No Sun to Guide the Way
by Steve Toase
Issue 8: Weird | 2,787 words
© Mirror-images/Adobe Stock
Dagmar waited for Phillip to get off his phone, refusing to face the retail unit they now paid rent on. The road beside the shop was shattered; tarmac cracked like old shoe leather. Plants tried to survive in the open wounds, thriving until crushed by the tires of traffic that did not let up.
“Sorry about that,” Philip said, dropping the phone into his pocket and sliding his hand in after, as if the touchscreen kept blood pumping through his veins. “Urgent call.”
“You expect us to run a business from here?” Dagmar finally turned to stare at the building. Dull metal shutters were jammed halfway up. Spray paint had turned window glass opaque. Fresh piss stained the door and ran in rivulets across the pavement.
“It needs a clean up,” Phillip said, pushing the shutters farther up on their reluctant rollers. “There’s a reason it’s cheap. Shall we look inside?”
The unit was industrial but tidy. Bare concrete walls and corrugated service pipes ran across the ceiling. Through a chipboard door at the back stood a small stock cupboard and little else. Dagmar ran her hand over the bare wooden counter, scraping dust together and letting it fall to the floor.
“What do you think?” Phillip searched for the light switch. Above them, two ancient bulbs glowed, the decaying filaments buzzing like dying insects. His hand stayed on the switch as he waited for her reaction. She kept him waiting.
“If it was in the city center it would be perfect.”
He took out his phone, fingers running over the blank screen.
“If it was in the city center rent would cost five times as much. What about online sales?”
“Why would we need a physical shop if we could rely on online sales?”
“How about destination shopping?”
“Needs to be a destination worth visiting.”
Phillip held his hands up and backed toward the door.
“We’ve signed the contract. Let’s make the best of it.”
Dagmar cleaned inside first. Mopping the floors with too much water and sponging down the walls. With the grime scrubbed out, the concrete shone like beach pebbles, drying to a dull gray. Outside, Phillip scrubbed the graffiti from the window. She watched him oil the roller and clean the doorway, filling bag after bag with rubbish.
“You’re doing a good job,” she said, standing in the door. “I knew there was a reason I asked you to be a silent partner.”
“I lend you money to buy stock, I find you a shop, I clean piss off your steps, and you want me to be silent?”
“And I’m going to ask you to scrape that off too.”
Old orange and red paint arced across the shop front, interrupted only where the door and window had been cut through the concrete.
“It’s horrible. Like someone vomited a sunset up.”
Phillip took a step back and laid the mop down across the pavement.
“Looks like it’s the original paint from when it was a shopping center. Probably a historic monument.”
“Not so much of a historic monument when they demolished the rest of the building.”
“That’s why this is worth keeping. Not much left. It gives the shop some character.”
“Still hideous. I’ll go and get the paint scrapers. Don’t worry. I won’t leave you to do it on your own.”
“What about the landlord?”
“He’s not here, and if he doesn’t like it he can keep the security deposit.”
By the time they lost light, the pavement glittered with paint flakes and the shop front was back to bare concrete.
“Do you want to go for a drink?” Phillip held open a rubbish bag. Dagmar shovelled in large citrus curls.
Dagmar shook her head.
“Bath and bed tonight. Still loads to do in the morning.”
Dagmar knew she was in the sea by the salt water in her mouth; crystals crusted her lips and tongue. She looked down and could not see her body. No reference points to lead her to the surface. Something flitted against her cheeks, and she flinched until she realized it was her own hair.
Dagmar was deep, and the sun did not shine to guide her. Her arms and legs goosebumped with cold. No oxygen reached her lungs, just the tang of saline. She did not drown. She floated in the darkness.
They moved past, and she felt water batter against her. Whatever was out there in the dark circled her. More than one. Spiraling around her body. Staying distant. She tried to swim, but had no way of knowing which direction to go. Which way was up or down. They kept pace. Looped over and under, then brushed her out of the way.
Her skin did not come off in sheets, but small platelets, each one incised by a single razor-sharp scale. The water filled with blood. She tasted iron and more salt. Her own. The things outside her sight circled once more, but did not bite. Instead, they ground against her again and again. Wore through her muscle, her bone, until marrow was exposed to the cold of the water and she flowed out of herself through rasped veins.
“You look like shit.” Phillip sat on the step drinking overpriced coffee from a corrugated cup, one headphone in place, the other dangling down to his waist.
“Bad night’s sleep,” she said, leaning over him to unlock the shop. The key jammed and did not turn until she lifted the door in the frame and felt the tumblers align.
“Are we doing the shop fittings today?”
Dagmar pushed her sunglasses up into her tied back hair.
“Did you not find a shop fitting firm?”
He stood, leaving his coffee on the floor. Dagmar picked it up, sipped the dregs, and walked inside.
“You wanted to do things on the cheap, remember?” He said. “I’ve brought my tools.”
She watched him carry in box after box of brackets, only helping him when red welts laddered his arms.
“Before you get started on any drilling, you need to finish getting that paint off the front.”
“I did finish. Well, I thought I did.”
The red and yellow streaked in ribbons across the front.
“Maybe you only took off the top layer. Whatever, I want it gone.”
The paint came away quicker this time, curling to the floor like flowers dying in the snow. Dagmar wrenched it free. The greasy texture sent a shudder through her. She let it fall into the rubbish bags and watched Phillip climb down the ladder.
“Happy?” he asked in a voice that told her he was not.
“I’ll be happier when we get a sign up. Don’t tell me. You didn’t pay for a signwriter.”
“I paid for some vinyl printing, which was expensive enough. It will look perfect.”
“And cheap,” she said.
“And cheap. I’ll put it up this afternoon. Do you want to do the drilling or shall I?”
Dagmar smiled and walked inside.
“I’ll add it to the long list of things I’m staying silent about,” he said.
“Are you sure you want the cabinet here?” Phillip let the tape measure retract.
Dagmar pointed to the blade of sun’s glow across the floor and wall.
“The light will help show off the jewelry. Catch the colors in the stones and chains. Otherwise I’m looking at more expense, unless you have some very cheap, good quality track lighting to install.”
He shook his head, clipped the tape to his belt, and picked up a drill.
“You might want to clear out while I do this.”
“Got another dust mask?”
He pointed at a moss green bag by the door. Dagmar fitted on the paper mask, pinching the metal clip. Her breath misted her face.
The screech of drilling filled the small shop, followed by dust that hung in the sunlight. She watched Phillip lean into the drill, driving the hardened bit through the floor, his weight pressing down against any resistance. The drill gave way, accelerating through the floor, and the air filled with the stench of burning hair. Phillip stumbled as he lost grip. Dagmar hooked his arms to lift him up.
He nodded, resting against the wall to catch his breath.
“Must have hit an air pocket or something. Can you check that’s turned off?”
Dagmar lifted the drill and nodded. “What’s that stench though?”
“Very old air.”
“There’s something stuck to the drill bit.”
She was sure it was skin. Rough and dry. Overlapping plates, ridged and sharp. She tasted salt water on her lips.
“Well, it’s not human,” Phillip said.
“And that’s better?”
He unhooked the rest from the drill and held it up in the light.
“Human would mean contacting the police. Detectives digging up the floor. Never good for a new business.” He put something else in her hand. “Looks like some kind of bone.”
Dagmar closed her hands around the remains.
The water is deep and there is no surface to swim to.
“Drill another hole, but go slowly.”
He shrugged and started again, half a meter from the first.
He took his time. The concrete plumed up and then didn’t, only the scent of more burning.
“Can you make the hole bigger?”
“Not with the tools I’ve got here.”
“Let’s call it a day. I need to make some more stock anyway.”
Phillip carried his tools back to the car while Dagmar locked up
“I don’t know what they painted this place with,” he said. “But it’s hanging on.”
She stepped back and looked at the storefront. The sunset colors were still there, pale and faint against the rough texture of the concrete.
“Another job for tomorrow.”
The wounds on her arms and legs were not deep. She felt salt water seep into the scabs. In the distance, the murmur of conversation. Music. Faint electric lights through the water. Beneath her, something brushed against the soles of her feet and her heels came away in single sheets, hanging loose and shifting in the current. She tried to spot the creatures. They moved too fast and she was not a natural under the water. Too buoyant. One dragged against her back, abrading her down to the spine. She felt the chill of the water seep in behind her bones and splash around her organs. Something bumped her face, searing away her eyelids. Now she could not help but see.
Dagmar woke lying face first on her workbench, unfinished necklaces spread out amongst semiprecious stones and unused clasps. The stench of her own blood stayed with her. She checked herself over but couldn’t find any injuries. Her bed was too far away. She walked over to the sofa. Curled up under a blanket. Sleep did not come.
“What the hell did they paint this place with?”
She watched Phillip haul the stepladders over to the front of the shop.
“They wanted it to last. Maybe we should just give up.”
“Maybe we should just do it properly.”
“You’re the boss.”
“And you’re the silent partner. Less talking, more partnering.”
“I’ve brought a sander this time,” he said, running the cable through the door. “That should get it away once and for all.” He fitted a new belt and turned it on, peering along the edge to see if the sandpaper was spinning right.
“Did I ever tell you about this place?” he asked. “What it used to be?”
“Some kind of shopping center?”
When he found her, she was sitting at the back of the unit, arms wrapped around her knees.
“What did I do?”
“Winding me up like that.”
He sat down beside her and held out a bottle of water. She shook her head.
“Winding you up like what? They had huge tanks with different species of sharks in. Thirty in total. Must have looked like some kind of Bond lair.”
“Did you plant that skin yesterday?”
“The stuff we found in the floor? Of course not.”
She dragged over his bag and pointed to the two drill holes.
“Did you bring your tools?”
“A hole saw, but I’m not sure the landlord will be happy.”
Dagmar handed him the drill and stared, trying to see if he was lying.
“We can plug them with fresh cement.”
If you’re sure,” he said.
The hollow drill bit was the size of her hand. A cylinder with serrated edges.
“I’m going to go slow, so this will be loud,” Phillip said nodding toward the door. “Maybe have another go at that paint.”
“Let me know when you’re done.”
The drill sounded like a living animal caught in a trap. She waited and watched the traffic passing by.
“Light,” she said.
He put a heavy rubber flashlight into her hand and she peered down into the small tunnel. The gap was only six inches wide but large enough to see the creature’s skin and the cartilage underneath, where the saw had worn through.
“They never got rid of the sharks,” she said. “They put them here and poured concrete onto them.”
They both stared at the hole and the column of concrete beside it. The air was thick with dust and a slight hint of friction.
“I need to get out of here,” Phillip said.
“I’ll get my tools later,” he continued.
She watched him go. The air turned her gray as it settled.
The drill wasn’t as heavy as she thought. By balancing it on the vast circular cutting edge she could press down with all her weight.
There was no pattern to the holes she made; she stopped only when the blade cut into hidden tissue. The dust choked her mouth, and she could barely see what she was doing, but still, she drilled into the floor again and again and again until the plug wrenched free of the socket.
Sitting down, she loosened the last column from the drill bit and turned it over. A shrunken, milk colored eye stared back, still held in place by taut, preserved ligaments. The cylinders balanced around the holes like unlit candles at a grave. She kicked them all over until they rolled against the wall.
The music was louder now. Close to the small portholes, Dagmar saw drinkers sitting at tables, cocktails balanced in front of them. People dancing. She banged on the glass, but no one looked. They sipped their Manhattans and Singapore Slings, ignoring the hammering.
She pivoted in the water, her lungs full of salt. Felt it settling inside. Something bumped her forward, sending her flailing into the plexiglass wall. She tried to balance herself. Scrabbled to stay upright. A second shark came at her from behind. She saw their eyes now. Nightclub lights glistened their pupils. They pushed her back and forth. Breaking her ribs. Puncturing her lungs. As she lay on the bottom of the tank, they swam over her. Ground away her flesh until she was powder. A sodden dust swirling in the currents of their paths through the water. In the nightclub a phone rang, but no one answered.
Tangled in her blankets, she struggled to free herself and answer her mobile before it stopped ringing.
“What did you do? What the fuck did you do?”
“Phillip? Where are you?”
“At the shop. You drilled through the floor how many times?”
“I’ll explain. Wait until I get there.”
She put the phone on speaker and started to get dressed.
“And that paint is back. I’m going to have to sand it again because you’re insisting on getting rid of the fucking stuff.”
“Just hang on.”
“I’d love to, but the landlord is coming by to see how we’re getting on.”
She grabbed her coat and keys and a swill of water to clear the taste of salt from her mouth.
The door was open when she parked, a stepladder open in front of the window. A pool of something slopped over the doorstep, clouds of flies landing to feed. She stepped over the mess. The sander lay just inside, power cable wrapped around the handle.
Phillip was spread-eagled in the middle of the room, his clothes frayed. Every exposed piece of skin was worn through, bones underneath ground away. Knuckle bones fell from his skinless hands, ligaments snapped. She turned him over. What little remained of his face was bruised, everything else ground down.
His work bag was in the corner. She found the flashlight and peered into the holes in the floor. The cavities were empty of bone and skin. Nothing but more concrete. Walking outside, Dagmar vomited and waited for her head to clear. The sun caught the shop front, and the orange and yellow paint glistened.
Steve Toase was born in North Yorkshire, England, and now lives in Munich, Germany. He writes regularly for Fortean Times and #FolkloreThursday. His fiction has appeared in Shadows & Tall Trees Volume 8, Nox Pareidolia, Three-lobed Burning Eye, Shimmer Magazine, and Lackington’s. In 2014, “Call Out” (first published in Innsmouth Magazine) was reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year Volume 6, and two of his stories have just been published in The Best Horror of the Year Volume 11. His first short story collection To Drown In Dark Water will be published by Undertow Publications in 2021. He also likes old motorbikes and vintage cocktails. You can keep up to date with his work via his Patreon https://www.patreon.com/stevetoase, www.tinyletter.com/stevetoase, facebook.com/stevetoase1, www.stevetoase.wordpress.com, and @stevetoase.