Be Afraid

by vegetables [Reviews - 1]

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  • All Ages
  • None
  • Action/Adventure, Alternate Universe, Drama, General, Horror, Hurt/Comfort, Introspection

It was tonight, Chris thought. The Doctor had texted her to say so. She had no idea how she'd gotten her number, and it was probably breaking patient confidentiality– but in this case it was probably fair if she didn't complain. Some things went out the window when a child was in danger, and Chris accepted she was certainly in it now. Her mum was in the other room, clattering away at something. Soon she would come to cook, and light the gas.

“You’re going to try it soon,” she said to the skull at the table, “but you won't succeed. The Doctor will stop you. That's what she always does.”

“There's no point saying stuff you don't believe,” said the man with the skull for a face. “She's fighting us now, fighting all that we are. But we’re going to end her, and I'm going to kill your world.” There was an air of confidence hung around the skull; Chris knew what he said was true. And she could see the Doctor anyway, if she squinted a bit. There was a space that was not a space where she was fighting, even if Chris couldn't make out the shape she was battling against. If Chris struggled she could even hear the Doctor’s voice, bonging away like a bell inside her head.

“I'm occupying them,” the Doctor was saying, “But the Nack is a very strong thing. We’ll have to hit it in its soft spot, where it’s weak.” She whispered. “At the moment it’s starting to feed.

“Did you say something about food?” said Chris’s mum, coming in. “It's bangers and beans tonight. Sausages. I'm looking forward to them, I can tell you, after the mess of a day I've had!”

“Don't light the hob,” said Chris. “Light it, he’ll burn us down. He’ll kill us tonight, like Grant, and Joe, and Stacey. And I've decided that I don't think I want to die.”

Her mum groaned. “Not this again! I've enough on, Christina, without you and your skull-faced man. I took you to the Doctor, didn't I? What's she told you, to help make the thoughts go away?”

The hollow sockets of the skull bored into Chris’s soul. Her heart was hammering; it had never been so scared. She didn't want to do it, what she was going to do next. But the Doctor had said it was alright to be afraid.

“She said my thoughts shouldn't go away,” said Chris at last. “That there were children who saw things that weren't there, believed what wasn't true– but that I wasn't one of them. She told me the skull faced man was real.”

“She said what?!” said her mum. “But she's a respected psychiatrist! I don't know, people with that sort of power, they get away with all kinds of things. I'm telling you,” she pointed at the sky, “I'm calling that hospital this second and getting that doctor struck off– arrested. There are things you don't do to children!” She roared in rage, choking back the tears.

“All this emoting, someone might forget about dinner,” said the skull at the table beside them. “Perhaps it's time I took matters into my own hands.” Silently, he rose from the ground, wisps snaking towards the dial of the hob. Chris could attack him, but that wouldn't be enough. The skull faced man could only be beaten by someone stronger...

“You're wrong!” said Chris at last. “The Doctor's been nothing but good. She took me in and she heard my fears, and” — she wept — “and she listened to what I had to say–”

“You should do some bloody listening to yourself,” snarled her mother. Behind her, the hob erupted into flame. Chris looked from her mother, to the skull man snaking towards the fire, to the Doctor, sweating as her strength was beginning to fail…

...and then a phone dinged in a cheery way.

Chris’s mum flinched, startled, picking it up before she had time to think. “‘Mass text from Mary,” she said to herself. “This time it’s about” — she frowned —”it’s about–”

“Hello to you all! You're used to these texts by now, I expect. Something cheery, to get you through the day. This one’s a bit different, I'm afraid. See, it’s been hard for a while now, and there was something I wanted to say.

“Things have been tough, the past few months. I've been worried about making ends meet. And I've put a brave face on it, because that's what you do– but a friend of mine made me think about who that brave face was for. Because it’s wrong, isn't it? To lie to the people you love. To pretend that everything's going to be okay, when deep down you know you haven't believed that, not for longer than you can remember. So tonight, when I got home, I told my boys how I was really feeling. I thought they might laugh, or might shout. But of course they’d just always known, in the way that always do. And that's more of a weight off me than I can say.

“I'm not sending this text to cheer you up, or to make you think. I’m sending it because I’ve seen you don’t have to hide, if hiding’s the thing that you’re doing. Jean told me that, and I wanted to tell it to you. More important, isn't it, than some silly aspirational message?”

“–I,” said Chris’s mum, “I don't–”

A strange look came over her face, like something was falling away.

“He’s real,” wept Chris. “The skull faced man is real.” Her mum looked past her, over to the thing in their kitchen. “Yes,” she said softly. “Yes, I see that he is.”

She turned off the hob, and picked up the pan beside it.

“I don't know who or what you are,” she said. “But you've hurt Christina, and you've broken into my house. And you've killed all those families, all those children. I don't think you even thought that it was wrong.”

“You silly, tiny animal,” said a voice that was no longer bored, “You have no idea how much you don't understand. What the Nack want, what we want with your world. You can’t comprehend the things we truly are.”

“I am very silly,” said Chris’s mum, stone faced. “All sorts of things I don't know. But, I figure, I can always find out. Right now, for example, I'm wondering” — she swung the pan behind her arm — “if you can kill a skull by smashing it in the face.”

The pan crashed into the jaw of the open skull. Everything bent, in a way that everything shouldn't, and some of the cutlery started to rearrange. The skull and the wisps all howled and spun to dust, and outside the giant billboard buckled and blew away. There was a blast, and a flash of brilliant light. And then there was nothing, but shards of falling bone. The Nack were beyond anything a human could understand, and that was true even as they died. But that didn’t mean a human couldn’t beat them, if she hit them in exactly the right kind of way.

“Turns out you can,” said Chris's mum happily. “I might be silly. But I'm always happy to learn new useful things.”

She turned to Chris.

“I was wrong,” she said. “I wanted to protect you, and I didn’t. I wanted you to be safe, and I put you in more danger than I could ever realise. I've just been trying to do what’s right–” she squeezed Chris into her arms. “I've been seeing a doctor too, Chris. A psychiatrist. They've been trying to make me see things differently, to show me that everything’s okay. But sometimes everything isn't okay, is it? Things get hard, and you can’t tell people why. But not being okay is okay in itself, Christina. I think that's what your doctor understood.”

She hugged Chris. “I love you,” she said.

“I love you too, mum.”

A blonde-haired woman materialised, and crashed straight into the floor.

“Ah!” said a muffled voice from between the tiles. “Lots of techniques, in psychiatry. Sometimes we like to make it look like we just appear out of thin air, because, um, isn't that what all our problems do? Sort of come along when you don’t expect them. It’s really a very clever technique.” The woman got up, and brushed down her trousers. “So, um, if you appreciated that innovative lesson–”

“You don't have to pretend,” said Chris's mum. “I know exactly who you are. You're the Doctor. You fought those things and you believed my child, I already know you're something special. What's a little appearing got to do with anything, when you can do things as important as that?” She gave the Doctor an enormous hug, then burst into floods of tears.

“Gosh, that actually was quite a good technique,” said the Doctor to no one in particular.