Somewhere in England.
As he hoisted the orange bag full of newspapers onto his shoulder, twelve-year-old Jake felt an enormous sense of pride as he was about to start his first proper job. It was an opportunity to earn money that wouldn’t be coming from the pocket of his parents for second-rate efforts at washing up and keeping his room tidy. He lifted his bike up from the driveway and looked back to the house to see his Mum waving at him through the bay window, smiling from ear to ear. He nodded back and started peddling towards Newhaven Crescent, the lucky estate that would have him as their paperboy for the foreseeable future. In five weeks he would be able to buy the new top of the range Transformer, and with some extra jobs at home, perhaps less.
It was a three-mile bike ride and no mean feat with a heavy bag of papers around the shoulders, and by the time Jake turned into the street he already felt a cold stream of sweat running down his back. He dismounted the bike and leaned it against the lamp post, and as he adjusted the heavy orange bag on his shoulders full to the brim with newspapers, he heard the voice call out “Young lad, are you our new paperboy?”
Jake lifted his head to see the white-haired old lady stood in the doorway of number one and a thousand smart arse answers filled his head, but he politely replied “Yes.”
“Oh goody, we’ve been expecting you. It’s been four years since the last one!”
His Dad had taken him around in the car on Sunday night, and it turned out Newhaven Crescent was a retirement village, full of perfectly manicured lawns and dull pebble-dashed houses. Thankfully, they hadn’t come across any vicious hounds of hell, just an extraordinary number of black cats. The place had been eerily quiet, without a single person walking around or pottering in the garden or even twitching at the curtains. His Dad had said they were all probably at a community event or bingo or perhaps at sundown they all shapeshifted into cats.
After neatly folding the paper, he walked towards the old lady and handed it over. Old people always seemed like an alien species to him, they were obviously human but communication with them was limited, and he always felt slightly uncomfortable in their presence. They were nice enough, sometimes grumpy, but he found it hard to believe they were young once, as though all the fun stuff had been syphoned away over time. And they all smelt like TCP and cough drops.
She smiled and in return for the newspaper handed over twenty pence.
“Thanks but I already get paid for this,” he said.
The old lady’s breathing seemed fast and erratic, not awkward, but excitable, and he noticed that since arriving she had not taken her eyes off him.
“The name is Joan. It’s good to meet you, Jake. Call that a bonus.”
As he was about to ask how she knew his name, another voice from across the road shouted “New paperboy?” and he looked across and saw the door to number two wide open and an elderly gentleman beckon him over.
“Thanks, Joan,” he said and took the coin and made his way across the road.
As he reached the path of the old man, he looked back towards Joan’s house and saw that she was still watching him from the doorway. She quickly shut the door behind her, and almost immediately the curtains twitched.
The old man’s face looked about two hundred years old with bits of hair erratically shooting from his nostrils and ears, and his eyebrows looked as though they were trying to escape across the side of his face. He was dancing, doing a little jig. He wasn’t Michael Jackson, but he had some moves, Jake mused.
“Wonderful, wonderful, it’s been so long!”
Jake held out the paper, and the old man made to grab it and then snapped his hand back and laughed and then repeated the sequence three more times before finally clamping his misshapen fingers around the newspaper and snatching it away. The old man planted his other hand on top of Jake’s head and ruffled his hair, a gesture Jake always hated, and even more so when he went to straighten his hair and felt the sticky dampness that remained.
He retreated and smiled, and once he was back onto the pavement, he saw that the entire street now had their front doors wide open, with each of the occupiers stood on the door-step ready to greet him. Some of them danced excitedly in their doorways.
Number three was an old gentleman called Harry, and in exchange for the newspaper, he had given Jake a ten pence coin. When Jake reached for the reward, the old man had bent down and whispered in his ear, “Get as much fanny as you can, lad.”
Jake nodded and slowly retreated back down the path. He didn’t know what to do with that information; the closest he got was the underwear section of his Mum’s catalogue, so he decided to bank that little pearl for another day.
Number four was a blue rinse named Edith, and she invited him in for a soda and cream bun. He thought he must have been given the luckiest street in town as he wiped the cream moustache away and then glugged some of the soda down, and even though it tasted flat, one almighty burp spluttered out. He immediately put his hand to his mouth. The old lady looked at him and cocked her head from side to side.
“Sorry, excuse me,” he said.
She started laughing then, a gentle giggle at first but then it cranked up a few notches to a full-blown roar, and before long she was rolling on the floor clutching her belly and guffawing so hard she had tears in her eyes.
The subsequent and again involuntary burp from Jake sent her over the edge. Struggling to breathe through the raucous laughter, she started to cough violently and profusely, and then her teeth shot out across the wooden floor and this only caused more hysterics. Jake guessed it was a good five minutes before she finally composed herself and picked up her dentures.
“Sorry, Jake, I’ll just pop to the bathroom. I think a bit of wee came out.”
With his opinion of old people upheld, he drank the rest of the soda and went through to the living room and took a look around. An old Grandfather clock stood in the corner ticking loudly. Standing next to it was an old cupboard crammed full of teapots and teacups, and a wooden thimble holder bristled with shades of green and pink just above it. Near the huge overflowing basket of wool and knitting needles, there were some old photographs on a table near the window. Jake assumed them to be Edith’s family. The balloons indicated it was her ninetieth birthday party, and there were people of various ages crowded around her chair and smiling into the camera. He glanced out the window briefly and saw the old people still patiently waiting in their doorways, and thought he better get a move on if he wanted to make it back before midnight.
As he made his way back to the kitchen, he noticed some old newspapers on the bottom tray of the centre table, and he squatted and pulled the first one towards him.
“I won’t be long, don’t shoot off just yet,” the voice came from the bathroom.
The date on the newspaper was 23rd September 1980; he noted the date on his digital watch as 22nd, and that it was almost four years to the date since publication.
“Jake,” the voice came from behind.
“Hi, I was just looking. Sorry.”
It didn’t register immediately, and it could have been his mind censoring the image out, but it soon hit him that she was no longer wearing any pants or underwear. She smiled intently at him, battered her eyelids and asked, “Do you want to take a photograph, Jake?”
At first, he couldn’t find his words and focussed his eyes on the yellowing textured swirls in the ceiling as he sidestepped back towards the kitchen, “I have to finish the rest of my round now. Thanks for the drink and cake though.”
She laughed then and winked, “I’m just playing with you, Jake. You can get away with anything when you’re old.”
He smiled and grabbed his orange bag and made his way to the door. As he stepped outside onto the pavement, Edith shouted behind him, “See you tomorrow, Jake. It’s my ninetieth you know!”
He didn’t have the heart to say anything, and if she wanted to believe she would be turning ninety again, it wasn’t his place to ruin that. There was a purpose to his movement now, a need to get home and to be in his room and away from the smells and idiosyncrasies of the old and he oppressive feeling the street was starting to provide.
Number five was ready for him, a burly old lady named Janet that made him go inside for another soda and a chat after not taking no for an answer, arms of a sumo wrestler pulling him in from the lovely fresh air outside. He counted six black cats in the kitchen, but it smelt like there were more—the house an unholy cocktail of urine and stale perfume. Jake wanted to be out as soon as he walked in. Janet had frizzy grey hair and a bright red face, the same colour as the five stones encrusted onto the star-shaped pendant that draped from her neck.
“You look like you need filling up, boy. Give me a minute,” she said and then disappeared into the pantry.
He looked around and noted the three overflowing cat litters on the floor, and he wasn’t sure how long he could stand there for without gagging so he shifted across to the open window. The calendar immediately caught his eye as it swayed gently in the gratefully received breeze. The 23rd September had been highlighted in red pen with the same shape that decorated Janet's neck, a star within a circle. He opened the can of cola and took a sip, and placed it back down on the counter unable to stomach any more flat soda.
She came back with a box of doughnuts and offered him one which he accepted politely but then said he had to be on his way to finish his round. She had looked disappointed as she walked him to the front door, but before he could leave asked him to wait just one more minute. She came back with a brand spanking new Polaroid camera and took a picture of him and smiled once the print came out.
“Perfect,” she said.
She waved him off as he walked down the path and told him that Nana Ivy was looking forward to seeing him.
Thirty-five minutes had passed, and he had delivered five papers.
Number six was an old man called Geoff that collected his toenail clippings in an old lunchbox. He said he was going to leave them to Jake in his will and then laughed. With his false teeth laid on the palm of his right hand, he proceeded to run through an old ventriloquist act that he said he often did at the community centre. Jake wanted to stay twelve-years-old forever.
Clementine was next, a sweet old lady that had beautiful snow white hair. She took him through to the kitchen and offered him some candy, the type that was hard on the outside but chewy on the inside, and he spent the majority of their conversation with his fingers in his mouth trying to prize them from his teeth. She told him she was a widow and married for sixty-two years before her husband, Arthur, had died.
“I’ll go and grab a photograph of him, give me one second. Nana Ivy doesn’t let me have them up in the house, but wait there.”
He looked around the kitchen and noted the calendar with the same star shape surrounding the number 23, no writing adjacent, but it was evident that something was going to happen on that date.
“Go through to the living room darling, make yourself comfortable.”
He looked at his watch, sighed and went to sit down on the bright orange sofa. There were pictures of Elvis Presley everywhere and a bookshelf full of photo albums of all shapes and sizes.
“Just give me a minute; I know it is here somewhere.”
He took one from the shelf and started flicking through it. There were pictures of Clementine, with who he assumed to be her family—at the seaside and restaurants and various locations with people that looked of a similar age. It was all very boring. He replaced it with one in the middle of the shelf and opened it up halfway to some photographs that had someone’s head cut out. One of them showed Clementine smiling and holding hands with a nicely dressed headless gentleman, who he assumed to be Arthur. He quickly put the album back and peaked through the hallway, but there was no sign of her so picked up one from the very end. As he opened it, an old black and white of photograph of a baby fell to the floor and on the back of it in scrawly handwriting was written the name Clementine and the date November 1883.
“Got it!” she shouted down the hallway.
He collected the photo quickly and slipped it back in the album and shoved it back onto the shelf.
“This is the only one I have, but please don’t tell anyone as they will take it away from me.”
“Why?” he couldn’t help himself.
“Oh, it’s hard to explain Jake. The short story is he didn’t want to be part of the community anymore, and they gave me an ultimatum, him or them.” She kissed the photograph then and turned to smile at Jack and then continued, “It sounds harsh Jake I know, but if you knew what I knew, then it would make sense.”
The woman in front of him had apparently been on the planet for over one hundred years. Jack would have guessed about eighty at a shot, so she was doing something right. He thanked her for the candy and said he had to be on his way. As he left the old lady reminded him, “Please don’t tell Nana Ivy.”
“I won’t,” he said and smiled and left for number eight. On his visit to the next few houses he was offered chocolate and crisps; even a blowjob from Doris at number twenty-three and he put that one down to dementia.
Benjamin was waiting for him at number sixty-four, and he was wearing an old gas mask at the doorway. It reminded him of Darth Vader and even more so when the old guy spoke in a low guttural voice, “I am your Father, Jake,” and laughed hysterically. He took off the gas mask to reveal a bald and olive-skinned head. His eyes pointed in slightly different directions. Forcefully, he began pushing Jake through the door and took him into the front room that was decorated wall to wall with war memorabilia. An old gun in a glass case hung above the fireplace, and pictures of spitfires decorated the yellow walls. Various cupboards and tables were crammed full of plastic models of the same plane, and even one made of matchsticks took centrepiece on the coffee table in the middle of the lounge.
“Took me all day to do that one,” he said as he handed Jake a can of soda.
“It’s cool, Benjamin,” he said, genuinely impressed.
“Call me Ben,” he said and winked. “I’ve got more of the matchstick models if you are interested.”
His new friend Ben disappeared eagerly out of the room, and he put the soda on the coffee table and surveyed the lounge. In the corner was an overflowing wicker magazine rack, crammed full of yellow newspapers and magazines, and the first thing he pulled out was an old TV Times from 1972 and behind it was a newspaper dated 23rd September 1980. There were some older issues shoved behind but what caught his eye was the huge red book that rested diagonally against the side of the bookcase above, an embossed circle encased a star with five points and suggested a significance of some sorts. He picked up the book and opened it, and immediately the yellowed pages and stale smell gave him the impression the book was incredibly old. The wording wasn’t English but a mixture of texts and symbols that meant nothing to Jake. There was a piece of paper sticking out of the book towards the middle, and he flicked to the relevant page to reveal the black and white print of a young boy. On the back of the picture, someone had written Tommy and the year 1980.
When Ben came back in and saw Jake looking at the book, his demeanour and mood instantly changed.
“I think you better leave now, son. I don’t like snoops.”
“Sorry Ben, I was just interested. I really want to see the models you’ve made.”
“The name is Benjamin, kiddo,” he said as he snatched the book away. “Now, off you fuck!”
There was a pause, and he half expected the old man to start laughing, but his face remained stern all the way to the front door and most likely after it had slammed shut behind him.
On his way to the next house, he collected his thoughts and assumed Tommy was someone precious to the old man, perhaps a grandson. He was disappointed as he had been genuinely interested in the modelling and was upset that the old codger had kicked him out.
It had been one hell of a day and one hell of a welcome, and he made a note to try and start being friendly but firm. The watch indicated it was already 6.20, and he had to get on with the round otherwise his Dad would be out looking for him. He wanted to finish the job on his own. Finally, after a few more meet and greets and exchanges of newspapers for candy and the polite refusal of umpteen cans of no doubt flat soda, he reached Nana Ivy’s house.
He knew it was Nana Ivy’s house as it had a plaque on the wall saying it was. The garden was full of strange objects, lots of stone frogs and gargoyle type creatures, even a small statue of what looked to be a leprechaun holding his little pickle and spraying water into a garden bed—the strangest little fountain Jake had ever seen. On the front of the glossy red door, there was a black star with a circle running around it, just like on the calendars. Three more black cats monopolised the doorstep lounging in the evening sun, they eyed him briefly and stretched and then went back to their sleep.
He was relieved there was nobody there to greet him, and he folded the paper neatly and put it into the letterbox in the front door. Immediately it was snatched from the other side, and the door swung open revealing a large lady with the biggest smile he’d seen all day and more jewellery around her neck than Mister T.
“Jake!” she roared.
He stood dumbfounded at the door and tried to speak, but before he could, she put her big hands on his tiny shoulders and dragged him in through the front door.
“Don’t be shy, boy. I’m Nana Ivy!”
“Hi,” he replied sheepishly.
The hallway was abundant with all sorts of obscure art, paintings displaying the screaming faces of demons, statues of contorted figures with various limbs missing, and more of those symbols hung on the walls with metallic rings housing the five-pointed stars. Centre stage, and resting on the sideboard surrounded by a dozen or so lit candles was a black and white photograph of the entire community, all of them holding hands around the same large circular symbol.
He recognised the faces that were visible, and of course next to Clementine was the smudged out face of her husband Arthur, the outcast.
“Come through, boy,” she insisted.
The smell of scented candles drifted through the house, and it wasn’t unpleasant. As he walked through to the kitchen, even after all the candy and soda, the smell was mouth-watering.
“Do you like apple pie?”
Two pieces later and under the watchful eye of Nana Ivy, he said he had to be going and thanked her a million times for the pie. She laughed it off, but before he even made an effort to get out of his seat, her big hands clamped around his shoulders once again and asserted the fact she wasn’t finished with him just yet.
She went to sit in the chair opposite and then looked directly at him until he started to feel uncomfortable and shift around. “Do you like cards?” she asked.
“Yes, I play fish with my Dad sometimes and he is teaching me how to play gin rummy too.”
She took the pack from her trouser pocket, opened it and placed the cards face down on the table; the cards were larger and looked heavier and more cardinal than others he had seen.
When Nana Ivy shooed his hand away, that was made even more apparent. She shuffled and asked Jack to pick five. He did, and she looked the cards over and nodded and then put them back in the pack.
“Did I win?” he asked?
“You win another piece of pie to take him with you tonight,” Nana Ivy replied and winked.
She cut him another slice and wrapped it in kitchen roll and slipped it into his orange bag.
“Hey, young Jake, what is your favourite pie and I will cook another one for you tomorrow?”
“Um, have to be blackberry, Ivy,” he replied.
“It’s Nana Ivy!” she corrected sternly.
“Sorry, Nana Ivy.”
She smiled and patted him on his head, “Good lad. I will have one ready for you tomorrow.”
He said goodbye and walked back to collect his bike. Even though there was urgency in his step, he could still make out the twitching curtains as he walked by the houses. Once he sat in the saddle, he gave one last look back and saw what looked to be the entire street staring back at him from their lounge room windows. He shivered and sped off into the evening and back to his home where nobody was over the age of fifty.
As soon as he got back to his house, he let his Raleigh Grifter fall to the ground on the front lawn and rushed up the front steps. He’d never paid much attention to the Home Sweet Home welcome mat before, but tonight he had to agree. In the kitchen, his Mum and Dad were eating dinner.
“I was just about to come and get you, champ,” said his Dad.
“I know, I’m sorry,” he said and then sighed “old people” and shook his head.
His Mum and Dad laughed and then his Mum said, “We are proud of you, Jake.”
“So, how was it?” his Dad asked.
“It was fine,” he replied. “I’m beat now, though.”
“There’s Spaghetti in the pan, you will need to warm it up, and there are two slices of cold toast on the side," his Dad replied. "We didn’t realise you would be so long, what kept you anyway?”
He thought about telling them for a second but decided he didn’t have the energy, and besides, he wouldn’t know where to begin. Would he lead with the eviction from the old fart’s house or the lady who weed herself and then asked Jack to take a picture of her privates, or would it be the sexual favours promised by number twenty-three?
“I’m actually not hungry. Can I go to my room?
“Sure thing, boss,” his Dad said softly. “Are you okay?”
“A bit tired,” he replied. His feet were very sore, but his stomach was doing somersaults from the epic amounts of candy and cakes he had destroyed.
Once upstairs, he sat at this desk and opened the catalogue to the page with the corner folded over and admired the shiny metallic Transformer. There was a huge sense of achievement as he wiped off one of the lines from the tally on the chalkboard above his desk; only another twenty or so days and he will be able to buy it outright and with his own cash. He took the magazine onto his bed, and it was good to rest his weary feet. His stomach soon began to settle, and before long he was fast asleep.
It was time again, homework done and day two of his paper-round. The plan was simple, pass and move. Don’t engage. Be friendly but intentional.
He leaned his bike against the same lamp post as the day before and looked to the street ahead. No movement at all, just like the day his Dad had driven through the area. There was no sign of twitching curtains, no eager old people jigging up and down impatiently. It was like a ghost town.
With first newspaper in hand, he made his way to Joan’s house, and half expected the door to fly open as he approached. He kept his eyes on the bay window as he walked up the path, watching for any signs of movement, and even after pushing the paper through the letter-box and his hasty retreat down the path, he hadn’t expected to get away with it.
On to number two, and the old guy with the sticky hands and the two furry friends that lived above his eyes, but again, no twitching curtains and no sign that anyone was home. Number three was the same and no sign of pissy pants at number four. The thought crossed his mind that he could be finished in twenty minutes and without trauma. He ran from house to house expertly rolling the papers and threading them through the letterboxes without a single encounter.
He took the last paper from his bag and walked up the path to Nana Ivy’s front door. On the welcome mat outside was a plate with a slab of pie and next to it was a little piece of paper with his name on—blackberry pie—written on the back. The aroma was amazing, a heady cocktail of summer fruit and sugary pastry and even after the pig-out yesterday, Jake felt immediately ravenous. He put the empty orange bag down, sat down on the doormat and scooped it up to find it freshly warm from the oven or at the very least recently reheated. The fluffy pastry caved, and the deep richness of the fruit exploded into his mouth, and it was heavenly. In his twelve years on the planet to date, he had never tasted anything so exquisite, and he felt extremely disappointed as he put the last piece in his mouth and licked his fingers. He picked up the bag and made his way back towards his bike.
He had only walked a few steps back before he realised the bike was missing and no longer leaned against the lamppost where he left it. His pace quickened as panic set in at the thought of the long walk back home and the fact his Dad would go nuts as the bike was only a few months old. He’d had visions of being home well before six and ample time to watch TV and play, especially after the late finish last time.
He made it about halfway before the world started spinning and his legs gave way, and as he fell to the ground, he just managed to put his hands out in time to avoid a face full of tarmac. His body felt immediately heavy, as did his eyes and all of a sudden he was completely exhausted. As he let his face rest against the ground, the houses started to swim around but were quickly flooded away by a river of darkness.
Chairs scraped across the floor, and loud and urgent voices surrounded him. His head pounded and as slowly opened his eyes he began to recognise the familiar faces of Newhaven Crescent busying around in what he assumed to be the community hall in preparation for something. The chairs were all facing his direction.
He tried to get up but realised he was bound to the chair with what looked like a mile of yarn and as he clumsily bucked to and fro, he saw the star on the ground in front of him and the familiar ring that circled it. There was a lit candle on each point of the star and in its centre were black and white prints of two young boys with the word missing in bold text on the bottom of each poster, and on one of them he made out the name Tommy. Jack recognised him as the boy from the photograph that had slipped out of the heavy red book. He then saw the smaller photograph of himself, the one that Janet had taken, in between the two larger ones.
“How long have we got?” a voice asked.
“We managed to keep him over an hour yesterday. Don’t worry, we have plenty of time,” someone replied.
The drum started then, and immediately people took to their seats. The pain in his head synchronised perfectly with the beat to make the effect even more dramatic.
He looked towards the audience and saw birthday girl with the balloons tied to her chair, and she smiled and waved at him. There was a buzz of excitement that reminded him of a school assembly, as the old people chatted and waited for further direction.
A strange smell, a sort of sickly sweet burning, started to waft towards him and it wasn’t long before the source became apparent. Nana Ivy came running through the door, completely naked of course, and holding out in front of her some plant or herb that was smouldering away. She was chanting in a language Jake didn’t recognise, and he guessed it was the strange text that he had seen in the embossed red book. Each member of the audience started to embrace her, and once she had wafted the plant in front of them, they bowed and kissed her feet. She headed for Jake then and danced around him, her breasts bounding only inches away from his face in a violent pendulous motion. He closed his eyes and winced as she came up close and kissed him on the forehead.
“Let’s hear it for Jake everybody!” she shouted.
The hall filled with applause and a few whistles, someone heckled “Snoop,” and he didn’t need two guesses on that one. Once the applause died down, Nana Ivy walked into the centre of the circle, knelt down and kissed each of the photographs.
Jake was terrified. Something big was going to happen, and it appeared he was the main attraction. He missed his Mum and Dad, he wanted to be home, and he felt the first tear run down his cheek.
“Jake, please don’t cry,” Nana Ivy said. “This is your destiny. We have been waiting so long, and the cards never lie.”
“I want to go home,” he whimpered, finally managing to find some sort of voice.
“Jake, take some comfort from the longevity you are going to provide this beautiful community. Our pact held with our good Lord Satan will ensure we will all be rewarded with the last four years of our lives in return for yours.”
He started to sob then, uncontrollably. It had to be some sick joke.
The word “Please” left his lips.
“Jake, we are a community, and we look out for each other, and sometimes we have to do drastic things to protect ourselves. We are part of something strong, and in the last twenty years, we have only lost one person. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that he lost his way,” she turned her head and winked towards Clementine. “This ritual allows us to continue in our group and thrive, and by offering young blood, we can gain extra time we wouldn’t normally have. Most of us in this room are over a hundred earth years old.”
She put her hand on Jake’s cheek and wiped away the tear. “It’s time,” she said.
Nana Ivy walked across to the other side of the room and disappeared out of Jake’s vision. When she came back, she was wearing a demonic mask like the one Jake had seen in her hallway and carrying a plate with a piece of the pie. The combination of the two large horns protruding from the top of the forehead, and the blood red painted eyes was more than Jake could take. He started screaming then and rocking back and forth. He was foaming at the mouth as he threw himself around in desperation.
She reached behind her back and pulled the large knife out.
The drumming started again, and then Nana Ivy leaned in close and held the piece of pie out to Jake, “Its best you eat more pie now, Jake,” she whispered in his ear.
The dampness was immediate, and he felt the warmth creeping across the front of his shorts.
A voice shouted across the room, “See, even young folk piss themselves,” and he knew it was Edith.
Nana Ivy placed the blade against his neck and leaned in once more, “It really is best if you eat the pie now, Jake.”
He took a bite. It was still good somehow. Even with death looming and mixed with salty tears, it still tasted so god damn good.
“Do you want a quick blowjob as a last request?” Doris piped up and removed her teeth to make a smacking sound with her lips. The hall filled with raucous laughter.
Jake slowly began to slip into darkness as the crowd began singing Happy Birthday to Edith.
His last thoughts were of his family and the stupid transformer toy that he wished he'd never seen.