Last Words

— recording begins ––

Well now. Well well. Here we are.

It’s been a long time. I suppose, if nothing else, I owe you an explanation for all this. We have some time to spare – you won’t be missed for quite a while – so there’s no need to rush things.

We haven’t talked like this since the old man’s funeral. Well, maybe not like this, but you know what I mean. Don’t try to struggle, by the way – I’ve done my best to make you comfortable, and I don’t want you to hurt yourself.

I suppose I was a bit of a wreck back then. I’m sorry for any upset I may have caused, but I really wasn’t in my right mind. I’d had the rug pulled out from under me, and that whole period just seemed to pass in a kind of dense grey fog. Since then I’ve had a lot of time to think: I’ve got things sorted out in my head now. Things make a lot more sense.

You were probably right to get out when you did. I mean, I hated you for it at the time – and for years afterwards, in fact – but now I can see why you had to do it. The house was a terrible, terrifying place, and the old man… Well. You know what he was like. You had a life to build for yourself: there was no way you could have done that if you’d stayed. It did feel like you’d abandoned me, though. Left me to rot in that damn house while the old man just got worse and worse.

But you were totally justified. I can see that now. I can see why you didn’t call, or write, or try to make contact in any way. I won’t pretend it didn’t hurt, and hurt deeply, but I know now that you were only doing what had to be done.

Things got bad after you left. They were bad before, of course, but that turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. You were, what, sixteen when you left? Almost an adult. I was twelve. Just twelve years old. Little more than a child. With you there, I had an ally, someone to stand fast with when things got rough. With you gone, I had nothing. The old man’s madness had nothing to hold it in check.

You still remember those nights? Those long, endless nights when the old man was at his worst? I bet you still dream about them sometimes. Huddled together in the dark, suffocated by terror, longing for morning to come so the shadows would subside again. Remember? Christ. The whole house was infected with his insanity. I swear you could feel the damn thing breathing throughout the night, creaking and wheezing like the old man’s arthritic innards. Black and rotten and poisoned to the core.

And the things we’d see… Half-formed intimations of the old man’s dark imaginings, uncertain figures unfolding from the shadows as the night roiled and bubbled around us. The pipes in the walls would groan and gurgle as if to the listless spasms of some unseen diseased heart while the beams and floorboards shifted and settled like ancient bones.

You were strong, back then. You saved me. You always told me that there was nothing to be afraid of, that none of it was real, that everything was okay and there wasn’t really anything there. I could listen to your voice and I’d almost believe it, even as I watched the darkness seethe with those faceless forms that the old man conjured from the deepest recesses of his insanity.

After you left it was just me and the old man. Just the two of us rattling around in that ramshackle house like two teeth in a broken skull. With you gone there was nothing to hold him back. The tide of madness finally overwhelmed him, and it swept me along with it. Without you as my anchor I was completely at the mercy of the wild internal storms that raged and howled through the old man and echoed with a dark ferocity throughout that terrible house. Even if I had the words to describe to you the things I saw and heard between those walls I don’t think I could use them – there are some things that deserve to be buried, consigned to the deepest depths of memory and never shown the light of day ever again.

His rants and rambles got worse as time wore on. He could paint such pictures with words, that man. Pictures I’ll never be able to forget. He was a maverick, a metaphysician, a mystic, and a pure bloody maniac. He talked about playing fast and loose with the rules of reality, blurring the lines between the real and the unreal through sheer force of will – sometimes it seemed like I could follow what he was saying, and at other times I would feel myself completely smothered by his grandiose avalanches of eloquence.

But he was on the brink of something, the old man: I’m sure of that. Despite all the fear and madness and crippling confusion that suffused those years, there was always the feeling that something momentous was in the air. As if he were about to break down the bounds of reality itself through the sheer weight of his inspired madness. He could have changed everything.

So as you can imagine, I couldn’t believe the old man would do something as mundane as to die before he’d reached his goal. With him gone, what had it all been for? All those years of fear and torment, teetering above an abyss of unreason that threatened to steal away my very humanity at any moment – what had been the point if it was all to melt away to nothing with the passing of the old man?

For months I felt utterly lost in the world, as if I’d been cast ashore all alone on a desert island. Like a sailor finally returned to dry land after a lifetime at sea, I pitched and lurched aimlessly through my life, still feeling the influence of invisible tides that no longer acted upon me. I felt dizzyingly normal, and couldn’t find any purchase on the world.

I often thought about just ending it all, left alone in that dark little house like a worm in a decaying apple. I came close a few times. I came very close. But I shouldn’t have doubted the tenacity of the old man; I should have been prepared for his sheer bloody-mindedness. If ever anyone could best the grave it would be him.

Day after day the revolver sat there on the kitchen table, looking clumsy and heavy in the grimy light that wheezed through the filthy windows. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Head in hands I’d sit there for hours on end, waiting through the still and silent nights for the coming of another empty dawn.

Then one night, just out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of something. Something fleeting and almost imperceptible. Just for a second, a split second, the grain of the wood on the table top shifted, swirling around a nondescript knot on its surface. Those haphazard whorls and ridges fleetingly coalesced into a familiar nexus of folds and wrinkles, and for a moment the old man’s eye was staring back at me, only to disappear in an instant with a knowing wink.

Well. That was the beginning. The old man wasn’t gone, despite the fact that we’d put his body in the ground. I’d see echoes of him in the yellowing wallpaper in the bathroom, in the networks of cracks on the faded porcelain in the hall cabinets. He’d been too wrapped up in this house and the dark obsessions he’d formed here to ever truly leave.

I began to see hints and flashes of him everywhere: eerie, upstart irruptions that bled a semblance of life back into that crumbling husk of a house. Illicit life, but life nonetheless. It was clear what was happening – the old man had unfinished business. He was coming back to finish what he’d started.

I can’t begin to tell you how frustrating that time was for me. I could feel the old man around me, in every spar and shutter of the house, lurking round the edges of things like a half-remembered dream, yet he was still too fleeting and insubstantial to be a real presence. The echoes of him that recurred and rebounded were mute, idiot apparitions that lacked any real substance.

But I knew he was coming back for a reason. He had something to tell me – in death I knew he had found that which he had continually sought in life. Yet he was unable to pass on his great secret. I feared that he might forever be bound to lurk in the dusty corners and edges of the world, trapped in a perverse half-life that made a mockery of all that he had once been and all that he had striven towards.

It became clear to me that what he needed was a medium more suited to communication. His deep connection with the house had anchored him there within the patterns of its threadbare carpets and the blooms of mildew on the walls: but now that he’s shown himself to me, I would be failing in my duty if I didn’t help him articulate the message he has come back to pass on.

Which, of course, is why you’re here.

Can you feel that? That kind of thrumming in the air? God, but it’s exhilarating, isn’t it! He knows you’re here, you know. This is where everything finally comes together. This is what finally makes it all worthwhile.

You were a hard man to find, you know. I can’t blame you for wanting to put as much distance as you could between yourself and this place, but you did go to some extraordinary lengths. It was tough tracking you down, but I needed you. We needed you. And now here you are, back in the house where we grew up. Everything has come full circle.

You see, the things that happen to you when you’re young, they leave a mark. An indelible mark. You’re young and impressionable at that age, so it’s like pressing a thumb into wet clay. You can cover it over later on, but that mark is always there, deep inside you, set in stone forever. You and I share the same mark. Well, maybe not quite the same, but as near as dammit. Near enough, anyway. The whorls and ridges of the old man’s thumbprint are cast inside us. And that’s a connection neither of us can ever shake.

This house has been steeped in the old man and his madness for years. The place is saturated, right down to its bones. That’s why he lurks in every crevice and cobweb – it’s a part of him, just as he is of it. And you’re a part of him too. You can be his host.

So. It’s a simple process – shouldn’t take more than a minute or two. It probably won’t even be that painful: just a few moments of discomfort. I don’t know how it will feel afterwards. Part of me wishes I could know, wishes that it was me going through this instead of you, but one of us has to remain and see things through to their proper conclusion. I’m just the witness: he needs a mouthpiece. He needs you.

I found the method in an old medical textbook in the old man’s library. Apparently it was all the rage half a century ago, the transorbital leucotomy. Popular for all kinds of mental disorders. It’s quite simple, really. An icepick is inserted into the top of the eyesocket beneath the eyelid. A sharp stroke with a mallet and it punches through the thin layer of bone and into the brain – don’t worry, it’s not as haphazard as it sounds. The angle of entry has to be precise, as do the movements of the pick once it’s entered the brain: I’m quite the expert. I’ve practiced until I can almost do it in my sleep. First the left eye, then the right. Punch in, sweep downward, slice left then right. I’ll be as controlled and delicate as a master locksmith picking a lock. This separates the prefrontal cortex from the thalamus. It’ll wipe everything clean. You’ll be like a blank canvas, ready and waiting for the old man to reveal his final masterpiece.

And I’ll be here to capture it all for posterity. Think of it – the three of us together again, but not in fear and confusion and misery like before. Now we’ll be joined together in triumph, in a grand victory over reality, over the substance of life itself. This is momentous work.

Don’t try to struggle. The gag will be coming off soon. Prepare yourself. Be still.

— recording drowned out by static —

The Summer House

I like it here, in the summer house. It’s peaceful. The warm sunlight streams in through the windows, cutting through the fog and making everything clear and bright and simple. I can spend all day in here, just looking out over the garden, drifting in and out of pleasant little half-slumbers and not thinking about anything at all. No fog. No bad dreams. Just nothing. Nothing at all.

The rest of the house is haunted, I’m sure of it. There’s a whispering in the walls that gnaws at me when I’m alone, and even the smallest of shadows seems filled with unspeakable secrets. The wallpaper winks and rustles to itself when I look way, and I can feel a dark presence seeping up from the cracks in the floorboards whenever dusk begins to settle. The house is alive with spirits, and sometimes it’s as if I can feel them oozing into my bones.

It’s worse at night. That’s when the fog descends in earnest and the darkness unfolds out of all the little nooks and crannies like a gathering storm. I can’t get the thoughts straight in my head – the murmurs mount and mingle until they drown me out entirely and I’m all but washed away in a torrent of overlapping monologues that I can’t quite understand. One thing always comes out clearly, though – the hate. The hate and the rage speaks beyond the words and reaches into my very soul. I don’t know if or when I fall asleep, but when I awaken I’m always drenched in sweat and my every muscle aches.

It doesn’t help that I don’t really get out. Not ever. See, I have this condition. I don’t know what it’s called, but I’m in a wheelchair now and I’m often in a lot of pain. I think it’s also done something to my mind, but I’m not sure what. I don’t seem to be able to concentrate on anything, and my memory is full of holes. But maybe the fog has something to do with that – I don’t know. There’s something badly wrong with my face. When I run my fingers over it the skin feels tight and puckered like scar tissue. It’s rough and uneven and I don’t think it’s supposed to be that way. There aren’t any mirrors in the house but I sometimes catch reflections of myself in things and I have to turn away. Everything’s wrong and out of place and there’s just this pair of penetrating blue eyes staring out of a lump of flesh I don’t even recognize. Things have been this way for a while, but mostly I try not to think about it. When i do the fog just rolls in again and steals all the thoughts from my head.

There’s a woman who looks after me. She wheels me from room to room and feeds me and brings me my medicines. She’s nice, but sometimes I catch her looking at me in an odd way, as if she’s looking through me and into something else. Maybe even something that scares her. She has sad eyes and a lonely smile, and two small round scars on her back – one, two – that I hardly ever see but I still know are there.

I haven’t told her that the house is haunted, but I think she knows anyway. No-one could spend any length of time here and not realize it. The whole place is steeped in spirits – I can feel them even through the depths of the fog, lurking in every forgotten corner and clamoring for attention on the edges of my vision.

Some rooms are worse than others. I really don’t like the library, for example, with its stacks of dusty volumes scattered higgledy-piggledy across the shelves with no sense of order or symmetry. Even when I try to read the titles the letters swim and dance before my eyes like images in a dream. I’ve looked into one or two of the hundreds of moth-eaten books that stare down from the walls: they were filled with page after page of dense, handwritten text that I couldn’t make head nor tail of, and scattered with spidery diagrams that seemed drenched in arcane significance. There’s a sense of eerie familiarity about everything in that room that sets my teeth on edge and gives me a dull, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

But that’s nothing compared to the studio. I haven’t been in there for a long time. She knows that it upsets me. I can’t really explain it. It smells of paint and white spirit – a harsh, chemical smell that catches the back of my throat and burns in my nostrils. The walls are glass, but it doesn’t feel light and airy like it does here in the summer house. It’s oppressive, smothering: like being a fly trapped in amber.

There are canvases everywhere: stacked against the walls, strewn over the paint-spattered desk, lying haphazardly in piles on every available surface. And each one is like a fresh vision of hell.

There are figures in the pictures, faces, some I think I half-recognize, but they seem to loom in and out of the frames like strangers from a mist. The pictures are mad swirls of kaleidoscopic color, jumbles of frantic brushstrokes which conceal just as much as they reveal.

The images are horrific. Insane. But I can’t really put my finger on why. Hate and fear billows out of them, and a bitter undercurrent of violence flows beneath them like an icy torrent.

They speak to me, like the murmurs that seep out from the threadbare carpets, like the muffled intimations that shush themselves in the swaying drapes. Those mad riots of clashing colors tell a story, but it’s as if it’s in a language I don’t understand. A language I forgot a long time ago. Two figures repeat and recur, caught in a wild dance of passion and desire that changes through the pictures from something pure and joyous to something dark, dangerous and ultimately deadly. Obsession creeps through the canvases like a disease, slowly infecting each each image until at last nothing remains but a nightmare of writhing hate and violence, punctuated by two piercing blue eyes with a look in them that chills me to the very core.

There’s a revolver hidden beneath the floorboards in my room. I don’t know how I knew it was there, but I found it once in the dead of night. There were three bullets missing – one, two, three. My face hurts when I think about it. The scars throb and the skin seems to tighten around them. This house has seen a lot of pain and suffering in its time.

But I like it here, here in the summer house. It’s my little shelter from the storm, my last bastion where I’m safe from the endless fog that rolls in on me in multicolored clouds as dense and impenetrable as brush strokes on canvas. It’s always clear and bright in here, like a little jewel shining bright from the depths of an impenetrable void. I don’t have to think in here at all: not about the woman, not about the paintings, and not about the revolver and the strange compulsion I feel to take it out again from its hiding place and feel the impossible weight of it in my hands once again. Here in the summer house I can just sit, and watch, and wait: wait for the time to pass as I drift in and out of a shallow, dreamless sleep.


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Monsters

I thought I knew what fear was. I suppose everyone does. We’ve all had moments or times in our lives when we’ve felt the icy chill of terror clutching at our heart. But this – well, it isn’t even in the same league. I feel as though I’m being stretched like a rubber band, pulled tighter and tighter until there’s only the thinnest little scrap of me left. And pretty soon that’s going to give out.

Maybe events cast a shadow before them, a darkness that bleeds through the years and impinges on the past long before they occur: I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore. I can’t seem to use my brain properly: I can’t seem to stop and think and get my bearings, so I just go through the motions, while underneath everything is close to breaking point. I keep my gun on me at all times, although I don’t really know why.

When I was a kid there was a monster that lived in my closet. I know that’s a cliche, but it’s one of the most abiding memories of my childhood. Lying there in my bed in the dead of night, covers pulled up to my chin, eyes wide with terror. Staring unseeing into the darkness at the malignant presence I knew was there just beyond my closet door.

I don’t remember when I first became aware of it. I didn’t have a very good time of things when I was growing up, and I think I’ve blotted a lot of it out. Mom drank a lot, and when dad wasn’t away, he was very handy with his fists. Had a temper on him like you wouldn’t believe. Still, the fear I felt for him was nothing compared to the thing in the closet. Night after night I remember it haunting me, radiating a nameless, shapeless threat from behind that flimsy wooden door.

Between my mom’s drinking and my father’s unquenchable rage, our house was never quiet. The walls seemed to echo with shouts, screams and sobs the whole day through. Until night came. After mom had passed out and dad had either crashed out or stormed out for the night again, I’d crawl under my covers and try to will myself to sleep as quickly as possible, before the deafening silence had a chance to sink in.

Of course, it never worked. Freed from the chaos of the day, the house seemed to creak and groan into a new, unsettling configuration that seemed full of menace and threat. My eyes would always inevitably be drawn to my closet with its cheap slatted door and the terrifying monstrosity that slumbered unseen within it.

Scared to look but too frightened to turn away, I’d lie like that for hours, barely daring to breathe. The formless shadows of my room seemed to shift uncomfortably under the weight of my gaze, suggesting dark presences to my already suggestible mind. But it was the thing in the closet that always filled me with dread.

Like some endlessly patient spider squatting at the center of a deadly web it watched and waited, never making its presence explicit, but I could always tell it was there, biding its time with unnatural guile.

When I did finally fall asleep I’d be haunted by wild, restless dreams that left me utterly exhausted, as if I hadn’t slept at all. Although I’d wake with my heart pounding and my bedsheets soaked in sweat, I would have only vague and uncertain recollections of these relentless nightmares, as if I had been pursued by a horror that was beyond even my own imaginings. I knew that the monster lay at the root of them.

Each day the coming of dawn would find me awake and unrested, but with the threat of that evil entity diminished by the coming of a new day. The sounds of my mother groaning under the weight of her morning hangover and my father crashing his way through his morning routine seemed to jar the house back into what passed for normality again, and I would be able to put the events of the night to the back of my mind as I braced myself for the trials another day would bring.

I don’t know how long this period lasted – time in childhood seems to work on a scale all of its own – but it had a deep and lasting effect on me far beyond my childhood years. It’s like it was always bubbling away beneath the surface even after I’d become an adult: more than once I’d be jolted awake in the middle of an unsettled night only to find myself staring with terror-stricken eyes at a closet door, perhaps open just a crack, and filled with a nameless dread that took me straight back to my vulnerable childhood.

I suppose when you have an upbringing as rough as mine it never really leaves you. Still, I was always determined to make a good life for myself, despite the poisonous influence of my parents in my formative years. I moved out as soon as I could, but some things are harder to run away from.

I’d inherited my father’s temper. Although I hated myself for it, and swore everyday that that was a road I would never go down, sometimes it just overwhelmed me and I felt utterly helpless in the face of a wrath that seemed to come from somewhere outside of myself. It would sweep me up like a whirlwind out of the blue, making rage against the world with a violence that I knew was quite unlike me. I could be like a man possessed when in the grip of one of these rages, but, although I did everything I could to resist them, I was utterly powerless against their fury.

Still, I’d managed to keep things reasonably under control, and I’d made a good life for myself. Decent job, a wife who loved and trusted me, a nice home in the suburbs, and – my pride and joy – little Harry, my six year old son.

Harry meant the world to me. I’d resolved to protect him and make sure he got a better start in life than I did. It wasn’t always easy, but I was proud of the fact that I’d provided him with a stable home and parents who obviously loved him and cared for him. I tried to take every opportunity I could to reassure him, boost his confidence and show him how much he meant to me and how much I appreciated him. I hated to think of him lying in his bed at night like I used to, afraid to move or even breathe for fear of some abstract, nameless terror that lurked unseen but posed a constant, terrifying threat.

And I’d been making it work. He tried my patience at times, of course he did – that’s just what little boys do – but I’d been holding it together. Taking deep breaths, stepping out of the room for a few moments; even humming to myself under my breath seemed to help when things started to get on top of me and I felt myself starting to lose control. I don’t even think Harry even realized anything was wrong most of the time. I’d been doing so well. Almost like a normal dad. Almost as if the thing in the closet had been nothing more than a figment of my imagination all along.

Maybe it was inevitable. Maybe I’d been cursed from the very start and this was how everything was always going to pan out. At least then there would be a kind of symmetry to things, no matter how little sense it all actually made.

Harry had been getting on my nerves all morning. With his mother away for the day, babysitting duties had fallen to me, and I was having a hard time keeping him occupied while I took care of the household chores and tried to make a dent in the mountain of paperwork I’d had to take home with me from the office. I’d hoped his favorite video game would keep him out of my hair for an hour or two, but he’d grown tired of that after five minutes and now just wouldn’t leave me alone.

I don’t really know what happened. He kept on and on at me, wanting me to take him to the park, saying that mommy would have taken him, that he always goes to the park on a Saturday, and that I never take him anywhere. It was nothing, really. Nothing for me to lose my temper over. I’ve laughed off far worse, but for some reason today it just brought everything to a head.

I only hit him once. The first and last time. All my rage, frustration anger and fear exploded out of me in that one instant, and little Harry took the full brunt of it.

It was all over in a flash. The house was deathly quiet again and his tiny body just lay there in a crumpled heap. A single bead of blood formed in his ear and slowly crept down the side of his face, shockingly red against his pallid white cheek.

It felt as though the ground had suddenly fallen away from beneath my feet. A dizzying feeling of unreality swept over me as I stared down at his lifeless body. I was numb to the full horror of the situation, as if the enormity of it was simply too much for me to take in. I picked up his tiny body in my arms as if I was taking him to bed as I had done so many times before, and put him out of sight in the first place I could think of.

When my wife returned I told her that Harry’s friend Tommy had invited him to sleep over. The words were out of my mouth before I even realized it. It wasn’t as if I’d planned it – I hadn’t been in a fit state to plan anything before she arrived. I’d just carried on with my chores, not knowing what else to do, going through the motions trying not to let the full implications of what had happened sink in.

Once the lie was out there it was even worse. Everything felt so normal: how could I give that up when acknowledging what had happened was certain to tear our lives apart? I think I even managed to convince a part of myself that it was true out of sheer desperation – how else could I have maintained that facade when inside every atom of my being was slowly disintegrating?

But there’s no denying it now, now that the house is quiet again and darkness has fallen. My wife is asleep, and still none the wiser. And I’m sitting here, writing this, in the forlorn hope that: well, I don’t know what I’m hoping for. I don’t think I have any hope left. My gun is close to hand, but why I don’t know. Soon, I’ll finish this and creep back to bed, waiting for the dawn, with that thing in the closet slowly sucking the life out of me with every breath I take. Some things you just can’t escape. They always catch up with you in the end.

Always.


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Still Waters

THEY SAY YOUR LIFE flashes before your eyes before you die. Well, mine didn’t: at least not literally. But maybe suicide doesn’t count. All I remember going through my head as I stood on the parapet of the bridge and gazed down into the inky black waters beneath was a deep sense of resignation. I’d been over and over everything in my head thousands of times already: all that was left was just that one single step. Just put one foot in front of the other, like I’d been doing my entire life.

The cool night air felt fresh and cool against my face, like the farewell kiss of a long lost love. I closed my eyes, and raised a foot into the empty air in front of me. And that’s when I hesitated. Hesitated just long enough for my life to take a very different turn.

A dry, sardonic laugh echoed through the night, a kind of world-weary chuckle that suffocated the seriousness of my intent in an instant. I opened my eyes and turned around: a figure was idling towards me out of the darkness.

“Alright!”

His tone was breezy and light. I did my best to ignore him, but he walked up and sat himself down on the wall beside me, facing into the bridge. He took out a small pouch and began rolling himself a cigarette. Halfway through the process he looked up at me sideways, his eyes glinting in the orange streetlights. “So how’s things?”

I stared down at him. “Just peachy, thanks.”

He laughed again. “Yeah, looks like it.” His nimble fingers produced a toothpick-thin cigaratte, which he licked and lit with the dexterity of a stage magician. He took a long, deep drag, then exhaled a thick plume of smoke out into the night.

The silence stretched out between us like thick toffee. Eventually I couldn’t stand it any longer.

“Look: I don’t want to talk about it, and you can’t do anything to help me, so you might as well leave and let me get on with it.”

“Fair enough. I’m not exactly a good listener anyway.”

“Right.”

“Right.”

“Good.”

“Good.”

He took another drag, letting the smoke hang for a moment in the empty air. “But how about you do something for me first?”

Now it was my turn to give a little laugh. “For you? Like what?”

“Oh, it’s pretty simple really. You just give me a year of your life.”

“A year of my life?”

“Is there an echo out here?”

“You’re crazy.”

“Says the guy about to take the shortest swim of his life. What have you got to lose? You’ve been master of your own life so far, and where has that led you? To this one-off high dive performance for an audience of one.” He grinned, his eyes twinkling from beneath his shaggy, unkempt hair. “You don’t want it anymore, so give it to me, for just one year.”

“Is this some kind of sex slave thing or something?”

A deep chuckle reverberated across the bridge. “No, no, nothing like that. You place your life in my keeping for twelve months. After that, we part company, and you can do whatever you want. Your life is your own again, and if you want to come back here – well, that’s entirely up to you.” He threw his cigarette over his shoulder, and I watched it spiral down to the rushing water below. “Just one year. No time at all, considering you’re a long time dead.”

“I still think you’re insane. Why should I trust you?”

He grinned. “You, my friend, are a good judge of character.” He reached into his pocket and pulled something out, holding it out to me in his closed fist. “Call this your insurance policy.”

I sat down beside him on the wall of the bridge, legs dangling over the river beanth, and put my outstreached palm under his fist. He opened his hand, and something small but reassuringly heavy dropped into mine. It was a tiny, double-barelled revolver, inlaid in silver with a pearl handle. It looked old and well worn. “It’s a Derringer. I’m told it’s an antique.” I turned it over in my hand. “Careful – it’s loaded. Try it.”

I pointed it down into the water and pulled the trigger. There was a sharp crack, and the tiny weapon jumped in my hand as a bullet splashed into the river.

“One shot left. That’s your Get Out of Jail Free card. It’ll save you the drive back here if you ever want out of the deal at any time. And if you’re worried about me doing you a mischief, well, that’s your security right there. You’re holding all the aces. So what’s it going to be?”

I felt the weight of the tiny pistol in my hand as I considered this strange suggestion. A brand new life for a year, free from everything that had driven me here in the first place. It could be like being born again. I’d already walked out on my old life: why not start anew? And it was true: I’d fucked up royally on my own terms, so why not live my life on someone else’s for a while?

I turned to the wild-eyed stranger, and raised the barrels of the miniature gun squarely to his forehead. He was right. I did have nothing to lose. A wide grin broke across his face, and a twinkle of something like anticipation danced in his eyes.

“I think we have a deal,” I said, pocketing the revolver and striding away from the bridge.


There’s an old Chinese curse I’ve always liked: it just says, “may you live in interesting times”. Well, my life certainly got more interesting from that night on.

My mysterious benefactor – if you could call him that – was unlike anyone else I had ever met. He showed me that beneath the surface of things, behind the veneer of humdrum normality that most people work hard to lose themselves in on a day-to-day basis, there’s a another, deeper world lurking in the cracks and the shadows that is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. My newfound friend and I travelled to all the secret corners of the world and met people who seemed to straddle the boundaries between what was real and what was… otherworldly.

In those twelve months we lived every possible kind of life you can imagine. We dallied with the drunks and down-and-outs in the nether realms of New York, rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous on the streets of Monte Carlo, and even lived for a time in a weather-beaten croft in the remote and desolate Highlands of Scotland. My companion seemed to know everyone, and could open doors into areas that I never even knew existed. He seemed to exist on the margins of reality – he was certainly insane, that much was certain, but his insanity was infectious, and he introduced me to countless other strange and unique individuals around the world.

It would be too easy to dismiss it all as a kind of madness, a shared folie a deux which my companion inculcated in me while I was in an emotional and vulnerable state. That’s the kind of explanation the old me would have put on things, so I could tidy those experiences away in a neat little box and not have to think about them too much. But one of the things I learned, perhaps the most enduring lesson that I’ll take with me to my grave, is the fact that perception is reality. Those dark, creeping things that we faced in the moonlight in Sri Lanka, the shapeshifting miasma that we cornered in a back alley off Wall Street, even the nightmarish entity that almost stole away both our minds in the toilets of that illegal club in Munich – though they might not seem possible in your world, their existence is as real to me now as the ground beneath my feet. I still bear the scars, both physical and mental.

Whenever I asked my companion about himself or his life before we met, all he would give me was a tight-lipped little grin. “I’m just another pilgrim,” he’d say, “a fellow traveller, just like you.” Eventually I stopped asking: in the end it didn’t really matter – I’d closed the door on my old life the moment I walked off that bridge, and now everything was a voyage of discovery. There didn’t seem any point in looking backwards, not when every day held such challenging and testing new experinces for me. It was all I could do to keep up with him – I felt like a tighrope walker afraid to stop and look down for fear of falling.

I lost track of time as the year wore on. I knew we were balanced precariously on the very edge of reality, between madness and sanity, and I knew we were playing a very dangerous game. Even as I was exploring these new realms that my companion opened up for me, I think I always knew that things were destined not to end well. You can’t play fast and loose with the rules of reality like we did and not expect it to come back one day and kick you in the face.

Eventually it was the turn of the seasons that reminded me of our deal. The sting of winter was gathering in the air again, and the Derringer seemed to weigh more heavily in my pocket than ever. In all the time we’d spent together it had never left my side.

I began to think about what would happen once the year was up. Would we just go our seperate ways? Would I be left to fend for myself again, knowing what I knew and having seen what I’d seen? There was no returning to my old life, that was for sure – those days already felt like the memory of some half-remembered dream.

I was suddenly very aware of time passing. My companion seemed to grow more and more distant as the days rolled on: did he have a plan for when the year was over? Was he hatching another mad scheme with me at the centre of it? Or maybe it was just me. Maybe as the deadline drew closer I was getting paranoid, and my newly-attuned senses were picking up on things that simply weren’t there.

Still, I began to look on my “friend” with new eyes. He’d always been secretive by nature, and now I began to read a dark intent into his every move. I’d seen him be callous, even brutal in the way he dealt with people, and I knew how easily he could turn on a whim and throw my world upside down. He was a man of his word, but once our deal was done there was no telling what he might have in store for me.

We returned to my hometown without a word said between us about the looming deadline. The old streets that had once been my home seemed peopled by sinister shadows and malicious whispers that died away before I could catch them. The place was utterly alien to me now, like a cheap stage set full of bad bit-part actors. It gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach to be back there again.

My companion appeared to grow more distant with each passing day. He seemed flat and uncommunicative, and my growing fear and suspicion filled his silences with unspoken yet sinister motives. It got so that I could hardly bear to be around him. His very presence began to feel threatening to me, and his unpredictable and eccenentric nature which I had once found so intriuging now only instilled in me a growing sense of dread.

I became convinced that I had to do something, and do it soon, before the year was up. A kind of heavy malignancy seemed to hang in the air, tainting everything it touched. The tension was almost unbearable.

We were driving back to the bridge in his van when things finally came to a head. He wouldn’t say that that’s where we were going, but the streets themselves seemed to lead us there with an eerie inevitability. It was a year to the day since we’d struck our little deal, and as the time ticked on I grew more uncomfortable by the second.

“Pull over.” My voice sounded thin and wavering against the low growl of the band’s ancient engine. He looked over at me with something like resignation in his cold blue eyes. The van slid to a halt in a small layby on the outskirts of town. “And so we come full circle,” he muttered under his breath.

I took the Derringer from my pocket and again pointed it squarely at his forehead. It looked ridiculous in my oversized hand – like a child’s toy – but something in my manner must have conveyed the seriousness of my intentions. He shut off the engine. “Get out of the van,” I said, still without a clue as to what I was going to do next.

Without a word he opened the door and slid out of his seat. I followed, the cold night air washing over me like icy water. We faced each other by the side of the road, the lights of the city twinkling in the background.

“So now what?” As ever, he seemed entirely unfazed by this new development.

“I was about to ask you the same question.”

“That was always your problem: too many questions. You find answers in the doing of things, not in asking questions.”

“What does that even mean?” I was getting flustered, while he remained cool as a cucumber. “Look: I want to know what you’ve got planned for me. Where we go from here.”

“How should I know? You get your life back. What you do with it is entirely up to you.”

Somehow I doubted that. “But how could you do that? Just walk away? After everything we’ve seen, everything you showed me…”

He shrugged. “What were you expecting? Some pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? There is no end point. No goal. Things just continue on, and what goes around comes around.”

“Yeah, thanks for that, Yoda. That’s cleared things up no end.”

He gave a tired little half-smile. “I think deep down we both already know how this is going to pan out. Let me force your hand.” He reached into his pocket, and in an instant my heart was in my mouth.

“Don’t move!”

“You’ll be needing these.”

He threw something towards me: I caught a glint of metal in the fading twilight.

Did I mean to pull the trigger? I honestly don’t know. It all happened in an instant. The crack of the pistol sounded obscenely loud coming from that dainty little toy of a gun, but the bullet somehow found its mark despite my trembling hand, and the man who had been my constant companion for the last twelve months instantly crumpled to the ground. I looked down to see what he had thrown at me: two bullets for the Derringer lay in the dirt by my feet.

I dragged his body into some bushes by the side of the road and sat in the van to think. I rolled myself a cigarette to calm my nerves. As the van filled with smoke, I loaded up the gun with the two bullets I’d been given. I sat there for a very long time, the loaded gun cradled in my hand.

Eventually I came to a decision. I put the gun back in my pocket, started up the van and drove out to the bridge, the place where it had all began. Maybe my companion had been right: things should turn full circle.

The events of the last year cycled round and round in my head. There was no way I could back to living a normal, humdrum life, not after everything I had seen. There was simply no place for me in that world anymore. Everything had lost its lustre. When your only choice is no choice, you just do what has to be done.

I pulled up at the bridge and got out of the van. Walking towards the parapet, I felt empty and numb, like a machine just going through the motions. Then I stopped dead in my tracks. There was a figure already standing there, framed in the cheap neon glow of the streetlight, gazing down into the still waters below. Just another pilgrim. A fellow traveller. I let out a dry, sardonic laugh and walked towards him, my fingers lightly caressing the Derringer in my pocket.

After all, when you think about it, a year’s not really a long time at all, is it?


Download The Complete Claverhouse Emails Volume 1

The Tree House

I HATE NIGHTS LIKE these, when the wind wails and howls and the rain lashes down against the windows. Especially when I’m alone. Usually I’ll go out to a bar or a club, drown it all out with loud music, booze and the company of strangers, but sometimes there’s no avoiding it and I just have to sit it out and do my best not to think about things. But that’s always easier said than done. Too many unwelcome memories come tapping on my window along with the wind and the rain.

We were just kids when it all started. I was a real tomboy back then: all scrappy short hair and dirty knees, and I’d get mad if anyone reminded me that I was a girl. My two best friends were Danny and Jules – they were both a year older than me, but they treated me like one of the guys, and for a couple of summers we were absolutely inseparable.

We spent a lot of time hanging around in the woods on the edge of town, playing soldiers, building forts and doing all the things kids do when there aren’t any adults around. Those woods were like our own private playground, and we felt like they were ours and ours alone.

It was near the end of that last summer when the evenings were getting cooler and the nights were starting to draw in that we found the tree house. Me and Jules were sitting playing video games at his house when Danny came round, looking more excited than I think I’d ever seen him. He said he had a surprise for us, and made us follow him down into the woods.

He wouldn’t say what he’d found, but we could tell it was something big. There was a kind of light in his eyes, and you could see the excitement squirming inside of him. He led us through the familiar paths and deep into the secret trails that only we knew about. Soon we were in the thickest part of the forest, where hardly anyone ever ventured and the undergrowth was all but impenetrable, standing at the foot of an old, gnarled tree whose tangled branches seemed to strangle what little of the fading evening light that remained.

“It’s up there,” said Danny in hushed, almost reverential tones, pointing up into the branches of the great tree. “Come on.”

With that he launched himself at the trunk of the tree, kicking up off a root and grabbing a low lying branch. With a grunt, he pulled himself up, and reached up for a handhold in the ancient, gnarled bark. I shot Jules a quizzical look. He shrugged, then followed Danny’s lead. With a sigh, I scrambled up after them.

It was hard going at first, especially because I’m not particularly fond of heights, but there was no way I was going to show any weakness in front of the boys, so I persevered. After the first few feet the branches began to get thicker and the climbing easier, so I soon caught up with Danny and Jules who were straddling one of the thicker boughs above me. “What kept you?” said Danny with a grin. “You’ll like this next bit.”

A rope ladder, twisted and gnarled with age, snaked upwards through the dense foliage and dissappeared into the gloom above. Danny scrambled up it in a flash, quickly vanishing into the tangle of swaying leaves and branches.

Although the prospect of climbing this ramshackle ladder made me a little queasy, I gritted my teeth and hauled myself up. After a few feet a large wooden platform emerged from the swaying branches: it seemed to have been cobbled together from old planks and scraps of wood, but it was surprisingly well constructed, and looked solid enough. The rope was anchored to a branch above it, and Danny and Jules were waiting to help pull me on.

It was easy to see what Danny had been so excited about. The platform was more than large enough to hold the three of us comfortably, and although there were no walls, there was a crude roof over the section closest to the tree trunk, and the canopy was thick enough to completely shield the tree house from the ground. The tree itself must have been hit by lightning at some point, as there was a great jagged crack down the trunk that faded into a blackened scar: this old injury had prevented the tree from growing any branches on that side above the strike, which meant that it was more open to the elements and gave the tree house a spectacular view out over the forest.

“It’s amazing,” Jules breathed.

It was. Like we’d found a castle in the sky. But still, something didn’t feel right to me about the place. It hadn’t been built by kids, that was for sure. There was a clump of mouldy rain-soaked rags in one corner of the platform which it looked like someone had once used as a bed. Somehow this felt like an adult place, and that troubled me deeply.

“How did you find it?”

Danny beamed with pride as if he’d built the whole thing himself. “I was climbing a tree over there when I saw the rope ladder. Thought I’d check out out. Wasn’t expecting to find anything like this, though.”

“Have you seen these?” Jules was standing by the crack in the tree, running his hands over the bark. Looking more closely, the wood was covered in a series of thin, spidery scratches, tiny rune-like symbols that time and weather had worn almost smooth. The more I looked, the more I saw: it must have taken hours to etch them all into the hard surface of the wood. They looked a little like hieroglyphics, but I had no idea what they might mean. The gave me the creeps.

“Guys- I don’t think we should be here.” I hated to come across as the scared little girl, but the whole place just feltwrong to me. Deeply wrong. “I think someone’s been living here. And there for to a lot of effort to make this place secret…”

Danny looked as if I’d just strangled his favorite puppy. “Look how overgrown it is. Even if someone was staying here once, they’re long gone now. No-one’s been here in years.”

I looked over at Jules. He seemed uncomfortable. “Well, it is getting kind of late. Maybe we should head back. We can come back later.” Just then a strong breeze blew through the tree house, making the branches seethe and roil as if in mute agreement. Danny got a strange, faraway look in his eyes. “There’s a storm coming,” he said. Without another word he marched over to the rope ladder and quickly vanished out of sight.

Sure enough, the next day was wild and windy, with dark, foreboding skies and an unsettled edge in the air. Back on the ground again I felt bolder, as if the strange feeling I had got from the tree house was just the memory of a bad dream. I met up with Jules on the way to the forest, and as we cycled down there we talked excitedly of the tree house and all the mysteries it contained. Jules was convinced that it had been built as a hideout for some master criminal on the run from the cops, and that we were sure to find his hidden loot nearby – I laughed along with his imaginings, but somewhere deep inside me there was still a gnawing feeling that something wasn’t right.

Danny was already at the tree when we got there, staring up into the swaying branches with a vacant look on his face. He didn’t seem to notice us until Jules slapped him on the shoulder. “Hey! You’re a bit quick off the mark, aren’t you?”

He slowly looked round with a kind of wistful smile on his face. “Oh, hi. Listen – I had an idea. I think we should spend the night up there. I brought some stuff.”

Sure enough, his backpack was bulging at the seams. Before we had a chance to say anything, he was off up the tree like at rat up a drainpipe, leaving Jules and I to follow sheepishly after.

The platform was steady as a rock, even though the smaller branches around it heaved and shifted in the wind like waves crashing against a beach. There was no arguing with Danny: his mind was made up. He’d already told his parents that he was sleeping over at Jules’ house, and he’d brought enough food and snacks in his backpack to feed a small army. But now that I was back up the tree, there was no way I was spending any more time up there than I absolutely had to. I think Jules could see how much the place spooked me: he’d always secretly looked out for me, and now he tried to persuade Danny that this was a really bad idea.

It didn’t go well. In fact, they almost came to blows over it, with Danny stubbornly refusing to budge and Jules calling him an idiot. In the end Jules stormed off and I followed, leaving Danny all alone in the heights of that dark and mysterious tree.

I don’t think either of us thought he’d actually go through with it, especially when the first few drops of rain started to fall as we cycled back. We thought he’d stay until his pride was satisfied, then leave for home after an hour or so. We really did. Even so, I still remember lying in bed that night as the rain lashed down and the wind howled mercilessly outside and being sick with worry at the thought of him out there all alone.

The night roared and bawled under the weight of that furious storm, alive with threat and the promise of violence. We never did find out if Danny had spent the entire night in the tree house, but from that day on he was like a different person. Something had changed in him, that much was certain. Whenever we asked him about that night he would just smile and tell us,”you wouldn’t stay, so you don’t get to know.” He stopped hanging around with us, and the fun, carefree kid we once knew was replaced by a strange, solitary child with a streak of cruelty in him that became ever more pronounced.

Time passed, and things went downhill for Danny. His parents divorced, and his mother took to drinking: the other kids started picking on him because of his disheveled clothes and odd smell. Looking back, it’s obvious he wasn’t being cared for properly, but back then he just became “the weird kid”, and people didn’t really give it a second thought.

I did, though. Every time I saw him, sitting alone at the back of the bus or mumbling to himself at lunch breaks, I would be reminded of that day at the tree house when everything changed. I tried to stay friends with him, but it was hard: I didn’t want to become a target for bullies myself, and he wasn’t an easy kid to like anymore.

I began to hear stories about him. Disturbing stories. That he was the real reason his parents had divorced and his mother had turned to drink, that he terrorised the younger kids when he got them alone, and that he liked to catch small animals and do terrible things to them for his own amusement. Even the older kids stopped picking on him and left him alone after he broke a guy’s arm with a crowbar one time after they wouldn’t stop pestering him.

Still, I tried to be civil to him at least, giving him a smile or a simple nod each time I saw him, more because of the boy he’d been than who he was now. We were growing up fast, I suppose: I left my tomboy phase behind me, and me and Jules sort of became an item.Danny seemed stuck in the past, a strange little boy stuck in the awkward body of a young man, and I felt sorry for him and for how things had turned out. I chose not to believe the wilder stories that people were now telling about him, and tried to be kind to him when I could, which wasn’t often.

So it was a surprise when he came tapping on my window late one night like he used to do when we were kids and he wanted me to sneak out with him. He looked terrible, even more disheveled and unkempt than usual, and I could tell from his red-rimmed eyes that he’d been crying. Part of me liked the fact that he felt he could still come to me when he was in trouble, but another part – the greater part – was afraid of him, and wished he’d picked some other window to knock on.

Against my better instincts I opened the window. He wouldn’t look at me. “I’ve got something to show you,” he said. Reaching his coat, he produced a long hunting knife. Even in the semi-darkness I could see that the blade glistened with fresh blood. “Danny – what have you done?”

He wouldn’t answer. “There’s a storm coming. We’re going to the tree house.” His voice was flat but utterly steadfast.

“But Danny, I -“

He fixed me with a gaze that chilled the blood in my veins. To this day I still can’t give a good reason for why I climbed out of the window that night and let him take me to the tree house. I don’t have an answer that can satisfy myself, never mind anyone else. But when I think back to that single, silent stare, that’s the closest I can get to understanding why I did what he wanted. I will never forget the look in his those eyes. It’ll be with me until the day I die.

We didn’t say a single word to each other as he marched me down to the forest. But he was right. The sky had been clear and the air still when we first set out, but almost with each step we took the night became more unsettled and disturbed. Dark, brooding clouds rolled in from the east, and the rain began to fall in thin, cruel sheets that beat against us with each fresh gust of wind.

Questions tossed and turned in my mind. What was Danny going to do to me one we reached the tree house? What had he already done with the knife? I wanted to say something to him, but I couldn’t seem to find the words: it was as if the storm had already stolen them from my lips. We trudged on in stony silence.

By the time we reached the old tree, the storm was at its height, with the rain coming down in solid waves and the wind a force that we had to fight against as we walked. Getting up the tree was difficult, but with Danny behind me and still armed with the knife I had no choice but to struggle relentlessly upwards. He’d started crying again, in great heaving sobs that seemed to almost suffocate him. I was wet through; drenched to the bone and shivering as if possessed.

When we finally reached the tree house, my heart was in my mouth. I was certain Danny was going to kill me. I wondered what the cold steel of the knife would feel like as it thrust deep into my body, how the hot rush of blood would follow as if desperate to leave my shivering body. I imagined it pooling on that little wooden platform and seeping through the cracks only to be lost in the relentless rain as it dripped down to the ground beneath. I felt strangely disconnected from my body, as if I were already an insubstantial ghost.

He stood stock still in front of me, a single fixed point in a chaotic storm-tossed world of turbulent motion. His eyes were empty black pools in his head, in stark contrast to the sharp silver knife gleaming in his hand. I felt like I was hardly there at all, just another leaf blown in on the wind.

Then, without a word, he turned, cut down the rope ladder and sent it tumbling to the ground, and disappeared into the darkness beyond the tree house. I collapsed to the ground like a rag doll, as if the threat of him standing there had been the only thing holding me together.

The storm was like a living thing now, raging at the world like a wild beast unleashed. It tore into me mercilessly, whipping at my clothes and stealing the tears from my eyes before they had a chance to fall. I don’t know how long it took me to get a hold of myself again. Minutes? Hours? I crawled across the platform to where the rope ladder had hung and peered over the edge into the rippling sea of branches beneath, but there was nothing to see. How Danny had got down I had no idea. For all I knew he could be lying at the roots in a crumpled, broken heap.

I crawled around the edge of the platform, searching in the darkness for some other way of getting down, but there was none be to seen. The wind came in great buffeting gusts which more than once threatened to send me over the edge. I retreated to the trunk in the centre of the platform, put my head in my hands and tried to make myself as small as possible. I tried to shut out the noise and fury of the storm and think, but it was no good. I felt empty and spent, and the wind blew through me as if I was just a hollow shell.

That night is forever etched in my consciousness, and I don’t think I will ever be free of it. Sometimes when I’m just drifting off to sleep, safe and snug in the warmth of my own bed, I’ll sink back into the thunderous tumult of that night in the tree house, feel the wind and the rain raging against me and hear the dull roar of the leaves and branches swirling around me and I’m jolted awake again in an instant, my heart pounding like a drum in my chest and my sheets clammy with sweat. Sleep is impossible, and I just lie there in the darkness, going over and over the events of that night in my head, trapped there again just as hopelessly as I was on the night itself.

With all the noise and fury of the gale sweeping through the tree house I couldn’t seem to string two thoughts together. At least, not thoughts of my own. As the night wore on I began to become aware of an incessant whispering just on the edge of my consciousness, a quiet yet persistent murmur that somehow managed to cut through the cacophony of the storm.

It seemed to be speaking broken fragments of confused, almost nonsensical sentences, sometimes with multiple voices at once, veering from sounding frightened and hurt to angry and vengeful. It terrified me. It was as if my mind had been taken over by someone else: another mind full of turmoil, seething with hate and anger and fear. Once I felt my hand run over the strange writing etched into the wood: it was hot to the touch, and seemed to squirm beneath my palm like a line of burrowing insects.

It was almost to much for me to bear. I felt like I might lose myself forever in that black, shapeless chaos of sound and fury, with the unseen voice dripping its obscene whispers into my ears. It felt like I was going mad. It was as if the tree itself was a giant brain, with the leaves and branches like vast neutral pathways wracked by gusts of relentless insanity and sent into a wild tumult by forces far greater than itself.

I had no idea how long I had stayed there already, but I knew that if I stayed any longer I would surely go insane. My desperation spurred me into action, and I stood to face the full wrath of the storm. The whispering in my head grew louder, as if trying to shout me down, but I stole myself against that terrible trickle of evil words and stood firm against them.

Something led me to that great, blackened crack in the trunk of the tree, its charred edges gaping obscenely in the fading twilight. The bark was rough beneath my fingers, and slick with the chilling rain. Using the edges of the crack as handholes, I heaved myself upwards, not knowing what I would find or even what I might be looking for.

A fire had one raged within the great tree, a fire just as intense and all-consuming as the storm that now battered against me. The lightning bolt had seared a column of fire deep into the trunk, gutting the tree from the inside and forming a blackened tunnel that disappeared downwards into darkness. There was no telling how far down it reached, but, seeing no other option and acting out of sheer desperation, I squeezed myself into the gap and prepared to descend as far as I could.

Bracing myself in the stiflingly confined space by pushing my arms and legs out against the walls of the rough shaft, I inched my way slowly downwards into the dark. It was a relief to be out of the wind and the biting rain, but the inside of the tree brought fresh challenges. Cold, icy water streamed down the sides of the fire-scorched hole, and my numbed fingers could barely find a purchase on the slippery surface. Once or twice my grip failed completely and my heart leapt into my mouth as I slid painfully down ever deeper into the belly of the great tree.

The whispering seemed to intensify the further down I got, until I felt something against my foot, and then it stopped in an instant. Unable to see in that dank, inky blackness I carefully felt my way around the obstacle, and was pleased when eventually my feet met solid ground. I was thinking more clearly now that the whispering had stopped and I was sheltered from the full wrath of the storm, so I took my cigarette lighter from my pocket and flicked it on to see what I had stumbled into.

The feeble flame cast a dirty, muddied light against the walls of the wooden shaft. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust – in those fleeting moments a strange kaleidoscope of shapes swam before my eyes, seeming to writhe and squirm in the guttering light. At first I took it to be a mass of tangled roots sprouting from the tree itself, but slowly the forms resolved themselves into a single figure: the unmistakable figure of a huddled human corpse.

A wave of white-hot shock washed over me as I struggled to take in what I was seeing. Parchment-thin skin stretched tight over jutting bones, scraps of faded fabric holding the mummified remains together, a face contorted into a twisted, rictus grin that seemed to be staring right back at me. Bizarrely, one stick-like arm was stretched high in the air over its head, and from the wrist a dancing reflection of my own flickering light was thrown back at me. As my eyes adjusted I saw it more clearly: a handcuff, firmly attached to a small niche in the shaft wall which had been carved with the same diligent craftsmanship as the tree house itself.

The rest of that night is a blur. I have vague recollections of scrabbling back up the tunnel in a blind panic, hands slick with icy rain and smears of my own blood, and spilling back out of the crack onto the wooden platform. I think I remember taking that final step from the platform – I’ve certainly seen it often enough in my dreams – but the fall itself, and the crawl back through the forest with two broken ankles and a dislocated shoulder: those are completely lost to me, and I’m glad that they are.

The next thing I recall clearly was waking up in hospital, staring up at the clean white tiles on the ceiling with the morning sun streaming in through a large side window, the day cool and bright and clear. I felt refreshed and energized, as if I’d just awoken from a deep and dreamless sleep. But for me the nightmare was just beginning.

The memory of what had happened came back quickly, along with the biting pain that chewed at my legs and arm. I expected to see my parents by the side of my bed, and I knew that something was very, very wrong when I saw a policeman hunched and sleeping in a chair beside my bed instead. For a moment I closed my eyes again, as if I could go back to sleep and dream this all away, but I knew it was no use. Whatever had happened, I had no choice but to face it.

Danny was dead. I think somehow I knew that already. He’d turned the blade of the knife on himself, but only after leaving a trail of destruction behind him that would shatter my life into a thousand pieces.

He’d killed his mother first, before he’d come knocking at my window. Left her body in a pool of blood on their kitchen floor and just walked out into the night. After leaving me at the tree house he’d paid a few more house calls, letting himself in through unlocked doors and passing silently from room to room. Jules and his parents had been visited, as had mine, and each one had received a short sharp slice across the throat in their sleep. No fuss, no screams: the police assured me they hadn’t suffered, but then they always say that, don’t they?

It felt as if my whole world had been stolen away from me, leaving me only with a morass of crippling questions, questions that seemed to sap at my soul every time they entered my head. What had caused Danny to do what he did? What had happened to the sweet, happy go lucky kid who had been my best friend such a short time ago? And why had he escorted me to the tree house before beginning his coldly calculated slaughter in earnest?

I knew that the tree house and the withered corpse entombed there held the answers, but I just couldn’t fit the pieces together in my head in any way that made any sense. The police had retrieved the body, but couldn’t identify it, despite the oddly well-preserved nature of the remains. Cause of death was found to be starvation, and in the man’s stomach they’d found a key to the handcuffs, with a twist of barbed wire wrapped around it, presumably so that it wouldn’t pass through him after he’d swallowed it. As suicides go, it was certainly the most horrific and drawn-out method I had ever heard of. I still can’t imagine how much he must have suffered down there, down in the inky blackness of the bowels of that tree as his life slowly ebbed away from him. But what really keeps me awake at night is the thought of how much worse his life must have been if that was the best way he could find to end it.

They say the storm just melted away after Danny plunged the knife into his own chest. It was while they were clearing away the damage of the storm that his body and the bodies of his victims were found. But I don’t know: I lost track of time completely while I was in the tree house, and my memory of coming out of the shaft again is patchy, but were there blue skies when I emerged from the platform again? Could the storm have ended when I stared into the long-dead eyes of that twisted and dessicated corpse? Was that the same moment that Danny drove the bloody blade into his heart?

There is one thing I’m certain of, though – there was some malignant presence in that tree house, something which passed into Danny and changed him utterly and irrevocably. Maybe it originated with the man whose body I found that night, or maybe he was a victim as well: I don’t know. But when the sky blackens and the rain starts to fall, I never know if the whispers I start to hear in the gathering wind are real or imagined, and I wonder if I’m the lucky survivor everyone tells me I am, or if I might have come back from the tree house with something more than just my life.


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The Sleep Clinic

IT ALL STARTED WHEN I began having trouble sleeping. Not just finding it hard to drop off at night or waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep: nothing so mundane. No, this was in another league entirely.

It was as if someone had flicked a switch in my brain and jammed it in the “on” position. I was awake 24/7, without so much as a sniff of sleep to let me relax and recuperate. I’d lie in bed for hour after empty hour, watching the glowing numbers on the alarm clock slowly meander through the long, dark hours of the night.

Nothing helped. l tried everything: reading whole books at a time, turning the pages listlessly long after I’d stopped taking in the words; I exercised hard before bed in the hope of tiring myself out, but I just rose in the morning dog-tired and aching all over. Eventually I stopped trying. I stopped going to bed at all and wandered the city streets from dusk to dawn, feeling only half alive as I moved through a world I could no longer find any purchase on.

It was on one of these nightly rambles that I stumbled across the sleep clinic. It was housed in a small, unassuming building that I’d never noticed before, slightly run down looking but with a soft, balmy light spilling from its tastefully draped windows. The door was open, and there was a help wanted sign posted outside, so I rubbed my bleary eyes and wandered in.

The interior was surprisingly modern: all white surfaces and shiny chrome. There was a vague smell of antiseptic in the air. The lights were all turned down low, suffusing the whole place with a warm, welcoming glow. Barely audible music tinkled in the background from concealed speakers. The whole clinic seemed utterly deserted. I pressed a silent button on the desk in reception and waited.

Eventually, a nurse appeared. She looked tired and disheveled, as if she’d just woken up. I asked about the job: apparently they were looking for a caretaker to work the nightshift – just keep an eye on the place overnight and check on the patients every now and again. On a whim,I asked if I could apply. You can do more than apply, she said, you can start tomorrow if you like. The ad’s been up more than a month and you’re the only person who’s shown any interest so far.

I accepted straight away, filled in a couple of forms, and that was that. It seemed perfect: if I was going to be awake anyway,I might as well get paid for it. Plus it might even help with my own sleep problems: my insomnia had led me here, and now it might just be showing me a way out.

I got into the swing of things right away. It wasn’t difficult: my duties consisted mainly of walking through the softly carpeted halls every hour or so, checking that the security doors were locked, and helping myself to as many free cups of coffee as I wanted. There were always two nurses on call in case of a medical emergency, but they mostly slept through their shifts so I barely saw them.

It was an odd setup they had going. It all seemed very informal, and I never saw any sign of any treatments or therapies being administered. Still, they were a private clinic, so I suppose what people choose to do with their own money is up to them.

My contact with the patients was limited. There seemed to be perhaps fifteen or twenty of them, with some there for extended periods and others coming and going on an almost daily basis. I only ever saw them when they were asleep. It was strange seeing them like that, robbed of all context. They could have been bankers or beggars for all I knew.

In the staff room, watching over the half-drunk remnants of other people’s coffee and dog-eared magazines was a bank of cctv monitors wired up to the patient’s rooms, so that the staff could keep an eye on them whenever they needed to. I spent most of my time there when I wasn’t patrolling the corridors. It was oddly relaxing to watch all these strangers sleeping peacefully in their beds throughout the night, stirring gently every so often as they dreamed their unknown dreams. It gave me great comfort to watch them all lying there, dead to the world with me as their silent custodian.

Then there were the sleepwalkers. The clinic had a policy of leaving them to their own devices as much as possible, provided they weren’t in any immediate danger (which they never were: the Windows were bolted and made of toughened glass, and all external doors were kept securely locked). I used to come across them often in the halls and corridors, strange lost souls acting out their own private, Intangible dream roles, murmuring to themselves and performing odd and unintelligible actions.

The clinic became a kind of surrogate sleep for me. Even though I could often go a whole shift without seeing another waking soul, just being there made me feel less alone and more connected with the land of the living.

If only things could have stayed that way.

One night I was walking down one of the usual corridors, the faint sounds of snoring echoing through the air like waves on a beach, when I came across one of the usual sleepwalkers. A middle aged man, swollen and red-faced, wearing powder-blue pyjamas and and incongruous pink dressing gown that flapped open as he walked. He seemed utterly oblivious to the world around him.

As I approached, however, he stopped dead in his tracks and turned to face the wall, standing as motionless as a statue with his face only millimetres away from the pastel-colored brickwork. A dry, papery voice emanated from him as I passed.

You’re going to do a terrible thing.

I stopped myself, and gazed bemused at the thinning hair on the back of his round head.

“I’m sorry?”

You’re going to do a terrible thing, he repeated, in that same thousand year old voice.

“”Are you talking to me?”

There’s no-one else here.

That was true. But usually the sleepwalkers are to wrapped up in their own nocturnal preoccupations to register other people, let alone speak directly to them. This was something of a novelty. My curiosity was peked.

“What do you mean?”

You’re going to do a terrible, terrible thing, and there will be no-one to blame but yourself.

“Well that’s cheery. You should probably go back to bed.”

The man gave a little chuckle. It sounded phlegmy and unpleasant, like bubbles popping in tar.

What do you think you’re doing here?

It was my turn to laugh. “I work here. Looking after you guys.”

You really think you can just walk into a job like that off the street? In a medical facility, of all places?

There was no way he could have known about that. The back of his head was as implacable as ever.

It’s not very plausible, is it? In fact, when you think about it, nothing about this place really adds up. You haven’t really thought this through.

I just stood there staring, with the nameless muzak simpering on in the background. Perhaps I was hallucinating again.

“I have to go,” I mumbled, unsure of what else to do. My palms pricked with sweat. I walked on down the corridor, breathing an inward sigh of relief. Strange. The sleepwalkers were usually placid and uncommunicative, locked in their own private little worlds. This man had been downright confrontational.

I walked down to the staff room, my head a fog of speculation and confusion. I was surprised to see one of the nurses seated at the table, a fresh cup of mud brown coffee streaming in front of her. She had her back to me. “The patients are lively tonight,” I said.

You can’t hide from things forever.

It was that exact same voice echoing through the softly furnished room.

Sooner or later you’ll have to face reality, and the longer you leave it the worse it will be.

It felt as though an electric shock had jangled through my body. I ran round the table to face her, but when I did I found that her eyes were closed and she wore the sanguine expression of someone lost in a deep and dreamless sleep.

I staggered backwards in a kind of daze. It was as if my head was full of cotton wool, and the few thoughts that drifted through it seemed odd and alien to me. I leaned against the wall for a moment, trying to stop the world from spinning away from me. Just what was going on here? What had happened to my litte refuge from the world?

Just then the bank of TV screens on the wall behind me fizzed and crackled, lighting up the cramped little room with a brief flare like lightning from behind a cloud. I turned to face them, and found only static bleeding into the room from each and every screen.

But one by one a picture flicked into life on each of the monitors, each showing a different scene in grainy black and white. It took me a moment to resolve the overexposed images into recognizable shapes and figures. In each screen the camera gave a first-person perspective of someone moving jerkily through an unidentifiable scene, sometimes a hallway or corridor, sometimes a busy city street.

All at once every screen exploded into action, a flurry of manic movement lurching drunkenly this way and that. In this chaos of motion I could see people wide-eyed and panic-stricken, their mouths open in silent screams, staring into the camera with horror in their eyes and fleeing in abject terror. Here and there a hand could be seen on screen, the hand of the faceless protagonist, and in each screen the unmistakeable flash of a large knife could be seen.

My stomach lurched as my eyes flicked from screen to screen, finding one scene of random carnage after another. The blade swung and stabbed and slashed, biting into flesh with sickening regularity. Black gouts of blood welled from every wound as the unknown assailant ploughed his way through victim after victim. Somehow the grainy low-resolution images lent a further reality to these grim and brutal vignettes, and I felt each and every thrust of the knife with a visceral twist in my own guts.

My eyes settled for a second on one particular screen, a confusing tumult of greys and blacks that resolved into a stark scene of bloody violence in a dingy vestibule as I fixed my attention on it. As I watched, the camera lurched past a battered door with a brimy stained-glass window set into it. For an instant, a reflected blur of the protagonist was caught in that window, and the camera froze and then panned in on the image. It was a face. The reflection of a face.

I looked to another monitor: a street scene, streaked with blood in the gutters and bodies strewn about the sidewalk. The chrome of a parked car threw an image back the camera, whcih instantly halted and zoomed in on it. The same face, stark and washed-out by the low-quality film.

My eyes darted from one screen to another, and in each the same thing happened: the movement ceased, and the monitor filled with a single image taken from some small reflection in a puddle or a pane of glass. Soon every one of the bank of monitors was displaying the same thing from a multitude of different angles – a single face, the features all but erased in a blurry white mass, but still recognizably and irrevocably mine.

As soon as I came to this realization the screens all instantly snapped to black. The nameless muzak tinkled on in the background as I struggled to take in what I had seen.

Nothing seemed to make sense anymore. The sleep clinic had been my own private cocoon, like a warm and comfortable womb which had taken me in and shielded me from the storms of insomnia, but now… Even the walls around me and the soft carpet under my feet seemed as unreal and intangible as a dream. I had never felt more lost. Adrift in a sea of doubt, uncertainty and overwheling confusion.

The sun was starting to rise. My shift would soon be over, and it would be time to leave. To venture out into the real world again. As if in a trance I moved over to the area of the staff room that served as a makeshift kitchen for preparing snacks and ready meals. I opened a drawer, and found what I was looking for: a long, sharp kitchen knife, shiny and barely used. It felt reassuringly cool in my hand – solid and substantial, a silver slash of reason that could cut through the fog of insubstantiality that surrounded me. I slipped it into my pocket, and without another thought I slipped out into the dawn of a brand new day.

####

Now I’m back in the sleep clinic again. It’s hard to imagine ever leaving. I still don’t sleep, but that’s okay – I get the feeling there are some terrible nightmares awaiting me on the other side of sleep, on the other side of these welcoming walls, so I’m happy to stay here and just wait them out. I pad silently down the softly-furnished corridors throughout the long hours of the endless night, safeguarding the slumbering patients from whatever terrors their dreams may hold for them, ensuring that they don’t wake up. Everything is alright now. Everything is alright.


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The Accident

I AM A BLUE whale in the deepest, darkest depths of the ocean, adrift in an unending sea of fathomless blue. I am in my element down here, and nothing can touch me.

“Can you hear me? Are you awake?”

I am entombed in the pristine Arctic ice, clear and pure as ancient rainwater. Comfortably numb, I could wait out the eons in here, safeguarded from all the storms of the world.

“Can you move something for me? Can you respond to my voice?”

That was how I faded back into consciousness after the accident. After what seemed like an eternity of fragmented, half-remembered dreams, that voice speared through my slumbers and dragged me back to reality. I wish it hadn’t. I was happy where I was. I was told I raised my index finger and that was how they first knew I was back in the world of the living again: what they didn’t know was that I was actually trying to punch the owner of that damn voice.

Although I was now awake, this was when my nightmare really began. A nightmare of never-ending pain, anguish and misery. “You’ve been in an accident,” the voice said, “You’ve been very badly injured. Particularly your face.” I knew that already. My face felt like it was on fire. There was a constant, deep-seated ache that never relented, day or night, which was punctuated by occasional random stabs of agony that could strike at any time. Sometimes my entire skull would throb and pound as if it was a giant heart which squeezed my brain with each violent contraction. I had never felt anything like it.

The days passed in absolute darkness. They’d covered my entire head in bandages, with gauze pads over my eyes. It was hot and stuffy, and itched abominably. I wasn’t allowed to touch it. My jaw had been wired shut, which made talking impossible. I had a foul, metallic taste in my mouth which may have been blood. I was barely conscious most of the time, thanks to the medication they were giving me.

I don’t know how long I spent like that, stuck in a kind of limbo between sleeping and waking. There seemed to be a wild panic bubbling just beneath the surface in me – I felt like I was skimming across the surface of it, perhaps because of the drugs, but I knew I was never far from sinking down into it and becoming irretrievably lost. The pain battered and buffeted me like an internal storm, but somehow I clung on and edged my way through it, sometimes only on a second-by-second basis.

Sometimes, when I felt that there was no-one else around, I would press the heels of my hands into the pads over my eyes and rub them as hard as I could. It hurt like hell, of course, but the glowing colours and swirling patterns that resulted would at least give me a temporary relief from the endless, unfathomable darkness that had become my world.

Gradually, however, the intervals before the pain became intolerable grew longer, and I felt the fog begin to lift from my mind. I seethed with questions. They buzzed around inside me like wasps in a hornet’s nest. What had happened to me? How badly hurt was I? What kind of accident had done this to me? Information wasn’t forthcoming from the voice (and who was that, anyway? A personal nurse? A doctor?), and I couldn’t talk to ask questions myself. All I was left with was uncertainty and speculation, which only made the situation even harder to bear.

My salvation came in the form of Sandy, a fellow patient who started spending time with me just when I needed it most. Apparently he’d been through a similar operation – although not as serious as mine – and was in the process of recovery himself. Our conversations were rather one-sided, of course, but I could nod or shake my head to his questions, and it was incredibly reassuring just to hear the rhythm of his voice and remind myself that I wasn’t wholly alone.

I still had long periods of time where I was left to my own devices, though, and my mind would inevitably return to the question of the accident. I had no memory whatsoever of what it might have been or of any of the events that had led up to it. Thinking about it was like looking at a photograph of myself as a tiny infant: there was incontrovertible proof that the event had happened, but not a trace of it remained within my head. I would run over countless imaginary scenarios in my head, as if I could stumble over the truth of things by sheer force of will. A terrible fire in which the flesh had been burned from my skull; a car accident that had sent me flying face-first through the windscreen; an attack by an unknown assailant with a broken bottle. I imagined all these eventualities and more, and each one seemed equally plausible, but also utterly unreal to me. I felt like a stranger in my own skin.

Sandy helped me to build up a picture in my head of where I was. He seemed to enjoy the sound of his own voice, and I had nothing better to do than listen. He described to me the room I was in – all pristine white walls and scrubbed linoleum floors – and this helped me find my bearings again, which was something I needed more than I knew. From what I could gather (not being able to ask questions myself I couldn’t quiz him directly), I was in some kind of a private clinic set in luxurious, well-tended grounds, receiving the best personal care money could buy. Who was paying for it all was just another mystery to me. I certainly couldn’t have afforded it on my own.

My dressings were changed regularly, although exactly how often I could not say. Time seemed to telescope and contract capriciously around me as I swung from agonizing pain to spaced-out oblivion. I quickly grew to hate those dressings. When on, they were suffocatingly hot, and made my face feel like a single, solid mass, a great hard scab that I couldn’t even pick at. When they were unwrapped, the process was slow and excruciatingly painful: some patches would be stuck to whatever was left beneath them, encrusted with who knows what forms of dried blood and pus, and these would have to be prised off roughly in great hard clumps.

The voice was always at hand during the process, talking me through every moment of it even though it was the last thing I wanted to hear. “Now this might hurt a little…” and “this spot might be a little tender…” That voice soon aroused a hatred and bitterness in me that I didn’t know I was capable of. “There we are – good, that all seems to be coming along nicely.” Despite the pain, it was always a relief to be free of the bandages for a time. I felt like a drowning man coming up for air. “Now, we’ll just get you sorted out again…” Devastatingly slowly a fresh set of bandages would be applied, smothering me again one turn at a time. God, I hated that voice.

After each unwrapping, Sandy would come round to commiserate. Having gone through something similar himself, he knew something of the dull, pulsating ache that persisted for hours after each fresh dressing, and his rambling monologues were always a welcome distraction from the pain. For such a one-sided relationship it was amazing how deeply I began to trust and depend on Sandy. He soon began to feel like an old friend, his voice as welcome and comfortable as an old leather armchair.

“Well,” he said one day during one of his usual visits, “it’ll soon be time for those bandages to come off for good.” He must have seen my reaction: a jolt of surprise passed through my body like an electric shock. He chuckled, and explained that he’d heard a rumour that my face was healing well. “You’ll soon have your eyes back again.”

For once I didn’t hear the rest of what Sandy had to say. I was lost in my own thoughts, a maelstrom of joy, apprehension, and even something approaching terror. I would be getting my sight back! After all this time I would at last be able to see again! But what kind of face would those eyes peer out of? Whatever had happened to me had obviously left its mark, but how bad would it be? Would my eyes greet some kind of monster when they first looked into a mirror?

Every fibre of my being was alive with anticipation. For the next few hours I could think of nothing else. This was the moment I had waited so long for, yet now it was almost here my excitement was only matched by my trepidation. Finally, I heard a familiar voice from behind me.

“Now, this might hurt a little…”

The bandages slipped off easily this time, like a snake sloughing off its skin. When the gauze pads over my eyes were removed, a bleary red light streamed in through my closed eyelids. It was the most glorious sight I think have ever seen.

Opening my eyes was difficult. Having been used to nothing but darkness for so long, I found the light to be almost unbearably bright. My eyes blinked and spasmed under the pressure of the light that now bore down on them. My vision swam with tears.

Slowly things started to come back into focus: amorphous blobs and patches of light resolved themselves into recognizable shapes and objects. My upturned eyes took in a patch of ceiling – oddly, it was dark and grimy, stained with damp and mildew. Not like a hospital at all. Groggily I lowered my gaze, only to find myself staring at my own face. A mirror? Already? My features seemed to spread and shift before my eyes. The skin was grey and clammy looking, and the face looked somehow odd and alien to me. It was grotesquely swollen, the flesh drooping like a dead weight from the skull.

Still: not as bad as I had imagined. Not a monster, and still recognizably me.

But suddenly I was overtaken by a horrible and overwhelming feeling that something was wrong. Very, very wrong. As I watched, the contours of the face slowly moved, forming something approaching a twisted smile. The lips opened, and an all-too familiar voice filled the room: “Well, that all seems to be coming along nicely.”

Stricken with terror, I glanced around the room seeking some kind of escape. Instead of the expected stark white hospital walls, my eyes were met with the dingy, dark surroundings of a cramped attic room. Piles of soiled bandages lay tangled in one corner, and on a rickety old table were spread a selection of rusted knives, bloody scalpels and hopelessly antiquated medical equipment.

“Not quite what you expected, eh old chap?”

This time the voice from the stolen face was Sandy’s. My mind reeled. The figure laughed harshly.

“You’ll find I’m full of surprises,” he said, in a perfect mimic of my own voice.

I tried to scream, but only a dry, hollow moan emanated from my lipless mouth.


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A Caress

“WANT TO SEE SOMETHING that will change your life?”

Felix was looking over his wire-rimmed spectacles at me with an intent, piercing stare. I grinned, and took another swig from my beer.

“Always.”

The wrinkles of his face behind his shaggy grey beard folded into a sly, amused smile, and, with a grunt, he heaved himself up from his chair on the porch. “Then let’s go.”

I’ve known Felix for years: ever since I first picked up the tools of my trade, in fact. Felix is a sculptor too. I suppose you could say he’s been kind of a mentor to me, and if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be half the artist I am now. Anything I know about my craft that’s worth knowing I got from Felix. These days we meet up every couple of weeks to drink a few beers, shoot the breeze and wax philosophical about anything and everything. When Felix has something to show me, I know I’m in for a treat.

We trudged through his old house, a warm little nest of a place filled with throw rugs and curios, and Felix led me down into his basement. It was as black as pitch down there, but Felix took me down through the darkness and stood me carefully in a particular spot before turning on the lights.

People usually don’t mean it literally when they say something took their breath away, but I must have stood there simply starting for at least a full minute before I realized I’d forgotten to breathe. Held in a delicate spiderweb of thin steel wires were a number of white marble fragments, each exquisitely capturing a part of a woman’s form: here a tremulous hand, there the soft sensuous curve of the sweep of the back of the neck; a naked ankle, an exposed breast. The wires held each broken fragment in its correct anatomical position, so the overall impression was that of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle, formed as much by empty space and imagination as by the isolated shapes that hung in the empty air.

“Well?” Felix grinned impishly. “What do you think?”

I was utterly spellbound, my attention held fast by this remarkable creation as securely as the stone pieces were by the wires. I had never before seen stone worked as finely as this – it was as if every pore of the skin lived and breathed, as if at any second the figure would sigh and turn away.

I struggled to find the words to express what I was feeling. Felix chuckled to himself.

“She’s quite something, isn’t she?” Felix had a gift for understatement.

“She’s… mesmerizing.” I moved closer, walking around the pieces to examine them more closely in their individual pools of light. “Where on earth did you get her?” Skilled as Felix was, work of this unsurpassed quality could not have been his.

“Here and there.” He looked like the cat that got the cream. “I’ve been slowly tracking down the fragments over the years. In a way, you could say she has been my life’s work.”

I stood eye to eye with the shard of sculpted face: an exquisite eye, framed in a rough triangle of brow and cheek, the first blossoming of the swell of her lips, which abruptly sheared off into nothing, like the memory of a stolen, illicit kiss. “I don’t understand. Why have you never shown me this before?”

“I wanted you to see the whole. Well, as much of a whole as I could manage. I’ve encountered her slowly, made her acquaintance one part at a time – found a sliver of shoulder in a barn in Hamburg, a section of hip in a private collection in Taiwan – I fell in love with her piecemeal. I wanted to see what her impact would be when viewed as a single figure.”

“I’ve never seen anything like her. She’s in a league of her own.”

He gave an excited little clap of his hands. “Isn’t she? I knew you’d appreciate her.”

“You’d have to be blind not to.”

He burst out laughing at this. “You’re more perceptive than you know.”

“So what’s the story behind her? Who’s the sculptor? Why is she in pieces like this? Come on, Felix, you can’t keep this to yourself.”

“The story is almost as remarkable as the work itself. I don’t know for sure how much of it is true and how much is exaggeration and conjecture.

“The artist’s name is Edgar Cayce, born sometime in the early eighteen hundreds. He was a peasant, back when there still were such things, but apparently self-educated to a very high standard. He was an itinerant stonemason who eked out a living wandering from place to place repairing and maintaining churches.”

“Some stonemason…”

“Oh, it gets better. He only took up sculpting proper in later life, after he lost his sight.”

“You mean he was blind?”

“Completely.”

The sculpture seemed more alive than ever, the shining stone an impossible reflection of the darkness it had been born from.

“But how is that possible? To create something like this without even eyes to see it?”

“Nobody knows. Cayce kept his methods a closely guarded secret. This is the only full human form he ever produced. The subject is his wife, Lillith. Apparently she disappeared not long after the sculpture was completed.”

“Really?”

The void between the floating pieces seemed to sing with suggestions of the form it had once contained.

“What happened to it?”

Felix shrugged. “Smashed to pieces. Cayce did it himself. The fragments you see here are all that remains, rescued by someone who didn’t recognize their true value but just sold them on to anyone who seemed interested. Since then they’ve languished half-forgotten in drawers or even outhouses, with a few notable exceptions – the face, hand and ankle – which were squirreled away by private collectors from all corners of the globe.” He chuckled. “Yeah, she’s led me a merry dance over the years. And cost me more money than I care to count.”

“But worth every penny.”

“And then some.”

We both lapsed back into appreciative silence in the pristine stillness of that small, darkened room.

Felix knows me better than anyone else – maybe even better than I know myself – and he was absolutely right: she did change my life. His obsession quickly became mine. Every time we met up from then on we’d always end up huddled in that tiny, cramped basement, sipping our beers in front of the statue like two men drowning their sorrows over the memory of a shared lost love.

At first my work improved: inspired by that vision of excellence I reached new heights of artistic excellence myself, as if that fractured figure had shown me what my chosen medium was truly capable of. But slowly things began to decline as I grew disillusioned and disappointed by the realization that I would perhaps never create anything that even approached that sublime masterpiece.

It wasn’t long after that that Felix died. He’d hidden his illness from everyone: kept up a facade of normality while he was being slowly eaten away from the inside. It was a real shock not to have him around anymore, and for a time I felt utterly lost, cast adrift in an alien world that had lost all meaning for me.

He left me the statue, which I had installed in a private room in my own home. I felt ambivalent towards it now. On one hand it was a kind of tangible symbol of my link with Felix, something private that we had shared together, but at the same time its perfection seemed to mock me in my current creative desert. I often drank alone now, pacing round and round the statute for hours on end like a beast trapped in a cage.

I started experimenting. I would blindfold myself while I worked, trying to hone my sense of touch, to see my subject wholly in my imagination and use only my hands to bring it to life. The results were mixed. It was liberating to no longer be a slave just to what I could see, but my pieces became more stylized and abstract as I relied more and more on my idea of what the subject should be rather than what it actually was. This was the exact opposite of what I was aiming for. I wanted to be more true to my subject, to capture its very essence and make it live through the stone in the same way Cayce had done, but instead I was just imposing my own preconceptions onto my work.

Depressed and dejected, and with new commissions drying up as quickly as my confidence, I received a telephone call from one of Felix’s contacts: a sketchy character who was half art dealer and half confidence trickster. He told me he had something that might interest me – something that Felix had been on the verge of tracking down himself just before he died. Lillith’s diary. My heart turned somersaults in my chest.

We met the very next day, and I received the tattered and faded manuscript with trembling hands after handing over a sum of money that I could ill afford. Maybe this long-forgotten document would at last shed some light on the miraculous statute, and reveal what had happened to Cayce’s mysterious muse.

I took the diary home immediately and began reading. It was strange to think that the loose, flowing writing that covered the pages had been written by the same hand that I had spent so many hours scrutinizing in stone. It seemed to fit her character perfectly.

Her deep love for Cayce and his art shone out from every page. She laid bare her heart in those brittle, off-white pages: it was soon clear that she felt herself unworthy of his love, and that she wished she could give him something as sublime and enduring as the sculptures he created in his secret, shuttered studio.

She spoke of the studio with an odd mixture of far and awe. It had no windows, and no fire or candles – why would it? Cayce didn’t need light to work. It seemed that he would work in concentrated bursts, spending days at a time in there, finally to emerge pale, haggard and almost on the verge of collapse but with another masterpiece completed. At this time his subjects were small animals – cats, birds, rats and the like. After he had finished, Lillith would spend hours cleaning the studio from top to bottom, a task which she evidently loathed.

For all the love between the two of them, their relationship was also a stormy one. Arguments echoed through almost every page of the diary, and I got the sense that they were both passionate people for whom love and hate were two sides of the same coin. Most of their fights centred around some project that she wanted Cayce to begin – it seemed to be of the utmost importance to her, and yet Cayce would dismiss it out of hand, which would send Lillith into a rage.

There was no sign of the argument being resolved until Lillith suddenly mentioned a new scheme in her diary: she planned to tell her husband that she was dying, and that her final wish was for him to complete this project she so desired – a sculpture of her.

I continued reading deep into the night, locked away in the room which housed the remaining fragments of Cayce’s final masterpiece. It was as if Lillith herself was watching over me as I read her private words. Utterly heartbroken when Lillith told him her news, Cayce agreed to her request, but on one condition: she would have to sit through the creation process of another sculpture first so that she knew exactly what it would entail before she sat for him herself.

My heart was pounding as I read on, devouring the words with an excited urgency as I realized Cayce’s secrets were about to be revealed. Lillith explained: “I lit four candles in the studio, one in each corner of that murky room, and watched by their guttering light as Edgar led in a small dog on a leather leash. He set the dog on his large stone workbench and tied it there, rubbing its head absent-mindedly as he withdrew his leather pouch from his apron.

“He fed the dog a few of the scraps of meat that we had laced with opium earlier. Its tail wagged happily. He ran his hands over its closely-cropped coat, his long, delicate fingertips dancing over its entire body. It was an honor to watch him at work, his head tilted back and his face utterly impassive as he lost himself in his art.

“It didn’t take long for the drug to take effect. The little dog stumbled woozily on uncertain paws, licked his hand once, then settled down as if to sleep. Edgar reached for his pouch and unfolded it. The tempered steel blades of his razor-sharp knives gleamed in the warm glow of the flickering candles.

“He set to work with the skill and dexterity of an expert surgeon. The dog barely flinched as the first incisions were made: Edgar’s hands were sure and swift as they peeled back the skin and sought the secret spaces beneath bound in bone and sinew. Slick with blood yet still as deft and sensitive as ever, his fingers traced each and every subtle contour of the animal’s internal structure. Even as the life ebbed out of it it was coming alive in Edgar’s imagination: it was a truly wondrous transformation.

“Hours later, with the remains of the dog carefully laid out before him as delicately as the unfolded wings of a butterfly, he set his hands palms down on the table and gave a deep, careworn sigh. A single tear rolled from his eye as he neatly and methodically replaced his now-bloody knives back in their pouch. The real work already complete, he took up his hammer and chisel and approached the pristine block of stone on the far side of the studio…”

My mind was reeling. This was what Lillith had submitted herself to? This was Cayce’s secret method? Yet in a way it made perfect sense – only by fully understanding the complex interplay of muscle pulling against muscle, only by feeling for himself the intricate mysteries that lay beneath the flesh could Cayce have achieved the ideals of artistic perfection which he had undoubtedly attained in his work.

There was one more entry in the diary. “Edgar has agreed. Tomorrow he will sculpt me. I shall become immortal.”

Their commitment, their dedication to their art was astonishing. Lillith had written about it elsewhere in the diary, although I hadn’t understood what she meant then: “All great art must be a matter of life and death. Anything else is just playing.”

She was right, of course. It put everything into perspective for me. I realized that, despite all my achievements, despite everything I’ve learned and the years I’ve spent toiling away at my work, I’m still only playing. I’ve only ever been playing. But now that I’ve had a glimpse of how things could be, I know that I can never go back.

Some questions still remain unanswered, and probably always will. Why did Cayce destroy the statute shortly after creating it? After all, it had cost him so much: the one thing in all the world he loved the most. Perhaps he had found out about Lillith’s subterfuge, and smashed the statue in a fit of rage. Maybe it served as a constant reminder of the love he had lost; or perhaps he simply didn’t want to share his Lillith with the world. After all, he already possessed her wholly and completely within the dark labyrinth of his own mind. She had given herself to him utterly, and he had received and transformed her. Perhaps anything over and above that was simply unnecessary.

I sat alone in my room in complete silence once I had read the diary’s final words. Time seemed frozen, although I must have sat there for hours. Lillith watched over me, the empty spaces in her fractured form keeping their enigmatic secrets as steadfastly as ever. The time for playing was over.

Eventually, without a thought in my head, I took the tools of my trade from their resting place in my bag, closed my eyes, and with two swift blows of my hammer on my chisel I entered that same darkness which Cayce had made his own.


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Expecting

PEOPLE SAY I HAVE a special glow about me. That always makes me smile. Sometimes they ask if they can touch my belly – complete strangers! But I always let them. It’s good that people can share in my little miracle. After all, it’s what I was made for.

I think I was born to be a mother. Ever since I was a kid all I ever wanted was a child. Someone who I could lavish all my care and attention on, and who would love me back unconditionally. Things were tough for me when I was growing up, but I always took refuge in my dream that one day I would have a baby all of my own, and that from that day on I’d never be alone again. Sometimes that dream was the only thing that kept me going.

Mother wouldn’t even let me have a dolly. Even when I was six or seven she said they were too childish, that they were toys for little babies, “and you’re not a little baby, are you Claire?” So my dolls were all scraps of fabric or tiny mannequins that if made myself out of whatever I could get my hands on that mother wouldn’t miss. They never lasted long, though. Mother always found them eventually, and into the trash they’d go. “You’re not a little baby, Claire.” Then I’d be in trouble. Big trouble.

Any day now. I should be due any day now. My darling boy will come into the world and everything will be okay. I know it’s a boy, even though no doctor has ever told me. I can just feel it. I haven’t decided on a name for him yet, though. It doesn’t seem right to name him before I’ve even seen what he looks like. Besides, if I named him now, I wouldn’t be able to speculate, would I? That’s one of my favorite little games to play when it’s late at night and I can’t sleep and I’m feeling tired and lonely. I run different names through my head, getting the taste of them on my tongue. Anthony. Hector. Kevin. Thomas. Each one conjures up a different image, a different set of possibilities. Andrew. Terrence. Robin. Hugh. One’s a teacher, one’s a doctor, one’s a professor, another an explorer. Simon. Gareth. Robert. Bruce. I whisper the names in the darkness and they lull me to sleep, where I dream about my baby-to-be and the world that will lie at his feet.

His father isn’t in the picture anymore. He was a strong man – I made sure of that – and smart, too. I don’t think he ever really loved me, though. I certainly never loved him. He wasn’t the type to settle down anyway – too passionate, too impulsive. Ironically, the qualities I wanted from him for my child were the same qualities that would have made him a terrible father.

He got violent towards the end, when he found out that I hadn’t been using birth control like I promised. Called me a lying bitch, said I was just as bad as his wife and slapped me hard around the face. I always hated his hotheadedness, but I knew that my calm and stable nature would temper it in our child. He hadn’t known it, but all the time we’d been seeing each other I’d been trying to conceive. Three months, and nothing at that point. I was beginning to wonder if he had it in him.

So his reaction was a surprise when I finally told him I was pregnant. I had hoped it would drive him away, but the exact opposite happened: he held me close, told me he loved me and swore that he’d leave his wife for me and make a new life for us and our child. That wasn’t what I wanted at all. Now that I had what I needed from this man, he was surplus to requirements: he could only get in the way and come between me and my baby. Even as he held me in his arms, tears rolling down his cheeks, I knew he had to go.

It wasn’t difficult. I was methodical and systematic. First I convinced him that we had to have a completely fresh start, and he had to totally cut himself off from his family and friends if we were to become a real family. Then I made sure I had access to all of his assets, including his bank account. Finally I persuaded him that what we really need was some time away together before we started out on our new life: a little holiday where we could get away from it all and really sort things out between us.

We rented a little cottage way out in the country for a few days. It was perfect. On our final evening there we went for a romantic walk in the moonlight, walking hand in hand through the blue-silvered night. I really thought he was going to propose as we stood on that remote hillside overlooking the babbling river below. But the knife slipped in as intimately as a kiss, and I walked back to the cottage without him – just me and my unborn baby, that little bundle of new life I carried within me that I would never have to share with anyone.

He left us well provided for. We lived like nomads from then on, my son and I, travelling from city to city and town to town, never staying in one place for more than a few days at a time. My body began to change, filling out and becoming more curvy and shapely: I liked to think of it as being freshly upholstered for my little passenger. At night I used to dream about him swimming around inside of me, snug as a hand in a new velvet glove. Those were good times.

Soon after, however, the sickness came. I knew that most women experience morning sickness to some degree in their pregnancy, but I hadn’t been expecting anything like this. Every morning without fail I would vomit until my stomach ached and my throat was raw, and I was left feeling light-headed and utterly vacant.

And then there were the cravings. I’d never felt anything like them before. They washed over me in waves, great suffocating tsunamis of desire that overwhelmed my senses and almost drove me insane. I didn’t know exactly what it was I wanted, but I had a maddening urge for something, and I knew I could never be truly satisfied until I got it.

For two weeks I endured this misery until I was at my wit’s end. I felt like a slave to forces beyond my control, like an empty bag whipped around by the wind or a scrap of driftwood tossed and buffeted by ocean storms. Then one day I was sitting in a diner staring at a plate of pancakes and trying to stop my stomach from flipping over when everything changed.

A woman came in, obviously heavily pregnant, and made her way straight to the restroom. I rose from my chair and followed, intending to ask her advice on what I was going through, tapping into that universal camaraderie that all mothers-to-be share. At least, I think that’s what I was planning.

The moment the door closed behind me, however, I was completely overtaken by events beyond my control. The craving sized hold of me again, and for the first time I knew exactly what it was I had to do.

I still had the knife with me. I’d kept it as a sort of talisman. In a flash it was in my hand, the cold steel shining unnaturally bright in the harsh artificial light of the stalls. The woman had already vanished into one of the cubicles – I could hear the door rattling as she fumbled with the lock.

I kicked it open. The knife slashed across her throat, cutting short her brief gasp of surprise. She floundered uselessly on the seat, her arms flapping like the wings of a dying bird. It was all over in an instant: I remember the sound of a tap dripping as the blood pooled silently around her feet.

I felt energized – more alive than I had ever felt before. Just at that moment, as the last of her life left her body, I felt my unborn child kick inside me for the very first time. It was truly sublime.

That was three years ago. Not a lot has changed since then. We’re still traveling around, me and my son, seeing the world one motel at a time. He still hasn’t come out yet: who can blame him? The world is often not a very nice place, and he’s already got the most comfortable little den he could ever desire. I am his world, just as he is mine. The cravings still come, and it’s just as delicious as the first time when I satisfy them. He’s going to be such a special little boy when he finally makes his appearance. And I’m sure he’s due any day now.

Any day now.


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Echoes

IT’S TUESDAY, SO OF course Billy fucking Brannigan’s here. Sitting there with his dopey head all caved in. He goes on and on and on at me, like we’re the best of mates or something. Idiot. He’s one of those people that if a thought comes into his head it comes straight out his mouth, so I get this stream of consciousness crap from him for hour after hour. Poor bastard doesn’t even know he’s dead.

Red morning light spills into my room and across my bed, getting into my eyes so I can’t get back to sleep. Not that I could with Billy rambling on again anyway. Looks like the day’s started, then. Just got to wait it out as usual.

The TV flicks on automatically at nine – some shitty game show or something. Billy laps it up. I can’t tell which is more annoying: Billy snorting and braying with laughter or the stupid show itself. Still, at least it stops him telling me the donkey story again. I’ve lost count of how many times he’s told me that damn story. And it wasn’t even funny the first time.

Ten o’clock and the nurse comes, checks my bedpan, gets me in my chair and wheels me off to the day room. Bitch. She’s just as bad as Billy, prattling on about nothing the entire time. I’d kill her if I could.

Passing the bathrooms and the guy in the tan trenchcoat is there again. Pacing up and down, dripping water everywhere from his sodden clothes. He stops pacing and glares at me as I roll by, giving me his usual hate-filled stare. Never says a word, that one. Just paces and glowers with his cold, lifeless eyes. Looks like a mean bastard, though. Truth be told, I don’t remember him at all. I suppose he must have drowned or something. Any time there’s water around he’s there. Probably deserved it, the fucker.

The day room is another circle of hell. More decrepit, worn-out wrecks arranged around little tables all facing the television set in the corner. Stinks of piss and the heating is cranked up so high it’s like being in a sauna. Don’t get old. Just don’t. They say it creeps up on you slowly – like hell it does. Didn’t with me anyway. Hit me like a ton of bricks. Yeah, your bones start to ache a bit and you get tired quick, but that’s all stuff you can fight against. And I was always a fighter.

No, one morning you just wake up and something goes pop in your head, and suddenly your body isn’t yours anymore. Like a puppet with its strings cut. A stroke they call it. That’s a laugh – a stroke. More like a fucking hand grenade in the skull. Boom – bye bye body. Bye bye life.

Christ. Some idiot’s put the football on. And, sure enough, now the kid’s here again. Standing in the corner like a naughty little boy. He’s the only one I really feel bad about. He doesn’t look too bad from here – you can barely see the slit in his suit from where the knife went in. Just looks a bit pale. And the stain could be wine or ketchup or something. Poor little bastard.

That’s when they started arriving. After the stroke, I mean. After there was nothing I could do about it. I’ve lived a life, you see. You won’t find many like me in this world, that’s for damn sure. Anything I wanted I took, and anything that was in my way… Well, let’s just say that obstacles never stood in my way for long. People had a habit of disappearing around me if I couldn’t find a use for them.

Never expected the fuckers to come back, though. They follow me round like lost little ducklings now. You want to hear the torrents of abuse I get from some of them! The wife’s the worst. The second one, I mean. It’s late at night she comes, after everyone else is asleep and I start feeling a bit amorous-like. Back when we shared the same bed I used to wake her up at times like these to have my wicked way with her, but now she just sits and screams and bawls at me, her cleanly-cut throat gibbering like a second mouth.

So this is my life now, all the life I have left to me. Tormented by all these schmucks when there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. Life sure has a keen sense of humor. Unlike Billy fucking Brannigan. Two o’clock in the afternoon and the nurse wheels me back to my room and points me at the window. Billy acts like I’m his long lost brother he hasn’t seen for years, and before long he’s off on the damn donkey story again.


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