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The fan's large blades revolved lazily in the emptiness. Nothing disturbed their small sound. Then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, they stopped.
The old man stood and peered at the pub's quiet spaces, his eyes following the motion of people now gone, leaving only stale smoke and empty glasses. He sighed and turned for the door.
His legs were sure and they denied his years, but his face did not. Aged through more than time, his features were carved into his face, immobile as ice. Only his eyes betrayed life, the pupils seemingly deeper even than the sunken sockets they nestled in, deepened, haunted, by memories. His eyes were tinged with intelligence, but shot through with pain. And the old man knew that he could never forget.
The night was cold, even for November, and the old man saw that the stillness without reflected the stillness within. He stood for a long moment and let his eyes wander through the beauty of the scene. His eyes caught the crisp frost on the trees twinkling by the light of a moon only subtly a crescent, and his ears stumbled on echoes of the slightest sounds of small birds dancing across the cloudless sky. But the beauty was not for him and he saw only ugliness. The frost marred the trees and the birds were only stains on a painted sky, further blemished by a moon that was merely a hole in the canvas.
Only the road home was welcoming, but he turned off and started up the hill.
The way steepened and the old man suddenly realised where he was. He knew he should not have come this way again, but his sure legs refused to turn him round. As he continued along the one road he could not take, he became aware of the teeming life around him. Their homes were in the trees to his right, the hedgerow on his left, and in the fields beyond. He knew he was invading their territory but he did not know what they were for all that he could see were their eyes.
He remembered the girl's eyes. He was only young then, but it was as clear to him as yesterday. She was not pretty, but her eyes shone. They were blue and full, not just of life but of a deep love for that life. He had never seen eyes as beautiful as hers before. And, in a part of his mind, they never lost that beauty, that life, that love. When he took her away and their beauty changed to fear, he saw love; when he violated her and stole her teenage prize, they became helpless and resigned, but he saw only love; and when he continued her desecration, even when the light in them dimmed and died, he still saw only love, beautiful blue love.
The old man shook his head as if the violent motion would release him from the memories that time would never fade. Stopping briefly to recover his thoughts to the present, he then proceeded on. The road was dark, with few street lights on or working - only the moon lit the scene, and that only dimly through the network of branches above. There were trees to either side now, their twisted limbs sometimes intertwining halfway across the road in a tangled, plaited ceiling.
Then, a gust of wind shifted a clump of branches ahead and the dim light flooding in lit up a corner. The old man ordered his legs to stop - until now they had merely led him up a hill, now they had brought him to the one place he thought he would never see again. Hoped, prayed never to see again.
His legs refused to stop and his eyes refused to move from the corner. Even the old man's heart was disobeying his commands, leaping and pounding like a firing cannon and as irregular.
The bend loomed ever closer and in his mind he could see again a girl, his fourth - no his fifth - naked as the day she was born and as filthy. Her young body, stumbling, tripping, but ceaselessly rushing, hurtled round the corner; her unformed breasts, her tender skin all pre-pubescent pink, but now only peering in patches through a collage of leaves and dirt. And through the unmistakably dark tracks of blood down her tiny thighs.
Her eyes were not full of love or laughter, they were wild with panic, a blind overpowering desire to escape. But the old man knew well that soon they would change to despair, to resignation and finally to blankly stare at the pinpoint stars above, as if unsure where to send her soul, now that only that remained.
And the old man, walking inexorably towards the corner, tried desperately to turn, to look away, to forget his past. Inevitably, he failed.
The bend took him to the right, off the road into a wood, to a clearing secluded from view. His clearing. And to the left of that, beneath two enormous old oaks, were two open graves, their young occupants sitting on their legs just above their newly-uncovered homes. The old man's legs finally obeyed his order to stop and his eyes finally wrenched away from the impossibility. But as he looked around the clearing, he saw the same pattern. Each grave was open, each girl sat above her respective sanctuary leaning on her respective tree. All were as naked as the day they were buried and with no decay, their eyes looking only at him. None were moving, but life was in their eyes. Nothing was moving, not even the trees in the wind.
Then a sudden movement caught his attention. The girls underneath the oaks had stood up. These were his first two, and he had left them beneath the biggest trees. Together they caught his eye and nodded.
Then the stillness erupted into motion. Branches snaked out to catch his collapsing limbs. More branches wrapped around his head, holding it firmly in place. Twigs thrust into his eyes to hold his eyelids open. He tried to scream with the pain, but a gnarled branch thrust its way down his throat and the scream broke only from his scared and stinging eyes. Hundreds of small branches tore at his clothes, shredding each piece.
Now he was completely still, suspended. Sharp-tipped branches stabbed into his hands and feet and lifted, crucifying him aloft. His head was focused on the two oaks and the two girls beneath, now joined by the rest, and his eyes were forced to look at them - twenty girls, smiling, staring at him. Now he was the naked one, the vulnerable one, and he was at their mercy.
Time had ceased to exist for the old man. He just hung, supported only by the branches spearing his extremities. His mind threatened to snap but the agony would not even give him that release. Then the girls nodded again and the pain doubled. A rough branch had encircled his testicles and begun to constrict. The old man attempted to struggle but only succeeded in tightening its grip and tearing the flesh of his hands in the process. The pain was intense, it had to release - and it did, momentarily, as his manhood burst. But only momentarily, then it returned tenfold. And the girls still stood and watched, with fixed smiles on their faces. And they still had one agony left.
A long thick branch probed his rear, and in his pain, the old man saw the sweet justice. As he had violated each one of them, bringing forth blood and agony, so too they returned the favour. His eyes looked into the face of divine retribution and began to bulge as the goliath branch ripped its way into him, threatening to split him in two. And as it reached its limit and burst through anyway, surging through his stomach on its way to his lungs, to finally, mercifully spear his brain, the old man's eyes spattered outwards, milky fluid splashing against the branches that impaled his eyelids. And he died.
It was morning when the barman found him. He was a well-known enough patron, even if he did keep himself to himself. When he'd lazily neglected to clean up the bar area after the previous evening, he'd not noticed the old man slumped as if in sleep in the seat that he had seemed to occupy for more years than the barman had worked there.
He reached forward to nudge the old man, muttering to him to get on home. But the old man merely slumped forward. The barman hooked his arms, lifting him upright, and suddenly cursed, recoiling in physical terror as he saw the old man's eyes.
The barman would never forget those eyes. The ambulance crew who came to recover the body would never forget them. Nobody who saw them would ever forget them, even as they would come to forget the old man, as life's everyday mechanics dragged their minds onto other things. But his eyes! His rigor-mortis eyes opened so wide that morticians could never shut the lids, wide in guilt and pain and suffering. Those eyes they would never forget. And they would eternally wonder what he had done.
And whether he had got his just reward.
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