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Strange Days Indeed by John C Adams

After another long day working on the land, Brett Flint wandered back to his farmhouse’s kitchen.

To his surprise, the icicle he’d put on the mantelpiece the night before hadn’t melted even though the warmth from the stove filled the room.

As he stared at the icicle, his eyes narrowed into a frown. He tried to expunge it from his thoughts, but that shard of ice just kept drawing his gaze.

The twenty-six-year old watched his wife from the corner of his eye as Radclyffe pottered around the kitchen and did the washing up.

Gazing around the homely kitchen, he nodded his head in satisfaction. After another exhausting day in the fields, he was back in his cosy kitchen again.

He settled into his chair by the fire and lit his pipe. His brown-and-white terrier, Ratty, curled up on top of his feet and began to snore.

Brett closed his eyes, but the image of the icicle remained every bit as clear inside his mind. He sighed out a breath in one long huff, making Radclyffe look up from the sink and smile.

A beguiling voice inside his head whispered that soon a whole mountain of ice would descend upon Blackacre and encase Brett’s family in a freezing tomb.

He shook his head to dispel the thoughts, but they hung there regardless, stubbornly deep inside his consciousness.

Radclyffe dried her hands and set out the teapot, cups and saucers, and milk jug.

She left the pot to brew and murmured that she was just going to check on the twins.

Brett grunted a reply. He tapped the tip of his pipe against his front teeth until his wife tutted her disapproval.

The longer he stared at the icicle on the mantelpiece, the more the voices in his head mocked him.

They cackled that they were coming to bury the Flints alive.

He flung himself across the kitchen and grabbed the icicle. The cold bit into his weather-beaten hands, and he dropped it.

He rubbed his hands and blew on them, but the pain throbbed up through his fingers as far as his wrist. Cradling his arm into his chest, he cursed the forces at work here.

The farmer dashed over to the back door and dragged his winter gloves out of his heavy overcoat. He pulled them on, gingerly when it came to his damaged right hand, and bent to pick up the icicle.

As he threw it into the fire, even during those fleeting seconds when he lifted it between his gloves, the cold gnawed into his flesh.

He drew off his gloves painfully slowly. His flesh was darkening; chilblains were already turning into frostbite.

From upstairs came the sound of Radclyffe shouting. Then the aggrieved wail of his twin boys, each in turn.

The fire hissed as it went out. The embers were frozen, and the ice forming around the grate quickly spread across the mantelpiece and around the kitchen wall until it crept right up the back door.

Brett dashed through the parlours to the main staircase. Radclyffe inched down the stairs carrying the twins. He took the dark-haired baby, Nicholas, and helped her to the front door. He yanked it open, and, as he stumbled out into the May sunshine, Ratty the terrier sprinted between her master’s legs and out onto the driveway.

The couple stood in the warmth of the late afternoon, staring up at their home. The ice overwhelmed their front door, and the black ivy growing on either side withered from the cold.

The walls crackled as the ice spread up across them to the slate roof and covered the chimneys. A cracking sound shot out from the stone as the chimney splintered with the cold and crashed onto the gravel.

The ice spread across the driveway and under their feet, seething with an evil energy. Radclyffe screamed and jumped onto the edge of the well. She hugged Constantine, the blond-haired twin, to her chest.

Brett spun round and crossed the driveway, hopping to stop his feet from freezing to the ground. Ice formed across the top of the well, threatening to freeze the water inside.

Brett scooped Ratty up with one arm and gripped Nicholas with the other. He staggered, with his breath almost freezing onto his red cheeks, around the side of the house. Radclyffe followed with Constantine.

Brett glanced down at Nicholas in his arms. The usually feisty and unruly baby was quiet. He looked at his father fearlessly.

The cold bit into Brett’s heart. He stumbled against the stone walls dividing the driveway from the parkland. Radclyffe wept as she trudged behind him towards the farmyard.

“What’s doing this to us?” she asked.

Brett hardened his heart to his wife’s agony, and she fell silent. Her tears froze onto her cheeks.

“Damn whatever’s brought this to Blackacre, I swear to yer, lass,” he said.

Brett tried not to let his thoughts dwell upon the icicle. The farmhouse had two guests, neither very welcome. One had brought it back from his travels. Brett didn’t intend to enquire further. It was seldom prudent to do so where Blackacre was concerned. It unnerved him, though, that the farmhouse wasn’t strong enough to fight off the evil attacking it from within. He couldn’t remember a time when the old place hadn’t been powerful enough to see off even the darkest of forces.

The hills were bathed in a glorious sunshine typical of the uplands in late May. A satisfied bleating drifted across on the breeze. But as Brett turned and stared back over his shoulder, he knew that, at their dragging pace, they were only a step or two in front of the ice as it followed them to the farmyard.

“There’s something about this place that sometimes I could just lay my head down and die right here. Who’d miss any of us?” he said.

Radclyffe didn’t reply.

The farmyard was drenched in the warmth of the early-summer evening. The cattle were waiting as usual to be let into the sheds for milking. Brett opened the gate and drove them in. Then he hooked them up to the machines and fed them. When he returned to the yard he found that Radclyffe had taken the babies into the barn and curled up with them in the straw right at the back.

He cuddled up with his wife and sons. A debilitating uncertainty and anxiety crept across him. The chill of the frozen farmhouse had spread into the barn, and he got up to drag the heavy doors closed. A snuffling became the prelude to Radclyffe openly weeping as she spluttered into tears.

The twins lay wrapped up in the straw with angelic expressions that their chubby faces never wore when they were awake. Brett stroked his sons’ hair and kissed their foreheads.

“I should light the beacon,” he said.

Radclyffe muttered back that there was no point. Brett didn’t challenge his wife’s assessment. He might abandon them to freeze in here, drag himself up the hill and not even be able to light the beacon. There was no guarantee that their neighbours would answer the call for help even if he were able to get it burning. The freezing cold might spread faster than he could drag himself up the incline.

Brett sighed and turned over onto his back. Exhaustion almost claimed him and he rubbed his eyes. A chill crept over the barn. The gaps between the slate tiles let in hardly any light. He sighed and pulled himself up. Peeking out of the gap between the door and the wall, he realized it was almost dark outside. The cold had blocked out the sun as well as engulfing the house.

He shivered and blew on his hands.

“I’m going up to the beacon,” he said.

Radclyffe silently turned away from him and curled around their boys. Brett looked at his wife and children for a long time before he left the barn to walk up the slope towards the beacon.

He reached the summit an hour later. He’d turned several times on the way and seen that the ice was still spreading from the farmhouse towards the yard. It had almost surrounded the barn.

With shaking hands, he uncapped the petrol can left next to the huge beacon and threw the liquid all over the wood, coughing as the smell entered his nose. Then he fumbled in his pocket for matches and bent to strike one against the wick sticking out from the edge of the beacon.

Flames licked at the base of the beacon. Within minutes, the pile of old faggots, broken-down pallets, branches and tree roots was ablaze. He sat down on the other side of the small plateau and warmed himself in the heat.

Brett waited for the next beacon, on the other side of the valley, to flame into life. The minutes ticked away with agonizing slowness, but eventually he saw a fire burst into life. He lay on his back and stared into the night sky. It seemed so much brighter than usual. The stars felt closer, somehow. His head filled with writhing images of dark octopi that were also partly human in shape. They reached out their tentacles and burrowed down into his brain, ranting in a strange tongue he could not understand.

An overwhelming sense of futility assailed him. He imagined the seasons that stretched ahead of him as if he had already lived them. Year after year, tilling the soil and harvesting, only to hand it over to one of the boys and expect them to waste their lives doing the same. Generations of Flints to come would do the same, for as long as the family had boys to offer to the land. And for what?

At the sound of shouting, he scrambled up and dragged himself back down the slope towards the cold. Land Rovers and pickups sped up the bumpy farm track to the house. Neighbours jumped out, pulling logs and kindling out from the back of their vehicles and tossing them into huge piles.

Radclyffe had returned from the barn and was shouting to everyone to hurry. A ring of bonfires around the farmhouse was soon lit. It burned all night and, at dawn, they ventured inside. The kitchen was coldest, but the rest of the house was warm and the sun percolated through the dull clouds.

Brett crossed the kitchen and poked around the fire. Inside, amongst the cold embers, was the icicle. He drew it out and placed it back on the mantelpiece. Radclyffe bustled around and got the stove alight. She put the kettle on, too.

Brett stared over at the icicle for a long time as he rested in his chair with his fingers wrapped around a steaming mug of tea. The damn thing was unchanged, even though he’d tossed it into the fire. It had almost killed his family and destroyed his home.

“What’s the point?” Brett murmured to himself. “What’s the point of any of it?”

For the first time that Brett could remember, his wife didn’t attempt to challenge that statement or try to jolly him along. She simply sat quietly next to him and stared into the fire. Its flames were pale and cold, and more than once Brett found himself shivering.

John C Adams Author Strange Days Indeed

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