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Stewart Horn

The December First Selected Writer is Stewart Horn

Please feel free to email Stewart at: stewartguitar@hotmail.com

Stuart Horn

FILMLAND
by Stewart Horn

I know; the name sounds a bit grand, and you’re probably expecting a big shiny story about movie stars and stuff. But it’s just the place I work.

Filmland used to just be a DVD rental shop, but there’s no money in that any more, so Dave the owner flung out a few racks and put a wee café at the back, so it’s managed to keep going for now.

As jobs go it’s all right. I do the backshift Tuesday through Sunday; I get to take home any DVDs that are still in the shop at closing time, and it’s certainly not what you’d call demanding. Most days I get up fairly early, never much past noon, and I drink coffee and slob around, maybe watch a movie or go online for a bit. I call myself Famous Monster online.

Anyway, I start work at half three. That’s round about when the teachers come in for their fix of senseless violence; then there’s another wee rush of office workers, always wanting the newest thing, then it tails off.

After Alison the day girl goes home at six, it’s just me and my regulars. You’ll have heard guys called babe magnets – well I’m a nerd magnet. If any of you ladies have a thing for kinda chubby guys with bad personal hygiene and underdeveloped social skills, come into my shop between seven and nine or so any weeknight... there’s always a good selection. It’s like that Islamic heaven with the 72 virgins, if Allah had a sense of humour.

My job is to talk to the guys so they think they have lives, serve them microwaved pizzas and cans of diet fizzy pish, and let them try to out-geek me on obscure movie trivia. Every so often one of them will rent a movie, but that’s not really why they come in.

Anyway, this thing that happened – the thing I need to tell you about.  It was a Tuesday. Tuesdays are always dead, so I usually dust the shelves and put all the covers back in the right places, cause the punters are crap at that, and sometimes I’ll even put a movie on for the last couple of hours, instead of those trailer discs we’re meant to show all day.

So it was quite late, after ten anyway, and this girl comes in – small, dark hair, smartly dressed, by herself. That’s unusual by the way: guys quite often come in on their own, but girls are always either half a couple or one of a flock. I’ve thought before that someone could do a PhD on social and cultural norms based on gender behaviour in video rental shops. I would do it myself but I’d have to go back to uni and finish my degree first. And I’d probably rather be ripped apart by cannibals.

So anyway, I was watching an early Argento movie, one of his Giallos, when this lassie came in. I gave her my standard complimentary nod/smile combo from behind the counter and went back to watching the screen, but she came right up to the counter.

“Excuse me,” she said, earning smile number two, my more-attentive-and-making-eye-contact version.

“Hi, what’re you after?” I asked. She was smiling back, but one of my special powers is trouble radar, and something in her face right then was causing a big red blip on my screen.

“Do you have a telephone I could use? I’m very sorry to bother you, but it’s rather urgent.” 

“Sorry, no.  Even I’m not allowed to use the shop phone.”  I really was sorry – her smile was as thin and brittle as ice – I thought if it broke she might burst into tears, or possibly try to gouge my eyes out.  “There’s a pay phone just across the road there.”

She looked over her shoulder at the dark street through the shop window then back at me.  “This is something of an emergency. I can give you some money for the call.”  The smile was still there but wrong – the eyes were too wide or something, and the red blip on my radar was flashing faster than ever.  

“Tell you what,” I said when I couldn’t stand it any longer.  “You can use my mobile, if it’s…”  I fished it out of my jeans.

“Thank you,” she said. She grabbed it like she was drowning and I’d thrown her a rope.

“So long as you’re not phoning Australia or something – I’ve not got very much credit.”

She ignored that, turned away and made a call, and I heard snippets of her conversation while still half-watching my movie. On the screen a blonde woman in evening dress was being menaced by an invisible assailant in black leather gloves.

“…me”
“…video shop…on Glasgow Road”

I glanced from the screen to the girl and noticed that her jacket was a bit ripped – one sleeve was coming off.  It was disconcerting because she was otherwise so neat.

“...yes”
“…mobile” 

The black-gloved killer had a hand on the woman’s neck now, and a shiny knife flashed into shot. I suddenly didn’t want to watch it any more and I fumbled for the remote.

“… saw him!”
“…okay…here.”

She turned back and handed me the phone just as I managed to stop the movie.

“Thank you very much. I’ll browse for a while.”

“No bother.” Aye right. I was bothered as fuck. I wanted this maniac out the shop and back to whatever soap opera she lived in, right now.

I even thought about calling Dave, the guy who owns the shop, but what would I say? “Oh, hi Dave, it’s Charlie. There’s a girl in the shop, she’s browsing the racks, and I’m scared.”

So I sat and bit my nails and waited for it to be closing time so I would have an excuse to make her leave. There was only about 14¼ minutes to go when the door opened again and this massive guy came in – I mean properly massive; he had to duck and turn sideways to get through the door. 

This time I could have felt justified calling Dave and saying, “There’s a fucking troll in the shop! What do I do?” The troll scanned the shop in a moment, taking in the girl, the racks, the counter and me cowering behind it.

I was certain there was trouble coming and I’d already decided that they were welcome to all the DVDs, the money in the till and our entire stock of Butterkist, but she just ran up to him and gave him a hug. If I’d been the guy throwing the rope, he was the life-raft – a pretty big one too, like a thirty-seater. There was a whispered conversation and the giant glanced over at me again.

A moment later he was walking towards me, and my trouble-radar screen exploded.  It was like having a dinosaur bearing down on me, albeit one in a large nicely tailored suit.

“We appreciate your assistance,” he said, his voice surprisingly soft.  “However…” I think he paused here deliberately to let me worry about what he might say next. My best guess was You’ve seen our faces so I’m afraid I’ll have to kill you. Sorry.

Instead, he said, “You have not seen us. We have not been in this shop or this area of the city at all. I cannot see a security camera. Is it hidden somewhere?”

“There isn’t one,” I said, before having time to think about what the fuck I was saying. I did have enough time call Dave a cheapskate bastard in my mind though.

“Good,” he said.  He laid a hand on the counter and I felt my eye drawn to it – he could have fit it round my head and probably squashed it like a rotten apple.  “Forget us and you will never see us again. Tell me you understand.”

“I understand.”

He looked me up and down and I thought perhaps he hadn’t quite made up his mind about me yet. He all but opened my mouth to examine my teeth.  By now the girl had crept up behind him and was watching with interest. All her anxiety seemed to have vanished, lucky bitch.

Eventually he nodded and looked me in the eye. “Good,” he said again, and turned to leave.  The girl gave me a more relaxed and sympathetic smile than she’d managed earlier, the way you might smile at someone who’s just survived a really bad car crash. Then she followed Gigantor out the front door.

I sat behind the counter for ages after they’d gone, staring at the glass door and the big windows either side. Through the glass I could see across the street to the railway station and the other shops, all closed, nothing looking real in the street lights.  There were no people, and only a couple of cars went past in however long I sat there in my little bubble of light. I knew I had to lock up and go home, but the darkness outside seemed to be staring back at me, daring me to get closer. After an age I felt my muscles begin to unknot themselves and only then realised how tense I had been. Even though, now that I tell it, at that point nothing had actually happened.

I took a deep breath, stood up and walked round the counter, taking the keys out of my pocket as I went. I walked towards the door, keys held in front of me like a talisman, but stopped again a couple of feet away. All I had to do was reach out, insert the key and turn it, and everything would be okay again, but I had this vision of a clawed hand bursting through the glass and grabbing my wrist if I got close enough to let it. I don’t know how long I stood there, staring into that darkness, but finally I thrust the key in and turned it as quickly as I could. It stuck a little as it often did and I felt the panic rise before the lock clicked into place. At that moment somebody ran past the window, impossibly fast and inches from the glass, and I nearly shat my pants.

“Fuck!” I shouted, jumping backwards, and “Jesus fuck!”  I breathed hard, swore again, and smiled at myself. He’d given me a hell of a fright, but just seeing another human being had broken the spell, brought me back to reality. I even imagined the jolly conversation we would have if I left the shop and saw him standing at the bus stop:

You won’t believe how big a fright I got when you ran past the shop
Sorry, man, I thought there was a bus coming
No worries, I was just locking the door when you whizzed by me; nearly shit myself

I finished locking up and did my final check-around routine, all the time talking to myself, mainly telling myself what a diddy I was for getting so worked up over nothing. Even so, I was still tense when I left the shop. I looked round the dark and deserted street before locking the door again from the outside and pulling down the shutters. I looked round some more as I started the short walk home, and I’m pretty sure I glanced over my shoulder a few times on the way. There are two little alleys I have to pass, and I’m always a bit wary of them, even though the crime rate in this part of town is almost zero. Tonight I kept my eyes firmly ahead as I passed them, but looked behind me again afterwards, just in case.

My close has eight flats in it, two on each of the four floors. I live in a one bedroom flat on the second-top floor, and I have no idea who my neighbours are.  It’s a good setup; it suits my personality.

When I opened the door of the close that night I thought there was a funny smell.  I couldn’t place it, though my first thought was that someone’s dog had crapped in the apartment building. It was that kind of smell, but not exactly right. It got stronger as I went up the stairs, and I started to get more subtle notes in it, still with essence of shite dominating though.

By the time I reached my floor it was strong enough to make me gag, with still no indication where it might be coming from. I was about to go into my flat and forget all about it when I heard a noise from the next floor up.  It was a kind of heavy and ragged breathing. I guessed that my upstairs neighbour was too drunk to get into his flat and had passed out on the landing and most likely shit himself. That’s happened before. I stood undecided for a moment, then headed upstairs to see if I could help.

“All right up there?” I called, starting to climb the last flight. There were noises from above: something like a pig grunting, something heavy moving or being moved, a slamming door, silence. I turned on the half-landing and looked up the last few steps.  At first I just thought how red everything was – it looked like Jackson Pollock had done an installation in the close but only remembered to bring red paint. 

Despite the sick, sinking feeling in my gut, I walked up a few more steps, shoes sticking to the stairs, and I could see that the red stuff wasn’t all liquid. There were bits scattered about, little gristly things like a butcher’s discards. I stopped a couple of steps from the top and saw a bloody trail leading across the landing and vanishing underneath the door on my right. I stared at the door, made of simple panelled wood, so normal, familiar and innocent, apart from the stains.

Among the rest of the mess, the one object that caught my eye, the biggest, the most easily identifiable, and the one that has stuck in my brain like a cancer: the hand. It looked fake, something you might buy in a joke shop at Halloween, with its ripped flesh, protruding shards of splintered bone and unrealistic red stains. Mainly it didn’t look real because it was too big.

I thought of the hand that had lain on the counter in my shop less than an hour before, attached to the unassailable man-mountain I had been so afraid of. I stared at the hand and everything else, my mind buckling under the weight of carnage, trying to make sense of it all, but I felt overloaded. 

I’m not known for my quick decision-making, or quick anything for that matter, so I might have stood there all night if nothing else had happened, but then there was a noise from behind the door. I’ve no idea what the noise was – maybe I never knew or maybe the memory got lost among all the other stuff. 

Whether it was the noise, the hand, or just the sight of the bloody door, I turned tail and ran like fuck. I ran as if every demon of hell was chasing me; I sprinted down the stairs, past my own door and onwards and downwards. I almost screamed when I heard a mighty crash from above – something like the sound a door makes when something big and scary charges through it and reduces it to kindling.

A moment later I was back out in the empty night, heading nowhere in particular except away from that building as fast as I could, not looking behind me even when I heard a howl – a fucking proper horror movie howl, the kind that’s too clichéd to be scary on screen, but bowel-looseningly effective in real life. 

I didn’t slow down when the inevitable stitch in my side kicked in, or when my legs started to ache, or when my lungs felt as though they were on fire, and definitely not when I heard something closing behind me. It was close enough that I could hear it breathe, hear its pads on the tarmac, hear a growl start to build in its throat. 

I closed my eyes, still running, tripped over a pavement and sprawled on my belly, rolling and scraping and leaving a trail of skin and blood. The thing behind me had pounced at the same moment and it flew right over me, close enough for me to smell it, and feel the heat of it, and I heard it land heavily in front of me. I couldn’t scream, or beg, or move, even breathing was hard work. Every part of me hurt, and I remember thinking fuck it, just eat me then.

I managed to lift my head and saw it for the first time as it slowed and turned to face me.

If I had expected a giant wolf, I wasn’t that far off the mark; it was more like the shape of a hyena, but the size of a rhino, and absolutely black, apart from the eyes which were an anachronistic light blue. It didn’t seem in such a hurry now that I’d given up running, and it raised its massive head and howled. 

That sound, up close like that, was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced – it  felt like freezing hands suddenly clutching my kidneys, searing through centuries of civilisation and speaking directly to the part of me that used to hide in the forest and dread the stench of the carnivore. As the beast padded towards me, I knew it was an anticlimax. I knew I was going to die, and expected that it would hurt – I only hoped it wouldn’t take long and that the thing wouldn’t howl again till I was properly dead and wouldn’t hear it.

It was almost on me, blue eyes locked on mine, when it vanished, then there was a crunching noise from somewhere to my left. 

I turned to look and saw it clumsily getting to its feet – the beast had somehow been thrown against the brick wall bordering the road.

I looked round to see what could have done it but there was nothing obvious, till a flash of something whizzed past me and slammed into the beast again. This time the creature didn’t hit the wall but was thrown at least thirty feet down the street, rolling and grunting as it landed.

Then, miraculously, the girl from the shop was standing in front of me. She grabbed me by the jacket and lifted me to my feet like I was four years old. I’m quite chunky; she must have been stronger than she looked.

“Are you hurt?” she asked. I couldn’t answer, because I didn’t know yet. I was busy adjusting my definition of hurt. My limbs were all still attached and when she let me go I didn’t fall down -- scraped and bleeding didn’t count. Over her shoulder I saw the creature get up and start moving again. I made a noise and pointed. She looked behind her and back at me. 

“Don’t go away,” she said. She accelerated like a rocket towards the staggering beast and hit it like a cannonball, driving it into another wall with a crunch that must have been some bones, probably a skull. I finally found my voice.

“Fuck me,” I said.

“Sorry about that,” she said, beside me again. “He’s not supposed to be here.”

“He’s not supposed to fucking exist,” I said, still watching the now inert creature in case it got up again. She checked me over, lifting my arms to look underneath. For the second time that night I felt like a bull at market.

“You’re fine,” she announced. “You should go to the police now; not to would seem suspicious.”  She looked me straight in the eye. “You still haven’t seen us though, remember?”

“What is that thing I just didn’t see? And who are you?”

She rolled her eyes. “Plebs are so nosey these days. I would just have let him eat you, if it wasn’t for the paperwork. Now listen carefully; this is what you are going to say. You saw the mess in your close, panicked, and ran away. When you calmed down enough, you went to the police station to report it. Nothing else happened.” When she said it, it sounded true – I almost believed it.

“What happened to the big guy?” I asked, “The guy from the shop.”

“Nobody came into your shop tonight.” She was smiling now. I was well out of my depth and gave in.

“Oh aye, I forgot.”

Then she was gone, and so was the black thing that had tried to eat me. I fell back into my normal mode for a while: indecision and inaction. Then I went to the police.

I’m not sure what I told them, but they kept me in and asked me a lot of questions I couldn’t answer.  Days later, when they’d finally decided I was innocent, they sent me to a hotel until my flat was fit for use again – I don’t know what they did with it but it was still a hell of a mess when I got back.

That was last week.  Now, I don’t feel safe in the shop when it gets dark and the street is quiet.  Outside the glass door and big windows I imagine people, things, hunting each other, only that fragile film of glass keeping them from all us Normals. I get twitchy walking home and I never, ever turn my head and look behind me. 

At home I don’t sleep, but lie staring at the ceiling, knowing that anything, anything could be on the other side of those few inches of wood and plaster.

There are images that haunt me, both awake and asleep, and I keep thinking -- if there is some kind of war going on, am I in it? Have I taken sides?

 

Stewart Horn is a professional musician based in Glasgow, Scotland. He has had a passion for horror since childhood but has only recently started to share his own fiction with the world.  He enjoys contrasting dark subject matter with the dryly humorous delivery typical of Glaswegians.

"Filmland" is the fourth piece he has had published to date.