The ancient, English forest around the old market town of Buckingham choked the night sky glitter of stars and satellites. It was late at night, and the plaza in its centre was abandoned. The odd group of local youth had taken to giving anyone walking through its corridors late at night a hard time. It had resulted in some catcalling and some serious fights from time to time, but despite the verbal warnings and even the occasional arrest by the police, the problem persisted. It was the one keeping the village from true tranquillity.

Tonight, however, a lone man walked through the plaza.

His movements were odd and jerking, his legs almost locking against themselves every time he went to take another step. He wore a smile that clashed with his pained eyes. They were watery, as though ready to cry at any moment. He carried a motley assortment of clothes, including a dark green overcoat, a bag with some old work boots ripped apart at the seams, an old, brown Homburg-style hat with a white band around it, a thick flannel shirt, a pair of dark green pants, and a brown leather belt. He was carrying them as far away from his body as possible, as though they were repulsive to him. Like they were diseased.

His name was Eric. He knew all about the youth terrorizing people at night, though he tried to keep it out of his mind. He simply held his breath from time to time, holding the clothes as far away from himself in the most uncomfortable way possible. He strained against the motion of his legs and found he could not compel them to stop. He knew this because he had commanded it. Eric was powerless to stop moving, unless…

At that moment, rounding a bend, he was faced with one of the main arches of the plaza, and inside of it were about eight or so youth, blanketed in darkness. They were smoking and drinking from bottles concealed in jackets, someone’s phone playing loud, angry music. They were laughing and joking with each other as they were making their way into the plaza. One of the boys was talking loudly about a fight he’d had earlier that day, while another pair were hissing about chasing girls. They were drunk and restless. Once he came into view, a number of them fell silent, suppressing laughter as they looked at each other and back at him.

“Polite Conversation” a Short Story – Image 2

His eyes glittered. He made his way to them. None of them said anything. They needed to say something first! He suddenly realized this as he made his way toward them. He walked in his strange matter, his clothes a good foot away from his chest. He was a perfect target, but no one was saying anything. He breathed and kept his mind blank.

Then one of the youths, affecting a proper British accent, said in his most polite way, “Evening.” To this, one of the others behind the group added audibly, “…faggot!” The group burst into laughter.

He rounded and faced them, his face the picture of relief. Still, the painted-on smile persisted. He shed a tear as he inhaled a shaky breath, and he greeted the gang of delinquents with a cheery, “Why good evening to you as well!” The group fell into silence, and he added, as though by way of explanation, “I’m so glad we could enter into polite conversation on this fine evening!”

The effect of his words was palpable. None of the group understood why this man was so damned cheery. Out in this confined corridor, safely tucked away out of view from the street, they had this man surely cornered. As if to accentuate the point, a couple of their number spread out to surreptitiously trap him in a semicircle. Now if Eric tried to run, he would be surely caught by one of the gang.

The one who initially greeted him remained jubilant and took it as a challenge. Saying to the rest of his group, “fucking poof wants to have a polite conversation, ay?” before turning to the man with the clothes. Again affecting his aristocratic accent, the youth responded, “why old chap, I do believe you’ve hit the nail properly on the head. It is indeed a fine evening. I do believe a polite conversation is indeed in order.” The group howled at the youth’s spot-on impression.

His face was still, as some of the gang began to note, infuriatingly positive and glowing with jubilation, his stupid smile still pasted on. He responded, without any irony, “Indeed, sir. Allow me to introduce myself: I am Eric Coyle. What would yours be?”

To this, chatter erupted among the gang. This man was clearly messing with them, and he deserved a kicking. The youth who’d been leading the conversation was beginning to enjoy this. “Why my name is Robin Hood, you can call me Robin, and this is my cheery gang of misfits. This here is Li’l John,” he said pointing at one of their number to some subdued cheering and laughter. “And this here is Friar Fuck,” he said as he pointed at one of their number to which everyone but the singled out youth erupted in peels of laughter, some bending over and walking away. Robin continued, “The rest of this group are my Merry Men.” At this, the laughter hushed into a menacing interest, and the whole group eyed Eric dangerously for his response.

Eric said, “And a good evening to you all gentlemen. Pray tell, what are you all doing out on this fine evening?” The question prompted dubious looks, and not a few of them were getting angrier at the ever-present smile nailed on to his face.

“Polite Conversation” a Short Story – Image 3

Robin was starting to get frustrated at the man’s cool responses. He was used to dealing with people with eyes wide as saucers, a palpable sheen of sweat and shaking hands betraying their horror. But he’d gone this far, why not continue the ruse? “Why, my good sir, we’re out looking for some rich to steal from, so that we may give to the poor.” Some of the gang laughed at this, but most eyed Eric intently.

“Why, what fun! Pray tell, are there any in your number who have found such a person this fine evening?”

Agitated and humiliated, the mood was beginning to finally turn ugly for Eric, and Robin was almost reaching his limit with this fool. “I think so, dear fellow. Pray tell, what do you have on your person?”

Eric’s smile stayed, and his eyes remained hopeful as he explained, “Why, I have but the clothes in my hand. Perhaps you’d like to take them from me?” To this, he added, looking into Robin’s eyes with intent seriousness, “Perhaps bash my head into pieces and leave me to die?”

Someone hissed, “What the fuck?” The gang was already confused by this encounter, but now they were keenly aware that something was not right with his bloke. They were used to people turning on their heels and evading them. They were jackals, not lions. They were unsure of how to treat someone who might be looking for a fight.

Robin looked around, trying to retain control of the situation, saying, “Oi, he’s clearly fucking mental. Let’s see how much fun we can have with this one, hey?” He turned back to Eric and continued his chat with Eric.

“Dear man, we are merely looking for money. For what reason are you carrying those clothes?”

Eric swallowed. There were the beginnings of perspiration on his face. Some of the boys took this to mean he was afraid. But still that hideous grin remained, thick lips barely covering straight, yellow teeth. He answered with the tone of someone talking about the weather.

“He told me to, my dear fellow. Him out there in the woods. I was walking out there earlier tonight and it was dark out, you see. And as I walked along, I heard someone singing a song. I wanted to investigate. And soon enough I came upon this thicket. It was impossibly green with moss, and stunk of mildew. In the middle of it I saw a pale, white shape, hairless and featureless, save for a face that took hold of me the moment it set its eyes on me. They were like grey marbles flecked with red and darkness. Its nose was a black triangle, the point of it reaching upwards towards the stars. Its mouth was smooth, and seemed not to move at all as it started to talk to me.”

Eric swallowed, a bead of sweat running down his head.

“You see, he told me where he’s from. He said he was delivered to the earth through a tornado no soul had laid eyes upon. He showed me where Hell is. He told me this is the beginning of magic. He showed me the evidence. I didn’t want to know anymore, but I couldn’t get away. His eyes can do things. The red is a sea of blood, the blood of fools and traitors, and of perverts and thieves. He is as violent as a cyclone, skies boiling black from the turbulent power that broils within him, my dear fellow,” Eric stated, his jovial voice betraying none of the horrors of which he spoke.

Some of the youth could feel their hair standing on end.

Robin swallowed. He continued, his accent no longer proper at all.

“Why are you telling us this?”

“Oh, he told me to go get him clothes, you see. He needs them. He must see us closely first, as he did with me. He commanded me to move without hesitation and to err on the side of fair judgement. He was so clever. He made sure that I couldn’t throw away my keys or walk into traffic. But he made one mistake, gentlemen, and you are witness to it now. He told me I was permitted to enter into polite conversation if I encountered anyone suspicious of my activities.” Eric’s eyes became pleading, manic. “And a good thing too. Any later and I would be in the woods by now. And he would have human custom and disguise, and then the world would be swallowed by his putrid evil that will devour us all. He is here to deliver us into evil. So please, Merry Men, do make sure that you properly kill me right here where I stand. I understand. I beg of you, dear sirs, make an end of me.”

Eric was moving closer now. The boys were recoiling in horror. Robin looked to the one he’d called Lil John for advice. Eric looked at the boy, his eyes manic saucers in a face seized with eager madness.

“Polite Conversation” a Short Story – Image 4

“Boys, this is your chance. Just make sure you do it quick and finish me off true. I can’t linger at the end, for then he’ll have a chance to enter into you. If you can do this for me, dear fellows, you’ll be defeating the devil himself. So do your worst, I give you full license. In fact, think of it as a fun challenge if you will. Haven’t you always wanted to kill a man? Play with his insides? See how his eyes feel when you squeeze them?”

The boys looked at each other in fearful hesitation. Eric became agitated at the lack of action his words were inspiring.

He grabbed Robin’s hand.

“Go on,” he hissed, “Step on my brains.”

“Fucking hell!” Robin yelped, shaking his hand free as he took a step away from Eric.

A look of terror passed across Eric’s face, and he backed away. Just as he was about to open his mouth, he suddenly turned away and began walking towards the plaza’s exit. His walk would have been comical, with its odd, jerking way of moving, had he not just terrified the gang of youth.

Robin and his Merry Men watched the man go. They could hear him crying to himself, a sob that was subdued by the clothes that he held out in front of him.

The one Robin had called Friar Fuck called out, “Yeah, you go on then, pussyole!”

Eric turned around, that same smile the only thing visible under the streetlights as he said cheerfully, “And to you as well, you fucking children! Farewell, and may you die with each other’s pathetic little dicks jammed down your throats.” He turned to walk away.

His words had taken away any reservations they’d had about attacking the stranger. They were upon him in a matter of seconds. One of them used a blade, which mercifully hastened the violence considerably. Within a moment, the gang backed away from the body lying on the ground.

Eric looked up and at one of their number, staring into their eyes, trying to say something, but only succeeded at making blood pour from his mouth into his hair and down on to the stone walkway on which he lay. Then he arched his back, looked up at the sky, and died.

The gang made a run for it, and were gone in an instant.

All except for one.

He was one of the Merry Men who had gone unnamed in Robin’s character list. He was the one who had used the knife on Eric. He had never killed a man before. It was like his older brother had told him, all except the look in the man’s eye.

He had locked eyes with the dying man. Before he could blink, his vision was filled with a tornado composed of blood and swirling larger than the cosmos. In the middle of it there emerged a form blacker than forgotten catacombs descending from the boiling clouds above. Their abyssal darkness formed into an upward black triangle. It pulled away to reveal an alabaster face that locked eyes with him. Its thick, sensuous lips smiled.

He slowly approached the prostrate body. With odd, jerking movements, he scooped up the clothes, and in an odd, jerking fashion, walked towards the plaza’s exit. Just beyond lay the encroaching darkness of the forest.

***

    The primeval woods lurked beneath unusually opaque mist the next morning. The normally slumbering town of Buckingham woke to police tape and early reports of a murder in town. There was mention of suspects based on CCTV footage of the outer rim of the plaza. The police’s main concern was the lone member of the gang who they could not find, the one who had walked out with the clothes Eric had walked in with.

All this focus took away from the strangeness happening amidst the trees, the unusual weather emerging, and the stranger who appeared in town. He was alabaster white, with onyx eyes that wept fluid. Yet despite his shocking appearance, the people in town didn’t seem to care. In fact, anyone who locked eyes with those black orbs appeared shocked for only a second, before promptly going about their days in almost mechanical fashion.

People were much more focused on the violent tempests seemingly conjured out of nowhere, the lakes of blood that emerged in normally clandestine glades, and the moss that had begun growing on every surface, including human skin.