The Troll at Christmas, post 3
I got all excited in the pub last night, when someone suggested that my TROLL novella might be the first social media thriller. They said they’d never heard of anything similar, so I immediately needed to find out if they were right. I didn’t think it was likely but always worth checking these things out….
The first installment of my novella series was published in July, and the final one this September. The first book I came across with a quick amazon search was the intriguing #FollowMe by Angela Clarke, published this December by Avon. Big book, big publisher. But they didn’t get there first. BOOM.
But not so fast. A slightly smaller outfit (ie another indie author) did beat me to the punch, damn him.
‘If he finds you online… you’re dead!’ Great tagline, slightly less great cover, very scary price! Social Media Serial Killer by Daniel David Elles was published in March 2015, so that’s a few months ahead of the July publication of the first novella of my series. #damnitall
I found a book that was published even further back, although it’s arguable whether this one is a thriller in the traditional sense. It’s called FOLLOW and is erotica by JA Huss, but it’s also billed as suspense, and filed under the Romantic Suspense category. So perhaps a ‘thriller’ in more ways than one 😉
This was all I could find. But I’d love to hear if there are any earlier ones; I’m sure there probably are. Feel free to post comments below if you find any as I’d love to hear about them.
So, sadly, I don’t get to take the title of Author of the First Social Media Thriller. Shucks. Still, if I find a couple more of these books, I might even be able to persuade Amazon to make it into a genre 🙂
Anyway, I promised another extract from the first TROLL novella for your Christmas reading. So here you go. The full book is only free for another 24 hours or so. Get on it and ‘buy’ it here.
PS you can buy the entire series on Amazon for £2 or $3 here. You can also check out SickMan’s blog here, which I’m going to be updating in real time to fit with the blogposts from the book this winter. He’s even got his own twitter feed now. You might notice something about the folks he’s following hehe.
The rest is tears>
(0r, more precisely, an extract from the book.)
THE TROLL, book 1, The Boy with the Sliver of Ice in his Heart
Extract, chapter 2
First World Problems
It looked like confetti, scattered over both carriageways. Louisa saw the flecks of colour spread across the road and thought it might be streamers. Or blossom. It was the wrong time of year for blossom, though, and, as Jack drove past and she looked more closely, she saw that it was feathers.
Then she saw the dead pigeon. Harshly decapitated on the central reservation, disappearing into the concrete as if it were flying into the earth. Its wings were spread wide, over the road, like an exhalation. Like he had stretched too far and been destroyed as a consequence, feathers charred and melted off. Yes, like Icarus, too close to the sun.
Louisa looked away and up. She tried to shake the image of the dead bird from her thoughts. The petrol blue of the sky stretched above them, the clouds like fluff and mallow. Spray flew up from the road like so many diamonds as the sun hit it. But Louisa couldn’t shake her raw shock at the sight of the pigeon, headless and diving into the road.
It was hard not to see it as a portent. She leaned back in the car seat and closed her eyes. She saw portents everywhere she looked, these days. She had read too many books and seen too many films and definitely knew too much about fairy tales. All of these stories running circles around her head made it impossible to believe in free will.
No matter what happened, Red Riding Hood was always going for that walk in the woods. She was always going to find that wolf along the path. Even though there were different versions of the story, it was a matter of when or where her grandmother got eaten. However loudly you shouted at the screen, the girl would go down into the cellar, or answer the phone. It was always the girl, on the way into danger. Stories full of dead and damaged girls, a warning to the entire female species. All the better to eat you with.
Once, there was a girl called Louisa. One day, there was a dead pigeon in the road. And then, bad things happened. And then, more bad things happened.
Everything she saw these days was the beginning of THE END. A mid life crisis, perhaps, but the Big Bad Wolf was constantly lurking around the corner.
‘You okay?’ Jack said, startling her. She had almost forgotten that he was there, in the driver’s seat next to her.
‘Yeah, just tired.’ Louisa rubbed at an eyelid, as if to prove it. This had become her standard response to being asked if she was all right. She wasn’t even sure that it was true; it was just what came out of her mouth. It wasn’t like you were allowed to say no, though, was it? To pour out your heart and burden other people with your mid-life troubles.
Jack smiled across at her. ‘Well, it’s the holidays, at least.’
Louisa wasn’t sure if this was supposed to cheer her up but it didn’t. Another New Year on the horizon. 2013, unlucky for some. No doubt it would be. No doubt it would be lucky for others. A zero sum game, that’s what it was, like gambling, or karma, if that actually existed. Fate. She was beginning to believe in these things. She’d half-expected the world to end a few days before, like the Mayan calendar. It made as much sense as anything else.
Jack turned on the radio, the local station. It was that time of the morning and Kelly’s voice came rolling out of the speakers. It was odd, even after all these years, to hear your best mate’s voice coming from the speakers in your car, even though she’d always been the most talkative of them all, at school. Kelly was chatting to some local bloke who had the cracked voice of a serial killer. They were discussing drink driving.
‘I think we should hang the lot of ‘em,’ the caller said. He’d sounded vaguely reasonable up until that moment.
Jack turned towards Louisa, she stared back at him. She widened her mouth, deliberately, impersonating ‘chin hits floor’, the way they say on the internet.
‘That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?’ Kelly said. Her voice was its usual self, the bright, cheery, chatty intonation belying the darkness Louise knew was underneath.
‘Nah,’ said the phone-in guy. ‘String ‘em all up. They ruin people’s lives, that lot.’
Nutters like this one rang up the local station all the time. Kelly manoeuvred him off the line. Her words said one thing and her voice another. Irony, the real thing and not some pop song version, the distance between what was said on the surface and what existed beneath. Louisa usually explained this to her students using the words of the Big Bad Wolf. All the better to see you with.
Louisa looked out of the window again. There were no more feathers, no more dead birds. Just the beat of another Christmas with the in-laws, waiting ahead of her like a headache.
The mother-in-law was fussing with The Spread. Maggie was proud about these things, like most working class women of a certain age. The father-in-law, John, was sitting in his chair, the throne he’d had for years, carefully located in exactly the right place in the room. Not too close to the television, not too far away. In exactly the right position to get the perfect effect from the surround sound. A Goldilocks chair.
Louisa wandered over to the food and inspected it, as was only polite. ‘It’s a lovely spread you’ve got here, Maggie,’ she said. Years of Christmases staying with Irish relatives had taught her the right words for these occasions. Maggie was Scottish but the same rules applied and Louisa was rewarded with a warm smile. She immediately felt guilty. Here they were, this lovely couple, inviting her into their home, making her welcome. Buying presents for her and making such an effort to please her with food. If they knew the truth about Louisa, what would they think?
‘Are you okay, dear?’ It was Maggie talking, leaning forward.
‘Sorry,’ Louisa said. She shook her head and smiled. ‘In a world of my own for a minute,’ she said.
‘Can I get you a glass of the fizzy stuff? It perks me up every time.’ Maggie smiled and her blue eyes sparked in a way that reminded Louisa so much of Adam. The younger brother, the brother-in-law. The one she needed to stop thinking about.
‘Yes, please,’ Louisa said. What she wanted to say was that she needed a drink, could really ‘use’ one, the way they said in American detective movies. Like you use a drink for anything but getting drunk, or throwing in the face of some idiot who’d cheated on you. Louisa had never used a drink the latter way. She’d have quite enjoyed the drama but Jack would never cheat on her. He was far too solid for that sort of nonsense.
Maggie disappeared towards the kitchen. Absently, Louisa reached for a sausage roll and placed it in her mouth. She chewed, then wondered why she’d done that. She wasn’t hungry, and she didn’t even particularly like sausage rolls. She glanced up at the sound of the front door. Jack and Adam breezed in, back from their trip to the pub down the road. The brothers Grimm had done this every Christmas since she’d known them so she wasn’t sure why it bothered her, why the sudden irritation, but it was there, scratching at her insides. Who made the rules that said the women were to stay home with the parents and the children while the males got the drinks down them? How was that fair?
Adam brushed a kiss against her cheek, then Jack grabbed her and kissed her, hard on the lips, pulling her close. As if he needed to take possession after his brother’s brief touch. Louisa closed her eyes.
Jack knew. He knew. Ohgodohgod.
‘I’m going to check on the kids, and then have a lie down.’ Louisa rubbed at her temples. ‘I’ve got a bit of a headache coming on and I want to nip it in the bud,’ she said.
‘Okay, babe,’ he said, rubbing a hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him, those liquid brown eyes that used to hypnotise her. The same tousled brown hair, thinning and greying, blurring him at the edges. He was still sexy, though, if only that was enough. She gave him a genuinely sad smile, then turned from him.
Louisa headed up the stairs and across the landing. She was still rubbing at her temples, acting out her alibi, so much so that she started to think a headache might really be developing. She opened the door to the box room, where Callie and Tom were top and tailing in the single bed. Callie turned over in her sleep, muttering to herself, the way Louisa had seen her do so many times. Tom was sleeping soundly, his little chest moving up and down rapidly with his breathing. She smiled to see them safe and warm, and the sight of them settled her a little.
She went next door, into Jack’s childhood bedroom. His mother had kept all of his old football trophies and medals, and his belts from karate, so that the place looked like some kind of shrine to a dead child. Louisa walked over to the dressing table and examined these relics. Time travellers from the 70s, like the rest of them. Touching the medals reminded her of what it had been like back there. Concrete buildings and flared trousers, green army ambulances on the streets, these were the pictures that came to her.
Remembering more innocent times made Louisa feel ill again, sick to her stomach with it all. She flung herself down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. As much as she might like to, she could never have an affair with Adam. Even letting him kiss her that one drunken time was sending her off the edge of a cliff with guilt. She could hardly bear it.
She breathed and let her body sink into the bed. She pulled her phone from her pocket and switched it on, despite all the promises she’d made to herself to stay away from the internet and be more sociable. She typed in the code and the phone came to life. Text alerts went off, and the sound of emails hitting her inbox echoed around the room.
Two of the text messages were from Adam. He’d probably sent them from the pub, while Jack was getting their drinks in, the cheeky git. She didn’t even read them, so tired of his flirting. Tired of it months ago, now she thought about it.
She went to her email instead. It might be the holidays but that didn’t stop students asking questions, especially when they had assignments to finish. She answered several of those kinds of messages, and also replied to a couple of emails wishing her Happy Christmas, from tutors who worked for her. Then she hit the internet, finding a recent newspaper article about the appeal for adults of the fairy tale. The article was a bit poor, though; superficial and simplistic. Louisa soon lost interest.
Everyone else was downstairs. They would be drinking Cava and Egg Nog and making fun of the Christmas Eve telly but she didn’t have the heart for it. It was too sad, though, to be working on Christmas Eve. Louisa refused to be that pathetic and flicked to her Facebook page. There it was, flashing in front of her, the friend request from SickMan, whoever the fuck that was. She flicked to his profile, looked through his list of friends. Adam and Kelly were both there. Did they know this man?
Louisa was feeling restless. She didn’t want to join the others downstairs. She tucked her legs underneath her on the bed and dug into her handbag, pulling out her emergency pack of cigarettes. She couldn’t have needed them more. She walked over and opened the window. She looked around the room and realised that wasn’t going to work. Jack had far too good a sense of smell and he’d flip out. She pushed her feet into her shoes and walked onto the landing.
Softly, quietly, like a princess in a castle trying not to wake a beast beneath her in the dungeon, Louisa padded down the stairs. She crept past the living room, which leaked the sounds of festive drinking and chatting. She made it to the back door without being noticed. Then she was in the garden. She pulled the door to, and sat at the bench table. Finally, she lit up. She kept watch on the back door, ready to throw the cigarette over the hedge if it looked like someone was coming out.
The click and glare of the neighbours’ security light coming on startled her. Then there was the loud sound of a door bursting open. Gary Bukowski came out and stood the other side of the hedge. Just like magic he was there, as if it was an ordinary, common or garden thing, the way it had been when they were teenagers. He was lighting a cigarette and looking at the ground. He looked the same but so very different. Older, of course. It’d been over twenty years and so they all were. But he looked used and worn in a way that none of the rest of them did. Lines dug deep down the sides of his cheeks as he grimaced into the bright beam of the security light and his head was shaved but patchy, hardly really disguising the fact that he was going bald. Louisa wanted to look away, to run inside, but she was glued to her seat. Gary glanced over. The light of recognition sparked up in his eyes at the same time as the end of his cigarette.
‘Hey,’ Louisa said. She felt stupid immediately. As if ‘hey’ was enough after all these years, not to mention their history. She rolled her eyes at herself.
‘Hey,’ Gary said. He sucked on the cigarette, and then smiled. He looked younger when he smiled. ‘Shit,’ he added, finding the better word to express what there was between them.
Louisa laughed, lightly. ‘I’d ask how you were but, fucksake, Gary. This is weird.’
‘Yes it is.’ Gary smoked with intent, and he narrowed his eyes. ‘Listen, let’s not do the big reunion. Let’s pretend we’ve never met. I’ve just moved into the area and that.’ Another pull, like he was trying to suck the life out of his cancer stick. ‘Okay?’
Louisa nodded. That worked for her. ‘Nice to meet you, new neighbour of my in-laws. I hope you settle in all right.’
‘I’ll do my best,’ he said. He coughed.
The two of them puffed away on their cigarettes. There were so many things Louisa would have liked to say, but she didn’t even know where to start. So she smoked, and looked over from time to time, hoping that might communicate something of what she didn’t know how to put into words. As if the smoke rising above her head could make the right curls and spirals to say ‘sorry for fucking up your life, and all that’.
Louisa finished the cigarette. She would have liked to light up again and smoke another. She could have smoked the whole damned pack in one go. But it was too weird, sitting there with Gary Bukowski. Off the scale. She tucked the packet into the left hand cup of her bra and stood up.
‘See ya,’ Gary said, with a backwards nod.
Louisa had one hand on the back door. She turned back towards Gary. She realised that there was something she wanted to say. ‘That advice you gave me, about Jack and Adam. It was good advice.’
Gary looked like he was trying to smile but the effect was more of a grimace. ‘That working out for you, then?’ he said.
Louisa shrugged. ‘Not particularly. It was still the right advice, though.’
Gary nodded, slowly. ‘Adam’s still trying, isn’t he? All these years on. Making it hard for you to be happy.’ He sounded pleased with his own analysis.
Louisa pushed the door. It made quite a creak. She didn’t look back. She wouldn’t lie to Gary but she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction either.
‘Wait,’ Gary said, his voice urgent. The tone of it made her stop and turn. He nodded towards the house. ‘My lovely next door neighbours have no clue what happened that summer, do they?’
Louisa coughed and shook her head. She felt the sharp corners of the cigarette packet next to her skin. She could feel it move with the thump of her heart.
‘Listen, I’d rather the others didn’t know you’d seen me.’ He coughed. ‘We don’t want stuff dragged back up, y’know?’ His eyes narrowed as he spoke.
Louisa tried to work out if she’d imagined a threat in what he’d said. She didn’t think so. She stared back at him and couldn’t find any words.
‘You get me, right?’ he said.
Louisa nodded. She turned away, and rushed into the house as quickly as she could, wanting to be away from Gary. Away from him and the memories and the past. She crept across the kitchen and towards the stairs. She was suddenly very, very tired. The last place she wanted to be was that living room. The bubble of noise and joy that came from it made her feel sick through to her skin.
Louisa crept back up the stairs and towards the bedroom, her footsteps as quiet as the night. Whatever creature might be lurking beneath her, it did not make a sound. She had a feeling in her gut, though, a sickness, telling her that it was beginning to stir, that its vile, flecked eyes were shuddering open.
The sound of the bedroom door brushing against the carpet made Louisa jump, and shove her phone under the quilt. She sat up sharply, expecting to see her husband, come to check on her. Admittedly, that wasn’t his style. She was still shocked to see Adam, walking towards the bed.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ She spat the words across the room, trying to be quiet but forceful at the same time.
‘What?’ Adam held out both hands in a gesture of innocence. ‘We’re relatives and you’re unwell. I’ve come to check on you. Why would anyone think anything else?’
Louisa was shaking her head. ‘You know they do. You know that Jack does. What if he comes up here? It’s like you’re trying to rile him up deliberately.’
Adam smiled his but I’m a good guy smile and Louisa had to grit her teeth to stop herself crying out in frustration at his damned, awful cheek. ‘I hate you sometimes,’ she said, her words spat whispers, hissing towards him as he stepped closer.
‘You don’t mean that.’ His voice was smooth and calm. ‘And anyway, I have a good reason. I need to talk to you. Have you been getting requests from this SickMan bloke?’
Louisa sat up straighter. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘And you and Kelly are already friends with him, so I’m wondering if you actually know who he is or if you just don’t give a fuck about adding random strangers on Facebook.’ Her voice was losing its tone, getting slightly hysterical. She tried to slow her breathing down and calm herself. ‘Adam, for fucksake. You need to go.’
Adam smiled. He looked as if he was enjoying himself. ‘I wanted to show you this,’ he said. ‘I wondered if you’d have a clue what it might be about.’ He held out his phone. Louisa didn’t take it at first but he shoved it towards her a second time, and then placed it right into her hand. She looked at the screen. There was a website there, a blog. The header read SICKMANS STORY and there was a subtitle. ‘Telling Tales and Dancing with Demons.’ She stared at it for a few moments and then Adam grabbed the phone back.
‘It’s Gary Bukowski,’ he said, staring at the screen. ‘That has to be Bukowski.’
‘It’s not Gary.’ Louisa was shaking her head.
‘How would you know?’ Adam’s chin thrust out and he looked confident that he was right. She hoped not. She thought about telling Adam she’d seen Gary but his words came back to her, the menace she’d felt. Had he meant to sound threatening? She wasn’t certain but it wasn’t worth the risk.
‘You need to go,’ Louisa said, flicking her hand towards Adam over and over, as if to repel him. ‘If you don’t go now, I’ll scream till someone comes.’
‘You would never do that.’ Adam sounded so sure of himself.
‘Don’t you try me, Adam Hall. Don’t you bloody dare.’
Adam laughed then, and backed out of the room, closing the door softly on his way. She heard his footsteps as he retreated towards the stairs. She really did hate him. Not all the time but occasionally, and definitely right now.
Louisa sat on the bed and tried to think calm thoughts. Fear grew, though, thick in her throat, and made it hard to breathe. No amount of calm thinking was about to make it go away. Her carefully constructed life was about to collapse, the way she’d always known it would. She felt for the emergency cigarettes under her clothes. She put on her shoes as quietly as she could but, this time, she headed for the front door.
The past was coming for her. It was coming for all of them.
Louisa could see the hot clouds of her breath like cigarette smoke in the air in front of her. She knew she should have told someone where she was going, that they might worry about her disappearing into the night, on Christmas Eve. But she couldn’t tell them.
Then, there it was; St Mary’s RC Comprehensive School. Those same old tennis courts, the playing fields that backed on to the woods. The path to fairyland. It was exactly like it had always been, as if she’d gone back in time. The Crazy Gang, they’d called themselves, Adam, Kelly, Louie and Gary. They’d inscribed their initials with spray paint, next to the drawings of big nosed Chads peering over walls. The Crazy Gang forever. If destroyed still true. That graffiti was long gone, of course, destroyed, in so many ways, and no longer true despite the contingency they’d tried to write into it. The gates were locked. Of course they were; it was the Christmas holiday. That had never stopped them getting in when they’d wanted to, as youngsters, and it wouldn’t stop her now.
Louisa could still remember where the gaps in the fences used to be, but those would have been fixed years ago. There would be other gaps, newer ones. She walked along the edge of the school field until she found a bent fence post. She pushed through, head first. It was a tighter fit than she would have liked but she got safely to the other side. And there she was, back in the past. A dread fear filled her. It was dark but there was a glow from streetlights, and from the moon, so that she could see everything around her, in black and white. The dark wasn’t what disturbed her.
Before she knew it, she was standing in their spot. The scene of the crime. Had it even really happened? She touched the wall of the school building. The gymnasium was the other side of that wall, where they’d climbed ropes and thrown netballs, got screamed at by PE teachers who thought that shouting was motivation. She ran her fingers across the bricks, then along the paving stones where they used to sit. Could this really be the same place they’d spent so much time all those summers ago?
Louisa closed her eyes. This place was so ripe with the past, her past, that she could almost hear their teenaged voices. The daft things they used to talk about. Like a children’s cartoon with filthy character names they’d just worked out, the other, mad, crazy bouncing TV animations, and the revelation that the writers had been off their heads on LSD the whole time and how that hadn’t been a surprise at all, in the end. Not once they’d tried the drug themselves.
She sat down, leaning against the wall. It was cold to be sitting on concrete. Not like all those years ago, that July when the sun had heated up everything, and sometimes she’d had to be careful with bare legs. The memory came back so strongly she almost felt the burn against her skin. She lit her second cigarette of the day and took a deep drag. Jack would kill her. Adam too, probably, if he saw her smoking. She savoured the flavour, though, of tar and caramel, carbon monoxide and arsenic. Every tiny aspect of how it tasted took her back.
Louisa smiled, thinking how she’d grown up surrounded by kaleidoscopes of colour. Yes, and bright, garish circles of different sizes, slightly offset from centre as if designed to disrupt your vision. Orange inlaid with purple on wallpaper in her aunt’s living room. Green with a lighter green on a pair of curtains at their gran’s house. Puke green, her little sister had called it and that was about right. Only sitting here with her friends, on acid herself, had she understood. All of it. She had smiled in recognition.
As she sat behind the gym now, though, it could all have been a dream. Memories, delicate and easily ripped, like the wings on butterflies. You could never be sure, never. It could all have been planted inside your head to convince you of a history that didn’t exist until a few years ago, or weeks, or moments. The passage of time wasn’t even real. It was something your brain created so that you could negotiate this space-time matrix, that was all.
Louisa had definitely watched and read too much Sci-Fi, but there was another part of her driving these thoughts. A part that wanted to believe it had never happened. She would have loved to persuade herself it wasn’t true. That it was a misunderstanding. Something she’d seen in a film when she was half asleep and accidentally attributed to her own life. One of those bad dreams about cutting up dead bodies that feel so real you’re convinced for several moments after waking that you’ve kept a secret from yourself for years.
Lots of Louisa’s teenage memories were hazy at best. Misty and dreamlike, easily dismissed. The problem was that this one wasn’t. This one played out in high definition, as if it had happened just the day before, and there was nothing she could do to shake herself away from it. Especially here. Right now. Where it had played out in glorious Technicolor, back in 1991.