Tis the Season to be Scared: 5 days to go ’til Halloween

Posted: October 27, 2014 in Sharkways by AJ Kirby

It’s coming… The darkness drops again, and that rough beast begins its slouch towards Halloween.

Today we’re focusing on Sharkways, my 2012 horror novel which was published by Damnation Books.

Sharkways 72 dpiSYNOPSIS

Bill Minto is a world-weary property developer. His marriage is on the rocks. His health is failing. His cut-cornered projects constantly threaten to come back and haunt him. So when a mysterious caller offers him the job of a lifetime – all he must do is excavate the hidden tunnels under a country house—he jumps at the chance. But it soon becomes clear Bill is not alone in the tunnels. A past he’d long believed hidden lurches after him in the darkness, smelling blood. And guilt.


“He might have blacked out, but it was a different kind of unconsciousness
than the one that hit him when he fitted at the hospital. Now, Bill’s brain became a Multiplex cinema. His mind’s eye was filled with hundreds, thousands of competing images, flashes of memory, ghosts in the machine.

The films played thickly and fast and now seemed to be dictated not by chronology but by guilt, pain, or fear. Images flickered past him as though illuminated by an epileptic strobe display.

He saw Rose, Collie, and the busty receptionist at Souldust Medicare. He saw an exceptionally hairy Doctor Glenn—his hair growing so fast, as if controlled by a button on his back, like one of those child’s toys. He saw an even taller than real Nurse White. A Nurse White whose limbs were huge, sharp, and jabbing. He saw a young girl with blonde bunches in her hair, a girl with a cute button nose and a gap-toothed smile. A girl whose shoelace was undone
and who already had a graze on her knee from “exploring”.

Only when he hit bottom did Bill discover he’d been falling, plunging headfirst into the abyss. Only when he felt his body pile drive his head deeper into the already-tight hard hat, did he realize how far and how fast he’d dropped. Only when he heard the sickening crunch of the hat, and maybe also bones, did he know for a fact he was still alive on this introductory, starter-for-ten ride to hell.

He ricocheted off slippery stone, bounced, rag-doll like, over jagged edged rocks, hardly noticing that they tore into his flesh and clothes. Barely discovering what real pain felt like. Yet.

He slipped, rolled, skittled further across the bottom of the abyss, displacing stones, fossils, and stalagmites as he tumbled.

The flashlight smashed and clattered away, its light extinguished.

A steel toecap connected with something hard and screeched in complaint. His body doubled into itself, and he swore he’d attained a fetal comma and an X-marks-the-spot, both at the same time. His back cheese grated against rock. One knee pummeled his face. His left leg suddenly appeared adjacent to his left shoulder, buckling, in a way that simply was not natural.

He lost one of his boots. The forces generated by his fall managed to untie a double-knot and wrench the boot off his foot as easily as a mother pulls a sock off her baby.

As he fell, time stretched into one long moment in which he had the opportunity to compose his thoughts and experience the seven stages of grief. At first, as his boot disappeared into the oily blackness, he simply wouldn’t believe this was happening to him. He was sure he must have fallen asleep after his lunch. Sure this was a dream. Sure he was actually tucked safely inside the van or the wine cellar. Even as he bounced off the rock face again, his trailing left leg whipping back and forth like a flag in a hurricane,
even though some part of him knew this was real, he numbed himself to the reality for protection.

“I’m not falling. Of course, I’m not falling. What a ridiculous idea!”

He was falling. The way his leg was behaving told him that. The way the chinstrap of the hard hat was now scoring into his neck. With the realization came the pain.

Excruciating, unbearable pain. As Bill Minto continued to fall, he bargained with God. Whether this call was actually vocalized, or whether it was a primal scream, or whether it simply remained smashing around the receptors in his head, Bill wasn’t sure. Still, what he meant was clear: “Take what you want. I’ll do anything.

Just let me survive. I’ll look after Collie better. I’ll be a better husband to Rose. I’ll be honest in my tax returns. I’ll use better materials. I’ll charge the proper labor rates. I won’t go chasing the big bucks in jobs like these simply because of the money. I’ll make sure there can be nothing like the accident, again.”

God remained white noise. God was otherwise engaged.

Still, Bill was alive. Alive and falling. Occasionally, as he rolled or bounced, he might have been looking back up, to the relatively better light just past the huge, wooden door he’d pushed through. Occasionally, he caught the weak, firefly beam of Collie’s flashlight, but it was always too quick, always out of the corner of his eye, always far away. He wondered how long he could last like this, how much farther he could fall. He thought about Jules Verne and
his Journey to the Center of the Earth. Bill might be nearly there now, about to plunge into the molten magma, which was a pretty good approximation of hell.

Then, without warning, he heard a splash. He felt water pooling around him, filling his nostrils. He opened his mouth, and it gushed inside. He realized he was in hell. He could smell the water. It was surely the source of the ripe, stagnant odor that had been congealing around them ever since they’d first entered the old wine cellar.

He sank down into it and for an instant, he thought he touched the very bottom of the abyss with his naked right foot, but he quickly started floating upward, again. Too quick for him to tell how deep the water was. His breath came in bubbles, and Bill realized that karma came for him. He was overreaching. He was desperately trying to claw back what he thought he’d lost. Pride.

What did pride come before?

“Anyone? At the back there, blue cardigan…”

What does pride come before? A fall, you say?

Well…yes. You could say that pride came before a fall, but Bill Minto hadn’t just fallen, he’d plummeted and was now plumbing the depths. Through the thickness of the water, he heard that same booming voice he’d heard reverberating through the concrete in the wine cellar. Only now, it was making him feel lonelier. At the very moment, he should have been kicking against the water, forcing himself to breach the surface and breathe, and instead he was
reflecting. Sadly, slowly. Reflecting on so many wrong choices he’d
made in his lifetime.

He waited to die.

He waited for the accumulation of all the injuries he’d experienced to come back and do him in. He waited for the white light. Or the red light. He waited for the flap of angel’s wings. He waited for the claws of some demon to tear at his skin. He waited, as the water tried to claim him as its own. He waited as his lungs screamed, as his knee raged, as his left leg refused to budge on
command, and as his body pleaded for relief.

Suddenly, Bill felt a twinge of rage, like something had twisted the coil of his brainstem and was now tugging on it. “Hey, Bill. You wanna die like this? Like a pissy-scared girl?”

He didn’t. The knowledge fired through him, bringing with it a newfound determination to care. It came bodily at first. His body rejected the dangerous, poisonous taste of the water. He lifted his head, crested the water, and his body forced him to suck in a breath. For a moment, that breath wouldn’t come. For a moment, he felt aquatic, that real air wasn’t right for him, but then that first breath came, and though it felt like inhaling broken glass, it still acted to energize his body.

He was alive. He felt the knowledge licking his wounds. He felt the world tipping back on its axis. He felt something, someone deciding that maybe he was right. Maybe he didn’t deserve to die.

Not today. He breathed and rejoiced in the plain simple fact of it.

“In-Out, In-Out, In-Out.”

It was wonderful, truly wonderful, and for a split second—before reality and money and jealousy and anger bit back—he understood that he could be happy, truly happy, if he only breathed, In-Out, In-Out, In-Out for the rest of his life. That it would do him. That it would do him as it did his father.

With that thought, he edged open his eyes. For a moment, he thought he’d been wrong, that he’d only imagined opening his eyes, that in fact the lids were still clamped tightly shut. For he peered into a darkness which was veiny, like the backs of his eyelids— a darkness that was infused with a reddish tint. A darkness that was so unconditional, it almost knocked the breath out of
him all over again.

Gradually, his eyes started to become accustomed to this strange, new blindness. Instead of the initial breathless, teary sting, indistinct shapes and colors shifted lazily into focus. He felt like a computer rebooting.

Slowly, his eyes showed him at least some of the rock face, the part immediately to his right. They showed him some of the abyss looming above him; only part, but it was enough. Slowly, he took in the ripples surrounding him on the water.

“Oh God,” he breathed. As he did so, he realized how thick his tongue felt in his throat. How his voice appeared to be coming at once from him, and from somewhere else. He could taste coppery blood and strings of bitten tongue in his molars. The thought of it made his head spin.

He reached up. He tried to touch his nose, sure it was broken, but his hand-eye coordination was out. It felt as though he had no hands, no eyes. When he touched the hard hat, for a beat or two, he felt he was touching exposed bone. He screwed up his eyes again, clutched the rock to keep himself upright.

Gingerly, and before he could talk himself out of it, he performed a quick recon on his battered body, expecting to discover a war zone. If his head felt this bad, then what about the rest of him?

Through blood, shock, and dust-clogged eyes, he performed his inventory. Despite the fact his naked right foot was screaming in pain, it appeared to be connected and wasn’t jutting out at an unlikely “L” shape as he’d expected. Sure, it appeared ghostly-green in the gloom, but a foot was a foot was a foot.
In muted celebration, he flexed his toes. Check. No missing limbs, despite the all-consuming pain. Check. His back ached as though he’d been the one wielding the sledgehammer, yet it didn’t appear to be broken. He knew it was a bloody, pulped mess, but he wasn’t paralyzed. He wasn’t going to simply drown down here, unable to move. Check, check. His arms were working. He ghosted a hand in front of his face. Held up three fingers and confirmed
the number out loud. “Three.” His soft voice echoed back off the
hard rock.

Then, he realized he’d have to consider his left leg. The one that had been bent up by his shoulder. The one that had been billowing in his back draft like it wasn’t just broken, but the bones had been sucked out of it. Hoping against hope, he reached down. He reached over his overhanging fat, continued past his belt, and fingered his heavy jeans, pausing a moment before plunging onward.

He fived his fingers over a knee cap which had now, horribly, been inverted—had become a crater.

He reached on, to his calves…where he felt…Oh, God. Where he felt the tear in the jeans. Where he felt sharp bone pricking into his fleshy finger. Like a child who only understood he should be crying when he saw blood, Bill Minto finally felt real pain. He felt it rip through him like so many aftershocks. Felt it like he was falling, again. Felt it…For a moment, for a sickening moment, his
heart said, “I’m giving up, now. You can’t keep expecting me to pump blood when it’s just spilling out into this crappy pool.”

Bill started to tremble. He couldn’t stop trembling. He felt as though he was going to do some irreparable damage to his teeth if they continued chattering against each other as they were.

It was erosion. The gradual process of wearing something down. He felt like all of him had been ground away, and all that was left was this husk, this shivering, fat body with its useless leg. Knees knocked against each other within the water as though they were brittle cliffs. Fingers couldn’t grip the rock properly. He felt himself slipping down into the icy depths once again.

Desperately, he tried to kick for the surface, but as he did so, he disturbed the
water and his broken leg. The water sent chills electrifying around
his battered body. The leg crucified him.

Finally, he managed to grasp the side, again. He felt another fingernail go by the wayside, but such pain was miniscule, now. He treaded water and tried to talk himself down from a highrise of pain and fear. Now that he was coming to his senses, he realized he was probably better off dead. That he’d survived into
this was his purgatory. He had no idea how deep or how cold the water was. Would he die of hypothermia, or would the inability to tread water do him in first?
Then, there was the slippery rock. Even if he wanted to, even if he had the strength to drag himself out of the water and beach himself on the rock, he wasn’t sure he could. It was simply too slippery. Too laden with slime and gunk—and his blood, most likely.

The list of ways he could and would die was rapidly expanding. As was his sense of panic. He’d have been better off numb and senseless, perhaps. He’d have been better off if he’d brained himself when he fell. If not for the hard hat, he would have been knocked unconscious. Without quite knowing why, he rapped his hand off the top of the hat twice for luck. The noise was altogether
too loud down there. Altogether too much of a reminder of his
solitary predicament.

He tapped his hat, again. Any sound was better than that of his own keening. The sound of his heart thrumming in his head. This time, as he tapped the hat, miraculously, amazingly, there was a response. From high above.

To Bill’s embattled brain, it sounded as though it might as well have been coming from heaven. That voice. That voice might as well have been wearing angel wings. Might as well have been coming from ignorant God himself.

“Chief?” it asked. “Chief? That you?”

It was Collie. Of course it was Collie. Only, he sounded very far away, as though he was in another country, another world. He sounded safe. Dry. Warm. Goddamnit, Collie should have been the one first through that door. Collie should have been the one down here. Collie would have been able to stand this. Collie would have—

Bill tried to yell back, “Collie!” but all that came out was a rasp in his throat. He wanted to give way to a rack of coughing, but feared that if he did so, that would be the final thing to send more of the inevitable pain—pain which was surely stuck somewhere in the post, through his goddamn mailbox. Second delivery.

“Chief?” yelled Collie. This time, the weak beam of a flashlight accompanied his call. Bill saw it miles away in the air. Flickering. Briefly painting the sides of the abyss in a sheepish yellow. Never whiskering down far enough, though. Not by any stretch.

“Chief? I’m just going to go up and get something, but I’ll come
back. I’m not leaving you. Chief?”

“No…Don’t go…Save me!”

Silence from above. Collie was as non-responsive as God.

Bill tried to fasten himself to the rock and ever so slowly drag himself up it. It got so most of his flabby trunk was out of the water, so that if he kicked his good leg a couple times he could have slipped out, but then his body gave in to another mass of trembling, and he flopped back into the water.

Now, he tried to keep himself as still as possible, to expend as little energy as needed. As he lay, partially submerged, he heard the water gently lapping away at the sides. He heard the slow dripdrop of water somewhere off to the right. He heard other things, too, or thought he did. He heard the scrabbling of tiny feet against rock. He heard squeaking. He heard nails scratching against
something which might or might not have been the steel toecap
of his boot.

He pictured rats eating him alive, pictured their milky white, almost blind eyes as they fixed on him. He pictured which parts of him they’d go for first.

The juicy parts…there were a hell of a lot of those.

Why in the hell hadn’t he kept himself in shape?

Why in the hell had he allowed himself to get like this?

Why in the hell hadn’t he listened down at the golf course when he first heard the whisperings in the locker-room—“Minto’s put on a bit of the ol’ timber, hasn’t he?” Then, as he’d started to become the butt of all jokes—“Minto’s so fat, he leaves footprints in his concrete,” or “Minto’s so blubbery, he shows up on radar,” or “Minto’s put on so much timber, he’s become his own logging
company”—and then as he couldn’t even get himself around the course? When even the buggies couldn’t hold his weight. When Rose couldn’t, either. When it got so he was out of breath going up the stairs in the house he’d built with his own hands, and he’d taken to pissing in bottles and jugs that he kept by the side of his easy chair.

What had he done to himself?

He peered into the gloom, trying to pick out the scurrying things. He could imagine them going for his fingers first. Eating them away, so there was nothing holding him up any more, then just swarming over him in the water, feasting. He wouldn’t be able to protect himself. The only things he could reasonably use as weapons were his hard hat and his belt, and he feared that if
he removed either, it would result in both body and mind spilling out, congealing, and that would be that.

More scrabbling. More squeaking.

Bill tried splashing at the water with his free hand, hoping that whatever the creatures were, they’d see all the water, the mess, and decide only something truly big and dangerous could have created such a tidal wave. He heard water slapping back off the rock face. Felt it raining down on top of his hard hat. Felt it trickling down his cheeks, too, though that may well have been something

He grew tired. He’d pulled a muscle in his shoulder. It started twitching, juddering about to its own tune. No matter how much he concentrated, he couldn’t get his arm still. He stared at it fiercely. Warned it through gritted teeth. He felt like biting it, just so he could have some measure of authority over it, even if that authority only amounted to self-inflicted injury…

He saw movement.

It came vertically on the rock face not six feet away, moving slowly, surely, down the incline. He’d only seen it because of the light emanating from its core. It was beautiful—for a bug— and took his breath away. The creature looked like an animated Egyptian artifact. It shone gold, royal blue, racing green, cycling through colors as though it was trying to attract him for a mate.”

Read more: Buy Sharkways now.


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