• 05 May 2010
    When Hell’s Horizon was first published back in February 2000, it opened with a prologue set when Al Jeery was a baby. I thought the prologue was an interesting place to start, and it gave an early indication that Al was special, that he was linked in with the Incans. I felt that the book needed that early mystical indicator, to show that it was going to be rooted in a fantastical world. When I returned to it years later, to revise it for the new edition, I decided to cut out the prologue, as I felt it made for a slow, confusing start. But for those of you who are interested, and who want to know a bit more about how Al got his start in life, here you go!

    Lorna Jeery’s head felt as though it was home to a hive of bees. Migraines were nothing new - she’d suffered with headaches most of her life - but lately they’d been intensifying. Her GP sympathised but could offer no reasons for the severity of the attacks or proffer a cure. His sage-like advice had been to take an aspirin when the pain was at its peak, lie down in a dark room, breathe deeply and think positive thoughts.

    Easy to say when you weren’t tied to a demanding child. Al was a good kid and slept soundly by night, but that meant he was lively by day. Meditative breaks were not an option.

    She’d asked Tom to stay home and help, but he’d laughed and told her to grow up. He put money on the table every week and saw to all her material needs. His responsibilites were covered.

    Al gurgled and shook his rattle at her. Lorna smiled, reached down to wipe drool from his chin, adjusted his cap to keep the sun out of his eyes, then carried on walking.

    It was a beautiful spring day, the warmest of the year so far. She was looking forward to summer. She’d bought loads of fancy costumes for Al and loved the idea of parading him around. They’d moved to a new neighbourhood during the fall and she hadn’t had time to make new friends yet. She’d been holed-up with Al. It would be nice to get out of the house and introduce herself and Al to the locals.

    “Myself and Al,” Lorna murmured, smiling. She was still getting used to the idea of motherhood. Things had progressed so quickly. She’d only known Tom a couple of months when she fell pregnant. She’d worried about his reaction - Tom was a strange, moody man - but he’d been supportive and had volunteered to make an honest woman of her.

    And here she was, Al nearly a whole year old, in a new home, a new role, a new life, and it all seemed to be happening to someone else.

    Not that she regretted it. Sure, a few more years of freedom would have been nice, and there were times when she envied her friends and the fast lives they led. But she wouldn’t give up Al (or Tom) for anything.

    If only these damned migraines weren’t tormenting her.

    She sighed and pushed on for the drugstore. She still had a pack and a half of aspirin back home, but wanted to stock up, in case the good weather passed and she found herself housebound. Tom was away on business, and although she could call her mother over if she wanted someone to babysit, she didn’t like to impose. Her family disapproved of Tom Jeery - personal dislikes aside, he was Black, and her parents were strong closet racists - and relations between them had been strained since she eloped to marry him without their consent.

    At the drugstore she parked the pushchair to the left of the door and checked on Al. She could have pushed him inside, but the aisles were narrow and the attendants always frowned and served in icy silence when women came in with prams or pushchairs. She considered lifting him out of the chair and carrying him in, but it was a lovely day and it seemed a shame to deny him the sun.

    Lorna glanced cautiously up and down the street. She wouldn’t leave her baby unattended if there was the slightest chance that he might be interfered with. But the paths were largely deserted. A couple of young kids were fooling about with a skateboard. An old lady was walking a shaggy poodle across the way. And a teenage, ginger haired girl in denim shorts and a loose T-shirt was ambling along towards the store, whistling an Elton John tune.

    “You’ll be safe enough,” Lorna told Al, taking her purse out of her handbag and checking to make sure she had change. “Don’t go nowhere, OK?” Al gurgled as if he understood. Lorna laughed, shoved her handbag down under Al’s layers of blankets - sun or not, she wasn’t going to risk him catching a cold - and headed into the store.

    As soon as the door had swung closed behind Lorna, the ginger haired girl in the denim shorts and T-shirt rushed forward. She paused by the pushchair, checked to make sure no one was watching, grabbed the handle, pushed quickly past the store window, hurried to the end of the street, turned right and ran.

    Al screamed as he was roughly bounced about and made plaintive “Ah-Ah” sounds, the closest he could get to “Mama”. The girl ignored him and concentrated on her route. She’d been waiting months for a chance like this. She wasn’t going to waste it. The priests would take an unfavourable view if she screwed up.

    Several sharp turns later, she found herself in a shady alley, one of their pre-arranged meeting places. Hurrying to the fourth door on her left, she pounded on it five times with the palms of her hands. The response was immediate. The door flew open and a bald man dressed in white robes stepped partially out.

    “You have the child?” he asked in the foreign language which the girl had spent the last several years learning to master.

    She nodded. “His mother’s in a drugstore. It won’t be long before she discovers he’s missing.”

    “We do not need much time,” the priest said, and stepped all the way out into the open. The girl could see his blind white eyes now, and a large mole on the left side of his chin. All the white-robed priests were blind. She wasn’t sure if they were born that way, or if their eyes were destroyed when they were children, or if they volun-tarily surrendered their sight. There was much she didn’t know about them, much they chose to conceal.

    The girl undid the straps of the pushchair and helped the priest undress the baby. When Al was naked, the priest held him under one arm and strode out to the centre of the alley. The girl followed, but at a distance.

    A small whitish stone was set in the middle of the road. The priest stepped onto it - the girl didn’t know how they found their way around so surely despite their blindness - and raised the naked baby high above his head. Al struggled vainly and went on screaming for his mother.

    The priest began to chant, words which even the girl’s attuned ear could make no sense of. As he chanted, rain started to fall, a box of contained silver streaks, as though a rectangle had been cut out of the clouds.

    As rain fell upon the pair, the eyes of the blind priest glowed. His lips trembled, then stopped moving. Above him, the baby splutt-ered and tried to turn his face away from the downpour.

    The girl watched the eyes of the priest become two pools of white fire. She had been told of the rain of the villacs but had never seen it before. According to the priests, this was the sun god’s way of communicating with them. She hadn’t previously believed in sun gods and heavenly hotlines, but now that she was faced with the rain she began to wonder.

    Al had stopped fighting and no longer sought to turn away from the rain. He was staring up at the sky, eyes unblinking, as still and mute as the blind priest beneath him.

    They stood like that for half a minute. Then the priest lowered the baby and fixed his blind gaze upon it. The girl, watching from outside the shower, noted that the baby’s eyes were also glowing, but there was a yellowish-red tint to the light in Al’s eyes.

    The priest held Al in his left hand while pressing the fingers of his right to the baby’s glowing eyes. Al didn’t flinch at the touch, even though the fingers seemed to press against the corneas. After a few seconds, the priest let go. His fingers came away red, as though stained with blood, but the child did not act distressed.

    The rain ceased, the lights faded in the eyes of boy and man, and after a few dazed seconds the villac shook his head and stepped off of the stone. Handing the baby back to the girl, he told her to dry him off and dress him.

    “Did I bring the right one?” the girl asked, using a blanket from the pushchair to dry the baby, now filled with an eerie calm.

    “Yes,” the priest sighed, rubbing the mole on his chin, which was wet from the rain.

    “What will I do with him?” the girl enquired, slipping him back into his nappy, then reaching for his clothes.

    “Leave him,” the priest instructed. “Take the woman’s handbag and anything else of value.”

    “Did I do well?” the girl asked, desperate for a compliment.

    “You did, Valerie.” The priest smiled and took his leave of her, exiting the alley via the door through which he’d entered.

    Valerie got Al dressed and back in his pushchair. He was starting to stir anxiously again. Valerie ran the blanket over his head of thick black hair, then took the handbag, blankets and some of the toys, and ran, the praise of the villac still ringing in her ears.

    Minutes later, an hysterical Lorna Jeery spotted the pram as she raced past the alley, came to a halt and stumbled slowly towards it, fearing the worst.

    The feeling in her stomach when she came out of the drugstore and discovered the pram was missing had been worse than any headache. She would have screamed, except her throat had constricted and she couldn’t summon the air.

    After a terrifying couple of seconds she’d hurried across the road and caught the old woman walking the dog. Had she seen anyone passing with a pushchair? No. She looked for the teenager but found no trace of her. The two children had also moved on but she found them further ahead and pressed them for information. They claimed ignorance at first, but then one said he’d seen a ginger haired woman with a baby. When Lorna asked which way she’d gone, he grinned and rubbed his fin-gers together. In a panic, she rooted through her purse, grabbed a handful of notes and thrust them into his hands. Unable to believe his luck, he’d not only told her where the woman had gone, but took her back to show her the way.

    Dreadful minutes had followed, during which she ran up and down various streets, asking questions of everyone she saw, eyes peeled for anything that looked remotely like a pushchair. She’d been on the verge of abandoning the chase to call the police when she chanced upon the alley.

    Lorna was sure Al had either been abducted or killed. The silence as she drew nearer seemed proof of her horrible fears. Her conviction was so fierce that when she drew close enough to the pushchair to peer in, she failed to notice Al and almost ran to phone the police. Then her eyes focused on the dark brown baby, she realized Al was present and alive, and relief flooded her system.

    Tearing off the straps, she picked Al up and proceeded to sob over him, kissing his head and face, moaning thankfully. Al, not sure what to make of all the fuss, giggled and pulled her hair.

    Once she’d calmed down, Lorna noted the missing handbag and blan-kets. The blankets didn’t matter but the handbag was full of personal items and credit cards. She considered alerting the police but she knew from experience how futile that was. Simpler to contact her bank and cancel the cards direct, and write-off everything else.

    Grumbling to herself, she strapped Al back into his pushchair, swivelled around and started for home.

    As she walked, the full force of her migraine returned, and she grimaced against the pain. She looked for her aspirin - she’d have swallowed them dry - but she’d dropped the paper bag they’d been in. She could have gone back to find the aspirin or buy more, but after her scare she wanted to get home as quickly as possible. She had a pack and a half of aspirin to fall back on. She could come out again later for fresh supplies, or in the morning.

    As she headed back, wincing from the headache, she glanced down at Al, and what she saw in his eyes caused her to slow, then come to a stop. It must have been a trick of the sun, but she could have sworn she’d seen flickers of reddish light in his eyes. While she stood, frowning, the effect multiplied, and it was as though his eyes had become two burning candles.

    Staring wordlessly, she lost herself in the lights, and minutes passed unheeded, Lorna standing like a statue over the pram, Al gazing up at her with the solemn wisdom of one far older.

    Finally, the lights dimmed, the day resumed its shape, and Lorna pushed on, swiftly forgetting about the sparks in her son’s eyes. She was almost home before realizing that her headache had mysteriously passed. Later that week she bought several packets of aspirin to keep her going for the next few months. She needn’t have bothered: from that day on, Lorna Jeery never suffered from migraines again. Their complete disappearance puzzled her, and she sometimes wondered if she should check with a doctor to make sure she was OK, but she didn’t have time to brood over the nature of her blessing or go traipsing off to doctors. Her days were full. She had a growing boy to take care of. Her little Al …
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