SHORT STORY: Yesterday’s Joy by Andrew Freudenberg

Yesterday’s Joy

Lukas finally stopped. He had run into darkness, oblivious to the onset of evening, and he shivered under the cloudy night sky. Cold sweat coated his aching body. Breathing heavily he surveyed his surroundings. In the intermittent moonlight he struggled to find the familiarity that he had hoped for. Nature’s insatiable hunger had been hard at work, evidenced by the invading vegetation that choked the site. Still, he wouldn’t allow it to crush his hope that this was where he would regain his innocence, where he would find a spark of childhood joy to reignite his humanity. He wasn’t beaten yet.

Steeling himself he pushed on between the trees. Branches stroked and prodded him as he went, mocking him and testing his reserve.

“I’m not afraid”, he mumbled to himself.

At last he spotted a building. Its windows were smashed, and faded graffiti scarred the walls. He peered inside. The corrugated plastic roof had collapsed in places, admitting just sufficient light to cast a shadow on the floor’s carpet of detritus. Judging by the up ended chairs and ragged serving counters it had been some kind of food outlet once. A scraping noise came from deep within the structure, fleeting, too brief for him to locate the source, but discomforting enough to persuade him to move on.

Edging along a barely recognizable path took him past a series of rusting playground rides, now strangled by bushes and grass. He stopped at a small roundabout and, on a whim, took a seat. Looking down he saw that the patina of rust snaking across the ride matched the dry blood on his hands. He imagined himself abandoned here like everything else, rotting as he waited for time to deal its final blow. He pushed the ground with his foot and span. The shadows blurred as he turned, false images flashing across his mind.

For a moment he thought he saw his father’s face, framed by the same anger he had seen the last time that he had been here. In the evening, after that fateful visit, the beating had been worse than usual. Blow had followed blow, accompanied by his Father’s customary copious tears and cursing.

“Why? Why did she have to die?”

Lucas didn’t know the answer, had never known the answer. As he grew older and understood the moist mechanics of childbirth he still didn’t know why his mother had left him to face this life alone. That hadn’t stopped his father from endlessly asking him the same question.

Movement amongst the upper branches of the trees, perhaps just a startled bird, caught his attention and he looked up. He twitched, uncomfortable in the open air, rendered unsure by the vastness pressing down on him.

“Your mother’s in heaven now.”

How often had he heard these words? Intended to comfort, they had the opposite effect. This dead woman that he had never known haunted him from above, watching him and, to his mind, judging him. As he had no idea what it was that she wanted, this left him eternally frustrated at his own inability to satisfy her needs. At least he had the clouds to obscure him this evening. The roundabout came to a halt and he stepped off.

Walking through the trees he caught glimpses of battered faces staring out at him. Cracked frogs and broken rabbits, once blessed by the attention of excited young humans, could now only dream cold plastic dreams of anyone taking joy from their existence. Whatever soul their makers had invested in their creation was now cast into oblivion. Lukas thought it seemed like a waste.

Skirting a rank pool with the festering remains of a Viking longboat at its centre, he emerged from the tree line into open space. The clouds were clearing a little now and moonlight fought its way through the gaps to give everything an ethereal shine. A giant figure’s fiberglass corpse lay with its arms outstretched, flaking eyes staring straight up. Lukas paused. Something about the thing’s open hands suggested that it was pleading for help. He shrugged apologetically and walked on.

He passed more abandoned buildings and destroyed rides. A layer of ugly entropy covered them all. Nature had done its part with rain, creeping vines and fallen trees, but it was man’s need to add to the decimation that disturbed him most. The park had clearly been a focus for mindless vandalism over the years.

A breeze blew through the site, carrying the faintest traces of distant voices with it. Lukas stopped to focus on them but couldn’t distinguish any meaning. He picked up his pace.

Finally he reached the slide where it had happened all those years ago. He could still hear the boy’s screams as if it were only yesterday. It was a sound that stayed with him day and night. Sometimes it woke him from his dreams, leaving him breathless and unable to get back to sleep. Even now, wide-awake, it was startlingly vivid. Lukas had just finished his descent of the big blue and yellow slope and was begging for another go. The storm clouds were gathering over his father’s face when a greater event overtook them.

The crowd dashed towards the lake, drawn by this inhuman guttural shrieking, and Lukas instinctively turned to follow them. Before he could move his father put his hand on his shoulder.

“No. Don’t go…”

It hadn’t been necessary to get closer. The horror was clearly visible from where he stood. A young boy covered in blood, the screamer, sat bobbing up and down in a small plastic boat. Where his arm had been there was only a fleshy eruption of torn flesh and jagged bone. The limb itself, torn from its rightful place by some kind of mechanical malfunction, floated silently in the shallows. Time had seemed to slow down, coming in stops and starts. Adults with expressions of disbelief, other children weeping and vomiting, the flickering images blinding him. He felt caught in the harsh disconnect between the pleasure of the ride moments before and this new obscenity.

Now, almost twenty years to the day, he stood here again. The slide down which the small boats had rushed, before bouncing across the water, was covered in moss and filth and the lake itself dark and brackish. There was no joy left here. This was a graveyard and nothing more, yet he felt something stirring deep within. This was where it had changed, where he had changed.

He walked up to the water’s edge.

“I’m not a bad person”, his Father had said.

Lukas had laughed at that.

“You’re not a person at all.”

His Father had stared at him then, unable to come up with anything to contradict the assertion. He had aged in the five years since Lukas had seen him last. The bags under his eyes had grown leathery and his skin had gained a ghostly pallor. There had been less to him than he remembered. Although always a thin man, now he was verging on skeletal. His smell was still the same though. That had struck Lukas as soon as he pushed his way in through the door. Cheap rolling tobacco and sweat, the dry reek of doubt.

Lukas had been surprised by how easily the blade slid into his Father’s chest. He had been expecting some kind of resistance but there had been none. Blood had oozed from the wound rather than gushing, and silence had fallen over the small apartment. The old man had looked at him with eyes that continued to express a lifetime of disappointment, of disgust with his only child. They had widened slightly and then closed forever.

He stepped into the cold water. It only reached to his knees. Several steps took him to the looming framework of the launching tower. The steps at the rear were gone, presumably taken away to prevent what he now had in mind.

The voices on the wind were getting louder now, closer. They were gaining on him. He didn’t have the energy or inclination to run. Let them come.

Metal creaked in protest as he hauled himself up the flaking paintwork. The aging steel cut into his hands as he ascended but he paid it no mind, his attention focused on reaching the top. The ride had haunted his dreams for so long now he half wondered whether he was awake or asleep, despite the cold breeze that scratched at his face.

Getting into the small yellow boat was a tight squeeze. He worried that it might launch itself before he was ready, but soon sat looking down over the shadowy waters below.

“There he is. Up there.”

The beams from his pursuers torches flickered over him erratically as they struggled to restrain the sniffer dogs that had led them here.

“Come down. We need to talk.”

Lukas closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He thought of how his Father’s corpse had looked when he left; quiet at last. His had been the final and most prominent of the voices that needed silencing. Over the years he had found nothing calmed his mind like helping his abusers find eternal tranquility. He didn’t understand people well enough to understand why he seemed to attract their contempt but he knew how to make it stop. They had craved his attention and he had given it to them.

“Get down from the tower or we’ll shoot. We know what you’ve done so come quietly.”

He opened his eyes and smiled before slowly shaking his head. Putting both hands down on the rail he pushed. Wheels that had been frozen in place for an age protested at the unexpected disturbance. He pushed again and they came free. Lukas laughed as the tiny vehicle edged over the drop and started to move. He threw his hands up and reveled in the pure joy that flooded over him as he accelerated downwards. Free at last.

Bullets whistled through the air, finding their homes in his neck and chest but he was still smiling as he fell sideways into the shallows. His pursuers released their hounds and they splashed enthusiastically towards their target, growling and waving their tails, but he was already gone, never to return.

Andrew Freudenberg is a writer of dark fiction. He dwells in the South West of England with his Ninja-Wife, numerous offspring and several ridiculous dogs.His work has appeared in numerous anthologies, and his solo horror collection, My Dead and Blackened Heart, was published by The Sinister Horror Company

My Dead & Blackened Heart
14 stories of terror, dread and fatherhood.

From the isolation of space, to the ever-watchful eyes in a darkening wood, Andrew Freudenberg takes us on a journey exploring the themes of friendship, fatherhood and loss, as we pick through the remains of his dead and blackened heart.

“Overhead the lighting operator switched everything to green, just as two enormous mortars fired shredded silver paper in a plume over the crowd. Sarge blinked, attempting to clear the salt lacing his eyes.

For a moment he thought he saw paratroopers descending from above, but shook off the hallucination and turned his attention to the stalls. A group of youngsters were caught by Doc’s spotlight for a split second, their eyes wide with wonderment and a touch of fear.

It was enough to send Sarge back to the jungle, back to the children in the village. Their eyes had been the same, gazing up at him intently, even after he had slaughtered them with his bayonet and laid them all out in a row. At the time it had seemed the kind thing to do, a mercy killing of sorts. After all they had executed everyone else, so who would have looked after them?

There was something complete about leaving them lying peacefully amongst the burning buildings.

It had been a Zen moment.”

Featuring the stories: Something Akin To Despair, A Bitter Parliament, Charlie’s Turn, Pater in Tenebris, Milkshake, Nose to the Window, The Cardiac Ordeal, Meat Sweets, Scorch, The Teppenyaki of Truth, Before The Meat Time, Hope Eternal, The Last Patrol & Beyond The Book.

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‘My Dead and Blackened Heart’ is available from Amazon in paperback and hardback, the latter featuring both bonus stories and a commentary on the book’s creation.If you’d like a signed copy, contact the author. If not, feel free to say hello on Facebook anyway.

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