By Emma Finn
A wealthy man finds himself lost in the dark town of Barton, but when he stops to ask directions he finds himself going down a spiral stair that changes him into a little girl. Now he really is in trouble as the mad denizens of Barton close in to trap him there forever.
Warning: This is very dark.
I had the awful sense that I’d forgotten something important and that made the fact I was lost even worse.
I didn’t know how long I’d been driving round Barton but it was far too long and I was getting immensely frustrated. The streets were so narrow and never ran for very long before turning and then turning again. Road after road ended as a crescent, looping back to practically where they started and the dead ends were often unmarked. I kept heading down a street in good faith only to find it ending in only another shabby series of dirty housing, gaping back at me with blank-eyed windows. Then I would have to back up, trying to get out, the tension earth-shaking because of the value of my car. I couldn’t risk scratching it.
That was the problem with owning a Lamborghini. I should never have brought it into Barton – but then I didn’t expect to get lost. I’d almost never been to Barton before and I could only guess I’d made it through in the past on fluky luck. I couldn’t for the life of me work out why I’d bothered to come today.
It was something about the new restaurant that had opened on the other side of the river but I hated to eat out alone; always had. What had possessed me to head over there by myself on a bleak and rainy night?
At least the rain had stopped now but the windscreen kept misting up. I leaned closer to the wheel to get a better look at my surroundings, trying to spot any indication of the route out – some sense of compass direction even. I couldn’t see any significant landmarks.
Again I had a niggling feeling of forgetting something important but I couldn’t think what it was. My life was pretty simple – as a long term bachelor I didn’t have the complication of a woman to mess things up. I just did what I wanted. I shrugged. How important could it really be?
I drove to the end of the next road and paused, looking left and right. It opened up here and there were two tall blocks of flats in front of a large patch of grass. I’d been here before already which was both frustrating and promising. I wondered if I should even get out of the car and climb one of those blocks; see which way Nockton was from there, so I could at least head off in the right direction; although I suspected that I’d lose myself pretty quickly again once I made a few turns. I wished the sat nav wasn’t on the fritz. It had been working yesterday.
I drove along the edge of the grass, slowing when I saw a toilet block.
I’d pulled up here before... for some reason. I couldn’t quite... I couldn’t remember why now, but it scratched at that sense of forgetfulness; as though it was linked to what I was trying to remember.
Shrugging I rolled on, but up ahead I slowed again. There was a woman standing on the side of the road and so I decided to stop and ask for help.
I pulled up and lowered the window. I smiled up at her but that smile faltered when I got a good look at her in the streetlamp light. She didn’t look that old but she was worn... by life; by drugs maybe. She looked dishevelled and hopeless; like she needed rescuing; though I could tell she was too far gone for that. Nothing could save her now.
“Er… hi,” I said. “I was wondering if you could give me directions out of Barton. I’ve been driving round for hours trying to find the way out.”
She shrugged, and just for a moment something passed over her expression that looked like confusion, then she giggled. “Don’t you know?” she said. “Once you come to Barton, there ain’t no way out.”
I chuckled, feeling uneasy. The trouble I was having, that might have even been true.
The woman leant onto the open window, pushing her prestigious cleavage into my face. “But that don’t mean to say you can’t enjoy yourself while you’re here.”
I grimaced, holding up my hands. “Er, thanks but, no offence; I’m not looking for company.”
“You sure about that luv?” she asked, tickling my cheek with a crooked index finger. “I bet I could think of a trick or two to make your night. Maybe you won’t wanna leave after I’m done with ya.”
I took an extra second or two to check her out and my lower brain asked itself the question: could I ever be with a woman like this?
She might have been attractive in her younger days, before the drugs took hold, but now she was a real skank. She smelled awful and I could practically see the grim reaper curled up like a snake inside her belly.
“Sorry. Uh, do you mind?” I said. “I have to get going.”
She looked at me for a moment longer with the off-kilter smile of false flirtation, then it dropped off her like it had never been there and, still up in my face, said, “Fuck you then you selfish prick,” and pushed off the side of the car. She drew back her foot and kicked the side panel. “Get lost you creep!”
She kicked it again. I drove off as fast as I could, cursing her and cursing this nasty little town.
I should have stayed in Nockton and I was never coming back here if I ever got out that was for damn sure.
A few minutes later I saw someone else; a man this time; waking along beside a seedy looking apartment complex and decided to pull in to ask him for a way out of this maze.
The complex was a great rectangular block of flats, not as tall as the ones by the green but with a larger footprint. It looked like it had been built with good intentions in the seventies but the decor was horribly dated now and the formerly white walls were worn and flaking. It looked like nothing had been done to it since the grand opening and its very structure now was poised on the brink of final and irrevocable collapse. In large broken letters along part of the front wall were the words Shelby Apartments.
I stopped the car and got out. The man was about thirty yards away, walking along a tall barrier that bordered what looked like a sunken level beyond. “Excuse me!” I called. He didn’t answer and was nearing a tall gate in the barrier. I started to hurry. “Hey! Can you give me some directions?”
He didn’t respond; just kept on walking. He was wearing a raincoat, stained darker by the rainwater. He reached the gate and opened it with a key. There was a wire-enclosed staircase on the other side. He started down.
“Hey wait a minute!” I called, jogging now to catch him, but the gate was almost closed and he was disappearing out of sight. It clanged shut just as I ran up to it. “God damn it!”
I went to the barrier. It was a sunken level a storey below; very dark and dirty. It looked again like it might have been a nice place at one time but now it was dismal. There was what looked like an old fountain down there, now filled with black fetid liquid and garbage. There was detritus everywhere; shopping trolleys, rubbish, old magazines and newspapers. In various places walkways and arches covered over the level and it seemed also to spread beneath where I was standing. The spiral stair that went down from the gate was sealed in with wire mesh. The man was half way down, turning the stair, oblivious, as I shouted him again a couple of times.
I looked past the stair. There was a message board down there. I wondered if it might have a map posted up. I looked back toward my car. Where the hell were all the people? There was nobody to ask and anyone I did ask gave me crap or said nothing. Maybe nobody ever did get out of Barton alive.
I wandered over to the gate, wondering what my best plan was, and noticed that the catch hadn’t engaged when it shut after him. I pulled it open gingerly and looked in. The grilled metal stair led downwards into the darkness.
He hadn’t gone that far ahead.
With one last glance back at my car I went through and hurried down the spiral stair.
It was narrow and immediately claustrophobic and I regretted choosing to do it, especially when the clang came again of the gate shutting behind me. I paused, feeling odd suddenly; kind of nauseous. With the dense wire cage round the stair it wasn’t very light in there and the paint on the handrail was flaking, the rust underneath coming off as dust on my fingers. I was aware that I needed to hurry but a lethargy was coming over me. I stopped again, putting my hand to my forehead. It felt hot.
I went round the next bend and a dizziness started up. I stopped, squeezing my eyes tight shut. When I opened them again my head was pulsing and it was even darker. I could barely see the black metal steps below me to place my feet.
This was a mistake. I should go back. But I had to be near the bottom now. I had to ask that guy for directions; find the way out. There had to be some way out of this town.
I went round the next bend. I was feeling weaker now but my thoughts were sluggish. Maybe it was some kind of escaped gas. What if I was being poisoned? But the man had gone down ahead of me without apparent difficulty. It couldn’t be that.
I should go back – I knew that – but I just kept on going down; one foot after another.
It was almost pitch black now and it felt like strands of something were draped across my face. It must have been hanging down from the spiralling steps above but it kept flicking in my face no matter which way I dodged my head.
I carried on down and down and down. Surely I should have been at the bottom already but I wasn’t and I could barely remember why I’d gone down. That man. Yes. But all I wanted now was to get out. That was all I needed now. Get out into the fresh air.
It got marginally lighter. Maybe I was reaching the bottom. I had to be. I felt worse; more queasy and lightheaded. I groaned. There was an odd smell like damp and urine. I gagged, covering my mouth with my hand. I didn’t feel right. Nothing felt right.
And then finally I saw the bottom of the stair. There was no gate there thank God and it was a bit lighter. I staggered to the bottom and out into the shadowy underpass it led onto.
I took deep cleansing breaths, leaning over onto my knees, trying to get a hold of myself. Could it have been claustrophobia? Was that why I had been so bad? I didn’t know what was wrong with me. My eyes were tightly shut.
When I opened them I didn’t understand at first what I was seeing. I was still bent over, leaning on my knees, but my clothes weren’t the same. I could see my bare lower legs and my arms... They were bare too. All around my face hung hair... long hair.
“What on Earth...”
I stood up and the dark hair swung up and back. I gaped, startled, down at myself, disbelieving what I was seeing.
“God, no, what is this?” I muttered, but it wasn’t even my voice. It was light and scratchy, no adult weight behind it.
I had changed. Somehow, while I was coming down the spiral stair.
My body had changed. My clothes had changed.
Everything about me had changed.
I wasn’t myself anymore. I was somebody else.
It was a nightmare. I had gone to sleep and this was my nightmare; that was what it had to be.
I wasn’t a man anymore.
I was a little girl.
I was just—
My hands were little; my arms and legs skinny. I felt my thin stomach, my blank featureless chest, the matted and greasy hair hanging from my scalp. I touched my face: my smooth cheeks, my lips.
It wasn’t a dream. It was real.
I was really just a girl; maybe... eight or nine? Younger?
“Oh fuck,” I said. “Oh fucking hell. What am I going to do?”
I had to do something! But what? How the hell was I meant to fix this? How the hell could it have even happened?
But I knew. I knew the answer to that – of course I did – and I looked now toward the foot of the blackened spiral staircase, reaching back up to street level. I traced it round and round to the top.
I didn’t know how – and it made no sense – but that had to have been what did this to me. It had to have been.
I looked down, trying to comprehend the magnitude of what had happened, but then I started to notice another level to this; something I hadn’t immediately perceived.
There was something wrong with me. Magical transformation or not, I hadn’t become a normal little girl. My clothing was dirty and dishevelled. My skin wasn’t clean. My little hands were dirty; dirt under the nails on both hands. I was wearing a skirt that looked like it might have been part of a school uniform once upon a time and a short sleeved purple jumper made of wrinkled synthetic material. It too was filthy. On my feet was a pair of slip on shoes but they were damp and grimy, the seams splitting.
My mouth was moving of its own accord, spelling out silent words of horror. I had to get out of here. I had to get back.
I went for the bottom of the stairs but stopped short, frightened to delve back into the darkness. It was dangerous – I knew that. What more could it do to me if I went back in there?
But I had to. I couldn’t stay like this. My car was up there. The man I’d followed down was nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t stay in this dismal hellhole by myself, trapped in this shape. It was like the underside of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I had no choice.
I walked to the foot of the spiral stair and took hold of the metal railing. My hand looked tiny against it and I got my first sense of my new scale. The stair stretched up, dwarfing me. This was terrible. I had to get back to how I was.
I stepped into the darkness and started to climb.
This time, although it still became dark I didn’t get nauseous. It was difficult and I got another whiff of that awful smell but realised a second later that it was me. The odour of piss was all over my clothes.
Round I went and round again, pushing up through the blackness, feeling my way, desperate for the uncomfortable feelings to come back so that I could change back; but they weren’t coming. I could feel the long hair against my face; realised now that it was that I had thought was draping on me from above.
It started to get lighter and I could see my thin little arm working up the railing; see my bare legs in the skirt.
“Oh no,” I whispered. “Please. I don’t want to be stuck like this. Please.” I sounded pitiful; exactly like a lost and lonely child.
Then I turned the final bend and saw the gate at the top. At least I could get back to my car; lock myself in; try and drive out of there; get help.
But when I pushed against the gate it wouldn’t open.
There was a catch, not a lock, on this side, but no matter how many times I hammered on it, the gate wouldn’t budge.
“Please!” I cried. “Please!”
I banged it with my fist, forcing what little weight I had against it to push it back but it didn’t budge.
Tears welled into my eyes but I swiped angrily at them. I wasn’t a girl. I wasn’t going to cry like one.
“Help!” I cried, peering through the gaps in the gate. “Help me!”
But I couldn’t see anyone; just my car standing there no close but impossibly out of reach.
I looked back down the gloomy staircase.
It was my only choice. Go back down there and work my way round a different way. And maybe; just maybe going down was what invoked the magic. Maybe if I went down once more it would turn me back.
Swallowing over and over again with anxiety, I started down and as soon as I turned the first curve I felt the insidious enchantment close in on me like a hand rummaging inside my belly.
My brain felt pinched and I lurched, trying hard to keep upright as my insides were abused by whatever forces were pressing down on me. I cried out; a girlish cry; and fell to the side, only just keeping upright. I pushed on down.
It got darker and I got more and more scared. I didn’t like the dark. I never had and my mum made me sleep in the dark. She never let me have the light on. She’d taken the bulb away.
I carried on, wishing I hadn’t lost the key to our flat. I was going to be in such trouble when my mum got home. She could be so nasty if I did wrong, especially if she hadn’t had her cigarettes. I had to—
I stopped, eyes staring wildly into the darkness.
“Oh my God.”
It wasn’t changing me back. It was changing me more. It was trying to make me think I really was this girl.
“This can’t be happening to me.”
I had to get back to my car. I had to find some way out of this fix. But if I climbed back up then there was no way out. If I went down...
If I went down then it would change me even further. It was trying to alter my thoughts; make me think I’d been born this way; but I hadn’t. I was a man. I wasn’t this little girl.
“Oh fuck. What should I do?”
All I could do was keep going down. There was no way back and I couldn’t stay in the middle. I had to go to the bottom and hope I didn’t change too much. That was my only option.
“Oh God. Why did this happen to me?”
I had to go down.
I started descending into the deepening darkness and immediately I felt a constriction around my little head like the closed fist of a giant wringing out a cloth.
I let out a grating moan, pressing my hand to the side of my head, knowing now for sure what this was doing to me. I pressed my lips together, determined to hold out and stop the shifting of my brain matter, but how could I stop it if it had already totally transformed my entire body.
I staggered one way and then the other, going down two or three steps at a time; almost losing my footing. I had to remember my name; keep that at the front of my mind. My name was Kieran. I was a man. I wasn’t a little girl.
That was better; yes.
My name was Kieran. I was a man.
I shambled down further, desperate to get to the bottom intact, feeling my way now with outstretched hands.
My name was Kayleigh. I had to remember that. My name was Kayleigh.
It was starting to get lighter. “Thank God!”
My name was Kayleigh.
I ran the rest of the way down, feeling the toxic probing slough off me and I leaned against a pillar, gasping. Tears were streaming down my cheeks now and I could barely catch my breath but I had made it and I was still me on the inside. I was Kayleigh Morris. I was eight years old. I was—
I moaned and gripped two great bunches of hair on the sides of my head.
It had got to me. It had changed me too much. I hadn’t been able to stop it. I knew I wasn’t meant to be this girl I’d become. My real name was... My real name was...
“Kayleigh Morris,” I whispered.
I couldn’t remember.
But I still knew that this wasn’t right. I had that. I remembered I was meant to be a man. I remembered my car up there on the road and I remembered my business; my house. And... Did I have a wife? I squinted, trying to remember. Did I? I couldn’t picture her.
Nervous, I probed my mind, feeling my way, and I got a memory of a dirty cramped little flat with rubbish on the floor and piles and piles of old books. No light on. Never any lights on. Food going mouldy. A dirty little blanket that stank of piss and shit.
I had to get out of this. Somehow.
Maybe I should try back up the stairs; try to force the gate again. Yes. I wanted to go up there and give it another try. That was the best idea.
But no. No. It wasn’t me thinking that. I’d already tried that. I couldn’t get through. And if I went up there again and came down again then surely I’d lose myself completely.
No. I had to find another way up. There had to be one.
I peered into the darkness. There were walkways overhead in places and between them the black night was showing through. Pillars and great big tubs that used perhaps to contain plants were dotted everywhere, blocking the view, but somewhere in one of the directions I would be able to find another way up onto the street and then circle round.
I looked to my right and jumped in fright when I saw a silhouetted figure a dozen yards away, standing still under the shadow of the overpass. It didn’t move at first and I started to speak, to call out to whoever it was, but I was frightened. My momma didn’t like me talking to strangers. She punished me if she found out about it.
But I was desperate. I just needed a little help.
“Hello?” I said, my voice tiny and timid. “Can you tell me if there’s a way up to the street? Apart from up these stairs?”
The figure swayed. It had to be a man. It was too bulky to be a woman. Could it be the man I’d followed down the stair? He didn’t respond to my question.
“Can you help me?” I said. “I’m sort of lost.”
He came three shambling steps toward me and then stopped. He was still a blackened featureless nothing. He swayed again then lurched another few steps. He was close now but I started to back up, little girl steps away from this towering stranger.
He came on again and now the light etched his features, drawing him in from the darkness. I saw flicks of dishevelled hair rising chaotically up from his head then I caught a lungful of the stench that came off him: mould and loneliness and decay.
Then he came on again in a rush and he was suddenly above me, reaching for me with his grasping hands, and I saw his face. It was the crazed face of a gibbering madman, palsied lips and gaping lidless eyes. He let out a moan and reached for my throat and I turned on my heel and ran screaming into the darkness.
I ran into the darkness away from the madman but he came after me, arms swinging in front of him, urgent groans coming from his cracked lips.
I was so small. I was tiny! How could I hope to get away from him?
It was pitch black in places but the diluted moonlight came through the rain clouds in large areas where there was open sky above. I fled toward one of those areas but as I looked back frantically he was still coming.
I was just a little girl. If he caught me he could do anything to me that he wanted. All he had to do was grab my wrist or my clothes – just one little snatch – and I would never be able to break free. He was like a giant compared to me; a monster!
I ran out into the open section, veering to the left of a stagnant fountain. The thick black water was littered with crap: a half open umbrella; a tricycle; a shopping basket. I turned, backing away. Still the man was following, lurching from one side to the other, his eyes fixed on mine.
This was no good. Out in the open he could track me – there was no way I could lose him – and I would get tired before he did surely. I had to keep to the darker areas. I had to hide.
I sprinted to my right and the man darted after me, flailing his right arm now and calling out gibberish as his left arm hung uselessly down near his waist. His matted hair swung across his face, distorting his features as he moved. I screamed and increased my speed, pitching forward.
He was twice my height at least. I was dead. He was going to get me.
Ahead there was a blockage; some benches that had been thrown over and piled up. I slid to a stop and looked right. That way led back toward the lighter areas. I turned left. But the man was there. He was upon me. He reached for me, grazing my shoulder. I squealed, contorting my body to get away from him. He lunged again and I ducked.
Just one hand on me. That was all he needed.
I ran again. He bellowed angrily; gibberish again; shaking his right fist high. I put my back to him and sprinted into the straight line of shadow, instantly vanishing in the contrasted blackness.
I turned left immediately and ran again, my hands out in front of me. I could barely see a thing. I made a diagonal path toward the right wall, hoping to feel my way along, but my shin bashed up against something rigid and sharp and I yelled in agony, pitching forward, all balance lost. I smacked hard onto the tiled floor and skidded, grunting, then finally fell still.
I lay there, the pain shooting up my leg from the shin; more pain in my shoulder and arm and on my forehead where I’d come down badly. I whimpered pathetically, winded, trying to catch a breath that proved too elusive.
I had to get up. He was coming. I had to get up and run but I was too sore. I couldn’t breathe. He was going to catch me anyway. There was no escape.
Then I went rigid. I stopped whimpering. I stopped trying to inhale.
The man was close. He was very close. I could hear him. I was lying mostly stretched out, my left cheek on the tile, facing right, tangled hair down over my nose and mouth. Somewhere below my feet and behind me, I could hear him moving, slowly now, coming nearer.
Closer he came to me. Closer and closer, his ragged breathing loud and sickening. Any second he was going to grab my little bare ankle, or my thigh. He was going to take my arm and wrench me up.
A hoarse inhale came from him and then an exhale. An inhale. An exhale. He was standing right behind me. I could feel it.
A tiny girlish sound escaped from my throat. I pinched my eyes and my lips tight shut.
Still his ugly sordid breaths came in and out; in and out.
Then he took a step that came down near the back of my head, and another: somewhere near my crown.
Could it be that he hadn’t seen me? Was that possible?
Please God, let that be possible.
I didn’t move or open my eyes – I still hadn’t let out a breath – but my lungs were burning. They were demanding it but I knew that I’d held the breath too long. It was bound to be loud; bound to draw him back.
He was still so close. I couldn’t risk it. But I couldn’t help myself!
My mouth cracked open and the air rushed in. I tried with all my heart to limit the sound of it and it was only slight.
I lay, frozen, waiting for him to pounce on me, but he didn’t. I allowed myself a slow but uneven inhale.
His footstep came down again, further away; another, still further. I opened my eyes to the darkness but remained absolutely still. I was still aching from head to foot.
But I had to get up once he was clear. I had to keep moving. If I just kept to the shadows and moved the opposite way to him, I could work my way round the perimeter of this sunken hellhole and surely... surely find a way out and back to my car.
I didn’t have any other choice. It was my only chance.
I waited a long, cold ten minutes or more on the dark patch of wet tiled floor, not moving; barely breathing; until I was sure that the crazy man was far enough away now not to see me. Even then when I got up I was trembling with fear.
I think at first, when I became this girl, I didn’t understand what had happened to me in a way that fully acknowledged the limitations of its reality. That wasn’t the case now. Lying there on the black floor, the stinking liquid beneath me soaking into my already filthy girlish clothes, I had come to comprehend just how real this situation was; how weak and vulnerable I was.
I had nowhere to go; no money; no adult authority or rights. And I couldn’t even rely on others to help me. The insidious false memories that had crept into my head when I climbed down the spiral stair for the second time had furnished me only with the knowledge that I had a mother; not who she was or where. I was totally alone. But maybe that was for the best. Tempting though it might have been to seek the sanctuary of this girl’s home and family, that smelled far too much like a trap. I wanted my own life back. I didn’t want to stay like this.
And what kind of parents kept a girl like this in these filthy clothes? It didn’t bear thinking about.
Looking in the direction the madman had gone I crept over to the wall and slowly; ever so slowly; started working my way along, peering ahead to look for further blockages and barriers. I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been potholes even or open grates plunging down into running sewage. This place was a torture palace. I couldn’t believe it even existed in this day and age. But what use was disbelief now? Everything about this situation challenged reality but I was still here, in the body of a little girl, creeping desperately on, hoping for a way out.
I reached a corner and headed to the right. Up ahead I could hear conversation and I slowed fearfully, trying to pick out words. It wasn’t the crazy old man. His language had been pure mad nonsense. These were younger men, rowdy and jovial. I even wondered if they might help me. Laughter came to me and I picked out a female voice in it, giving me even more hope. I started to move a little faster.
Ahead there was more detritus, this time a high pile of shopping trolleys; a mountain of them that went right up to the broken ceiling. I could see light through them; a flicker of flame. It made me pause and question if I should avoid these people, but I was so cold and I was getting painfully hungry, My belly felt like it had never contained food, it was so empty. I pressed on, skirting round the mound of trolleys and slowly the figures came into view.
There were five of them: youths in their late teens or early twenties. They were smoking joints and drinking beer and one of them was playing with a Zippo lighter while another wrapped a piece of sodden cloth round the end of a metal baseball bat. I slowed down, eying the can of petrol sitting on the floor at his feet.
There was a girl sitting thigh-to-thigh with one of the blokes, her top and leggings covered in so many horizontal rips that flesh was revealed all over her body. Two of the young men were standing up, arguing. The thin one on the right smacked one fist against his chest as he made each angry point.
Beyond them I saw something that made my eyes widen in relief: stairs, leading up, well lit by streetlight, but that was maybe thirty yards from where I was and I would have to go right through the middle of this group to get there.
I looked to my right to see if I could see a better route, though I was terrified that the madman might see me if I went back out that way. What if I didn’t see him until he was close enough to get me? What if he closed that one good hand of his round my arm and never ever let go again until I was broken inside and out.
I looked back at the group ahead, and only then did I realise that their conversation had ceased. All five of them were looking right at me.
“Well lookie what we have here,” said the tall skinny one who’d been banging his chest. “A pretty little girl out past her bedtime.”
I faltered, wondering whether I should try to go past or withdraw. I was conscious of a time limit; that their voices might draw the crazy man again. Would they stop him if he dragged me off into the blackness?
I took a step toward them and then a second.
“Where are you off to darlin?” asked the skinny one. “Shouldn’t you be in bed?”
I said nothing, buttoning my lips but looking up at him in wild-eyed fear.
“I hope you ain’t ignorin me girl,” he said. One of his friends laughed. “I can’t fucking stand being ignored.”
“I’m just trying to go past,” I said, my voice unbearably tiny and feminine; childlike. “Leave me alone.”
He laughed. They all did except the girl. “Did you hear that boys? She wants us to leave her alone! Now if that doesn’t mean we should do the opposite then I don’t know what does.”
I stopped, only a few feet from them now, shivering from cold and alarm. “Please don’t hurt me,” I said. “I’m just trying to get out. Please let me go past.”
Two of them laughed again then all of them joined in; gabbling hysterically, except for the girl who watched me with dull eyes.
“I don’t think so gorgeous,” said the leader. He sauntered over to his friend and took the baseball bat torch then held his palm flat to the other one with the Zippo who reluctantly gave it him. “I was thinking more like we might burn you.” He grinned, flashing his tongue out as far as his chin.
“No!” I cried, curling my arms round my chest. “Please, no!”
He laughed loudly and swaggered up to me, swinging the bat down past his feet in great arcs, back and forth. I went stiff as he lifted it and placed it on my shoulder. The reek of petroleum was dreadful. It was drenched in the stuff; far more than was needed to light it up. The excess liquid seeped into my jumper, trickling down my chest underneath, stinging my skin.
“Howzabout if I do that missy, eh?” he said, jeering. “Howzabout if I smack you round a bit first, eh?” He jabbed the bat against the side of my head and I winced. He jabbed it hard again.
“Please don’t!” I said, tears welling and seeping down my cheeks. “Please. Please don’t hurt me; I’m sorry. Don’t hurt me please!” I wept openly and the thin man looked at me in alarm as though he honestly hadn’t expected it.
Then he put his other hand on my opposite shoulder, the Zippo in it, and I shut up instantly. The tears kept running but silently now, like narrow ribbons of acid that scorched my skin.
He ground the wheel of the Zippo, making a spark, his face close to mine, then ground it again.
“Please,” I whispered.
The third time he ground it I saw the burst of light in my peripheral vision that meant it had caught.
“Please don’t hurt me,” I whimpered. “Please. I’ll do anything.”
He cocked his head, leering. “Anything?”
He looked back at his friends. “You hear that guys? She says she’ll do anything we want if we don’t set her hair on fire. Isn’t that public-spirited of her?”
All but the girl laughed.
“What do you guys think I should do to her?” he called back. “Burn her, let her go or fucking rape her?”
Two of the guys burst out laughing, extending their tongues just the way the thin one had. The other bloke only chuckled and sneered and said, “Fucking strip her down and do her man. She’s beggin for it!”
“No, burn her!” called the other two. “Burn her now!”
The thin man looked back at me, grinning broadly. “Now it gets tricky,” he said. “Cause I wanna have my wicked way with ya; I surely do. But that makes it a split vote; two for two. What to do now?” He bashed me again on the side of the head with the baseball bat. The petrol was seeping more and more into my jumper. The lit Zippo was swinging in front of my eyes, the flame dancing above the tiny metal grill guard on top of it. “You decide,” he called back to the girl and for the first time I felt hope.
She looked at him dopily, then at the others and then at me. She smacked her lips three times slowly. Then she gave a long blink, looked back at him and said, “Burn her.”
My urge was to scream; to run; but I didn’t. There was some broken connection between my brain and my reedy little-girl muscles.
All five of them were laughing now, including the girl, and the tall thin leader grabbed me by the back of my jumper and swung me round in front of him. He clenched so much of the fabric and so high between my shoulder blades that the entirety of my lower back was exposed. I yelped, both feet actually leaving the ground, then he barged me forward toward his friends.
The four of them started to chant, “BURN HER! BURN HER! BURN HER! BURN HER!” and the thin one laughed uncontrollably, shaking me this way and that.
They had a pile of pizza boxes and six packs in the centre of their little gathering with a battery lamp lying on its side casting a dim glow over their jeering faces. The leader pushed me out of his grasp towards the pile, making me think I might have a chance to escape, then he bashed me so hard in the centre of the back with the end of his bat that my legs crumpled and I fell forward onto my knees.
“BURN HER! BURN HER! BURN HER! BURN HER!”
I wept wildly. I couldn’t see anything through the blur of tears. I wanted my momma! I wanted her to come and get me. Why couldn’t they leave me alone?
“BURN HER! BURN HER! BURN HER! BURN HER!”
“Alright!” cried the leader. “Enough already! I’ll do it, don’t worry.”
I tried to get up onto my hands and knees but his boot rammed into my right buttock, hurling me onto my face and knocking over the pile of beer.
I raised my elbows so I could push myself up but I was so tired. I just wanted to be left alone.
Then I heard the scrape of metal on tile and I saw the petrol canister being lifted out of my field of vision.
“God no,” I whimpered.
But before I could stop it the liquid splashed down on me. It hit my shoulder and my hair; my flank and my bare legs. It sloshed noisily over and over me as the other four giggled and nudged one another.
“Don’t do this,” I whimpered. “Please don’t do this,” and suddenly the stinking petrol stopped raining down. I thought for a second that meant I was safe, then the empty canister clanged onto the tiles in front of my face and I screamed.
There was a sudden silence from all of them, then in that quiet I heard the scratching grind of the Zippo wheel, trying to build up a spark.
Great silent sobs wracked my body. I was powerless to stop this. I couldn’t even lift my body, the despair was so grave. I couldn't get away from them. I couldn't get out of this nightmare. It was never going to end.
I managed to turn my head to look up and behind me just as the Zippo flame caught again. I gave a whimper. He played with it, twirling it so fast in the gloom that his hand blurred indistinct, only the light itself visible. He and his friends chuckled all the more and he did the same thing with his tongue again, a signature of their gang. Then this time he did put the Zippo to the baseball bat torch and the petrol-sodden fabric burst into high flames that put his face in stark contrast, yin and yang, one of his eyes black, the other shining with lust and delight.
“Get ready little missy,” he said. “It’s gonna burn so hot that you’ll feel like you’ve jumped into ice water at first. Then the heat’ll set in and you’ll scream until your hair is gone and the skin’s dripping off your skeleton.”
“For God’s sake, let me alone!” I screamed in abject terror, curling into a foetal ball, my hands clasped, palms flat, against my cheeks.
I wept and wept, begging for them to let me go; waiting for the fire. My eyes were shut. I couldn’t move. I was in agony all over my body from the bumps and bruises. But still the fire didn’t come.
My tears subsided, my energy spent, all air drained from my chest, and I heard laughter of a different pitch. I opened my eyes a crack, unclenching my arms by an inch or two. Still the fire hadn’t come.
All five of them were laughing at me but it was totally different now. There was an entirely different phase to it. I unbound my little body more, daring to look up at the thin one.
He was laughing his head off, pointing at me, and it wasn’t the sinister laughter of a psychopath anymore; it was the open trill of a naughty schoolboy. All of them were giggling unguardedly as though a hilarious joke had been pulled and the girl turned to her boyfriend and said, “Did you see her face? She really thought we was gonna do it?”
This sent them into even deeper hysterics as I looked round in wonder and disbelief.
They’d been joking. They’d let me think they were really going to set me on fire and it had been nothing but a joke to them.
“Well go on then,” cried the thin one. “Get the fuck out of here you little bitch.”
Warily, expecting him to change his mind at any second, I uncurled myself and struggled achingly up.
He had the burning torch in his hand still but there was no active intent there. It hung safely away to the side. The Zippo was out of sight in his pocket. I glared at him angrily.
“Ooo, look at this!” he said. “Look at that dirty fucking look she’s giving me! You better watch it girl. There’s still time for me to do it to you. Now get lost before I really do.”
I shambled several steps away toward the stairs, to the edge of their rough ring. None of them made a move to stop me. I gave them all a fearful glare and looked one last time back at the thin one.
He winked at me and leered and then I ran on into the darkness, the steps now waiting with nothing left to stop me reaching them.
I ran as fast as I could to the bottom of the steps, my heart in my mouth for yet another unexpected attack. There was blackness on either side of it – more flats were built over the top of the underpass – and the steps themselves were in bright contrast because of the streetlamp light shining down on them. They looked to my eyes like stairs leading to heaven and if they could get me out of this dismal place then they were as good as that.
At the top I could see open sky and I started crying again, my little girl heart overwhelmed with relief. I knew I was losing myself in this identity but I still had my determination. This wasn’t going to beat me. I was going to get away. I was going to reverse what had happened somehow.
I went to the handrail and took hold of it then climbed as fast as I could. The additional stretching my legs had to do to climb exacerbated my injuries, bringing on a flood of fatigue, making me climb slower and slower until as I came close to the top I was having to rest between steps. I didn’t stop though; I carried on; but it was so hard. Each movement now elicited a moan of pained effort.
Step by step by step, and then finally I was on the top, staggering out onto the pavement, weeping again in relief.
But though in my mind I had perceived this as the end-goal; freedom from that bower below; I realised now that I was still little better off. I was a little girl stuck, lost in the centre of Barton. I hadn’t been able to find my way out when I was a man in a car. What hope did I have now?
The car was somewhere over to the left. I set my mind that way and started moving. That was a touchstone at least. If I got to that familiar sight then at least I would feel like I had some respite.
It was freezing cold. The wind was up but the sky was spotting with rain and my filthy clothes were still drenched from my lying on the wet floor down there and from my bath in stinking petrol. My new little body was skinny; no fat or muscle to hold on to the scant heat I had started with. I wrapped myself in my arms but it didn’t help. I wanted to cry again but my throat and my eyes were too sore. I just went on walking.
Up ahead there was a T junction coming in from the right and I brightened because coming to the corner was a woman with one full carrier bag. I had a flash of relief. I craved the protection of a grownup, especially a woman so I diverted my route toward her. Coming into sight to the left was the stair gate in the barrier and my parked car.
I crossed the street and said, “Excuse me; sorry.” She saw me. “I’m sorry to bother you. I know you don’t know me and I look a terrible mess, but I’m trying to get out of Barton and I need directions. Please can you tell me which way Nockton is from here?”
She slowed and stopped a few feet away. She was an overweight kindly-looking lady in her mid-forties with tightly curled hair. “What did you say?”
I went closer. “Directions,” I said. “I live in Nockton but I got lost here. I’m trying to get back out. I’ve been going round for hours.”
She looked down at me and I felt suddenly disconcerted. There was an odd shift in her benevolent eyes; a blackening of the irises; then her kind expression hardened, becoming an almost theatrical scowl. “What did you say to me?”
Disarmed, I stepped back. Her voice was harsh and malevolent. I couldn’t explain it, but I stammered the words, “I just want to get out of Barton. Please help me.”
She glared at me an instant longer, then her face turned an even darker shade of wrathful and she said something that chilled my insides. “What the hell are you talking about Kayleigh?”
I took another step back. “Uh, what?” She’d used my name – my new girl name. It sent my mind cascading, trying to understand what this could mean.
“What kind of lies are you trying to tell now?” she snapped. “Living in Nockton... What nonsense is that?”
“Sorry,” I said stuttered. “Do I know you?”
She drew back her hand and slapped the back of it hard against my face, hurling me to the floor. I thumped down hard, bashing the side of my forehead on the tarmac and dazing me. “I’m your mother you wicked girl!” she cried. “Are you mad?”
I turned my head and looked up at her in alarm, shaking my head. “No. You can’t be.” This wasn’t me. It couldn’t be real. I was meant to be a grown man. “You can’t be my mother.”
If it was feasible, her face turned an even darker shade, the whites of her eyes blazing, and she darted forward, grasping for my arm. “Why you little piece of trash.” She snatched my wrist, wrenching me up off the floor with a squeak. “How dare you speak to me like that?”
She whacked me as hard as she could on the back of my thigh and I yelped, pushing back at her and trying to block her next strike with my free hand.
“You nasty little troll!” she snapped, hitting me again. “Just wait until your poppa hears about this!”
She yanked me, pulling me almost over again, then yanked me back the other way. I started to cry.
“Don’t give me that insipid crap now,” she sneered. “I’m sick of your bawling. Now come here!”
She grabbed me by a chunk of my hair and started marching toward the big block of flats. “I’m taking you home my girl and I won’t hear another peep out of you!”
“What? No!” I cried. “No! I have to go to my car. Please. I have to get out of here! I can’t stay in Barton!”
She yanked on my hair again and I squealed. “Shut up you ignorant little trollop! I’m sick of your lies. I’m sick of you skiving off school. I’m sick of you shop lifting! I wish you’d never been born sometimes, I really do!”
“Please,” I stammered, wincing as I reached for her hold on my hair. “I don’t know you – I swear I don’t! This is a terrible mistake! I shouldn’t be here. I’m not who I look like. This is all wrong!”
My car was so close now. If only I could get to it. But with a sickening feeling I realised I didn’t even have the keys anymore. They had vanished when I changed. I was locked out of it and even if I could get back in I wouldn’t be able to drive it.
The woman swung me round, stabbing agony into the roots of my hair, then she whipped me backwards and let go so I stumbled and then lost my footing as I hit the pavement, falling onto my back. “Not another word young lady,” she snapped. “Not another word! I’m taking you back up to the flat and then you’re going to get a sound thrashing and it’ll be bed without any food. And no food tomorrow either unless you mind your Ps and Qs!”
I looked up at her dazedly, trying to comprehend how bad this had got.
“Now get up,” she said, pointing. “And don’t make me drag you.”
I looked where she was pointing to and saw the same looming dreadful apartment complex, and before it, only yards away, I saw the locked metal gate and beyond it the spiral stair.
“No,” I muttered desperately.
Because I remembered what had already happened to me when I went down it again – how close I'd come to losing my mind; losing my very identity to this nightmare until I couldn’t now even remember my real name.
If I went down there again – if she forced me to – then surely it would be all over for me. I would never get out of this torment. I would be trapped here forever, not even remembering anymore that it was a mistake.
I looked back up at the merciless hag, tears streaming down my cheeks, but before I could say or do anything else she charged toward me and grabbed my wrist.
“No!” I whimpered. “I don’t want to go there, please. I can’t go down there. I’ll lose myself. You’ll kill me. I’ll cease to exist.”
“Oh don’t be such a drama queen you silly girl,” snapped the woman, jolting my arm hard enough to hurt up at the shoulder socket. “I’m so sick of your stupid games and now you’re going to start learning a lesson that will last until you’re thirty!”
She pulled me up onto the curb, only a few yards away from the gate now. I tugged back, trying to dislodge her grip, prising at her big hard-skinned fingers with my other hand. “Please! I know you think I’m your daughter but I’m not. I can’t be! An hour ago I was a man. I’ve lived my whole life as a man. Look!” I pointed. “My car’s still there! That must mean that... It must mean that you never had a little girl before. She hasn’t become me; don’t you understand? She hasn’t become me and driven off.”
She grumbled under her breath and tugged at me again.
“I don’t think this girl you see – the person I look like... I don’t think she even existed before today!”
The woman whirled round and her movement flicked me back; the reverse of my own, spinning me to face her. I gasped, going rigid in panic, then she smashed me across the face with her palm so hard that it cracked the flesh and pounded my head away from her. The breath went out of me along with all the resolve I’d managed to maintain. When I turned back to face her I was shivering, my teeth chattering. My eyes were wide and glazed, my mind a blank welter of horror.
The woman raised her finger to my face and her voice became husky, low and venomous. “You listen here my girl. You won’t say another word until we’re up at the flat; is that clear?”
“Is that... clear?”
I nodded quickly, my cheek throbbing. I started to open my mouth again, despite that but she raised her finger close to my eye and tightened her glare. I nodded again obediently. She held that glare for several more seconds then she lowered her hand and took up my wrist again. In a voice as sweet as madness she said, “There now. If you’re good like that I might even give you a sweetie when we get in. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
She was crazy; as crazy as the madman down below who had chased me; but all I could do was nod.
She led me docilely to the gate, set her carrier bag down for a second and unlocked it. I jerked, trying to get free and she slapped me again. I ducked, raising my arm to protect myself and she hit me several more times on the forearm and on the back of my head until I was sobbing in fatalistic terror.
Then she yanked me through the gate and I heard it slam shut behind us.
It was dark down the spiral stair before us still. The densely caged sides blocked out much of the dim night light but it did little for the rain that was falling more heavily now and dripping through the little gaps.
I couldn’t get back through the gate by myself and I couldn’t stop her taking me down. This was really going to happen. I was really going to lose myself to this abyssal horror. I was never ever going to escape from this awful abusive life in this appalling den of hostility. The acceptance of that drained all the strength out of me; all the determination. Entirely passively, I let her guide me to the top of the stair and start down.
I didn’t even try to resist this time. I knew there was no hope of that. If anything I welcomed it because I knew there was no way out of this place now: the body I was trapped in, the apartment complex, or Barton itself. Even if I managed to escape from her I would never be myself again. I would be lost and alone until the end of my days. At least with her I had a home; someone to... to look after me; to keep me safe.
As soon as the descent began I felt the nausea and a grinding headache that worked its way from the back of my head to the front with excruciating slowness. The woman gave one little jerk on my wrist after another, leading me like an unruly dog. She was singing to herself. She wasn’t affected by the stair in the least.
And each step I went down I felt the bludgeoning force of the curse stripping away my sense of manhood; raking out my memories and messily stitching in new ones: a short life of cruelty and neglect; beatings and starvation and petty crime.
I was Kayleigh Morris. Of course I was. I was eight years old. I was a little girl. I always had been. This was my momma. She loved me very much. I knew that because she always told me so after she hit me, popping a sweetie in my mouth from her private stash if I was a very good girl. And I loved her too.
Down we went; screwing into the darkness around the spiral; turning and turning into the deeper blackness as my past was torn out of me and my future thrust back into the grisly open wound left behind.
Round and round, down and down, and I was sorry I’d told lies to my momma. I was sorry I was so bad. I knew I deserved my punishment but I wanted it to be over soon. I wanted that more than anything. When I was back in my room I'd be okay. It was filthy and there was no light or heating in there but if I burrowed into the nest I’d made out of newspapers then it was cosy enough and Momma seldom came in there unless she was very, very drunk.
It started to get lighter. We were nearing the bottom. I smiled, relieved. The headache and sickness were dying down. I didn’t know why they had come on so fast.
Momma led me off the foot of the spiral stair into the dark underpass and started tugging me toward the distant underground entrance to Shelby Apartments. She was still singing and it was such a pretty sound. I wished I didn’t have to get punished. I wished she would sit me on her lap and stroke my hair like she used to do when I was really little. But she never did that no more. Not ever.
Half way to the dimly lit entrance she stopped and I gave a yelp, seeing a silhouette of a man shambling closer. I hid behind my momma but she didn’t flinch. She wasn’t scared of anything.
The man came up to us and I saw his frizzy hair, his one dead arm, his lurching palsied gait and his crazed staring eyes; his demented expression. I shivered in fright and gave off a moan but Momma pushed me toward him.
I shook my head in fear but she jabbed me in the back, knocking me even closer.
The man was almost to me. He reached for my face with his hand.
“Give you poppa a kiss child,” said Momma in one of her rare kind voices. “Look at him. He’s missed you.”
This story is one of six stories in the compilation, A New You Volume 2 by Emma Finn, a book of transformation and body swap stories available on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.
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