The November Selected Writer is Steve Toase
Please feel free to visit Steve at
THE SEASON OF DECAYING LEAVES
Tree sap stuck the last traces of autumn leaves to the roof-box. Campbell ran his hand along the top until his fingers tacked to the black plastic. He stared at his now dirty hand, skeletons of leaves stuck to his palm, and thought about tasting the sap, but could not remember if it was poisonous. Instead he picked a parchment of hazel leaf free and let it flutter to the tarmac.
Shaped from extruded plastic, the roof-box deformed the car like a tumor. He never understood why they needed so much storage on a car only used by Sally for the daily commute. He’d said the same to her since they stood in a weed-cracked car-park watching a disinterested sales assistant fail to fit it properly.
“I need to drive samples back and forth to work sometimes,” she said, her voice only just above a whisper.
Campbell failed to think of a single occasion when this had happened.
Folding his arms, he turned to the shop assistant, sweating in his nylon shirt. “Don’t you scratch that paintwork,” he shouted. Sally flinched and looked at her feet.
Campbell scraped a nail of dirt from the lock. The green-grey dust was layered across the tarnished metal, suggesting the storage box had never been opened. A small, generic key unlocked the catch and he tipped the lid back. Could he fit inside it?
Grasping the roof-box with both hands, he gave it a test. Was the plastic too flimsy to bear his weight? Doubt set in.
Evidence for the affair was slight…nothing substantial like sexting or explicit photos hidden in attachments on Sally’s phone. There was an occasional overhead conversation which always ended as he entered the room; a rapid finger dance of Alt-Tab to switch windows. There was an alertness in Sally that suggested deceit.
Cheats always made mistakes and Sally was no different. Paying attention so the error didn’t get lost in the world’s noise was the key. Sally underlined today’s date on the calendar. Not the usual strike of red, this was an undulating sine wave of ink. He flicked through the last few months and found the same change every couple of pages. Hiding in plain sight.
He thought about confronting her. That thought soon passed. What would he say? I think you’re fucking someone else. My proof? You used an undulating line instead of a straight one.
Now he found himself here, outside at the car, while Sally showered inside the house. He glanced at the small bathroom window, glass smeared with steam, and watched the light click off.
Palms against the base, he levered himself up, clambering into the roof-box, pulling the lid down upon himself. He felt uneasy at how dark it had suddenly become once the lid was closed.
This plan is idiotic, he thought, trying to get comfy. The base was ridged, and he struggled to position himself so his hip wouldn’t hurt. For the first time since his teens he wished he was fatter so he could have some padding. His head dangled in mid air, too high to rest on the base.
Reaching out blindly with his fingers, he felt a frayed piece of hessian, like a rotten burlap sack. Rolling it up, he placed the material under his head, turning his face against the coarse weave.
The car had spent all day in the sun and now the roof-box shrouded him in heat, pressing into his skin, making him sweat. He was grateful for the two holes drilled into the side of the box. Why hadn’t he checked that first, before he got inside? If there hadn’t been holes, he would have suffocated.
Through echoes, he heard his front door shut, and knew that Sally was clacking down the stairs in high heels. Too late now; she was coming, and that meant he was committed to stay in the hot box.
He pictured her freshly showered, hair dried and fastened up. Make up delicately applied. Stopping by the driver’s side, she leaned on the car roof, roof-box going off level and tipping slightly toward her. He listened to fingernails tap a morse-code into the keypad of her phone, her breathing as she waited.
“Hi, have you had a good day?”
She listened to the answer.
“Sure, sounds rough. I’ll be there. I’m getting into my car now,” she said into the phone. “I’ll be happy when we’re finished. This has been hanging over me for far too long. Usual place?”
“I think I’ve got it. I know. I want to keep a low profile too, but make sure I can see you. Listen for the car.”
She finished the call and swore. Campbell wondered why. Wasn’t she looking forward to seeing her boyfriend?
Beneath him, the central locking exhaled and she climbed in, car pitching back as she adjusted the seat. The engine started, a gentle rumble echoing into the marrow of him. He tried to get as comfortable as possible, spiraled in on himself.
Something sharp poked through holes in the fabric against his face. He unfolded his makeshift pillow, shifting around to give himself more space. The lid was too close and he wrenched a tendon in his elbow reaching across. There was no light to see by and he hadn’t brought his phone. He untangled the object and brushed his hand across the surface.
Feathers stuck to his sweating fingers, dust falling onto his skin. He ran his hand up the body. The flesh of the head was absent; it was a smooth skull petering down to beak. Something dried and leathery stuck to him. Why was there a dead bird in her roof-box? He shook the bird free, the powdery body landing on his legs.
Brakes brought the car to a staccato halt. End of their street. The main drag was a dual-carriageway. Even through the encasing plastic he heard cars stutter past on the evening commute.
She was always a much more cautious driver than him. Much more precise. Minutes passed, then the gap opened up and she pulled out into the line of traffic. The turn and acceleration slewed Campbell across the roof-box, slamming him against the hard rubber seal.
The bruise spread like spilt ink along his face, arm trapped underneath his body. Freeing a hand, he felt his upper lip. The sting between his eyes suggested a broken nose. He touched the bridge, wincing at the contact. Many years had gone by since his first broken nose. The blood reached his mouth, tasting of iron and punishment.
The road skirted the small dormitory town. Sally steered into the first bend and Campbell tried to brace himself. The trick was to keep his body in the middle. The plan seemed to be working.
As the car swooped down the road, he stayed fairly central, blood clotting inside his face. He listened to the bulk of a truck shift from the lane beside, cutting them up. Sally hit the brakes.
With nothing to hold him, Campbell slid down the length of the roof-box, knees absorbing the impact. Something in his calf stressed and snapped. Under the press of his weight the two halves of the box flexed apart, the truck’s brake lights coloring the inside of the box red. Ignoring that, he scrambled back up. Blood dripped from the roof-box and slid into his hair.
Around his limbs, his torso, the plastic became a set of bindings, pressing in, even where the material didn’t touch his skin. Cooking him in the reek of his own panic. He shook his head. There was still space. Motion sickness in the dark…the gaps were hard to recognize.
His makeshift pillow scratched his face, more sharp points leaving gouges across his cheek. Sliding a hand into the fabric, he drew out a length of thorns, trying to untangle them from the weave. There were three sets. The first felt like hawthorn, the second longer. The third were finer. Maybe bramble? Careful not to catch his skin again, he tried to find the end of each, running his hand down the braided length. The thorns snagged another row of threads and refused to be dragged out. With no way to remove them he folded the fabric between his skin and the spikes, until just the very ends brushed his face like sharp eyelashes.
Even though he was short, Campbell was constrained. Compressed. Head bent with neck pressed against the side of roof-box behind him. Scuffing his back he tried to slide down, but the sensation of his feet against the join between the two halves brought back the memory of red light flooding in.
With no warning the car decelerated, pulling to the left, the back of his skull cracking against the side. He felt pain collect like rivulets of water in his marrow.
Outside, the sound of other cars died away until the only noise was the engine below.
The drive was rougher now, Sally cautious, suspension barely coping with the scarred road. He tried again to get comfortable, shifting his hand to his face. Blood clotted down one cheek, stopping at his lip. He touched his eyes, sockets already swollen and tender. Already closing up.
After some straights the road hair-pinned, even at low speeds tearing his knee-caps against the undulating base. He reached down, unable to tell what was torn fabric and what was torn skin. He wrapped his arms around his head to protect them and ignored the crushing of his knuckles.
He tried to remember other changes that might have hinted at the affair. Some odd purchases listed on her eBay account. Bags of bones she told him were to crush up as meal for the garden. Herbs he didn’t recognize. Emails about a couple of books she didn’t tell him about. No sign of them on the shelves. He'd found them in the recycling with pages missing. When he confronted Sally, she said that the missing pages were the reason she had thrown them out. It seemed reasonable at the time.
The car braked, reversing over rubble, his spine catching every brick. Disorientated, Campbell was sure they were going back the way they’d just come. He wasn’t surprised at Sally missing her turning. The amount of times he berated her for not paying attention. He wondered if it was just him. Was she the same with the dirty bastard she was fucking? His head ached too much to concentrate.
A few seconds went by before he realized they’d stopped, the engine rattling below as he lay steady in the roof-box center. Ignoring the pain in his limbs, he concentrated on keeping his breathing light and quiet through the shattered gristle of his nose.
Campbell knew they had arrived to the destination when the car parked and the engine went off. He listened to the ticking of the cooling engine. What now?
The car door opened. He heard the flick of a lighter and the forced first cigarette breath. Sally only smoked when she was nervous. Maybe she realized he was onto this. Maybe she realized that in all the background noise of his accusations and suspicions he had stumbled on the truth.
“Don’t drop that on the floor when you’ve finished,” a male voice said. “No traces.”
“I won’t,” Sally said, her voice sounding offended. She took another deep lungful, then there was a slight liquid sizzle of burning brought to an end.
“You’ll have to help me lift it,” the male voice said.
There was a pause.
Campbell tried to make as little sound as possible, legs cramping to iron.
“This will work, right?” Sally asked.
A moment passed before her companion answered. “I’ve been doing this since I became an adult. My father before me. Always worked in the past. Don’t you trust me?”
“I trust you,” she said.
Campbell listened to them walk a short distance, and he shifted to try and get comfortable. Every limb was spattered with bruises, each position more uncomfortable than the last. His feet caught on the roof, laces from one trapped under his leg, too far for him to reach and untangle.
Conversation drifted back to him. Fragments of words too far away to connect. Campbell moved his arm to try and push at the lid, but there wasn’t room to get his fingers in place. Then the voices came closer. They were coming back to the car.
Outside, Sally and her male companion paused, breathing heavily. He waited for them to speak. Nothing passed between them for a moment.
“Did you make sure it was empty?” the man asked.
“Of course,” Sally said. “Apart from the items you told me to bring. The three types of hedgerow thorn. The raven with a skinned head. The raven took some finding.”
“But you got one?”
She laughed “Sure I did. Dried it out in the eaves. Burning the feathers from the head was awful, though. Was that really necessary?”
“Each stage builds a momentum. Why?”
“The stench took ages to clear.”
“And?” The man asked.
“I said I had burned the dinner.”
They laughed, the man’s humor turning to a retch.
Sally said, “Everything we need is in there.”
“Give me a hand,” the man said.
The lid cracked open just a bit. Campbell felt panic overwhelm him. They would discover him! How could he explain this?
But the lid never opened much, as if concealment and subterfuge was the main concern. Through the narrow gap something was pushed in, pressing between Campbell and the walls of the roof-box, now closed.
“Have you got some cargo straps?” the male voice asked, words scored through with a smoker's effort.
“Hang on,” Sally said.
Campbell listened to her walk around the back of the car and open the trunk. She rifled around, looking through the pile of old coats and road atlases before shutting the car once more.
Campbell felt the weight against his back. Something resinous leaked into his hair.
“Here,” Sally said. The ratchet of the strap clattered against the plastic above him and was dragged across.
“Pull it through.”
The man wheezed around to the other side, picking up the bracket and clattered it back through, between the roof rack and the car.
“Careful with the paintwork,” Sally said.
“Fuck your paintwork,” the man answered. “This is far more important.”
Panic froze Campbell. He was never indecisive. Never. He always knew exactly what action to take. Like marrying Sally. She was the quiet one in his old office. Not many friends. No real hobbies. Exactly the wife he was looking for.
“Put two straps around,” Sally said.
“Is that necessary?” the man asked.
“Yes,” she said.
Unsure exactly why, Campbell shuddered at her certainty.
The air inside the container was acrid with charred wet meat. Campbell lay still, pain in his leg telescoping into his throat and tasting of bile. His head swam. As an experiment he tried opening his right eye. The swelling was too severe.
The second strap wrapped around him, ratchet pulling fabric through. An old key rusting into a lock.
“I’ll drive,” the man said.
“My car,” Sally said. “That means I drive.”
“You think that’s how it works?”
“When it comes to my car, yes,” Sally said, ending the discussion.
They climbed in, the change in weight rolling Campbell into the package they had placed beside him. Sally started the engine and the car moved off, back on to the damaged road.
Now he wasn't going to be overheard Campbell took a deep breath. The space hung heavy with rot. Wincing at the pain from his fractured leg Campbell shifted toward the package. Almost as long as him, it filled the rest of the roof-box. Turning, his face pressed against the wrapping. It was the same burlap material that held the dead bird.
He wanted to know what was inside the sack. He’d have to feel it. Running his hand up the rough sacking, they became knotted in rat’s tails of hair. His hand went up further. His fingers slipped into a gap. Hot breath warmed his skin. Shattered stumps of teeth scratched as the jaws shuddered, heaving in air.
Placing his hand on the top of the sack, he felt a creak deep inside, under thin, broken bones. He snatched his hand back, his own breath coming in waves. Touching the package again, there was no doubt the thing beside him was clasping to life.
The car took a bend in the road, slewing the sack wrapped thing into him, pressing him against the side of roof-box and crushing breath from him.
From under the sacking the smell came in waves. Not decay. A stench of halted healing. A pause on the way to death.
Through the weave of the material, delicate exposed bones scratched his arm. The broken thing wheezed out agony. What could it possibly be? Campbell felt bile rise into his mouth, though whether from the pain in his leg, or the dying thing, he could not tell.
Beside him it tried to lift its head on neck muscles too wasted or too damaged to work properly any more. For a moment Campbell listened to skin smoothing as it tried to lift away from the plastic base, and each effort echoed with clot-tinted breath.
Feeling nauseous, Campbell pushed down on the head until the thing stopped straining against his press.
The material across whatever remained of a face stretched, then gave way. Campbell’s fingers slipped into two hollows where the eyes had been. The thing tried squealing, but had no air in its damaged lungs, or tongue, to make the sound. Campbell turned away and vomited, his mouth tasting sour even once he spat it clean.
Beneath the roof-box, beneath the car, the road leveled; smoothed, and the car accelerated. The force threw him, first against the thing in the sack then back toward the side of the box, splitting his forehead from hairline to the bridge of his nose. The whole container rocked with the extra weight, straining against the rack binding it to the roof.
To distract himself from the breathing behind him, Campbell imagined Sally below, sat in the driving seat, her companion beside her. He sounded older than her. Older than him. Was it someone he knew? He ran through the list of her work colleagues, picturing them from their Facebook profiles, only pausing when the pain got too much.
He was able to discount most as they were far too young. That only left her boss and the caretaker. Neither had that cancerous cough.
The car slowed and took a sharp, constant right that tipped him onto his side and flung him outward, pressing the head behind him against the metal of the clasp. He tried to scrabble away. The turn was too long. Breath and phlegm soaked through the back of his shirt.
The roundabout ended and he was going the other way with the same speed, nothing to stop his face hitting the side, cheek catching one of the hinges. His head snapped back and something tearing in his shoulder was the last thing he felt until his wakefulness leached away.
Campbell woke into a sauna of dried blood and stale air. He tried to move his arms, but one was trapped underneath him, the other useless from rips threaded through his shoulder joint.
New pains quaked through his chest with each gasp. Ribs fractured as if they needed to match those of the dying thing alongside. Campbell quieted his own breath and lay still, ignoring the grind of his fractures. Beside him, even more damaged than before, the wheezing labored on.
He tried to turn away, but moving onto his side crushed his chest, the scream coming before he could still it in his throat.
Tipping back, he let his head fall and listened for the car. There was no longer any engine or road sound. No vibrations coming through the thin plastic body of the roof-box.
Shallowing his breath, he thought for a moment of smothering his bagged companion, just to quiet its struggle for air.
There was no hatred for this broken thing. There was no hatred for anything anymore, even Sally, and god knows there had been plenty of hatred over the years. Building to this evening. He swore without speaking.
Straining to hear, he listened for voices. For footsteps. For any sign of activity outside. There was no conversation or suck of cigarette smoke.
They weren’t there. They were gone.
Campbell knew that moments passed quickly and the chance to leave this thorn-filled vault would evaporate soon. He had to get out of the roof-box, right now.
Twisting around, he ignored the compression of his broken chest and tried to force fingernails behind the rubber seal, pry it apart and separate the two halves. Even with the cargo straps ratcheted there should be enough to lever his way out.
From his back pocket he took out his notebook to use the cover as a wedge, holding open the gap while he rested.
Sweat slicked from Campbell, pooling in his eyes, blinding him even in the darkness. Each breath seemed to take more effort. He coughed, then tried to get a second lungful. The air was too thin, leaving him gasping. He renewed his efforts to force his way out. Once open he could climb down from the roof, drag his way to cover and make his way home.
Rubber torn away, Campbell clenched his fist. Forcing his knuckles against the join, he pressed as much as the damaged tendons in his shoulder could bear. The plastic strained apart.
Encouraged, he held his elbow with the other hand and renewed the pressure. Feeling the breach widen he waited for fresh autumnal breeze to creep in. None came. With ripped knuckles he pressed harder, trying to force the breach to become a vent through which he could breathe.
He paused, effort and pain tiring him. The gap was not wide enough to slide the notebook in, so he kept his fingers in place, the pressure crushing the bones’ tiny, fragile joints. Lying on his back he stared at the inside of his eyelids, then wiped the burning sweat clean and turned his head.
There was no light outside liked he hoped. No street-light reflecting off the wet tarmac. No tree-slit moonlight. Just more darkness.
Resting, he decided to renew his efforts. Leaving the notebook on his chest, he reached across himself, using both hands to widen the gap.
Dirt stuck to his fingers in clumps. Pulling one half of the join toward him, he pushed his nails deeper outside. They slicked through thick earth.
In disgust, he tried to withdraw his hand, the gap disappearing, crushing down on his knuckles. He pictured the outside of the roof-box, the cargo straps holding the two halves together and the weight of soil pressing down from above.
Beside him, the broken thing wrapped in burlap sacking creaked in its share of the oxygen, and Campbell tried not to scream his way through his last few breaths.
Steve Toase lives in North Yorkshire, England and occasionally Munich, Germany. His stories tend towards the unsettling and unreal.
Steve’s work has appeared in Cabinet de Fees’ Scheherezade’s Bequest, Innsmouth Magazine, Not One of Us and Cafe Irreal among others. In 2014, his story “Call Out” was published in The Best Horror of the Year Anthology 6.
He is currently working with Becky Cherriman and Imove on a commissioned project called Haunt, about the haunting presence of Harrogate in the lives of people experiencing homelessness or vulnerable housing in the town.
To read more of Steve’s work, please visit:
Photo credit: Layla