Her grandpa Rab struggled up in bed, rheumy blue eyes squinting out into the hospice corridor. Satisfied nobody was eavesdropping, he slumped back into his pillows. “Alex, pet, I’m falling to pieces here. There’s something I need to tell you before it’s too late, a secret I’d never dream of telling your dad.” He coughed, a phlegmy bubbling hack, and fumbled the plastic mask back over his mouth and nose.
Alex found the sight heartrending, and still couldn’t believe that her big burly grandpa had become this withered husk of a man. The only person that truly understood her and here he was crumbling like a condemned house riddled with rot. Her grandpa had always been a bit mental: mad as a bath full of cats but still the smartest person she’d ever met, and cool in a peculiar sort of way. Now it was almost like he was a different person.
He was marshalling his strength to tell her yet another of his supposed secrets and she wondered if this one would be an absent-minded repeat or a work of total fantasy. Hopefully it wouldn’t be like clearing his browser history again. Ick.
She waited until he was ready to continue, her mind dwelling on a bleak future without him. One more year and she could escape to university…but that year loomed like forever, and only her grandpa accepted she didn’t have the faintest interest in studying accountancy or law, despite her parents’ badgering and blackmail.
Finally, he eased the mask aside. “There is a metal box hidden up in my loft behind the old water tank. The key is taped to the back of that pig-ugly painting in the bedroom…your granny loved that horrible old thing…” His eyes clouded over with loss, still deep and fresh after fifteen years. He loved fiercely and hurt keenly, living life joyfully, each day a gift. Alex admired that vibrant ethic, so very unlike her parents – if you cut them they’d ooze a dull grey.
She never could resist a mystery. “No problem,” Alex said. “What’s in it? You want me to get rid of it, or…?”
He gasped in pain, covering his mouth with a hand. Blood seeped from between his fingers and pure terror filled his eyes. “Teeth…iron teeth…”
Alex sat straight and chewed on her lip piercing. Another delusion? Her grandpa shuddered, closed his eyes and lapsed into silence, breathing slowing. She waited, but when he didn’t continue she poked him in the leg. “So what do you want me to do with it? Grandpa?”
“Best you leave him to rest,” a young nurse said from the doorway. “Talking takes a lot out of him now.”
Judging from the dark circles under her eyes, Alex thought the nurse should take her own advice. She held her grandpa’s hand, careful of the drip taped to the back. It was big and calloused and lined with old scars, but so thin now. “See you later Grandpa. Stay cool, yeah.”
She slung her bag over a shoulder and trudged to the bus stop, to head home. Home…to her it was just a place she lived: all modern and plastic where everything had its set place. Her grandpa’s creaky old house with its open fire and heaving bookshelves felt more like a home should. Outside the hospice she paused to look up at his window. A shiver rippled up her spine. That look of terror on the old man’s face…
Her mum stood with crossed arms, tapping her foot, you stupid girl stamped across her face. “He’s an old man with lung cancer. Don’t you dare bother him with your petty problems.”
“He’s the only one that understands me,” Alex snarled. “For once in my life I want to do what I want to do?”
Her mum sniffed. “You want to study archaeology or English literature? Good luck getting a decent job with that rubbish. A university degree with good job prospects is what you need. You’ve always been awful at science so your father and I have ruled that out. If only you applied yourself to your studies instead of wasting time playing games on that stupid console.”
Alex threw her hands up in despair. “Well I’ve had sod-all encouragement from you and dad! It’s always ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that’.”
Her mother scowled. “Grow up Alexandra. You haven’t done a hard day’s work in your entire life. If only you could work half as hard as your grandpa did at your age. He was grafting day and night down those shipyards.”
“And look what that got him,” Alex snapped. “Asbestos in his lungs and hooked up to machines.” She regretted it instantly.
Her mum’s eye twitched, jaw muscles rippling, hand paused half-raised as if she wanted to slap her again. “You spoiled brat! Go study, or, oh I don’t know, do something–anything–actually worthwhile with your life. You’re doing accountancy and that’s that.”
“I won’t,” Alex shouted.
“You will if you want us to pay for it! Or you can toss burgers to pay for it yourself. Go to your room, and don’t you dare play those stupid computer games. Tomorrow you have piano practice, then the visit with your grandfather. You will be on your best behaviour for Linda and John’s visit in the evening. You will learn a lot from them.”
Oh great, Alex thought, the bankers – another evening with the most tedious people ever to walk the Earth. She gritted her teeth and choked back the venom clamouring to spit forth. Instead she stomped off to her room and slammed the door. She knew better than to push it. She’d rescued her console from the bin only last week after her Luddite mum threw a hissy fit, and she’d only needed another another five minutes too. Now she’d have to beg forgiveness from the rest of her guild when she logged back in. If she was ever allowed to. “Vindictive bitch.”
She flung herself into her bed and checked text messages, but wasn’t surprised to find nothing waiting. Everybody was off sunning themselves on gorgeous beaches in Spain, not bored to death amidst the muggy drizzle of a Glasgow summer. She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted Alex stayed where she could keep her beady eye on her – she was never allowed to have any fun! She’d be up to spy on her later as well. “Stupid cow.”
She savagely punched her duvet, but it didn’t help. Downstairs her mum thumped cupboard doors closed.
She slumped into her pillows and gazed longingly at her console. Gaming was the closest she was allowed to adventure and even then her parents had to be total arsehats about it.
Tree roots wrap around her legs, trapping her. Soil covers her face, flows into her mouth, choking, smothering…
She woke drenched in sweat and clawing at the damp sheet cocooning her. The clock blinked 3 a.m. She couldn’t get back to sleep so she flicked on her bedside lamp and fumbled for a novel amongst the unread pile next to her bed. An escape from smothering reality was just what she needed.
Hellish as it was, in some ways visiting her grandpa was a relief – anything to get away from her parents’ constant nagging. He was usually fast asleep anyway, which left her free to do her own thing for a while. She had swung by his house on the way and retrieved this latest secret, and now that she sat by his bed examining the rusted box she felt an odd reluctance to open it: this might be her grandpa’s last mystery.
She took a deep breath and fitted the key, grunting as she forced the rusted lock to grind round. She leaned back before easing up the lid–you couldn’t rule anything out where her grandpa was concerned–but to her relief it only held a dog-eared scrapbook and an ornate locket of untarnished silver engraved with delicate whorling Celtic art. She stared. It called to her and she couldn’t help but try it on…
Her mouth burns, agony like every root is rotten and exposed with acid squirted into the cavities. She kneels on the grass, dazed and sobbing as hob-nailed boots slam into her ribs. Another boy, taller than the others, hefts a golf club and swings at her head.
“Take that you monster!”
It cracks into her skull and she falls face down in the mud.
“We’ve killed her,” says one, voice cracking from puberty.
“Oi, Bert! Constable Deeprose is over by the entrance.”
“Shit! Leg it!”
A short while later she feels a pair of small hands gently lift her face from the mud. She struggles feebly, vision blurred with mud and tears.
“It’s alright. Those gits are gone now,” a boy says. “Stinking bullies. Want me to call over that polisman?”
She spits mud and opens her mouth to reply.
He flinches back in horror.
Alex crashed to the floor, fingers probing her face. She was relieved to find teeth and head both intact. Had she fallen asleep and had another nightmare? She didn’t think–
“Alex, pet, is that you?”
She swallowed her confusion and clambered back onto the seat. “I’m here Grandpa.”
He noticed the open box and the locket around her neck. “So now you know. At least in part.”
“I…I don’t understand.”
He was silent for a long moment, long enough for her to wonder if he’d died. Then he spoke, his eyes glazed: “Rabbie Tennant was too brainy to be labourer down the shipyards. Too clever for his own good some said. Just a decent wee lad with no real friends or family to speak of, bullied and overlooked…and meant for better things.”
He shook off his reverie and eyed Alex, face screwed up in thought. He sighed, a long exhalation of relief. “You’re a kindred spirit, Alex. You, too, are meant for better things. If only this body of mine wasn’t all worn out. I’d hoped to last a few more years, enough to see folks back gallivanting across the Moon, maybe even you. Most youngsters have no idea how exciting it was to watch those first bold adventures into space…ah well, these are the cards I’ve been dealt.”
He held out his hand and she took it. “You’re so different to your mum and dad. You feel the magic of life don’t you? I know you feel caged right now.”
She nodded. “Once I head off to Uni it’ll all be different.” Her face fell. Even now she couldn’t pretend to be hopeful.
He grimaced. “Sod them, and sod accountancy. What if I showed you something that would change your life forever?” He eyed the locket. “You’ve had a taste already.”
Alex felt strange but comforting warmth from the locket around her neck. She dared not touch it, to open it and look inside. “What is inside?”
He smiled sadly. “Blood and memory, pet. That locket is the key to my past. Open the scrap book.”
She leafed through old Scottish newspaper clippings from the fifties, and found them surreal.
Her grandpa’s strength was flagging. He took a few breaths of oxygen and then eased the mask to one side again. “Twenty-third September nineteen fifty four it was. I remember it clear as day. I guess, because that was when they found the supposed vampire.” His eye ticced.
Alex stiffened. The what?
“The rumours spread like wildfire,” he continued. “Two wee boys killed and eaten they said. Schools emptied and they all marched into the Southern Necropolis where the beast laired, hundreds from all over the Gorbals, big burly lads and brave wee nippers all armed to the teeth with sharpened sticks, kitchen knives and golf clubs. They weren’t going to let that monster eat any more bairns y’ken, not on their watch.”
“Bloody liars–” He choked, forced to suck oxygen from his mask for a few moments.
Alex shuddered with remembered pain, her hand drifting to the locket around her neck. “Take that you monster!” and then the club cracked into her skull.
“Best you discover this final secret yourself,” he wheezed. “Go to the Southern Necropolis, luv.” His chest trembled as a coughing fit brewed. “Look for the White Lady.”
She swallowed, half-excited and half-fearful. “Then what?”
Blood beaded his lips, little pinpricks all in a line. He struggled to speak, failed as panic swelled.
The young nurse rushed through the doorway, looking more exhausted than ever. “It’s time for his medication.”
Alex made way as her grandpa struggled to breathe never mind swallow pills. “Bye Grandpa.”
“I’ve done things,” he said with huge effort. “Things I’m ashamed of. Please don’t hate me. Anything but that.”
The nurse smiled sadly and rested a comforting hand on her grandpa’s shoulder. “We all have our problems. I’m sure yours isn’t as bad as all that.”
Alex couldn’t imagine anything that could make her hate him. Just what was hidden in the necropolis?
Those boring bankers visiting her parents could get stuffed – Alex had more important things to do than stare at the minute hand of the clock creak around with excruciating slowness while they discussed money and taxes and tried to bully her into showing an iota of interest. Her parents would be furious, but if she had learned anything from her grandpa it was to live life and follow your dreams before it’s too late. He’d been denied decent education and chained to a job he hated. It had ruined his life and she refused to make the same mistakes.
The cemetery was more like a communal tip than a place of rest. Grass tickled her ankles, disguising a minefield of broken glass, lager cans, discarded panties and dirty nappies. Bushes and ivy had been left to grow wild, enveloping leaning gravestones in leafy cocoons.
A glimpse of white drew her eye, a stone pillar jutting from verdant foliage. Venturing closer she discerned the statue of a woman leaning against it, half-devoured by leaf and vine.
She prised off clumps of foliage but saw no sign of anything unusual, nor did it budge when she gave it a shove. She sighed and scratched her head, readying to leave. It had been a small adventure while it lasted, even if it was, in the end, another of her grandpa’s delusions.
The locket flashed hot against her skin. Her eyes tingled, drawn to an indentation in the statue’s navel. The locket fitted perfectly and was swallowed by stone. The statue slid back with a slurp of mud, exposing crude steps down into a black and root-gnarled pit.
She thumbed the torch app on her phone and took a deep breath, heart pounding. Fear spiked as she set her foot down on that first step. It wasn’t like her grandpa would send her into danger…of course he wasn’t exactly in his right mind. Still, was this not the adventure she craved? She shrugged off her fear and descended into a circular chamber. A lumpy mouldering bed sat in the centre and a sagging wardrobe on the far side, all festooned with cobwebs. She examined walls rippling with dead tree roots with a vague hope of catching a glimpse of some kind of treasure. All she found were old bones.
Something stirred in the bed. She yelped as small soot-stained hands burst free of blankets and stretched out wide, elbows cracking. A grubby boyish face emerged, obscured by a mop of curly hair. He gave a huge yawn and rubbed crusted sleep from pale blue eyes.
“Jenny? Is that you?”
Her foot paused on the first step up to safety. This wasn’t a demon or some undead thing risen from the grave, just a snotty little boy squinting into her light, grubby face fearful.
She angled the light away from his eyes. “Sorry, no. My name is Alex. What are you doing down here?”
He took a deep shuddering breath and swung his legs out of the bed, too-large hobnailed boots click-clacking down in a dusty cloud. His corduroy trousers were moth-eaten rags, and his shirt crunched. He peered around the room, noticing the state of the bed and his rotted clothes. “I’ve slept for ages then.”
There was something about the boy, a nagging familiarity. “Who are you?”
“Rab,” he said, sticking out a mucky paw.
She shook it automatically, heart thudding in her chest. He didn’t just look familiar – he was the spitting image of her grandpa in old photos. “Rab Tennant?” she whispered, studying his face by phone-light.
“Aye, that’s me,” he said. “How do you–oh right! Jenny sent you did she? She’s doing better I hope.”
“Who’s Jenny?” she rasped.
He frowned. “My friend. You’d not be likely to mistake her, not with iron choppers like those.”
Alex couldn’t help but stare at the boyish face of her grandpa. “What is she?”
“Sure you want to know?”
The boy lifted a finger to her forehead.
She screams and pleads, but the Good People ignore her, lashing her to the yew with vine and root and faerie magic. They bow their heads, veiling their faces from her tainted sight behind flame-red tresses as they back away to form a corridor.
A svartálfar approachs. Their distant kin’s body is stout and gnarled, with obsidian-black skin, and it carries a bronze-bound wooden chest. As it passes them each of the Good People shudder, and only when it stands before her does she know why. She snarls and twists, fighting the restraints.
“Please!” she calls to her kin. “Don’t do this. I’m sorry, so sorry.”
Her father turns his back, disowning her. “You murdered your brother,” he says. “I cast you out from the Blessed Land to forever crawl through mud and filth.”
“It was not my fault,” she screams. They all feel the lie on her lips. “Please don’t do this.”
“Wretched kinslayer,” the svartálfar says, shaking its beaded head. It sets down the chest and reaches inside. Then the torture begins.
She howls as iron pliers burn her lips and cheeks, taking an age wrenching free her perfect teeth one by one. When it is done she hangs trembling and drooling blood, her great beauty forever burned away.
“It is not enough,” her sisters say.
The svartálfar shrugs, “You’re the ones paying.” It rummages about in its chest and holds up a handful of iron nails. “These do, your lordship?”
Her father turns, his face etched deep with grief. He gives a terse nod, then walks away. She tries to plead for mercy one last time, succeeding only in shedding blood and tears. He does not look back. Her sisters stay to watch the iron nails being hammered into her jaw, her agony their dark savour.
At the foot of the yew, the svartálfar digs a deep pit beneath the roots, swift as only its kind can. It binds her in chains of searing iron then flings her into the earth. She sobs as her heartless kin cast dirt over her face, entombing her below its roots, to choke and burn for an eternity.
Alex collapsed to her knees, tears scalding her cheeks. The phone slipped from her fingers, clattering to the floor, the cone of harsh light throwing the boy’s face into stark relief.
“Hurts don’t it,” he said, squatting next to her. “Jenny Sìth suffered much worse. Can’t imagine how many centuries she suffered ‘afore that great yew came down in the storm of eighteen fifty. A gravedigger dug her up along with the stump. Bet that poor lad got a shock!” He had a sombre cast to his face, incongruous on a young boy’s face, as if he knew too much.
Alex stood and dusted herself off, hissing at the sight of a big rip in the knee of her best jeans. “I take it this Jenny was the person those kids hunted in the fifties? The nineteen fifties that is.”
He grimaced. “Oh aye, some big scary monster eh? Has those big iron teeth but she wouldnae eat a wee boy, no more than I’d eat sprouts. They set about her with stick and stones and hit her with a golf club right here,” he tapped his head.
“You saved her,” Alex whispered. “Pulled her face from the mud.”
He studied her with those too-knowing eyes. “I thought they’d killed her. Gave me a right fright when I saw the scars and those iron choppers. But aye, I dragged her to this refuge that she carved with dwindling magic right after they dug her up.”
Her grandfather’s youthful face haunted her. She rubbed her forehead, tingling still from the touch of his finger. “How did you do that?”
“Some of us have a touch of faerie blood,” he said. “Dalliances with our ancestors.” He studied her carefully. “I have it, and so do you. Want me to teach you?”
“I’d like that,” she said, glimpsing strange and wondrous vistas opening up before her. “How come you were sleeping here? What happened?”
“I saved her, and she saved me,” he replied. “We made a deal. Changeling magic she called it. She took my place and lived my life, and it granted her relief from all that burning iron nailed into her jaw. Me…” He grinned, almost vibrating with excitement. “She said that when I woke up I’d be in the future. No crawling down the mines and dying from the black lung like my dad or breaking my back down the shipyards – I’m gonna be a spaceman flying rocket ships!”
Alex swallowed, thinking it best not to tell him who she was just yet. She took off her jacket and slipped it around his shoulders. “Let’s get you out of this hole and into some clean clothes.”
“I want to see Jenny,” he said, pouting.
“I’d like to have a few words with her myself.” She scowled as she picked up her newly-cracked phone and then they climbed the stairs, picking their way through the grass and debris.
“Are we going by jetpack or rocket ship?” His eyes were huge and darting to and fro looking for his promised future as they left the necropolis. She stopped at the bus stop where an grubby bus was just pulling in. His boyish face was stamped with disappointment. “Ach, the bus? Bum!”
As they sat talking at the back of the bus, his face fell at the state of the modern world. “No big robots or rocket ships roaring overhead? What about aliens and ray guns?”
“And we went to the moon…and then just stopped?” he asked, incredulous. “No moon base or nothing?”
She shrugged. “They are planning on going to Mars at some point. And we’ve sent probes to all the planets now.” It didn’t help, and tears began welling up.
He sniffled. “Jenny promised me an amazing future. And nothin’s changed.”
Alex patted his head awkwardly. “We do have these,” she said, showing him her phone. “Screen is cracked but it’s still usable.”
“A torch? Yay.”
“It’s a telephone,” she said. “And a camera, and a torch and a library and a…a thing to play games on.”
He snorted. “A library? Do you think I’m simple? No book could fit in there. I’m no’ a daftie.”
“No, really.” She showed him the Internet, typing in anything she thought might interest him, from sci-fi space ships to the Apollo moon landings and the space shuttles.
He was kept enthralled until they reached their stop.
Alex marched into the hospice clutching Rab’s grubby hand. The nurses were all in a flap.
“I’m here to see my grandpa.”
They all looked at each other, “Er, he’s disappeared.”
Alex cursed and ran upstairs. The bed was empty, her grandpa’s clothes lying on the sheets. Except he wasn’t her real grandpa. Or was he? In which case, was she even fully human? It was a confusing and frightening thought.
The boy sniffed. “It’s the pain I guess. She couldn’t hold on and had to make a new deal with somebody else.” He sagged, scrubbing tear-stained cheeks with a sleeve. “Buggrit. What am I gonna do now?”
“Rab, my name is Alex Tennant. My dad is your son. Well, Jenny’s I guess. Or yours, I don’t really know how changeling magic works. It’s all very confusing.”
He stared at her, shocked out of his crying. “I’m a grandpa? But…” He lifted a finger to her forehead. “Can I do a thing?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Alex nodded. Their memories flowed together, mingling and mixing like pools of water suddenly joined.
He gasped and staggered back. “Wow.”
“Wow,” she echoed.
Then they spoke at the same time:
“A mind like yours–“ “An imagination like yours–“
They stared at each other, grinning.
He took a deep breath. “Well, if there’s no big rocket ships or a moon base then I’ll bloody-well build them myself. I will have the future that she promised. I know things I do, loads and loads, give Jenny that.”
She knew he did. Amazing, impossible, even magical things.
“I’d love to get to know you, Alex.” He smiled shyly. “Was I…a good grandpa?”
“The best. I’m helping with this new world you want to make. Screw accountancy!” For the first time in years she felt excited about the future.
He grinned. “We are a queer sort of kin.”
She hugged him. Her mum and dad would shit bricks when they found out about all of this.
Over his shoulder she spotted the young nurse with the tired eyes pushing an old woman in a wheelchair. Around the nurse’s neck an ornate silver locket glinted.
“Surviving Life” was originally published in Kzine in January 2019.
Reprinted with permission by Cameron Johnston.
Cameron Johnston is the British Fantasy Award and Dragon Awards nominated author of dark fantasy novels The Traitor God and God of Broken Things. He is a swordsman, a gamer, and an enthusiast of archaeology, history, and mythology. He loves exploring ancient sites and camping out under the stars by a roaring fire. Connect with Cameron on Twitter – @CamJohnston