An extract from Chapter 9 of THE DAY WE ATE GRANDAD
“You look nervous,” Jem Foreman observed, and Theo tried not to blush. Nerves were natural, he told himself, and not at all a sign of doubt. It was the thrill of it, being so close to ultimate power, the source of their family’s glory.
Of course, Jem was never nervous. He was as stoic as usual, defying the warmth of the late spring evening with a plain grey golf jacket to hide the ooze seeping through his shirt. They were in the car park of an abandoned warehouse, where Japanese knotweed and nettle patches had fought the concrete and won. The warehouse was one of David Wend’s, but Theo wasn’t sure if he knew his relations had commandeered it.
Uncle David hadn’t used it for a while, probably not since the people trafficking thing. Theo had heard rumours that had ended badly. He wondered why Uncle David was still alive.
Theo shook his head. “I’m fine.”
“You better be.”
“I told you I wouldn’t let you down,” Theo said, trying to keep his voice level, “And I won’t.”
Jem eyed him. “I hope that’s the collective ‘you’, not me personally, because this isn’t about me. And it’s not about us, either. You know that, right?”
Theo wanted to know what the fuck ‘us’ meant if it didn’t mean dinner and a bottle of red wine in front of the television and screwing whenever Jem felt like it. If that wasn’t enough, he’d hoped being part of this greater cause would at least make Jem see he was boyfriend material.
“Of course I do.” Theo licked his lips. “Am I in trouble? For running away yesterday?”
Jem shook his head, giving him a soft smile of reassurance. “No. You’re not in trouble. Her glory has come in handy, though. We’re making use of that in the ritual today.”
He turned and beckoned Theo to follow him.
“Her glory?” Theo picked his way carefully around the potholes and headed to the heavy metal side door.
“Such as it is. Wend-McVeys aren’t exactly prime specimens. But the shrine wants what it wants, and it wants someone’s glory for this ritual. Why cut one of ours off when hers was lying there?”
Theo tried to act nonchalant. “Granny Shaw used to say—”
“With the greatest respect,” Jem said, cutting him off, “If it wasn’t for Olive Shaw, we’d have already Ascended. Neither Beverley Wend nor Olive Shaw had the sense to see Granny Foreman was right. It’s our time. That’s why we’re here. Right, Theo?”
Theo stopped, cheeks burning. He made himself nod.
“Right, Theo?” Jem repeated.
“Yes, Jem,” Theo said.
“Are you ready?”
Beyond Jem was the darkness of the warehouse. It was all very straightforward, nothing to worry about. Theo licked his lips.
Jem handed him a robe and a mask from just inside the door. Theo slipped them on, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom.
The light was steadily fading over the tarmac and concrete beyond the car park fence, the sky bleeding reds and oranges in sickly bands that made him feel empty inside. Sunsets always made him feel weirdly anxious, balanced on the edge of the definite velvet energy of nightfall on one hand and the clear rush of day on the other.
He didn’t like the weak amber of the dying sunlight, refusing to give up for far longer than it should. It was a nothing time, a nowhere time, and Theo hated it.
The warehouse swallowed them in shadow, and it was a relief when the door closed and left him safe in the dark.
The Remnant were gathered, robed and Changed, and Theo allowed his proboscis to slide out of his throat to demonstrate his own glory, such as it was. It unfurled hesitantly, hard slim casing pressing on his tongue, a reedy thing next to all the crustaceous limbs and anemone fronds like udon noodles cased in aspic, the thick octopodid arms and needle-mouthed suckers, the tight, thick coils, strong as snakes, tough as tree roots.
Theo rubbed the back of his neck beneath his hood and nearly knocked it down again, jostled by the press of relatives.
He had managed to hunker down in his pew when the family fled the church, but bruises were starting to form on his sensitive skin, marks of sensible heels and just-in-case umbrellas as his aunts clambered over him to flee their Death God. Theo had fled too, once he’d stopped being trampled.
The jostling reminded him of where the bruises were, and he whimpered, scuttling through the crowd to find somewhere he wouldn’t be elbowed in his tender ribs.
He didn’t know what had happened to Layla, but he prayed to Grandad that she was all right. He’d always liked her.
The shrine was in the middle of the derelict space, containing pieces from the Wend shrine salvaged from Wundorwick and articles from the Foreman shrine used by the last head of the family. With the devouring of Uncle Marcus and Aunty Ida, the family were rudderless, and there had been no time to call another election. The other shrines lay silent and abandoned.
Theo slipped to the front, letting the conversations wash over him.
The body of this shrine was an antique apothecary cabinet that had belonged to Olive Shaw. There was an engorged heart pierced with a large hatpin on the flat top. The drawers were open in a pattern forming a rough spiral, and in each one a strange stone phosphoresced. A ring of candles encircled it, more for the aesthetic, Theo supposed, but also because there was no electricity in the warehouse, and it was getting dark.
His proboscis throbbed with his quickened pulse and flicked involuntarily around before he could retract it.
Jem oozed over to his brothers Gavin and Brandon, laconic Gavin fresh from his latest hike across the Andes with his close-cropped beard and chestnut man-bun perched high on his head, bully-boy Brandon standing to attention like a militarised slab of beef.
The three of them entered the circle of candles, and a hush descended on the gathering.
“Are you ready to see yourselves for what you are?” Gavin asked, taking the lead.
“We are,” Theo said with the others, sucking in his proboscis to speak clearly.
“Are you ready to see what awaits us?”
Theo was less sure of this, but he answered appropriately, and in unison. “We are.”
“Tonight, we open the portal,” Gavin said, and a thrill chased up Theo’s back. There was a hiss of anticipation, and Theo stopped listening.
Gavin was giving it the hard sell, the way Theo tried to sell waistcoats to the guy who came into his shop every Wednesday to buy another tie, but it was the shine in his eyes that held Theo’s attention.
Gavin had never looked twice at Theo, but the few words they’d exchanged over the cold buffet last Yule had been pretty great.
Theo huddled in the safety of his hood and robe, burning with guilt over Jem’s brother, desperate for Gavin to look his way, while wondering if Jem even cared where he was. The more impassioned Gavin got, hood down, candle flames throwing sharp shadows across his strong cheekbones and chiselled jaw, the more Theo throbbed with shame and longing.
It was when he missed a crucial part of the speech that prompted liturgical responses, too tongue-tied to get a word out, that he realised his heart wasn’t in the future of the family the way it ought to be.
He wasn’t ready.
The three Foreman brothers began to chant. Layla’s severed glory was unwrapped by Brandon and placed alongside the heart. The mouth at its tip fastened onto the oversized organ like a leech, the severed end jerking into life.
Theo flinched as Jem cut his arm and oozed over it.
It was always about sacrifice, about pain, about blood.
Doubts prickled in the back of his mind. Would it ever be anything else? When Grandad rose, when his priests swarmed and covered the earth, what would they get at the end? What would be left?
Until then he had imagined a new world order, the kind of hedonistic utopia of legend and myth.
Gavin was waxing lyrical about conservation and eco-spirituality and how they were really saving the planet, how nature would find a balance and the Remnant would be transcendent, Ascended, the true gods ruling over lesser species. That didn’t sit well with Theo.
Jem had always emphasised the physical changes, the attaining of godhood, the power they would wield as their birthright and reward. Now, he wasn’t sure what sort of reward that would be, but he was starting to think the image he had in his head – an image Jem had encouraged – wasn’t quite what would happen.
The ritual began.
Theo hadn’t been part of one like this since his own Changes, drawn into Great-Aunt Beverley’s cellar with his siblings and parents, trying not to cry.
He quivered, wishing he hadn’t pushed his way so close to the shrine, and realising the press of family at his back meant he was stuck there.
The stones glowed; the heart began to pulse.
Reality tore in front of him, a white-hot flash ripped through the air in an arc within the circle of candles. Theo couldn’t catch his breath, air rushing by him in a rollercoaster of spinning fractals while he knew he was standing still.
The light was bright as lightning, and then it was daylight. A blinding sun lighting a wasteland of obsidian and jet, reflecting into the warehouse. Theo stared into the desolation of Grandad’s domain, eyes aching and dry, and saw things that might once have been trees, stunted and fossilised on a headland of rotting fish thrown up in low tide. This was no utopia.
The chanting of the Remnant reminded him he should be chanting too.
Jem was shifting shape in front of his eyes, twisting into something elastic and indescribable, something fluid and solid at the same time, something alien and erotic and wonderful. Theo felt a tug in his own throat and let his proboscis free.
His throat expanded around it as it uncoiled, not the reedy little thing of a few moments ago, but something that the rest of his body burgeoned from like a fruit, his whole sentience and senses bound up in the length of star-grey, rippling power arcing from his mouth. His lips stretched wide, then wider, his teeth sank into his own flesh and his skull cracked and split.
Everything that was Theo was falling away, limbs nothing but stumps, extremities discarded. He was only his glory, his glory was him. He arced through the air, hungry for assimilation.
LET ME THROUGH!
The Voice filled Theo with ecstatic terror. It brought him down from his flight of glory and flung him back to his eighteenth birthday, the day he’d Changed. He remembered the pain, the needle in his neck that pushed through and strangled his vocal chords, the blindfold that itched, the way the cellar floor had become hot black sand…
He shrank back into nothing at the irresistible demand and realised how small he was compared to the Voice, the power in it reverberating through every fibre of his body.
His proboscis withdrew, all its glory illusory.
Theo would have fallen if it weren’t for the family pressing around him, keeping him on his feet.
His doubts crystallised in cold certainty.
He didn’t want to meet the Voice at all.
There was no way to close the portal now that it had opened; or if there was, Theo couldn’t think of one. He couldn’t move, the candles now an impassable ring of brilliant fire that was somehow a solid wall of glittering air. Nothing made any sense. The warehouse was twisting out of shape, and Theo was sure he was upside down.
Then he heard it.
Not the Voice.
The rustling of insects, wings beating in sync, a swarm of something terrible, massing over the volcanic crags and filling the alien air. The swarm grew louder, and Theo saw them masking a shape, something that moved in impossible angles, something vast and horrible, coming for them with frightening speed.
Panic seized him. His chest turned to ice.
He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. Someone pushed him, desperate to get closer, and Theo fell into the candles. He bounced back, singed, and knew even if he ran away it wouldn’t help.
Joining an apocalyptic death cult solely for someone he was screwing to finally admit they were together was the worst choice he’d ever made, and it was also going to be his last.
Theo braced himself, a sob of horror escaping his dry mouth, waiting for the swarm.
Something twinkled in the wasteland between the rocks. It grew and glittered, a second portal of light drawing energy from this one.
Theo felt a tug in his head, a strange itch behind his eyes.
He saw a face.
It burst into his head with sudden clarity and it was not a face he had ever seen before, but it had a strange air of familiarity as if it had always been lodged in his brain somewhere.
It was not a human face, but it wore one like a mask.
It had too many dimensions, too many layers, too many sides. It had human features, but even they weren’t right, as if the Face had heard about human eyes and noses and mouths when making its copy, but had never seen them before. The Face defied description, eating away at his attempts to make sense of it, feeding from his confusion.
The Face was the only True Face he would ever see.
Theo prayed to the Face to save him from the swarm, offering his strength and soul to the Face if it would close the portal.
The True Face stared through him, now all that he could see, all that he was aware of. Its not-human eyes glittered darkly, a myriad of others trapped behind them, making up the fractured colours of the irises.
It saw him, saw straight through him, saw him naked and exposed and raw, a grub of slime and quivering terror, and its lips peeled back from too many molars into a wide, stretched smile.
Theo’s strength leached out of him.
Something cracked. He heard it, a sonic boom somewhere in the Outside. The shrine exploded in shards of stone and painted wood. The portal closed.
Theo fell back as the candles were extinguished.
He lifted his head from the blood-splashed concrete.
Jem, Brandon and Gavin Foreman were dead.
He was coated with them.
The warehouse echoed with the Remnant’s moans, mutterings and wails of dismay.
“Did you see that?” Theo hissed, grabbing a cousin’s arm. “The Face! Did you see it?”
But the cousin shook her head. “I don’t – what happened?”
“The Face,” Theo whispered, too stunned to process the fact that bits of his lover were all over the fucking walls. Weirdly, he didn’t care. The Face stuck in his mind, sharp as a cravat stud. “Did anyone see it? Anyone else?”
Only a few looked at him as if they knew what he meant. The others had glazed expressions, as if waking from bad dreams.
“The Face,” Theo whispered, his head buzzing.
He stayed on the floor, coated in blood and scraps of Foreman flesh, as the screaming finally started.