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The Short Story Project ~ A Story

First published: Thursday, September 17th, 2009
4,550 words ~ spooky scale: ••••• 13+

In the Rust ~ Part 1/2

“I can feel them now. They’s not too far away,” Sarah Epiphyte said. She was standing on the other side of the clearing, holding her hand out as if warming it at a fire. “They’s two… No, three. Oh!” She screwed her eyes up, crinkling her forehead in concentration. “Less than a click over that way…” She had moved her hand slightly to the left. She opened her eyes. “But I gotta warn you. That third one’s really old…”

She turned back to face us, shading her eyes as the sun was right overhead now. “Shouldn’t we done get some help? I mean, three, they’s just as many as us…”

“I pulled three before,” snorted Gramps.

“But—”

“No ‘buts’ about it, girl. You’s just the pig. I makes the decisions.” He hit the ground with the butt of his Blunderbuss, the notches along the handle witness to his prowess. “I says I can pull three and still be back by nightfall.”

I was out of the discussion, sitting on a fallen tree at the edge of the clearing, resting my back and shoulders from the weight of the bags and boxes I was carrying for Gramps. Even in the relative shade here, sweat was itching its way down my temples and neck. My shoulders felt like they were rising up all by themselves, and from time to time I twitched to stop this uncanny feeling, and pull them back into place.

I poked at the fallen leaves and tangle of growth under where I was sitting with the butt of the other Blunderbuss, the one I was supposed to be looking after. There was a glow of white in the decomposing vegetation and I bent over to free two fleshy grubs as big as my thumb. They writhed as they felt the warmth from my hand. I thought of offering one to Sarah Epiphyte.

“Don’t you go eating those!” called Gramps, eyes screwed up under his hat as he scowled at me. “Don’t you go eating nothing you finds out in the Rust, but ‘specially not those uns!”

I looked at the fat grubs. They looked harmless to me.

“And just why’s that?” I wanted to know.

“It’s all bad here,” he said. “That’s why you’re carrying our food and stuff. But them’s worse. Really, really bitter. Anything takes a bite out of them ain’t never gonna forget it in a long day.” He gave a dry laugh like a twig snapping. “Believe you me. They knows how to get folk to leave ‘em alone.”

I threw them over my shoulder, off into the thick undergrowth behind.

“C’mon boy,” he said, turning away. “Let’s get back moving if we gonna pull anything today…”

Gramps was still the best puller in the county, but he was getting old and needed someone to carry his stuff. And that someone was me. It didn’t help that we were out in the Rust, right out on the Edge. From here on the trees would be fat and twisted, with creeping roots that do their bestest to trip you, and the brown speckles that cover the leaves and trunks and gave the place its name. Some said the trees even moved around in the dark, changing paths and landmarks, out to catch the unwary. Gramps said it was just poppycock. And he should know. He was so old he remembered the Collision. He’d been a puller in the Rust all his life as far as we knew. If anyone knew the paths and ways here, he did. Of course, even though it wasn’t permitted, all us boys played in the woods round here, pretending to be pullers. But even I had never been this far out before.

I slipped the heavy rounds of greasy shots for the Blunderbuss back round my neck, pulled on the worn straps, and hauled the boxes onto my back. I picked up the spare Blunderbuss from where I’d left it, leaning against the fallen tree, and nodded at Gramps.

We set off through a gap in the bushes opposite. It was hard to make out the path rubbed into existence by small animals padding through the undergrowth. Or I at least hoped they were small.

Sarah Epiphyte lead, followed by Gramps, and then me, trailing at the end. Gramps had picked a way to the right of Sarah Epiphyte’s directions. I supposed he was going to circle round and approach his target from the side.

We pushed through the overhanging branches for a while. I watched out for ticks.

“Oooh!” came the girl’s voice through the bushes and brambles.

“Hush you there!” said Gramps in a low growl.

I rounded a last tree and saw it. A massive bar blocked our path, cutting across it diagonally. It wasn’t made of wood, that was sure. The surface where it showed clear was grey and speckled with mosses and lichens. It was taller than some of the trees here, quite easily three or four men high. In places you could even see the branches growing straight through it. That meant it was very old. It had probably arrived with the Collision. It stretched off on both sides, long and straight and massive.

I swatted the flies away from my face. As soon as you stopped moving out under the trees, they came at you. Folk said they were trying to lay eggs under your skin, and if they succeeded, and you didn’t burn them out, the maggots would work their way through your body, leaving only a husk behind when they turned into flies and burst out of your eyes and mouth and nose and ears and other places, and flew on to lay new eggs. I half believed it. They were large and leathery, and very hard to kill.

Gramps was whispering away with Sarah Epiphyte. It was only her first time out here. She had never even seen the Rust before. She’d been traded in from another camp. It was expensive, girls always were they said, but it was necessary. Only one girl was born for every five babbies at the camp, but only girls could have babbies, and if the camp was to survive we needed them. And only girls could be pigs.

Gramps turned to me, pointing off to the right. We were going to have to advance along this barrier until it ended, or until we could find a place to cross it. I set off ahead, glad to get moving away from the flies. Gramps and Sarah Epiphyte were still whispering. As I looked back, I saw her place her hands on the great barrier.

I was following a better sort of path, it wasn’t that hard to make out. From time to time, I broke a twig, or sliced a leaf in two with my thumbnail. Like that Gramps would know where I had been.

I pushed my way through a bush. Brambles and vines caught on the straps and the boxes and bags on my back. For a moment I thought I was going to be stuck here waiting for Gramps to catch me up and cut me free. Obviously them who had made the track had been travelling a lot closer to the ground. And no big animals had been through for quite a time. Which was reassuring.

I scraped free of the last snags and branches to find my way barred by a large tree trunk. Great sprawling, swollen roots twisted round the base. The barrier was still blocking my left-hand side. It was so close I could almost reach out and touch it. And it seemed to pass right through the trunk. I would have to find my way round on the other side. Either that, or I could rest a little and wait for the others to catch up.

It was hot and humid and close, even under the cover from the leaves. With my shoulders and legs aching and bleeding from the brambles, I took the second option.

I sat astride one of the roots that was fatter than my thigh, and eased the weight off of my back. I felt around the cases, still behind my back, for a skin of water. When I got it, I pulled the stopper and drank. The water was warm, and smelled of the tanning for the leather, but I felt as dry as a stone and drank down great gulps. It felt good as it dribbled down my chin and my chest.

At first I thought there were some insects buzzing around my head, but it was just leaves and small twigs and moss tumbling down around me. Then a ball dropped down against the tree trunk, just in front of me. I thought it could be a head, but it was covered in hair. And not like Sarah Epiphyte who had hair on the top of her head, but this was all over, like an animal. It was eerie. The eyes appeared where the mouth should be. The nose was in the right place, but it was red and pocked and peeling where it poked out through the hair. And the nostrils pointed upwards. A slit opened in the bristles and fur of the forehead.

As I watched, mesmerised, a paw appeared from above, from the mess of rusty leaves. The paw became a hand and extended a finger and placed it across the lips in a familiar gesture.

The thing in the tree was signing me to be silent.

I scrambled backwards, pinned to my position by the weight of the packets on my back.

Another hand appeared at the side of the head, and everything snapped into place as I realised my mistake. Whatever it was I had in front of me, it was hanging upside down from the tree.

Then the head disappeared in a cloud of red and white and grey and a clap of thunder.

I fell backwards, jerking my arms and legs like a beetle stuck on its shell. And as I lay there, I saw Gramps appear along the path I had followed, holding the smoking Blunderbuss. Sarah Epiphyte peeked out from behind him, her face screwed up in shock or pain.

Gramps reached over, grabbed my hand and levered me up. I saw that my chest was speckled with red.

“Get moving,” barked Gramps. “They know we’re here now.” He turned and looked at Sarah Epiphyte who nodded back. Then he thrust his Blunderbuss at me, seizing the other from my hands. “To work, boy!”

They set off briskly round the tree, leaving me staring at the great red flower splashed across the trunk.

When I came to my senses, I snapped open the Blunderbuss, licked my fingers before pulling out the copper casing and slipping it into the small bag at my belt. Cartridges were metal and metal was rare. And copper was good metal. I plucked a new cartridge from the belt around my neck and rearmed the weapon. I took a last look at the dead thing in the tree, the insects were already buzzing around it. I hopped over the roots and ran to catch up with Gramps and Sarah Epiphyte.

When I found them, they were squatting down in a small depression, next to the bar that was blocking our way. Sarah Epiphyte was feeling around a hole that lead underneath.

“We got to be absolutely sure,” Gramps was saying. “You got any doubts we can continue. We’ll surely find another one, bigger than this, further along.”

“But they’ve not gone,” said the girl, squatting down in front of the dark mouth. “I just can’t feel anything at all. I don’t like it. It’s not normal.”

Gramps turned as I clattered through the bushes.

“We’ll see,” he said.

I set down all that I had been carrying and Gramps unwound a length of rope, playing it into large coils in his hands. When he seemed satisfied with the feel of it all, he opened one of the bags and took out a large claw, made up of a handful of metal spikes radiating from a wooden palm. He lashed the claw to the end of the rope, tugged on it, then started swinging it round his head. Sarah Epiphyte and I crouched to the sides as it hummed in the air like a swarm of angry wasps. Then he let it go and it soared into the air, up and over the great barrier.

Gramps pulled on the end of the rope that hung down. It shifted a little. He tugged again, leaping into the air as he did, and the rope came cascading down around him. He darted off to one side as the claw came ripping through the leaves and growths above.

He grunted, coiled the rope again into a neat pile and repeated the whirling and the throwing.

This time when he set his whole weight to the rope, it remained fast.

“Boy,” he said, turning to me. “You’s gonna climb up here and have a look round. You sees anything out of the ordinary, you holla.” He faced Sarah Epiphyte now. “You, you try and get through this hole here, and see what you sees on the other side. You don’t needs stick your head out, just feel around. And holla too it you needs to.”

I hitched the Blunderbuss to my back, spat on my hands, and started up the rope, kicking off against the barrier as I scrambled up the side. Of course, as soon as you can’t hit back, the flies gathered round again.

At the top my hands were stinging and my arms aching. I looked down at Gramps. He had gathered up a handful of leaves and stuff and was vigourously rubbing his neck and forearms. I wasn’t the only one bothered by the flies then.

Up on top of the barrier it was like standing on the straightest path I’d ever seen. It stretched away into the tree tops as far as I could see on both sides. It was a pity we couldn’t follow it and find out where it lead to.

Gramps looked up. I waved and headed off to look down the other side to see if I could see where Sarah Epiphyte would emerge.

Lying down and peeping over the edge, I could just make out a path through the bushes below, where the animals who had used the passage continued their journey through the dense undergrowth. I saw no sign of Sarah Epiphyte however, and it would be difficult to see from up here if there was an ambush or a trap waiting for her down there.

I crawled back to the other side. As I looked down I saw Sarah Epiphyte squatting in the shade next to the boxes and bags I had been carrying. She touched Gramps on the elbow and he looked up too.

He waved at me to climb down.

Then it hit me.

A path up in the tree tops. And the one who tried to get me was coming from somewhere up above.

They were moving around up here. That was how they saw I was alone. And Sarah Epiphyte can’t feel them as she’s looking for something down below, near the ground.

I waved my arms, beckoning Sarah Epiphyte to come up and join me.

She turned to Gramps. He nodded.

It was obvious she wasn’t used to climbing. Her feet slipped and struggled against the surface, her tiny arm were taunt and awkward. As she approached, I leant over, grabbing the back of her robe, and helping her over the edge.

She sat for a moment, breathing deeply and rubbing her arms. Then she held her palms out, like feeling around in the dark, and closed her eyes.

She shifted around until she was pointing along the barrier in the direction we had come.

“There’s one back there,” she whispered, and opened her eyes.

I slithered over to the edge and signalled Gramps. I lifted one finger and then pointed back along our path the trees.

He signed that he had understood.

He collected the pile of sacks and packets that I’d carried here, and started roping them together. I pulled them up and Sarah Epiphyte helped me ease them over the lip.

I signalled that all was in order.

Gramps waved us on, set his hat back on his head, and trotted off back along the path. He’d kept a belt of cartridges and held the Blunderbuss at the ready.

With the rope now tied around my waist, I loaded everything on my back, pulled on the straps to ease them on my shoulders and followed Sarah Epiphyte. She moved around a lot faster up here. You could see she wasn’t used to our life yet, but she was a pleasure to watch. Her skin was copper, lighter than most from our camp, and quite matte. And she had freckles. She was the first person I’d ever seen with freckles and I thought them was spots until someone told me what they were and I decided they suited her. Her long dark hair had copper tints too, and her locks bounced on her back and shoulders as she marched. For the first time I also noticed how she wiggled her bottom with each step.

She stopped, and I nearly collided with her. Hands outstretched, she felt the air round the barrier until she was facing a clump of trees overhanging our path.

Then she span round, her nose almost rubbing against the cartridges on my chest. We both stepped back. She looked me up and down, almost as if she was wondering if I’d crept up on her on purpose.

I shrugged and mimed our near miss with my hands.

She smiled with a flash of teeth.

I saw that she had a gap in front. The old women must have clucked over that, they’d say it lets the luck flow out. And I knew what Gramps would say say to that, Your luck’s what you make it. Nothing more, nothing less.

Sarah Epiphyte was pointing at the trees and miming holding a weapon. Was it an ambush, or did she want me to go over there with the Blunderbuss?

I tapped myself on the chest and pointed towards the trees.

She nodded.

I checked the Blunderbuss was primed, set it to my shoulder and started edging forwards. Sarah Epiphyte fell in behind me.

As we crept closer to the clumps of leaves overhanging our path, we heard a buzzing, rattling noise that grew stronger as we got nearer. Sarah Epiphyte tapped me on the shoulder. I froze.

I pushed the leaves aside and peered into the shade.

At first it was difficult to make anything out, and besides, it looked like part of the tree.

It was hanging head down from a branch above. And it seemed to be home to a large colony of insects. They were crawling all over it, beating their horny wings. As we watched, fascinated and horrified, we could see them dancing in and out of the gaping holes in the upside-down head: the mouth, the nostrils, the dark pits where the eyes had been. They were also crawling along and in and out of a great rift that split the belly.

We had no possible idea who he could have been. I felt myself shaking, like a sudden chill. Slowly we shifted backwards, out through the leaves and and back into the blinding light.

I breathed deeply.

Sarah Epiphyte pointed forward, then set off, saying nothing. I wiped my forearm across my forehead and followed.

We saw the next surprise as we left the dense foliage of the trees. In fact, had we not stopped to see the corpse in the shade we might have walked straight past without noticing anything. As it was, our eyes were darting right and left in case there was another corpse. Or worse.

At first it looked just like vines stretching across the backdrop of leaves but there was something too regular, unnatural, that made me look again.

I clucked, tapping my tongue against the roof of my mouth until Sarah Epiphyte looked back over her shoulder. I pointed over in the direction of the ropes running from tree to tree.

This was why she could no longer find their trace on the ground. They were travelling around in the treetops. This might also explain the two we had met, hanging upside down. Supposing that the second was one of them. They were coming down from paths up above.

We needed to let Gramps know.

I moved over to the edge and whistled a passable imitation of one of the more common birds here. The signal wasn’t in the call, but in the rhythm. I repeated the call.

I was about to start again when I got a reply. I whistled an acknowledgement then hid myself to be sure it was Gramps.

The bushes moved and he stepped out into the sunlight, the Blunderbuss pointing straight at my hiding place. I whistled again then poked more of my head over the edge and waved. He looked up, a quizzical expression on his wrinkled face. I pointed over to the other side, behind my back, and started to unwind the rope.

As I needed both hands to get Gramps up with us, I quickly showed Sarah Epiphyte the basics of how to use the Blunderbuss: how to wind it up, how to line up the sights, how to crank out the used cartridge… I set it to spray as large as possible. If she did need to use it, it wasn’t going to be precision shooting.

She stood with her back to me, holding it with two hands because of the weight while I looped the rope around my shoulders, spread my feet wide and hauled Gramps up to join us.

Sarah Epiphyte pointed out the hanging vine ropes and Gramps nodded. If Sarah Epiphyte said that this was the way to go, then we’d have to follow the paths through the treetops, but it wasn’t going to be easy.

For a start we needed to share the packs I was carrying, to spread the weight. Secondly, it was going to be slow. Gramps whispered that only one of us must be on the passages at any one time, otherwise it was too easy to trap us, or cut the supports and send us all plunging to the ground below. Finally, Sarah Epiphyte must travel between us. She was too precious to lose, so it was to be a Blunderbuss in front of her, and another behind.

When I finally set off, the sun was no longer overhead. Soon it would be behind the treetops, and then we should have to concern ourselves with getting back to camp before nightfall.

The ropes bounced as I tried to move quickly, but quite soon I found that I could use the vibrations to help push me forwards if I timed my steps right. It was like walking with a formidable spring in your step. What was difficult was trying to hold on with the Blunderbuss in my hands. In the end, I just let it bounce against my chest, confident that I could catch hold of it in no time if I needed to.

At last I was standing on a small platform, still feeling the bouncing in my legs even as I waited, motionless. I watched Sarah Epiphyte move towards me. Near the middle she halted, holding the ropes in both hands. She looked down. I saw her shuffling and turning, inspecting the ground below.

What was she doing?

Gramps had told us to move across as quickly as possible, that we were much too visible a target perched up above the forest floor, and here she was dallying…

She set off again, bouncing forwards, almost floating above the ropes as she sped to join me.

“The ground is covered in patterns,” she said, as she caught her breath. “All around.”

I looked over. All I could see was the bushes and the bracken, the vines and the thorns. I shook my head. But there again, Sarah Epiphyte was the pig. It was her job to sniff these things out.

“Idjit!” he called, and had a playful wipe at my ear. “I suppose you need help to aim your thingy when you piss. Look!”

She pointed to a group of shadows, then another. Then, over there where they run into a group of bushes growing out at a right angle.

Suddenly it was as if the ground below was speaking to me. I couldn’t recognise the patterns, but there was definitely something there. Or there had been.

“You’re woolgath’ring, boy!” said Gramps and he clipped my ear much harder than Sarah Epiphyte had. It stung like a bite from one of the flies. “I could’ve been picked off like a bird sitting on a branch!”

“Sarah Epiphyte was showing me something down below,” I protested.

“Them’s just ruins. Was a city here once. C’mon, haven’t got all day.”

He pushed past us to survey the next section of rope vines, scraping us with the packs on his back as he passed.

“What’s a city?” asked Sarah Epiphyte before I could.

“Ain’t nothing. Not no more. Now tell me which way we be going…”

The ropes formed a V, so we had two paths. The girl would have to chose. She lifted her hands and closed her eyes.

“The old one’s in that direction,” she said, pointing along the path to the left. “I can’t find any others.”

She looked up at Gramps. His skin was pale. You only saw it close up. Where you could see the patches and folds that hadn’t been burnt and grilled by the outside. For the first time it occurred to me that he wasn’t like us. Perhaps that was why he spent all his time out here, so folk wouldn’t notice.

“Gramps, why we hunting them?” I wanted to know.

“Just the way it is,” he shrugged, not looking at us. “Get ‘em fore they gets us.” He pulled the boxes onto his shoulders. “You’s just wasting breath asking questions boy. Get going!”

I set my feet on the ropes. Close to the platform it was easy going and I could move quite quickly, but as you got further out, it bounced and slid around and you had to take extra care.

I slowed down, steadying myself and gripping the rope with my right hand. Luckily for me, I was still wobbling when the shot flashed past, scorching the air around me head.

Sarah Epiphyte called out.

Forgetting where I was, I span round as a second shot seared past.

I fell.

My leg caught in the tangle of ropes and vines underfoot and for a second I hung upside down as the packs on my back continued falling, and crashed against my head and set me rocking.

I darted back up, bouncing on the ropes and with a jerk, my leg fell free. The pain jolted up to my knee, my hip, my spine.

And I was falling again.

END OF PART 1

Part two next week… See you.

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Last edited: Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

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black as snow Juliet has just moved to the country. She doesn’t like her new school, she doesn’t like living on a stinking farm where it always rains. Then she starts seeing a pony, waiting outside at night in the rain. And she’s sure it’s waiting for her...

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