Little Mowcliff was where dreams went to die. At least according to Lola Nesser, who had lived in the fishing village for all of her eighteen years. Lola opened her bedroom window and surveyed her town with a look of distaste on her face. She was tired of the perpetually grey sky, the omnipresent rain, and the pervading stench of fish. But most of all, she was sick of its sheer ugliness.
Nothing in Little Mowcliff was beautiful. Not the buildings, not the people, and certainly not the derelict church on the edge of the cliff that looked like it would fall into the sea at any given second. Her grip tightened on the window sill as anger began to boil within her. She didn't understand why they didn't just tear the damn thing down and build a new one. It was as if nobody cared in this town – nobody but her. She thanked her stars that she was finally leaving.
'You'll be back, you know.'
Lola jumped. Her mother was standing by her bedroom door with a strange look on her face. It was a mix of sorrow and sympathy. Lola frowned. Why was her mother giving her such a look? She was going far, far away from this dreadful place to start a new life in London where she would fulfill her dream of becoming a model. It was true that she was going to have to live with her uncle, who she barely knew and her mother had rarely spoken of, but that was hardly a reason to be looked at with pity. It was still better than staying at Little Mowcliff for the rest of her life. She was certain that the town would suck out her soul before she had the chance to die.
'Maybe on holidays. I can't skip Christmas dinner.' Lola said, forcing a smile despite her unease.
Lola's mother smiled back, but it was devoid of any happiness. A loud horn blared from outside of the house.
'Well then, you best get going now. Your uncle is getting impatient.'
Living in London made Lola feel like she was worlds away from Little Mowcliff, and she loved it. If she closed her eyes and concentrated hard enough, she could convince herself that her life there had just been one bad dream. It was as if she had left purgatory and had entered the world of the living. There was just so much beauty to savour.
Of course, not everything was perfect. She would've preferred it if her uncle spoke a bit more, because he was an extremely quiet man. Not just in speech, but in movement too. The amount of times he had slipped into a room without her noticing was slightly alarming. And whenever she did finally notice his presence, he would be looking straight at her with his bright blue eyes, as if he were waiting for something to happen. Her mother had the exact same eyes.
'Oh!' Lola exclaimed early one morning, nearly spilling the contents of the mug in her hands. She had turned around to leave the kitchen after making herself a cup of tea, and to her horror her uncle was standing right behind her.
'How is everything going, Lola?' he asked, his blue eyes staring into her green ones. This close, Lola noticed how similar he and her mother were in appearance. Same piercing eyes, wheat coloured hair and delicate features. She shared none of their physical characteristics. She must've taken after her father completely.
'Yeah, everything is going great. I'm doing a test shoot today. Hopefully, I'll get my first modelling job soon.'
Her uncle nodded. 'Be careful out there. Modelling can be risky business, especially with the wrong agency.'
Lola smiled. 'Oh, don't worry about me. I'm very careful.'
Lola found it nice to know that her uncle cared about her welfare, but his words scared her. She had only begun her modelling career, and she knew very well that models could be scammed if they weren't careful, so the last thing she needed were the seeds of doubt to be planted in her mind. It didn't help that she had also suddenly become insecure about her appearance. Back at Little Mowcliff, she was the prettiest thing alive. The people back there fell into three camps in terms of looks: the weird, the broken and the downright ugly. But here in the city, where she was constantly surrounded by other aspiring models, she looked almost plain. Her hands began to shake. Hot liquid spilled onto her hands.
Her uncle looked alarmed. 'Are you alright?'
Lola tried to steady her hands. She just had to breathe and take it easy. Everything would work out. 'I'm fine, thanks. I've got to go.'
She hurried past her uncle, out of the kitchen and up the stairs to her room. She chugged down the cup of tea before setting it on her bedside table, and then quickly got changed into a black pair of jeans and a black top. For luck, she put on the necklace her mother had given her on her sixteenth birthday. A ring dangled from the silver chain instead of a pendant, and it bore a symbol that Lola had never seen anywhere else to date. It looked like a star with an eye at the centre of it. All she knew about the ring was that it had belonged to her father. She often wondered what kind of a man he had been. All her mother revealed was that he had died when she was still a baby, and that he had loved them dearly before his death.
She touched his ring, the metal cold against her fingertips. 'I hope I make you proud.' she whispered.
The test shoot wasn't going as Lola had imagined. She was greeted by a lanky young man, barely out of his teens, who was apparently the photographer. His name was Charles. Charles had an unhealthy pallor to his skin and had teeth that were both crooked and sharp. The fact that they were bone white only made them look more menacing, as if they belonged to a shark. He reminded Lola of the odd-looking people she would see back at Little Mowcliff. To make matters worse, he couldn't seem to take his eyes off of her – or her necklace. That may sound like a silly complaint considering it was in his job description to look at her, but Lola could feel his gaze linger. It was almost as bad as her uncle. She couldn't wait for the photo shoot to end.
She posed for the final shot, but seconds passed, and the flash of the camera never came. Looking to Charles for an explanation, she saw that he was eyeing her necklace once again.
'Is everything alright?' Lola asked, breaking the silence.
Charles gave her a grin that did nothing to soothe her nerves. 'You're one of us, right?'
Lola furrowed her brows in confusion. 'I'm sorry?'
'You just have that look, you know. I like that you wear the ring so openly too.'
'I'm sorry, but I have no idea what you're talking about.'
That was a lie. Although Lola's mind truly didn't know what Charles was banging on about, something deep inside of her did. And she didn't like that at all. It was like her body could sense a danger that her brain couldn't identify. A nervous laughter trickled out of her mouth, which seemed to inspire Charles to emit nervous laughs of his own, and soon both of them were laughing uncontrollably.
When their laughter subsided, Charles looked slightly embarrassed. 'I'm sorry. I talk way too much. I hope I haven't scared you.'
Lola chuckled and said, only half-jokingly, 'It's a bit too late for that.'
'Sorry, I can't seem to help creeping people out.'
'I can see that.'
Charles grinned once again, but Lola didn't find it quite so displeasing this time. She even smiled back. Perhaps they had both judged each other too soon.
'If you're interested, I think I know of a company who'd be interested to have you model for them.
Lola's heart began to race. 'I'm interested. What type of company is it? Clothing? Cosmetics?'
'Well, it's actually a food company. They sell fish soup. I know it isn't glamorous, but we all have to start somewhere, don't we?'
'Of course.' said Lola. Truth be told, Lola would've been happy to model wearing bin bags if it meant a foot in the door of the industry.
'I'll let them know you'll be becoming. If you give me your number, I can send you all of the details.'
In retrospect, Lola shouldn't have given her number to Charles. She shouldn't have agreed to model for a damn fish food company either – or was it fish soup? Lola couldn't remember, and Lola didn't really care. All she knew was that Charles was right about having to start from somewhere if she wanted to make it to the top, so whether the company sold fish soup or cream of tomato was completely irrelevant. At the end of the day, she needed the job as a stepping stone to greater things.
Lola took a deep breath as she entered the building in which the photo shoot was meant to take place. The lighting was bright and the lamps were hot. A white background was set up and a wooden table and chair were placed in the foreground. There were a lot of people present, a lot more than Lola had been expecting, and perhaps it was merely the effect of the bright lights and the heat, but Lola could've sworn that most of the people had the same strange look that Charles and the people from Little Mowcliff had. All pale waxy skin and terrible teeth.
'Ah! You must be Lola!' A man grabbed her arm. He had eyes that protruded almost as much as his massive belly. He all but dragged her towards the wooden table and chair.
'Please, take a seat.'
Lola obeyed without hesitation. A woman came forward and set a bowl of fish soup on the table along with a spoon.
'Enjoy!' said the woman without a hint of sarcasm.
Lola looked around for the photographer. She wanted this to end as quickly and as painlessly as possible, but looking at the congealed mess that passed for soup that had been placed in front of her, and which she was actually expected to eat, she doubted that was going to happen. Lola spotted Charles setting up his camera, and felt slightly relieved to see a familiar face. That relief died as soon as Charles opened his mouth to speak.
'Okay, Lola. I want you to look like you're really enjoying the soup. Can you do that for me?'
Lola wrinkled her nose in disgust. 'Foot in the ladder, foot in the ladder, foot in the ladder, foot in the ladder...' That was Lola's mantra as she picked up the spoon and dipped it into the thick soup. She wondered what would happen if she were to die of food poisoning, but quickly crushed that thought as she closed her mouth over the spoon. She did her best to look like she wasn't about to vomit. The texture was of chunky sputum, the taste of fish and rotten vegetables, and it smelled like Little Mowcliff – concentrated Little Mowcliff.
One photo done. How many more to go?
The man with the bulging eyes piped up. 'I'm not feeling it, Charles. She doesn't look like she's enjoying it at all. Plus, I feel as if there's something crucial missing. There needs to be a concept. Someone bring out the tentacle suit!'
Sounds of approval could be heard around the room. Everyone but Lola seemed to like the idea of something as awful as a tentacle suit. Lola's heart sank when the same woman who had brought her the fish soup presented her with the tentacle suit. It was absolutely grotesque. Lola was sure that a few poor octopuses were short of their limbs. The purplish suckers looked so real.
'Isn't it gorgeous? Let me help you put it on.'
Lola raised her arms in defeat. The woman yanked the suit over her head. She hated the suit even more now that she was wearing it. She could see every grizzly detail up close. She wouldn't have been surprised if the tentacles suddenly came to life.
'Alright, Lola. Let's take a couple more shots.' said Charles.
Lola began to feel ill as she took more mouthfuls of the vile soup while wearing the stuffy tentacle suit. It was a sickness unlike anything she had ever felt before. Her head felt tight and her ears were ringing. Pain exploded in her chest and her skin was on fire. She looked down at her hands and noticed that they were slowly but surely turning green.
'Lola?' Charles stopped taking pictures. He turned to the bulging eyed man, who looked very worried indeed.
'Oh, don't look at me like that! This wasn't supposed to happen!'
'Well, someone call the ambulance then!' barked Charles, who rushed towards Lola. She doubled over in pain and the contents of her belly spilled out of her mouth before she could do anything about it. If she had been in the right state of mind, she would've been completely embarrassed, but embarrassment was the last thing on her mind as the world around her began to fade into black.