of birdsong made her look up. Shuffling to the window she gazed upward through teary eyes. Swallows darted through the air twittering to each other; high among the clouds, a distant skein of honking geese glided in formation.

Holly sighed. How glorious it would be to glide above the forest, light as a feather, free from all cares and worries? Instead she was trapped here, harried morning, noon and night by her insatiable son and his ravenous appetite for food and fun. Even the roomy hollow among the tree roots below was a meagre kitchen itself. She gazed around her humble home, the rough walls decorated with numerous feathers. A kingfisher’s turquoise-blue tailfeather. The glossy black wingtip from a starling. A robin’s fiery orange plumage.

She froze. Was that rustling leaves? Branches snapping? Holly hurried to the window, peered out…and leapt back in shock as a massive dark shape flashed past with a fearsome screech, careering down to earth. A muffled crash. Holly peered down; a bedraggled heap of golden-brown feathers lay groaning amid the churned-up leaf litter. Sam was swinging from branch to branch, giggling as he dropped earthward. Holly craned out the window, fear shivering through her. ‘Sam, come back here this instant!’

Too late; Sam was nearing the forest floor, ignoring her frantic cries. Holly gave chase, scaling down the trunk as fast as she could. Far below the monstrous feathered creature had righted itself and was shuffling towards the bushes.

Wth her son dashing straight towards it!

It was a huge male eagle, a gigantic skyhunter with fearsome curved talons. The mighty bird flopped about, right wing dragging limp as it crawled towards the shelter of the dense undergrowth. Sam cut off its escape and crouched before it, holding out a friendly paw.

‘Aaawww, poor birdie, is your wing ‘urted?’

The eagle drew itself up to its full height, fierce golden eyes bulging as it hissed a warning through its dangerous hooked beak: ‘Kaarrhzz! Impudent liddle puffball. Outta my way, or I’ll gobble you up!’

The little squirrel chuckled and tossed a honeyed hazelnut in front of the savage bird. ‘Awww, Sammy won’t ‘urt you. ‘Ave some food, yum-yum!’

The eagle hopped to the nut and devoured it hungrily, just as Holly arrived panting on the scene. Her infant and the deadly eagle were far too close for her to safely intervene. Holding her breath, the squirrelmum inched forward. The fearsome predator turned its scornful golden eyes upon her. ‘Ach, stay back, bushtail!’

Holly bristled, baring her teeth. ‘Not that you care, bird, but that’s my little babe there and if you dare harm a hair on his head, I’ll kill you!’

The eagle glared back. ‘Careful, branchbounder. You dare insult Rorak Bloodbeak, skylord and Ruler of the Icepeaks? None have called me bird and lived!’

Holly folded her arms. ‘Aye, and I’m called Holly by those with any manners. None have dared call me bushtail and lived – er, that includes branchbounder too!’

Holly stepped back as Rorak loomed over her. She thought the monstrous eagle might lunge upon her, but then the miraculous happened: Rorak dipped his head and smiled.

‘Krakarrr! You don’t lack courage, missie. Your enemies must be few indeed or deadbeasts, methinks!’ He jabbed his beak towards Sam, who was holding out another pawful of nuts. ‘Erm…beggin’ yer pardon, o’ course, but you wouldn’t begrudge a brawny hunter his vittles, would you?’

Holly clenched her paws. ‘Only if you promise not to harm my little one, sir!’

Rorak folded his uninjured wing over his breast and nodded. ‘Upon my honour as crag-king, only son of Laird Mactalon, I swear!’ Then he blinked as Sam shook a stern paw under his beak.

‘Silly Wowack. We don’ swear. S’not nice t’swear, y’get sent t’bed! Holly sez so!’

The great eagle threw back his head and screeched with laughter, almost buffeting Holly flat as he flapped his good wing. ‘Oh mercy, we’ve got a fierce lassie here, ain’t we?’

Sam stormed in and began wrestling with the golden eagle’s leg, or at least one hefty talon of it. ‘You leave Mizz Holly alone, ya big bully. Sammy fight ya!’

One of Rorak’s formidable talons looped through the squirrelbabe’s smock and swung him aloft, facing fierce golden eyes. ‘Fur ‘n’ Thunder! You wouldn’t kill a poor defenceless bird like me, would ye, liddle tyke?’

Sam swung a paw at the eagle king. ‘Sammy knock ya beak off if you ‘urt Mizz Holly!’

Rorak dropped him into Holly’s arms, chuckling. ‘I don’t know what your mamma’s feeding you, but it must be mighty fine food to raise such a brawny beastie! Best surrender now, before I’m slain by the pair of you!’ Then he scowled at his crooked wing. ‘Agh, couldn’t even harm a fly now. Still got my beak and talons, mind, so I’ll be sure to handle meself even to a bonnie lad like him!’ He squawked and began preening himself.

Holly set Sam down, smiling as the eagle eagerly munched more nuts. ‘Truce, then. You don’t hurt us and we won’t hurt you.’

The eagle nodded to her. ‘Fair’s fair. Got blown here by the wind some days back. Took shelter in those pines yonder, when some crows mobbed me. Tchah! Spineless cowards, they were. Took ten of ’em to best me – that’s how I hurt my wing.’

Holly moved closer, eyes creased in sympathy. ‘D’you mind if I take a look?’

The eagle turned away, ruffling his feathers. ‘Ach, it’s no concern o’ yours. I’ll be just fine, lass.’

Holly folded her arms. She recognised stubborn pride when she saw it. ‘If your wing doesn’t heal, you’ll die.’

Rorak flexed his wing feebly, winced, then turned a sullen eye skyward.

‘All right,’ he grumbled. ‘Help me.’

Holly moved close and began gently probing his injured wing. Rorak turned his head away haughtily. ‘This is so embarrassing…Ow!’

Holly pinched a tailfeather. ‘Shut up. Had plenty of practice raising Sam here. Hm, no breaks or fractures – looks like you’ve sprained the joint, that’s all. Wait here while I fetch some things!’ She streaked up the trunk towards home, leaving Sam giggling as he tossed more nuts for Rorak to catch.

Soon Holly returned with her medicine bag filled with bindweed, pine resin and motherwort. She crushed them into a compress and bound up Rorak’s injured wing, using a willow twig and wild rhubarb fibres to bind the dressing tight.

‘There! Once that resin sets firm, the wort ‘n’ weed’ll do their work. Don’t try moving your wing much, sir. The more you keep it still, the quicker it’ll heal. Three days should do the trick.’

Rorak gaped at her. ‘Ugh, you mean I’m earthbound for three full days, and can’t fly?’

Sam patted his back in commiseration. ‘Awww, poor Wowhack, you’s grounded jus’ like me. Heehee!’

Rorak snapped at the cheeky squirrelbabe, who fled behind his mother muttering, ‘Choppa off y’tail if ya do dat again, Mista Wowhack! I’s on’y a likkle squiggle!’

With the help of Sam’s nursery rope ladder, Rorak eventually hauled himself aloft with talons and beak. Dusk was falling as the curious trio began supper, Rorak perching outside craning his head through the window. Redcurrant tarts, hazelnut toast with blackberry jam, russet apple slices, fruit scones – the ravenous eagle guzzled them all down, fixing a stern eye on Sam whenever he tried stealing second helpings.

As the moon rose they retired to bed, Sam swaying in his hammock with Rorak roosting outside his window. Holly lay on her bed, smiling as the mighty eagle had his patience sorely strained by the chattering squirrelbabe.

‘Good ol’ Mista Wowhack. You my bes’ matey, ain’tcha?’

‘Oh aye, y’liddle terror. Now you git t’ sleep an’ stop gabbin’.’

‘Righto, I goes t’sleep now. G’night, Mista Wowhack.’

‘Good night!’

‘…See you inna mornin’.’

‘Aye, now be quiet.’

‘I quiet now. Sammy quiet.’

‘Well, I should ‘ope you are, squirrelmite!’

‘Oh I are.’

‘Shush, d’you ‘ear me. Be quiet!’

‘Sammy quiet. You da one makin’ alla noise, Mista Wowhack. Heehee!’

~*~

Three days later, and Holly’s larder of candied hazelnuts was noticeably lower. Still, Rorak had proved an unexpected kitchen helper, wafting his uninjured wing to fan the flames while keeping a stern eye on her mischievous rascal. Already Holly had turned out a superb cauldron of mushroom soup that the eagle guzzled down eagerly and pronounced excellent.

But now Holly had brought him to a sizeable forest clearing, he looked decidedly anxious.

Morning sunlight streamed down as Rorak drummed his claws. ‘My wing still twinges. You sure it’s fixed?’

Holly patted his flank. ‘Sure I’m sure. It’s bound to hurt, just stiff through being idle. You’ll have to try using it. Go on!’

Rorak spread his wings, flexed them experimentally and broke into a shambling run across the clearing. Launching himself off the ground he flapped madly for a short distance then stumbled to rest on the forest floor. Holly hurried after him, applauding. ‘Well flown, sir! Great effort!’

The eagle clacked his beak. ‘Ach, nearly there. I must say, this ‘ere splint’s done a world of good.’ He held out a talon and Holly shook it. ‘My thanks to ye, lass. Oh, look out – ‘ere comes trouble!’

With a whoop Sam dashed by, arms outstretched as he flapped two oak leaves. ‘Heehee, Sammy fly now. Yahoooo!’

Rorak chuckled as the little rascal vanished among the trees. ‘Never a moment’s peace with that ‘un, eh?’

Holly laughed as she unpacked her lunch satchel. ‘Goodness, no! Still, got you to thank for pulling him into line. Fancy some plumcake that he hasn’t stolen yet?’

The eagle munched it eagerly. ‘Bless his liddle heart, ‘e means well. Erm, bring any o’ those nuts with ye, perchance?’

Holly shook her head, smiling as she cut an apple into quarters. ‘Sorry, just Sammy’s cordial and some fruit. Fancy a piece?’

‘Eeeeeeyaaaagh!’

Holly sprang to her feet, horrified. ‘Sammy!’

A dark wriggling mass rose above the treetops. Sam wailed as the squabbling crows lifted him higher. ‘Waaaaaaaahhh! Mummyyyyy, help meeeee!’

Holly raced into the trees, brandishing her daggers as Rorak trotted gamely behind. ‘Wait for me, lassie! It’s too dangerous!’

But Holly was deaf to his warning cries. She streaked through the treetops after them, leaping from branch to branch with her satchel thumping her back. Whenever she lost sight of them above the dense foliage, her youngster’s pitiful sobs spurred her on. Soon she glimpsed a broad green hill rising above the woodland. At its summit was a thick pine grove. The wriggling mass of fur and feathers disappeared into the gloom with a blubbering wail.

Bursting out of the trees Holly stormed up the slope, a dagger in each paw. ‘Mummy’s coming, my liddle scrumpet!’

Harsh raucous squawks echoed through the forbidding darkness as great winged shadows flapped amid the branches. Far behind her Holly heard Rorak’s anxious voice. ‘Wait for me, Holly! Don’t go in there alone!’

Yet Holly was beyond reason. Wild with motherly rage she charged into the grove, yelling the time-honoured battlecry of northern squirrel tribes.

‘Ralakkaaaa!’


Dedicated to Brian Jacques, the best childhood storyteller I’ve ever known

For warrior mice, tyrant rulers and vermin hordes,

For noble quests, island forts and legendary swords

For sumptuous feasts, perilous hares and Badger Lords

Redwaaaaaaallll!

© 2020 | Tom Burton

Do Not Go Gentle (820 words)

I’m thrilled to have this short story published in Literally Stories!


Sunlight slices through the window bars, splashing over your face. I will carry this piecemeal image – eyes scrunched shut, your late father’s nose, pink lips suckling – with me to the hangman’s noose.

Not long left, Liebling. Each blessed moment is precious. You’ve kept me alive longer than I ever hoped. Pregnancy and mother’s milk count for something in these dark times. Yes, I’ve done my part fattening you up for the Reich. Your rosy cheeks. Your healthy limbs. But another baby for the Führer, you are not. I’ve cradled you close, whispered words you’ll never remember. Be more. Resist. In darkness and dampness I’ve told you of those still out there. I’ve spoken in code, soothed you in Russian. I’ve armed you as if you were a fresh eighteen-year-old recruit for the cause, not a helpless infant about to be handed off to a life extending well beyond mine.

I pace around the cell, rocking you. Sometimes I count, singing each step into a makeshift lullaby you might someday remember. Perhaps on a rainy Thursday a window cleaner will pass humming a note, and you’ll feel the walls close in around you, see how the light splinters through the window glass, smell my milky odour, hear my voice. Broken. Bloody. Unbowed.

A rat scurries out of the darkness; it stops amid the filthy floor and glares up as if it were my landlord and I owe it rent. I want to stamp my feet, chase it off, but instead I turn my back and focus on your whimpers. I kiss your forehead. Once. Twice. On and on. A kiss for every birthday I’ll miss. A kiss for every bruised knee and skinned elbow I won’t soothe. For every question that will hang unanswered over the dining table until the time’s right and your grandmother spills forth what she remembers.

I shift you so your head rests beneath my chin, your fists clenched against my chest. I listen to your deep drowsy breath, savour the roughness of your cradle cap against my skin. Your grandmother has a remedy for that. She’ll have a remedy for everything, except my absence. You will climb into her arms, grow up to her shoulders, cry in her lap.

I sway to the sounds of prison: my next-door inmate coughing, dirty feet shuffling across cold floors, the thud of metal on metal, the shrill demands of the women who’ve yet to accept their sentences. I have accepted mine. I know pleading with a madman is futile. I could wail and bang my fists against the bars, but that would mean putting you down and I won’t do that, not until they prise you from my white-knuckled fingers.

Not long now. I can hear the crunch of heels on concrete, the steady gait of someone with a purpose. The eager jangle of keys. I wonder how you’ll think of me, for you won’t remember me but will know I existed: every child has a mother, after all. I hope when you hear my story that you’re in a better time. I hope you bombard your grandmother with questions beyond the colour of my eyes and my favourite pair of shoes. She’ll tell you all that, but you must ask her why I’m not there. Don’t accept that I died in childbirth or during a bombing raid. Don’t accept that I was caught up with the wrong people, that I went against the Führer and got what I deserved, that the leaflets I dropped spewed lies and dissent. The world around you is a lie, and if by the time you’ve grown taller than your grandmother this country is still red, white, and black, you must find your people, our people, and do what I did. Be proud of the resistance thrumming through your bloodline. But take extra care of your life. Always look twice, then twice again. Take detours. Cross busy streets. Never pause. Never look back.

Metal screeches on metal. The warden standing on the threshold inclines her head. Extends her arms. You’ll leave first. I lift you so we’re face to face. Your eyelids droop, you gurgle in my arms. I kiss the crinkle between your eyebrows. Your weight slips from my hands, and you cry.

You will bawl your way out of this place into the daylight. Your grandmother will shush you on the walk to the U-Bahn, kiss your forehead on the train, sing a lullaby as she carries you upstairs to her apartment. And then you will quieten and your life will go on. I hope.

I clench my fists, close my eyes to your tear-stained cheeks, and turn away. The warden mutters as she struggles to calm your flailing limbs. I smile despite the sudden chill of loneliness. In the precious hours left before the gallows, I will always remember you as rebellious.

It runs in the family, I guess.

© Tom Burton, 2020

Fancy reading it in Literally Stories? Check it out here.

Something Borrowed (750 words)

‘I think we’ve got rats,’ Steve says. He’s mostly hidden behind the grocery bags he’s carrying in, so he doesn’t see Owen flinch. Hopefully.

‘Yeah?’ Owen asks, aiming for casual.

Steve stomps into the narrow kitchen of their apartment and hefts his armload onto the table. ‘I heard something in the kitchen last night,’ he frowns, digging around in the paper bags. ‘Couldn’t see anything, but I got us…’ He holds up the sachets of rat bait. ‘Figured it can’t hurt.’

‘Sure thing,’ Owen shrugs.

That night he waits until Steve has gone to bed, then goes around gathering up every single one.

~*~

He lies awake in bed, listening intently. Elsie’s quiet, but he knows what to listen for: the creak of the floorboard, the tiniest shuffling along the skirting board, and then the faint rasping of her climbing up the string he’d tied to his headboard’s metal rail. He rolls onto his side, reaches out a finger to heave her up onto the mattress. They grin at each other, before he produces a tiny serving of last night’s roast, unwrapping it carefully. She sits on his handkerchief — a picnic-sized blanket to her — and tucks in with relish.

‘You know,’ he says, watching her eat. ‘If you told your dad about me, I could leave parcels for all of you.’

‘Y’know,’ she counters, her mouth full. ‘If you told Steve about me, you wouldn’t have to fret so much.’

‘I don’t fret,’ he pouts.

She rolls her eyes. ‘We know not to eat rat poison, you idiot; it smells terrible.’

‘Fair point,’ he concedes. He’s still glad he did it, though.

She starts in on a pea, chomping it like an apple.

‘Steve’ll think I’m nuts,’ he continues. ‘Or think he’s gone nuts.’ Owen doesn’t tell her he sometimes wonders if he himself has in fact gone off the deep end; if she’s a hallucination, well, there’re probably much worse ones.

‘Are you all warm enough?’ he asks. ‘It’s getting cool for me in the mornings, so…’

She nods at him over a chunk of roast potato. ‘It’s fine. We’ll make the big move into the kitchen soon, to be near the hot pipes.’

‘Moving east for the winter?’ he smiles. She tilts her head inquiringly, still chewing.

‘Like birds,’ he clarifies. ‘Flying south in the winter to get away from the snow.’

‘Birds are terrible,’ she says absently, licking gravy off her fingers. ‘Cats are worse, though.’

She finishes her last mouthful and he rests his hand out. She clambers on, settling in his palm, her weight slight but comforting.

‘What’s ‘report for duty’?’ she asks.

Owen freezes. ‘Where’d you see that?’

‘On a letter with your name on it,’ she says pointedly. ‘Stuffed down the back of a drawer.’

He shuts his eyes. Sighs. ‘That’ll teach me for helping you learn to read, won’t it?’

‘What’s it mean?’

He forces himself to open his eyes, to meet her unwavering gaze. ‘Means I’m going to have to go away for a while. A few seasons, depending on what the damn birds and cats on the other side of the world are doing.’

She flinches, but squares her shoulders, folds her arms and glares. ‘Were you gonna tell me?’

‘I haven’t even told Steve yet. God.’

She pokes his thumb. ‘So now you got two secrets to tell him, then.’

The laugh startles out of him. ‘Christ.’ Then something shivers up, and his eyes sting. ‘I’m sorry. I’m…I’m really sorry.’

They look at each other, both of them wobbly.

She takes a deep breath, nods. ‘I’ll get you some thread, then.’

‘Thread?’

‘If you’re going on a big move. To bundle things up with.’ Her chin is high, decisive, daring him to scoff.

‘Thank you,’ he murmurs, heartfelt. ‘Thank you.’ He makes a mental note to borrow an entire damn bobbin from their sewing kit and “accidentally” lose it behind the dresser.

~*~

He keeps it with him, the slender twist of bright blue, all through training and into his first deployment. He loses it somewhere during one long night’s march through the squelching mud and hissing rain, and his grief is a wave of overwhelming regret…until a letter arrives from London.

There are pages and pages of Steve’s neat copperplate about the neighbourhood, work, their apartment. Then on the last sheet, pencilled in jagged, careful print: Stay away from cats, and underneath, Steve’s copperplate: P.S. I’M TEACHING HER TO WRITE! 🙂

© 2020 | Tom Burton

And To Dust You Shall Return (1650 words)

I’m delighted to have this story published in Whatever Keeps The Lights On!


Ninepence per body. Not bad pay, if you’re brave enough.

Or desperate enough.

‘Slowin’ down, eh, mate?’

Will swats my arm, grinning. ‘Piss off.’

A cloth bound across the mouth, thick leather gloves and a long-sleeved shirt, and you’re good to go. It rained last night; we slip and squelch through our gruesome task. Me, Will Caxton, Jack Brook, Tom Weaver and a half-dozen others. Three cartloads of lolling corpses behind us, a bleak expanse of churned earth before our eyes. Charterhouse ought to be bustling at this hour: the smell of roasted meat wafting over from Smithfield market, the playful chime of the priory bells.

Not today. Silent as the yawning pit that stretches before us. Just the wet crunch of shovels sinking into the slimy earth. A dull curse as Will slips in the mud, a muffled cough. No birds call; even the flies keep their wary distance as we dig. The air feels cloying and heavy, as if the whole city holds its breath. Tom leans back on his spade, mops his brow with a gloved hand. Our shirts are soaked in sweat; smells revolting, but better safe than sorry. Another burial crew over in St Giles worked stripped to the waist. Morons. Half of them feverish by sunset, the other half dead within the week. Mayor’s orders. Shirts on, no matter the sweltering heat. No exceptions.

We knew when the rumours shivered through the streets of Blackfriars, as relentless as the cartloads of dead pouring in from the countryside. How could they not spread? Panic always wins. Whole households stripped to the bone. A sickness that slaughtered in a mere morning, they said: merry at breakfast, dead by noon.

Not everyone fears it, though. Always some who find a way to twist tragedy into opportunity. Gossiping washerwomen chattered about lucky charms and infusions; over at St Bartholomew, Friar Moreland did a roaring street trade in holy medals and sacred relics. Hollow-cheeked and lean as a gnawed cutlet, he’d bellow his oaths over the clamour of the bells, passing out wood shavings to desperate clutching hands. ‘Behold a piece of the True Cross! Protect your souls from harm! Only ten shillings!’ Christ must have been crucified four times over, at the rate that snake’s forking them out.

The Great Pestilence. Fear, panic and despair. Some people even made a killing from it. (Heh! See what I did there?)

And on we’d march, tramping from street to street, to every household with a blood-red cross daubed on the door and a watchmen lurking outside. Young, old…it made no difference. Men, women, children. Twelve under one roof in Aldgate, stiff and silent beneath the eaves. Two girls tucked into bed side by side, their stern little faces relaxed into sweetness.

Two hours since we began, slowly sinking into the earth as the voiceless skeletons clamoured around us. Eight metres. Ten. Our orders were simple: find room for fresh arrivals. Once you can’t, then make more. The reigning dead reduced to splintered shards, chalk-white fragments, as if our toil had churned them like dry bread in an old man’s mouth. Every second thrust of the spade levers out some ghastly revelation. A jawbone with three gleaming molars. A gaping skull, spiders weaving their webs across lidless eyes. The pale curve of ribs, like the staves of an old barrel. The delicate filigree of a hand. We toil on, serenaded by that dull chorus of blade on soil, the bones clacking together like ale pots.  Jack gently prises one of the smaller skulls from its earthly cradle, wipes a smear of mud from its brow and settles it again, like a fledgeling returned to its rightful nest. The dead are no longer surprised to see us – where once even the barest bones seemed affronted, cowed like some shy person pushed naked into the street, now they lie passive as brides awaiting the hands of the gravediggers to carry them up into the light. It almost makes me grin; the gone-ahead, the passed-over lifted from crushing darkness by bearded angels smoking clay pipes!

It’s nauseating work, sure. But it pays well. Every sunset our purses grow heavier with sterile coins washed in vinegar, fat brown pennies that we hoard like precious jewels. Our daily keep in bread and soup.

And beer, of course. The harder the day, the more strong grog needed to endure it. Today is a three-bottle day. A tenth of a bottle per man per metre dug. Is that the calculation? Not something they teach you in school.

Maybe I’ll try being a rat-catcher. If I survive the week, God willing.

Besides bones, other things are uncovered and passed up. A deformed metal cross, greenish. A broken broach in the shape of a rose. Buttons. An antique-looking belt buckle. A rusty knife blade. Nothing of value yet. And if something valuable should be found? Who then is the legal owner? The corpse it was lifted from? The gravedigger who uncovered it? Perhaps the Lord Mayor. He pays us, after all.

The dull thump of metal on wood. Will and Tom slither down into the pit to scrape away the earth. A coffin emerges. They lever their spades beneath the lid, peel it open like an oyster.

And stagger back, aghast. ‘Jesus wept!’ We stare down.

Inside the coffin lies a Dandy. Curled periwig, powdered white skin, rouge-red lips, fingernails, eyelashes. Perfectly preserved, right down to the black beauty spot on his cheek. Mummified like a dried flower; even his woollen shroud only needs some washing to restore it.

Jack crosses himself. ‘Bloody hell.’ We exchange uneasy glances; burying skeletons and buboe-ridden corpses is one thing, but a man lying as if peacefully asleep? We hesitate – it’s wrong to disturb him, somehow. Improper.

Clattering hooves; a cloaked rider thunders towards us out of the dusty haze. The fearsome white beak of the plague doctor in his dark oilskin overcoat. I shiver as those blank sightless eyes slide over me. He dismounts and approaches us, his mask sweeping over the earth vomiting up its howling dead even as we shovel more into unhallowed ground.

‘Finished, have you?’ That harsh grating voice. It can’t be…

Jack glowers. ‘Aye, sir.’

The cloaked figure saunters over to peer into the depths. Lifts his mask.

I clench my fists.

The pockmarked face of Squire Hackett. Taxman and bogeyman in equal measure. Cursed in every Cheapside tavern and mocked in every Southwark market. A conniving rat bastard leaching honest folk of their hard-earned riches. Half the men here owe him rent, the other half want to beat his brains out if given the chance.

His lip curls. ‘Where d’you find this Molly? Why ain’t he burning already?’

‘Didn’t seem proper, Sir,’ Tom mumbles.

Hackett sniggers. ‘He’s a painted fop who valued lip-paint more than manhood. Burn him with the cattle. All he’s good for.’

Tom hesitates. ‘But Sir —’

Hackett bristles. ‘Mind your tongue! He’s soiling the graves of good honest Englishmen. Do as I say!’

We close ranks, resentment crackling in the air. It’s a desolate wasteland, a muddy field strewn with corpses, but to us this is sacred ground, sacrosanct only to the dead and those who lay them to rest. And he’s trespassing.

Will’s voice breaks the hushed silence. ‘No.’

The Squire rounds on him, seething. ‘Damn yer eyes! Didn’t you hear me? That’s an order! Want to be thrown in the stocks?’

Will throws down the shovel with a clatter. Steps towards him. Hackett’s eyes dart around at a wall of stony faces.

Jack lifts his pickaxe.

Hadn’t grabbed it for nothing.

And Tom, for all his slowness, had understood. He approaches like a great lumbering bear, gnarled hands on hips. Solidly built. Strong as an ox.

Hackett flinches, glances around for an escape. None.

Will leans in. ‘You liddle worm,’ he growls. ‘Say one more word against ‘im, you bloodsucker, and you’ll be screaming in hell.’

Hackett shrinks back, gulping like a stranded fish. ‘S-steady now, gents! What’s it to you? He’s only a painted fop —’

I feel the jarring crunch all the way to my elbows. A beautiful scything swing flooded with boiling rage, two hundred pounds of sizzling fury in a vicious two-handed blow. The wet crunch of bone; Hackett flops into the mud in a sprawled tangle of limbs.

No one breathes. We are stricken with dread, all of us. Fear sinks its talons into our bones; whatever will we tell the Constables? Our friends? Our loved ones?

Then Will slithers down into the hole. ‘C’mon, you lazy bastards! Who’s gunna help me?’

A moment’s hesitation: then we clamber down after him and bend to our task, shovels gouging into the earth. Deeper. Deeper. Hackett’s body slowly vanishes as soil splashes over him. Legs first, then the torso. Finally the face. Ten metres of grave-dirt. Deep enough for anyone. Just another forgotten soul buried beneath God’s earth, awaiting the worms. Unmarked and unmourned.

Good riddance, I think.

We close the Dandy’s coffin and return him to his final resting place, almost reverential. The other bodies join him, gently laid side by side as if peacefully asleep. Closer to heaven, maybe? We’re not sure. But it feels right.

The sun kisses the horizon as the last shovelful of soil tumbles into the pit. We climb out and gather at the edge, each lost in his own thoughts. Three cartloads of dead consigned to the earth, three dozen angels and one devil entombed together…

Then Will chuckles, claps me on the back. ‘A good day’s work, mate! First round’s on me tonight!’

We trudge away, a tired company of soldiers leaving a hard-won battlefield, shovels and mattocks draped over our shoulders like muskets. The stink of putrefaction clinging to our boots.

Plague, desolation, misery. Play your cards right, and you might just make a killing from it.

Just ask us. We’d know.

© 2020 | Tom Burton

Fancy reading it in Whatever Keeps The Lights On? Check it out here.

Don’t Pity The Devil (2000 words)

I’m on break when I get the call from the hospital. I listen and nod along, pretending my heart isn’t fluttering in my chest. ‘Keep me posted,’ I say, and Mum sighs down the line.

It’s Friday before sunrise, and Rose is at a sleepover. She texts me to say she’s coming home. It’s unsettling how comfortable she and I have gotten with this routine, how we know better than to rush directly to the hospital as soon as we get the call. How instead we just…carry on our days as best we can. Then again, it’s not like we don’t have time to kill. No visitors allowed in until eight.

At ten to six, my phone buzzes in the pocket of my jeans. I’m not supposed to carry it on me, but it’s practically impossible to enforce. I finish punching in the family order at my till. The woman has an aggressively blonde dye job and too much mascara, and her Ralph Lauren husband tries to corral the three shrieking terrors running through the McDonald’s lobby. It’s a controlled, unfamiliar chaos, and the sight of it makes my chest ache.

Eventually the couple herds their chattering pack toward a corner booth for breakfast and I catch Marty’s eye, mime smoking a fag. He shrugs, which isn’t so much a sign of permission as surrender. I push through the back door into the yard; the rising sun kisses the horizon, splashing gold across the asphalt and sodden cardboard litter. I lean against the wall and breathe out before I call Rose back.

‘Can you come pick me up?’ she asks.

I sigh. ‘I can drive you back here, but I gotta finish my shift.’ I’m hardly a ripple in the water here. They don’t need me, but I need the money. Beats the alternative, anyway.

‘Okay,’ she agrees.

‘I’ll be there in ten.’ I hang up and knead the back of my neck, wishing I had two minutes to spare for that pretend blessed cigarette.

During my interview, I’d bluntly told the hiring manager that an inflexible schedule was a deal breaker, and I would have an abnormal number of emergencies arise. They hired me anyway, probably out of desperation, probably underestimating my family situation. Now there’s a lot of guilt over getting pissed whenever it happens. Having a terminally ill parent gets you a pass on many things but even so, holding down a job is tough for someone like me. But a dump like this? I’m here more often than not, and they can’t afford to lose me. Works both ways, since I can’t afford unemployment.

I knock on the window so the pimply-faced kid guarding the drive-thru booth will buzz me back into the building, and beeline towards Marty. ‘I gotta get my girlfriend. Family crisis.’

I should probably ask, but let’s face it; the guy’s running the graveyard shift at a third-rate burger joint, so how much power does he really have in anything? He raises his eyebrows.

‘I’ll be right back,’ I insist.

‘Fine.’

‘Thanks.’

*

I wait in the driveway, engine burbling. I rest my elbow on the door, rub my forehead and daydream of all the things I should be doing right now. College. Job interviews. Shaping my future. Mum had told me – begged me – not to sacrifice my own life in exchange for Dad’s, but it’s far easier said than done. And there’s so much I have to do, taking care of him, it’s doubtful she notices everything I’m not.

Besides, even after everything…he’s still my dad.

Rose emerges, locks the front door behind her. She drops into the car with a huff; I wrinkle my nose. ‘What’s that smell?’

‘I baked a cake.’

‘How?’ I ask, shifting into reverse. Even if we never eat it, I understand why. Rose made a cake for the same reason I’m hauling her scrawny arse back to McDonald’s with me. Prolonged limbo to delay the inevitable.

She crosses her arms and slouches scowling in the passenger seat, but I don’t apologise for asking. No way in hell could I hope to make a cake now, not with everything else going on.

We’ve shuffled through this song and dance so many times I’ve lost count. The worry and fear that follow the call are different on each of us. For Rose, it’s anxiety. For Mum, it’s resigned annoyance. Me? I’m just going through the motions.

Each time the phone rings, it could be the call, and I guess I’m steeling myself for it, solidifying the wall around my heart. Today, the panic, the fear, the worry – they’ve all old familiar friends now, slowly replaced by the bleak emotionless void of numbness I’ve been crafting inside.

I turn into a space behind the restaurant. Employees are supposed to park across the street, but I don’t give a shit, and no one here can be bothered to make waves about it.

Under the harsh fluorescent lights, Rose’s eyes are red from crying, and I inwardly scold myself; for all my jaded outlook on life, she’s still just a kid. Still too young to train herself not to feel. And this is all the support I can offer her: a canteen the size of a broom closet with a sticky floor, a vending machine stripped of everything but Cheesy Wotsits and a dusty television that’s been dead for months.

She surveys the small space, grimacing at the reek of fryer grease and aftershave. ‘So…what do I do now?’

Marty raps on the door behind me, mimes that my time-out is over. There’s almost an hour left of my shift, and Rose still has one of those child-lock phones that only lets her call and text; it won’t keep her occupied. I pull out my own phone and hand it over. ‘If you tweet from my account, I’ll shave your head in your sleep.’

Her pout is adorable. I kiss her forehead and slip out the door, hiding my worries behind a faux-smile. Back to work.

*

Every time I walk through these sliding glass doors, I think, this is it. This is the day I’ll have finally grown immune to the smell, the sights, the sounds. And every single time, I’m wrong. There’s no hope of developing an immunity to this place. The stinging, sterile tang of bleach, the nurses’ trainers squeaking on worn lino, saline drips ticking over in hidden rooms, the faint stench of vomit wafting down the corridor.

Medical staff bustle past. Cleaners tug vacuums through the swing doors separating the healthy from the ill. The world rolls on. The grieving are afforded their private space, but for gods’ sake don’t let it spill out into the communal areas. Stiff upper lip. All that bollocks.

Rose presses close to me as we shuffle wordlessly toward the elevators. I punch in, then it’s a silent ride to the fourth floor.

My gaze reflexively slides to the wall clock; twenty minutes before visiting hours. I steer Rose into the family waiting room. Mum’s already here – or still here, since she drove Dad to the hospital at the first warning sign. She’s perched stiffly in a chair, purse on her lap, a full cup of coffee beside her.

She tuts as we settle into a pair of facing chairs, greets me with: ‘I wish you wouldn’t wear your hair like that, Chris.’ Good old Mum, wearing her stress like a judgmental bitch.

I cut her some slack and don’t rise to the bait, just tuck a loose strand behind my ear.

This is the worst part; the waiting. But, really, that’s all we do. All I do. Wait. I turn frowning to Rose. ‘Don’t you have homework to finish?’

‘It’s July.’

Somehow, this surprises me. I chew my thumbnail, already gnawed down to a jagged stub, and wonder, how the hell did I even forget what month it is? How is this my life?

The past three years, I’ve had to be selfless and practical, all the things a teenager isn’t meant to be for years yet; not supposed to be, not allowed to be, but I am. Sometimes I daydream what life will be like when this is finally all over. And I feel…good. Calm.

And then, inevitably, I feel awful.

So I shove the daydreams aside, and nourish that tiny kernel of hope. I have to, not just for Mum and Dad and Rose but for me, too. Without hope all I have is the sickening fear that my life won’t truly begin until his ends.

At eight o’clock, Mum gives us a meaningful look before leaving the room, coffee untouched. The silence left in her wake is deafening.

‘We should go in,’ I finally mutter.

‘Yeah.’

Neither of us moves. Something on Cartoon Network drones low in the background as we relish these last precious moments of freedom, before we enter the next stage of our endless routine.

What will I do, if this is it? If the doctor doesn’t have good news for us this time, and this is really it?

The nervous anticipation churns my stomach, and I swallow. ‘C’mon.’ I stand, and Rose trails after me.

Doctor Jones smiles when we enter the room, her full-face grin that chips away at the carefully constructed wall around my heart, because she’s the cheeriest person I know. She’s been waiting for us, knowing we’d be here as soon as permitted. He’s had a scare, but he’s stabilised and asleep now. It’s a relief and a burden at the same time.

He isn’t the man I remember. Hollow cheeks sag against clenched teeth. A few wisps of silver hair on a liver-spotted scalp. Looks as though someone’s plugged one of the whining hospital vacuums into his mouth and sucked out his life-force. The blankets have slipped down his bare torso; wrinkled skin stretches over a jutting ribcage like sodden rags. His sunken eyes. His wizened stomach.

There’s nothing meaningful between us…only the stubborn lack of dialogue that’s marred our past five years. Probably for the best. Our last words were like angry floods, raging and devastating. I can still recite our lines face-to-face, even though he couldn’t bear to look at me.

At school barely a year and you find this…this harlot!

Dad, please…I love her…

Oh, that makes it sooo much better…

I’m not asking for your pity, Dad…

…never been so ashamed in all my life…get out! Take your slut and never come back!

And through it all, Rose never let go of my hand. Mum said nothing, just stared teary-eyed into the fireplace. But I’d only told them the truth, was that so selfish? Our honesty sells for so little, but it’s all we really have. It’s the very last inch of us, but within that single precious inch, we’re free.

There’s nothing for me here, just a shrunken shrivelled husk choked with resentment and denial. He’s fine. This time. He’s pulled through. This time. But we all know we’ll be right back here soon enough. His rotten heart could stutter on for days, weeks even. Crotchety old sod.

I rise from my reluctant vigil and take Rose’s hand. If I hurry we can be home by eight-thirty.

I pull the blankets up around him as a parting gesture. My forearm brushes his bony fingers. He mumbles something. Perhaps in his sleep. Perhaps I just imagined it.

We’ll leave. Carry on. Await the inevitable. I’ll strengthen my inner coping mechanisms, turn down the emotional dial another notch and retreat a little deeper into myself. And I’ll pretend that when I finally get the call, there won’t be a little shiver of relief mingled with the hurt.

Doctor Jones meets us outside. ‘Take care, you two. What name should I log in the Visitors’ Book? D’you prefer Chris, or…?’

I shrug. ‘Christina’s fine. C’mon.’ I pull Rose towards the elevator. ‘Let’s hit the road.’

© Tom Burton, 2020