Acid House guru and astral traveller Justin Robertson has just announced his debut novel The Tangle, due for publication on November 4th this year. The Social Gathering is delighted to share an exclusive extract. Pre-order the book from your favourite book/record shops here: https://smarturl.it/TheTangle

Uncle Tobias’s hand gripped young Ethan’s shoulders with an inappropriate firmness. The odour of a dedicated tobacco habit drifted from his fingers. A hint of a forbidden, unwholesome world that Ethan’s mother had tried so hard to protect him from. But his mother now lay on the chiffon lining of Lassiter Funeral Home’s second-cheapest coffin. A rough box of wood, six feet down and a short lifetime away. Ethan stared down at the box, hoping that if he wished hard enough, he could conjure up one last word of comfort from his dearly departed mother. Something to make it alright. Something reassuring like a game of windmills. He imagined his mother spinning him around, his legs parallel to the ground, her hands holding his arms as he flew. Round and round. Round and round. Ethan smiled. Ethan laughed. A sudden thud and the pressure of Uncle Tobias’s reeking hand snapped him out of his happy dream. 

‘Stop that, boy.’

Ethan looked up at his guardian, his face falling into a mute blend of grief and fear. Uncle Tobias was big on respect. He demanded strict adherence to his decrees, though the boundaries for transgression were so fluid that you could hardly call them rules. They were more like whims. A constantly shifting set of demands, deliberately designed to be impossible to fulfil.  Only the punishments had a terrible monotonous predictability to them. His mother had hated Uncle Tobias. A second thud drew Ethan’s attention back to the grave. Flowers were falling on his mother’s coffin. Thud. Bright flowers on freshly cut stems, sundered from living plants, sacrifices in this strange human ritual. They would decay in the tomb too. Thud. Thud. White petals covered the lid of the coffin like forlorn confetti. Apple blossom. His mother’s favourite. 

One by one the mourners cast their blooms into the grave, pausing to nod awkward condolences at Ethan and his unwanted foster parents. Uncle Tobias returned their condolences with a curt nod of his own. His hand momentarily left Ethan’s shoulder to direct his wife. Aunt Janet. An almost invisible presence in the household. A vague spectre who only materialised when called by his tyrannical uncle. She too was subject to his arbitrary brutality. Isolated and cowed. Soon he would do the same to Ethan. Uncle Tobias pushed his wife forward. He wanted to show a united front. He wanted to show the world that he was the master of the family now that his sainted sister-in-law was gone. She was always scheming, pouring poison into his wife’s ear, trying to undermine his authority, trying to prize her away from him. Well not any more. Aunt Janet shuffled forward, acknowledging the mourners with an uncertain smile. Her hand brushed against Ethan’s. She glanced down at his confused face and, for a few seconds, a tender look played across her features. The tar-clogged voice of Uncle Tobias broke the conspirators’ bond.

‘Time to go home. These parasites will be getting pissed at my expense, I suppose. They’ll be no wake for us. She’s dead and buried and that’s that.’

He attempted to guide them back to the car as the gravediggers began to fill the pit. Grubby topsoil shot through with broken masonry and plastic bottle caps tumbled onto the cheap coffin. Thud. Thud. Ethan shrugged off his uncle’s hand; he didn’t want to leave his mother in such a disgusting hole.

‘Wake up, wake up!’

Ethan ran to the edge of the grave. The gravediggers stopped their shovelling and bowed their heads, unsure as to what action was most appropriate. Uncle Tobias grabbed Ethan by his arm, dragging him away from the lip of the grave.

‘Come here, you little swine.’

‘Don’t let him take me!’

‘I’ll have none of your nonsense, you little shit.’

Uncle Tobias cuffed the boy around the ear. Ethan let out a cry. Some of the departing mourners looked back with anxious faces. Then headed in the direction of the Bull, mumbling to themselves. 

‘No, I won’t go! You can’t make me.’

Uncle Tobias slapped the boy hard around the face. His head lurched viciously. Stars sputtered and flashed before his eyes. Such violence. Another cry. But not from Ethan’s mouth this time. A mournful note that seemed to stretch and elongate, extending to the point of impossible intensity until it splintered and faded into the early evening air. But no one turned this time. Only the gravediggers seemed aware of the rupture. They looked from the grave to the man and back again. Ethan struggled free from his uncle’s grip and ran to the grave. The scream had come from there, he was sure. Why could no one else hear it? He looked down into the pit. Apple blossom blooms peaked out from beneath the soil. Their sweet odour mixing with the damp decay of the earth. He was in an orchard on the edge of a pleasant meadow. His mother chased him around the trees as he giggled and ran. ‘I’m going to get you, I’m going to get you, the tickle monster is coming, the tickle monster is coming.’ The monster is coming. He fell, he floated, he drifted into the darkness.

Ethan was face down in the soil. Ethan was at the bottom of the grave. His small body flat on his mother’s coffin. In his hand he grasped a twig of apple blossom. He looked up, resting his chin on the wooden lid of the coffin. He twirled the stem around between his fingers. The blossom seemed to sparkle in the gloomy surroundings, its perfume pulling him back, back to happier times. Ethan felt a soothing warmth emanating from the coffin. The grave became a womb. Suddenly he became aware of rough hands thrust under his arms as the gravediggers dragged him up. He caught sight of their sympathetic faces as they hauled him to the surface. His uncle waited at the edge. His face had no sympathy; it was red and furious. Uncle Tobias unfolded his arms and snatched Ethan from the gravediggers’ embrace without the courtesy of a thank you. Wrenching the apple blossom from Ethan’s hand he tossed it on the floor and dragged him towards the car. Aunt Janet followed a few steps behind. 

The punishments were severe and frequent. In Caxton town’s charmless suburbs. Behind the walls of the 1920s detached house. Beyond the off-road parking bay. Inside the pebble-dashed walls. Torture was undertaken with an obsessive attention to detail. Tasks were long and repetitive. Failure to complete them satisfactorily was certain. Even the slightest inaccuracy in the outcome would lead to further repetitions. Tasks, chores, duties. All were gateways to Uncle Tobias’s real pleasures: torment. He was a skilled and ruthless operator, running the house like a gulag. Weekends were particularly difficult for Ethan. With work put aside, Uncle Tobias could really indulge himself. There was rarely a let-up in the cycle of punishments, and Ethan would often flop into bed sore and exhausted. As the sun went down and the neighbourhood made its way to bed, Ethan would pull the covers up close, waiting for the creak of the stairs. The sign that his uncle was paying him one of his frequent night-time visits. 

Breakfasts were fraught. Uncle Tobias liked to leave the house promptly at 7.25 a.m. He had timed the journey to work perfectly: thirty-five minutes door to door. His routine never altered. But Ethan was a new and unwelcome obstacle to his daily timetable. He was chivvied relentlessly from the moment he woke until his departure for the school bus at 7.20 a.m. No slacking. No dawdling. At 7.23 a.m. Uncle Tobias would lock the door, leaving Aunt Janet imprisoned inside. She had access to the garden, of course. He wasn’t a monster. Besides she could keep the garden nice and tidy. Just the way he liked it. The talk of the cul-de-sac. The beautiful garden behind the house of infamy. 

Ethan’s route to the bus stop never varied. He would walk steadily along the neat footpaths, past the prim and proper flower beds of suffocating ordinariness that bordered the unremarkable gardens of unremarkable people. This was a suburbia of bitter, thwarted ambitions and disappointment. On the way to Long Lane the path opened up into a grassy verge, rising on each side and dotted with shrubs. At the crest of the slope was a small copse of trees. The sentinels of the Tangle. The edge of the matted woods. Ethan used to play there, beyond the borders of the known world, deep in the twisting domain of living things. Every day as he walked past, he could feel its nagging vibration. Under the asphalt, in the cracks of crumbling paving stones. The roots.

At 07.10 a.m. precisely the Bakelite phone clattered into its cradle. This had never happened before. Uncle Tobias looked more than surprised. He hated to be inconvenienced. Fury contorted his jowls, but his phone manner remained faultless.

‘Of course, Mr Barrowman, I understand. It’s never happened before. No, of course, that’s no excuse. I will leave immediately.’

Uncle Tobias replaced the receiver. He continued to utter a steady flow of foul invective as he gathered up his jacket and briefcase. Ethan had never seen his uncle look so uncomfortable. The beast was rattled. He struggled to keep a smile from his face. 

‘You.’

Uncle Tobias jabbed his finger at Aunt Janet.

‘You, you don’t . . . don’t do . . . just don’t do anything. And you.’

In lieu of instructions, Uncle Tobias clipped Ethan around the ear as he headed towards the front door. He watched his uncle’s bulk slide across the hallway like a malevolent shadow. The door slammed, causing the teacups to chime against each other as the house shook with his uncle’s transmitted fury. 

For a few seconds, a dense silence settled in the kitchen. Ethan and his aunt were momentarily free. The kitchen appliances hummed, their electrical cadence absorbing the pair’s attention for want of a more familiar focus. Aunt Janet broke the silence.

‘I have something for you.’

The sound of her voice surprised Ethan. Like the faltering sentences of a small child, or the cracked dialogue of a hermit recently returned to civilisation. A fresh sentence formed on her lips, but she sucked the words back down. She went out into the hallway. Ethan could see her reaching into her outdoor coat. She pulled an object from the inside pocket. He could see a faint smile play across her pale lips. Aunt Janet was holding something in her hand. He could just make out its spindly silhouette in the ochre glow. It was a sprig of apple blossom. His apple blossom. Aunt Janet returned to the kitchen holding the sprig in front of her like the cross at the head of a pilgrim’s progress. 

‘I went back to get it for you, the day of your mother’s funeral.’

His mother’s funeral had been weeks ago, and yet the sprig of blossom looked as fresh as the day it was cast into her grave. The petals were firm but delicate. They looked like eyes. His mother’s eyes. A drop of water dripped from one of the petals like a tear. It hovered in the static between leaf and floor. Inside its delicate membrane Ethan could see his mother’s face smiling back at him. He floated through the static, sinking through the membrane. A whisper drifted across the distance. Words of comfort. Words of prophecy. The teardrop hit the floor.

‘You best get to school, Ethan. You don’t want to be late.’

Ethan’s days became uncharacteristically eventful. Not that anything happened. It was more that his moods shifted and pitched in a way that he had almost forgotten. Since his mother’s death he had existed on a blank plane of numbness. It was best to press his feelings down. But now he felt something. His sorrow hadn’t diminished, but now, at least, he was experiencing something akin to hope, that most human of illusions. Ethan kept the blossom close. He felt the twigs against his torso; they felt like comforting fingers, stroking. Stroking. Often he would take the blossom out and examine it. He took in every detail, every knot, every curve of every shoot. It remained unchanged. Even in the tight confines of his pocket, with all the attendant clutter pressing around it, the blossom never diminished in any way. It was constant, like his mother’s love. But the laws of entropy were clear: the apple blossom must decay. As the days passed, his anxiety grew. Decay or discovery, one was inevitable. If his uncle was to find the blossom, he would lose it forever. He must find a safe hiding place. 

Monday morning. A dread day for most children, but for Ethan school at least provided a few hours away from the cycle of horror. Breakfast had proceeded with the same military precision. The rustle of his uncle’s newspaper, the occasional clink of knife on porcelain, the randomly barked orders, the habitual hum of the morning. Ethan had been somewhat surprised to see his aunt when he returned from school the day the blossom came. He thought she might have taken the opportunity to run. But she had stayed. She had stayed for Ethan. They exchanged the briefest of glances as he left the house. A conspirators’ nod.

The walk to the bus was routine enough. Monday held as little surprise as any other day. As he walked, Ethan took the sprig of blossom out of his pocket and examined it again. Every day it somehow seemed fresher and more fascinating. He held it up to the sun. The light caught the petals and radiated out. He paused on the path where it opened out into the green valley of grass. He looked from bough to bank. The soft sound of the grave drifted down the verge. It came from the Tangle. It was a melody, like the songs his mother used to sing to him. 

Come walk with me to lilac glade, through woodland, stream and knot.

Come stand beneath the gallows’ shade ‘til all weeping is forgot.

Leave the tears and terrors to the mischief of the town.

Come walk with me to lilac glade, to the oak tree’s shady crown.

In darkness now from darkness born, circumference, length and span.

In lilac glade the wreath and thorn, wove mockeries of man.

In lilac glade beneath the earth, in death’s ecstatic bond.  

Come walk with me in lilac shade, to the emptiness beyond.

Ethan left the path. The soil seemed to writhe as his feet touched the grass. Like the rippling tide in the shallows. Like a shoal turning on the currents. He neither walked nor climbed. He was carried. The bent back of St Christopher, the torn arms of Simon of Cyrene. The nameless saints carried him. The Tangle carried him. Ethan reached the top of the bank. He was no longer in Caxton’s drab suburbs; he was in the borderless hinterland of nowhere. He entered the wood. As he stepped, the jumble of roots parted. His sense of time was forgotten, his location became irrelevant. Further and further. Until he was deep inside the Tangle. The path grew wider, flowing like a river into a bright clearing. Shafts of sunlight penetrated the canopy in mottled columns. Ethan was deposited in the glade. It felt cloistered and safe. Around him the chatter of birds was tuned to the melody of the forest’s conjuring rite. Rise sweet child. Rise sweet boy. He felt the blossom in his hand turn, as if it were attempting to escape his grip. It was unmistakable, the bough was moving. It was drawn towards the soil. The sprig of blossom began to writhe, its bark no longer soft and comforting, but harsh. Biting. Covered with thorns. Ethan dropped the sprig as if he’d been stung. Tears welled in his eyes. His blossom. His beautiful blossom. The blossom drifted slowly down to the forest floor. When it hit, he knew. His tears stopped in an instant. A smile, like the grin of the happy child he once was, shattered the sadness. He began to run around the glade in an ecstatic circle. Ridiculous, stupid, without reason or purpose. Alive again, if only for a few moments. He fell, breathless, to his knees, next to the fallen blossom. He began digging in the soil with his small boy hands, clogging his nails, staining his school uniform with dark streaks. Soon he had created an impressive hole. Ethan planted the blossom inside. He tidied the loose earth around the stem. The earth hugged around the stalk. The trees of the glade bent low over the bough, then sprang back to create a perfect circle in the canopy. The sunlight poured in. Ethan stood and smiled. This would be a good place. The blossom would be safe here. Time spun back to its recognised pattern. The dimensions shimmered, shrank and vanished, retreating to their former concealed locations. Ethan was alone on the path. On the road up ahead, he could see the bus pulling out of the stop. He would be late.

That night was the longest in Ethan’s short memory. A grim procession of punishment, belittlement and abuse. But he did not cry. He made no sounds of lamentation or sorrow. He was not there. He thought of the beautiful blossom, even as his uncle misused him. 

Ethan ran for the bus the next day, he must not be late again. The dull throb of his bruises offered their council. There is no time, Ethan. There is no time. He sighed and dejectedly dragged his sore, battered body along the path. He reached the bus stop. But no one was there. Not one familiar uniform, not one classmate or fellow student. Had he missed it again? Had the school changed the timetable and not told him? He stood for a few minutes looking at his shoes, trying hard to think of a way of escaping the horror he knew was coming.

‘Ethan, is that you? Oh, my dear boy, whatever are you doing waiting here?’

It was Mrs Krebbs, the drama teacher, driving past in her mini. Mrs Krebbs pulled the car over and shouted theatrically to Ethan from across the other side of the road. She was a ‘fun’ adult, an actor in her youth. She lived a few doors down from his uncle’s house. Ethan had seen her pruning her privet. He looked embarrassed and continued to stare at his shoes.

‘Why, the school is closed for the morning . . . I thought everyone knew . . . Asbestos removal in the science block . . . You best get home . . . We are starting after morning break today, though I don’t know for the life of me why we don’t just have the whole day off . . . That would be lovely, wouldn’t it!’ 

Ethan managed a shy nod. Mrs Krebbs sensed she was wasting her time and skills on the young boy. She waved, wound up her window and drove off. It took him a few seconds to appreciate the opportunity that this unplanned break presented. His uncle was at work, his aunt wouldn’t expect him home for hours. He turned towards the path and headed for the glade.

Ethan ran up the verge and hesitated. The scenery looked commonplace and derivative. His heart sank. He must find the path across the threshold. His mind sought the summoning spell.

Come walk with me to lilac glade, through woodland, stream and knot.

Come stand beneath the gallows’ shade ‘til all weeping is forgot.

Bit by bit he began to see the landscape fold, becoming richer and more complex. Colours multiplied. Variety blossomed on the edge. The gateway opened before him. A smile broke out on his face as he entered the wood. He was carried along the path in the same way, but something was different. This time the sound of the forest was muted like a lullaby. The hush was oppressive. The welcome he had felt the day before was not as warm, as if his appearance was somehow ill timed. As he went deeper into the Tangle his feelings of awkwardness grew. Eventually he arrived at the glade. It too was different. Disturbed. As if it had been hastily rearranged. He remembered his mother running around frantically, trying to plump up cushions and hide the dirty teacups when his granny turned up unannounced one afternoon. She did that a lot before the end. Ethan stepped into the clearing. The trees had closed their crown once more. The light was soft and subdued. The sound had dropped to a hum. His eyes began to widen. Everything was upside down, back to front. Wrong. Wrong. Where was the blossom? It had gone. He looked around frantically. Nothing. The young bough lost. Stolen, broken, dead. Gone. They had promised to keep it safe. The trees. They had promised. He began to feel anger swelling inside. He had never been so angry. He had been betrayed. Abandoned. Ethan sank to his knees. He would lie here and wait for the end. No one cared. Not a single person alive or dead. A branch creaked. Ethan started. Had his uncle found him? Let him come, there was nothing left for him to take. But it was only the trees that stirred. He studied the gnarled branch that swayed and groaned in the breeze. Its movement was unnatural. Here in the heart of nature, far from the regularity of men, this branch was pointing. It was unmistakable. The sticks, the bulbs, the leaves, all pointing. Pointing to a spot on the forest floor. Ethan wiped his eyes with his dirty sleeve and followed the line. A subtle light played across the figure of a plant. A sapling. An apple tree. Ethan clapped his hands and began to laugh. This was no tomb; it was a nursery. He approached the delicate plant. It was stretching and flexing its stems, feeling its growing potency as the sap rose. Ethan pressed his hands on the young bark. A whisper echoed around the glade. A voice as familiar as his own. 

Come walk with me to lilac glade, through woodland, stream and knot.

Come stand beneath the gallows’ shade ‘til all weeping is forgot.

Leave the tears and terrors to the mischief of the town.

Come walk with me to lilac glade, to the oak tree’s shady crown.

In darkness now from darkness born, circumference, length and span.

In lilac glade the wreath and thorn, wove mockeries of man.

In lilac glade beneath the earth, in death’s ecstatic bond.  

Come walk with me in lilac shade, to the emptiness beyond.

The day went quickly. All he could think about was the apple tree. Nothing could dislodge the joy from his heart. At 4 p.m. the bell sounded for the end of the school day; he ran for the bus. He jumped out at the top of Long Lane and ran down the path. The verge rose up to meet the Tangle. He rose with it. At the summit the gate opened, and he stepped inside. He glided through the undergrowth until he reached the glade. His own sacred grove where the spheres intersected. The clearing chimed with the chatter of living things. At its centre was the miraculous sapling. It had matured and grown. Sapling no more. Here was the tree. Somehow, though he knew it was impossible, Ethan was not surprised. The forest floor wore garlands of blossom that gathered in bright arcs where it had fallen. On the branches of the tree, the flowers had been replaced by sparkling green apples. He marvelled at their perfection: their skin was taught and shiny, with the slightest hint of dew glistening on their unblemished roundness. He reached up and plucked one from a low-hanging bough. The trees seemed to ripple around him as he took a bite into the apple. It was the most delicious thing he had ever tasted, a subtle sweetness that insinuated itself into every nerve and cell. Just that one bite filled him with a feeling of extraordinary well-being, as if the flesh of the apple had been transubstantiated. He took another bite. The flesh contained a code. In its juice, a message that trickled down his throat. As it seeped into him, the meaning of the code was revealed. He was small, too small to understand the shapes and colours of this new world. The voice, the pulse, the beating heart. His mother guiding him towards his essence. First steps, first words. Words coaxed from his developing mind by his mother’s love. He grew, mushrooming from the sack of sinews and skin into a person. The voice, the pulse, the tutor’s hand. He was a boy, this boy, any boy, any girl, neither, nor, nothing. He was nothing. As the juice reached his heart he was erased and reset. He was Ethan, he was no one. Now he was of the Tangle. The familiar whisper floated around him. Dripping from the skin of the apple, flowing in the sap of the wood. The sound drifted into his small boy ears. The cipher decoded. The plan set in motion. He looked up into the canopy as it loomed over him, and he smiled.

Ethan tumbled through the door, propelled by his uncle’s reeking hand. He was obliged to wait for his return every day, no matter the weather. He must be standing ready for his uncle to unlock the stockade. He had been talking to his aunt through the letter box, passing messages to her from the Tangle. He could see her fractured silhouette through mottled glass as she bent down. She had sounded delighted at his tale, though he sensed some incredulity in her hesitant replies. But now his uncle had returned, silence had descended once more. 

‘What have you got in your pockets, you little shit? You’ll ruin that coat and I’m not buying you another one!’

Uncle Tobias clipped him around the ear in a thoughtless reflex and stuck his hand into Ethan’s pocket. 

‘Apples?’

Uncle Tobias’s face momentarily broke from his usual scowl.

‘I like apples, oh yes. Apple pie with custard, oh yes, yes indeed. Janet, I shall have apple pie after the meat.’

Uncle Tobias licked his lips, letting a globule of saliva roll down his chin.

‘None for the boy. That’ll teach him for mistreating his clothes so appallingly.’

Uncle Tobias clipped him again. But it lacked his usual accuracy and merely ruffled Ethan’s hair. 

Ethan’s stomach complained. Protesting with a low frequency rumble. Uncle Tobias clouted him again. His uncle had made him watch as he inhaled a vast plate of greasy meat and potatoes. Ethan had nothing. This was merely a warm-up for later punishments. Uncle Tobias belched and farted simultaneously, a skill that Ethan had always marvelled at. That lumbering turd. Clout. Ethan’s smile was undimmed. Clout. 

‘What do you look so fucking happy about?’ 

Uncle Tobias bellowed, his foul breath smothering Ethan as his uncle’s furious face hovered inches from his nose. Clout. But his smile remained undiminished. Uncle Tobias looked confused. He raised his hand to strike again, but the scent of a freshly baked apple pie stopped his swing. Ethan and Uncle Tobias both turned their heads towards the oven. Trails of perfumed steam drifted across the kitchen. Uncle Tobias’s mouth flopped open, drool cascading down his grotesque jaw. Ethan’s smile widened, his cheeks struggling to contain it. He turned to look at his uncle. His gaoler. His tormentor. He took in every detail of his face, every foul crevice and pit. Ethan’s smile straightened as he concentrated. He looked more intently now. Into his sweat-filled pores. Into his greasy follicles. Ethan studied him like a specimen of putrid fungus. 

‘Oh my, Janet, that sm—sm—smells . . . Oh my.’

Uncle Tobias struggled to form the words as the pie made its way to the table. His yellow eyes bulged. His flabby tongue flicked. He loudly cleared his throat, preparing the passage for the coming pie. He clipped Ethan around the ear absentmindedly. Ethan felt nothing. Ethan was still studying his pustulant uncle.

‘Not a crumb for you, little shit, not a fucking crumb.’

He wanted to clout him again, but the scent of the pie was too much. Uncle Tobias grabbed his spoon in his grubby fist. He plunged it into the golden crust. 

‘Oh my.’

Uncle Tobias’s voice was no louder than a whisper. His faced glowed in the light of the exposed fruit that lay hidden beneath the golden crust. Sumptuous and glistening in the embrace of his aunt’s best Pyrex. The ambrosial scent peaking in intensity. A subtle vibration pulsed through Uncle Tobias’s flabby frame as he dug his spoon into the pie. His eyes widened. His first bite. The juice seething in the crust. The taste. Too much. Too profound in its depth and variety for any pallet to make sense of.  Ethan stared intently; he could see his uncle’s synapses sparking as he chewed. His brain struggling to process the signals. There was the briefest of pauses after the first mouthful, as if Uncle Tobias momentarily sensed the nature of the fruit. But he was not of the Tangle. Greed was the maxim that guided his kind. There was a blur of spoon and hand. Uncle Tobias shovelled the pie into his corpulent maw with mechanical diligence. Ethan thought his uncle might suffocate, such was the rate at which he filled his mouth. A series of stuttering snorts kept his lungs full as he continued his relentless binge. The pie dish sat empty. Not a single crumb remained. He had claimed the prize. He could savour the victory. Uncle Tobias lent back in his chair and let out a long, elongated belch. Ethan relaxed too. The flat line of concentration bent back into a smile. 

His uncle was breathless and bloated. His nose had started to run. Uncle Tobias produced his handkerchief and blew hard. 

‘Damn itchy nose, must be the dust. Don’t you ever clean up around here, Janet?’

Aunt Janet looked at her husband with a newly discovered defiance. The whispers at the letter box. The childish babble of Ethan’s fantastic story. She sensed prophesy at work, even as she stewed the apples. Janet had kneaded the flour into the perfect disguise. The crust was the sheathe. The apples the dagger. She was an assassin. Uncle Tobias let out a belch like the chorus of hell.

‘I said, don’t you ever dust this fucking kitchen?’

Uncle Tobias grabbed at her arm as she was collecting the empty dish. Aunt Janet wrenched her arm from his grip.

‘No.’

One word. With all the power of a sermon. The pie dish clattered to the floor. Ethan laughed. Uncle Tobias’s eyes darted between Ethan and his wife. What was this? Mutiny? 

‘What the fuck are you laughing at, little shit? Pick that up! Pick it up this instant!’

‘What’s wrong with your nose, Uncle Tobias?’  

Ethan enquired through stuttering laughter. Aunt Janet’s hand went to her mouth as she saw the joke begin to reveal its punchline. Her laugh harmonised with her nephew’s.

‘Oh, yes! What is it, Tobias? What’s wrong with your nose?’

Uncle Tobias began to unravel. His power over his captives waning fast. His hand shot up to his left nostril. Something was growing through the mucus. He tugged at the blockage. A slender green shoot sprouted from his nostril, unfurling in the yellow light of the kitchen. It writhed and thrashed in the air like a new-born serpent hatched from the egg. Uncle Tobias tugged at the shoot. It kept coming. He let out a groan. Ethan laughed again. Now a second tendril was sprouting from his right nostril. Uncle Tobias’s voice became a congested snarl.

‘What’s haaaarrrgpening!’ 

Ethan was on his feet now. Laughing and clapping as he jumped up and down on the spot. Janet tilted her head and enjoyed the view, like a proud parent at the school nativity play. Uncle Tobias went to punch them for their impudence. A branch exploded out of his thigh. Uncle Tobias screamed as the gnarly frond entwined itself around his leg and fixed him fast to the chair.

‘Do something! Get a knife, cut me out! Cut me out!’ 

His last words were strangled in his throat as a thick branch crept out of his gullet. Small twigs edged across his lips, clamping his mouth shut. Ethan stopped jumping and clapping. He watched in fascination. The whisper in the woods played in a loop. Aunt Janet’s arm reached out over Ethan’s shoulder, pulling him into her side. He buried himself in her embrace. They stood in silence, as if they were watching an eclipse or a beautiful sunset. Uncle Tobias’s eyes were wide with ignorant indignation. Too late had he realised his fragility and weakness. A thin branch flicked his eye out, stretching the optical nerve taut until it snapped, leaving Uncle Tobias’s eyeball skewered to the stick like strange fruit. His chest burst. His trunk became the trunk of a tree. Roots where his legs had been, spreading across the lino floor, burrowing into the soil beneath the suburban hell. Uncle Tobias’s features were barely discernible through the spreading foliage. Contorted with confusion and disbelief, defeated, broken, stretched and smashed. At last, his skull snapped. The canopy spread out across the ceiling, broken fragments of skull and flesh hung from the twigs. As the flourishing of the tree slowed, small green buds emerged from shoots. One by one, they opened. Into blossom. Apple blossom.

Janet sighed. Cupping a flower gently in her palm, she inhaled the delicate scent.

‘What a beautiful tree, Ethan.’

‘Yes, Aunty, what a beautiful tree.’

Taken from The Tangle by Justin Robertson – preorder here.

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