's 2013 Horror Write-off:

" Market Day "

Submitted by Keith Johnstone

Thursdays have quickly become my least favourite day of the week. In my mind, nothing about Thursday as a concept is particularly offensive. Neither is its place in the week. It just happens to be the day he always shows up, heralding the weekly crush through sweating hordes and endless pawing through over ripe produce. Every week I am forced to waste a whole day on this disgusting and draining task. Sighing, I adjust the straps of my customary leather coveralls. The metal buckles squeeze round my waist like an overly affectionate relative. It's not like there's any way around it though. It's either go with him and come home with whatever I can sneak out, or forage in my neighbour's trash for provisions for yet another week. I wouldn't dare enter that cursed pit without him regardless, as unpleasant as his company can be. You never know what can happen in the market.

"The time is upon us, good neighbour!" Wrenched out of my thoughts by the booming voice, I stumble over a stray canvas boot, slam my forearm into the wall and let loose a series of curses. "Sharp words close no wounds, friend." My brow furrows angrily as his dry reprimand bounces around the corrugated metal room. His 'raw nuggets of timely wisdom' have always bothered me more than they ought to. This discomfort is then amplified by the fact that the emphasis he puts on words always seems somewhat off, as though they are being spoken by someone with no real knowledge of language. Muttering under my breath I shuffle over to the thick iron sheet that serves as my door. Undoing the crude deadbolt, I wrench it open with a grunt.

My eyes are greeted by an expanse of filthy pleated black cloth. A gnarled hand grips my shoulder like a vice as I look up. His blocky, almost wooden features make him look more like a wall than a man in all honesty. As he looks me over, his large shale eyes betray no emotion. Pushing a chunk of slick black hair out of his face with his free hand he ushers me outside.

I squint against the harsh morning light as I step out into the cramped alleyway. His nostrils flare as he surveys the alley, then notices my discomfort. "Only those of wicked mind fear morning's probing gaze." He doesn't even make eye contact as he scolds me. I spit on his back when he returns to scouring the air for traces of the market. Suddenly his head stops moving, and he raises a bulky arm, pointing to the east.

"Victuals await, dear companion. Haste." Plunging a spade-like hand into his chest, he pulls apart the pleats of his robe and shoves me inside. This is always one of the more unpleasant parts of the day. The dark I can handle. The feeling of being crushed against his massive ribs as he hurtles left and right is easy enough to get used to. But the moisture... I've never managed to develop a tolerance for how damn moist it is there in that cramped darkness. I often find myself holding my breath just to avoid inhaling the strangely wet air, but an unexpected jolt as the muscular pistons below me leap over an unseen obstacle typically will knock the air out of my lungs.

Luckily this week I am not forced to spend too much time in that damp cloth cage. Dry air and burning light streams in as a calloused hand plucks me out of the dark and dumps me rather roughly onto the ground. I quickly realize the reason for the short trip; the market has expanded. It's no longer possible to spot where the throngs of people and brightly coloured stalls end, the sprawl of the market stretches from both edges of the horizon. As I begin to stand up, a knee knocks into my back with just enough force to send me tumbling back to the ground. A colossal shadow looms over my prone body.

"Gourds are essential. Tubers are optional, but required. Go." His monotonous voice reverberates through my skull. I scramble to my feet, careful to avoid another knee to the back. As I move to the crush of people I am suddenly assaulted by a wall of stimuli. Exotic spices sear my nostrils alongside the reek of unwashed bodies, and above all the sickly sweet smell of rot permeates everything around me. The decay is palpable in the air. Vendors attempt to outcompete both each other and the din of their customers in an effort to sell their wares. Everywhere legs, arms, bags, hands, boxes of green and white and orange shuffle in and out of vision, a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of commerce.

"The raging wheel of opportunity stops only for the bold." I flinch at the sound of the all too familiar voice. Not wanting to risk any new bruises by turning around, I force my way into the crowd. It's unusual for him to even pretend to follow me into the stalls. Typically he disappears, appearing around a corner the moment I have fetched the items he desired. My focus is brought back to my current situation as dozens of swinging joints batter my body. Pressing through the mass of people I eventually squeeze my way to a promising looking stand advertising a 'Pure Food Environment!' The vendor grins placidly at me as I dig through bins of pitted vegetables, bursting fruits and wilting greens. I shove a flattened head of lettuce inside my coveralls, then grab the most intact gourds I can find and a pair of shrivelling, eye-covered potatoes. I toss the vendor a strip of leather and it winks at me in response, grotesquely contorting its oblong face. As I wheel around to avoid looking at the vendor any longer than absolutely necessary, a bony hand latches onto my shoulder just firmly enough that I can't shake it off.

"Whoa whoa, hold up, hey there buddy!" The hand belongs to a lanky man, who quickly pulls me into a small gap between two stalls. His sinuous arms are surprisingly strong despite their negligible thickness. "Haha, so, I see you grabbed some of those veggies, real nice ones too... and, ha, already paid..." The man's eyes dart nervously to both sides, but his grip on my shoulder remains firm. "But, you know, this is the funny thing here... I've had my eye on those exact same vegetables! Haha, what a coincidence, right?" His grip tightens, and he finally makes eye contact with me. His hollow, colourless eyes are dead, and twitch ceaselessly. "You seem pretty reasonable, right? You trust me, we're friends already, I can tell! So, heh, you wouldn't mind giving me those gourds, right? Friends help each other out! You scratch my back I soften your ligaments, or however that goes..." I notice his other hand sliding along the wall towards my abdomen, and hug my vegetable prizes tighter to my chest. Sharp fingertips graze my waist, then suddenly my shoulder is released.

Turning to my right, I find myself inches away from a significantly meatier hand. The gourds and potatoes are snatched out of my grip and disappear beneath black cloth. "Meats next, friend. The correct meats. It is essential." Pushing past me, he shoves his way through the crowd, knocking over boxes and sending people tumbling to the ground around him. No one resists. No one even seems to notice. Regaining my balance I shuffle after my massive companion. It takes me a moment to question where the thin man went, but the answer is quickly provided as his limp body tumbles to the ground, released from the grip of my temporary saviour. The man appears to be alive, despite the unnatural angles of his limbs. Only half a dozen patrons are forced to step over him before a vendor appears with a wheelbarrow, folds his gangly appendages inside and hauls him off. I try not to think about where exactly they're taking him, and in all likelihood the vendor is barely thinking about it either.

As we move deeper into the market, the stalls begin to shift from produce to meat of all kinds. The customers seem to change as well, moving more rapidly, yet somehow colliding less often, forming an organic flood that envelops me and my massive black landmark. Brightly coloured signs stained with unsavoury fluids line both sides of the pathway, advertising various products as containing organic bone crush, flavour dream expulsions or coming with free boneless rind dipping cream. Overenthusiastic butchers cut into suspicious slabs of meat, separating them into even more suspicious looking chunks. The same dull smile as the vegetable vendor is plastered on all their faces. I suddenly have the urge to grab a flank steak.

My leviathan guide abruptly stops, customers warping around him, and pivots back towards me. "There. Embrace food truth, retrieve the edible contents. Yet beware, false sustenance abounds. Go." He directs me into a conspicuously dark and empty side path, and places himself at the entrance back into the main market.

"Blessed are the quick in a world of tar, so long as they never stop." With a show of Herculean willpower I manage to resist the urge to punch him in the jaw. It's unlikely I could reach regardless. Unsurprisingly, it seems none of the other customers of the market are very interested in retrieving the contents of food truth, and without the pressure of others all around me I suddenly feel naked. Vulnerable. So I continue down the side path, hoping to retrieve whatever it is he wants and get back home, back to reliable steel walls. Scanning the sides of the path, I spot several cracked wooden barrels of meat and dig through them enthusiastically. The majority of the meat is rotten and falls apart in my hands. The rare pieces that manage to hold themselves together are worm infested hunks of pestilence. I try to imagine what my mother would have to say about this situation, about this meat, about him. Even in my imagination I can't understand her. How disappointing. I decide that perhaps he won't mind a little extra vermiform protein and grab the most coherent piece I can find and a massive tube of flesh that was hopefully a string of sausages at some point.

I don't even manage to get halfway back down the path before he is on me, smashing the rotten offerings out of my grip. With his other hand he cuffs me over the head, sending me sprawling face first into the dirt. Dried offal mixes with fresh blood in my mouth into a repulsive stew. My head aches from the blow, and I brace for another. But it never comes. I look up, and he is just standing over me, scanning me with those big slate eyes. As usual no emotion shows, but if I had to guess I would split my bet between disappoint and contempt. But hesitation is hesitation, no matter the source. So I run.

Hurtling down the side path, it twists to the right, then branches into two paths. I choose one at random and scramble down it, mouth dripping blood. Strangely, I hear no footsteps following me, no massive fist slams into my skull. As I continue to flee the only notable objects on the path are the omnipresent meat barrels, but suddenly I spot the glint of polished metal from the edge of my vision. A large round door is tucked away in a small alcove, sitting ajar. Waiting. I cautiously enter the room, almost forgetting about my pursuer. It appears to have been a refrigerator at some point, but has not been cooling anything for some time. Within the depths of the fridge huge sides of spoiled meat hang on vicious hooks, forming a maze of putrefying muscle and bone.

Metal grinds on metal as I suddenly recall the urgency of my situation and pull the door shut behind me. Perhaps he won't notice. Perhaps he'll think I got lost in the twisting passages of the inner market. He seemed to have come to me at random initially, he could abandon me for some other lackey just as easily, right? A violent banging from the door answers that question for me.

"Fighting the web's grip only further restricts its course!" Every poorly emphasized syllable is accompanied by the wet thud of flesh on steel. Like the sound of a steak slapping against my bedroom wall. Like my head splitting open on the wall of a fridge. I move to the back of the refrigerator and sink to my knees, facing the door. The rhythmic beating continues relentlessly, matching the steadily increasing throbbing from the back my eye sockets. Matching the horrible weekly pattern my life has been consumed by. Eating away at any desire to resist. As I stumble to my feet and make my way to the door, an odd noise exits my mouth. A mixture of a chuckle and a tired, ragged sob.

I never did find that flank steak.