Wondering if they see, if they somehow smell it: the worm of tension in my belly, its parasite babes crawling inches beneath my skin. A stink of dread worse than any rot or filth, as we sidle in, the room already wretched, foul with the funk of those gone before:
Ancient, stinking carpets, stained ceiling, grime-smeared windows in which the dessicated corpses of gnats and blue-bottles gather. Their effect to make the world outside; the sports field, reduced to mire in the current rains, the steel fences surrounding it, the familiar roads and streets and neighbourhoods beyond, to seem almost unreal, projections on mist, mirages or smeared paintings.
Only this real: this dimly lit, stinking room, the claustrophobic corridor outside, the naked brick walls, chipped and broken and scrawled with meaningless graffiti, stick-figures bearing exaggerated breasts and malformed erections. Promises of perversity that the pen holders have no experience or comprehension of, outside of internet pornography.
The only reality, for the next three hours; an eternity, a desolation, in which I'll wander and weep, barely present, though I'll scribble what they ask, answer when called on; respond in all the right ways and places. The mannequin they demand.
A familiar urge; to stand and walk out, ignore the cries and threats of Mr. Hutton, knowing that the strings are illusory, that there's little he can do to stop me.
Anticipating, imagining; that sense of freedom, the rush in my belly, the tingling in my fingers, how sweet the air will taste in comparison to this.
Almost, almost, the urge trembling me in my chair, making me lurch in it, but not enough.
Meaningless, animal noise, wittering I can't stand, that sounds like cockroaches in the walls, my marrow, beetles burrowing, eating them and my mind hollow.
If only. If only they'd spill out, seethe through the cracks in the walls or ceiling, make them scream and flee... bring down the building around us. At least that would be something.
But no; the noise diminishes, receding like a wave, as the lesson starts, as the grey sky presses down on the false, painted world outside, threatening to crush it, to smother it beneath its weight. A dead lover, having a heart attack in the midst of fucking. I read about that somewhere, some hooker handcuffed to a hotel bed, the client sweating and moaning atop her having some sort of stroke, almost smothering her, by the time anyone found them.
Hardly hearing...the growls and barks from the front of the classroom, Mr. Hutton threatening detentions and letters home for those who won't comply, who tug and tear at their strings, who ignore them as though they're not there.
A throb between my temples, another worm; twin to the one in my belly, or maybe its mate, pulsing awake, unfurling through the meat of my mind.
Begging it to burst out, to press through my eyes, rear up from my bleeding face for them to see, for them to scream and vomit and faint at the sight of. Maybe its mate will follow, burrowing through my belly to coil up, to twine with it, so that they might mate and flower together, showering the screaming animals with their young.
The thought of it making me smile; seeing them claw at themselves, watching them scurry and gag and choke, maggot-children eating through their idiot eyes, their slack, burning faces, finding some secret place inside; some forgotten dream or abandoned memory where they can grow, where they can swell and flower in their turns.
Yes. In love with that, the idea of it, as Mr. Hutton starts to drawl, scrawling on the whiteboard, as people whisper, as notes pass, as giggles slowly build.
Knowing the rhythm of it; more familiar than the music of my own home or heartbeat: waiting, waiting...
Familiar barks, the man's eyes burning black as coals, as they rove over the class, as I meet them, as they flicker away from me, seeing nothing they want, finding no purchase.
Sad and trembling man, balding and brown-jumpered and pepper haired. What kind of worm will you give birth to, how vast and trembling and fat will it be, when it bursts from your withered heart?
I want it. Want it so much. As earnestly as the old pyrophile fantasies; every one of them combusting in their seats, going up in flames around me, gasping, unable to scream as their fat melts, their skins bubble and blister, Hutton not knowing what to do, screaming in their place, as they fuse to their plastic seats, as the fires die. Nothing left in the aftermath but blackened, indistinguishable skeletons clutching at their desks, only the names scrawled on their workbooks identifying them.
Wanting this more, though I know it will never be, too disappointed by past prayers, knowing that there are no angels to answer. Almost convincing myself I feel it; a welcome pressure behind my eyes, a thrilling nausea in my belly, as he snarls and threatens and bellows, as he sends Jimmy Lanscombe to stand in the corridor, the boy provoking mass laughter as he flips a middle finger on his way out.
Clutching my desk, trembling, trying to bite down on what rises in my throat. Not wanting them to hear, to see, until it's time; until the worm is ready to be born...
Slathering silver from the corners of my mouth, suddenly, moronically self conscious. What if nothing comes, what if nothing emerges, and it's all some hopeless delusion? Mind and body acting in hideous concert to try and make an impossible dream true?
Knowing otherwise, when I lurch back, when convlusions wrack me, lightning arcing from scalp to soles, searing my spine black, when my mind becomes a tempest and the world washes red. Pain, oh yes! Pain as I've always dreamed, in every emergence or transformation; in the agonies of wings bursting from my back, of my chrysalis skin splitting and sloughing away to allow the wolf-thing within its time in the moonlight.
But not imagined, not this time; experienced.
Choking screams, echoed by others around the room as I clutch my desk, gouging runnels in the cheap ply-wood with my fingernails. Thrashing as Hutton barks for calm, so distant, beyond the red and black washing the world, beyond the wastes I have walked, that I see now with my waking eyes, knowing that I'll walk there soon with flesh and blood feet.
Pain, as my eyes burst, as burning tears pour down my cheeks, somehow still seeing, still seeing, as the parasite I have conjured, made meat in my desperation, squirm free, twin heads rearing up from the ruin of my face, blossoming hydra-like, myraid smaller lengths emerging from within.
Seeing. Through them, their eyeless, seething heads, sensing in ways I never dreamed, before now.
Seeing it all; the decay in the walls, the spiders and beetles and vermin in their warrens, the ghosts of this place; echoes of similar despair, accrued over decades, seeped into every inch and fibre of the place.
Them. The screaming ones, the weeping and vomiting as they flee, as they scrabble for the door. Hutton, as he barks commands, attempting to maintain a dream of order where there is none, never was and never will be.
Their despairs and accruing disappointments; poisoned revelations that the world refuses to be as they desire, as they've been promised. Diseased dreams; longings and fantasies they will never tell, not even to their most intimate and trusted.
Smiling at him, as his dead eyes find me. Seeing so much; the hereditary sickness slowly unravelling his entrails, his hatred for his Father, that drove him from home at the age of fifteen. The ghosts of ex wives; three at the last count, the death of love and the hope of it not driving him to suicide, but a dogged despair; a living that endures, despite lamenting its every moment.
Smiling, as similar songs erupt from neighbouring classrooms, as others, like and unlike, realise prayers that no angels would ever answer.
Her life...this sad and sorry girl, this barking, shrieking thing. This less-than-ape, this animal...dead eyes, dead smile, poorly dyed hair tight in a mind-throttling bun atop her head, school uniform rumpled and tattered from a day's wear...
Not her behaviour drawing my eyes, as it does those of other passers-by; not her barked insults, her shrieked obscenities; her infantile, impotent, flailing at the world, that would rip it apart and string its tatters around like tinsel on a Christmas tree, if it could.
No; were it just that, I would ignore her, not provide the attention she so clearly craves.
Her life...seeing it, as clearly as I see her in front of me; the hers she might become, the hers she almost certainly will, in less time than she has the capacity to imagine.
Contradictory stories, phantoms that flicker and dance around her, invisibly painting the air:
Barely two years from now, fifteen years old, looking almost a decade older, already swelling with what her absent Daddy-substitute pumped into her, the night he told her he loved her; the first time anyone has or will. The night before he stops returning her calls and texts, before she never sees him again. Weeping, raging; making carnage of her room, her Mother not hearing, not caring; her barely toddling brother quietly weeping in the next room, more terrified of her than anything in his short life. No abortion; her Mother not allowing it. Complications; something ruptured, so much red and sickness. So tired...the last thing she thinks or feels as welcome grey washes her, sterilising her rent-open insides, her equally ragged mind, leaving her with the first and last sense of calm she'll ever know...
That same fifteen year old, so different; a product of other choices and chances; an argument with her Mother driving her from home, into the custody of an aunt and uncle who give what her parents never could, even were both of them to survive; who change her in ways even she never thought possible, allowing her to grow and live as something capable of shame, who teach her how to open eyes on the inside, to look at herself, and wonder how and what and why. She grows, so far beyond fifteen; finding a passion for bakery, a means of profiting and living by it, thanks to her aunt's cafe. A brief, incestuous affair with her cousin, the source of a tabloid sensation much later, when she has become a household name; when her cookery blogs and on-line videos progress to television and a small library of books, when biographies start to occur, though she's still much shy of forty. When she's married, childless by her own inclination, still bemused and faintly afraid of that barking, hyena girl, that shrieking animal in the street and schoolyard. A confusion that will sustain her last moments, when she succumbs to the same cancer that, unbeknownst to her, killed her absent Father some twenty years earlier.
That spectre the flimsiest, least likely of all; barely a flicker in the air, a whisper in my ear.
Others drowning it into almost silence:
Surviving the pregnancy, though wishing she hadn't in the years following: the child and the siblings that come after weights around her neck, dragging her down into perpetually screaming sludge. No good, no good at it, as her Mother insists, over and over and over, as she sees in the disgusted, sneering eyes that glare at her when one of the brats won't shut up on the bus or in the paper shop, when she swears at and threatens them, when she placates and silences them with crisps, sausage rolls and enough chocolate to make them sick. She doesn't mean it; of course she doesn't. This one time, this one time, she doesn't answer his call, doesn't come running when he screams. Only when he stops, by which time there's nothing left, no sign of him...worse than the horror of his loss, the hideous, nauseating relief, an unspoken hope that he's truly gone, will never be found, and that the others will be taken in short order.
Suicide attempts; slit wrists in the bathtub, self-starving, pills and vodka. Leaping in front of speeding trains and from the sides of bridges. Some successful, many not. The latter far, far worse.
In most stories, she doesn't live much beyond forty, a squat, scowling, gargoyle of a fifty-five year old the eldest incarnation, one forced from several homes thanks to the vandalism and violence of her children, thanks to the horror she is to her neighbours. A part-time medium, her readings scarily accurate, even to her. Though she fails to foresee the stroke that will claim her before the end of the Summer.
In most stories, she is so unhappy, so unhappy, even in those where there's no especial tragedy, no loss or abuse beyond those that make up most lives.
The ones in which she's not...rare. Rare, brief and unlikely; most abrupt, ending in accident: car crashes, random slips on ice or wet floors. One explosively; a collision of aircraft, those on board barely even realising what's happening before their worlds briefly become Hells of fire, screams and jagged, burning metal.
All in an instant, a second's glance, in which our eyes meet. Rare, but a gift I've experienced on occassion since childhood. Not knowing where it comes from or what it means; only that I sometimes see far more than I want of people, of all they might be.
"What the fuck you lookin' at?"
Smiling, already recognising this story, seeing where it leads.
The girl slurring something unintelligible at me before stalking on, screaming similar insults over her shoulder.
I'm almost sorry, knowing what I know.
The gates of the white and empty city. Knowing I'm there without opening my eyes; its dust stinging them, whispering around me, its ghosts calling me from the desert.
Why? Always the same; wandering its abandoned streets, calling in tongues I don't understand, no answers, not the least sign of life.
Only shadows at the edge of sight, disappearing down alleyways, fading from doors and windows. Never waiting, never letting me see. Doubting eyes and sanity with every step, not calling after them for fear of driving them even further away.
Why does it call to me? Why do I wake here every night, sore and starving from journeys I can't recall?
Not this time; no matter how the storm rages, no matter how the desert aches at my back...I won't answer, won't wander inside. Let the ghosts and shadows have it; let the dust and sand bury its mysteries. I don't care any more.
That resolution enough to shudder me awake, a ripple passing through the air, the sand and dust at my feet, my bones and brain.
Seeing as fractures run throughout its walls, as the silent towers and minarets and temples crumble, as the message of dissolution spreads.
Staggering to my feet, legs wavering beneath me, pitching me on my knees in the dust. Reaching for it, silently pleading, as though I can stop what I have precipitated.
Howls, the ghosts and shadows screaming behind my eyes as they're buried, as they're thrown up on cascades of dust and debris. Rising winds carrying their laments out into the desert, to whimper in the ears of whatever blind and scavenging things still live there; the foresighted ones that escaped the apocalypse that originally reduced its makers to nightmare and rumour.
Why me? What could I have done?
Not this, not this...they howl, screaming in my thoughts.
Choking on dust, eyes streaming as it scratches them bloody, raking my own face open with ragged nails.
Rain coming as the walls shudder and fall, scarlet storm clouds massing, what they shed hideously warm, Mother's milk, the same stuff that paints my mask of dust.
My gospel of dissolution slowing as the rain turns desert to swamp, makes dust and sand into clotted mire, as the things worming and burrowing beneath rise to its percussion:
A garden of worms, coiling up around me, amongst the ruins; white and scarlet stained, pale and purple, veined and bulbous-headed. Some peeling open like fleshy flowers, revealing the elaboration of their interiors, others twining and knotting in mating and cannibal abandon.
Scurrying, many-legged things; beetles, spiders, white and black and hideous grey, warring amongst the ruins, seeking out new hollows in which to make their nests and larders.
Seeing them, stung and bitten by them, their venom simultaneously cold and burning in my veins.
Not scraping them away, even though the sight of them on my legs and arms makes me want to vomit; letting them batten and bite and coil and burrow, not caring if they fill me with such venom, I melt off the bone, turn to soup inside.
Sight bursting from its sockets in hallucinogenic trespass, carried on the winds, out across the ruins I have made, amongst the ghosts that still wander there, weeping tears of ash at the state they anchored themselves to; whose destruction has left them without even a hope of renewed shape or meaning.
Is that what you wanted from me? Some new story, a myth by which to remake yourselves?
Hearing, raising their swollen shapeless heads, their billowing, broken faces, weeping as one:
Laughing, a cruel and misbegotten child, a capricious god, no means of saving them; no inclination to do so. Not their prophet or saviour; never promising or pretending to be otherwise.
Returning, as the rain washes their dust away, to my own skull, my own wretched shell, rising from where I kneel, bloodied, weak and starving, as always, from my dreaming and forgotten journey across the wastes.
Tearing my eyes away, as the storm growls and thunders, as the ghosts scream, reaching for me through the deepening dusk, their ashen fingers finding no purchase.
Never yours. Not ever.
Staggering back the way I came, along forgotten paths to unwanted waking, where others wait to abandon me just as casually, where there's no one to even witness my despair or pretend that my mask of dust has the least meaning.
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.
Demolition. Old Flats and terraces, torn open to the air. Grey steel fences, primary-coloured signs threatening prosecution, mutilation, death, for the crime of trespass. Rumbling, grinding engines, barking men in orange, rumpled uniforms, hard yellow hats. Ugly voices, ugly eyes, snarling at one another, cursing and bickering.
Shattering of glass and stone, the mechanised arm of a great machine crashing into a wall, raking it open, exposing a shadowed interior to the cold sun.
Passing, following the proscribed trail of wire fences, painted arrows. Pausing to watch, snared by the vandalism, the breaking of memory:
A place that has always been; that we were warned against as children, our parent's omens vague, exciting more curiosity than fear. What might lurk amongst the ugly, concrete buildings, the broken, stained streets? What could be so terrible that even the Gods of our childhood feared it?
Monsters I can barely recall, now; that the dead child of memory never feared, but conjured over and over, obsessively, scrawling them in charcoal, crayon, water colour: Vague recollections; a black and twisted beast, resembling a great horse that had been stretched and smeared out of true, trailing smoke from its burning eyes, its furnace throat. Veiled, shadowy creatures that flitted through the streets and overgrown gardens, peering through fractured, grime-smeared windows for sleeping children, the fretful men and women who watched over them. Great crows, scabrous and seeping, alighting on the shit-brown rooves, the barbed blades lining them, whose purpose my Mother could never adequately explain.
Nothing compared to the reality; those beasts and spectres withering as I grew, replaced by others, far less fascinating, but more lethal:
Packs of barking, wailing children, cluttered on street corners, the thresholds of murky, twenty four hour corner shops and off-licences. Their insults slurred, incoherent, but always making my cheeks burn, my insides writhe. Worse than any stones or cans they might throw. The broken dolls; running-down clockwork women, leaning on walls outside the flat blocks, cigarettes in their trembling fingers. Yellowed, insincere smiles, contemptuous eyes. A stink of desperation; far worse than that of cigrattes, alcohol and cheap perfume.
“You lookin' for summat, love?” My fifteen-year-old's heart racing, sensing something, but unable to articulate. Turning eyes away, hurrying down the street.
Local newspaper reports of police raids on houses and flats -the same currently being ripped open, torn apart-, men and women arrested in front of their screaming children. Drugs and abuse and domestic violence.
Barely three years ago; a scare amongst the local parents; reports of a man whose appearance varied wildly from account to account, attempting to drag local boys and girls into his variously black, white or metallic purple van. Several local men beaten almost to death on the backs of those stories, no evidence transpiring that they were ever anything more than Chinese whispers, rumours begun on playgrounds and schoolyards, grown rampant.
Nothing of that, now; whatever myths the place might have cultivated, whatever monsters it might have hosted, all gone; dissolved in the sunlight.
A flat facade ripped open as I watch, a great, metal arm tearing through its walls, shattering its floors as though they're wet cardboard, a doll's house in the hands of a vandal child. Interior walls still boasting scraps and shreds of wallpaper; white and rose-painted, floral and psychadelically patterned. Fragments of old toys and abandoned belongings littering the unkempt grass; a twisted, crumpled bike, a rusted lawnmower.
Closing my eyes, I hear them; the ones who once walked and lived here. Gone, now; shipped or shepherded elsewhere, their echoes lingering, disturbed by the destruction of their once-homes: Muffled, scratchy, distorted voices, beyond the roars of engines, the barks of workmen, the twittering chatter of birds:
Unseen choirs, spilling elegies to the uncaring sky.
A child, weeping in her room, pleading with the unseen things she imagines to make the growling, snarling voices through the walls to stop, to let her sleep, even if it's forever.
A youth slurring curses for the ones who made him, hate like a fever for their unconcern, the indifference in their eyes as he slips out into the night.
Laughter, a girl watching her younger brother dance and cavort atop the industrial bins outside, breathless with hilarity as he slips, falls, painting the concrete red.
Sighs and confessions, screamed accusations and wordless, howling condemnation. Hymns of unwanted lives, pouring into me, filling me. Drowning me.
Delirious, lost in it, as I so rarely allow, these days. The state that always follows too much like being intoxicated; more than my job is worth. The job I no longer care for, that will be taken from me, in a few days time. What do I care, now? What do they, if I stumble through the gates slurring and slathering?
Maybe I won't; maybe today, I'll open myself, let them fill and fill me until I burst, until my skull creaks and sanity melts with them. Maybe I'll lose myself, let them sweep me away, as they have before, when I first learned the means of letting them in.
Opening my eyes, the workmen too busy with their bickering and barking to notice me, seeing, now, as well as hearing:
A spillage of various matters from within the shattered structures, from torn open facades, from gaping windows and hollow doorways:
Black and glutinous, a living mass, slowly pulsing as it descends, sperm-like spools of pearlescence, becoming vapour as they disperse. Clotted masses of colour and texture; weaving, merging, intertwining, forming patterns in the air, against the stone, before dissolving into chaos once more.
An effluent of memory, experience; a singing tide, surging towards me, drawn like lightning to a church steeple, a mountain-top tree.
Some coiling around the workmen, passers by, impotently seeking to express themselves through their closed-off minds. Perhaps they feel something; a momentary, distant flash of experience. Maybe they'll have strange dreams, moments of drifting fantasy, later.
But they'll forget; they'll deny. I've seen it first hand, ever since I was a child; watched the ghosts and echoes settle like flies on passive, unheeding faces, scattering upon not being acknowledged.
Born different? Maybe. Or maybe it's environmental. I don't care; all that matters is the experience; parasitic, not my own, but as intense and vivid as though it were.
Deluged, not spreading my arms to it, like some penitent before a tsunami, but holding myself, making a play of passivity, for fear of jealous censure from the blind and deaf. Struggling to sustain, in this: a flood unlike any before; intermingled joys and despairs, rages and ecstasies...the drug-fuelled and sex-soaring, the pain and bliss and violence...
So easy, to let the anchors fray, the umbilici dissolve; to let them sweep me up and carry me into blissful oblivion, leave me drooling and trembling on the pavement. So ached for; that surrender, fought against since I was a boy, when my mind first gaped, when the echoes first poured through.
No. Not even now, in this swell, though the waking world promises so little...
Holding myself out of...what? Habit, fear, familiarity? No; out of the knowledge that, however intense, however visceral, these are the expressions of dust and dead things. All they can do is cycle, over and over, endlessly, until they fade, until time makes them even less than the debris and dust they seep from.
I'll carry them with me, through my waking day, through my fitful nights; dream of them, descend into them:
Become the wives and husbands; the lovers and adulterers: the victims and rapists and abusers. The children and parents, the living and the dead. Indulge myself; lose myself, temporarily, experiencing all bliss and transgression through them. Never having to in my waking life; able to follow the same worn ruts, the familiar paths I always have...
Sudden lightning, weeping at the chemical heat and sharpness of a wasp sting, lips and fingers still sticky with sugar, the world so bright, colours so intense, even in this moment of perfect pain...
A tiled kitchen floor efflorescing into an alien battlefield before my eyes, plastic soldiers wielding an unlikely mix of swords, axes and fire-arms against tentacle-sprouting, scythe-taloned aliens. Explosions, scents of blood and smoke, hisses and chitters of inhuman things. Lightning of a more ecstatic kind, a boy in love with his fantasies.
Shuddering in the dark, sickness in my belly, waiting for him, knowing what he'll say, the questions that will come. Protests and justifications prepared, knowing that they're useless, that nothing will help, now.
At the door, in the glaring sunshine, blinded by it, waiting for her, cold fingers twining through my entrails, stabbing my heart. No phone calls, no texts, no answer. Gone.
Stopped breath, fingers around my throat, an oceanic roar in my ears, a throb drowning out my own gurgling nonsense, the slurring growls of the weight pressing down on me. Trails of spit burning my eyes, my cheeks, the quiet weeping of a child in the room next door. So grateful that it's all over at last; that I no longer have to love...
“You all right, mate?” Blinking, reality swimming back into focus. One of the workmen, fingers protruding through the wire fencing. Face fretful, furrow-browed; a fellow sensitive, perhaps, seeing or scenting a little of what swirls and sings around me.
“Fine. Absolutely fine.” Other voices echoing mine, crying and singing from my bowels. The man seeming dissatisfied with my answer, cocking his head, a frown creasing his lips.
“Yeah, well; you might wanna get gone, before long: there's gonna be asbestos an' all sorts of shite flyin' about.”
Asbestos. Shards of glass and brick and stone. Fragments of metal. A warzone. Smiling, nodding my acquiescence.
“No worries. I've got everything I need.” The man retreating, casting occasional, wary glances back at me over his shoulder.
Knowing what he says to his fellows, though I can't hear: “Hey, that guy back there; he's a fuckin' mental case.”
Having been called far worse, in my time. Condemned by labels, contained and coralled by them. Not any more.
Turning away from the demolition site, a faint pang of dull nostalgia, knowing that this might be the last time I ever see it. By the time I walk this way again, the old flats and terraces will have been reduced to their foundations, maybe even beyond:
Nothing left but patches of churned earth and patchy grass, weeds already blossoming in the late Spring warmth. No sorrow at the loss: like I said: I have everything I need; everything the buildings and the lives they hosted could ever provide.
As for the authors of these echoes, the ones who sired and shed and abandoned them, they'll likely never know; never realise what I spin from their cast off experience, the worlds they help give birth to.
A breath of spring on the breeze, soft whispers in my ear, the roar of vandal engines and moans of old dreams dying as I walk away, for the last time, memories of what once stood already beginning to fade.
First the singers, with their diseased hymns...still echoing inside, still twisting me, threatening to turn me inside out.
Now, these trespassers, these heretics; these idiot dreamers. Smelling them from the first instant they set their burning feet here, in my dream, my place apart from the world.
How dare they? How dare they?
Fury, incandescent, embers kindling in thought, searing it away, in my belly, burning my entrails. Lashing out at the living rock in agony, raking it open, making it bleed.
Oh, they moan, they sing...attempting to soothe me; the choristers, with their ancient songs, their forgotten lullabies.
Not today, sweet ones, not today. Raking at them, too; cleaving meat and bone with every gesture, opening flayed throats and bleeding faces, exposing the machinery of song and mind.
Still, they sing, still they stroke and caress me. As though it's enough...to quell the fire, to keep me from violence.
Nothing is. Nothing ever will be.
Scenting them, amongst my children; the parasites that swell on my hide, that squirm in my guts, that shake free with every motion, squirming into sunlight I can no longer bear.
My shapelss, hungering ones; my stinking effluent eaters, my boneless, thoughtless beauties.
Hurting them, when they draw too close; stabbing and splitting them open, driving them back with hideous raptures, alien fires.
Strange creatures; lost and in love with the condition, not even knowing why they're here, what they might find.
I will give them an answer, in the instant before I peel their faces away, slit them open and unspool their entrails, lick the hearts from their chests:
No secrets here, beyond me; no mystery that I have not authoured, sweated or shit into being. I am god, in this place, and they?; Less than fleas; irritants to be raked away, ground into the sludge.
Not even worthy of a place amongst my shit; the effluent of those devoured, still singing, singing...that plead with me, that beg me to let them re-write themselves, to burn to ash, leave this place as motes in the breeze.
Never. They dared, seeking me out, perhaps even hearing rumours of me: the Beast Beneath the Stone, The Sanguine, The Heart Eater. The Mother of Worms.
So many titles, so many stories...I can't recall now which are true, if any. Who or what I was, before crawling into this darkness, before bleeding this mire, seeping my disease into the stone and bedrock...slowly poisoning the city above. The twisted young, born in my wake; as much mine s their Mother's or Father's...sloping from the womb mad, rabid, deformed...turning on their parents, their deliverers into the world. Many still here, those whole enough to survive the Hell I made from their home...monsters themselves, now; siring their own broods and myths; stories that stretch beyond the bounds of this accursed place.
Sick, I think, before I even came here, before the dream coalesced around me; so little memory of that time...only pain, only weeping.
Little wonder, then, that all I've made and sweated since is the same; an expression of sickness. Little wonder that all who have come seeking have found the same answers:
Pain, suffering, disgrace.
My hymns. My gospels.
Sought and found, by those that have found me:
Heaped in hideous, pulsing piles in the darkness, but clearly visible to me: the devoured, digested, shat out; the torn open, mulched and molten; the blackened and sloughed from the bone with the poison of my spit and piss; my every kiss, caress or hissed word.
My parasite children playing amongst them, making such happy music as they weave into the hollows where entrails once sat, as they coil and knot in sludge-filled brain-pans. The trespassing dreamers they once were crying out, though many lack mouths with which to shape words, telling me stories of what they've lost, what they hoped, what they despaired of, before coming here, before finding me, in my wakeless pit.
None I haven't heard a thousand times before, that move me to any kind of sentiment.
These two...unfamiliar souls, unfamiliar songs. Shuddering with delight at the thought of adding their voices to the choir, in hearing their shrieked stories, their whimpered confessions, over and over and over, until even they don't understand or remember them...
Calling to them without words; a more eloquent song, a sweeter invitation than any language might shape.
Knowing before they take their first steps that they will answer, and remind me, for a time, of what it was to be more than despair.
A little time...all I want, all it takes.
Stillness, taste of bitter coffee fading, the creaks of the house, gurgles of the boiler growing distant...aches in my joints, the strange tremor of my heart (a recent development, not even consciously feeling the organ until recently, when it sprouted wings and started fluttering against its imprisonment)...all fading, fading...
This fog, these scarlet, seething clouds. Tumbling through them, but still here, seated on my sofa, eyes open, watching the world through the windows; the scuds of purple and yellow across the blue, blue sky, the passing parents and children, on their ways home from school.
Alien; that state, that desire. Children, family...never wanting them, though not for misunderstanding of the appeal.
Tumbling, soaring; caught up naked and bleeding on barbed winds, tempests furious enough to tear cities apart, to sweep up tsunamis that might wash away civilisations.
That have, and do; the winds carrying stories of them, to the dreaming not-quite-gods, the gestating divinities that swell at the heart of the storm.
So many...all their own creations, like me, dreamed or ached or torn their way through. Unlike me, never returning; not to the dreams that once bore them, that they ached to rip open. Some not able to; having reduced theirs to ashes and tatters, for want of these self-authored wombs. Others having long forgotten, the memories unwanted, unnecessary; agonising to hold onto.
Not as in hate with my world as them, though frustration with it drives me here, again and again. Maybe, one day, I'll take my place amongst them. Maybe, one day...
But not today.
Hardly seeing her come to the door, not recognising her through the storm. A moment of dreaming distance, of utter incomprehension. A look of confusion across her face, of possible offence.
Then smiling, rising, even as I tumble, as I fall; as I plummet from the storm, carried over the infinite, black oceans it stirs and tosses; over maelstroms vast and violent enough to churn continents to powder, in which whole fleets of ships eternally toss, from which rise the children of drowned and dreaming things; great molluscs and nests of seething tendrils, leviathans that coil and mate and devour one another endlessly; that combust into blue and green flame before my eyes, consumed to the skeleton before descending into the depths, where lesser creatures swarm upon them, lending them flesh.
Endless shores, islands, atolls; the horizon boundless, without direction or dimension: the sea that binds us as one, that we all swim, at some point in our lives.
That so few remember, for want of retaining sanity.
As though that assumption ever did any of us any good.
In those depths, too, that reflect the sky in places, becalmed beneath the storm, become the perfect mirror of it:
Drowned stars, pulsing, flickering, the things nestled at their hearts slowly swelling towards states of apotheosis...
Watching them born; tumbling like me from the sky, rising from the depths; some meeting one another in those journeys, impacting, combusting: apocalyptic unions that either murder them at the point of birth or result in something new, that neither of them could have dreamed apart.
Rising from the sofa, fumbling to unlock the door.
A stuttered, uncertain, smiling greeting, an unsure embrace. The woman mumbling, as she comes in from the cold.
“Oooh, it's very bright out there, but it's damn chilly!”
Peeling off her gloves and coat, as I set about making coffee, as I put on my mask and make theatre for her:
Smiles and hellos, sly wit and sharp observations.
Fighting, all the while, to retain focus; not to slip back, to be diverted by the shorelines and islands passing beneath: masses of land to shame any continent on earth: vast plains of broken, black rock, of shifting white desert, of abandoned, alien civilisations.
Broken towers, black and horn-like, seemingly fashioned from bones erupted from the mountains whose heights they crown, a web of shattered bridges binding them, whatever winged or weightless species built them long, long since passed, maybe abandoned, maybe murdered by their own hands: the winds threatening stories of it, that I deny, that I ignore; terrified of being anchored here, shackled by the unfolding history of an entire species (no time for it, not any more).
Allowing the wind to take me, carry me mote-like out, out across the desolation beyond the mountains...
Sighing as she sits, as she glances about the place, fighting to keep the fret from her eyes.
“It's been a while since we've seen you. Everything okay, is it?”
Plains that look to be formed from burned meat and molten plastic, that still quiver and ripple as though alive, as though whatever doomsday engine authored this apocalypse still churns in the darkness beneath. Shattered remnants of the civilisations that once stood here; areas where ruinous structures still stand, torn open to the elements, invaded and undone, where diseased grasses and fungi sprout, things moving amongst them like maggots, scraping whatever living they can from the diseased earth.
Soaring with winged scavengers, things of tar-black, almost molten flesh, their ragged frames seeming barely held together as they swoop and flock, as they scrabble over the tatters of screaming meat they pluck from the plains below.
Not here, not where my fascination lies.
Deeper, further than ever before.
Swilling coffee around the percolator, spooning sugar into one mug.
“You've hardly said a word since I got here. Is everything okay?”
Smiling mask, quiet eyes.
“Everything's fine. It's...been a bit busy, lately; haven't had much time for anything, you know?”
True, true. But also a lie.
Handing her the mug, her eyes still fretful, though the lies are welcome.
“I know...I know you're working hard right now...”
“...but it'd be nice to see you, every now and then. We're only down the road.”
“I know. Like I said; I haven't had much time, lately, and what time I've had, I've been basically sleeping through...”
“I don't know how you do it. How many is it, now?”
“Seven, I think, at the last count.”
“Seven. Bloody Hell.”
Here. Beyond the wastes, beyond sight of the sea; a city, once, crooked towers, broken spires, partially sunken, sprouting at strange angles from the twisted, uncertain streets. Shapes that resemble fossilized creatures, bones and bizarre fungi, sprouting all around, partially subsuming them.
Tumbling, bleeding, a window shattering, as I pass through.
Skidding across the warped and splintered floorboards, setting small fires as I pass.
Pain, coming to rest against a great bookshelf, its contents spilling down over me. A stink of blood and burning, of wet, rotting meat and sewer foulness.
One already waiting, as he always is; always knowing where I'm going to be. Staring down at me with a feline smile.
“You look like shit.”
No worse than I feel; not possible. Broken bones resetting, burns and rents and ruptures healing, organs swelling and sealing.
Feeling like a spider unfurling as I right myself, as I stretch out, orienting myself to this new state and frame.
My friend sniffing laughter, a cat's kiss; eyes half closing.
“I'll never understand why you make it so difficult for yourself.”
Breathing, gasping; hacking up a wad of semi-congealed blood and bone splinters. The air in this place...saturated with filth, with disease; the myriad ills that reduced it to desolation.
“...it's how it's always been...”
“But not how it has to be. Why can you never get that?”
Struggling to stand, using the shelf at my back as leverage. More of its scrolls and volumes tumbling around me, scattering on the floor.
“Some of those are priceless, you know; one of a kind...”
Everything here is one of a kind, no matter how hideous. Us included.
Clearly waiting for some time; clothed, for one thing; having scavenged some purple and gold robe that clings to his scrawny frame, swirling about him as he moves. An air of impatience, fizzing in the darkness around him.
“Where is it this time?”
“I don't know its name; only that it has secrets...”
“Don't they all?”
A sickle-moon smile.
Of course they do.
“You look...worn out, love. Aren't you due any holiday, soon?”
Sinking into the sofa, rubbing hands across my face, pulling my features taught. Beard unkempt, hair too long, Overdue a makeover.
“Probably. It's tricky taking it right now, the way things are.”
“Oh! I know; it's all over the news. Bastards, aren't they? Taking money from the schools and the care homes and what not...”
Bastards. Yes. But clearly not enough; not enough for people to tell them so, to hold them to account.
“We're short staffed right now; people are just...moving on.”
Trying to conceal the fright in her eyes, failing.
“And what will that mean for your lot?”
Shrugging, sipping coffee. Hardly tasting, hardly seeing.
“I suppose we'll have to move on, too.”
Helping me to scavenge some clothes, though it wouldn't be the first time I've had to wander in nothing but my skin.
Almost used to it, by now.
Some remnants and remains in the upstairs storeys, negotiating them a suicidal exercise; the floors and stairwells warped, broken, collapsed in on themselves, the rest not far from capitulating likewise. The entire structure bizarrely tilted, sunken on its foundations, making every step confusing, almost nauseating in its disorientation.
More than just abandoned clothes and personal effects; the rooms infested with vermin; skittering, spider and cockroach like creatures, rattish carrion, their bulbous eyes seeming about to burst from their skulls, their scabrous backs sprouting with amber-dewed spines.
Bones. Piles of rot decorating every bed, every floor, as though those that rested here had gathered to die in relative peace, rotting serenely, uncaring of the scavengers and vermin that make their nests amongst them.
A similar set of robes, their colour vibrant and shimmering, whatever they're woven from clearly suffused with some sustaining art.
Mine sky blue and dusky amber, not quite as well fitting as his, but then, I've grown used to that, too.
So at home, here, so effortless; seeming to almost float up the stairwells, over rents in the floor, pausing at windows, at openings in the walls, staring out over the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Joining him, once sufficiently dressed, the robes seeming to move and quiver against me as though sentient, aware of the fact that I'm not their original wearer.
Below, a ditch of filth, viscous, scarlet matter flowing in a polluted stream, shapeless, boneless things rearing up from the filth, flatworm bodies coiling with tendrils, with lesser versions of themselves, that seem to sprout from their amorphous bodies, slowly swelling until they're of similar size to their host before tearing free.
Watching their vile dance, their grotesque feedings; their hideous songs as they rear up, hooting and hissing to one another...
“Please don't tell me...”
Grinning at me, smoothing lank, blonde hair from his face.
“All right, I won't. It's not like I have to...”
Of course not. Of course not.
Our way...following the stream, as it twines into the distance, overshadowed by looming, partially collapsed structures, choked in places with filth and debris, where the shapeless things gather, scrabbling over clots of matter that they devour, swelling until they become almost translucent, spraying excess from the orifices decorating their backs.
In the distance, an opening; a cavern, into which the stream flows. God only knows what's waiting for us down there...
Smiling, even as he leaps, as he almost floats down, landing with a cat's poise, a dancer's grace.
Smiling as I follow, unable to help myself.
A hideous waking, vile afternoon. Nothing of blood, nothing of dreams; just dull intimations, sighs and suggestions: her own mask far more practised and perfect than mine.
Aching for her to go, screaming for it with my eyes.
And she knows. She knows, but won't indulge me, any more than she or my Father ever have. Not like him, my nameless, dreaming friend; my sibling since before we were born, never met here, in waking life, but every night, there, amongst the dreaming desolations of our species, in the heart of the storm, the depths of the ocean.
“Well, I'd better going; your Dad will be wondering where I am.”
No, he won't. Any more than he spares a thought for me, beyond what he fears might happen to change what we know.
Kind words, as much as I can muster; obsequious goodbyes, empty promises that I'll visit, when I have a moment to spare.
My moments, that I will never let them steal.
Not ever again.
Stinking, spattered; tattered robes glued to our bodies with sweat and blood. The stinking stream frothing around our ankles, the things we pass by, that flop and shriek at us, that spray their effluent at our backs, still calling, as though horrified beyond measure at out tresspass, as though the open sewer they inhabit is the most sacred of grounds.
But not following; wiser than that, by far.
Pausing at the opening, peering into darkness. The stink of the place...echoes from below; the shift and quiver of something vast, scraping stone, splashing in sewage. Grunts and wickers, echoing, distorted and indecipherable.
Markings on the stone; great claw marks, places where it seems to have melted and solidified again, as though beneath some acidic secretion, some flaming breath.
Braver than I, always; already at the entrance, a step away from shadows.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course not. When am I ever?”
A fair retort.
Joining him, standing aside from the entrance, peering around its ragged lip.
“Christ, the stink...”
Closing his feline eyes as he breathes it in, as though fortified by it, luxuriating in it.
“You don't have to come. You know that.”
I know. I've always known. Yet I always follow, always have.
Better than waking; than sleeping only to never find him again. The price I'd pay, should I ever retreat, should I ever let their disease smother the child inside.
No knowing what awaits us down there; what manner of worm ate this hollow from the city's bedrock; what it might do to us, should we meet it.
That ignorance...lighting behind my eyes, in the pit of my belly; a fire to shame any dragon's, that will only swell at sight of it, that I won't be able to contain.
Following, as he steps into the dark, not feeling my collapse in the waking world, the storm that bursts my heart, and chars my mind to cinders.
Peering out through ash-smeared windows, into a garden of smoke and fire.
A time when I knew what that meant, where the fires began; a time when I touched them, and they invaded me, reducing me to an ember in her hand.
A dream of so long ago. The ember still burning inside, at the heart of me; still singing promises of what I might find, where I might trespass, what I might become.
Already so many things, so many faces.
This latest...not quite certain, yet; fingers leaving marks on the glass, splitting open, peeling away.
“When...will it be done?”
Voice slurred and breathless, that of a dead man, speaking through a throat choked by his own filth.
The fires raging forever, still not having licked the world below clean.
Feeling her, hearing her: feather light footsteps, frost and blazing sun against my naked back. Her touch drawing blood, but welcome. Ached for.
A sexless whisper at my ear:
“Soon. I promise. Then...we'll walk there, you and I.”
Almost laughing. Almost.
Withdrawing from me, her fingers momentarily scourging. Cold, blue fire in my veins.
“What do you mean?”
The room creaking, groaning around us, as though unsettled by her discomfort. Smiling, so rare I had the opportunity to distress her.
“There'll...be nothing left. Just...smoke and...ash...”
Feeling her smile, the sunshine radiance, melting frost.
“They said the same about Eden. It wasn't true then; it won't be true tomorrow.”
The same vagaries, always. Never telling me why; what the world did to offend her so, why she called me from it.
Nothing. Just a man; sadder and wearier than most.
Wrapping her arms around me from behind, her touch kind, amber sunshine washing my nerves, my entrails. Memories of the games we'd already played, in the worlds beyond other windows.
“You saw. None of the others did. You came, where the rest forgot.”
Kisses, lips that almost burned, but that settled me on the bone; solidity returning.
Raising unfamiliar fingers to unfamiliar features. Young. Younger perhaps than ever before, and beautiful.
“We have time yet, sweetheart; so much time...”
“Not yet, please. Not another game; I can't bear it.”
Floorboards and rafters creaking, the room subtly darkening, as though a cloud passed over the non-existent sun. Bitter chill, pricking my newly formed nerves; this nameless newborn's first true sensations, that would inform the stories that came after; the games he would inevitably play.
Withdrawing from me, dissipating, becoming a phantom of rustling feathers and cigarette smoke, fading as the murk deepened.
Somewhere, deep in the house, cracks and grindings; ancient machinery running down, old bones wearing to dust.
There are others...
Yes; other lovers, other playmates. And not just for her.
Laughing, rolling my tongue around my mouth, growing used to its unfamiliar grooves and recesses; the arrangement and structure of its teeth.
“Who will you go to? Kirchner?”
The name forbidden, enough to cause convulsions in the surrounding house, the floorboards beneath my feet wavering like water, splintering, cracks coruscating the walls, a rain of plaster dust falling.
...Brave. Brave, sweetheart...
If only she knew. If only...
Feed yourself to the fire, then, if you're so weary of it all. Here!
The front door audibly unlocking, for the first time in as long as I could recall. A strange, hollow ache in my belly; an urge to call her bluff, to throw open the door, step outside, into the blaze. Would she let me, out of sheer bloody-mindedness?; Let me go the same way as the world she plucked me from, before allowing her own embers to kindle in it?
No...of course not!
A new game begun, whether I wanted it or not.
Legs uncertain, trembling beneath me, threatening to pitch me face first onto the splintered floorboards (hurts that would heal, in time; perhaps in seconds, perhaps in years, but in time). Using the wall as support, inching my way along, laughing at my stumbling, awkward idiocy; what a sight it most certainly made for the others, watching from their shadows and seclusion.
To the door.
No word from her, no sudden warning. Too proud, too proud, by far, to admit that she silently begged me not to, that she'd weep and weep until she was desert dust, if I fed myself to the fire.
Reaching out, the handle scalding hot, but not recoiling, letting my new flesh blister and bubble.
The faintest whisper, the slightest breath of cold.
Doing as commanded, peeling myself away from the door, soothing frost licking my palm.
“I think I'm ready to play, now.”
A cool hand taking mine, turning me away from the door, the burning world beyond. Leading me back, away from windows and memory, to places neither of us had walked before, and games neither of us knew.
Seen every day, through finger-print smeared windows. Smeared itself, sometimes, depending on the bus driver; the speed with which they take the corner of Sunderland Row. The suicidal ones, the kamikaze idiots...fast enough to almost tip the bus, to melt the world; make it a smeared painting viewed through LSD eyes.
Strange as a gold tooth in a row of rotting brown:
A yellow house, raised from the street on its garden-mound, an altar atop its cairn. Always Summer there, no matter the season: sunlight playing over its walls, reflected in its windows. Rain clouds parting around it, as though fearful of darkening it.
Older, far older than most of the 1980s tenements and semi-detatched affairs surrounding it, yellow paint charmingly chipped in places, exposing patches of dark, dark brick.
A flaking mask obscuring rotting flesh; inspiration for movie-monster nightmares.
Garden always so green, sparkling with dew; flowers jewel-petalled, ruby azure and violet. In bloom, regardless of season or weather, in the midst of frosts, snows or tempests.
Raised so high above the surrounding houses, lording it over them; a prince amongst dwellings, an architectural saint.
Seeing...again and again and again. For over sixteen years, the same bus route, almost always the same seat...the same destination for the same job. Seeing, but not noticing. Until a few days ago, when the girl in the upstairs window caught my eye:
A spectre in an unlit room, scalp aflame, a mane of fire making her moon-dusted skin shine, her glacial eyes glow.
Seeing me, I'm sure of it; as the bus idled, driver leaning out of his window, smoking a cigarette, hacking phlegm into the road. Muttered curses, none rising high enough for him to hear.
Seeing me, beckoning.
Come visit, come inside; come and spend what little time's left in the sunshine.
What little time's left.
Thinking of it...of her, at work, making mistakes that earn me sneers and rolled eyes, that hold up the line too much for my manager's patience.
“What's wrong with you, Frank? You almost cost us that entire load!”
“I know...I'm sorry. I'll do better, I promise.”
“I don't want promises, man; just...get yourself sorted.”
Jumped up little shit, momentarily feeling his pretty blonde head shatter against the conveyor edge, hearing him gurgle apologies as he breaks and bleeds, as his book-softened brain seeps between my fingers.
At home, Miranda and I barely sharing a word, though there's little unusual about that. The way she looks at me...knowing what she thinks, not caring enough to disabuse her of the mistake:
He's having an affair. Shacked up with some local tart; why he's been going out earlier, why he comes home so late.
Not caring enough to check my phone, my e-mails; to level accusations. Both of us long since past that.
Thinking...at break and meal times, while walking the dog, when my head hits the pillow:
The Yellow House and its perpetual Summer.
The burning girl and her strange invitation.
“I don't know what's going on, Frank, but I'm done.”
Sipping bitter coffee, picking over a cold breakfast. Staring out of the kitchen window, watching the rain stream down.
Hardly hearing her, words reaching me through fog, through dirty bathtub water.
Expecting it, waiting for it for God only knows how long.
“Is that all you've got to say?”
Clearly expecting nothing more. Turning to her, a rain-smeared thing herself, hardly real.
“What do you want me to say?”
Seeing it leave, dispersing like cigarette smoke: whatever affection she holds onto, whatever hope she has for us.
“I'm going to my Dad's. Oliver and the dog are coming with me.”
As though it matters. Not saying it. Not needing to.
Why I'm here, watching the bus speed away in the rain, streams of it carrying filth through the gutters, churned to froth where it pours into the sewers. Soaking me, chilling me to the marrow.
Fraying. Fraying for too long. Since childhood; never able to be part of anything real, knowing that I or it might come apart in the next heartbeat.
What time's left...
So little. Not just me coming apart; feeling it, seeing it; more and more, every day: the world gaping; an autistic abuse victim tearing its own stitches open, shrieking wordless protest at its would-be healers. Already sceptic, past any point of recovery.
Shuddering as I cross the road, though not with cold. Staring up at The Yellow House, its windows dark and empty, no sign of the girl who beckoned.
Breathless...a heretic on temple grounds, defiling them by my very being.
Something...different: no sun, clouds clustered densely overhead, swollen purple and necrotic black. Its yellow faded, without Summer light to lend it lustre; pale to the point of white, the mask in deeper decay, entirely fallen away in areas to expose dark and mouldering brick.
A gate of rusted iron, paint colourlesss, flaking away beneath my fingers. No thrill of trespass, only sick confusion, voices in the rain, whispering from the leaves, the gurgling gutters:
What are you doing? Who do you think you are? What will you even say, when the door opens, and she doesn't know you?
I don't know. I don't know.
Climbing. Broken, weed-festooned steps, steeper than they seem, from the street below. Steeper, worn lethally smooth, as though by water's passage.
Places where the black, weed-choked garden encroaches, blocking the way with thorns and thistles, stinging me numb, tearing me open, lodging in my flesh.
Hardly feeling them.
The stink of rotting vegetation rising the higher I climb, sharp and pungent; compost heaps in which the corpses of rats and vermin moulder; nurseries for maggots, swarming with immense, black flies.
Barely seeing, my eyes drawn up and ahead, to The Yellow House, its dead, dark windows. Even the flickers of motion in the stinking piles not distracting me, the choked moans and murmurs, the children's whimpers.
Too lost to turn back, even if I want to.
Swarms of things other than flies in the air; high-pitched, dentist's drill whines making me grind my teeth to splinters, gnaw my lips and tongue to tatters: red, stinging creatures, their jaws and probosci lodging in my flesh, though causing little pain as they tear themselves in half for want of murdering me. Great worms and beetles amongst the flowerbeds; some vast enough to coil around my wrists or ankles, red and pink and flower-headed themselves, bursting from the faces staring up at me from the roots and soil.
Not knowing how long...hunger gnawing my insides hollow, the maggots my children, now; the swarms in my hair, my skin, their venom pulsing on place of my blood.
Fever. Fever and delirium. Pausing to pull worms from my arms and ankles, to ease beetles from their sceptic, parasite hollows in my flesh. Laughing, as they laugh at me with the voice of a child I once knew, a woman I once loved; people I once had the wit to hate.
Never looking back. Not a glance; fearful of what it will mean, that I'll wake there, staring out through the smeared glass again, watching the rain stream down, the sunshine of before murdered and forgotten.
On my hands and knees by the time I reach the porch; name forgotten, face forgotten, nothing left but mist and cold.
So weak...slick with fever, flies on my face, on my fingers, supping tainted sweat. Smearing the concrete; blood and filth, black and yellow matter sloughing away. Smeared finger prints on the bright yellow door as I laugh and laugh and laugh...
Sounds from within; giggling children, retreating into darkness. A sighing girl, sick from her lover's absence. Echoes of old arguments, voices I knew, once...
Aching to meet them all, to know what I've suffered for.
Knuckles bursting, black, gelatinous matter spattering the wood as I knock. Grinning, my lips a suppurating mess, flies rising from within.
An ache deeper than any; a knife twisting in my heart and belly. Abandoned, left out here in the endless cold, waiting for the worms and beetles to infest me, eat me hollow from the inside...
A soft click, a gentle creak, a whisper of feet on carpet.
Looking up into burning blue, eyes so cold they scour me clean; to the bone and beyond. A cascade of scarlet flames down her back, over her shoulders, kindling in the air, on my breath, reducing everything inside to ash.
All shame at my condition passing, as it too passes, as her fire leaps from tainted weed to twisted root, from swarm to swarm, engulfing the entire garden, spreading down to the street, miles and miles below.
Reaching down, she plucks me up; a mote of ash, an ember, and carries me inside, the yellow door easing closed behind us, sealing out the blazing day.
Little bastard. Stupid, pointless little bastard!
Hate that burned; a fever in his cheeks, his belly, making him want to scream and puke blood, to punch him and punch him until there was nothing left of his stupid, grinning face.
Across the way; barely a few strides. All he'd have to do; take a sharpened pencil, his pillow; stab out those blue, blue eyes, press the pillow down until he stopped breathing, grew still.
They'd never hear; not find him until tomorrow, until it was too late. His Grandparents...too deeply asleep, snores echoing through the thin walls, ragged and rasping.
But they'd know...know the minute they found the little shit...what he'd done, and why.
And they'd blame him, like always: the first they turned to, whenever The Little Shit grazed his knee or bruised his head; always the first they shrieked and hissed at, as though he could control what The Little Shit did.
Today, a familiar ritual, whenever they visited Nanna and Grandad: a new toy to keep them occupied. He'd picked one of his favourites: Arachnos, from The Drivers of Delirium; a comic he'd collected every issue of in the last four years; the stacks of them high enough to hold his bed up at home.
A fusion of man and spider, black-skinned, many-armed, a bulbous abdomen dragged behind, filled with tiny, rubber spiderlings that could be “birthed” by squeezing the toy's midriff.
The Little Shit had its own to play with and ruin; broken almost the instant he got it out of the package, as always.
“...can I have a go?”
“No! You've got your own!”
“But it's broke...”
“That's your fault, not mine.”
Knowing, knowing that, if he touched it, it would fall apart instantly.
Mom watching, frowning.
“Oh, stop being so selfish! Just let him have five minutes with it!”
“That's not the point, Mom! He breaks everything. I can't have anything without him...”
The woman sighing, wrenching the figure from his hands, placing it in the Little Shit's pudgey, awkward fingers.
“Now, you be careful, okay? That doesn't belong to you.”
The Shit not paying the slightest attention, any more than it ever had. Knowing, the instant it got up and waddled away; the way it looked at him, the way it smiled:
Arachnos's abdomen ripped open, the spiderlings scattered across the carpet.
“You little shit!”
Screaming it, bringing Mom and Grandmother running.
“What did I hear you just say?”
“Look what he's done!”
The Little Shit hovering behind them, protected by the screen they made of their bodies. How it would always be, forever and ever.
“I don't care about that: what did I hear you just say?”
Waggling the toy in front of her, trying to make her see.
“Don't throw that thing in my face! If I hear you swear at him like that again...”
Not even crying, knowing it would mean nothing.
He couldn't do it. They'd know. But maybe...someone else? Something else?
Rejecting the thought out of hand, knowing how stupid it was. How could he even ask? How could he make them listen?
Unable to sleep for it; the idea a thorn, burrowing deeper and deeper into his thoughts, growing sceptic, fevered.
They wouldn't come, not here, no matter how fervently he called: the room proof against them, insulated against their intrusion by years of prayer and accrued ritual.
No, if he wanted their help, he'd have to find them.
An idiot notion, a baby's dream: of course he couldn't go to them! They wouldn't listen, even if he could find them! Most likely, he'd be the one devoured, just as he always was, no matter what monsters he faced.
The night not leaving him be, not letting him dream and wake to a new round. Seeming to linger, hours dragging on for eternity, the moon rising outside his window, the barks of youths and drunks returning home from the local pub up the road filtering through.
Not daring to open his eyes, afraid of finding them, splayed out across the walls, seething from beneath the bed, silhouetted against the curtains.
Nothing, the room empty, cold and quiet.
Sitting up in bed, daring them to descend on him, swinging his legs out over the edge, the old-fashioned springs squealing, the metal frame shifting as though about to fall apart.
No hands reaching from beneath, curling cold fingers around his ankles, no whispers from the shadows.
Shuffling into his slippers and dressing gown, going to the door.
Something inside screaming as he twisted the knob, as he eased it open, peering out onto the landing.
A small space, light filtering through the window, hazey and chemical orange, his Grandparents snoring in the room next door.
No sign of the ones he came to find; no red, smear-headed phantasm before the window, no centipede-thing unfurling from the airing cupboard, no shining spider's legs creeping from around the corner, pawing at the wall.
Creeping out, shivering, though it wasn't so cold, remembering, remembering why:
Arachnos, his Mother's dull and hateful eyes, the Little Shit's smile.
Maybe he'd keep it; have them twist off his head, curl his lips up and pin them in place, have him smiling forever.
The airing cupboard. Strange gurgles and clatters from inside; pipes and the boiler, they always insisted, ever since the nightmares that gave birth to what he knew nested inside.
Maybe true, but not always; what they couldn't see or understand: of course it was nothing but pipes and boilers, in the day time, but after dark..?
Jerking away as he heard it moving, the thing knowing, sensing him; happy that he came to feed himself to it.
Holding himself fast, ignoring the sudden urgency in his bladder, the pain that had him dancing from foot to foot in the strange, itchy carpet.
“H...h...hey. Hey? Are you...in there?”
No answer, save for more gurgles and hisses, more bangs and clatters. Then...
Scratching against the wood, almost imperceptible, but not to him.
Almost bolting, hurtling back through his bedroom door, under the covers, safe in the darkness behind his eyes, where they could never follow.
Only the promise of days that might be holding him fast; days without broken toys, without disruption; without being blamed for everything The Little Shit did...when they'd forgotten, when it went back to how it once was.
“...I...I have something for you...”
The scritch-scritch-scratching growing louder, accompanied by a low hiss that almost made him pee his pyjamas.
Seeing it; coiled, wet and segmented, pale young clutched in a living ball between its many legs, its antennae waving in the steam-dank air.
Another sound; one that made him screw his eyes tight shut. Something on the ceiling above, its tread feather light, but not quite enough to disguise its presence.
Feeling it reach down, its legs disturbing the air around his ears, at the back of his neck.
Somehow smiling, though it didn't have mouth or lips with which to do so, delighted that the fly it had hunted for nights on end had decided to surrender itself.
“...N...not me, not me...take him! I...I'll give him to you!”
Soft footsteps in the carpet at his back, a chill breath making him shudder. Sighs, a voice filtering into his thoughts:
“Suppose we'd rather have you?”
A whisper, only; the voice of a dying woman, little breath left to waste.
The scratches and chitters from within the airing cupboard growing more agitated, seeming to almost laugh.
Closer, closer; the soft footsteps, the rustling skirts, the pawing legs from above.
“Look! I'll...I'll open the way...”
Opening his eyes, but keeping them firmly upon the wall as he edged around, turning the corner to the Little Shit's room.
“You'll...you'll like him better, anyway. He's younger.”
The feet following, the steps on the ceiling, the airing cupboard door clicking open...
Reaching out, as gently as he could, twisting the old, rattling doorknob. Letting the door ease open, the Little Shit muttering and murmuring inside, as it always did in its sleep.
Sighs of anticipation, the footsteps ceasing, the cold against his back enough to raise goosepimples.
The brush of a cold, cold hand against his cheek, a gentle caress at his shoulder.
Flying, clamping hands to his mouth, wrenching his eyes away from the opening airing cupboard door, refusing to see, catching only a glimpse of something shimmering inside, something moving...
Stumbling, something around his ankles, wet bursts and crunches beneath his feet.
On his knees on the threadbare carpet of his little room; the backroom, with its cold and steel bed and horrible, horrible paintings.
Wheeling around, slamming the door behind him.
Tears coming, then, as he slumped against it, as whatever followed scratched and hissed and sighed outside.
Pressing his palms flat to the wood, his forehead likewise.
“...take him, take him...”
Laughter, a cruel girl, a cackling witch. Shadows skittering in the dim, orange light filtering beneath the door.
They couldn't. They couldn't get him. Not here.
“I...I don't have anything else. Please...”
“Oh, such sweet lies! You have everything, child; you have yourself.”
Weeping openly, now, cursing himself for his stupidity.
“...just take him and go away...”
A muffled protest from the room next door, Grandad stirring in his sleep, cursing ripely as he shuffled out of bed.
“....bloody fucking thunder...”
The sounds from outside stilling, as though their makers froze at the sound of his voice.
The click of a light.
“What is it now?”
“...need to bloody piss again. Only the third time tonight.”
“It's them bleedin' pills what he gave yer. I told yer...”
“Give over, will yer? Go back to sleep.”
His Grandfather's heavy, slumping footsteps driving him away from the door as fast as those he held it against. Diving beneath the covers, drawing them tight around himself, screwing his eyes tight shut, momentarily so lost in the illusion of dreaming, he believed it.
“...what the bloody 'ell is this? Aye, Edith? What's all this on the landing..?”
A mumbled, slumbering response.
“Bugger ye, then.”
The man muttering and murmuring, creaking and cracking, all the way to the bathroom, pissing loudly with the door open.
Not seeing, never seeing; the night things invisible to them.
The flushing toilet, gurgling pipes.
“'Ere, Edith! Our Joseph's door's wide open!”
“Well, just shut it then, will yer?”
“All right, all right! Don't snap me 'ead off! Bloody Hell...”
A door clicking shut, more slumping steps, the crick and crack of old joints, muttered protests. A weary body dragging itself beneath covers, settling down to sleep.
Smiling, truly smiling, for the first time since The Little Shit was born, terror and anticipation slowly seeping from him, as he drifted into dreams that already echoed with the screams that morning would bring.
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.