The honeymoon was not going well.
Simon worked the pedals, trying to push through the pain in his calves and thighs, eyes fixed on the crest of the hill, teeth gritted furiously. Mark’s laboured breaths rose behind him, laden with admonition.
“Nearly there!” Simon called over his shoulder. Mark didn’t reply.
They wobbled to the top of the rise and stopped, Mark dismounting with a groan. Simon made a show of admiring the Suffolk landscape to avoid having to look at him. Enmeshed fields of green, yellow, and brown stretched away in every direction, enclosed by hedges and perforated with stands of broad oak and lime. It was probably an impressive view, if you liked that sort of thing.
Simon risked a glance. Mark sat on a stone wall, head in hands, curly brown hair poking from between his fingers as he massaged his scalp. Simon propped the bike against the wall and sat next to him.
Mark nodded, then grimaced. “I’m sorry. I don’t think all this exercise and country air agrees with me.”
“I’m sorry too,” said Simon. “What was I thinking, eh? The two of us, out in the sticks. We should’ve had a few days in Berlin or Budapest.” He waved at the tandem. “Exploring the wilds on a bicycle made for two? It’s just not us.”
Though Simon didn’t think that was the problem, not really. Mark had been adventurous enough before the marriage. In the weeks following he acquired an uncharacteristic lassitude, and Simon had hoped the trip would break him out of it. So far it had done nothing to help.
He put his arm around Mark and tried not to feel hurt when his husband flinched slightly at his touch. “Shall we go back?”
Mark shook his head, then scrubbed his face and stood up, resolute. “The next village is only a few miles. Let’s at least get there and have some lunch. We can get a taxi back to the hotel if we need to.” They mounted up, and Simon sucked in a deep lavender-scented breath. Somewhere nearby, bees hummed languidly in the heavy air.
They sped down the hill, Simon’s heart beginning to race. He closed his eyes and dared himself to enjoy it, to revel in the knowledge that if an obstacle emerged, there would be nothing they could do but hit it hard, head on. Abandon rippled along his skin.
“Simon, wait. Brake! Stop!”
The bike skidded and was still. Simon’s heart was beating all the more now, loud in his ears so that he could hardly hear Mark’s voice.
“Look,” Mark was saying. “There. Let’s go.”
Simon followed Mark’s waving hand and saw a low sign by the roadside, an oval of slate mounted on a wooden post, the words ‘Medicinal Honey: Cure-All’ chalked on, with an arrow pointing toward a narrow track that led across the fields.
“Must be a farm shop or something,” said Simon.
“Let’s go. You know I love honey.”
Simon nodded. It was true; when they were dating, it was the first thing they had found that they really differed on. Mark adored honey, in all its forms. Simon hated it. But right now he would be happy to indulge–if a little honey could improve Mark’s mood and salvage the day.
They rode the track slowly, easing over the bumps and avoiding the many ruts and holes in the hard earth. A light breeze cooled the sweat on Simon’s forehead, and the soporific hum of the wind mixed in with the chirruping of grasshoppers in the long grass made him relaxed, almost sleepy. In contrast, Mark was more energised, pedalling steadily, humming a tune under his breath.
The ground rose gently until the fields gave way to a cluster of farm buildings; a long brick farmhouse with smoke rising from the chimney, steel framed barns blazing in the sunlight. A yard of bare earth stood in the centre of it all, fenced in, the gate into the farm wide open. All was quiet.
“Not exactly a brisk trade, I guess.” Simon hoped for a smile but was disappointed.
They rolled down to the farm through clumps of yarrow and clover, butterflies scattering lazily before them.
A man was working in the yard, mending a stretch of wire fencing with a hammer and pliers. He was on his knees and sweating profusely, wet patches stippling his overalls. Simon wondered why he didn’t strip down to something more reasonable in the heat. As they stepped through the gate, the man looked up then pushed himself to his feet.
He was tall and thick-set, with a wiry black beard run through with shocks of white. A straw hat kept the sun from browning his face beyond its current buff, and he wore a pair of expensive-looking wrap-around sunglasses. As they wheeled their bikes to him, he took out a battered roll-up and lit it.
“Can we help you boys?” His voice was dry and light, like the smoke he exhaled into the summer air.
Simon gave the man his most well-meaning smile. “We saw the sign for medicinal honey, and we… is this the right place?”
The man nodded. “Yup. All sorts of honey in the store over there, for all kinds of ailments.” He turned towards Mark for a long moment as if examining him from behind the shades, then nodded. “You’re looking for something specific, I think.”
Mark looked confused but then nodded back, glancing at Simon as he did so.
“Well then, lads. Let’s look at what we’ve got.”
He led them to the nearest building, which was a small brick-and-timber construction that might once have held livestock. The man walked slowly with an awkward, oblique gait, seeming to favour one leg. As he walked he hummed a little tune to himself softly, the same few notes over and over, like a mantra.
Inside, the building was pleasant enough; high windows let in plenty of sunlight that fell over a series of large wooden planters filled with straw, earthenware honey pots nestled in them like precious eggs. A faint animal scent made Simon wrinkle his nose but Mark beamed.
“How charming,” he said. “Are they all different flavours?”
The man nodded. “All different flavours, for all different illnesses.” He held a sweaty arm out towards Mark, fingers extended, thick black hair running down the back of the hand. “You, perhaps, are not feeling like yourself. For you, we would suggest this honey.” He plucked a pot from a planter and popped off the lid. A small glass jar appeared in his hand and they waited patiently while he filled it with dense, brown honey. When it was full, he tightened the lid and carefully passed it to Mark. Mark held it like a rare treasure.
Simon was less impressed. “How much is that, then?”
The man smiled, the act oddly disconcerting beneath the glassy shades in which Simon could only see himself reflected. “Ten pounds please, chief.”
“A tenner?” Simon looked again at the small jar in Mark’s hands, but he knew arguing would be no use. He handed over the money, which the man slipped into a bristly sleeve cuff.
“That’ll set you right. Works wonders.”
“It should, for that price.” Simon scowled, but the man ignored him.
“Thanks,” Mark said hesitantly. “I’m Mark, this is Simon.”
The man nodded, and once more gave a little hum. “Melville,” he said. “Don’t eat that all at once now.” He smiled again. “But if you do, you know where we are.”
Simon stared at the ceiling of the hotel room, watching the reflected shadows of the moths that danced endlessly around the streetlamp outside. Mark slept peacefully next to him, untroubled by the bad dreams he had experienced almost nightly over the last few weeks. He hardly dared to hope that the ‘medicinal’ honey might actually work. The paranoid part of himself entertained the possibility that perhaps it had been spiked with some kind of sleeping medicine, to relieve anxiety and stress and give the illusion of a natural remedy. He hoped that wasn’t the case; Mark had eaten half the jar’s contents after dinner.
He got up and moved to the open window. Mark always slept with the curtains open, and in the stifling summer heat they had also left the sash a little ajar for a breeze. Outside, the street in front of the hotel was still and silent. Nocturnal insects buzzed around an illuminated sign, a wooden board bearing an image of a large, regal bee above the hotel’s name—the Queen Bee—in stylised lettering.
Simon strained to hear and thought there might have been a tune somewhere amongst the night-time noise of the countryside, a few faint notes hummed over and over. Behind him, Mark rolled over on the bed and murmured something. Despite the heat, Simon closed and latched the window, then lay down on the bed to stare once more at the ceiling.
Mark was gone. Simon had woken late and spent the first few minutes in the bathroom, running his head under cold water to try to clear the fog that remained from a largely sleepless night. It was only when he returned to the room that he realised he was alone. Mark’s things were where he had left them the night before, apart from trousers and shirt, and his shoes were gone from under the bed. The jar of honey was also missing.
Simon dressed quickly then ran down to the breakfast room. He scanned the seated diners for Mark, but there was no sign of him. The young man at the reception desk said he hadn’t seen anyone matching Mark’s description leave that morning and hadn’t ordered a taxi for anyone apart from an old couple heading to the train station.
Simon stepped outside into an already warm morning. There was no point in phoning Mark; his mobile was still on the bedside table, next to where the missing jar of honey had stood. He walked up and down the street a few times, around the car park and garden of the hotel. No sign.
Perhaps Mark had gone to the shops in the village or for a walk. But Simon didn’t think so. He was sure that Mark must have gone back to the farm to get more of the honey that he liked so much. He must have set off early, on foot. Simon returned to the Queen Bee and asked the receptionist to call him a taxi.
The taxi drove away, and Simon stared in confusion at the spot where the track had been just yesterday. Now it was almost nonexistent, a thicket of scrub and long grass bordering the road as far as could be seen, with no clear way through. The little wooden post and sign were gone. He was sure this was the right place. Halfway down the incline, he could see the faint black marks his bicycle tyre had made on the asphalt when he braked sharply. The vegetation showed no signs of disturbance; if Mark had been through here this morning, he left no trace.
Simon raised his arms to shield his face and forced his way into the sharp branches. The track was overgrown all along its length, and by the time he had pushed through to the farm he was scratched and bleeding, his clothes soaked through with sweat. He cursed himself for rushing out so quickly without even thinking to bring a drink or a hat.
The farm looked much the same as it had yesterday though the gate was closed and Melville was nowhere to be seen. Simon stepped on the gate to hoist himself over but was halted by a muffled shout from the yard. Melville—he assumed—stood in front of one of the barns, his face covered by a long respirator and hood, his body wrapped tight in a white coverall. He held a large container of chemicals and a spray nozzle. He put the container down—yellow liquid sloshed back and forth inside—and limped over to the gate. He still wore his shades but lifted the mask so that Simon could hear him clearly.
“Farm’s closed. Spraying for pests.” He waved vaguely towards the barns. “We’d be glad to sell you some more honey tomorrow, but for now….” Melville shrugged helplessly.
“I’m looking for the man I was here with yesterday. Mark. Has he been here?”
Melville shook his head. “No-one’s been since you two.”
Simon wasn’t sure what else to say. He didn’t believe the man though he couldn’t say why. “How did that track get so overgrown overnight? Yesterday we could ride along it.”
Melville shrugged again. “Not sure. There’s a problem in this area with knotweed and such. It springs up real fast at this time of year. Might be that’s what happened. Or maybe it just seems different today because you’re alone and on foot. It’s not always a good idea to ramble alone.”
The man gave a low rumble that might have been him clearing his throat, then nodded. “Well, best get back to it. Steer clear of the place today; you don’t want to be breathing in this stuff. Be happy to see you again another day.” He put the respirator back in place, then turned and shuffled back to the barn. At the door, he turned and watched until Simon had retreated from the gate into the overgrowth.
Simon stood amongst the branches and watched for some time though he wasn’t sure what for. But Melville did not emerge and there was no sign of Mark. No sign of any activity at all. After a while he started to feel foolish and decided it would be best to return to the hotel. Mark might even be there, waiting for him. How would he explain that he had wasted the morning hiding in scrub, watching the farm where they had bought some honey the day before?
He began to fight his way back to the road.
Simon approached the farm again, this time through heavy darkness. He kept his head down so that the branches didn’t whip his face. Every few minutes he flicked on the torch he had bought a few hours before, just to check his bearings. As he stepped from the edge of the scrub and stood before the gate, he was sure he’d made the right decision. There was something wrong with this place.
Mark hadn’t been at the hotel, of course. Simon had asked everyone he’d met, but no-one had seen Mark all day. He’d even called the police but they said that they would have to wait at least 24 hours before considering the absence of an adult on holiday a cause for concern; though they would put his description out on the radio. If he didn’t return by morning, Simon was to call them again.
But Mark was here; Simon was sure of it.
He tucked the small torch into his belt and heaved himself up and over the gate, landing lightly in the yard on the other side. The farm was dark and silent in the moonlight. To Simon’s left was the building where they had bought the honey. Next to that was a small wooden structure that looked a little like a stable, and then further way across the yard was a large steel and wood barn. The brick farmhouse was far off to Simon’s right. It too was unlit. Simon began to move towards the honey store, keeping low to the ground.
There was the scrape and bang of a door opening. Simon ducked behind a jumble of rusting tractor parts and watched through an interstice as someone emerged from the barn. Simon recognised Melville from his size and the overalls he still wore, though he was bareheaded now, bald scalp gleaming in the moonlight. But something was different. The man moved as if exhausted, shuffling across the packed earth of the yard with his head bowed. With each dragging step he gave a small whistle, an odd, atonal tune that was more like the shrill calls of an animal than any music Simon had ever heard. In the middle of the yard Melville stopped and raised his head to the sky with a great curving of his back. He opened his mouth wide—too wide—and keened a cry to the night air that set Simon to shivering.
An answering cry came from somewhere far off. Melville bowed his head once more and continued, disappearing around the back of the farmhouse.
Simon sat for a moment, breathing heavily, trying to think coherently about what he had seen. Clearly there was something wrong with the man, but what? And who had answered him? Simon reached for his phone. If he called the police, what could he say? There was an unusual farmer on an unusual farm. A farm on which he was trespassing for no good reason. No, he would need to find Mark first.
The store was much as it had been the day before: boxes of straw containing pots of honey, an odd smell, and little else. Simon flashed torchlight over everything, but saw nothing of interest. As he was leaving, he checked the planter for the pot Mark had received his honey from. It was gone.
The stable door was locked but Simon had come prepared. He took a screwdriver from the small tool belt around his waist and slipped the point between the door and frame, just above the lock. He applied pressure and put his weight against the door, gradually forcing the bolt out until the door popped open with a shudder.
There were noises in the darkness. A faint murmuring and sucking, coming from somewhere at the other end of the stable. Simon kept the screwdriver in his hand and moved forward, shining light into the stalls as he went. The first ones were all empty, but half-way down one stall held an old man, sleeping naked on a thick layer of straw. Simon judged him to be eighty at least. He was hairless, and his skin was an odd, almost luminous shade of yellow. The only other things in the stall were an open pot, much like the ones in the honey store, and a metal pail. The pail seemed to contain honey, though the amber shine was mixed in with something darker. The man smiled happily as he slept.
The sucking noise was coming from the end of the stalls.
Simon hurried, almost afraid to look but desperate to know. An emaciated figure squatted amongst the straw.
Mark crouched on bare feet and stared ahead, sucking greedily at his fingers. He gave no indication that he was aware of Simon’s presence. Simon watched as he scooped a finger into a pot and drew out a globule of honey, lifting it to his mouth.
“Mark!” Simon opened the stall door but a noise from the yard stopped him. He switched off the torch and stepped quickly to the open door.
Melville was walking to the barn, a wooden barrel in his arms. He slid the barn door open with his foot and disappeared inside. An unearthly whine erupted through the open doorway, like the screaming of dozens of animals in pain. Then faded.
Simon hesitated. He wanted to get Mark away but had to know what was in the barn.
Within seconds he had crossed to the door. There was a little moonlight in the vast space, enough to show Melville undressing. The big man shook off his overalls to show a broad body covered in thick black hair. He stepped out of his boots and seemed to grow taller, bristly legs expanding or unfolding beneath him. He stretched his arms as if free of some restraint and opened his mouth in a gaping yawn. The sunglasses still perched atop his nose despite the darkness.
Simon watched dumbfounded as Melville—or whatever it was, if not a man—scuttled further into the barn, which Simon now saw was occupied by several large metal vats that could be reached by footstools positioned behind them. Each one sported a small tap, and the Melville thing placed the wooden barrel under one before opening it. Something thick and dark dripped out.
Leaving the barrel to fill, the thing moved to the centre of the barn, where it reached down to the floor and hauled on a chain, dragging up a large steel trapdoor. A dry chittering filled the night. Melville yawned again, emitting a high-pitched squeal that seemed to quiet whatever was beneath the barn. It stood there for a long time, clicking and whistling to itself, before finally returning to the vat. The thing hoisted the barrel in its bristly arms and moved to the tunnel entrance. The twittering increased to an almost deafening intensity as the thing slowly descended, and then the door closed behind it and silent darkness returned.
Simon moved to the vat, stepping up on the footstool and making sure he was balanced. He hefted the lid, so that there was a six-inch opening and shone the torch inside. The thick, amber glow of honey reflected back. And there was something darker within, submerged in the viscous sludge. Simon leaned in, one hand on the metal lip for support, and thrust the torch as close to the surface of the honey as he could. The dark shape remained obscure, though he could just make out the nearest part of it, something curved and white. As he moved the torch around, the light fell on something small and regular floating nearer the surface. Simon peered carefully for a long moment before he realised what he was looking at. A tooth. Someone’s molar, suspended in the honey.
Simon straightened and carefully replaced the lid with shaking hands. He stepped back to the floor and rapidly crossed the barn, a rush of panic clawing up his throat.
Outside, and the across the yard to the stable. The old man was still asleep on the straw, snoring wetly. He would have to wait. Mark was the priority.
Mark was still awake, but as vacant as before. He sat sucking at his fingers, the empty honey pot abandoned at his feet. Simon knelt and slipped one arm beneath Mark’s legs, the other around his shoulders, and hauled him painfully onto his shoulders in a fireman’s lift, staggering unsteadily under the weight. Mark was so much lighter than he had been. How could he have lost weight in just a few hours?
Simon marched into the yard and towards the overgrown track, trying not to fall in the darkness. The pressure on his back made him tremble, but he kept his mind focused on getting to the track and putting some distance between the two of them and the farm. At the road he could call the police. He would show them the farm, and the bodies floating in honey.
Mark was whispering something by Simon’s ear, but Simon couldn’t hear it over his own laboured breaths. It sounded like he was saying groan, or growth, or grub.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be okay. Don’t worry, it’ll be okay.” He repeated it to Mark over and over, to keep himself fixed on placing one foot in front of the other. They were amongst the shrubs and brambles now, prickles snagging his trousers and skin. A stem snared his ankle and he twisted, off-balance.
The weight was too much; Simon sank to his knees and let Mark drop as gently as he could to the hard earth. His shoulders burned and his arms shook. He swore to the night air.
Something stirred the scrub ahead, and then the dark, stocky form of Melville emerged, shuffling along the path towards him. But no, not Melville.
The approaching figure looked almost identical to the thing Simon had seen at the farm, but the face was a little broader, the nose flatter. The sunglasses it wore were different, frames white instead of black. But the barrel-shaped, bristly body was the same, rough hair covering its nakedness.
Simon stood, ready to fight, and then turned at a noise from behind. Another Melville—the one from the farm, he was sure—scraped its way through the long grass. It raised a hand as if in greeting.
“You can’t take him. We’re sorry.”
Simon felt lightheaded. He looked down at Mark, who lay staring at the night sky, eyes glassy. He shook his head.
“He’s coming home with me.” Simon’s voice broke. “He’s my Mark.”
Melville’s face twitched. “That would be a mistake.” The thing raised a hand and removed its sunglasses, so that Simon could see the globular black orbs protruding from its flesh like the compound eyes of an insect, reflecting a thousand pinpricks of moonlight in their depths.
“We only take the dying. Those who cannot be saved. Your Mark has something growing deep inside his brain that will kill him. Slowly. This is better. We promise you, this is better.”
Simon saw the sky yawning open above him, the stars sliding into the huge colourless gullet of an unfeeling universe. “He’s mine!”
“He belongs to nobody, not even to himself.”
Sharp bristles scratched at Simon’s face and arms as a great warmth enveloped him from behind. The emptiness it brought was a relief.
A year passed. Summer had come again.
Simon had told the police, of course. They had listened and taken him back to the farm, struggling with him down the overgrown path to find the buildings abandoned, with no sign of recent habitation. He’d taken them to the barn with the vats, but it was empty, wreathed in dust and cobwebs. The steel trapdoor through which Melville had descended opened onto solid concrete. He urged the police to break it, to find what was beneath, but they didn’t believe him. Nothing in his story made sense and there was only so far they would go to humour him.
They had questioned him several times over the next few months, asking about his mental state, Mark’s emotional stability. Any marital difficulties they may have been experiencing. But they made no progress, and the case remained unresolved. A year later, Mark was officially still a missing person.
Simon sat in their apartment—the home they had shared for a few short weeks—and drank. He wasn’t coping. At first he’d gone back to the farm alone, almost every week for half a year. Each time it was the same: empty, abandoned. He had paid for counselling, to be told he was traumatised, shocked by Mark’s disappearance into a delusion with no basis in reality. Was it possible, the counsellor had suggested, that Mark had rejected him, and Simon’s mind had constructed the farm scenario as a way of dealing with the pain of rejection so soon after the marriage? He’d been prescribed medication, which he didn’t take. Instead, he drank.
It was a fine summer evening. He sat in Mark’s chair and gazed out of the window, watching a boat full of tourists crawl languidly down the Thames. A bee batted aimlessly against the glass. His stomach hurt. He’d been drinking too much, eating too little. The doorbell rang, two sharp blasts that made his gut tighten painfully, and then silence descended once again. He shuffled to the door, determined to get rid of any callers as fast as possible.
A plain earthenware pot stood in the corridor outside his door, a piece of folded blue paper trapped beneath it. There was no-one in sight, the hallway deserted. Simon slid the paper out first, then lifted the heavy pot in trembling hands and carried it inside, placing it carefully on the coffee table. He waited a long moment before opening the lid. When he did the sickly sweet smell of honey filled the room.
He unfolded the paper and his stomach clenched again when he saw the handwriting that ran across the page. It was Mark’s; he knew it intimately. Yet the page held only three words: This is better.
He let it fall to the floor.
Simon sat regarding the pot silently for a long time while the light outside faded and the shadows lengthened.
When it was fully dark, he reached for the pot and dipped his fingers into the thick morass inside. Slowly at first, and then with increasing urgency, he began scooping it into his mouth.
Rob Francis is an academic ecologist and writer based in London. He started writing short fantasy and horror in 2014, mainly on the train to work and in the early hours of the morning. His stories have appeared in magazines such as The Arcanist, Metaphorosis, SQ Mag, and Syntax & Salt. Rob has also contributed stories to several anthologies, most recently Tales of Blood and Squalor by Dark Cloud Press and DeadSteam by Grimmer & Grimmer Books. He lurks on Twitter @RAFurbaneco