MOTHTOWN by Caroline Hardaker (EXCERPT)
Kicking off our Women in SFF month is Caroline Hardaker!
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Caroline’s upcoming novel Mothtown. It features beautiful illustrations by Chris Riddell, and is due for publication with Angry Robot on 14th November. You can pre-order a copy on their website HERE.
Check out our Twitter and Instagram pages for the giveaways we’re running for a copy of Mothtown!
As a child, David could tell something was wrong.
The kids in school spread rumours of missing people, nests of bones and bodies appearing in the mountains. His sister refused to share what she knew, and his parents turned off the TV whenever he entered the room. Protecting him, they said.
Worse, the only person who shared anything at all with him, his beloved grandpa, disappeared without a goodbye. Mum and Dad said he was dead. But what about the exciting discovery Grandpa had been working on for his whole life?
Now 26, David lives alone and takes each day as it comes. When a strange package arrives on his doorstep, one with instructions not to leave the Earth, a new world is unfurled before David, one he’s been trying to suppress for years…
by Caroline Hardaker
Grandad smelled like iron. Like something unearthed and laid in the light.
I used to think it strange that one place can be home to one person, but not to another. Grandad’s office at the university was my cave. Lamp-lit bell jars, apparatuses with round pieces of glass that distorted the light, and yellowing certificates that couldn’t have been as old as they looked framed in bronze. Being there was being inside Grandad’s head. Every day after primary school, I’d sprawl on the sofa and watch loose spider threads drifting in the draft from the old windows, while Emily went to theatre practice. But if it was cancelled and she came to the office with me, she’d choose the awkward wooden stool in the corner, eyes on whatever book or magazine she’d brought with her. She carried her home in her pockets, whereas mine was the smell of old leather, dust, and the tapping of Grandad’s computer keys. Most often it was just the two of us. Grandad’s office was where wonders happened. Everything had a story, a place. Everything was important. Most of it I couldn’t ever have appreciated for what it was because I was so young. It was beyond me. A sculpture that reminded me of a fortune cookie but made of silver mesh, framed certificates the colour of spilled tea, a row of plastic models mounted on a wooden plank that reminded me of twisted letter ‘H’s, and a huge glass model that sat on a little plinth so that it was the first thing you’d see when you walked in. Panes of glass in different thicknesses, separated by air and suspended like the layers of a cake. And piercing all of them were two glass straws, all bending in their own unique way. Blue and orange. Grandad did explain to me once in his own way what it meant, as he weaved a shoelace between the straws. “You’re blue, and I’m orange, of course.” He smiled and traced a finger up the blue straw. “And this is you travelling through time, each glass is a heartbeat. And this,” he threaded the shoelace through the gap, “is an alien travelling at the speed of light. Look how much wiggling and weaving he can do in the time it takes for your heart to go ‘thump’!”
But my favourite things in the room were the mirrors. There were mirrors everywhere – on shelves, on his desk, between books, and mounted on the walls. If you sat in his desk chair and looked to the left or right into the mirrors mounted there, there’d be thousands of you, falling away into the tiniest speck. If one of Grandad’s meetings overran, I’d wait for him on that chair, spinning as thousands of Davids dangled their skinny legs, their pale and wispy hair blowing in the breeze from the window. One time, Grandad caught me doing it and stood between the mirrors with me, staring into the depths of our reflections. He didn’t speak a word, just gazed into my eyes through the glass as his cheeks ran with tears.
Grandad seemed to think a lot of things that made him feel things. He mostly worked in silence, but would repeatedly look over at me as if about to speak but then changed his mind. I’d catch him watching me out of the corner of my eye, as I pretended to read one of his books. Normally we’d be left alone in his office, but down in the courtyard, men and women in white coats bustled from place to place, their heads down, eyes on the prize. I couldn’t even imagine what they talked about, but I liked that. I liked the mystery. Grandad’s office was the heart of a creature that moved of its own will. Why would anyone want to be anywhere else?
But now, when I go back there in my head, it’s always the last visit I see.
One Friday, when I was ten years old, the telescope was set up at the small, blacked out window in the corner. It reminded me of a long black cannon from one of the war films Dad sometimes watched, apart from the white label on the side, printed with ‘Property of the Institute of Dark Matter.’ It was late afternoon and the November sky was already turning indigo. I pressed my eye to the lens but formless black oozed back at me. I gestured to the telescope then up at the sky.
“What is it, David? You want to see?”
Grandad heaved himself up from his desk and took three trembling breaths before joining me on the wooden bench. As he fiddled with the silver knobs, I watched the papery stretch around his jaw. The hollows where his little half-moon glasses sat beneath his eyes were as purple as new bruises. Dad had said we shouldn’t point them out to Grandad or ask about these things, just to accept them as part of Grandad now. I didn’t like it. It was as if he was starting to rot, the inside being eaten by something I couldn’t see. But I was sure Grandad would’ve talked to me if it was something he wanted to share, so over the last year or so I watched him transform silently, from my soft and round-faced friend to something new. A wrinkled and gnarled creature, emerging from an egg.
Grandad sighed and leaned back. “I don’t think there’s much to see, Bumblebee. It’s too cloudy. The skies are clearer where I’m going; I’ll take some good pictures for you, OK?”
On the floor beside his desk was a stuffed yellow rucksack, almost as tall as I was. Once, Grandad had sat me down on the floor and told me what each pocket was for. The chest support. The load lifters. A strap for a water bottle. A lock and key. We’d take a tour of the world through the bag; each corner contained a memory from his research trips. He never left without it. He called it his ‘trusty companion.’ When it was bursting at the seams, that meant Grandad would be going away, and no one knew how long it’d be before he returned. Days, weeks, months. And when he did, he always looked smaller. When I’d mentioned this to Emily she just scoffed. “Don’t be stupid. He’s the same as he’s always been.” But I knew he wasn’t, even if no one else saw it.
“Can you take me with you?” I whispered.
Grandad smiled, his teeth yellow, and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “If I could, I would. I promise. Maybe one day, when you’re bigger. I’ll show you what I’ve found.”
“You always say that. I’m bigger now.”
Grandad squeezed me closer and whispered in my ear. “You want to know a secret, Bumblebee?”
I wanted to show him that I was still annoyed that he wouldn’t take me with him so I turned away, but I couldn’t help but smile. He did that to me.
“I’ve found something.”
My breath sounded almost as loud as his whisper. My heart began to race. “What?”
“A secret, David. But it’ll change life as we know it. Especially for me. And especially for you. People like us. But I need to explore it before I break it to the world.”
I looked right into his eyes, then. Black and twinkling. They were more alive than I’d ever seen them. It was incredible. It was terrifying.
“And you will be the first person I tell when I’m back. I promise.”
“But why now? Will you miss Christmas?”
Grandad sighed and rubbed my shoulder. “I might. I don’t know.”
“Can’t you wait?”
“I have to do it now,” he said. And then his voice dropped to a low whisper, “Because Midwinter is coming.”
“It’s very special, David. It’s like a curtain.” His eyes glittered. “Between endings and new beginnings. Death and life. But keep this to yourself. Don’t tell your father. He’d just get upset.” And then he shook his head and chuckled.
He’d said death and life. It didn’t make sense to me. Grandma was dead, I knew that. It was permanent. She wasn’t coming back. But he’d made it sound like a door that could open and shut. For the only time in my life, I couldn’t meet his eye. I wanted to know more, but I was afraid to ask. It made me feel odd.
A knock at the door and our magic broke. Grandad whipped around, his mouth pinched. A small man, with thick black glasses and a shiny bald head, strode into the office. He looked about my Dad’s age. A wedge of paper folders was pressed against his side. “Frank, you need to go. Their patience has run out.” He didn’t seem to care that I was there, but I could tell that Grandad did. He stood up and approached the man, whispering in
response, “I’m going. My bag’s packed.”
“And what about the rest?” The bald man’s voice reached every corner of the room. It was rough and musical at the same time. He raised his eyebrows at the rucksack. “I can’t guarantee that everything will still be here when you come back. If you want any of this,” he gestured to the room, “saved, this is your last chance to pack it up.”
“Don’t you worry about that. It won’t be a problem.”
The man scoffed. “It IS a problem. Already. It’s all meant to be gone.” His eyes locked onto the rucksack, leaning against Grandad’s desk. “You know I’m going to tell them what you’re doing. I have to. You can’t use University resources for this. It’s not right.”
“OK. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
This seemed to leave the small man at a loss for words. He shook his head and looked at me, still as a shadow in the corner. “Frank, he shouldn’t be here either.”
“Get out, John.”
They stood face to face for a few seconds while neither moved, like in the Westerns my Mum watched on Sunday afternoons. It seemed an impossibly long time before the bald man shook his head, shrugged, muttered, “You’re lost,” and stormed from the room. I was just about to congratulate Grandad on winning the duel but something stopped me. The space between us hung strangely, as thick as water. Grandad was motionless, even his usual slight sway on his knees was gone.
He didn’t move. His breath rasped. I slid from my stool and fought my way through the fog to reach him, to give him my hand. By the time I reached him, he’d started to hum under his breath. A tuneless burst of notes that sounded more like language than song. Bumps and clicks. I knew what to do. By the time I touched his fingers, I was humming too, mirroring the soft sounds as best I could. Grandad looked down at me then, his mouth hanging open as if he’d just remembered I was there. Or that he’d just discovered me, like a prospector discovering gold.
“I’m here,” I whispered. Even though his face was silhouetted by the brass lamp behind him, his eyes glittered like the moon in a puddle. His cheeks were wet.
“Don’t worry, David. It’s all right.” His hand on my arm was shaking. “We’ve got each other, haven’t we, Bumblebee?”
“What did he want?” I whispered.
Grandad leaned his face into my hair and sighed. “He isn’t ready to see my discovery. He’s stuck in old ways, David. Not like us.”