Royle slowed his pace. The situation was so strange, so unlike anything that he could think of, that he was suddenly too afraid to move. So he stood there in the centre of the playground, wishing that he’d paused to pick up the phone.

The air was cold. The night was quiet. He couldn’t even hear a distant siren or an alarm. Not even the noise from a car or motorcycle. He stared at the slide, but the bundle was still out of sight. It had fallen to the side furthest away from him, and the darkness prevented him from seeing underneath the slide.

Slowly, he moved forward, ready to run or defend himself if something were to occur.

When he reached the slide there was no sign of the bundle — or the body, as he’d first imagined it was — so he made a quick inspection of the area. There was nothing on the ground nearby. The breeze had dropped so there was no movement from the swings or the roundabout.

He heard a rustling sound behind him, followed by a soft clicking noise. He turned around and looked at the trees bordering the northern edge of the playground, forming a boundary between the area where kids played and the tiny pavilion where old ladies and workers from the office a few streets away liked to eat their packed lunches. The leaves nearest the ground were moving, as if something had just crawled under there.

The Crawl, he thought. It’s the Crawl, and it’s come to get me.

His skin tingled.

He walked over to the spot and waited, trying to hear another sound. There was only silence — a silence so intense that it was almost like a new form of sound. He bent his knees and lowered himself into a squatting position, looking intently into the shadows under the trees. The leaves were no longer moving, but from deeper inside the undergrowth he heard a soft rustling, as of something moving away from him in the direction of the pavilion.

He spotted a fallen branch nearby and picked it up. Shuffling forward, he used the stick to prod at the area where whatever he had seen must have scuttled through and into the bushes. He lifted the hanging leaves and peered into the darkness. Nothing moved. There were no more sounds to indicate that anything might be in there, hiding from him and watching his every move.

The Crawl.

He stood and threw away the branch. Walking backwards, he moved away from the trees but kept watching them, looking for signs of movement. When he was satisfied that there was no longer anything there, he turned and headed back towards the road.

Behind him, something made a single clicking sound. He stopped, didn’t turn around. Waited.

The sound was not repeated.

This time, when he started walking, he had to fight the urge to run. If there was something (why did it have to be a thing, rather than a person, that he imagined back there?), he would not show it that he was afraid.

Because if the Crawl smelled his fear, it might come after him.


ABBY LIVED IN a small two-bedroom semi-detached house at the south end of Grove Rise, overlooking the old railway embankment. They walked side by side along the wide footpath but didn’t touch one another. Marc thought that he should at least reach out and hold her hand, but it didn’t feel right. Even their proximity felt awkward, as if there was something wrong with the dynamic.

Abby stumbled on her two-inch heels and then righted herself. “It’s just along here,” she said, slurring only a little. The buttons on her jacket had come undone and it flapped open, displaying the small humps of her breasts beneath the blouse and the excess material at her flat stomach. The top two buttons of the blouse were also undone. Her sternum was prominent, with only a scant covering of pale flesh.

She’s so thin, he thought. Almost emaciated

Again, he was confused by the strength and source of his own desire.

Curtains and blinds were shut at the windows of most of the houses they passed, but pale light bled around the edges and through the gaps. Marc caught sight of the occasional red eye of a lit cigarette as someone smoked on their doorstep. There was a feeling of mute desolation, a sense that behind this facade there was nothing but a deep, black emptiness. He had no idea what time it was, but it felt late. Too late to turn back, anyway.

When they reached the house, she stopped underneath a streetlight. The sickly light made her look ill. Marc waited to see what she would do, and when she reached for him he twitched in shock. Then, as she leaned in close and opened her mouth, he let himself go with the moment, enjoying the seedy glamour of her overly made-up face closing in on his.

When she kissed him, she did it with such force and urgency that he feared she might leave bruises. It felt as if she were trying to eat his face without breaking the skin. Her thin lips were hard; her large mouth was soft and wet and tasted of wine and soda. When she forced her tongue into his mouth it felt like an invasion, the prelude to a rape. He almost gagged but then he got the reaction under control, stopping it before it went too far. His stomach flipped. The muscles in his thighs tightened.

Abby’s long, firm tongue explored the inside of his mouth and he brought his teeth together softly, nibbling gently.

They came apart slowly. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. His crotch was aching. She reached down and brazenly cupped his balls, and then rubbed her hand across the front of his trousers, pressing her palm so hard against his erection so that it began to throb. “Let’s go inside,” she whispered.

He followed her through the gate and along a narrow concrete path. The lawn on each side of the path was overgrown and filled with weeds. The curtains were open at the large front window. There was a standing lamp switched on inside the lounge, shedding weak light across the carpet. The TV was on and showing scenes from a 1970s action movie: Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke; cops and criminals in grey suits with flared trousers running through the grimy streets of downtown San Francisco.

She opened the door and stepped inside, kept going along the hallway. She’d left the door open, so Marc assumed that he was meant to follow her inside. He shut the door behind him and continued towards another door at the end and on the right: the living room. When he went inside, Abby was closing the curtains. She’d taken off her jacket; the thin material of the blouse clung like crepe paper to her slight form. Her arms were painfully thin.

She turned around and smiled. She seemed more relaxed on her own turf, as if she’d also taken off a layer of the armour that had been so apparent in the Unicorn.

“Drink?” She moved gracefully across the room, running a hand across his chest as she passed him on her way to the door. “Or should I try to find a pizza menu, or something?”

“To be honest, I’m not really that hungry anymore.” He took off his coat and threw it onto the sofa.

She smiled. “Beer okay?” She walked out of the room before he had a chance to answer.

Marc sat down on the sofa and watched the muted television. The film had come to a break. Adverts for banks and supermarkets played out before his eyes, not even touching him.

“Here,” she said, opening a can of bitter and sitting down beside him. “It’s cold but I don’t know what it tastes like — I never drink bitter.”

He barely paused to wonder why she had cans of the stuff in her fridge.

He sipped the bitter and felt her place a hand on his thigh. When he looked over at her she was sitting staring at him, a strange, unreadable expression on her face. She seemed to be looking inward, staring at something that lived inside her. That was the only way he could think of to describe how she looked.

He put down the can on the floor and leaned in towards her, knowing that it was what was expected of him. He kissed the side of her neck and she moaned softly. He pulled away, feeling as if he was doing something wrong. Nothing felt right. He was simply going through the motions and feeling nothing of any substance.

He looked around at the living room. There were a couple of cheap prints on the wall, framed landscapes of places he didn’t recognise. On the mantelpiece above the electric fire was a small plastic model of the Angel of the North. Shoes were scattered on the floor in one corner. On a small occasional table to one side of the television there were photographs of a little girl. These were all held inside pretty little silver frames. One of the photographs

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