There were four blocks of flats, thirteen stories each, arranged around a set of abandoned gardens. The shape, the specific shape of the towers and their gardens, formed an alter to a god long dead. Scorp’s grandmother said so, anyway.
And Scorp’s grandmother knew things.
Like most things living, Scorp avoided the gardens. Scorp had his own place, down in the basement of Block Three, with the boiler, and with Fred. Fred had been the caretaker of Block Three for fifty years, right up until the day he died. Of course, he’d stayed on. Scorp couldn’t repair the boiler, for one thing.
“Are you paying attention, lad?” asked Fred.
Scorp opened his third can of lager and took a noisy slurp. He was too young to drink, of course, but the one shop that was still open on the estate had an arrangement. They sold Scorp his lager, his fags, and his scratchcards, and he looked after them in return. There had been a time on the estate when Scorp had been just another one of those kids that you stayed away from, that you kept on the right side of if you didn’t want your car stolen or your door spray painted. These days, things on the estate were different. These days, people stayed on the right side of Scorp because one day, if they were really, really unlucky … they might need his help.
“I said …”
“Yeah,” said Scorp, “I’m listening. You know, you talk a lot for a dead guy. I don’t get this much aggro from my mum, and she’s alive. Mostly”
Fred fished a spectral bag of tobacco from the pocket of his ghostly cardigan and started to roll a cigarette. “I always thought these things would kill me,” he muttered, ignoring Scorp for a moment.
“Yeah, well, you were hardly going to see werewolves coming,” replied Scorp. “I guess that was the problem though.” He sniggered. He supposed he should feel bad, but if Fred wanted to chew his ear off for hour after hour, the least he could do was let Scorp have a little fun.
Fred held his rollie to the side of the boiler, and the end sparked into a strange, etheric fire.
“That’s why you’ve got to listen, Scorp, so you don’t end up like me. Being caretaker’s a big responsibility, difficult job.”
Scorp drained the can, crushed it, and dropped it into the carrier bag at his feet.
“I get it. I hear you. I just don’t believe it. Sad Mattie?”
Fred took a drag on the cigarette. Under his cardigan, smoke hissed out between his ribs. Scorp knew that under his ghostly clothes, Fred still had the wounds that had killed him, on the fourth floor of block two. Scorp had found him, bleeding out, dragging himself down the stairs. That was how he had become the new caretaker. It was a job you got, it was a job that got you.
“Yep,” said Fred, “Sad Mattie. I didn’t believe it myself, but the suicides don’t lie.”
“Everyone lies,” said Scorp, “My gran says so. She says people can’t help it.”
“People, maybe,” replied Fred, taking another drag. “But ghosts are different. Being dead makes things … simpler. And trust me, suicide ghosts don’t lie. Mostly they’re just glad to have someone to talk to.”
“And they all blame Sad Mattie?”
“Every last one. Six in the last week, Scorp, who knows how many since she came here. They say she hounds them, drives them to it, and then tries to take their souls to some place they don’t want to go.”
“This place …” muttered Scorp, pulling another can out of his carrier bag.
“Yep,” replied Fred.
Scorp trudged through snow across the gardens. Tonight wasn’t a night to avoid them, not if he wanted to find Sad Mattie. One of the things Scorp had inherited from his gran was a special way of seeing the world, a special sense of where things were and where they should be. Even as his feet crunched down on the powdery snow, he knew that he would find Sad Mattie out here in the gardens, and he knew that he would be too late.
Fred’s six would become seven. All Scorp could do was try to end the tally there.
Scorp’s gran said that the problem with building your home in the shape of an alter is that, when your god dies, all that’s left is a sign that says “TO LET” to every other strange thing out there. There are as many homeless gods as there are dead ones, or so Scorp’s gran said.
And she knew things. Everyone knew that.
Scorp wasn’t surprised when he heard the thud and saw the cloud of snow puff up across the gardens. It was either the biggest snowball fight in history, or someone had just jumped from the roof of Block Four. Scorp could smell the blood, gore, and ichor as he broke into a run across the gardens. Another gift, inherited from Gran.
Blood. No matter what, it always came down to blood.
Vaulting over one of few walls that hadn’t been kicked down, Scorp dropped in a crouch onto the edge of a snowdrift. There was blood here, and Scorp watched as it spread across the snow, draw inexorably outwards into the white. It ran down a slight incline in the snow, towards the gutters. If Scorp’s Gran had been there, she would have said something deep about how everyone in these towers was drifting towards the gutters, or something. But she wasn’t there. Neither was Fred, but Scorp knew exactly what he would say too.
“Keep your eyes up, Scorp.”
And he did. Just in time to see Sad Mattie, and her dogs, come to inspect their handiwork.
Social workers were a natural hazard in the towers. They came and they went, crashing against the towers like swimmers caught in a riptide smashed against the cliffs, their earnest souls drowning one after another. If you were unlucky, they grabbed on to you and tried to drag you down with them. Sad Mattie though, she was different.
She didn’t drown. Somehow, she swam.
And Scorp had ignored her, that had been his mistake.
A shambling, hunched woman, all brown coats and tan slacks, home knitted cardigans and carrier bags full of crumpled paperwork and foolscap folders. A mad frizz of steel grey hair around a crumpled face, rheumy eyes, the occasional wiry whisker. The only unusual thing was the dogs, but who wouldn’t have dogs on an estate like this?
Yes, it was obvious now. She used all the same tricks that he did, to move unnoticed amongst people who would be better off not noticing you in the first place. The trick was to be what they expected, to wrap yourself up in a stereotype that their flat little minds could safely ignore, safely assume they knew everything about you and never once look an inch past the surface. Watching her now from a distance, Scorp could see it so clearly.
Sad Mattie, like Scorp, was far from human.
Her disguise was perfect.
Until she looked up.
Scorp stood. The snow was melting around his feet far faster than it should have done. One of his little giveaways, one of the things that he couldn’t control. Scorp’s blood ran hot and, right now, it was pounding in his ears like a thousand hours of drum and bass crammed into thirty seconds.Sad Mattie bared her teeth and hissed, marking her territory.
“These are my gardens,”said Scorp, his voice level and firm. “I’m the caretaker here.”
“I know who you are,” replied Mattie. “And what you are.”
Her voice had changed, moved ever so slightly out of the range of human hearing. It was the way that things talked, that creatures talked, when they didn’t want humans to hear, didn’t want them to interfere. There was a wavelength, a frequency, a sidestep away from what people knew. Scorps Gran called it The Whispering, and said it was the sound that secrets made.
“Who’s that?” asked Scorp, nodding at the body that lay motionless in the snow. He had seen people jump before, everyone who lived in the blocks had at some point, and he was grateful at least that the snow had broken this particular fall and left the body mostly in one piece.
Mattie smiled and licked her cracked lips, “Margaret, from the eighth floor.”
Scorp knew her. He knew everyone on the estate, thanks to Frank. What Frank didn’t know he was able to find out, and he liked people. He said that was why he stayed around. Scorp didn’t ask about the long hours that Frank spent just watching, invisible and silent, an univited and unexpected guest in the lives of everyone who lived in the blocks.
“Why her?” Scorp asked. “All she ever did was buy scratchcards and talk about her kids.”
“Her children who left her,” Mattie replied. “Her children who got as far away from this place as they could the moment they had the chance. They put half a world between themselves and their own mother … don’t you wonder why?”
Scorp thought for a moment about his own mother. They lived in the same flat, had done since the day he was born, but he couldn’t remember a day when she hadn’t been more than half a world away. There were other ways to travel, other ways to get away from the estate, and the towers. There was always a cheap ticket waiting at the end of the needle. Scorp had learnt that the hard way.
“It happens sometimes,” he replied flatly. “No one’s fault.”
Mattie dipped two of her gnarled fingers into Margaret’s gaping mouth and pulled out a tooth. She popped it into her mouth and crunched down on it.
“Regret,” she said wistfully, “You can always taste it in their teeth. Makes them sour.”
Scorp felt his blood bubble.
“She was trying to win the money to get to New Zealand and see them. On the scratchcards.”
“Yes,” said Mattie, digging a hooked finger in behind Margaret’s eyeball, “I told her, it was pointless.”
Margaret’s eyeball popped out, and Mattie scooped it up before it rolled away across the snow, snapping the think bundle of nerves that trailed behind it.
“No, she didn’t. She had hope. She believed that someday, she was going to win.”
“And you convinced her otherwise,” said Scorp.
Mattie slipped the eyeball into her mouth. The juices ran out of the corners of her crooked smile as it popped.
“She needed to understand, she needed to know that she’d never see them. Ever.”
Scorp thought about the suicides, thought about the all the people hanging by a thread in these towers. One thing to cling to, one thing to keep them going. And Sad Mattie, snipping at their life lines for her own amusement.
“So this is how you do it, you talk them to death?”
“I hunt the hopeless, and the lost. I am Mallt y Nos.”
At the mention of her true name, Mattie’s dogs let out a whimper. Scorp watched as they lay down in the snow, their legs twitching.
Slowly, the spasms moved into their hind quarters, then across their backs, as if they were being slowly boiled from the inside out. Bubbles of flesh started to rise up, splitting their fur, making them howl and thrash with agony. They stayed still under Mattie’s gaze, even as the dog within, the dog inside the dog, pushed it’s way out through their cracking jaw bones. Scorp winced as the dogs split in two, birthing something darker, and impossibly bigger, into the snow.
“Hounds,” he muttered, “If it’s not wolves, it’s bloody hounds. I should buy some chew toys or something.”
The hounds growled, and began to slowly stalked towards him.
“Aren’t you going to show your true colours?” Scorp asked.
Scorp shrugged. “What you see if what you get, love.”
Sad Mattie snorted. “You believe that? Hah. Stupid boy. Granny isn’t always right, you know. This isn’t a fairy story.”
“Leave her out of this.” Scorp bridled.
“Oh, I’m afraid I can’t,” Mattie replied. “She’s at the heart of everything, you see. This place, these people. Did you know she was the first caretaker, before old Fred? I don’t suppose you did. She doesn’t look old enough, does she? What if I told that there were others even before Fred, and that she came before all of them as well?”
“Gran’s old,” Scorp said blankly. “I get it. Half the people in these blocks say they delivered them, delivered their kids, and delivered their grandkids. Half the grandmothers in this place are in their thirties as well, so go figure. Is that all you’ve got? You’re going to Jeremy Kyle me to death?”
Scorp watched as Mattie drew into herself for a moment. The dogs circled. He wasn’t used to this sort of thing. Normally, his job was more … physical. Find the problem, find the thing causing the problem, and deal with it. Scorp had a way of dealing with things.
Mattie shrugged off her big, brown coat. She moved like a lizard, shedding its skin. Scorp had seen it before, when things that didn’t really understand the concept of clothes moulded their flesh into all the rights shapes and creases and pleats, but didn’t understand that clothes came off. There was a tearing, and a popping, as Mattie undid the buttons of her beige cardigan.
Scorp kept his eyes flicking from Mattie to the dogs. His right hand drifted into the pocket of his hoodie and wrapped itself around the handle of a screwdriver. Scorp had a way of dealing with things.
“Is this your next trick, the world’s worst striptease?” he asked, as the beige cardigan feel the floor, the inside covered in blood and matted hair.
“Ha,” replied the thing that had been Sad Mattie, “And what is your trick, eh? Gran played a trick on you, didn’t she? Couldn’t stand to think that her empire might fall into someone else’s hands, couldn’t let a golden opportunity like you pass her by.”
Mattie dropped to her knees, her legs spread wide, and lifted up the thick flap of skin that pretended to be a skirt. Blood dripped down, and light sparkled across the snow. She grunted and groaned, and where the dark blood hit the ground something began to happen. Something began to … move.
“I’ll show you,” Mattie gasped. “I’ll show you like I showed them.”
“Show me what,” asked Scorp, his hand tightening in his pocket.
“I’ll show you … the life you might have had …”
She dropped back onto her haunches as, from beneath the snow, a pale hand broke through. It grasped at Mattie’s thigh, found a grip, and began to pull. A forearm, then an arm to the shoulder, slowly something pulled itself up from underneath the snow. Scorp watched as a head broke through, the snow giving birth to a strange pale creature, then another arm. The figure pulled itself upwards, clawing up Mattie’s prone and gasping body, until it had fully escaped the snow and lay, naked and panting and steaming, on the ground.
Scorp knew what it was, who is was, before it even turned around.
“Get up,” he said. “Let me see your face.”
The figure stood. Where the snow clung to him, clothes formed in a sloughing of flesh and hair. A cap knitted itself across the figure’s forehead, casting a shadow down across his face.
Scorp looked across the gardens at himself. Aged a few less years perhaps, or certainly spared some of the hardships that Scorp had endured. He looked … softer, somehow smaller. He wore a plain white t-shirt, jeans, a cap, all the features of a good kid trying to look like a street kid, like a tough kid. This Scorp wasn’t from the streets, wasn’t from the blocks.
This was a Scorp who had escaped.
Mattie stood up behind the Scorp who could have been, all vestiges of her human disguise long gone. She was tall, and primal, a naked hunter goddess at the head of her pack. Her mouth could only snarl and scream and bark, the sounds of harrying and harrowing, the weapons for this hunter of lost souls.
“See him!” she howled, “Behold your lost future!”
The other Scorp raised his head. His face was clean. His eyes were clear, open. They hadn’t seen the things that Scorp had seen, not only the creatures and the things and all the strange possibilities of the blocks, but the dirtier, grimier, more human tragedies that he saw everyday. This Scorp hadn’t seen desperation and despair. There was something else inside this other Scorp where those things should have been. Something small, something fragile, something that shone.
“Hope,” said Scorp under his breath.
Other Scorp said nothing as Sad Mattie, hunter goddess of the lost and hopeless screamed for blood. Scorp’s blood.
“Did you imagine, for even a moment, that there was a life past this?” she screeched, “That there was another chance for you, another way to live? I know all about you Scorpion Dunn’. I know about your mother, so lost in a drug haze that she doesn’t recognise you most days, I know about your precious Gran, and all the witchery she has cast on you. I know about your dead friend, and I know about your precious blocks.”
As Mattie raged and spat her hate and bile at him, Scorp slowly closed the distance between himself and his alter ego. It went against his every instinct, and against everything that Fred and taught him. He heard the dogs pad into place behind him, so that he was surrounded, death behind him and hopelessness ahead. It was the microcosm of his life, and everything that Sad Mattie wanted him to feel. He knew that in this moment, a normal person would probably break. Aperson already ground down by the world, already whittled into a shape not quite their own, with all the magnificence and the majesty stripped away, would fold and let this all envelope them. It was no wonder, thought Scorp, that Sad Mattie, Malt Y Nos, Matilda of the Night, had come here. This was a place made for her, a factory of hopelessness.
And yes, a normal person would have crumbled if they had seen in that moment what Scorp could see. Scorp however, was not normal.
And Scorp was not a person.
Scorp pulled his screwdriver out of his pocket and jammed it into the stomach of his alter ego.
Mattie and her hounds howled in unison.
Scorp pulled his screwdriver out of the other Scorp’s stomach. There was no blood, just a sticky, silvery liquid that flowed in the wrong direction up the blade. Scorp thought for a moment, he could see his reflection in it. Other Scorp crumpled, his hands clawing at the air as he collapsed. Scorp turned away as the creature leaked its silver life out into the snow.
“First thing you learn to do, living on this estate?” Scorp said, wiping the screwdriver clean on the leg of his jeans. “You learn to give up on hope. My Gran taught me that.”
He advanced slowly on Mattie, his feet crunching in the snow.
Mattie’s hounds cowered backwards, whimpering. They had hunted every kind of man and woman but finally they realised that Scorp was neither of these.
“Hopeless …” screeched Mattie. “Hopeless … what a hunt this will be!”
She launched herself at Scorp, a creature of naked, primal fury. Her fingers, hooked claws, tore his clothes and raked at his flesh. Her teeth, jagged shards, punctured his skin and shattered inside him. Scorp fought back, his screwdriver flashing back and forth, stabbing over and over. But Scorp, something other than human though he was, was not a god, not a myth. Mallt Y Nos had hunted with the Arwyn for centuries, and her accumulated power, her ancient magic, was more than Scorp could defeat alone.
He fell, blood running from the wounds that covered his body, landing in the snow. His wounds bubbled with poison, Mallt Y Nos’ poison of memories and heartache, perfected in her long hunt for lost souls.
It was a poison brewed from his mother’s indifference, his grandmother’s manipulations. It was the poison of Fred’s eyes, watching him grow up, grooming him to one day step into his shoes as Caretaker of this strange and lost place. It was the friends he didn’t have, the people who crossed the road to avoid him. It was the places he would never go, the things he would never see. It was the black paint on the invisible walls that surrounded his world and made sure that he would never be more than the world would allow him to be. It was society, it was the world, and everything in it. It was the world, and it was poison.
“It has been … too long …” Mallt Y Nos gasped, standing over Scorp, his blood still fresh on her fingertips, “Since I hunted with … my own hands …”. Her tongue snaked out of her mouth and coiled itself around her outstretched hand, savouring Scorp’s blood.
“And no soul …” she wailed. “How … exquisite …”
“I wouldn’t say that,” said Scorp.
But it wasn’t Scorp who spoke. It was the other Scorp, the Scorp that wasn’t and couldn’t be. Clutching his wound, silver dripping out between his pale fingers, the other Scorp took a cautious step towards Mattie and her dogs.
“You are my creature,” Mattie hissed. “Go back down into the cold ground where you belong.”
“That’s … where you’re wrong …” coughed the other Scorp. “You didn’t listen to him, did you? That’s not surprising. People like you never listen to people like him. I’m not your creature, Matilda. I’m his. I’m his hope, his … lost hope. Not yours, his.”
The other Scorp crouched over his fallen brother, lightly brushing his hand across the fallen boy’s cheek. “And hope,” he said, “Springs eternal.”
“You’re nothing,” Mattie screeched, “You don’t even exist!”
Scorp’s hope looked up and smiled. “The very best versions of us don’t.”
And as he stood, his pale hand slid out of the pocket of Scorp’s hoodie, holding his catapult. Such a simple weapon, and as ancient as they came. David’s weapon against Goliath, the weapon of men against things that were more than men.
He pulled back the thick rubber tubing that was tied tight into the frame. He didn’t need a rock, or a pellet. He just needed to aim.
Mallt Y Nos, Matilda of the Night, Huntress of the Arwyn, Hound Mistress, Taker of Lost Souls, suddenly folded into herself and became, just for a moment, Sad Mattie again.
“I have nowhere else to go,” she whispered. “If you kill me, you won’t even exist.”
The Scorp that wasn’t Scorp took aim, and fired.
“Maybe,” was his only reply, before his body fell in the snow next to his brother, next to Margaret, next to two dead dogs, and next to Sad Mattie.
A moment later, ghosts and lost gods were gone, leaving Scorp bleeding to death in the snow.
Gran told Scorp that it had been his mother who had found him, lying out there in the snow. There had been blood, and a corpse, dead dogs and a lot of explaining. The local police were used to things happening the blocks that couldn’t be explained though, and used to finding Scorp at the end of it. They didn’t look too far into any of it, in the end.
Sad Mattie was not missed, and another social worker eventually took her place. Scorp paid more attention to this one. Fred continued to lurk in the shadows and sit in any spare seat on any spare sofa he could find, just as long as someone left the TV on. Scorp’s mother forgot even quicker than the police about finding her son half dead in the snow, and returned to the world that had been exclusively hers for so long.
And Scorp’s Gran … she still knew things.
In the end, the only change that anyone would notice was the gardens, which seemed to change after the snow thawed that year. The grass grew back, and wild flowers covered the fallen walls. Children came back, albeit slowly, and the gardens were gardens again, at least for a while. People saw Scorp there a lot more than they used to, always in the same place, tending a small grave marker. No one could remember where it had come from, and even the oldest residents of the blocks couldn’t remember a time when it hadn’t been there.
Nobody asked Scorp whose grave it was.
Original Illustrations for 10thology
This story original appeared in the graphic anthology “10thology” will illustrations from Stuart Tipples. I always loved the character of Scorp, a sort of council estate chav version of Buffy and I still think he’ll crop again in a future story or two.