WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short storycompetition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Jonathan Carroll“WE should head home.”
Petey nudged me with his shoe. Sunlight failed to breach theclouds most days, so it was really more like the shadow of his shoe. To look at it, it was withoutsubstance – a lot like Petey.
I glanced up. The sky was leaden: dark, pregnant with thunder andpossibly rain. That wasn’t necessarily a good thing. It could go months without a drop or anentire year’s worth might hammer the parched earth in just a few hours. I heard rumbling in thedistance but it didn’t have the rich timbre of thunder.
“Jimbo’s working on his tunnel again.”Jimbo spent a lot of time playing with the excavator he’d tinkered into life. I watched itonce. Great metal teeth gnawed at the growing maw, spewing dirt and heat as if Jimbo wereboring a hole straight into hell. He said it would protect him from ghost-lights and data-loops.
The racket was as bad as the thick black cloud that puffed from the excavator’s exhaust. Thunk. Shoosh. Thunk. Whomp.
Right now I could just make out the thumps. Petey stood and gazed out to sea. I wassprawled on the brittle grass but I knew he was staring at the lights twinkling way out from theshore. Ghost-lights. They were all that remained of ships that would never sail through theheads into port: afterimages of vessels blinked out of existence back when the glitch hadvanished everything electronic from the world. Gran said her “fone” and “telly” and “conpooter”and some “world-wide tentacles” thing hadn’t stopped or died, but had simplydisappeared as if they never existed.Sometimes I wished Petey would disappear as if he never existed.
“Sandman’ll be around soon to flick the wicks.”Petey’s shadow turned and kicked myshoe again. “Don’t wanna end up like Bob.”A shiver that had nothing to do with the weather raced up my spine and made my headshimmy like a wet dog. Bob had been caught out after the Sandman came to spark thestreetlights into tiny golden flames before the full-dark. The skeletons of the old lights stillarched their skinny necks high above the potholed streets but the ghosts living in them hadforgotten how to shine. We found Bob clinging to one of the ghost-light poles after the full-darkhad turned to half-dark. His eyes were silvery orbs and he didn’t hear us calling his name. Hewas climbing to nowhere and shouting about things written on some wall in a book of faces.We knew he’d been caught in a data-loop but nobody could say if or when he might get flungback out again.
Loops were like memories from the never-more before the glitch remade everything. Theywinked into existence without warning, trapping those caught out after full-dark inside theirown thoughts and beyond our reach. Bob was wasting away while his mind was held captive ina phantom world that ceased to exist when Gran was younger than I was now.
We only knew of one person that had escaped a never-more loop: Mollie Havershell. Shewas lost for more than a year when the loop suddenly spat her out and she woke updemanding breakfast and something called a pea-hess-for. Nobody knew what she wasprattling about but the human resources agency had informed her family that she was nolonger required to hand in her card to be ticked. She was what we call “loopy” now: prone todisappearing into her own mind at times, although she always comes back soon enough andraving about strange things that make no sense to us.Bob had only been gone a few months. There was still hope for him. But, even if the loopspat him, he’d never be wholly Bob again.
“Sandman!”Petey’s shadow grabbed my hand and yanked me to my feet. He hauled mealong the edge of the street where the gutter was supposed to channel the absent rain intodrains meant to dump it into the sea. It was the only part left without gaps and holes.
I glanced behind to see the little yellow light of the Sandman’s lantern bobbing down thehill towards us. The man, himself, was nice enough. It was what his job represented that mademy skin crawl with fire ants. Full-dark. Little flashes of sparks burst behind the clouds in thewest while the brooding clouds in the east simply disappeared into pitch. The data-loopsroamed the pitch: ice pale lights that winked on and off, randomly appearing and disappearingalong a haphazard path. Inside the light, like Gran’s no-globe back home, you could see theafterimage of a world that no longer existed, like a negative imprint of the shadows and blightthat afflicted us.
Petey squealed and dropped my hand. He just vanished. I hadn’t meant it about himdisappearing. Honestly. I looked for him but he was relegated to shadow in a fast-fadinglandscape. The Sandman’s bobbing light swooped – not that the wan glow revealed much.
Ghost-light stole Petey’s shadow as a data-loop opened between us, and the Sandman’s lanternexploded into bright fog. Spidery veins of shimmering mercury webbed the fog and trapped thelight, dancing with iridescent sparks. I vaguely heard shouting but everything outside the loopwas darker than pitch.
Images scrolled across my vision in colours I never knew existed: millions of technocolours.Sunlight bedazzled a golden beach and there was a pale pearl on a nest of black, dottedwith glittering specks that shimmered. Water cascaded from the lip of ridge into a swirling poolthat defied description. Birds squawked and swooped in a clear sky. I poked at an image andwas sucked into a place of green fields and soft music, where I rode a purple dragon through aswarm of flutter-wings in search of treasure-diamonds in a pea-hess-for.