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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-seven SLEEP FOREVER

by
L.A. Hayhurst
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I

t takes fourteen hours for the three rivers to rise. The TV is showing reconstructed images of the Ganges, Jamuna, and Meghna, speeding up the flow so the people-at-home can appreciate the damage. Pan back to newsreader, a pale-faced woman with corn-coloured hair tightly curled about her cheeks; fuchsia suit jacket, floral shirt, bronze brooch weighing down one lapel. A tagline appears bottom right: Lucia Dupree – Local Newsroom, Bay TV. Then underneath: Coverage You Can Count On.



“And if you’re just joining us,” Lucia Dupree shuffles her papers and frowns. “Reports have come in claiming the rapid swelling of three rivers has lead to the annihilation of seventy-five percent of Malaysia’s population. And I’m being told we now have some breaking live footage.”



Cut to helicopter.



“Please be warned that younger viewers may find the following scenes upsetting.”



Jean Bridges – Foreign Correspondent. Two stockinged knees wedged in place, fingers interlocked, talking important words into an oversized headset. The camera zooms in on a sea of swirling corpses; limbs of the half-living gouged on twisted metal; a film of shimmering gunk atop the waves – oil, excrement, and vomit. Children look up to the helicopter. Scrabbling aboard roofs and bodies, some are trying to climb to higher ground, only to fall down deeper into the glugging brown.



The image fades and a list appears, superimposed on top:



Bacterial diarrhoea



Hepatitis A and E



Typhoid fever



Dengue fever



Malaria



As the words are read aloud by a deep male voice, each item is confirmed with a thick red tick.



Now there is a map. Different colours highlight the affected lands, and a rushing purple engulfs the southeast mountainous region. Where the floods didn’t reach, malaria swarmed.



Flick back to newsreader, noticeably refreshed; relieved of her suit jacket. “Aid-workers have issued the latest report on what social media is terming the Wash-out Massacre, and claim pockets of survivors have been found.”



endmark





The four of them are watching the recording, Lucia and her family. She usually hates seeing herself on television; she should have worn her hair up, refolded her collar, sat a little straighter. But tonight it’s all about the news, and it’s like she’s hearing it for the first time. Even six-year-old Myra – who reappeared when Lucia came home, now wearing milk-moustache and unicorn onesie – is managing to keep her eyes open. And Elwyn, now fourteen, hasn’t looked at his phone once.



So here they all sit without moving, saying little to each other throughout the report and nothing still, for a few seconds after, until Lucia’s wife, Sarah, leans forwards for the remote, switches off the box. She and Elwyn are sitting over on the other sofa.



“What were the figures like when you left work?”



“Dunno, hundred and fifty thousand, something like that.”



“Nothing weird has happened in England yet.”



“Mummy,” Myra says, kneeling at Lucia’s feet, now half-asleep. “Is that a lot of people?”



“No sweetheart, not for a whole country.”



Lucia leans towards Myra and pulls the little girl onto her lap. Myra snuggles in, lets her mother take down the unicorn hood and scoop out her long blond hair. Lucia looks over to Sarah, who is smoothing out her face. Apparently, earlier, Myra had beaten her record of twenty-three plaits in Tummy-Mummy’s hair.



“Conspiracy theories are going round already,” says Elwyn, scrolling through his phone. Not yet a spotty, uncooperative teenager, but already clever enough to question everything, Lucia had recently realised that she respected her son. “All those people dying, and then a big bunch of them turning up without a scratch. Clearly, you’re gonna jump to conclusions.”



“Well, I suppose you could say they were spared something, the survivors…”



“Spared what?”



“Death?” Lucia checks the time on her phone. “Christ it’s late.”



“You shouldn’t swear, Mummy.”



“Sorry sweetheart.”



Elwyn laughs. “Saying Christ is not swearing.”



“Yes it is. Miss Parks says Jesus doesn’t like it –”



“Jesus is just a story idiot, and they shouldn’t even be teaching that in school.”



“Don’t start, El…”



“What? You and Mum say stuff like that all the time.”



“Fine, but it’s stupid o’clock, and you’re going to upset your sister.” Lucia kisses her daughter’s head. “Come on, sweetheart, bed.”



The raised voices have woken Sarah from a micro-sleep. She heaves herself off the sofa, then open-armed to her wife: “Pass her over, I’ll take her up.”



There is quiet again for a few moments. Elwyn is sulking into his phone, probably posting something about how the establishment is so unfair. Lucia lets her head drop back and listens to Sarah padding up the stairs – she really needs to mention again about the re-carpeting – then there’s the opening of their daughter’s bedroom door and the flicking on of the rainbow night light.



“Elwyn…” Lucia whispers. “El?”



“Mmm?” When he looks up, Lucia makes a pleading face, drops her head to one side. “You want a cup of tea, don’t you?”



Lucia nods. It had just become that specific time of night when tiredness tips too far and reaching bed seems an insane mission.



“Fine,” he says, reaching down the side of the sofa to plug in his phone. “But only if I can have one too.”



“Decaff…” she shouts after him.



endmark





“Good morning, good morning people, come in settle down.” Tess Taylor, station manager, is straightening a stack of papers on the table.



Lucia and a few others are inching their way inside, trying not to spill coffee. They always joke about Tess, mostly her being too plump for pinafores, but now, sitting in the directors’ boardroom and with a box of muffins between them, Lucia thinks she looks rather regal. Also, it’s surprising how quiet it is in here with the door closed, quite a relief from the stress-pit of the newsroom. Lucia reaches for some more coffee and selects the last blueberry muffin.



“…ninety-thousand incidents,” Tess is saying, “complaining of the same weird shit. Bolivia, South Africa, France, there’s even something happened in Birmingham now.” Tess takes random wads of paper and slides them along to Lucia and her producer, Bernard, then across to the breakfast and lunchtime teams. “I need fresh eyes on these. What can you tell me?”



After almost an hour of looking at figures and running fingers down columns, punctuated by exclaims of false-alarms, Bernard says: “All of them, just so precise.”



“What?”



“I’ve gone through that pile already.”



“Listen: survivors in Malaysia totalled exactly one-hundred thousand, four-hundred and forty-eight.”



“So?”



“And here it says the original population of Malaysia was a-hundred and fifty million, four-hundred and forty-eight thousand.”



Lucia can’t bring herself to ask again, but the rest of the room looks just as oblivious. “So?”



“And in the census taken upon rescue, all survivors claimed to be no religion... According to the World Religious Distribution Network, nought-point-one percent of Malaysia’s population were of no religion.”



Now there is more silence, and more looking.



“Let me just,” Bernard taps on his phone. “That percentage of the total population, it has to be a coincidence.”



“Hang on.” Lucia sifts for a specific page, a specific paragraph. “Here, the eruption in Nigeria, mostly churches destroyed. Then there’s a run of mosques collapsing in Saudi Arabia, nearby school untouched.”



“And,” Tess is joining in now, “Somewhere I read…a-ha, the entire Bible Belt…”



There is a loud knocking on the glass doors. A flustered woman has appeared, waving an earpiece and headset.



“Sorry to interrupt guys,” she squeezes a face through the gap in the door.



“Jean Bridges on the line,” she shakes the contraption at their blank faces. “Jean fucking Bridges. Foreign correspondent…”



“I know who she is,” Tess says.



“Will someone take the call?”



Tess, nearest the door, takes the headset and thrusts it towards Lucia.



Someone disappears underneath the table to connect the video-feed.



“Hi Jean, it’s Lucia.”



At the other end of the room, a screen flickers into life.



The image is plain, blurred. Then there comes an unmistakable silhouette. The Vatican is burning. Flames are climbing the once pristine white towers, banishing the sun with grey and swallowing brickwork in giant hunks. The bejewelled turrets are melting, and one side of the impenetrable fortress starts to slide to the ground, slow, like old glue. The camera pans around shakily to show a wall of tourists and Swiss guards fleeing the scene, arms waving, bodies tumbling. The camera jolts then and turns, giving a 360 spin. The sky is black with smoke, ash and debris flutter down like delicate skin-flakes.



Now the audio cuts in.



“…don’t think it’s connecting. Guys, are you seeing this? Hello?”



Tess stands up. “Luce, you’ve got one minute. You lot, thirty seconds, get me studio-ready.” Then she leaves the room harking off to everyone in sight.



“Is someone there?” Jean yells above the booms and crunches. “Are you seeing this?”



“Yeah, it’s Lucia. What the fuck is going on?”



“You need to listen.”



The camera-view accelerates towards an alcove between two buildings. It faces a cobbled wall, then spins round to reveal an old face, wrinkles lined with sweat and dirt, brow wiry and taut, and the eyes are fixed, as if held in their sockets by demons.



Half of Jean’s face obstructs the edge of the picture.



“This is Pawel, Archbishop of Poland.”



Tess bursts back into the room. “Lucia, now, you’re live in ten. Leave it. They’re patched through to the studio.”



The whole building has descended on the newsroom; the children’s channel has ceased transmission, the fixed-set studio has spilled out its costume actors, the research labs are empty. Lucia takes a deep breath.



“This is breaking news: The Vatican has fallen. It is burning to the ground as we speak. We will bring you exclusive footage of the scene, but first, I’m speaking to the Archbishop of Poland direct from the action. Pawel, what can you tell us?”



“Hello, Lucia?” The old face fills the screen, and he winces as an almighty crash bellows in the background. “The Vatican is under attack.”



“And do you know who is responsible?”



“I was being initiated into the College of Cardinals. The council has copies of a transcript found on an ancient wooden tablet.”



Pawel drops out of view as the camera clatters to the ground, landing sideways to show a stream of feet and ankles racing past the end of the alcove. Jean Bridges must have picked up the camera as now Pawel is back, grit ingrained into his forehead and a trickle of blood escaping one nostril.



On the other side of the studio, crew members exchange panicked looks off-camera. Lucia takes a deep breath, but her trademark silken voice is already unsteady. “Is everything okay, Pawel? Can you continue?”



“I don’t know what to believe.” Pawel closes his eyes. “But the people of the world deserve to make up their own minds, even if the revelation is too late.”



There is another thunderous rumble in the distance and the screen begins to flicker.



“…tablet, said to be over five thousand years old. The transcript is a sort of contract between twelve men, landowners, philosophers and kings.” The Archbishop’s voice crackles: “--agreement to ensure control of the common people--belief in divine power. In short,” the screen flickers into blackness. “It’s all a sham.”



endmark





Lucia pulls her jacket tight and picks her way through the rain and the crowd congregating on the Bay TV studio steps. The road is clogged with vehicles and bodies; sirens wail with nowhere to go, flashing red and blue against the low-hanging cloud. There’s no possibility of driving, and the phones are jammed. She has to get home. Then she remembered Myra. It’s her turn to do the school run today. Sarah said she was working-from-home, which means she’s closer to Elwyn’s college anyway. What if she’s already driving here? Lucia looks up and down at the blocked street. No chance. Pulling up her collar and wishing she’d worn a coat with a hood, she begins to walk the five and a half miles to Myra’s school.



Crowds of people haunt every junction and roundabout. Some wave signs: 'The apocalypse is nigh! The almighty reckoning is upon us! Greet it without grief!’ and: ‘Come, be baptised now! Be prepared – not scared! Convert before its too late!’



At the top of Rayton Hill, Lucia takes a shortcut through the park, and as she hikes towards the black expanse, the raucous road drains away, and the thick trees seal in the quiet. At least it has stopped raining. She shivers and lowers her head, trying not to slip on the water-clogged grass.



She has to reach the school. She breaks into a run, down the slope towards the alleyway. Then a single scream makes Lucia stiffen. She looks about in every direction and sees a shady figure slide into the clump of trees to her right.



"Oh my God!" Lucia tries to shove past the man.



There’s another yelp, muffled.



“What are you doing?” Lucia edges towards the shadow just as the street lamps surrounding the park blink into being. A man appears. He reeks of metal and sweat, and his eyes are wild. Then Lucia sees the girl, similar age to Elwyn, leaning back against a tree. She is drenched. Clothes cling to her skin, and she holds a sodden cloth over her head, pinning down her hair. The man sloshes more petrol over her wincing face. She could move. She could run away. Why isn’t she running away?



Lucia tries to shove past the man.



“It’s okay.” The man smiles and wards Lucia off with the petrol-can. “That’s exactly who we’re about to meet.”



“Please stop.’ Lucia coughs. “Let me help you.”



“Don’t you understand what’s happening?” The man smiles again. Lucia notices how calm he is. “The time has come that judgement begins at the house of God; and if it first begins with us, what shall be the end of them that obey not the gospel of God?” The man laughs and shakes his head. “It’s you who needs help, my friend.”



The man holds the petrol can over his own head and shakes out his hair, then offers the can to Lucia. She snatches the can and throws it behind her.



“The time is now. The righteous must pass over. The body is sown perishable,” the man says, a sort of chant. “It is raised imperishable.” Now he is digging into his pocket and retrieves a box of matches.



“The body is sown in dishonour. It is raised in glory.”



He takes a match and then scrapes it over the flint.



Lucia lurches forwards and tries to wrestle the match from the man’s hand, shouting at him to stop, that it’s not worth it, but the man shoves her to the ground. So she tries to reach the girl, shouts at her to get up, to come with me. But the girl is just sitting there, waiting.



“Woe to you, O traitor, who has not been betrayed.” The man continues his tirade, smile dancing. Face dripping orange by the light of the match. “Woe to you, O destroyer, who has not been destroyed. When you stop betraying, you will be betrayed. When you stop destroying, you will be destroyed.”



The flame seems to leap from the match to swarm their crackling bodies with an insatiable thirst. Lucia backs away, but even though she turns her head, the image is still present behind her eyes: the girl rocking in gentle spasm, her scream delayed by shock or revelation; the man just standing and holding out his hands. He is still smiling.



endmark





The school sits in silent darkness. Lucia shudders as she approaches; a school should never be so quiet. She walks past the climbing frame, a rusting cage in a forgotten playground, then past classroom windows with peeling drawings stuck from the inside, their colours faded and sticky-tape dry.



Around the corner, the entrance doors are wide open.



“Hello?” Lucia calls. Her footsteps bounce around the thin corridors. “Is anyone here?”



Classrooms, all empty, and the assembly hall too, where their little Virgin Mary made Lucia and Sarah so proud. She lets a door bang behind her.



She walks past the Staff Room then stops and turns around, something has caught her eye. She nudges a door open. A man sits up on a table, long dank hair hangs in front of his face, and blue overalls sag into his bones. He rests a mop upon his knee. Behind him, draped over a chair, is a woman, legs stuck out, and head twisted back. The man jumps to his feet and points the mop towards Lucia, holding it like a gun. Lucia notices the mop is covered in blood.



“Who are you?”



“Myra Dupree’s mother. Do you know where she is?”



“Mummy,” Myra crawls out from under a table and runs towards her, but the caretaker catches her hand.



“Sure she’s your mama?”



Myra nods, her tear-stained face glistening.



“Yes, she’s my daughter, let her go.”



“Now hang on just a minute. I got to make sure, see. There are maniacs about.” He jerks his head towards the broken woman, draped over the chair. “Near murdered all these kiddies, laying them down on the carpet mouthing off all kinds of junk, about it being time to meet Jesus, and wouldn’t we all like to sleep forever – so I smacked her with my mop and sat all the kids down, waiting with them till their parents come. You’re the last.”



He loosens his grip and Myra wriggles free. Lucia swings her up into her arms.



“You know what I reckon?” the Caretaker continues. “I saw this programme, right, scientist guy, and he did all these experiments with water. Puts little dishes round people being angry and shouts ADOLF HITLER at one, over and over again. And the water goes crazy, right, molecules zap all over the place, form all these spiky shapes. And then, right, some other dishes are all happy, with people saying thank you round them and being all calm and nice, and all the shapes go pretty and soft.”



Lucia has started to edge towards the door.



“That’s what’s happening now, only much bigger, right? All that anger for so long, all that slaughter and hush-ups, it’s had enough, hasn’t it? The water’s fighting back.”



“Maybe you’re right,” Lucia says, unsure now whether she is placating the man or if there might actually be some logic to his madness. She reaches the door and opens it with her foot. “Maybe the Earth is fighting back.”



endmark





They turn out all the lights and barricade themselves into the cellar. Sarah and Elwyn have set everything up; the camping stove, pots and pans, food and blankets, and the television, silently fuzzing with no transmission. But they’re not concerned with provisions right now.



“Please, sweetheart, you’ve got to believe me,” Lucia is down on her knees. Myra is sitting up on the table, swinging her legs.



“It’s okay, Mummy. Jesus will forgive you if you just say sorry.”



Lucia stands up and smothers a yell. “What the hell are we going to do?” she asks Sarah who is standing with her wife in the middle of the room. Elwyn is sitting on the floor with his back against the wall, staring into space.



Sarah shakes her head.



“I know.” Elwyn gets to his feet and approaches his sister. “Okay, Myra, now listen. Father Christmas is the same as Jesus, yeah? You’ve never met him, but you still believe in him?”



“I have met him. I sat on his knee at the shops. He gave me a lollipop.”



“But that wasn’t the real one, was it? How could it be the real one when there’s so much do in the North Pole?”



“There is a real one, then. You just said.”



“Your brother’s right, sweetheart, me and Mummy buy all your presents, Father Christmas is just a nice story, like Jesus.”



“Why are you telling fibs?” Myra begins to cry. “Fibbing’s bad, Miss Park says you’ll go to hell.”



“Miss Park’s dead for Christ’s sake, and there is no hell.”



“Elwyn, enough. This isn’t fair.” Sarah picks up Myra. Her mouth is open and wailing. “How do you know it’ll make any difference? She’s safe here.”



They stand around for a while, until Myra calms down. Now she starts to hiccup.



“El, grab her a drink, will you,” Sarah points to the cool box, “one with a straw.”



Elwyn removes the plastic wrapper and hands the carton to his sister, who chews thoughtfully for a second before sucking it down.



“I know it’ll make a difference because I’ve seen what’s going on out there,” Lucia holds her head in her hands. “It’s a complete re-write. These are forces we can’t begin to understand, no-one is being spared…”



A gurgling sound bubbles from Myra’s throat. Her face is turning red.



“What have you given her?”



“Nothing, it’s just juice…”



“She’s choking. Get her upside-down.”



They whack her on the back, but no liquid comes out. They open her mouth and probe gently with a finger, but there’s nothing there. It’s like the juice has frozen half-way down. Soon, too soon, her eyes glaze over, and the sockets start to bloat.



“Turn her upside-down again, shake her…let me do it.”



The brother edges away and crouches in a corner. The parents take turns to try and revive the daughter. They keep trying when her strained fingers go limp. They keep trying when her face is cold. The veins, perhaps bursting from the pressure, leak red pools in her eyes. And then they stop.



endmark





They wait until the next night before they chance going out in the garden to bury her. They carry her between them, even though she is so light. They spend the rest of the time sitting in silence, waiting for the television to come back on. On the morning of the third day, it does.



Devastation engulfs every station. The first scene shows a tiny crowd gathering amongst the wreck of St Paul’s Cathedral; they watch it smoulder in the hazy morning light. Then, lying pale and shattered, is the circular stained glass of Notre Dame, children kick the shards between them. And then Christ the Redeemer falls from his proud vantage-point, he soars over a deserted Rio de Janeiro, showering the roofs with rock and dust, before plummeting to Earth and smashing into a million stony entrails.



Lucia and her depleted family sit in silence.



It takes seventy-two hours for the Earth’s rebirth.



   
   

 

endmark



L.A. Hayhurst lives in Plymouth and likes to explore controversial debates within her fiction. Her stories aim to disturb and delight, lingering in the mind with fond discomfort. This is her first horror publication.



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