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Emerald Street Stories first runner-up: The Magic Slate

By Pat Black

Tie back hair; heavy jacket on over the top of the scruffies; trail Ben down to the corner shop. This was how a wet Wednesday went during the school holidays when Terri needed cigarettes.

The boy didn’t want to go, protesting over the rain, wriggling while Terri fit his wellies, truculent as a puppy yanking at its lead. In the shop itself – a matter of yards away, but an epic journey on days like this – Ben drifted over to the stand featuring the cheapo toys, the knock-offs, bizarre plastic confections in garish blue, orange and neon pink. At first Terri had been firm with him, refusing to buy him the tight-packed packets of green army men, or the polystyrene jets which should have come with a guarantee to break within five minutes of their maiden flight. But soon, these trinkets were a price worth paying to keep the kid quiet. He had been especially tetchy during the foul weather, denied even the sanctuary of the back garden and his screeching fantasies of war and destruction amid the flower beds.

So Terri thanked whatever stars shone on her for the Magic Slate. She first saw it as a flash of pink in the boy’s hands, a rude flare on the periphery of her vision. It was a simple toy, something Terri remembered having played with when she was a girl: a flexible plastic sheet, tinged purple, running to searing laser gun pink at the edges. You used a pink stylus to draw pictures on the surface of the sheet, then peeled back the sheet from the cardboard backing to erase it before start again. She recognised the blank look on the boy’s face as he turned it over in his hands: concentration. On wet Wednesdays with the house cooping them both up, she craved that element of distraction, and bought it for him.

Ben had been going through a destructive phase on these, his first school summer holidays – Lego bricks scattered across the floor, an egg detonated in the microwave, and, worst of all, a hole poked in the side of the leather couch with a potato peeler. With the rain falling outside in a dismal curtain, and the garden’s bouncy castle bent double in its mourning, Terri had dreaded another morning of tantrums, threats not taken seriously, drummed feet on the kitchen tiling. He needed something to occupy him outwith the DVDs advertising incomprehensible Japanese toys that played partway between mind control and the delusions of an acid casualty. The Magic Slate provided the answer.

All morning, Ben had fallen to his artwork, scrawling dinosaurs, robots and other creatures across the glowing surface while Terri had done some washing, cleaned the bathroom, and stood outside on the patio step, blowing smoke into the drizzle.

She could see her son reflected in the glass; knelt on the chair, the soles of his tigerskin-pattern socks twitching, face held close to his work, his long blond hair trailing towards the shiny acrylic surface. These moments of tranquil concentration were rare for the child. In this mode, lips pursed tight, the edges of the mouth slanted towards his nose, he closely resembled his father when he read a book in bed.

“You alright, puddin’?” she called out. “Mmm-hmmm.”
“You want a juice?”
“No thank you.”

Astonished by the sudden outbreak of manners, she padded over to the table to see what he was drawing.

It was a face of some kind. The first thing to notice was the eyes, like rugby balls, far too large for the face. A tiny dot had been placed in the centre – signifying the pupils, she supposed. The figure’s hair was added in stiff spines perpendicular to the top of the head. What disturbed Terri most was the mouth. At first it seemed like a jagged mountain range, or a crop of bristly Scots pines. When she looked closer, she saw that it was a close-packed cage of fine lines, giving the impression of needle teeth.

Ben was drawing something beneath this mouth that might have been flailing arms. Then his eyes shifted beneath the fringe, and he dropped the pink stylus, tearing the sheet off its plastic backing. The face, and everything else on the plastic surface, disappeared.

Terri frowned. “That was excellent. What was it you were drawing?” “Nothing.”
“It wasn’t nothing, it was really good. Who was it?”
The boy shrugged. He began to draw lines on the page, a meandering set of sine waves across the purple plain.
“You don’t have to hide things from me,” she said, in a softer voice.
“It was Mazimdas.”
“Who? Mazimdas? Is that someone off LaserCats?”
The boy giggled. “No.”
“Is it someone out of a TV show? Ninja Masters?”
“No, definitely not.”
“Is he a ghost?”
The boy brightened. “He might be a ghost…”
“Oh, I see.”
She had crossed over to the sink to pour a glass of water when Ben said: “He’s coming.”
“Who is?”

The boy’s face was earnest. “Mazimdas. He’s coming.” “Is he a friend or something?”
“Not really a friend.”

“Is this like when you told me about Jim and Max at the nursery? Remember? Before you started school? And I spoke to Mrs Turner and she told me that there wasn’t really a Jim and Max?”

 

The boy kept silent, and bent back to his seascape. He used the stylus to make a loop beneath the undulating lines, which he then joined onto a tail, just as Terri had shown him a couple of days ago. Ben circled bubbles alongside the fish, tapped out a dot for an eye, and finished with a long, straggling mouth.

 

“Ben? Are you listening?”
He sighed. “No. Not like Jim and Max. Mazimdas is coming. Today.”
“What for?”
“For us.” The boy peeled back the sheet, washing away the underwater scene, then smoothed it over.
“What? Who is Mazimdas?” Terri crossed over to the table, standing in front of him.

 

“Look at me when I am speaking to you, Ben.”
The boy looked up. “He likes you. He really, really likes you. More than dad, I think.” “I think I’ll be having a word with your dad. I think he’s been letting you watch films you shouldn’t be watching.” They’d both been indulgent, in the long summer nights, allowing him to stay up a bit later. That nebulous little mind coalescing behind the big blue eyes, drinking everything in, parroting every new swear word in the playground, soaking up every drop of blood spilled.

 

“It’s not a film,” Ben said. “Look, I’ll show you.” He lifted the slate towards Terri. She took the slate from him. “It’s empty.”
“No it isn’t. Look.” The boy tapped the slate with the plastic stylus. There was something on the slate, something indistinct. Two long, thin blobs, about five or six inches apart. The image had some kind of resonance, something she couldn’t quite connect with.

 

“That? That’s an air bubble or something.” She lifted the pinkish sheet off the flat white cardboard backing, and ran her hands over the sheer surface. “These things never last long, you know. I had one when I was a girl. They stop sticking to the cardboard.”

 

“It’s not a bubble. Look. Put the sheet back on.” Ben gripped the sheet, pulling it taut and smoothing it down. The two blobs were still there, but they seemed to have grown slightly longer. “You see it?”

 

“I’m not seeing anything. Silly boy.”
“He’s getting closer. You’ll see him soon.”
“That’s enough now.” She put the slate back onto the table. The boy picked it up, and

began to draw two long oval eyes with the stylus. “I’ll show you what he looks like. I’ll draw his face.”

 

“Is this someone you’ve met? A man, or a teacher?”
“Nope.”
Terri crossed to the patio and closed the door, locking it tight and tugging on the handle for good measure. The rain continued to blur the windowpane, heavier now. She placed her hands on the window and peered out into the garden. Nothing unusual; grass too long, summer toys piled up against the shed in a vibrant chaos of red and yellow, jarring against the downpour. She drew back, and then her heart began to beat faster. Not because of something outside the window, but because of the rapidly evaporating shape the edge of her hand had left on the glass.

 

She returned to the kitchen table, where Ben was tracing a spiral pattern inside one of the long oval eyes. Overcome by a sudden creeping sense of disgust, she snatched the sheet away.

 

“Hey!” Ben cried.
“Just a minute. I want to check something.”
She cleared the slate, then replaced the acrylic square. The two blobs were still there, except much larger. She brought the edge of her hands up against the blobs. If they corresponded to the edge of another set of hands, then they were freakishly large. Ten dots had appeared just above the two blobs. On the inside of the blobs, two long archways appeared, right about where the meat of the thumb joint would be. Terri shivered and checked the slate over, front and back. She held it up so that the light played across the flat surfaces, showing off any possible lumps and contours in the material or its cardboard backing. There were none.

Ben giggled, taking the slate back. “It won’t be long. Look.”

 

He began to pull the sheet back and forth, as fast as he could. The image grew clearer with every impact, a psychedelic flip-book animation. It was unmistakably a pair of hands, pressed against the inside of the Magic Slate. Except that where the round blobs of the edge of the fingers should be, there were triangular notches that could have been scored by long, twisted fingernails. Or claws.

 

“He’s almost here.”
Terri snatched the Magic Slate off the boy. “Give me that! Stupid thing.” Ben dropped the stylus. “You’ll be sorry.”
“Oh, will I? I think I’ll keep a hold of this.”
“He says you don’t have to be scared. He only wants to play.”

 

“Stop that.” Her voice quivered. Stretching on her tip-toes, she placed the Magic Slate on top of the kitchen cupboard.

 

“It’s no use,” the boy said. “He’s seen you now. He’s on his way.” “Enough silliness. Go through to the living room.”
“But I want to see him.”
“I said, go through!”

The boy sighed and clomped out of the kitchen.

 

Once he was gone, Terri lifted the Magic Slate off the top of the kitchen cupboard. When she saw what was on it, she gasped. It was definitely a pair of hands, though they were bigger than any person’s – bigger than Joel’s, with his construction-calloused fingertips and palms, over-glove thick. The fingers were obscenely long, razor-tipped, ready to clutch and rend.

 

Terri crossed to the kitchen sink, fishing in her pockets for her cigarette lighter. She averted her eyes from the Magic Slate as the flame tickled the edges before catching light. The pink plastic wrinkled, bunched up and imploded with a feline hiss. Black smoke curled up from the edge of the cardboard backing; she held it until the heat flicked the edges of her fingers, then dropped the ashes into the sink.

 

Ben ran through with the triggering of the smoke alarm. Terri, waving a dishcloth underneath the detector, said: “It’s okay honey, mummy’s just had an accident. Go on through to the sitting room. I’ll make you a milkshake and a cheese and pickle sandwich if you like.”

 

“You burned the Slate!”

“I’m sorry Ben. Mummy’s a klutz – I was lighting a cigarette, and it caught fire. It’s very dangerous. Don’t worry – I can get you a new one, though. Or – hey, have you ever seen an Etch-a-Sketch?”

 

The boy’s shoulders jerked in frustration, and he tore at his own neck with his fingers. “I liked the Magic Slate!”
“I know you did, honey. Hey… what are you scratching at?”
Ben tried to shy away, but she pulled back the edges of his pullover. “Looks like a heat rash you’ve got there. Why don’t you take this jumper off and put on a T-shirt?”
Then she noticed that the rash was on both sides of Ben’s neck. Two long, thin blobs, like the outer edge of two immense hands.

****

Joel pressed the central locking fob, and his car beeped once. Blue light flickered through the curtains; normally, Ben’s head disturbed the drapes whenever he pulled into their drive, but not today.

“Rainy day,” Joel sang, considering the sodden garden toys, “dream all day…”

Still whistling, Joel hung up his coat and unlaced his shoes, stretching his toes on the wooden flooring before shuffling into the front room.

“Alright kiddo?” he called out.
No response.
“Terri?” He sighed. “You’ve left the TV on, love. What a waste of electricity.”
He crossed over to the coffee table, where Ben’s drawing pad, pens and pencils were scattered across the surface. Joel grunted and began to gather the pens. Then he saw what was sketched on the pad.

 

It was an image of long, curly hair, with a set of bulging eyes peering through the fringe. It looked disconcertingly like Terri; her eyes were a grotesque rendering of her clear blue irises. They were terror-stricken. Beside her was a boy with a long blond fringe, his mouth downturned and bright blue tears dripping down the face in ever-decreasing drops.

 

Above both of these figures, a long-armed, spiky-haired figure with needle teeth wrapped two immense clawed hands around both Terri and Ben. “Good lord,” he huffed. “That looks nothing like me at all.” He went into the kitchen and clicked on the kettle. Probably they’d gone to the shop. They’d be back soon.

Author’s biography:

Pat Black is a journalist and author who lives in Yorkshire. 

When he’s not driving his missus to distraction with all the typing, he enjoys hillwalking and can often be found scaring livestock in the Lake District. 

His short stories have been published in several anthologies and have won prizes including the Daily Telegraph’s Ghost Stories competition. He took the runner-up spot in the 2014 Bloody Scotland crime-writing competition with Ghostie Men. 

He has also been shortlisted for the Red Cross International Prize and the Bridport Prize. He is currently working on his latest novel, Run With Me.