By Samuel Best
It started with the bad thoughts. Not often, but a few times a month, maybe. Sundays. A quiet voice like a whisper at the back of church, speaking cruel things; horrible things. Thoughts against the reverend. Thoughts against Daddy. Against the village. But thoughts are thoughts and I would speak with God and the thoughts would go away. Until one day, they didn’t. It was late at night and I was praying before bed, trying to hush the whisper. I spoke to God and He didn’t answer. There was a lingering silence, and then the voice began to laugh.
That night I slept restlessly and the bad thoughts came more often than usual. I woke four times, perhaps; my mind filled with the sharp little voice. I took to whispering myself; repeating prayers to drown out the badness. I sweated beneath my sheets, muttering, but each time I drifted back I could hear that voice, laughing now. Full of malice and mischief. When I cried it mocked me.
The next morning I woke with the sunrise and dressed quickly, splashing water on my face before rushing to the church. I tried to move quickly – so fast that the thoughts couldn’t catch up – but still, as I passed through the village square, the whispering grew. I passed the baker and considered spitting phlegm into the dough. I passed the fountain and fought the urge to taint the water. I ran to the church door and pounded hard, the wood stinging my hand with every strike. I wanted very badly to burn the building to the ground.
When the reverend opened the door a vision flashed in front of my eyes. Me, scratching at his face, my nails tearing deep scores down to the bone. I squeezed my eyes closed, trying to vanish the thought, but when I opened them again I saw my hands were raised. I clamped them to my own face to hide the terror, the shame, written there, and the reverend ushered me into the House of God.
It was a small church, made mostly of dark old wood and splintering pews, and I had been coming here as long as I had been alive. I had been washed clean in the font at the front of the nave. The small milky windows; the plain, slightly-squint lectern; every part of the church was ingrained in my memory and should have been instantly recognisable. Today, though, something was different. Not in any way I could put my finger on, but there was something unbalanced which made the whole church look askew. The reverend took me to a seat and sat opposite, his fingers in a tent against his lips. He looked concerned, and for a moment I wondered if he knew. Did sin show on one’s face like dirt? I opened my mouth to speak but no words would come. Try as I might, my tongue flapped like a gasping fish. I was mute before Him.
‘Elizabeth,’ the reverend spoke, finally breaking the silence. He implored me to share whatever was clearly troubling me so but my dead tongue could form nothing but curses which fell from my lips hot and sudden like vomit.
He took a deep breath, my words washing off him like a baptism, and extended a soothing hand. He rested it atop mine. The reaction was not sudden but still fast. Like a jolt of freezing water, my skin stung and I withdrew my hands to my chest. The priest sat back, surprised, and I spat on his robes.
‘Elizabeth! Come back, girl!’
He called as I strode out of the building but my heart was so full of anger he could have cried any other name for the good it did. I was no longer Elizabeth. I was something more.
As soon as I reached the square again I began to cry. The anger had disappeared and instead, a tremulous fear had taken over me. My hands shook. That furious energy had left me as quickly as it had come on. What had possessed me to treat the reverend so? Had I not sought him out for advice in the first place? Why then had my voice vanished when I tried to explain? I walked quickly to the stream and sat by the water, quieting my rapid breath and focusing on my thoughts. I waited, expecting to hear something, but my mind was as calm and steady as the current washing over the pebbles. I closed my eyes in thanks and rested.
When I opened my eyes again I saw a small boy across the stream. He was watching me curiously, holding a cup-and-ball toy loosely by his side. I smiled at him and he smiled back.
‘Hello,’ I said. My voice sounded strange to me but as with the church, I couldn’t place exactly how. It was like hearing an echo finding its way back to you; one knows one’s own voice but still, there is an unlikeness.
‘Hello,’ he replied. He kept his eyes on mine, unblinking.
‘That’s a wonderful toy you have there,’ I said, nodding to the cup-and-ball.
The boy looked down as though he hadn’t realised what was in his hand. He raised it up and, with a jerk, sent the ball to the furthest extent of the string before catching it in the wooden cup.
I smiled again and congratulated him on his talent. He asked if I would like to try. I told him I was rather skilful at the game and that during my last year of schooling – just two years prior – I was the best of the girls in the village.
The boy laughed. ‘You’re silly,’ he said. ‘How can you have finished school just two years ago? You look so old.’
I was shocked. I frowned, and deep in my mind, I heard a distant laugher. An indistinct whisper passed through my thoughts, and I reprimanded the boy for his rudeness.
‘I am fourteen years of age,’ I told him. ‘And you should think twice before uttering such disrespect to a stranger.’
The boy kicked a pebble into the stream without looking and smirked. ‘You are a liar,’ he said.
‘Come here,’ I replied, sternly. ‘Come here and accuse me again.’
The boy glanced away from me for the first time and looked to the footbridge some distance away. He decided against it and instead gingerly pressed his foot down on a large stone not an inch below the waterline. It held firm, and the boy swung his balance forward until he was stood in the middle of the stream.
I remained where I was, watching him. To any innocent observer, I could perhaps have been his sister or childminder, making sure his silly games don’t end badly. But inside me, a furious anger boiled again, and I wished horrible things on the boy. He took a step onto the next stone, and that is when I stood. The water dappled across the toe of my shoes but I didn’t feel the cold. I was fixed on the boy. He had but one more stone to stand on before he could jump across to my side, and I could see he was judging the distance.
‘Come here,’ I encouraged, my voice still unfamiliar to my own ears.
The boy stretched out his leg, testing the stability of the rock. It held firm and he moved across, his arms outstretched for balance. In a fluid movement, as the boy made his jump, I reached for his hand. His skin was waxy and I twisted hard, sending the boy into a spin. He fell gracelessly, flailing for grip. When he landed, the stream swallowed his entire body, water rushing over his head and face, but he did not splash. He did not continue to flail.
Instead, a thin pink cloud spread from his seaweed hair like a sunset, and his face took on a look of such pure innocence that I was spellbound. I stood and watched him for a minute, enjoying the tranquillity, until I heard another bad thought like a gust of wind blowing from some black place in my heart.
‘Make sure,’ it said, and I exhaled a long breath.
I bent down by the edge of the stream and traced my hands over the smooth, smooth pebbles there. Most were as small as eggs but some had a heavier heft to them. I picked one up, cradling it in my hands like a baby, and waded into the stream.
The boy slept under the water and as I stood over him the peaceful air broke. I could hear the reverend’s voice again, calling from nearby. I didn’t need to turn to know I had enough time before he reached me. He sounded possessed by some sort of terror but I was as still and calm as the pebble in my arms.
The boy’s face slowly began to twist then, and as his mouth bubbled and his eyelids shook I thought for a moment that he looked like me. But then the water can play tricks, can’t it? I hefted the pebble above my head as the reverend cried out again. The pink cloud continued to streak downstream from the boy’s head and, as I let go of the stone, I wondered if the whispering voice was right; that I would soon see things I had never seen before. Inside things.
There was a moment, just before the pebble landed, in which the boy seemed to realise what was happening. Still, his face resembled mine, but not for long. As I skipped beyond the stream and into the forest, my dress hemmed with pink from drinking up the bloodied water, I heard the voice whispering and this time I whispered right back.
Samuel Best’s short fiction has been published in magazines in Britain, North America, and Scandinavia. His début novel ‘Shop Front’ has been described as ‘A howl and a sigh from Generation Austerity’ and he founded literary magazine Octavius. You can find more of his writing at samuelbest.weebly.com, and on social media at @storiesbysamuel.