For The Record, Episode 4: ATLAS
[SPEAKER: EMELINE LLEWELLYN-JONES]
[FX: TAPE RECORDER STARTS, MILD STATIC]
Statement of Delilah Reed regarding the air in the French Alps. Original statement given July 7th, 1996. Audio recording by Emeline Llewellyn-Jones, head archivist of the Manchester Paranormal Collective.
Back in the early 80s I was an aspiring writer. I had written a series of short stories for several fiction magazines that had been received very well, most of which were based in some way or another on my own dreary London life. I had found it very easy to write stories like A Cellar in Teal Hues, just by looking at my own cellar and letting my mind go wherever it needed to. The same was true for Concrete Teeth, on the buildings downtown, Flooding Lights, on my neighbour’s garden… you get the picture. I had toyed with the idea of writing a full novel before, but I hadn’t been able to work up the courage. I was still working nearly full time as a freelance text editor then, and I simply couldn’t imagine where I would find the time. That is, until I released Blood Oranges.
Blood Oranges had been something of an experimental work. Instead of simply basing it off another rain-soaked, fume-choked London vignette, it was a short story set in the French Alps, near Mont Blanc. I’d spent a summer there as a kid, and I had fond memories of the clear mountain air. Back home, my asthma had frequently made the filthy city air impossible to breathe. I had outgrown my asthma since, as it happens, but I channelled the feeling of freedom and ample room to breathe into a very personal coming-of-age story. It seemed to resonate with readers, because it scored me several TV interviews, universal acclaim, and a very attractive deal for filming rights. As the cheques came rolling in, I knew I had found the opportunity I’d been waiting for. After a call with my manager, I cleared my schedule, stopped accepting freelance contracts, and started work on my debut novel.
It was to be called Atlas, and the story would follow the same general themes as Blood Oranges, in the same setting, but expanded, stretched over several years. It would be heartfelt and innovative, and it would solidify my place in the British fiction scene as not just a one-hit wonder, but a rising star.
I never finished Atlas.
I spent several months working on my first draft, and when it was finally finished, I didn’t waste another minute and sent it off to my editor right away. The money I had made from Blood Oranges was frankly astonishing, but anyone can tell you that even a hit novel won’t support you for a lifetime. I wasn’t in any financial trouble yet, but the deadline was inching ever closer, and the public was starting to forget my name. I sent it over to my editor, and waited as patiently as I could.
Two weeks later the letterbox on my front door clattered, and the corrected version of the manuscript hit my doormat with a dull thunk. Attached to it was a small note on yellow paper, in my editor’s trademark brutal handwriting: Square, compact, and insultingly spotless.
“This won’t do.”
That was all it said. The manuscript itself was covered front to back in blood red notes. My editor had figuratively torn the book to shreds, and in that moment I was very tempted to literally do the same. Instead, I started over. I barely spoke to family and friends now, I spent every waking moment hunched over the pages, making corrections, reorganising chapters, rewriting dialogue… And when I finally read through it… It was awful. It was trite, predictable, and overlong, and, I imagined, would only serve as bookshelf space filler, or a five pound airport paperback. I was out of money, I’d lost most of my personal connections, my editor and publisher were breathing down my neck, and my mind was completely blank.
I had only one option left. It was something I’d originally discarded because it seemed so impractical, but I had no other choice. I packed most of my clothes and my typewriter, sent a letter to anyone concerned saying I would be gone for a while, and headed off to the French Alps, where I had rented a tiny house on the mountainside, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, for a full month.
After an exhausting two day drive, I arrived late at night to a small mountain village. It was quaint, sprawling up the steep terrain as a web of tiny winding roads and maybe a few dozen houses. To my surprise, I found a little shop of climbing supplies that still had a light on in the window. On unsteady legs, I stumbled in through the door to ask for directions. The two men behind the counter were clearly not keen on my presence. They stood leaning up against the wall, both pale, unshaven, and with substantial beer guts. The one on the left stopped rolling his cigarette and stared at me. I felt that stare. It landed somewhere deep within me and it would not leave. Then, the second looked up, and I was met again with horrible, small eyes, and a piercing, bloodshot gaze. I muttered an apology and made my way out as fast as I could. After some nervous fumbling with a map and a few wrong turns, I finally pulled up to the little wooden house on a ridge. On the one side, it was bordered by the mountain, rising up steep and grassy, with only a few scattered trees. On the right was a steep drop of about ten meters down to the road I’d taken to get here. Further down lay the village. No lights burned there now.
The house had two floors. The ground floor had a little kitchen and living room, both musty, covered in yellowed wallpaper, and decorated with likely homemade landscape paintings and inexplicable knickknacks of all shapes and sizes. Upstairs was only one bedroom, with a large window looking out over the village. There was a small desk and chair, a faded and fraying rug, and a small bed.
It was perfect.
I gently placed my belongings beside the bed, undressed, and went to sleep.
The next morning I awoke early, feeling more refreshed than I had in many months. I took my time to wake up, had some leftover crackers from my suitcase for breakfast, and started the day with a little walk. Before dinner time, I had written five pages of Atlas and, if I may say so myself, every one was excellent. I began to feel like it had all been finally worth it, and perhaps my dream was not yet dead. As I drove back down to the village to buy supplies, I fantasized about returning home, and dropping my novel on my editor’s desk. That’s right, no parcel by post this time; I would stride right up to her house and drop it into her hands, just to see the look on her face, and make absolutely sure she could witness the look on mine. She’d be able to see it in my eyes, I was sure, that this was my masterpiece, and that the world would have to prepare for my grand return…
I saw the two men again.
They were sitting on a bench by the road this time, and as soon as they saw my beaming smile, their faces dropped, and the stares returned, their mouths now twisted into horrid scowls. They had dirt on their clothes, and one was holding a large spade. Their bodies seemed so out of place in the mountainous terrain, all squat and grimy, in stark contrast to the blue skies they sat beneath. I looked away and drove on, with that oppressive, indignant stare still weighing on my shoulders.
When I returned to my home, I had dinner, and treated myself to the bottle of French wine I’d managed to find in town. I was never much of a wine connoisseur, and I may have been ripped off, but either way it tasted good to me. Perhaps a little too good, in fact. Wine pours easier and easier nearer to the bottom. Needless to say it didn’t take long for me to collapse onto my bed and sink into a deep dreamless sleep.
[FX: SOFT SUPERNATURAL STATIC]
On the second day, I woke up gasping for air. It was early, and cloudy. A watery sun only managed to get the bare minimum of light through my window, and softly highlighted the edges of my squirming body. I had not had an asthma attack in a decade, but I remembered that sickly weight upon my chest, and how my windpipe felt so small that breathing was more akin to drinking a smoothie with a straw. I threw my covers off of me and jumped out of bed, but my movements were sluggish, and standing up straight was difficult. My head was pounding incessantly, and I could barely think straight. All I could do was scold myself for not bringing any medication, though I hadn’t owned any for years. I dragged myself down the stairs and out the door, still mostly dressed in yesterday’s crumpled clothes. Once I reached the cool morning air, I had to stop to try and catch my breath. I was exhausted, and the attack showed no signs of going away. I needed to find something, anything, but the village was too far to walk, especially now. I was already lightheaded, and my vision was getting blurry around the edges. In desperation, I dragged myself to my car. It wasn’t just my muscles, the air felt… heavy, somehow. I tried to pull myself together as I started the vehicle and began driving down the gravel road. Even the car seemed sluggish. I had to push the gas pedal down much further than I was comfortable with, and still I couldn’t accelerate much. In any other state I would have questioned this, but I pushed through, and slowly began to drive down the mountain. The first turn went well, but then I saw the hairpin bend that followed it, and the abyss that lurked behind. For a moment, my panic was taken over by a new fear of that great beyond, and my mind was stretched taut, like I got it caught on something mid-fall.
[FX: SUPERNATURAL STATIC ABRUPTLY ENDS]
Suddenly, the car lurched forward, I gasped, and before I could really consider why I could breathe again, a tree appeared in front of the car, and I slammed the brake too late.
I was unharmed, but the car was wrecked. I walked the rest of the way to the village, where I convinced a shopkeeper to call a tow truck. From the other side of the street, the two men stared at me. I knew now what their stares meant. They weren’t prying, they didn’t care to know me, they just wanted to push me down. Worse than those eyes was what the men were doing as they relentlessly gazed upon me.
One was filling up a hole in the ground. He took a shovelful of dirt from a mound, cast it into the hole, and tamped it down with such anger and ferocity that I felt I was witnessing a murder. Then, he moved back to the mound, and repeated the malicious cycle. The other did not join. The other just smiled.
I couldn’t go back to London. I wasn’t going to let a single asthma attack ruin my one shot at stardom. There was no asthma medication to be found in town, but another climbing gear store - it seemed the main local income came from hikers - sold oxygen tanks. I found a heavy, aluminium tank, slim, tall, with a valve at the top and a tube leading to a face mask. I bought it, thinking that might help me get through an attack long enough for it to die down. With a heart full of dread, I walked back up the mountain.
Strangely enough, I wrote well again that day. The whole ordeal had filled me with adrenaline, and I was raring to go. I did realise I had some neck pain left over from the crash, and I decided to punch it in early, making sure to place the oxygen can next to my bed.
[FX: SLIGHTLY LOUDER SUPERNATURAL STATIC]
On the third day, I woke up paralysed. At least… something like it. There was a weight on my whole body like I’d been buried in an avalanche, and breathing felt like sucking water out of a moist rag. I unhinged my jaw and flexed my whole body to force some oxygen into my lungs. I pulled and pulled on my limbs to try to move around, but the air was like a thick paste. With all my might I extended a hand to the oxygen can, but I miscalculated. I hit the can and it tipped over, but instead of falling to the ground with a crash, it slowly floated down, until it finally hit the floor with a quiet “tink”.
I wrestled myself off the bed, my lungs burning and my vision swimming, still pumping air in and out of my gaping mouth with every muscle in my body. I managed to reach for the can, and brought the mask up to my face. I could finally breathe, but barely. I still had to pull the oxygen out with heavy, sucking breaths. Slowly, slowly, I put one foot in front of the other, and again, and again, and somehow kept going. When I reached the stairs, I stumbled, and fell down, face first.
It took minutes to reach the bottom. I just floated there, slowly but surely seeing the ground inch closer, still drawing every breath with ragged and tired lungs, my chest nearly tearing itself apart from the effort. Finally, I hit the floor, threw myself at the door, pushed my full weight against it, and turned the knob.
I crawled. Gravity seemed to be magnified tenfold. I felt like I was in a trash compactor, and my bones creaked with every movement. My face was shoved into the grass, my knees and arms were being scraped raw. I managed to lift my head and saw what lay ahead of me. Now, a sense of terrible purpose filled my delirious mind. I was delusional. I was insane. I was oxygen deprived, but with every last working muscle in my body I clawed at the dirt and pulled myself towards the cliff. The oxygen tank was gone. I did not care. When my fingers grabbed at nothing but air, and before me the ground was gone, I did not hesitate a second, and pushed myself off towards the tarmac, far below.
There was a peace to it, at first, perhaps because I was starting to faint. Then, I opened my eyes, and that other fear settled once more. I saw the depths below me, and I felt the endless skies above me. I was strung between being crushed and compacted, and falling into eternity. My ears popped, my head started aching again, a merciless bashing from deep within, all the air I’d managed to collect was sucked out of me at once, and I felt flattened, deflated, smashed into a pulp, and then stretched out again to infinite size. Every cell in my body exploded and imploded a million times for every second of the eternity for which I was agonizingly suspended until finally
[FX: SUPERNATURAL STATIC ABRUPTLY ENDS]
I plummeted down towards the ground.
I was found by a hiker, not long after. A helicopter had to come to race me to the nearest hospital with two broken legs, a broken arm, a major concussion, and a dozen other ailments. If I hadn’t landed partially in a bush, I would surely have died.
I quit writing. I couldn’t bear to look at the Atlas manuscript anymore. Any time the urge has come to me since, it is quickly followed by the memory of that blunt gaze and the endless, agonizing fall.
I have never gone back to the mountains. I never will. My eyes no longer drift to the sky, nor do I set foot underground. I live in the city, enveloped in poisoned air, though I haven’t had an asthma attack since.
[FX: TAPE RECORDER STOPS. SILENCE]
[FX: TAPE RECORDER STARTS. MILD STATIC]
Emeline: Accompanying recording to case #9960707. Emeline Llewellyn-Jones, head archivist, and Sophie Crighton, archival assistant, discussing the statement of Delilah Reed.
Emeline: For the record, Miss Crighton, you supervised research into this particular statement?
Sophie: That’s right, together with India.
Emeline: That is India Hadnell, Head of Research?
Sophie: Right, yeah, sorry.
Emeline: You are forgiven. Now, if you would please summarize your findings?
Sophie: Okay, so…
[FX: PAPER RUSTLES]
S: Uhm, India tracked down a copy of Blood Oranges. It’s basically impossible to find anything about it online except for a stub wiki page and a short, grainy clip of an interview on some defunct late night show, but it definitely existed. Bartie says she probably way overstated how popular the story was though, uhm, especially considering it’s… Not very good.
E: That is Bartie Zarioh, the Collective’s Bookkeeper?
S: Right, right. Him. Anyway, we don’t exactly think Miss Reed was lying in her statement, but we might want to be a bit careful in analysing it very literally.
S: We don’t know exactly where she was, either. We spent all of last Thursday staring at maps together, but we ended up with about nine likely candidates so India said sod it and-
E [STERNLY]: Miss Crighton. I’ll thank you to maintain professional composure on the record, and avoid profanity.
S: M-my apologies, I’ll uhm-
E: Apologies accepted. Carry on.
S: Okay, next item… Oh, we found no mention of the two staring men anywhere else in our archives, but we figure they could be avatars of the Buried-
E: You know of my distaste for Smirke’s list.
S: Actually we think that theory may be relevant at this time, ma’am.
S: Well, the two times Delilah managed to escape the heavy air, she mentioned some kind of vertigo, right? India came up with this theory that maybe two opposing… Forces were acting on her and uhm…
S: I just thought you might want to-
E: I will consider it. If true, that would possibly be cause for some re-evaluation of earlier statements.
S: Ma’am, do you think we should inform… London?
E [BITTERLY]: I don’t see why this is their business at all, Miss Crighton. I’m sure they’re busy enough with whatever nonsense they managed to get themselves involved in. Now, have you contacted Miss Reed?
S: It appears she passed away a few years ago. Of a heart attack.
E: I see. Then you may close the investigation. Thank you, Miss Crighton.
This episode of For The Record was written and directed by Floris “Swiftly” Bordewijk, edited by Atlas Zaina, and starred Piera Elizabeth as Emeline Llewellyn-Jones and Haley Markulin as Sophie Crighton. It used sounds from freesound.org, under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial License. For full accreditation, see the show notes. To be kept up to date on new episodes, submit your statement, or to get involved in production, you can follow us on Twitter @ftrecordpod, on Tumblr at fortherecordpod or view our website at fortherecordpodcast.co.uk. Stay safe, take care, and keep breathing.