Terrible, terrible certainty. Worse than any confusion, any not knowing.
Denying, with every breath and thought, scrabbling as though for purchase on a glacial cliff: stillness, stability.
There, barely ten minutes ago; the laptop open on the coffee table, film downloaded, pizza warm. The day blissfully dying around them both, shut out with the night.
Nothing wrong; nothing that she sensed. As smilingly serene as ever, nothing finding purchase on him.
One of the many reasons she'd made a home here, with him. Never having encountered a man like him; that strange aura of quiet he emitted, of elemental calm...a natural balm for her anxieties; the evil, worming worries that had parasitically infested her since early adolescence, burrowed too deep and too intimately now to ever be winkled out.
Just being near him...dispelling the lightning in her brain, the fog it barely illuminated, allowing her to think clearly, to consider and decide without feeling as though she might faint or vomit at any moment.
Nothing; no distractions or disruptions in his habits, no flutters in his routine.
Home a little earlier than usual, maybe, but nothing particularly strange in that. Familiar smiles and stories; adolescent dramas, the idiocies of children, politics of the classroom and schoolboard.
Barely hearing, though she responded in the right places, the right ways. Thinking only of the evening to come, when the dull routines of daylight were fulfilled, when the engine cycled down again, at last...
When they could be nothing and no one. When they didn't have to speak or play or put on masks like children:
When they could be the adults they promised themselves and one another.
Not that Praveen couldn't pass for adolescent, given a sufficient shave and a schoolboy uniform. One of his other qualities that she found perpetually fascinating; older than her by at least five years, closer to forty than she would have ever admitted to her parents.
Looking as though he'd barely begun university; as though shaving were still a novel experience.
“I'm not going to find some weird portrait in the loft some day, am I?”
A consistent joke; one that she'd capitalised on for his birthday last year; making it manifest, a portrait using old photos of him in his early twenties as subject, hung up in the spare room, where it could age in his place.
More than once in the intervening months, she'd considered taking it down, adding age-lines and furrows to its brow, deepening its eyes, thinning its hair.
Just a joke, but too elaborate, too time consuming, for her tastes.
Lies. The first he'd ever told, beyond the casual white ommissions and deceptions that were part and parcel of married life; the first that made her hackles rise, that stirred old anxieties:
His mobile phone buzzing on the coffee table, after they'd finished the evening's routines; set out tomorrow's clothes, bundled today's washing into the machine, ordered food, showered. Simple rituals, having taken on religious quality in the years since their nuptials; ceremonies designed to placate the night, to keep its tragedies from their door.
Sighing, dragging the phone up as though it were weighted with rocks. An expression she'd never heard from him before; a grunt of impatience, of displeasure. Exhaling deeply, his head lolling back on the sofa.
“Who is it?”
A.J. An acronym she still didn't understand, that Prav wasn't quick to enlighten her on. Brother A.J.; a fact that she couldn't reconcile, the pair of them not simply different, but alien entities to one another: A.J., the younger, though he looked at least a decade Prav's senior, the last time she saw him. A.J., with his ragged hair and untrimmed beared. A.J., with his hungry, desperate eyes, that she recognised from their introduction, having seen a semblance of the same every time she looked in the mirror throughout her adolescence and early twenties. A.J., with his casual contempt for her; the bitch that stole his meal ticket, the family that had previously sustained off of Prav's income now reliant on him.
A.J. The only man she'd ever heard Prav raise his voice to.
“What the Hell does he want?”
Prav turning to her with a weary smile. “I'm not even gonna give you three guesses.”
Lies. Not sure how or why, but lies.
A moment, not certain how to feel or respond.
“...we're not going to give him anything, are we?”
Closing his eyes, shaking his head. “No. I told him last time. Clearly, it didn't take.”
Rising from his seat, groaning as his joints creaked and popped. A pang of panic in her belly.
“Where are you going?”
Smiling down at her. Such a sad, sorry smile, his eyes pits of apology.
“I'm...really sorry. I know we said...look; I want to speak with him. I need to tell him face to face.”
Turning away, whatever they'd been watching forgotten in the instant.
“No, you don't. Just leave it...”
“He'll keep messaging. He might even turn up on the damn doorstep, if he's desperate. I'm not having that.”
Plucking up his phone.
“I won't be long, I promise.”
Bending to kiss her, so casual, as though they needed milk, cash from the ATM up the road.
Lies. Something bigger, something unseen.
Accepting the kiss, though she ached to spit it back in his face, to clutch his hand and beg him to tell her, tell her...
Gone, before she could breathe another word.
Shuddering every second, resisting the idiot urge to scream and scream. This worry, this endless fretting...adolescent nonsense, like the warning tremors of panic attacks that she'd suffered from the age of eleven until the end of her university years.
Cursing herself for it, calling herself every epithet under the sun:
“Idiot. What the Hell's wrong with you? It's only been an hour...”
And a half. And forty five minutes. Two hours.
Evening long since deepened to full night, the ritual aching, resonating in the dark around her for not having been fulfilled. A sense as of invisible flies and moths infesting the room, waiting to swarm and smother her with their profusion and disappointment.
Waiting. A torture beyond any other, glancing at the partially drawn curtains, at the sliver of front garden peering between, hoping to see some flicker of motion, to glimpse him walking up the path, to hear his key in the lock.
A child again, praying for Daddy to come home.
“What the Hell is this? What's wrong with you..?”
A.J. She might have been concerned, if she believed he was the reason for Prav's absence; the lying, sneering shit had a way of inveigling himself, more often than not using their family as a way in, a means of plucking at Prav's strings.
She didn't know quite how much they'd leant him, bailed him out, over the years, but it amounted to more than they could quietly afford.
How? How was it possible for two such different men to be born from the same home, the same womb?
Prav sometimes joked about it himself:
“I don't know...I always expected my Mom to take me aside some day and tell me that she'd had an affair; that my Dad was the post man or something...”
But no, no matter how much she might have prefered that: in the right light, the fright framing, there was a resemblance. Slight, perhap, but definitely there; a certain way of smiling, crookedly, from the corners of their mouths, that made Prav look rakish and handsome whilst his brother resembled a hynea gnawing on a bone, a certain deepness in their eyes, that swam with molten warmth, in Prav's case, with something slime-skinned and swamp-dwelling in A.J.'s.
There must have been people she'd despised more and more immediately, at one time or another, but here and now, she struggled to recall them.
Always there, though he'd never directly acted on it; in the way he spoke and looked at her, the way he spoke about her, even when she was present: as though, being Prav's, she was also his, just like the toys of their childhood, the games and books and sweets that Prav was obliged to share.
Shuddering at the thought of him, but more at Prav's absence. A sudden, idiot paranoia: that she'd hear the key in the door, fly to greet him, only to find A.J. standing in his place, wearing his smile.
Closing her eyes, massaging her eyebrows with both hands.
Why? Why the lie? She didn't like the fact that he'd gone to meet A.J., but she accepted it. What could be so terrible that he'd used his fucking brother as an excuse..?
“Stop it. Stop it. You're going to drive yourself up the wall, if you carry on...”
The way her Mother used to speak to her, in the moments following her panic attacks, the periodic break downs that punctuated her adolescence.
Never working then, having even less purchase now.
Plucking her own mobile phone from the arm of the sofa, cycling through contacts until Prav's face smiled back at her. An old photograph, from when they first started dating. So young, looking like a teenager on his way to his first job interview in his suit and tie. A trendy haircut, close to the scalp, that he hadn't bothered to maintain, a light in his eyes that he had.
Hesitating, even now, not wanting him to think...
Holding the phone to her ear as it began to ring.
Her heart sprouting wings and barbs, fluttering manically around her chest, puncturing her inside as an echo sounded out in the hallway.
Breath slowing, becoming shallow, the first flies buzzing invisibly in the air, stinging her eyes, the tips of her fingers.
Rising from the sofa, tottering and dream-like, seeming to orbit her own skull, watching herself from dispassionate distance as she slowly stumbled from the living room, out into the shadowed hallway.
Swarming. Every inch of the place covered so densely in black, heaving bodies, she could barely breathe, barely move.
Nothing but shadows, stray strands of moon and streetlamp light filtering through the windows bounding the front door.
Prav's mobile phone rattling atop the small table where they typically kept keys and pens and notepads, beneath which shoes nestled.
The sight of it making her almost double over with nausea, bile rising in the back of her throat.
Plucking it up, nonetheless, its surface strangely slick, as though with sweat, as though the plastic had begun to moulder and secrete some hideous oil.
Flipping it open, her own face smiling back at her. Younger, like Prav, much further removed from the one she wore now; her hair longer back then, shimmering its lustrous red, her eyes a brighter blue.
Raising it to her face, clenching her teeth. Struggling to breathe.
Why? Why would you..?
Something not right; a distortion passing across the screen, ripples, as though the display were a reflection in a still pond, disturbed by her breath, her tears.
Her face distorting, eyes swelling, darkening, all hint of blue draining from them, her mouth likewise, every feature subsumed by those three pits as they expanded, expanded...
Letting the phone fall, thudding against the carpet, stepping back from it, half expecting it to shudder and flip upright, to continue staring at her as the blackness eclipsed all else, as it bled from the screen across carpet, walls, creeping in fungal fronds and poisoned rivulets up her legs, burrowing beneath her skin...
Her own phone ringing. Hissing at the sound, the sudden vibration, as though some assassin had crept up behind her and deflty slid a knife into her back.
Pressing the receive button, holding the device up to her ear. Already knowing, before the first distorted murmur, the first broken hiss.
“Prav? For God's sake, where..?”
Babbling nonsense, demon-static, a call from the depths if Dante's Circles. Almost wrenching the phone from her ear, letting it fall like the other.
Instead, holding it fast, pressing it so hard against the side of her face, she felt the plastic creak, threatening to splinter.
Voices, rising through the babble, only to dissolve again before she could make out any meaning: a sigh, a whimper, sick man's laughter.
“Who is this? Where's..?”
The laughter again, choked and burbling through a throat full of flies.
“Bitch. You...you. Took him. You took him.”
“A.J.? What the Hell's going on? Put Prav on, now.”
Laughter giving way to broken, high-pitched sobs, A.J. pausing, a sound like wretching, viscous vomit spattering concrete.
“...too late. Too late. I...I tried...to tell him, but...it's done, now. We...broke the bargain. Now...neither of us can be...”
His voice momentarily drowned out by babbling static, by voices that howled and wept and whimpered, that laughed like cruel children watching a fallen friend bleed. Amongst them, one she almost recognised, sobbing so quietly...
Darkness seething around her, shadows seeming to split and splinter, black-winged bodies filling the air, drawn to her like moths to moonlight. Feeling them, fluttering at her ears and lips and eyes, crawling beneath her hair, her night robe.
Not caring, focused only on the voices, the strange fumbling, rustling, as the phone swapped hands.
“He won't answer. Not any more.”
A voice that slowed the blood in her veins, that turned her interior to frost.
“Please, give him back to me...”
Fluttering laughter, not mocking, but sweetly affectionate, as though she were a little girl, asking Mother to pluck the moon from the sky for her to play with.
“I never took him from you, sweetheart. He's been yours forever and a day.”
Tears scalding her cheeks, sobs coming.
“He broke the bargain, true. Not his fault! Not his fault at all. A.J. should have done a better job reminding him, shouldn't you?”
A slurred, agonised cackle, the man sounding as though he heaved up hunks of his own insides somewhere nearby.
“No matter. Don't cry, lovely. All will be well again, soon.”
The line cutting dead.
Trembling, grateful to be outside her own head, a dust mode of consciousness, to be blasted away when the inevitable break down came.
That voice. That voice...
A key turning in the front door, streetlamp light invading as it swung open, momentarily blinding her, haloing him.
Slumping inside, the door easing shut behind him.
Seeing, as the light faded, as he raised his eyes to hers.
...he broke the bargain...
Knowing what that meant, now, though she did everything in her power to deny it.
The thing before her smiling a lipless smile, leaving smears of black and yellow filth on the wallpaper, squirming gobbets of matter on the carpet, as it limped towards her, reaching, opening tis mouth to whisper her name.
Not fleeing, not recoiling in disgust, though every instinct and ounce of reason screamed for her to. Going to him, though the stink and sight of him made her gag, though the touch of him repelled her; a thing moulded from compost, barely held together by his torn and tattered clothing.
A bargain broken, but that could be remade.
As she well knew, as she had time and time again.
The same voice that reminded her of the one they'd made so long ago now rising to her lips:
“Don't worry, sweetheart. It'll be tomorrow, soon.”
The creature unable to weep, not lamenting it; radiating that same calm, despite his condition, content to wait, to forget, and try to fulfil the oath he never could when day died once more.
George Lea is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.