Sunday, December 21, 2014

Happy Birthday Molly Carlson!

I would like to wish a happy birthday to Molly Carlson, a long-time Stateside reader of this blog and a friend I've unfortunately never met. Her comments always illuminate this humble corner of cyberspace and I often think they are more interesting than the posts they follow!

Happy birthday, Molly! You probably won't see this today, so I'll say, hope you had a wonderful birthday!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Mystery Tour: Chapter Three

The bad weather was not a passing squall. Fifteen minutes later it had only increased in intensity.

“Funny thing is”, said Karla, addressing the air, “today was meant to be mild. According to the forecast.”

“Really?” asked Helen. “I heard that it was going to be stormy.”

“Hang on” said Karla, reaching into her pocket and taking out her mobile phone. It was a rather snazzy-looking smartphone, that looked as though it might be able to do everything short of instantly translating your conversation into Japanese. She swiped her thumb along its screen, but a look of frustration passed across her face.

“Dammit” she said. “I can’t get a signal. How about you?”

Helen produced a rather smaller and less advanced phone from inside her jacket. A little bit of prodding provoked much the same expression as Karla's. “Nothing. Must be the storm, I guess.”

Karla looked at Laurence. “You?”

“I don’t have a mobile telephone” said Laurence. “I hate them.”

Karla rolled her eyes a little. “One of those guys.”

“And who would those guys be?”

Karla didn’t answer. She looked out the window. “I don’t imagine we’ll have much touring if this doesn’t clear up.”

“I’m surprised how fast we’re going” said Helen. The bus seemed to be moving almost as fast as it would be moving in good weather, and in light traffic.

“Maybe we’re on a quiet road”, said Laurence.

With that, the intercom crackled. A bubbling sound and a slow, steady drum-beat filled the air of the bus. Laurence thought he recognised it from somewhere.

“That’s ‘The Monster Mash’ “ said Karla, with one of her sudden, dizzy smiles.

Over the intercom, Skull Face began to sing along with the first words of the song. He did a perfect Borris Karloff impression. He had a fine singing voice, too.

Karla and Helen laughed out loud. Karla’s laugh was no silvery tinkle, but loud and deep. Her shoulders shook as she laughed.

“Join in”, urged Skull Face, when he reached the end of the verse.

Karla and Laurence took up his suggestion straight away. They both knew the words off by heart. Helen obviously didn’t, but waited and then joined in the chorus eagerly enough. All the time, the hail and the rain battered on the sides of the bus, and the wind howled furiously.

Suddenly, Laurence felt happy. Ridiculously happy. Was it just because he was sitting opposite Karla, who seemed more desirable to him every moment? Was it the storm outside? (He could never remember a time when he didn’t love storms.) Was it the song, which had always been one of his favourites? Or the sudden, conspiratorial sense of companionship that seemed to have sprung up inside the bus?

All of these things, doubtless. Less than an hour ago I was planning to kill myself, he thought. Not for the first time in his life, Laurence was struck by the sheer randomness of human existence.

The song came to an end, and Skull Face asked: “How about another blast of that?”

“Yes!” Karla shouted at the top of her voice. It echoed through the bus, despite the noise of the storm outside.

Laurence and Helen laughed, and a few moments later the sound of the bubbling cauldron came over the intercom again.

That’s when Laurence saw it.

He had turned to glance out the window, and an electric shock passed through him. The sky had turned green.

It was a livid, glowing green, utterly unnatural looking.The rain looked as though it was green sparks thrown off by a green fire.

And, suddenly, despite the water streaming down the window, he caught a glimpse of something outside—a human figure, some twenty or thirty feet away from the bus. A figure in a hooded cloak, walking very slowly towards them.

And then it was gone. Not only the figure, but the colour of the sky. It was the same charcoal grey it had been a few moments before.

But there was more to the experience than what Laurence saw. It was what he felt, too. The sight filled him with a sense of horror, but it was a very particular sort of horror. It wasn’t the sort of horror he’d felt the time he was convinced he had cancer, or when he was being bullied at school. It was...

Well, it was exactly like the horror he’d felt when he’d discovered scary movies, as a very young boy. It reminded him of that cardboard cut-out advertisement in the video shop window, all those years ago. The one showing a gnarled hand rising from a freshly-dug grave. The one that he couldn’t stop going to look at it even though it made his heart pound and his whole body feel chilly. It had the same flavour.

It was a horror that went much deeper than the fear of danger...and one that, somehow, called to him.

“What’s wrong?”

He turned. Helen was watching him, keenly.

“Nothing” he said.

“You look like you…saw something” said Helen. “You jumped.”

For a moment Laurence thought of telling her the truth. But only for a moment.

“Nothing to see out there”, he said, with a smile.

Now Karla was watching him, too, curiously. She had stopped singing along with the Monster Mash. But Skull Face’s voice still came over the intercom, singing with gusto.

“What's this guy’s name, anyway?” asked Laurence, eager to change the subject. “He never told me.”

“I did ask him” said Helen. She gave a rather quizzical smile. “Mr. Ferryman. That’s what he said.

“Oh, please” said Karla. “That is so lame."

“It’s what he said.”

Laurence was barely listening to them. His heart was thumping, and his skin was goosepimpled all over.

He remembered a story he had read when he was thirteen or fourteen, one that had always stuck with him. It was called ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ and it was written by Ambrose Bierce, a veteran of the American Civil War who’d written a dictionary full of cynical definitions, and who eventually disappeared in Mexico.

The story was about a soldier of the American Civil War who was caught by the other side and escaped just as he was about to be hanged. For the entire story he was on the run from his would-be executioners, and towards the end it looked like he was going to get away...then came that sickening twist, where it turned out he had been hanged after all, and the whole story had been a hallucination running through his mind in its last moments, as the noose squeezed the oxygen from his brain. (Not long afterwards, Laurence had seen the film Jacob’s Ladder, which had used pretty much the same twist...but which still managed to trick him.)

The memory of the story gave him a heavy feeling in his stomach, like he’d swallowed a bowl of ball-bearings. What if he had gone ahead with his decision from earlier, after all? What if he was hanging by his neck from the rod in his wardrobe now? What if all this was the last pyrotechnics of his dying imagination?

He looked at Karla, who was still talking to Helen. He noticed her high forehead, her ever-so-slightly frazzled hair, her rather strong jaw-line. And, of course, her full figure, which was rather fuller than would be deemed ideal in many, if not most, eyes. It was almost ridiculous— Karla was his dream girl from head to toe. Was it because he was actually dreaming her, along with all of this?

His eyes turned to Helen. He wondered why he would dream a middle-aged academic.

But he only wondered for a moment. The motherly way she had looked at him, a moment before—what was it, except the fantasy of a young man who had never really had a mother? Whose own mother had tried to murder him before she murdered herself, when he was only a baby?

All this cameraderie, this storm, the bus that had pulled up just at the right moment—wasn’t it all too good to be true?

And with that, they came to a halt. Laurence, pulled out of his reverie, realised that the wind had gone from a howl to a sigh, and the rain and hail had stopped pounding against the bus.

Skull Face-— Mr. Ferryman, that was—- came through the door of the driver’s compartment, and once again clapped his hands-— a little more gently, this time.

“First stop, ladies and gentleman. The rest of your life begins now, if you dare to step outside.”

Jabbing the door that opened the bus’s door—for the first time, Laurence noticed that it had the Evil Eye painted on it—he descended the steps with a boy’s eagerness, and jumped onto the ground outside. Laurence could hear the soft thump as his feet landed.

The three passengers rose from their seats, rather warily. Laurence gave a small bow, smirked, and waved his hand with exaggerated chivalry.

“Thank you kindly, sir” said Helen, with a smile. Karla said nothing as she stepped past.

He followed the two ladies down the steps, curiosity driving his speculations out of his head—or out of the forefront of his mind, anyway.

It was cold. Not bitterly cold, but several degrees colder than it had been before he’d boarded the bus. A gentle drizzle was still falling.

They were standing in the middle of a broad country road, hedged in by trees on either side. Lights were scattered none-too-plentifully along the horizon in front of them. Laurence could hardly imagine a place that had more of a middle-of-nowhere look about it.

“Where are we?” asked Karla.

“Now, now, now” said Mr. Ferryman, clapping her lightly on the shoulder. “What kind of mystery tour would it be if I told you where you were? After the happy accident of that storm, too.”

Karla smiled at him, and Laurence felt a twinge of jealousy. She hadn’t smiled so sweetly at him.

“What are you going to show us?” she asked, folding her arms, and shivering a little. “A haunted pot-hole?”

Ferryman laughed, and so did Helen. “No”, he said. “I have something better than that. Follow me.”

He turned, and began to stride forward, at a surprisingly rapid pace.

“Where’s the fire?” whispered Helen, as they started to follow him. They had to trot to make up his head-start.

Karla took her mobile phone from her pocket, and swiped her thumb across its screen. She cursed under her breath.

“Still nothing. What the heck? Helen?”

“Oh, come on” said Laurence. “Don’t those things ruin the mystery? Wouldn’t it be more fun just to switch them off?”

“Hey, screw you!”, said Karla, smiling and flipping him the finger. “Helen?”

“No” said the older woman, tapping at her own device. “Nada. Maybe there’s no coverage out here. Maybe it really is the back of beyond.”

“Maybe Mr. Ferryman here has some kind of jamming device” said Laurence. “Ever think of that?”

“Hmmm” said Karla, looking towards the tour guide, who was still striding some distance ahead of them. “Could be. But would it work so far from the bus? Hey, Ferryman!”

Her last two words were shouted, and sent echoes all through the lane. Ferryman turned to look over his shoulder at her, but kept walking. He didn’t even slow his pace.

“What’s the deal with our phones?” Karla called to him, lifting her own phone in the air. “Why won’t they work? Is this something you’re doing?”

“I know nothing about phones” said Ferryman, shrugging, and turning away again. “They aren’t a part of my world.”

“Oh, great” said Karla, looking at Laurence. “A kindred spirit for you.”

Laurence smiled. “I wish all the portable telephones in the world would stop working.”

“Do you, now?” asked Karla, sliding her own back into her pocket. “How very...different of you! You must be a very interesting and special person. I bet you don’t watch TV, either. you sleep in a teepee, by any chance?”

“I have TV in my teepee” said Laurence. That made Karla laugh, rather reluctantly. “You must come and have a look, some time.”

“Totally, dude”, said Karla. “Aha!” she cried, lifting her arm and pointing past their guide. “I think I see our first port of call.”

There was a church visible against the darkening skyline. It was a small church, with a broken cross above it—one of the arms of the cross was missing.

“If anybody does have any orthodox religious tendencies”, called Ferryman, looking back over his shoulder again, “especially of the Judaeo-Christian variety, this might be a time to brace yourself.”

“Hey!” said Karla, pointing above them now. “Look! Bats!”

Laurence looked up, just in time to see a small flutter of bats scurrying over them.

“I love bats” he said, truthfully.

“Me too” said Karla.

“Me too” said Helen.

All three of them laughed, and for a moment Laurence felt just as absurdly happy he had felt at the beginning of their sing-along.

Silence fell between them-- a comfortable, companionable silence-- and a few minutes later they had reached the church. The evening had grown very dark, but Ferryman produced an electric torch and shone its beam upon the building.

It was a small, stone, disused church, square and Romanesque. The windows and entrance had been boarded up with rusted metal sheets. Weeds and moss grew between the stones of its fa├žade.

It was completely covered in graffiti. And not just ordinary grafitti, but the most obscene and frenzied graffti Laurence had ever seen in his life. There were crude, cartoonish pictures, as well as words—all of them breathtakingly crude and vicious.

“Oh my goodness” said Helen, in a whisper.

“Behold how gods die”, said Ferryman. His tone was both solemn and full of relish.

“Oh, please” said Karla. “God isn’t dead because some vandals write some dirty words on an old church. Is this what you brought us here to see? Because, if it is, colour me unimpressed.”

“Oh, this is nothing” said Ferryman, lowering the torch. “Our first stop is next door. In the cemetery.”

And, with that— as soon as he had spoken the last word— a woman started screaming, at the top of her voice, in the middle distance.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Thank You

I feel in a strangely retrospective mood today and I found myself feeling especially grateful for the readers of this blog.

The act of writing is so important to me. Under the desk at which I'm writing this, there are two metal file-boxes which contain English exercises from school, manuscripts of old poems, clippings from newspaper letter pages, college newspapers, community magazines, literary magazines and assorted other printed matter, all of which contain something or other written by me. They are pretty much all I have kept from most of my life. That, and a few souvenirs, like the miniature packet of playing cards that was in a Christmas cracker I pulled with my mother two months before she passed away.

Writing has always seemed solid and real to me in a special, unique way. I remember, seven years ago, I attended the thirtieth birthday party of a fellow I'd known in school. I came away from it enormously distressed-- everybody seemed so casual about the passage of time, the fact of experience, the journey of life. Never in my life did human existence seem more of a 'casual comedy' than that evening. I couldn't sleep. I ended up walking around my neighborhood by the light of the dawn. I only managed to quell my agitated feelings by promising myself I would write a cycle of novels in which I would capture my entire life experience-- not literally, but in a fictionalized manner. That is the novel which turned out to be The Bard's Apprentice, a novel I serialized here, and which readers of this blog received very kindly. (The idea of the novel cycle went by the board-- thankfully!)

Not only does writing seem solid and real to me, but putting thoughts and experiences and ideas into written form seems to give them a reality that was only latent in them before they were written down. Writing seems to make things more real. I agree that seems a little crazy, but there you go. Isaac Asimov said that he thought through his fingers. Sometimes I feel I live through my fingers. Which might sound more anti-social and otherworldly than I mean it; I'm not at all dismissing the importance of life experience, human relationship, and so forth. These things are utterly crucial and what life is all about. But somehow they seem to become more palpable, more vivid, more themselves when they are 'processed' through writing about them-- directly or obliquely.

Anyway, I am far from being a confident person and I don't have a whole lot of confidence in my own writing. So having an audience, and one that is indulgent of my meanderings into different genres and formats, means the world to me and has made me a bit more confident. (Would you be insulted if I said you feel like my 'home crowd?') I also appreciate the prayers that were offered whenever I asked for them. Life has been a very bumpy ride recently and it meant a lot to be in the prayers of people who, in many ways, know me better than many of those who interact with me regularly in person. I pray for you all too.

So...thank you. Very much.

Mystery Tour-- Chapter Two

There were only two other people on the bus.

It was a fairly typical bus, aside from its horror props. There were perhaps forty seats, which were well upholstered and cushioned. (They were all coloured red with a pattern of little black bats worked into them.) The curtains on the windows were designed to look like cobwebs. An eerie green light shone on the ceiling. It was a little bit roomier than most buses Laurence had been in—and he had been in a lot of buses in his time.

A door separated the driver’s section of the bus from the rest of it. The wall dividing the two sections was covered with a montage of horror images—skinny hands extending from open graves, full moons, Grim Reapers—against a dark blue background.

The other two passengers were sitting near the front of the bus, not beside each other but in consecutive rows.

One caught Laurence’s eye immediately. She was an attractive young woman, of a similar age to himself. She had shoulder-length black hair, a red t-shirt with a picture of Snoopy on it, and jeans. She was, as he thought appreciatively, nice and curvy. She had a bit of acne around her chin, which didn’t make her any less cute in Laurence’s eyes.

The other passenger was another woman, who might have been in her fifties or perhaps her early sixties. She was wearing a dark brown dress and a black cardigan. She had a thin, sharp face. Her hair was grey-blonde and short. She looked to Laurence like she might be a university professor, or perhaps a retired university professor.

Both of them smiled politely as Laurence sat down, opposite the cute girl. “Hi” he said to both of them. “Are you both free vouchers too?”

The cute girl nodded, and the older lady said: “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.” Skull-face had disappeared into the driver’s section, closing the door behind him.

“My name is Laurence.”

“Karla” said the cute girl, in an impeccably Dublin accent. “And no, I’m not Swedish, or Scandinavian. My parents just liked the name.”

“Helen” said the older lady.

“Doesn’t seem to be very many people taking advantage of the offer”, said Laurence, looking at all the empty seats.

“Uh-uh”, said Karla.

“Well, I got on first” said Helen. “And that was on the other side of the city. He’s only stopped for both of you.” Her voice only made her seem more like a university professor; it was, as people said, an ‘educated’ voice.

“That’s a bit odd” said Laurence. “I wonder why?”

“My guess”, said Helen, “is that this is a trial run and he only wants a small audience. If he mucks it up and he has a big audience…”

“Right” said Karla, nodding. “Right.”

“Unless there are more to come” said Laurence, but at that moment the door of the driver’s section opened.

Skull Face stepped out, and clapped his hands together enthusiastically. The clap was surprisingly loud, like a boxing glove hitting a punch bag. He clicked the door closed behind him. He had to crouch a little inside the bus.

“Welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome, welcome!” he cried, extending his arms as far as the bus would allow him. “Welcome to the fright of your lives!”

“Only three of us?” asked Helen.

Skull Face shrugged. “We are most discerning about our customers”, he said. “Also, this is the first try-out of our Dublin tour, so we are happy to invite only a very select audience.” Helen nodded, looking satisfied that she had guessed right.

“How long does it last?” asked Karla.

“As to that, young lady” said Skull Face, leaning towards her a little, his voice dropping, “there is no easy answer. Time is so mysterious.”

“Well, I need to catch the last bus tonight, unless you’re going to drive me all the way home to Fairview” she said, with a little smile.

Skull Face laughed. It was a deep, good-humoured laugh. “Well, in non-subjective terms”, he said, “you should be back in Dublin city centre by six p.m. Last stop O’Connell Street.”

Laurence had no objection to sitting opposite Karla for a little over six hours. And maybe their acquaintance would not end there, either.

“What I don’t understand” said Helen, “is how you can have a regular mystery tour. Surely a mystery tour is a once off?”

Skull Face smiled. He had, appropriately enough, a bonily handsome kind of face—large, like the rest of him, and with a powerful nose, cheekbones and chin. He reminded Laurence of King Henry VIIII.

“Well, that is part of the mystery” he said, with a playful smile. “Now, before we start, may I ask a few questions?”

“Shoot” said Karla.

“Is there anybody here with a history of heart problems?”

There was no response, and Skull Face nodded briskly. “Very good. Is there anybody here with orthodox religious beliefs of any kind?” He was still smiling rather playfully, but the question seemed serious.

This time there was a longer silence, and Helen said: “I’m not sure you’re even allowed to ask that.”

Skull Face laughed, with amusement that was obviously genuine. It struck Laurence that he still hadn’t told them his name yet.

“No? Well, that is something we’ll have to look into for future tours, then.”

“Not that I mind answering”, said Helen. “For me, it’s a simple 'no'. I was raised a Quaker, but I don’t have any beliefs.”

“No beliefs at all?” asked Skull Face, raising an eyebrow.

“Not religiously speaking” said Helen. “No.”

Skull Face turned to Laurence. “How about you, sir?”

Laurence shrugged. “I’m on the same page”, he said. “Put me down as an agnostic, I guess.”

“What’s the point of this question?”, blurted out Karla, sounding less than happy.

Skull Face turned to her and examined her expression in silence for a few moments. Finally he replied: “It’s a matter of tailoring the experience. There are some things I wouldn’t try with a true believer.”

Laurence wondered if the others found that statement as perplexing as he did.

“Well, I’m not telling you something so personal” said Karla, with a small frown. “It’s nobody’s business but mine.”

“Madam”, said Skull Face—and this time the formality did not sound cheesy or theatrical, but sincere--- “let me apologize. To offend you was the furthest thing from my mind.”

“I’m not offended one little bit.” She smiled. Boy, she had a sweet smile. “I’m just not telling you, that’s all.”

“So be it”, said Skull Face. “So be it. We will work our way round it, I suppose. That only leaves the matter of your cards.” He reached into the folds of his cloak, and distributed three plastic cards to Karla, Laurence and Helen.

The first thing that struck Laurence about the card was how cold it felt to the touch. Hard and cold. So much so that he thought it might be metal, but its flexibility was more like plastic.

The second thing that struck him about the card was its appearance. It was basically silver, but the entire card had the iridescence of a holographic strip. It shimmered different colours as it moved, and different images appeared—now it showed a skeleton, now a crescent moon, now a curved dagger.

Written across the front of the card, in silvery script, was his name: “Laurence Mortimer Cahill”. Skull-Face had asked him to fill out a basic registration card before he had come aboard. There was no other text.

“Some kind of…loyalty card?” asked Helen.

“That, and more” said Skull Face. “When you take a Monstrous Mystery Tour you don’t just become a customer. You become…part of the family, I suppose. Treasure these cards like you treasure your lives.”

The phrase, hammily delivered as it was, seemed grimly ironic to Laurence, considering the decision he had reached earlier that day.

“What can we get for them?” asked Karla, with a hint for avidity.

“Everything short of salvation” said Skull Face.

Karla gave him a sharp look. “What, though?”

Skull Face raised a hand in the air, airily. “All sorts of things. Free admission to over a hundred establishments. Concessions. Food and drink. Most importantly, an ongoing relationship with Monstrous Mystery Tours.”

“Well, do you have a list?” asked Karla, a little bit suspiciously. She seemed a lot more inclined than Helen to look a gift horse in the mouth.

“Not a full one”, said Skull Face. “We can speak again about this at the end of the tour.”

“So we can’t use them during it?”

“Believe me, Madam”, said Skull Face, whose good humour did not seem in the least bit dented by Karla’s pushiness, “all your needs will be catered for throughout the tour. Including your deepest need, which is the need for awe and wonder and dread.”

“Good” said Karla, evenly.

Laurence noticed that the homeless lady to whom he’d given two hundred euros (what was he thinking?) was standing outside the tour bus, staring into the very window opposite him. He thought she was staring at him until he remembered that the glasses were dark from the outside. Even from inside, they had a greeny tinge. She wore a look of deep confusion.

“Well, in that case, we are ready to begin”, said Skull Face. “Prepare for the tour of a thousand lifetimes.” He clapped his hands again, to similarly resounding effect, and disappeared into the driver’s cabin.

As soon as the door to the cabin had closed, the wheels began to move.

“Well, you know how to speak your mind”, Laurence said to Karla, giving her a smile which he intended to be flirtatious.

In return, she gave him a quick frown utterly devoid of flirtatiousness. “Yes, I do” she said. “Don’t you?”

“No” said Laurence. “It’s not something I was ever especially good at.”

“More fool you”, she said. Unexpectedly, she did flash him a smile now—although it still didn’t seem in the least bit flirtatious.

At that moment—more suddenly then Laurence would have thought possible—the wind began to howl.

“Holy cow” said Helen. “Sound effects and all.”

“That came out of nowhere” said Karla.

They were moving through the city quays, where shops began to be replaced by pubs and business offices. Laurence saw a mother wrap her arm around her little daughter’s shoulders as the wind buffeted them both, even pushing them backwards a few steps.

A few moments later, rain and hail began to pelt against the windows, and against the side and roof of the bus. It was a non-stop barrage, and its thud-thud-thud filled the inside of the bus.

“Holy cow” Helen repeated. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

Rain was streaming down the windows in such quantities now that it was impossible to make out anything beyond them except patches and light and darkness. Laurence also noticed that the evening seemed to have grown significantly darker in a matter of seconds.

The intercom crackled and Skull Face’s voice filled the air. “Just the right weather for the scariest day of your lives”, he said.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A New Horror Novel-- Mystery Tour

I've serialized pre-written novels here before but here is the first chapter of a new novel. I wrote this yesterday. I might finish the novel or I might not. Tell me if you think it's worth continuing with. It's been brewing in my mind for ages, although the plot has taken very different forms.

Chapter One

Between carrying his cup of hot chocolate to the balcony table and draining its last dregs, Laurence had decided to end it all. The decision came to him as coolly as a decision to…well, a decision to buy a cup of hot chocolate.

He wasn’t cool or decisive by nature. Usually, he fussed over every decision, every commitment. He worried and obsessed and vacillated.

But he was so, so tired. So tired.

He looked into the crowd below and marvelled at the utter exhaustion that he felt. Not a physical exhaustion, but an emotional one. But it went even deeper than emotional. Spiritual? The word made him cringe, but that’s what it amounted to.

Down below, people hurried and sauntered and queued, catching trains and getting off trains and waiting for trains. They all had somewhere to go, somebody waiting for them. Or if they hadn’t, then they anticipated having them in the future. The world ran on optimism, but Laurence’s reserves had run out.

He reached into his inside jacket pocket and took out two letters, two letters he had read over and over again in the past four days.

One was on headed paper and printed. He almost knew it off by heart. Now he merely scanned it, his eye skipping from one all-too-familiar phrase to the next: “Four years of excellent service as a teacher...unfortunate that a single incident…though you were undoubtedly provoked....reputation of the school…wish you all the best in your future career…”

As for the other letter, he could not even bear to read it a second time. Rather than being printed, it was written in the slanted, elegant handwriting that he knew so well. Its tone and its content was very different to most of the letters that he had read in that handwriting.

Suddenly, without premeditation, he tore both of them in half, then into smaller pieces, feeling a strange sense of relief as he did so.

He was still exhausted, but the grief seemed to diminish with every rip that he put through the paper. When they were ripped into pieces too tiny to be read—and who would want to read them, anyway?--- he rose from the table, feeling even more calm and resolved than before.

The weight of the past had lifted, but where was his future? He couldn’t see any. He was too tired for a future. Twenty-seven years of age, and he felt older than Methuselah.

Attention, ladies and gentlemen, the train to 3:35 train to Cork is now boarding…

He walked down the marble-effect winding stairway to the ground level of the train station. This had been his favourite place to come for tea since he’d come to Dublin to start college. He savoured the excitement of people coming and going, new stories beginning.

And all that would still go on, he thought to himself, as he made his way to the exit. The end of his own life seemed like a little thing to him right now. The great world would go on its way. Trains would arrive, trains would depart.
Epidemics would break out and then dissipate, because there were always enough people left living for the world to go on. There would be wars and rumours of wars, and then there would be movies and novels written about those wars, long after the blood had dried.

The world would not pause to notice the disappearance of Laurence Cahill. At another time, that thought would have depressed him. Now it made him feel strangely cheerful.

It was a dark November evening, a little past seven. He made his way to Trevelyan bridge. The rush hour was long over and there was not much traffic, wheeled or human.

“Spare some change?”

He looked down. A young woman, sitting with a blanket over her legs, was leaning against the parapet of the bridge and lifting a paper cup to him.

“Sure”, said Laurence. He took out his wallet, opened it, and glanced inside. There was a little over two hundred euro. He took it out, rolled the notes together, and dropped them into the woman’s cup while she stared at him. One last dramatic gesture. Why not?

She stared at the money in her cup for a few moments, and then looked up at him in suspicion. Then her hand moved like a stage magician’s, and the money disappeared under the blanket.

“Thanks”, she said, matter-of-factly, still looking at him guardedly.

Laurence nodded. What had he been expecting? Tears of gratitude? That would have just embarrassed him, anyway.

He walked along the bridge, staring into the bottle-green Liffey water, glowing with reflected light from street lamps.

The idea of climbing up onto the parapet and jumping into the river appealed to his sense of drama. But what would it actually be like—dying that way? How long would it take? How much would it hurt?

As he stood there, a bus pulled up alongside him.

It was a bus unlike any he had ever seen before. For a start, it was painted black—with red streaks of painted ‘blood’ running down the side. There were pictures of vampires, werewolves, tombstones, and other horror effects scattered here and there over its exterior. The windows were blacked out.

The door had opened, and a man in a black robe and hood, and with a face painted to resemble a skull, extended a card to Laurence. He was one of the tallest men Laurence had ever seen.

He took the card. It was red with splotchy black lettering and a drawing of a spider’s web in one corner. MONSTROUS MYSTERY TOUR, it announced. ONE FREE TOUR.

“What have you got to lose?”, asked the man with the skull-face. Probably a trained actor; he spoke with a deep, rasping voice.

“Why are you giving them out free?” asked Laurence.

“Promotion, isn’t it?” said Skull-face, his English accent creeping into his theatrical voice now. “We guarantee you’ll be back. The Monstrous Mystery Tour”—he rolled his r’s—“is so frightfully good that we expect that you’ll tell all your friends, too.”

“New thing, is it?”

“New to this territory”, said Skull-face.

Laurence fell silent. He had always had the kind of politeness—or was it just weakness?— that made it difficult to decline anything.

But it was more than that. He was a horror fan. His collection of scary movies ran into the hundreds. Anything with a
horror theme drew him—though it usually disappointed him, too.

And besides...this bus had pulled up beside him just as he was wondering what it would feel like to drown. Laurence was not religious—despite his love of horror, he didn’t really believe in anything supernatural, and if there was any kind of God he was sure it wasn’t the God of church, mosque and synagogue—but he could never shake a belief in something like Providence. Things happened for a reason. Sometimes. Maybe.

That very moment, he decided two things. First, that he was going to ride this mystery tour. Second, that he was going to go on living.

For the time being, at least.

“Sure”, said Laurence, stepping towards the bus. “I’ll give it a go.”