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Nightmares

Sarah Wilson lived in an audio world. She thought in sound, saw in sound. She heard colours and listened to taste; a delicious meal was a symphony; a brilliant view was a concert played out before her eyes. As a child, she had once been mesmerised by the pitch of a dog’s yelp as it was kicked by a small boy. It hit the right note, somehow. Another time, the gasps of a schoolmate who’d just broken his arm falling from the monkey bars, drawing breath for a scream. They sounded to her like gusts of wind down an autumn street.

            As she grew older, an idea began to build up inside her, something new and exciting. This music only she could hear – what if she collected it? Distilled it to perfection in a way that only she, with her unique talent, could? What if she made a symphony to her own taste?

            So, she had cleaned out the basement: piles of leaves and cobwebs obliterated, along with their inhabitants. She’d particularly enjoyed getting rid of the rats – their squeals and chitters had a range and frequency all of their own, especially when tails were cut and legs twisted. When the area was clear of all but the concrete and wooden rafters, she set up a studio. She padded the walls with the highest quality material and crafted every inch to make the acoustics just right. She spent grocery money on microphones, and recording devices of supreme accuracy, which she set up at specific angles and locations around the space.

            Finally, she fitted the rear wall with bolts, cuffs, and loops through which she might thread thin ropes – she didn’t want clinking chains to interfere with the quality of her composition.

‘I wrote a song, do you want to hear it?’ Sarah said.

            Xander didn’t answer immediately. He was standing in the middle of what was supposed to be a living room, but was lacking the furniture to make it worth actually living in. A guitar lay on the dusty floor in the middle of the room, and a single lightbulb hung from a wire above it. Artists, he thought. Can’t live with em

            ‘It’s about a ghost girl who falls in love with a woman – a living one – and then kills her so they can be together.’ She was sitting up on her kitchen counter, watching him the way a cat might: unsure of him and his intentions, sizing him up with one paw raised and ready to run.

He gave her his most charming smile, trying to put her at ease. So far, the night had gone like nothing else he’d experienced. Usually girls like her – aspiring singers or musicians – would gush over him, or themselves, or music, or all of the above. They were always too eager to lay him or get him to listen to their album. Sarah, however, had spent most of their first date cracking the lobster she’d ordered (on his bill) and talking about the ocean. ‘Did you know it goes deeper than mount Everest is tall? There are less people that have been down there than on the moon.’ That was, of course, when she spoke at all – mostly it was just him on a monologue about what he did, as if he was trying to impress her. He supposed he was. For all his chops and status in the industry, even the singers he dealt with didn’t look this good – and she hadn’t even worn makeup for their date.

‘Sure, go ahead,’ he said, thinking, moment of truth, girl.

He expected her to prepare, somehow, to stand up straight and brush her hair back, take a deep breath. Instead, sitting slouched over on the counter and without so much as a pause, Sarah simply opened her mouth and began to sing.

The smile fell from Xander’s face. His hands, always in and out of his pockets, were limp by his sides. He must have looked horrified, because she stopped suddenly, and shrugged. ‘That’s all I’ve got so far. I’m better with instruments, anyway.’

            Holy shit, he thought. She doesn’t even know. She has no idea how good she is. Her voice had a natural depth to it – the passion of an ancient soul. He was awestruck.

            She hopped off the counter and started back toward the front door. ‘Anyway, you should go. I’ve got stuff to do.’

            ‘Hey, hey hold on. You, uh, got anything else?’ She looked back over her shoulder, uncertain. Seeing he was serious, she nodded, and then pointed to the Cello by the fireplace. ‘I can do something with that.’

            ‘Sure. Go ahead.’

            And she played for him again, pulling out one of the chairs from her kitchen table and sitting with legs splayed out and hair hanging down over her face, completely lost in the music. She played with the confidence of a seasoned professional, yet as wild and unrestrained as an enthusiastic amateur. Xander was familiar with all the classics, and he tried long and hard to place the song – a deep rising melody like Hall of the Mountain King – until he realised it was original music.

            When she was done, she looked up at him with a blank face, waiting for his reaction but apparently expecting nothing. She had played so perfectly, she might have won a standing ovation from the philharmonic orchestra.

            Xander took a deep breath and folded his arms. ‘Sarah.’ He paused. He wanted to run at her and hug her, and maybe kiss her once or twice, and then dance all over the room and then maybe marry her, but instead he just said: ‘How would you like to be famous?’

The trick was getting just the right sound. Sometimes it was hard to get them to co-operate, but with Esther, the problem was something else. The girl wasn’t living up to the potential of her vocal chords. It didn’t seem to matter where Sarah stuck the needle, or how deep she cut, Esther couldn’t hit the note.

            The breakthrough came on the fourth night, just after Xander left. She had deprived Esther of water, hoping to add  a husky quality to her cries, but when she tried to elicit a response,  Esther  swore at her. ‘I know you’re not going to let me go, you bitch! I’ve seen your face!’ She tried to spit in Sarah’s face, but there was no moisture. Sarah crouched in front of her, absentmindedly bouncing the tip of the needle in the palm of her hand. At last, it clicked.

            She fixed the microphone nearest Esther’s face, angling it and clicking it to record. As long as the right note sounded, she could edit everything else out. That was the plan: to collect each note separately and then patch them all together to weave her masterpiece. She removed the black ribbon she’d been using to tie her hair back and secured it over Esther’s eyes.

            ‘What the hell are you doing? I’ve already seen you. I’m not an idiot!’

            Sarah didn’t respond. Her heart was beating quickly, a thrill she only ever got when she was really there, right on the brink of True Art. When it was done, she stepped back and then crouched down, holding her breath and remaining absolutely silent.

            Esther pulled her knees up to her naked breast, half from the cold, half from fear. She knew what was coming, but now she didn’t know from which direction. Her skin was covered in tiny red and black dots, dried blood droplets from Sarah’s previous attempts to produce the perfect sound. ‘What are you doing?’ she said again, her voice trembling, the defiant strength wavering.

            Sarah waited. An owl hooted from the pine just outside the basement. A gust of wind made the rafters groan. She needed silence, and a minute later she found it in between Esther’s breaths. She lashed out like a rattlesnake, the needle piercing Esther in the soft part of her thigh, and there it was: a scream that carried just the right timbre, the perfect pitch.

            Sarah lowered the needle and stood up with a satisfied sigh. ‘Thank you,’ she said, and she meant it. Esther didn’t seem to notice – she was crying again, a low moan that wasn’t without value; here and there Sarah heard something she might be able to use. She leaned forward and patted her on the head. ‘There there,’ she said. ‘It’s over, now.’

            This time, the needle went through Esther’s neck.

Xander booked her into a few underground Jazz clubs, late night spots at first, then the more prominent weekend nine o’ clocks. He spared no expense: he put out posters and flyers, got her a stylist and paid for clothes and jewellery. Not that he could afford it, but he wasn’t an idiot – he knew what was coming.

Sarah, for her part, was completely indifferent. Most girls would have preened and posed in front of the mirror; Sarah merely stared while she got a makeover worthy of any supermodel, the stylist chatting away and complimenting her. When she was done, Sarah said: ‘Thanks Julia,’ and then walked out on stage looking like a movie star from the twenties and singing like Billie Holiday. It was magic.

            He tried to kiss her once, after a celebratory dinner of wine, oysters and rare steak, and she’d let him. It was like kissing a dead girl, her lips cold and soft, her tongue unresponsive. Somehow, it only made him want her more. Give it time, my friend. It’s all new to her.

            Later that same night, they walked along the beach in front of the row of nightclubs and casinos known to locals as ‘Sinner’s Strip’. She let him hold her hand, so delicate and smooth, with nails as long and filed as if they’d been designed to pluck strings. She’d sung one of her own songs that night, instead of covering an old hit, and the crowd had sucked in every word.

            ‘You’re gonna be big, you know,’ he said. ‘You’re gonna be the next Lana Del Rey, or Amy Winehouse, or… hell, better – you’ll be your own thing.’

            She nodded absently, as though this was something she already knew.

            They turned down the pier at the end of the Strip, a shonky line of planks that ended in a viewing platform from which the whole bay and the rising hills beyond it were visible. She liked it there, she said. She was obsessed with great voids, and the bay at night was the only place you could see the emptiness of space and the vastness of the ocean at once.

            They stopped at the end and he turned to face her. She ignored him, staring out over the blackness, hypnotised.

            ‘You’ll be famous,’ he said.

            ‘I don’t want to be famous. I don’t want anyone to know who I am. I want to sing quietly in an empty stadium, and have no one hear my words but me.’

            Every time he thought he her figured out, she found a new way to mystify him.

            ‘That sounds… painful,’ he said eventually.

            ‘All art comes from pain,’ she said.

            He couldn’t think of anything to say to that, so he looked out over the bay and said nothing.

Thirty seconds of sound, pieced together from countless snippets, some milliseconds and others several notes long, edited smoothly together by Sarah’s deft touch and impeccable ear. Her working title was “Ode to Misery”. The sounds of suffering, she found, had a very distinct flavour and range – the same way you could always tell a blues song, regardless of what instruments were playing.

            There was a long way to go, yet – she hadn’t even begun to reach the climax of the piece – but she decided to let someone listen to it.

            Not deliberately, however. This was too intense for the conscious mind. It worked best with a subtle approach; it was more a soundtrack than an epic solo, more a dream than a story, like a David Lynch movie.

            So she asked Greg if she could play her own music as the bottle store’s background noise instead of the usual pop songs and ads they usually played. ‘Only on the late night shifts, when I close by myself,’ she added quickly.

            He squinted at her. ‘What kinda music is it?’

            ‘Alternative.’

            ‘Any swearing in it?’

            ‘None.’

            ‘Sure. Knock yourself out. Not in busy hours, okay? The area manager’s a tightass about having those damn jingles every twenty minutes. Makes me wanna hang myself.’

            ‘No problem. Thanks, Greg.’

            He left at five, and she waited until ten, the last hour of the shift, when only the occasional customer came strolling in. She put the volume down by half and, since she only had half a minute of music, stuck it on repeat. Then she stood behind the counter and pretended to read a copy of Women’s Lifestyle, and watched.

            No one commented on the track, or seemed aware of it at all. The music was a mosaic, each note distinct and separate from every other and yet each leading logically to the next, creating a strange patchwork of sound. It had a human quality so unusual in the modern world of autotune and DJ technology, and yet also superhuman – vocal chords stretching far beyond their normal range.

            A young couple came in, smiling at first, then frowning and finally bickering over which wine to buy, their voices taking on a bitter, jarring quality that intrigued Sarah. They hardly acknowledged her at the counter, and by the time they left the girl had mascara streaming down her face and her boyfriend’s face had turned to stone. Sarah wondered, for the first time, what heartbreak sounded like.

            One of the regulars entered a few minutes later, a fat old man with yellow tinged eyes who bought exactly two cans of beer every day. He stood staring at the shelf for five or ten minutes, muttering to himself. He picked up a six pack, then a case, and finally cursing, headed for the hard liquor section, where he picked up two bottles of bourbon, a hundred proof At the front, he ordered a pack of cigarettes.

            ‘Hey Jim. I though you quit,’ she said. He scowled at her, and when she looked into his eyes she was sure she saw something working at him. The voices of his inner demons, roaring for a fresh piece of his soul and having it granted to them.

            ‘One of those nights,’ he said, snatching the bag from her hand.

            Sarah’s bright gaze followed all who entered that night. She saw it happen again and again: customers came in and seemed to get lost somewhere between the entrance and the counter. Lost in time, lost in their thoughts, turning inward, bothered, irritated, disturbed. They were drowning and they didn’t even know it.

            At the end of the shift, Sarah knew she was on to something special. There was a real bite to that music, some vein of raw human power she was tapping in to… but there was a lot of work to do. There was too much still missing.

            She took her time walking home, playing the tune in her ipod and singing lyrics to herself, improvising as she went.

The clubs were getting bigger now, and soon Xander started to book her in theatres. Money came in, and she quit the bottle store. Xander couldn’t sleep most nights. He was obsessed with her. All the more because of her indifference to his advances, which he was compelled to keep making against his friends’ advice and his own better judgement.

            ‘She’s an ice queen, buddy,’ Jake said to him one night, patting him on the back while he nursed a beer. They were sitting out front of their favourite Hawaiian cocktail bar – Heart of Honolulu – feet up on deckchairs while they watched the waves rolling in.

            ‘I know,’ he said. ‘But the queen is worth the ice.’

            The truth was, since he’d met her, everything in his life had become a kind of rocket, speeding up with engines roaring until it was threatening to blow through the stratosphere. Even Jake was in awe of the way she was snowballing toward stardom, but no one was surprised – no one who had heard her sing, anyway.

            The turning point came when he booked her at the Kingdom Theatre, just a few blocks north of the Strip and one of the biggest venues outside of the City. At five thousand seats, the only place to go after that would be the Olympia, and if you were playing the Olympia, baby, you were Big Time.

            He’d broken the news to her just the day before, deciding to surprise her with a bottle of wine. She’d been playing a violin, a hauntingly beautiful song she seemed to be improvising, and didn’t even notice him come in. She swayed, her eyes closed, delicate fingers dancing along the frets with stunning agility, and he watched her for who knew how long before she saw him and jerked upright, the song coming to an abrupt end.

            ‘What are you doing here?’

            He held up the wine, a ten-year-old cellar release cabernet that would have emptied his bank account just a few months ago and was now barely a drop in the ocean. He smiled. ‘Guess where I just got you a gig?’

            ‘I don’t care.’

            And, to his amazement, she dropped the violin and came to him, enfolding him in her arms and kissing him like never before. She smelled like sweat and leather. She hadn’t been cold that night, and he’d left the next morning feeling dazed and drunk on more than wine, his back covered in stinging scratches.

            He raised his glass to Jake, smiling. ‘Hey, here’s to us.’

            Jake smiled and raised his own glass. ‘It’s all you, buddy. The Ravenites are great, but they’re a Strip band at best. No way could I get them a gig at Kingdom. It’s all up from here. I’m just saying though, you gotta be careful.’

            And there it was, at last – that subtle note of jealousy that Xander had never believed he’d ever hear in Jake’s voice. He almost felt bad for him. ‘What, am I gonna get corrupted by success? Spiral downward in a haze of women and heroin like Jim Morrison and die young? Doesn’t sound so bad to me.’

            He was joking, of course, but Jake wasn’t laughing. ‘Oh, you’ll die young, all right,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘But it’s that crazy singer of yours who’s gonna kill you.’

It was late, but not too late, and a freak heatwave from the previous day hadn’t quite surrendered to the rain and autumn cold. Steam rose from the asphalt carrying with it the smell of tar and gravel. Sarah took turns at random, favouring narrow streets, and those with broken windows and graffiti. The sirens of the police and ambulance were frequent here, a kind of night music of their own. Sarah frowned as she ambled along, thinking of nothing in particular – until she heard an unfamiliar sound: The laughter of a small boy.

It seemed so out of place in this neighbourhood she had to follow it. She found the culprit soon enough, a youth of no more than six playing with a tennis ball in the road. His mother sat against a mouldy wall, sucking on a cigarette with sunken cheeks, rocking back and forth. She looked tired and worn out, like all junkies. The kid was having a blast, slapping his ball up against the factory wall and giggling when it bounced back at him at crazy angles. The old lady watched him with a sad smile on her face.

            Then she caught sight of Sarah, watching her. She coughed out her last drag. ‘Haggghh. H… Hey, this isn’t any place for a… are you lost, honey?’

            Sarah didn’t answer immediately. She had her head cocked to one side, the part of her brain that could tell pitch with perfect accuracy working, hearing the unique qualities in the two voices, mother and son, young and old. Another part of her mind, a more emotional part, was thinking about suffering, and about how physical suffering was only a part of it. A small part, really. Some people would prefer to be horribly tortured rather than suffer the agony of grief, or sorrow.

            ‘Are you – Haaaggh. Are you okay?’ The kid had stopped his game and was staring at Sarah now, meeting her curious gaze with one of his own. The mother stubbed out her cigarette and got to her feet, and Sarah snapped out of it at last. She put a hand to her chest. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry I was just, I heard your son and I was worried he might be lost or…’

            ‘Oh. Oh, no, he’d be right at home in a pig sty. Heh, isn’t that right, Denny? Just as happy as a cow in a mud hole, ain’t ya?’

            Denny shrugged, suddenly shy. He went over to his mother and she patted his head. ‘Nah, we’re all right,’ she went on. ‘But you better get on, lady, this place can get dangerous after dark.’

            ‘Isn’t it dangerous for you, too? Don’t you have a place to stay?’ Her voice cracking with concern. She kept her eyes wide and unblinking, a naïve college girl in the big city.

            The old lady shifted on her feet. ‘Ah, we’ll be fine. Wouldn’t say no if you could pass a dollar or two our way though, would we, Denny?’

            ‘No, no. Look, my house isn’t far from here. Why don’t’ you stay one night? My good deed for the day, kinda thing.’

            ‘Aw, honey, you don’t – ’

            ‘It’s fine. Really, it’s not far. They said it was going to rain again, tonight.’

            Something gave way in the old mother’s shoulders and she let out a soft laugh. ‘Well, isn’t that something, eh Denny? There’s good souls out in the world, aren’t there?’

            ‘Does the lady got balloons, mama?’

            ‘Sure I do,’ Sarah said. ‘I got all the balloons you want.’

The gig at The Kingdom was like nothing she’d ever done before. When she walked out on stage they were screaming for her, their voices joining and rolling across the theatre like a wave. Staaaaaaar giiiiiirrrrrllll! Staaaaaaarrrrrr Giiiiiiiirrrrrlll! It was a name she’d picked up as she was getting more popular in some of the bigger clubs. Stargirl. Xander said it was because of the blue flecks in her eyes, but she knew different. It was because they could see who she was.

            They wanted her soul, and they were drinking it in with their open mouths. She stood up in the middle of the stage for a long time, motionless, watching them as though they were the ones performing for her, seeing their manic eyes and their desperate, thirsty need for her, for what was inside of her. They wanted her soul, and she was going to give it to them.

            And so she sang.

Xander was out of his depth, and he was loving it. Out of his league with the girl, with the music, with the business, with the money. He barely slept four hours a night, the phone rang night and day, and he felt himself being swallowed by the machine, swept along by her success. All that stuff he learned in business school about the networking and the advertising and the hustling fell by the wayside – they’d never prepared him for this, this mad hunger for Stargirl. It was all he could do to keep them from finding out where she lived, and thank god he had, because the kind of people who were so nuts for Stargirl were also the kind of people who would tear her to shreds if they could get their hands on her.

            He rubbed his eyes and ran a hand through his thinning hair, thinking for the hundredth time that he was going to have to hire a whole crew of people just to keep him from having a heart attack. Still, pondering the look she would give him when he told her the Big News was enough to bring a smile to his face.

            Until he came down the overgrown walkway leading to her front door and heard the music coming from inside her shaded house. Not that music was anything unusual – but this was something else, some awful new instrument or song that put his nerves on edge and dread in his heart. He pushed open the front door – it was never locked – and braced himself for whatever fresh madness she was concocting.

            The music was not coming, as Xander had expected, from an instrument at all, but from top-of-the-line speakers that Sarah had arranged around the main room. For all his years in the music business, listening to the mixtapes of a million aspiring musicians, Xander had never heard anything so raw and unpleasant as this. He couldn’t discern a single instrument in the strange, jarring melody. There were no lyrics, nor chorus, nor harmony – but there was a kind of pattern to it, a trance inducing fractal made of notes. Xander didn’t just dislike it – he hated it with emotional force. It affronted every possible musical taste; it could appeal to nobody.

            Sarah was in nothing but a black bra and leggings, her back to him and a half full bottle of Jack in one hand, dancing.

            Xander couldn’t help but stare. She was somehow – impossibly – moving in time with the music. Slow now, then faster, arms and legs twisting and waving like snakes, hips sliding, head thrown back as she took another swig, lost in the madness. She simultaneously attracted and repelled him, and at last he couldn’t take it any more and he stepped over to the stereo and pulled the plug out at the wall.

            As soon as the music stopped she spun around, eyes wild, a light film of sweat on her forehead. ‘Oh! Hey.’

            ‘What was that?’

            ‘My backing track for the big song,’ she said, catching her breath. Her starry eyes were bright, but his heart was sinking. No one’s gonna hear that, he thought. No one would want to hear that.

            ‘I’ve written the lyrics and everything. I’m going to blow them away, Xander.’

            ‘Uh huh,’ he said slowly, resisting the urge to roll his eyes. ‘You’d better save it for after… you… play… the… Olympia!’ He stepped closer to her with each word, and just before he said Olympia he put his hands on her shoulders and flashed a smile. He was expecting something, a raised eyebrow or a disbelieving gasp or a kiss, even. But the name of the Theatre hardly seemed to register. She stared at him – with surprising clarity given the amount of liquor she’d just consumed.

            Silence.

            ‘Hello? Did you hear what I said?’ Still smiling.

            ‘I’m playing my song, Xander.’

            He took a deep breath. ‘Sarah. Once we get it all polished up and edited and all that, sure. But the Olympia is at the end of the month and the fans want to see Stargirl, not…’ Whatever the fuck that was just now. His inner voice finished for him. Even though he’d only heard twenty or so seconds of the strange music, it seemed to echo in the room, infusing the very air with menace. He wanted to shake her. No one wants to feel like that, don’t you understand? No one wants to hear music that makes them want to fucking kill themselves!

            But the fact that the words did not leave his mouth made no difference: Sarah heard them all the same. She heard them in subtitles in his tone, the way she could always tell when people were lying, or fake, or sad.

            ‘That music is my soul, Xander,’ she said, and he heard real emotion in her voice then, real hurt. ‘Don’t you understand that? I just want them to hear my soul.’

            His mind was racing, torn between the desire to keep her happy and the sure and certain knowledge that if he agreed both of their careers were going to take a nose dive straight into the asphalt. It’s for her own good. ‘Sorry, I can’t let you do that,’ he said.

            She stepped away from him, a wall dropping down in front of those exquisite eyes, shutting him out forever. He felt it like a physical thing, a blade of ice piercing his heart even before her next words left her lips.

‘Goodbye, Xander.’

            ‘Are you… are you firing me?’

            ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m breaking up with you.’

JAZZ CITY MAGAZINE

October 25th 2018

Ella Shwartz

Rising force of nature Sarah Grant, known to her adoring fans as ‘Stargirl’ makes her debut at the Olympia this weekend, and tickets are selling like ice cream in the Sahara. Any other musician would be in their element, making the most of their newfound fame, but as Stargirl has shown us time and again, she is not like any other musician.

            For one thing, no one really knows what she looks like. We have a version of her, a dark beauty on stage who can bring tears to your eyes with lyrics (all her own) or voice equally. She is, in a word – haunting, and her life outside the limelight is certainly ghostlike. She vanishes after shows, refuses interviews, and even her most dedicated fans (and there are many) know only the most on-the-surface details about her, and much of that is speculation.

            Perhaps she is merely acting the part of the enigmatic artist? I, for one, doubt it. Her lyrics speak honestly of deep pain, grief, and heartbreak and ring with truth that can only be gained by experience. Her skill with the various instruments she uses to accompany her singing is unparalleled by any other working artist. During her last show at The Kingdom Theatre, I personally witnessed her perform with a guitar, a violin, a cello and a saxophone on four separate songs, and in each case she could have qualified as a virtuoso.

            The only valid criticism of Stargirl would concern the fans she seems to attract. Perhaps it is the inherently bleak subject matter of her songs, or perhaps the deep melancholy her music inspires. Whatever the reason, each successive concert has stretched the growing numbers of security personnel to their limits. Fights, vandalism, drugs, alcohol, tattoos, motorbikes, knives, long painted nails, piercings in every conceivable body part, and all-round recklessness: if these things are to your liking, you will fit in very well at a typical Stargirl concert.

            If not, no worries: hang back and enjoy the show: I guarantee you’ll see something special. Mark my words – Stargirl is no less than a legend in the making, this generation’s answer to Jim Morrison, and I would bet my life she won’t disappoint at the Olympia this weekend. See you there!

He stopped by the bottle store she used to work at. Her boss, Greg whoever, didn’t recognize him, and didn’t comment on his purchase of a half-litre of Polish spirits, the strongest stuff they had. Perhaps he thought Xander was going to use it as a disinfectant.

            In a way, he thought as he slid into the front seat of his car and took a tentative sip, he was. It was just that the wound he wanted to disinfect was in his heart. He kicked the car into gear and pulled onto the highway. He had nowhere in particular to go; just one he had no intention of getting anywhere near the Olympia.

            Sometimes it was just nice to drive.

            This time, though, the miles of city road started to get to him. He drove in silence, staring straight ahead, hands tight on the wheel. Normally he had something playing in the car, but there was only one CD in the drive right now – a new pop rock band – and the thought of listening to their sickly sweet upbeat jams made him want to vomit.

He turned onto the Strip and accelerated, winding down the window so the salty ocean air flew in his face and kept him sober. The billboards shot by the opposite window in a fluorescent blur, each one seeming to bring another memory of Sarah bubbling to the surface. Ever unsmiling, dancing with her hands over the head, too drunk on tequila. Walking the pier late at night and seeing the stars. On stage for the first time, killing it like no one ever before and then asking him afterwards, was I okay?

He rolled down familiar streets, where he could cruise the backroads for as long as he wanted, without worrying or thinking too much.

            Thoughts found their way into his mind, all the same.

            Despite the stern voice – Jake’s voice – telling him it was all right, that she’d been poison from the beginning, he couldn’t let go of that empty look in her eyes at the very end, when she’d…

            The memory triggered another: him shutting off the CD player and popping the disc out. He hadn’t meant to take it away – he’d just wanted to make sure she didn’t play it again, that awful nerve torturing yowl. But  he realised he had – in fact he was wearing the same jacket. Sure enough, when he reached into the inside pocket, it was still there.

            He tossed it onto the seat beside him. She’s ruining herself tonight, he thought. She’ll get laughed off stage. Every minute or so, his eyes darted to the seat. The disc was plain silver, with block letters written in permanent marker across the face:

ODE TO MISERY

DEMO

            He ejected the mixtape belonging to the High Street Wranglers and put it in.

Sarah had put the finishing touches at last. For days she’d pursued those elusive notes, the missing pieces she’d needed to string everything together and make it just right, but after some trial and error, she pulled it together.

            There were nineteen bodies buried in the back garden to prove it. Some had died more painfully than others, or more terrified, or more broken. But they’d  all given her their precious sound, in the end, not knowing that they were giving her a piece of their soul along with their utterances. It was the most ambitious thing she’d ever done, the most impossible – and yet, she’d done it. Every note in the right place; the melody tight, the pacing on point, the tone… sublime.

            It was the greatest thing that she would ever do.

After a couple of swigs, he stopped coughing. A couple more and his throat was numb. Another, and his heart and mind were numb, too. He drove faster and put the music up. It was a beautiful thing, this car – he’d bought it after her first really big gig. He remembered the way she’d looked at him after he’d given her the news: her eyes seemed so deep to him, then. So full of meaning and feeling.

            He took another long slug – almost finished now – and despite his nerveless tongue he detected a certain bitterness. Everything tasted bitter, now.

            The music played in a loop. This version was unfinished, of course, and only three minutes long. Every time the loop came to an end he urged himself to slam the eject and throw the thing out the window. He was grinding his teeth like a crack addict, knuckles white on the wheel. But then the track would start again and he’d hear a strange kind of whoop! Like someone surprised, but not in a good way – the kind of surprised you might get if someone curled a knife around your throat from behind – and that was the hook; every note that followed was like someone working under his fingernails with a screwdriver. Like scratching his retinas out, making him see black: death and despair in a dark cocktail.

            At the end of the Strip, he skidded the car around a tight corner, ran a red light, and headed for the city limits.

Sarah always zoned out in the dressing room. The stylists were chatty, so she let them monologue about celebrities and oh my god have you seen that show it’s amazing… and she would glaze over and think of the music.

            Another band was out there opening for her, and she could hear the heavy thump of drums and a good bass player making the building vibrate rhythmically. The crowd was loving it, the cheers and shouts of fifty thousand people rocking the building. But Sarah was late, as usual, and it wasn’t long before the chaotic ruckus solidified into a steady chant. Starrrrrrr Giiiiiiiiiiiiiiirl! Starrrrrrrr Giiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirl!

            At last her makeup was done and the stylist, a twenty something with pigtails and a brilliant smile, stood back and made a ta-da motion. ‘All ready, Stargirl! Go get ‘em, baby, I believe in you!’

            Sarah poured herself a fresh scotch on the rocks and the lit a cigarette. She took a drag and faced her reflection. The thing in the mirror wasn’t really her. A made-up queen, a superstar, a smoky-eyed crooner. It wasn’t the real Stargirl.

            ‘That’s okay. They’ll all see Stargirl, soon enough,’ she said.

            ‘Huh? Better get moving, girl! They’re calling for you!’

            Starrrrrrr giiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiirl! Starrrrrrrr giiiiiiiiiiiiiiirl!

            Sarah stood up, glass in one hand and cigarette in the other, and spread her arms. ‘How do I look?’

            The pretty pigtail girl clapped her hands. ‘You look like an angel baby!’

            ‘Thanks.’ And she pushed the other girl backward, the comical shock registering on her face as she half landed on the dressing table, cracking the mirror behind her.

            Tina, the other publicist, let out a tiny scream and put both hands up to her mouth, but by then, Sarah was already heading through the doubled doors for Stage Left.

Xander didn’t look back: he just kicked into high gear and drove, and thumbed the dial on his radio all the way up to ten. Why, he’d push it to eleven if he could – he’d push it all the way to hell!

            That was where he was going, after all. He knew that, now. It wasn’t that he was heading away from the city – no, it wasn’t that at all. He was heading where the music told him to go. And it had a lot to say, once you really listened. That was what he found, driving for an hour and then two, and three.

            It hurt – there was no mistake about that. The chords and half-screamed moans twanged around in his head like steel wool on a burn… but it was a good kind of pain, and it spoke to him of the future, a future full of blood and rage, and Xander was all too happy to listen.

            It was Xander’s future, and as the road thundered under his wheels and the air blew in through the open window, hot summer air, he found he couldn’t wait to get there.

As she stepped out, the crowds chanting erupted into an ocean of screams and applause, thousands surging toward the line of security at the front. A forest of arms reached out for her, many of them holding bright phones with the camera lights on. Sarah wondered what the sound quality was like on those. Never mind, the show would be broadcast through the best media available all over the country.

            She didn’t so much as glance at the roaring crowd as she walked on stage, just headed over to the stool near the front. It wasn’t meant for sitting, but for holding her glass. She took a long swallow and they loved that, too, hundreds lifting their own drinks in toast.

            Stargirl didn’t care for any of it. There was no How is everybody doing today? Or Hey, what a crowd, you look great. No Thank you for coming out! There were only the three even steps to front and centre, the raising of the microphone to her lips, and the short intake of breath. This was enough to make the whole theatre silent.

            In that brief instant before she began to sing, someone in the tech room flipped a switch, kicking off the first notes of backing music.

            Sarah saw the expressions change on a ten thousand faces all at once, saw the humanity vanish from their eyes in an instant, and she knew this would be a night to remember.

Rick Markus first heard of the black market from Dennis, talking and drinking in his stained apartment. Dennis had recently gone kamikaze skydiving, and Rick had wasted no time in contacting him to get hold of the memory. There were few people willing to sell something so dangerously acquired: Kamikaze skydiving was the sport, if you could call it that, of throwing your parachute out of the plane before you jumped. ‘Hey, just gimme like a month to savour it, okay?’ Dennis said, but ten days later here he was, and his terrifying memory was in Rick’s head, waiting to be savoured. Dennis’s drug habit was the best thing that ever happened to Rick.

            ‘There’s a black market for this stuff?’ Rick said, taking a burning sip of scotch and turning down the music, some dark rap Dennis always insisted on playing – Kid Cudi or someone.

            ‘Hell yeah, man. There’s a black market for everything. You’ll end up there one way or another, believe me. Seriously, I don’t think I could handle anything more extreme than kamikaze skydiving. You’re gonna have to go someplace else if you want more.’

            ‘Why, what do they have on the black market that’s so hard core? How could memories be illegal?’

            ‘Think about it.’ Dennis sat up in his moth eaten couch and started rolling a joint with shaking hands. His skeletal fingers were always shaking, as though a lifetime of extreme sports had given him a never ending adrenaline rush. ‘A guy kills someone or rapes someone, then sells his memory on the market. When the cops come looking, he can’t give details, can’t even confess, and he passes a lie detector because he doesn’t even know he did anything. Just has this big blank spot in his memory. There’s a kicker, too. Whenever these guys sell, they also sell the memory of whoever their last customer was, as part of the deal, a free bonus. So even if the law does catch him, he can’t tell them who he sold the memory to. Wild, huh?’

            Rick set his scotch glass down and made a sour face. ‘Why the hell would I want a memory of killing someone?’

              ‘Don’t knock it ‘till you try it. I met a guy who did it once, bought a rape murder? He said he lived it over in his head on the daily. Couldn’t get enough, the thrill never lost its edge, you know?’

            ‘Ugh. He liked it? That’s sick.’

            ‘Hey, maybe that’s not for you. But you can do other stuff, too. You can rob houses, do big scale heists, experience a riot. And plenty of stunts you couldn’t get from me, either. One dude makes cash climbing up on these skyscrapers and hanging off the edge, no parachute. Or guys who’ve gone poaching deadly animals in Africa and got mauled.’

            ‘Why would I want to get mauled?’

            ‘Nah, man, you don’t get it. Pain doesn’t translate well in memories, but fear does. You get all the heart beat without the hospital bill. It’s nuts.’ Dennis finally completed the joint and lit it, leaning back with a sigh. His greasy shoulder length hair soaked the smoke, making him smell permanently of weed.

            ‘If you say so. Where is this mysterious black market, anyway?’ Without waiting for him to answer, Rick closed his eyes and logged onto Mindnet to do a quick search. A bunch of blogs and newspapers came up, and he scrolled them as Dennis spoke, confirming everything about it except how to actually access it.

            ‘The black market is more about people than places. In the middle of the city, you find the right people and you ask them where to go. Each guy leads you to a different guy selling different stuff, but you gotta go through like three dudes before you even get anything serious. There’s some really messed up memories, but if you find the right people you can get hold of amazing ones. So I’m told. I never been there, myself.’

            Rick logged out of Mnet and thought about what it would be like to have the memory of murdering someone. No guilt, because you knew it wasn’t really you, and it would sure be a rush. A sick rush, probably, but something not many people had. Besides, as far as legal memories went, he’d collected everything he wanted. Spending eighty hours a week as an advertising executive afforded you a lot of neat experiences. When he looked back over his life, he saw supermodels, gold medals, extreme sports and expensive holidays, all lived by other people. He’d seen the bright side of life, but maybe it was time to delve into the darkness. Humanity’s forbidden lives.

            He held a mouthful of scotch in his mouth before swallowing, letting it numb his tongue. Then he said, ‘So who do you know?’

*

Rick looked the part as he walked Central with a black raincoat and unkempt stubble. It always amazed him that the middle of a first world city could look so primitive. Despite the invention of Mnet, the abolition of physical cash, and the disappearance of private transport, the city itself was still a network of dark grey buildings, angry suited mobs, and dumpsters in alleyways.

            The guy Dennis had told him about was in one particular alley, between an anonymous factory and a Hammel’s Food Scraper, that forty story monstrosity home to every conceivable meal. It made sense that Rick would find an entrance into a world home to another kind of decadence. As he searched for it, he sang to himself, a strange nervous habit he’d had since he was a kid. ‘Nine, five, six, three, won’t you just remember me?’ It was always the same snatch of a song, but for the life of him he couldn’t find the original source. He supposed he’d go to his death not knowing.

The ‘entrance’ in question was leaning against a dry patch of concrete, hands deep in jacket pockets and the empty eyed look of one who’d sold too many memories. As Rick approached, the guy looked up, revealing an acne scarred face and a cross tattoo on one cheek. He smiled and stepped forward to shake his hand.

            ‘Hey, you’re him, aren’tcha? Dennis told me what you looked like. What’s your name?’

            ‘Captain Popeye,’ Rick said. The guy nodded. ‘Okay, good, good, and my name’s Alice. Dennis mentioned you were after a, uh, experience? What kinda thing you lookin for?’

            The alleyway was hot and wet and smelled like fried rice and curry. There were no available dry areas, so Rick stood in the drizzle in silence, realising he hadn’t really decided on exactly what he wanted. The man watched him with crinkled blue eyes and a half smile. What had he done in his life that he couldn’t remember? What memories could he not bring himself to sell?

            ‘I’m looking for a murder,’ Rick said.

*

It was so much more than he’d expected. Rick was sure it had a lot to do with the state of the killer’s mind. Alice had taken him two blocks down the road and then underground to some bathrooms near the subway. They were hot enough to make Rick sweat and smelled of dirt and sewerage. The killer, a bearded troll twice Rick’s weight with eyes that could freeze lava, had lifted a gold crucifix to his lips and kissed it. Rick learned the depths of his sadism only much later, perusing the memory.

            ‘I have found God,’ the behemoth explained at the time. ‘It’s time to leave my past behind me for good.’

            Why such a past had to be left behind became clear very quickly once Rick lay down on his bed, dimmed the lights, and thought back. It wasn’t the act of murder, though that was gruesome enough – it was the feelings that accompanied it. Christ, what a monster. Rick remembered every moment as clearly as yesterday. Good quality.

            A dying house on a sunlit winter day. A familiar place – home to him for many years, and home to the parents who’d locked him away in a windowless room and let him starve, who’d extinguished cigarettes on his arms and fed him dogfood. Rick clutched a hammer in one enormous hand and strode up the cracked driveway, not bothering to check for witnesses. Get away, get convicted – it made no difference. They were inside, and he would have revenge. His heart pumped with the delicious anticipation of theme park goers on a roller coaster just before take-off.  

            Of the three hours that followed, Rick had received every minute he’d paid for, down to the tiniest detail. The man in the subway would have nothing left to recall but black space. God, what a rush. It began with kneecapping, and then Rick broke the two of them piece by screaming piece. Every joint shattered and twisted, every bone broken or fractured, every brown tooth knocked from bloody gums.

            Rick could never have committed such carnage, but in the immense body of the man who’d called himself ‘Tigger’, he not only did it all, he loved it. The screams were sweet music to his ears. The memory was one of justice being done, and sweet satisfaction accompanied every injury perpetrated on the victims, along with the intoxicating joy of destruction inherent in violent men.

            When he’d gone over every part of it – a meditative process that took nearly three hours by itself – Rick sat up in the sweat drenched bed with tears in his eyes. He massaged his forehead with cold hands and laughed aloud in the dark room. ‘Oh, man, that was wild.’

            Rarely had he come across another person’s memory that was so clear and so full of strong emotions. He splashed water on his face and stared into the bathroom mirror for a long time. Just a lawyer, a nice guy. Played with toys as a kid, loving family, successful adult life. Friends, occasional girlfriends, a penchant for other people’s memories and apparently a total adrenaline junky. But not a six foot five ex-inmate with a crucifix necklace.

            ‘You are not a murderer,’ he told himself, reassured by the sound of his high, cultured voice. ‘You are not a murderer.’ Then he smiled.

            ‘But you gotta get some more of these bad boys.’

*

The sicker, the darker, the better. He couldn’t get enough. The only rule was that the men who’d committed the crimes had enjoyed them. Through their eyes and minds he experienced a whole world of horrors in ways he didn’t think possible. Alice became his guide, connecting him with a community of sick bastards, many of whom committed the acts solely to sell them. And sell them they did – Rick was the best customer any of them ever met.

            The day he met his first serial killer – Max the Mouth – Rick knew he was becoming warped by the memories he’d accumulated. They weren’t like the extreme sports Dennis had given him. These intruded when he was at work, forcing their way into his consciousness the moment he allowed himself a daydream. Sometimes he’d blink and twenty minutes had passed him by, and the document on his desk was spotted with icy sweat. A receptionist would greet him with a smile, and he’d make a light hearted joke while inwardly he was imagining in perfect detail what it would be like to rape and strangle her; he already had so many such memories, would it be any different if he did it for real?

            But warped or not, Rick had morals, and as far as he was concerned the memories would always be enough to satisfy whatever tastes he might develop. Max the Mouth was the first appointment that cast doubt on this notion.

            Max lived in a penthouse apartment in Central. He was doing very well for himself considering he’d spent the previous twenty years raping, slaughtering and then cannibalising prostitutes. Like Dennis, he would do the deed, savour it for a month or two, and then sell it on. Alice told him all about it on their walk uptown, munching on a rat dog he’d picked up at a shady stall along Hyde Street.

            ‘He makes big bucks, this guy. Made a business out of it. Real professional. Has a kill room in a warehouse somewhere.’ He took a bite of the dog and ignored the juice that streamed down his chin, kept talking. ‘Does all kinds of horrible shit. Then he eats them. Plus, he has this technique, he meditates for like an hour every morning to train his mind so when it goes down he really takes it in, right? It’s called mindfulness. You got the money, it’s the best you’ll get anywhere.’  

            The receptionist, a petite blonde with more makeup than skin, buzzed them up. Having finished the rat dog, Alice finally wiped his chin and then ran his fingers through greasy hair, shifting on his feet. He gave Rick a sideways grin, but Rick wasn’t fooled.

            ‘Are you nervous?

            ‘Naaaaaaaah. Well, maybe a little.’

            ‘Jesus. I’ve never seen you nervous before, not even with that cage fighter in Gatesborough.’ One scary guy, that cage fighter, but the memories had been pure gold. He’d sold Rick ten fights – victories of course, since the losers were all dead – and after recalling them blow by blow a few times he’d developed cocaine-high levels of confidence.

            ‘Hey, I’m not used to this level, alright? If we were in the business of drugs instead of memories, I would be a crack dealer and Max the Mouth would be the goddamn godfather.’

            ‘It’ll be fine. He’s a businessman. I can pay what he wants, he’ll make sure I’m a return customer.’

            And he was right about that, but while Max was a very able businessman, he’d also created that business around torturing and consuming human beings, and that kind of man was never going to have all his eggs in one basket. That was clear from the second he opened the door and welcomed the two of them in with a wide smile. Oh, so that’s why they call him The Mouth.

            Big lips, wide smile, painfully white teeth filed to perfect points. He was bald and clean shaven and each expression he made caused every centimetre of rosy skin on his head to move. He held the door open for them and gestured for them to enter. He wore a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a single gold chain around a thick neck.

            ‘Rabbit and Alice, isn’t it? Come in, then.’ They entered and Max led them through an apartment like a spaceship: white surfaces, silver edges, minimalist. A table and chairs sat on a wooden deck outside, looking out over a colourful Japanese garden complete with a running stream, and beyond that the vast smog-drowned city.

            A rare steak and mashed potato steamed on a plate, and Max sat down in front of it with his back to the garden, rubbing his hands. ‘Sorry, hope you don’t mind. I’d just finished making this when you arrived.’ He had an English accent – the kind with a conspicuous lack of Ts. Michael Caine came to mind.

            ‘Course, yeah, no problem,’ Alice said, shrugging at Rick. They pulled out chairs and sat opposite. Steak and Potatoes for breakfast? Sure, why not?

            Max paused a second before cutting into the beef, squinting at Rick. ‘Have we met before, young Rabbit?’

            ‘I, uh, I think I would remember that,’ Rick said.

            ‘I suppose you would.’ He shrugged and cut a hefty chunk of meat, blood leaking in a moat around the mashed potatoes.

            ‘Anyway. Best get to business, yeah? Alice tells me you want a few of the good quality, eh, recollections?’

            ‘The best you got. Say, five?’

            ‘I don’t have five, I’m afraid. Not for you, anyway. Contrary to popular belief, it ain’t that easy to make these things.’

            ‘No problem. How many do you have?’

            ‘Three. But I don’t know you that well, so you can have one.’ His jaws made short juicy work of the first mouthful and he followed it with another, not pausing for breath. He had the thick biceps of a bodybuilder. Lots of protein. Rick decided not to stay longer than he needed.

            ‘Fine by me. If it’s good, I’ll be back.’

            ‘Ahhh, mate.’ He swallowed and looked up from his plate, shark’s teeth gleaming. ‘Don’t you worry about that my friend. They’re aaaaallll good.’

*

Never had Rick been so glad to arrive home safe. From the moment he’d seen that smile, he’d known he was truly in the company of an animal. Were it not for the money in his pocket and the promise of future business, Max the Mouth would have pulled him across the table and bitten his neck open. None of them had had any doubt who were the deer and who was the lion, and as soon as he’d showered and calmed himself, Rick found he was looking forward to feeling that kind of power very much.

            He’d planned to leave it until the following night after work, but midnight came and went and he could not sleep. The fresh memory was settled in the back of his brain, waiting to be called upon. As he drifted, it flashed across his mind’s eye and his heart revved him awake again. He thought of the transferral machine Max had used – a state of the art piece of technology with about a hundred sensors more than any other Rick had encountered; he was used to tangled wires and dusty helmets. Imagine the clarity.

            Nothing for it. He sank back into his pillow with his eyes closed and let it wash over him, a river the size of the amazon, polluted, corrupted.

            Rick had believed himself to be beyond horror. He was wrong.

            The memory began with the girl, so close he could see the cracks in her screaming lips. Rick leaned in and took an enormous bite out of her face with a cavernous mouth, chewing it inches away from her. The image was so intense, complete with the rusty smell of fresh blood, that Rick pulled out mid recall and barely made it to the bathroom before he vomited.

            He held off for a day, his insides squirming whenever he thought of her missing cheek and shredded tongue. Oh God, it was so rich. Max experienced life on another level. The taste of her lingered in Rick’s mouth for the rest of the day. He gathered himself before the next attempt, and it was a ride, alright, the sickest he’d had yet – but at the end of it, something was different. He didn’t notice at first because once the girl was dead and Max performed an elaborate bow in front of a mirror there was no reason to keep remembering. He took a shower, let the high ebb, poured himself a drink. It’d been an expensive memory, but worth it.

            When the glass was half empty and his mind wandered over his past – or rather the past he’d bought and paid for – it occurred to him that he hadn’t seen everything. There was more to the memory Max had given him, an extra minute or two.

He ran through until he reached the part where Max had left the corpse in pieces on his kill room floor and bowed for Rick’s benefit. Everything grew fuzzy here, and Rick realised that this part hadn’t really happened at all. It was an imagined event, something Max must have added on at the last second, perhaps even while they’d been transferring. In the imagination, he straightened from the bow, scowled into the mirror, and spoke.

            ‘Sorry to intrude on you like this. I hope you enjoyed the show as much as I enjoyed making it. I didn’t want to say anything while you were here, because I know all about your friend, Alice. I got a call about you today. Someone tracked you down once they heard you were buying from me. I’m not happy about this, believe me, but I’ll let it go because you’re a high paying customer. Still, the next time anyone tries to use me as a messenger, mate, I’ll have you for my next meal.’ He smiled, the lower half of his face smeared with blood and not a trace of humour in his eyes.

            ‘Anyway. Here’s the message: 459 April Avenue, Haverbrook. I’ve got the memories you’re looking for. Don’t tell Alice, he’s a rat.’

            ‘So there you go. No hard feelings, Rick, I’m sure you didn’t know. Feel free to come back when you get hungry again.’ He winked. As hard as Rick searched, he couldn’t find anything else. As far as he could remember, that was when he’d blinked awake on the transferral chair.

            Rick came back to the present with a sourness in his belly and a bitter taste on his tongue. He finished his glass of scotch and regarded his pale reflection in the dark glass of his television set.

            ‘Damn.’

*

Quitting had been on his mind for some time, and after that scare, Rick gave it the best he had. Three days after he’d purchased the memory from Max the Mouth, he was browsing Mnet and came across Alice’s scowling face, featured in a recent news article titled: Another missing during Central’s worst crime wave.He didn’t read it.

            Fear was enough to keep him away from the Black Market. And after all, he had his memories. He’d always been in such a hurry to collect new ones, he’d never taken the time to peruse the ones he already had. Extreme sports, women, drugs, and of course the best ones: the murders and gun fights and even some war memories he’d bought from a homeless veteran.

            But like an alcoholic with a swollen liver, he had a tolerance for thrills that had grown beyond his capacity to enjoy them. It was no longer about the rush. It was about the sickness in a deep place in his heart, the mild nausea, the filling of a hole inside of him that grew larger the more he fed it. His recollections lost their intensity with each viewing. Even Max’s cherished abomination became almost boring with repetition, the same things being done over and over, the same screams, the same blood with the same taste.

            He needed freshness.

            More importantly, he needed something more.

            I’ve got the memories you’re looking for. Who was it? A seller even more extreme than Max the Mouth? The thought gave him chills. Did he even want to meet someone like that? At what was probably a secluded location, without Alice?

            Think of that rush, though. And the fact that Max hadn’t eaten the messenger alive was telling, too, considering what he’d probably done to Alice. Max obviously trusted whoever it was, and respected them enough to actually pass on the message.

            Rick’s mind turned and turned, but he was not making a decision – he was convincing himself to do what he already knew he was going to do. He was working himself up to it.

            Two weeks later, he called in sick and headed for 459 April Avenue, Haverbrook.

*

So this is the suburbs. Cramped houses and weedy gardens, pot holed asphalt roads winding through hills and valleys, old playgrounds, empty lots and construction sites. A wall of grey cloud cover cast everything in shade, but besides the occasional flurry of drizzle, the rain didn’t fall. The streets were empty.

            The house at the end of April Avenue did not look like the home of a successful memory dealer. It was a modest brick construction with a weedy driveway and barred windows. A weathervane in the shape of an owl creaked on the roof. Who had weathervanes anymore? The house must have been built a century ago. Rick idled in the car for twenty minutes, eyeing the place. He checked Mnet three times to make sure he was at the right address.

            The door had once been gleaming white, but it hadn’t been painted in a long time and what peeling strips remained were dusty yellow. He was hesitant to use the knocker, a lion’s head so rusty and disused it would crumble in his hand. He knocked three times.

            Fuck it. No turning back now. If the guy’s a creep just leave. He can’t be any worse than Max the Mouth. When he heard steps approaching from the other side – uneven clunks, someone limping – he called up everything he had from the cage fighter. He’d broken faces, he’d stomped on heads and watched teeth roll along the floor like marbles. He’d taken blows that would kill normal people. He could handle this.

            Two locks clicked and the door swung inwards. A yellow skinned zombie blinked at Rick. He was short, soft and flabby. His unfocused eyes had dark circles around them and his unwashed hair hung in pasty strands from his head. He regarded Rick for a long time, swaying on his feet, and when he spoke Rick smelt the overly sweet stench of bourbon breath. ‘Hey, Rick. You look well.’

            ‘Who the hell are you?’

            The guy smiled, his sparse black teeth a far cry from Max’s hungry grin. ‘What, you don’t remember little old Fred, Rick buddy? Didya sell me off too, you sick fuck?’

The cage fighter fresh in his mind, Rick stepped in, nudging the zombie aside, and looked around. Christ, and he thought Dennis lived rough. No carpets, holes in the walls, dust and spider webs everywhere. The only furniture was cheap and ancient: wooden chairs with cracked legs in the kitchen, a dusty television set and a couch with stained yellow cushions in the living room. An empty hallway stretched the length of the house, and Fred pushed past him and started down it, hands trailing along the walls for balance.

‘Where are you going?’ Rick called after him. Either the guy was crazy or Rick had really done business with him in the past. Possible, he supposed. Maybe he’d bought a bad quality memory and decided to sell it on to this nutcase.

‘I’d like to see you in my office, Rick,’ Fred said without looking around. ‘Be a doll and bring the six pack from the fridge, huh?’ He pushed open a door at the end of the dim hallway and staggered in.

Rick shook his head and went into the kitchen. The smell of mould and yeast choked him and he put a hand over his mouth. What a mess. Empty beer bottles and fast food boxes covered the floor. Cockroaches crawled over pizza crusts and broken glass, and one of the walls had a long brown stain that could have been blood. The only thing in good shape was the unopened six pack of Guinness in the fridge, and Rick immediately peeled the lid from one with his teeth and took a long draft.

‘Where the fuck am I?’ He considered leaving, walking away from this place and the Black Market altogether for good. Maybe he’d take a holiday, meet a girl, make some memories of his own. But they’d never compare.

Then the zombie called out to him in a harsh croak, ‘Riiiiiiiiiiiccccckkkkk,’ before breaking down in a bout of coughing and spluttering. No, he couldn’t leave yet – not until he found out who the hell this guy was and what memories he had. Rick had heard stories of people who sold their whole lives away so they could start fresh, and if anyone needed a fresh start, it was this guy.

He took another long swig of Guinness and snatched the pack off the counter. He headed down to the end of the hall, hesitated in the doorway, and entered.

*

Fred’s ‘office’ was in fact a transferral room. Two reclining chairs not unlike the kind at a dentists sat back to back, and above each hung a dusty helmet. The wires that connected them to the power point in the far corner were a coiled mess so ancient and tangled that touching it would be enough to fry you into a pile of ashy bones. There was no other furniture in the room, and Fred was lying back on one chair, looking up at the ceiling. He reached out for a bottle, and Rick gave him one and set the rest on the floor beside him.

            ‘Ahh, that hits the spot. Bourbon helps, you know, with the nightmares, but nothing fills you up like a stout. Meal in a bottle.’

            Rick didn’t reply. Soon as he found out what he needed to know, he was gone. Fred really was nuts if he thought Rick was going to get in that goddamn electric chair.

            ‘So you don’t remember me, huh?’ Fred asked him.

            ‘Should I?’

            Fred chuckled. ‘Nah, I guess not. You didn’t want anything to do with me once you paid me.’

            ‘I bought memories off you? Is that what this is? I took your cherished memories and now you’re a broken man and you want ‘em back? Hate to break it to you, Fred, but I don’t have a single memory with you in it. Whatever it was I must’ve sold it on and forgotten. Sorry.’

            He finished his stout and tossed it into a corner, ready to go, but then Fred started laughing. ‘No, man. I’m not buying, I’m selling, remember? I got the memories you want? That was the message.’

            ‘Yeah, well, I don’t wanna buy what you’re selling.’

            ‘Sure about that? I’ve been watching you for a while, Rick. I got a lot of things you probably didn’t want to give me. You vomited all that shit right into my brain, so I know a lot more about you than you realise. I had to keep an eye on you, see, cos I started to get it pretty quick, you know – I started to understand why you were so fucked up. And I understood something else about you, too. A fresh slate wasn’t going to last with you. You’re just you, Rick, you can’t run away from that.’

            ‘Hold on a second here,’ Rick said. He got a fresh Guinness, knowing he shouldn’t but doing it anyway, his mind working. ‘I paid you money… and I gave you memories?’

            Fred clapped his hands and pointed two fingers at Rick. ‘We have a winner. Yes you did, Rick, and in fact you actually paid me to take your memories away.’

            ‘That doesn’t make any sense, dumbass. Why would I pay someone to take my memories? There’s a whole Black Market for that shit. There’s only one kind of memory no one’s willing to buy, and those are the boring ones. So what did I give you, a trip to the dentist?’

            Fred shook his head, his bloodshot eyes swivelling around. ‘Oh, no Rick. No, no, you’re wrong about that. See, there is one very specific set of memories that couldn’t find a buyer for a long time until I came along. You were desperate by then, offering a lot of money to have that shit taken before the cops zeroed in, but the funny part was, in the whole Black Market full of people buying murders and tortures and all that, no one wanted to touch these babies.’

            Rick wanted to believe the guy was crazy, but the longer they spoke the less he truly believed it. But the things he was saying… ‘I’m no criminal. Besides, people buy that stuff all the time, cops or not. It’s too hard to track sold memories and you know it.’

            ‘Jesus Rick, are you hearing what I’m telling you? You’re so fucked up inside that even the most hard core slaughter fiends didn’t want your life. You had to find a sucker at the end of his rope like me to take it. Well I’m done, okay? I can’t handle this anymore. The nightmares. Those kids. Why’d you do that to those kids, Rick? Do you have any idea how many drugs I have to take to make it all go away? You gave me five million. Your life savings. You know how much is left? I’ll be lucky if I don’t fucking starve after this. So you’re gonna get in that chair, plug in, and take it all back. Your life, your memories, you.’

            Fred sucked in a deep breath and ran a hand through his hair. Tears were welled up under his lids, on the brink of spilling down his face.

            Rick didn’t move or speak; he was stuck. The right thing to do would be to turn and walk away from Fred, the Market, this whole life, and forget it ever happened. Only, you’ve done that before, haven’t you? Fred refused to look at him, but Rick stared him up and down, from his twitching restless feet to his yellow, drug wasted face. The dark appetite stirred, and rather than sympathy Rick felt only curiosity.

            These were the memories he’d been looking for, as promised. Didn’t it seem so right that they were his own? Whose life had he been living? Had he murdered the lawyer who owned the things he had now – the happy childhood, the stern parents who’d ultimately died in a car crash – and wasn’t that convenient? ‘I know who I am,’ he said quietly.

            ‘No you don’t,’ Fred said. ‘But I do.’

            His mouth was dry. He swallowed the rest of his bottle and set it down on the floor without picking up another one. The liquid was heavy in his stomach, slow burning, intensifying his hunger. For what? For whatever Fred’s got in that sick head of his. His visions, his evil, his nightmares. They belong to me.

            Rick stepped around and slid into the empty chair. He pulled the helmet down over his head and lay back, eyes closed. Fred connected the necessary wires, clicked things into place. The last thing he said to Rick, his voice hoarse with gratitude: ‘Thank you.’

*

His phone was ringing when he woke up. Work. Disoriented, eyes gummed shut, he answered.

            ‘Rick? Where the hell are you? If you’re sick you’re sick but if you don’t give notice again you’re done, understand? And don’t be sick in the first place. You had a meeting with Redman today, I had to blow him off. Where the hell are you, anyway?’

            Rick struggled into a sitting position, gasping as his hand landed on a pile of broken glass. He wiped his eyes and looked around. Some bedroom, a stained mattress in one corner, the floor as littered with bottles and junk as the kitchen had been. He was naked and covered from head to toe in dried blood.

            Fred’s head rolled out of his lap and onto a pizza box beside him, neck roughly severed by a broken stout bottle. That explained the bloody rag tied around his right hand. Oh. Hi, Fred. It was good to remember things.

            ‘I, ah… I don’t think I’m gonna be coming in to work, Phillip.’

            ‘What? Listen, Rick, I like you, but if you keep this bullshit up another day – ’

            ‘No, asshole. I said I’m Not Coming In To Work. Understand?’

            ‘Rick? Are you okay?’

            He staggered to his feet, kicking Fred’s head aside and wincing at the sharp pain in his big toe. Who knew such a flabby mess would have such a hard head? Damn, he had to find his clothes. Hopefully the house had running water, too.

            ‘My name isn’t Rick, Phil, okay? Rick’s dead. Rick quits. I’m Harold. Rick didn’t know how to have any fun, so I killed him.’

            ‘What the fuck? Okay, I’m coming over, like now.’

            ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea,’ Harold said. The grin on his face would have looked at home on Max the Mouth. ‘You do that.’ He dropped the phone.

            The house had a hot water shower, after all, though the tiles were thick with mould. It was like standing on moss, under a hot waterfall. After, Harold got dressed, feeling refreshed – alive. The grin was still on his face – he just couldn’t get rid of it.

            Everything had come out okay, in the end. He hadn’t lost any of Rick’s memories, so he could look back over the news reports from all that time ago, the ones relating to the man they’d called The Central Sicko, the most prolific violent killer in the City’s history. Attributed with kick starting Central’s biggest crime wave ever. Worked with the mob, they said. Involved in memory trafficking and drugs and weapons. They were wrong about that, though – he wouldn’t sell his memories for the world. Never again.

            He returned to the city, but didn’t bother stopping by Rick’s apartment. Everything he needed was in a bank account Rick had known nothing about, except the password, an eight digit pin that had stuck in his head like a catchy song. Turned out five million wasn’t his life savings, after all.

He laid low until the smog brought on an early nightfall and the sun disappeared for good, and then he put on a hat and a dark pair of sunglasses and headed out.

            The city was a jungle. Lights hanging from tall trees made of metal. Growling beasts stampeded the valleys between skyscraper mountains. Caves and dungeons and basements were everywhere, a million cracks through which a man could disappear. A thousand underworlds through which he could move. He was the panther, the lion, the killer, and they were the monkeys.

            He let his mind roll over some of the better memories, and the dark thing inside him stirred, hungry. But that was okay, because now he understood what it was. And he understood something far more important, something that Rick hadn’t.

            You couldn’t run away from yourself.

            He turned a corner, down a dark and familiar street, and the city swallowed him.  

The pool glowed blue in dusk light, every bit as beautiful as Kristen had promised. After the story she’d told him, of drowned children and a park closed many years ago, Luke couldn’t help wondering what lay beneath the surface. A light wind blew through pine canopies, but the thick trunks and steep slippery banks shielded the pool and not so much as a ripple crossed it.

            ‘Creepy, huh?’ Kristen was watching him, strands of dark hair falling across her green eyes. Luke shrugged. ‘It’s pretty cool, I guess.’

            ‘Pretty cool?’ She walked around it slowly, keeping back from the edge and peering inside. ‘It’s incredible. Just think about all of the death that’s happened in this one small circle of water. Most of them children. Come on, Luke, I thought you liked horror stories.’

            ‘Well, yeah. I mean, yeah, you know.’ He scratched his head, awkward. He remembered Vince slapping him on the back the day before. ‘Congrats, man,’ he’d said with a half smile. ‘There’s only one reason she’d be taking you up to that isolated spot all alone.’ And he’d given him an exaggerated wink. The idiot. Even if it was true, Luke had no idea what to do. Hey, wanna make out or what? Is that what the cool kids said?

            ‘You know, there’ve been disappearances around the area for decades. One every year or two, and the bodies never get found.’ She sat down on a rotted stump across the pool from him, broken in such a way that when she rested her back on the remains of the trunk it looked like a throne. ‘If you ask me, they’re all right there, in this pool.’

            He shivered and stepped closer to the bank, looking down at the source of what he was sure was an urban legend. It was a pond, except that it was too perfectly circular, and if you squinted you could see the mud around the edges was actually dirty concrete, the remnants of an old public swimming pool. He recalled the ruined fence they’d passed on the way in. No Admittance. Now no more than rusted, overgrown wire, strewn across the path.

            The water was black as coffee grounds, and when Luke leaned over it, he couldn’t see his reflection at all.

            ‘Dare me to jump in?’ She said, grinning.

            He laughed. ‘No way, are you crazy? You’ll freeze to death.’

            ‘What if I fell? Would you dive in and save me? Although, you should know – that’s exactly how one couple died not long after the place got closed.’

            He was making his way around the pool, thinking if he could just get close enough to her she might make the first move. Vince was right – he was getting signals from her: the way she looked at him, the way she smiled and listened so intently. Or was she just being friendly? But she stood up as he came over and stepped away. A long fallen branch lay nearby, the end of which hung over part of the pool. She stepped onto it, balancing with her arms outstretched.

            ‘I wonder how deep it goes,’ she said.

            He watched her, hunched over with his hands in his pockets. ‘It was just a swimming pool, wasn’t it? Can’t be that deep.’

            ‘No, silly. It wasn’t just a swimming pool. It was a Death Pool. A pool of the dead. I bet it goes all the way down to hell.’ She looked up from the branch and gave him a crooked smile. Man, she was a twisted chick. Luke found he didn’t care. He was a high school boy who’d never so much as kissed a girl. She could have been freshly escaped from a mental asylum and he’d have been just as eager. If this was her idea of a date, so be it – she was just a horror fan like him.

            ‘So, this is it, huh? You took me out here just to show me this?’

            ‘Not just.’ She took another couple of steps along the branch, focussing on her feet. ‘But I thought you’d appreciate it.’

            ‘Yeah? I mean, it’s pretty beautiful. Like you.’ She burst out laughing and he felt his face redden. Holy shit, that was corny. Why would I say that?

            ‘You’re cute, Luke Freeman. But I didn’t take you here to make out.’ She took another couple of steps, now on the part of branch overhanging the pool. ‘I just wanted to show you how cool this place was, cos you have the same taste in horror movies as me.’

            ‘Oh. I mean, yeah I know, I was just messing around.’

            ‘The making out we can do later.’

            He opened his mouth to respond and then closed it again, his heart pumping faster than it had watching Hellraiser at age seven. She was kept her eyes on the branch, but she was grinning. She seemed so confident. Had she been with guys before? A girl as pretty as her, she had to be. She was playing with him, not that he cared a damn.

            ‘Well, it’s getting dark,’ he ventured. ‘Maybe we should head back.’

            ‘Okay, in a bit. Reckon I can make it all the way to the end?’

            He eyed the end of the branch uneasily. It didn’t look stable, although she was pretty light and small. Just tell her it’s too risky. But he didn’t want to sound like a sissy, so he just shrugged. ‘Yeah, maybe.’

            One more step. Another. The heavy base of the branch lifted a little off the ground and she swayed, but didn’t fall.

            ‘Be careful,’ he said, trying not to sound as worried as he was. She was doing it on purpose, of course, testing him. All he could think about were the creepy stories she’d told him – of grown men diving under and never coming out.

            ‘If I fall in, would you save me?’ She said.

            ‘Why, can’t you swim?’

            ‘What if I couldn’t?’

            ‘Then, uh, yeah, sure I would.’

            She smiled wider and took another step, one more from the end of the branch. ‘You wouldn’t be scared?’

            He laughed. ‘No way. It’s just water. It’ll take more than your stories to make me scared of a swimming pool.’

            She gave a mock sigh. ‘My hero.’

            He grinned, his stomach doing a pleasant backflip even though he knew she was teasing him. If she got her clothes wet, she’d have to get changed. And his house was close to here, just the twenty minute walk down the path.

            ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘here goes.’

            She lowered her foot lightly onto the end of the branch and shifted some of her weight on to it, neither of them daring to breathe. She was directly over the middle of the pool now, its surface so still and black Luke wondered if it might even be solid. Maybe that was the game she was playing – she’d step off the end onto hard ground and then laugh at the look on his face. He loosened up at the thought, and his eyes darted up to her face and then to her shapely ass, a guilty smile on his face. As Vince would have said, that girl was fine.

            She lifted her foot and turned to head back.

The branch rolled.

            Her right foot slipped on the rotted bark and she went down with a high pitched whoop! And then she disappeared in a splash of thick black water, some of it spattering Luke’s face.

            He stood, frozen, his heat racing, expecting her to come gasping to the surface any second.

            One of her hands came up, covered in a black paste. The pool wasn’t really filled with rainwater as Luke had initially thought – it was thick sludge, with a few inches of rainwater over the top. He came forward as far as he dared, keeping one foot on the bank and planting the other on the branch so that he could lean forward. ‘Kristen!’ He wanted badly to believe it was a joke, that she was keeping herself just below the surface with her hand up, resisting the urge to laugh.

            But it was no joke. Her hand was sinking, small waves lapping at her wrist and then her palm, the weight of her clothes dragging her down. He reached for her but couldn’t get close, not unless he either dove in himself or left the bank and moved along the branch. Didn’t someone say never to let a drowning person grab hold of you? He stood half in and half out, staring at her sinking hand, undecided. She could swim, couldn’t she?

            Grab her! Just wade in and pull her up! He couldn’t do it. He imagined thick mud sucking at his chest, his neck. Her pale desperate hand taking hold of his and pulling him down with her. I bet it goes all the way down to hell.

             Only the tips of her fingers were visible now.

            Too late, he thought of the branch. It was heavy, but he’d be able to move it. He turned away from the pool and grabbed the base, pushing it so that the twisted branches at the tip rolled closer to her hand. Twice his feet lost purchase in the mud and he slid to his knees. When he looked over after the second time, he couldn’t see her at all.

            Shit, shit, shit. He got behind the branch and lifted it so that the end dipped into the muck where she’d gone under. Please oh please grab it, just feel the branch and grab hold.

            A minute passed, and Kristen hadn’t surfaced. Luke lowered the branch and stared at the pool, breathing hard. If he dialled now, emergency services could get here in twenty or twenty five minutes. They’d be looking for a body.

            She might be unconscious now, but still alive. She can’t be that far down. Just go in a bit and feel around for her hand. Do that at least.

             She’d told him about two brothers from way back in the fifties. Ten and eight years old, they’d sneaked in for a swim soon after the pool was closed off. Both strong swimmers. Both found floating the next day. Just a story.

            Luke crouched down by the side of the pool, searching for any sign of her pale skin. He saw nothing beneath the swirling mud. Another minute passed.

            And another. The trees were silent, as though they were holding their breath along with her. But not forever.

            He opened his phone and dialled 000 with shaking fingers. Had a conversation with the operator he couldn’t remember a word of later.  

            Then he put his head in his hands and cried.

*

 He was there, his parents and Kristen’s beside him, when the police fished for her body with what basically amounted to sticks and cameras. Visibility was zero, and they couldn’t send divers because the mud was too thick. They dredged it, and found that most of the pool’s concrete base had long ago crumbled away. The bottom was non-existent, and there was no telling how deep the sinkhole went. Most likely the sludge they’d sucked out would be replaced within the next week or so.

            When they told her parents that her body would likely never be recovered, the sounds of their hysterical weeping ate into Luke’s brain and settled there for good. He heard it that night before he went to sleep, and every night of his life afterwards. They hugged him and told him they didn’t blame him. She’d gone under far too quickly. He was soaked with mud up to his chest and they thanked him for trying. Her father, a tradesman with a stiff grey beard, shook his hand and said in a thick, restrained voice, ‘You were brave to go in as deep as you did, son.’

            The police questioned him for a nerve racking hour, but despite his fears they wrote him off as a distraught witness to a terrible accident, not a suspect. He returned home with his worried parents, who consoled him and got pizza for dinner and told him these things happen, and it wasn’t your fault, and try not to think about it too much. He found a way to fall asleep, and the sun rose the following day just like on any other.

            And just like that, a girl was dead, and the world went on.

            He had breakfast, went for a long walk – nowhere near the pool, of course, and read light hearted comic books. That night, rain fell, and the old swimming pool would be filling up, and Kristen’s boot prints would be washed away, and it would be as though she’d vanished completely from the face of the earth.

*

Their weeping hadn’t been the kind of high pitched wailing they show in movies. It had been low, husky crying, the kind that scratched vocal chords and left you short of breath. The father had been silent, tears streaming down his drawn face against his will. Luke hadn’t had to listen for long, but he listened plenty now, in the early hours of the morning, a long way from sunrise.

            He tossed for the hundredth time, then rolled onto his back and opened his sore eyes. It was the sixth day since she’d died, and he’d slept a grand total of about eighteen hours. The insomnia only made things worse, because his mind tried to dream while he was awake, and as a result the weeping grew louder and more vivid with time. Staring at the ceiling at night, he even saw things: her pretty pale face smiling at him from the ceiling, for example. Then he’d look closer and see it was only the round light seeming to glow in the dark.

            ‘Screw this.’ He threw off his blanket. If he was going to be awake, he might as well do something.

            As soon as he got out of bed the air chilled him to the bone. The heater was on but it only ever managed to warm the ground floor. Maybe he’d have a shower. A long, hot shower, until steam rose from his skin. That would surely make him tired. Except the sound of water hitting tiles might wake up his parents. A bath, then. He could just lie in it in the brightly lit bathroom and drift for a while.

            There was something comforting about the sound of the bath filling up and being in the cosy, clean bathroom, and by the time he slid into scalding hot water he was smiling. He rested his neck on the lip of the tub and relaxed, letting utter silence and heat engulf him.

            He heard her laugh. Definitely in his mind, nothing but a phantom sound, but his exhaustion had him permanently at the threshold of dream world and the laugh was almost loud in his ears, a real thing. He took a deep breath and slid further down, letting the water come up to his chin. It was the perfect temperature – so hot that when he moved it hurt.

            I wonder how deep it goes?

             He closed his eyes. Maybe if he could just fall asleep here in this warmth and light he wouldn’t dream about her.

            I wonder what it was like to drown? Did she try to hold her breath or did she give up once she was too far down? She didn’t strike him as the type to give up. He imagined her struggling against the mud, her clothes weighing her down, the sludge pushing on her. Had her eyes been open or closed?

            He sucked in a deep breath and went all the way under, bracing himself against the side of the tub so he stayed down, his hair swaying a little in the water. It felt nice. If this was what it was like to float in one of those sensory deprivation tanks, he could see the appeal.

            He remembered how her hand had stuck stubbornly out of the water, open and waiting. 

            There’s a moment of despair, he heard her voice speaking in his ear as though she were right next to him. It occurred to him that he didn’t even know her well enough to be sure it was the right voice. He thought she’d sounded like that, but maybe he was getting it wrong. He’d never know.

            When you fight and keep going down, and then you realise no one’s going to grab your hand. Your stomach drops, like it does in a roller coaster. And it’s like, you just get it, you know? You just think, Oh, I’m going to die now.

            His lungs were complaining. Soon he’d get to the part where his chest started seizing up, his body trying to force him to open his mouth and gasp. Had she left it that late, or had she tried to get it over with once she was too deep, just one long pull and that was it? He’d heard somewhere that the urge to breathe came not from lack of oxygen but an abundance of carbon dioxide. As long as you exhaled and then filled your lungs with something, you’d lose the desire to breathe. A lot of drowning survivors reported a certain calmness after that first lungful.

            Oh, relief, sure. Once your body stops screaming at you to get air and your lungs aren’t burning up, there’s plenty of physical relief. But that’s when the panic really sets in, because then you know it’s happening for sure. Everything’s dark, but big black patches start appearing everywhere, not just in your eyes but in your mind. And your heart goes crazy, not beating properly, and all you can think is that it’s happening, you’re dying now and there’s nothing you can do, and it’s just totally fucking horrible.

            His eyes were squeezed tight, his hands fists against the tub. He almost wanted to unclench his jaw and let hot water pour straight into his lungs. Maybe he deserved it. If he’d just had the balls to wade in a little, one hand on that big branch, and grab her hand. If he’d gone for it in those first seconds…

            WHY DIDN’T YOU TAKE MY HAND?

             The water changed in a split second, just as he was on the point of letting go and coming back up for air. From hot to ice cold, and so thick it was as though thousands of litres of it were somehow packed together in the same tub, pushing on all sides. When he opened his eyes it was so pitch black that for a minute he couldn’t be certain he was here at all but out there in the pool, and he fought, reaching for the side of the tub to haul himself out.

            He got his head up at last and sucked in delicious steamy air. He tried to plant his foot underneath him so he could stand, but his legs extended fully, past where the bottom of the bath should have been, until they were kicking blindly in unknown depths, and still he couldn’t see for the mud in his eyes. Hands grabbed at his ankles, opening and closing, grazing his soles with fingertips as though they were stretching up but couldn’t reach high enough.

            He heaved himself over the side of the bathtub, his lower half coming free with a sucking sound, and rolled across the tiles. He wiped his face and crawled backwards until his back was against the bathroom door and then he just stared, sucking air as though he’d run a marathon.

            There was no mud, nor mud trail. The bath was pristine, clear water lapping over the sides in his wake.

            He was so cold, and no steam rose either from his body or the bath. Shivering, goosebumps raising on his skin, he got up and went over to look. Everything was normal: white porcelain and silver taps. He even dared, now that his heart was settling, his mind already rationalizing what must have happened, to reach in and pull the drain. The water was freezing cold, but of course that made sense, because he’d fallen asleep, hadn’t he?

            Underwater?

            He dried himself off and walked back to his bedroom, where he lay awake until early morning, with both the ceiling light and bedside lamp on, and his ears tuned for a voice that didn’t speak.

*

His parents watched him closely, trying to be inconspicuous and achieving the opposite. Finally, when Luke caught his mother casting him a worried look for the hundredth time, he fixed her with a dark look and said: ‘What?’

            She sighed and folded her hands in front of her. ‘I’m sorry, Luke. It’s just… I think you need to see someone.’

            ‘I don’t need to see someone, mum. I’m fine, just tired.’

            ‘Oh? Why’s that? Wouldn’t be because you were having a bath at three in the morning, and your light was still on when I got up at five thirty? Do you even sleep anymore?’

            ‘Sorry I woke you. I just wanted to warm up a bit.’

            ‘Luke, I’ve never seen you this depressed. I know it’s been horrible but you really have to talk about it. If you don’t want to talk to me, see a psychiatrist. We’ll field the bill, whatever. Just do something.’

            ‘I’m fine.’

            ‘Luke.’ She knitted her brow and leaned forward, as if she was about to tell him a secret. ‘I’ve been reading here for three and a half hours now.’

            ‘So?’

            ‘You’ve been staring at the wall without moving since I sat down.’

            ‘Oh.’

            So he went to see a psychiatrist.

            Gregory Tillman was a rational, attentive man with a perpetually concerned expression, glasses, and a build that made his suit looked like it was stuffed with wooden planks. He also had a clipped grey beard and the soft reasonable voice of a scientist. Luke liked that. If anyone could tell him that he wasn’t crazy, it was a man of science, right?

            ‘You’re not crazy,’ Tillman said after Luke told him everything that had happened.

Luke let out the breath he’d been holding and nodded. ‘Yeah, I know, I guess. I just wish I could sleep a little. When does that get better?’

‘Well, that’s a tricky one. Now, I could prescribe you some low strength medication and see if it helps, but… I’m not convinced it will, Luke.’

‘Why not?’

‘Sleep is a funny thing. There are some people out there who’ve completely lost the ability to sleep. The most, uh, afflicted insomniacs can even die from sleep deprivation over a long enough period. The fascinating thing is that only in rare cases are the reasons physiological, say in the case of the badly placed brain tumour or something similar.’

He saw the look on Luke’s face and chuckled. ‘Not to worry, that wasn’t what I was thinking at all. Quite the opposite. You strike me as a classic case of survivor guilt. And since that’s a psychological issue, it won’t be resolved with mere sleep aids.’

‘Survivor guilt.’

‘Yes. The things you say you saw in the bathtub were of course hallucinations brought on by your lack of sleep. But waking hallucinations are your mind trying to dream, and what interests me more is the nature of what you saw. The hands grabbing at your feet, Kristen yelling the words “Why me” into your ear, suggest that you feel guilty to have lived while she died. In addition, the muddy water and general feeling of terror you describe tells me you’re feeling a lot of fear right now. Am I close to the mark?’

Why didn’t you take my hand? ‘Yeah, right on.’

Tillman nodded to himself, took of his glasses and tapped them thoughtfully against his crossed knee. ‘Tell you what I’m going to suggest, and you don’t have to do this, but I really do believe it will help. Say the word and I’ll prescribe those meds, but I think you should try this first: go down to that pool – not too close mind you – and just be there for a while.’

‘You want me to go back?’ His mouth suddenly a little dry.

‘Take a friend with you. Do not on any account go near the water, Luke, though I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that. The reason I suggest this is threefold. One, you’ll face your fear, and see that the pool, while dangerous, is not going to find you and kill you. In the end, it’s just a pool. Two, you can create new, happier memories with your friend. Explore the surrounding area, talk about something pleasant, whatever. Three, you can think about what happened, and realise that really it was just an accident. And if you need anyone to tell you that, son, I will swear on my grandfather’s grave that there wasn’t a thing you could have done. You certainly did more than I would have in your place.’

Luke gave him an appreciative smile.

‘I’ll think about it, I guess. Thanks.’

‘I’m glad to hear it, Luke.’

Just before he left, he turned at the door, something nagging at him. ‘Would it be okay if you prescribed me some of those sleep meds, anyway?’ he said.

*

He went.

            Alone, at dusk, the sky just the same mixture of grey and white it had been on the day, the mud just as wet beneath his feet.

            It had taken him most of the previous day and double the recommended dosage of sleeping pills to work up the courage. They hadn’t worked, of course, but for the two hours he did sleep his dreams had been more alive and terrifying than any he’d ever had. In one of them, he was the one sinking and Kristen stood on the bank, waving him goodbye with a sad smile on her face. The other dreams were variations of what followed: he sank deeper and deeper, fighting the dense mud and getting nowhere, suffocating but never quite dying. He woke tied up in his blankets and face down on his pillow. The air tasted stale.

            He left the house with narrowed eyes and a confident stride, hands jammed in his pockets. With each step he grew more certain that Tillman had been right: he just needed to face his fears, prove he wasn’t a coward, that he couldn’t have done anything anyway. Prove that she was really gone.

            By the time he was halfway there, the tall trees having long ago obscured the house behind him, the familiar smell of wet pine needles and muddy water permeating the air, he’d lost a lot of his bluster. He caught himself moving warily, tiptoeing. He was primed for unusual sounds, laughter perhaps. He scanned the surrounding trees as though someone might be waiting behind one of the thick trunks.

            He came to the rusted fence and looked down at it. The final threshold. A minute or so walking, round a bend or two, and he’d be at the pool. He could see it in his mind as clearly as if he were there now, so perfectly round and black, like an enormous eye reflecting the endless leagues of space.

            She would be there – he was sure of that. He would come into the clearing and she would be sitting in that broken stump – the one that looked like a throne. Not quite the same as he’d last seen her. No, she would be drenched in a coat of mud so thick it was like a second skin, and though her eyes would be open, seeing him, they would just look like two pools of sludge in her face. When she opened her mouth to accuse him of his crime, more would pour out, along with twigs and worms and a rotted tongue.

            Then she would come for him.

            He closed his eyes, a feat of courage in itself, and counted to twenty – another suggestion of Tillman’s. Then, he whispered: ‘It’s okay. You got this. Just one more minute, and you’ll see it’s all in your head.’

            Then he opened his eyes.

            The rusty fence lay before him, and the path winding onward until it turned a bend a few meters ahead. That part of the path was mostly shielded by trees, and not so damp, but it was wet enough for someone in shoes to leave prints. They were small prints, left by a short man, or perhaps a tall girl. They led towards him, away from the pool, which was odd, because to his knowledge this path was the only way to and from the clearing.

            No way, that can’t be – there has to be another way up. Think rationally. But it was hard to be rational when you were looking right at these prints and thinking they could have easily fitted the shoes Kristen had been wearing that day…

            She called to him, on the wind. A distant shout, an indecipherable word. He couldn’t be certain that it was her voice, or his name she was calling, so faint was the sound. But it was her, wasn’t it?

            Luke started back at a fast walk, which soon turned into a slow jog. He glanced over his shoulder every few steps, and followed the prints all the way down the path. How had he not seen them on the way up? He’d been too busy looking at the trees. The shoeprints were visible among his own all the way back.

            No phantom girls followed him back, and when the trees thinned and he made it back to the grassy slope, his house clearly visible at the base, something in him unclenched and he slowed to a walk. You’re a coward. You’re nuts, man. You gotta get your shit together.

            But he didn’t turn back. Instead, he caught his breath and rubbed his eyes and followed the prints. They were harder to see in the grass, but there weren’t any others to confuse them but his own, after all, which were too big. By now, he was sure they weren’t hers anyway – that was ridiculous – so he expected to see them curve at his back fence and follow the gravel path back to the road.

            They didn’t curve away, but headed straight down the hill to the gated wooden fence that marked Luke’s backyard. Do they stop here, though? He wanted to leave it there, to go inside and turn on the television and not think about anything for the rest of the day. But a thought had settled in his brain, the kind that would nag and nag until he put it to rest, so he went around the house to the narrow muddy stretch on the side which held the big metal gas heater and the plumbing pipes and compost heap.

            The prints were much clearer here, but he only needed to find them in one place for his fears to be confirmed, and there they were. Two clearly defined prints, these ones quite deep, set in the mud by the pipes. When he looked up, he saw a tiny square window on the second floor.

            It was the bathroom window.

*

He spent most of the day in a state of helpless terror. He couldn’t show his parents the prints. Whether they were there or not didn’t matter – it was what they meant. She was after him, and no one, least of all the ever reasonable Dr. Tillman, was going to believe him. He hadn’t slept in over a week, nor gone to school. He wasn’t answering Vince’s calls, texting back I’m fine, just need time. He was depressed, lazy, tired, and barely existed in this world any more. He wasn’t himself because he was half insane, and they could all see it, and that was what they would say.

            But just because he was insane did not mean he wasn’t also right, did it? Maybe he was insane because he was right.  

            Four in the morning crept along. It wasn’t raining yet but a heavy wind outside made the whole house creak and shift on its foundations. He had the curtains drawn and made sure all the lights in the house were off. He’d also dropped three times the recommended dosage of sleeping pills, just in case. Despite them, his whole body was tense, his eyes flashing open at the slightest sound.

            Somehow in his paranoia and madness, sleep descended on him by inches, sneaking closer each time he shut his eyes and tossed in his bed, pulling him down into himself to show him things he didn’t want to see.

            He was in this state, halfway between alertness and total coma, when something knocked lightly on his window. It was not in time with the intermittent gusts of wind, and too precise to be natural: three quick knocks, then a silence, as though waiting for someone to answer.

            For a long time he was paralysed by fear, lying rigid straight in his bed and listening. The knocks continued, so regular that after a while he got to thinking maybe it was something real, and not a soft, dead hand. It would be impossible to sleep until he saw what it was, and Luke eventually found the courage to stand up and walk over to the window.

Knock, knock, knock. Pause. He drew back the curtains.

            It was her. Not the rotting mud thing he’d dreaded, but really Kristen, wearing the same clothes and mischievous expression he remembered. She lifted the window with her slender arms, letting in the night air, and his first thought was whether she would be cold to touch.

            This time, he didn’t feel terror at seeing her – only relief and something else very familiar, his heart leaping inside him, a warm stirring in him at the sight of her red lips and the way she smiled at him as she floated in through the window.

            ‘Are you okay? He hadn’t meant to speak, but the words escaped him. Full of concern for her, and the desire he’d felt so strongly that day.

            ‘I am, for now,’ she said, but her smile faded quickly. ‘But I’m so lonely out there.’

            ‘I’m sorry. I wanted you, you know. I really did.’ She smelled strongly of pine needles and bark.

            ‘Then why didn’t you do anything, Luke? Why didn’t you…’

            ‘I just don’t want to die. I got scared.’

            ‘No, Luke, no.’ She reached forward and wiped a tear from his eye, and he’d been right – she was cold, though that fact only served to make him wonder if he could make her warm. ‘Not that. I meant you should have kissed me.’

            She was close now, her icy hand settling on the back of his neck, and he met her dark green eyes. This was it, his chance. His heart was flying now, but from excitement instead of fear, and he leaned forward and kissed her, one hand sliding under her shirt and across the freezing skin of her lower back.

            Her tongue tasted like dirt and metal as it slid across his, and then deeper into his mouth and slowly down his throat and inside him like a snake, the base of it growing thicker until it pushed his jaw wide open. He tried to scream and couldn’t, grabbed her head and pulled at it, but her arms were tight around his body, pressing him close to her.

            Her head crumpled and followed her tongue down his throat, the rest of her body folding in like a deflating balloon as her guts ascended through her neck. Luke gagged, his whole body heaving as it tried to expel the mass expanding in his belly. Her clothes and skin rose up into his distended jaw before he could grab them and he collapsed, mouth still open and begging for air.

            It didn’t come. He clutched his belly, painfully stretched as though he were pregnant, and tried desperately to breathe, but part of her was lodged in his airway and wouldn’t come loose. Slow seconds of this hell passed, and he flopped helplessly on his bedroom carpet, wanting so badly to scream and being unable, until dark circles closed in around his vision and made him blessedly senseless.

*

The pain didn’t go away when he woke. If anything, it was worse, and as soon as he extricated his gasping mouth from his pillows he rolled out of bed clutching his lower abdomen. When the initial disorientation cleared away, he was relieved to discover that he knew what hurt so bad – and it was decidedly more natural than the corpse of a dead girl in his belly: he had to pee, badly.

            He didn’t know what time it was, but the house was dark and he did his best to tiptoe on the way to the bathroom. By the time he reached it, he was doubled over and had to put a hand out against the wall to steady himself before he unleashed.

            It was then, as he was beginning to believe that none of it had happened, that it had in fact been only a nightmare, the nightmare continued. At first, it was as though the sheer pressure on his bladder made it more difficult to urinate, but when he did at last manage it he found a more horrifying reason. Instead of urine, black sludge oozed forth in a thick stream.

            He gritted his teeth against a scream as he watched foul smelling discharge leak into the bowl, litre after litre easing the internal strain with agonizing effort. His forehead was drenched in cold sweat when he staggered back out into the hall and headed downstairs, leaning heavily on the banister though the pain had passed.

            I’m going insane. This is what madness is.

He had to do something, and he had to do it now. Tillman said his hallucinations would only get worse the longer he went without sleep. The way it was going, he would lose his mind completely long before that. Then and there, he decided he would go up the hill once again.

            He would face his fear.

*

Four sleeping pills later, he headed out. It was just before dawn, the grey light and shadow identical to dusk. Or maybe it was dusk, and the sun would go down when he reached the pool and leave him in darkness. Forget it, you’re going. I don’t care how scared you get, you’re going. Don’t go for you, go for her. You owe it to her.

            He’d thrown on a coat and track pants but his feet were bare – cold and slippery in the mud. The time it would have taken to put on his shoes would have been enough for his determination to vanish. This time, he didn’t look around, but kept his eyes on the path just in front of him, his hood muffling his ears, fists clenched in his jacket pockets. He didn’t dare stop for a moment, or look over his shoulder: such things would destroy this false courage as easily as sword might sever a fishing line.

            Do it for her, do it for her. He passed the broken fence in a stride and kept walking. Something in him let go. He imagined a suicide jumper might feel the same way after his feet left the ledge. Point of no return. It was this or madness. 

            He made it to the clearing, stopping only when his bare feet sunk up to his ankles in the soft muddy banks. He was here: the Dreaded Place, the Evil Pool. For a long minute he didn’t move, just looked. She was down there, somewhere. Kristen, his first love: dark humoured, smiling, mischievous, beautiful.

            And she was dead. She was rotting, probably nothing but bones by now, and this was just a pool, and his bath was just a bath, and he was just a sad boy who hadn’t had enough sleep.

He let out a breath he didn’t know he was holding, and flipped the hood off his head so he could see better. The pool remained still and impenetrable. The police had dragged the branch away before cordoning off the area, but apart from that it looked just as it on that day.

The day he didn’t save her.

            She was sitting on the rotted throne, leaning back, her arms resting on the bark, and smiling as if to say I’m so glad you came.

The image vanished as soon as it appeared. He wondered if it was the last time he’d ever see her. Just like Tillman assured him, the fear and stress of the previous days fell away from him with each passing minute. He shook his head, hot tears burning in the corner of his eyes.

            ‘Goodbye, Kristen,’ he whispered. ‘I’m sorry.’ Already he felt the weight of his tiredness on his mind. He wanted to lie down right there and go to sleep.

            A delicate hand rose from the depths in the middle of the pool. Her fingers, open and pleading, followed by her smooth white palm.

            It’s just a hallucination. Your own memory playing tricks on you. The sleeping pills. Face your fears, Tillman said. Luke watched Kristen’s hand, half expecting it to disappear, or descend, or do something more, but it did nothing. She waited, her hand motionless, patient.

            Luke took a step forward, and then another, his lower body sinking into deep mud, but not yet so deep he wasn’t sure he could get out. He could reach her from here, and he did, his cold hand closing on her wet one and squeezing it.

            She pulled at him, but he couldn’t raise her, so he ventured just a little deeper. I won’t give up on you this time. I’ve got you, Kristen. I’ll never let go.

             She pulled harder and he had time for a quick breath before the mud climbed his neck and up his face. He sank, letting her lead him down through meters of black mud, pressure building on all sides as his ears and eyes and mouth filled up. He took it into his aching lungs, and still he kept a tight hold of her hand and followed her down, down to where the mud was warmer and other bodies and hands floated past him and touched him as though meeting him for the first time.

            He descended further, past the dead, and found her eager lips at last, welcoming him.

            Luke drifted with her, and at long last, with the company of the dead, he slept.

Dear Ma and Pa,

I am almost at the front lines now. Some of the guys are still smiling and cracking jokes, but not so much now as we can smell the battlefield up ahead. They say a hundred thousand or more have already died there. I don’t want to make you worry or nothing, but some of the other guys are writing their last letters home just in case, and I thought I would do the same. We are still quite far back, so who knows? Maybe there will be a breakthrough and we won’t get to see any action at all. Part of me hopes not, thought. I intent to take at least one Jerry for you and Mary before I come home, so you’ll be proud of me and know I did my part. Hope all’s well at home,

Love, Johnny

‘Just imagine what kinda stuff we can dig up! If we find a skull I get first dibs!’

     Dougie had never seen Eric so wild eyed and excited before, and that was saying something. He was a wild boy to begin with: he hadn’t climbed a tree until he was right out there on the tiniest, topmost branch with the wind in his face, hadn’t played a game of soccer until he was bloody and covered in mud. Right now, he was gunning the pedals of his bike so fast Douglas was pushing himself to the limit just to keep up, eyes watering, both of them laughing with excitement.

     Thankfully, it wasn’t far, though they had to get off their bikes at the base of a grassy hill and push them up to the top, where a thin line of pines kept the field out of sight of the road. No wonder Dougie had never noticed it before.

     Not that he would have known what it was, in any case.

     ‘It just looks like a muddy old field,’ Eric said, still huffing from exertion.

     ‘Well… It’s a battlefield, anyway,’ Dougie said, although he could see what Eric meant: the field, stretching for acres and acres in either direction and ending in another hill lined with pines about a kilometre opposite them, amounted to little more than an enormous mud puddle. Dougie wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. Big bomb craters with rusted helmets and bones sticking out of the muck, he supposed. According to one of the letters in the suitcase – he’d only read two before he’d found the map and recognized some of the place names and run off – over a hundred thousand people had died in this area. It seemed incredible that there could be so little left. He shivered.

     ‘I guess we might as well check it out, anyway,’ Eric said, though he sounded somewhat disheartened.

     ‘Yeah. There’s gotta be something cool. There’s gotta be.’ Dougie said.

     Eric had managed to cram his father’s gardening spade into his backpack, the handle sticking out and comically knocking him on the back of the head as he rode. He took it out now and they started down the long slope. A slope which, a hundred years ago, men had raced down, screaming, guns in hand, while shells erupted all around them and bullets flew and death waited at the bottom.

     ‘There’s gotta be something cool,’ Dougie said again.

Dear Ma and Pa,

I am a little worse for wear but still all in one piece, you will be happy to know. It really is rough out here, and we’re not even all the way at the front lines. Close enough, if you ask me. There’s mud over everything, all the time. Our uniforms were shining new a month ago, now you can hardly recognize any of us. No one is getting any sleep, because the shelling is so loud. I didn’t know that many bombs existed in the world, they’re going off a hundred a second all day long, it seems. I think I will feel a lot better when we are all up there and firing our guns instead of marching and marching with dread in our hearts. Got to go, Will Carraway just got in with some rations and even wine. Cheers, hope you all are ok.

Love, Johnnie.

Despite his reluctance, Eric was the first to start down the slope, spade hefted over his shoulder and his other hand outstretched. Dougie watched him, chewing his lip, not understanding the sour dread that welled in the pit of his stomach. He felt nervous – almost as nervous as the time they made everyone do speeches in class and he dropped his notes. He had a powerful urge to run behind one of the tall trees and squat, sure his lunch would emerge in churning liquid form.

     But instead he cracked his knuckles and followed his friend down to the grassy field. Scaredy Cat. Though why he should be afraid of something that a minute ago had been nothing but a source of excitement, he didn’t know. It was just a feeling, that was all.

     They made their way about a quarter of the distance to the opposite hill, to where the mud was thick and deep enough to suck their boots in past the ankle, and then began to dig around with their spades. They hadn’t been there long before a large cloud passed in front of the sun and the wind carried the first drizzling drops of a light rain their way.

     ‘Bloody hell,’ Eric said, staring up at the sky, dismayed. ‘It was sunny a second ago.’

     ‘We’ve got to go deeper, that’s all,’ Dougie said. He believed it, too. Just like the gambler who’s sure to win the next big hand, he felt a keen hope with each shovelful of sludge he tossed aside, squinting into the little holes he made for the white gleam of bone or, perhaps the grey of rusted metal. A hundred thousand dead, he thought, not for the first or last time. A hundred thousand. They kept digging.

     ‘Tell you what, if I don’t get at least a – ’ The words caught cold in his throat.

     He’d stopped for a second to wipe the sweat from his brow and straighten his back, but when he’d turned his head to the hill from which they’d come he’d caught sight of a dead man.

     A long dead man. A soldier. He had his rifle right there, loosely couched against his hip, and a helmet that hung lopsided on his head. His head was lopsided, too, his skull sloping to one side and the flesh seeming to hang loosely from the other, making his empty eye sockets droop and his black half rotted lips droop down at the corners. A cigarette hung from them. His uniform was muddy rags hanging from a skeletal body. He did not move.

     ‘What?’ Eric said, still digging.

     ‘Eric.’ But Dougie’s voice came out whisper thin and anyway it was drowned out by a roll of thunder. No, not thunder, a nasty thought struck him: Shells. The soldiers called them drum mortars because they landed so fast and heavy it was like a drum roll. Rolling across the land, turning living breathing men into so much minced meat. All true, he knew, and it was a truth that was coming to him straight from the black eyes of the soldier on the hill. Not completely black, though… they had a point of light in them, far far back inside, like the pinpoint of light you might see from the very bottom of a deep well. But there was so much in that light, so much…

     He looked away, and it was a good thing, too, or he wouldn’t have seen the hand reaching up out of the hole he’d dug a second ago. It reached for him with yellow nails, some of which were bent backward in the beds, and soft green skin covered in blisters. It touched him for a split second and he felt the skin on his shin, just above the boot. It was too soft, sliding, blisters bursting and pus leeching out when he pulled away, mind blank with terror.

     He stumbled backward two steps and then came down on his rear, eyes wide and staring at the hand which was still groping blindly in the mud where he’d just been. Finally, he found his voice. ‘ERIC LOOK!’

     But Eric was already looking. Not at the hand, but in the other direction, across the countryside where the heavy sound of drum shelling came, clearly disturbed by the way it didn’t let up, and how it shook the air in a way thunder did not. He had not yet seen the soldier.

     Then Dougie saw the other one, a thing more mud than man, half swimming and half dragging itself through the mud towards his friend, one arm now outstretched, and he sucked in the deepest breath he could manage and screamed so loud that afterward it would feel like his vocal chords had been rubbed with sandpaper: ‘ERIIIIIIICCC!’

     And his friend spun around, surprised, and saw the groping hand that had missed Dougie and, a second too late, the thing that was coming for him.

     The hand closed around his ankle.

     Eric assaulted the dead thing with his spade, or what he could reach of it that wasn’t already submerged in mud. He turned its head to mash, snapped its spine with an audible crack, and cut deep trenches in the arm even as it continued to pull at his leg, forcing him to hop on one leg as he fought.

     Dougie rolled aside and picked up his spade, scanning the mud all around him for possible others, seeing nothing but knowing they were there. Eric let out a scream and Dougie turned to see that a second hand had got hold of him. It pulled on his grounded foot and, together with the first hand, upended him. A second later the two hands pulled his feet into the mud, submerging him to the top of his boots. He flailed around on his back, trying to twist over and find purchase.

     Dougie felt sloppy heat slide down the backs of his pant legs and knew that his lunch had come after all, and he realised in a moment that he was going to leave his friend.

     He ran.

Dear ma and pa.

     Today I saw a lot of men die.

     I watched them come in waves, first the enemy and then us. I remember grandpa telling me the story about the bravery and glory of the light brigade and the final charge. I saw it today. I saw hundreds of brave men stand up and run right at the enemy across no-man’s land, right into a hail of bullets and shells that tore them to pieces before they could get anywhere close to the other side. Then the sergeant called out for the next wave. And then the next. The glory and bravery isn’t much left after the first few. After that it’s all just dying.

     I am sorry if I’m scaring you. But as Will said to me the other day, any letter might be the last, and tomorrow I go over the top.

     Pray for me. Send my love to all and Mary.

 Love Johnnie.

He kept his eyes on the ground a few feet in front of him. More were coming up out of the ground every second. He zigzagged to avoid grabbing hands, jumped over legs like twisted tree roots, the mud sucking at his heels with every step and threatening to pull his boots right off. The shelling was so loud – and it was shelling, now: fountains of mud exploded here and there where the bombs landed – that he saw the gunshots rather than heard them as they raised pillars of mud in their wake beside him.

     Something about the angle of these struck him wrong, some deep instinct warning him that he was not running away from danger but towards it, and he stopped to look up ahead.

     The soldier was standing on the opposite hill: down on one knee, rifle tucked under one arm, skinless finger on the trigger. Dougie stared, blank with terror, for one second, and in it he saw a puff of smoke rise from the barrel, the soldier jerking backward from the kick.

     Then Dougie was spinning around, the impact hitting his left shoulder so hard his feet left the ground and he was face down in the mud before he even felt a thing.

     And the first thing he felt was a mouth pressing up against his, rotten teeth clamping down on his lower lip and pulling.

     He lurched backward instinctively, not caring that his lower lip was now stretching like chicken skin, tearing and bleeding. When he broke free, all the pain of the bullet and the lip and the fear all hit him at once and he screamed, scrambling back and away. He saw another corpse trying to pull itself above the surface, and he turned, leapt over the head and shoulders of another, and then fell to his knees.

     Clasping one hand over the bullet wound dribbling blood in his left shoulder, the whole arm completely numb, he looked around at the soldier who had shot him. He fully expected him to have his rifle at the ready for the final shot, the one that would land right between Dougie’s eyes, but it wasn’t so. The man – if that’s what he was – had lowered the weapon once more, and was staring at Dougie intently.

     Dougie met his deep, deep eyes. He looked into the bright points like stars a thousand light years distant. He saw the truth, read the message, and it said: You haven’t done enough, yet. It said: You don’t understand.

      And Dougie knew what he had to do.

Dear Ma and Pa,

     I am still alive.

     I don’t know how, but it’s true. Ben Donohue is not. Red Adler is not. Bill Sexton. Warren Smith. A thousand, a hundred thousand others I don’t know. Will Carroway, too, all my best friends for all my life. And here I am, alive only because a Jerry happened to aim his bullet a foot or so to the right where it hit Will instead of me. I held his head in my arms for six hours and felt his blood pour into my lap. I saw Bill catch shrapnel in the gut and hold his own intestines steaming in his hands. He was begging for his mother.

     The shelling never stops, and I haven’t slept in three days, nor eaten in two. Please send food if you can. The army is not doing so well at getting us what we need.

     The mud is worst of all. It’s in everything, everywhere. It’s in our eyes and mouths and nose all the time. Me and some boys passed a poor lad, no more than eighteen, bogged in up to his knees. We tried to get him out, but there were no footholds for us in the mud, and soon we were called up ahead. Went back that way later and found he was still there, only now he was in all the way up to his neck and quite out of his mind. We had to leave him.

     God save us all, for I don’t think anyone else can.

     I will do the best I can to get back to you.

     Please send love to all and Mary.

     Love, Johnny  

Eric was buried to the chest. He was screaming and out of his mind, his eyes rolled so far back in his head the whites were visible, arms beating madly against the mud and clawing at it. His fingernails were broken and torn back from the force of his efforts.

     ‘They’re bitingme! Helphelp! They’re bitingeating meeeeeee! Heeeeellllp! DOUGIE!’

     That last when Dougie skidded through the mud to his side and grabbed hold of one of his arms. Everything was chaos. It was impossible to know what was going on anywhere else in time or place: The universe had been reduced to the space of one square meter inhabited by the two boys, and everything else was rain, bombs, mud, bullets, bodies, screams, death, horror.

     Dougie wrapped his good arm around his friend and dug his legs into the earth. He pulled, but all it did was sink his feet deep into the soft mud. He felt dead fingers groping his legs. He pulled harder.

     BOOOOOOMMM!!!

     In the wake of some monstrous explosive which raised a tidal wave of mud and flesh just meters away, all sound was replaced by a high pitched whining in Dougie’s ears. He saw men come swarming down the hill on which the soldier stood, though whether they were to his aid or for his death he didn’t know, only that they were equal parts terrified and enraged and had their bayonets fixed. Only when they passed him and collided with the unseen enemy behind him did he realise there was a war going on that didn’t include him at all.

     ‘THEYRE EATING ME DOUGIE! I CAN FEEL THEM EATING ME HELP!’

     Dougie pulled harder, the pain from his shoulder screaming through his chest, everything inside him feeling like nails on a chalkboard. Hands peeled off his shoes and socks. Teeth bit into him, soft teeth that bent back with the force of their bites, yellow-black teeth that stripped his flesh with desperate hunger, and he screamed.

     But he didn’t stop pulling. Eric came free inch by agonizing inch, the mud sucking at him with supernatural force. He wrapped his hands around Dougie, weeping as his body emerged slowly from the thick mud, until they rolled away from the pool and the clutching fingers of the dead and pulled each other to their feet.

     Dougie dragged his friend as fast as he could for the hill, sure the solider would let them through. Shells slammed with unimaginable force into the earth on all sides, bullets flew by their ears. They pushed passed other men, brave soldiers who seemed to be rushing to their own deaths as eagerly as Dougie and Eric were rushing to safety. They fell on all sides, bullets smacking into their faces, chests, ripping muscle and tendons into red tentacles that splayed out in the mud and were buried.

     Only when he reached the foot of the hill on which the soldier stood, slamming into it and then sliding a little, did Dougie let go of his friend and allow himself to rest. Bombs fell with shocking force and noise, guns fired at a thousand bullets a second, men screamed and killed and died – or worse, didn’t die – all around, and yet somehow beneath all this madness Dougie still heard Eric’s yelps of pain. Yelps, just like the heartbreaking whimpers of a dog that had been beaten to within an inch of its life.

     Eric had been eaten down to the bone. Now that the rain was clearing some of the mud away, Dougie could see large round patches of red meat, many of them two or three times larger than any mouth Dougie could imagine. Eric looked around at Dougie, his eyes wild and unseeing. His crotch and lower abdomen had been clawed so badly that his intestines were leaking out and Dougie smelled the putrid stench of half digested food and urine.

     Eric gripped him by the collar and pulled him so close that their noses were almost touching. Dougie pulled at his wrists but he had a grip like fused steel.

     ‘It hurts so bad, Johnny it huuuuurrrrrts.’

     ‘I know, I know, it’s gonna be okay’ but Dougie couldn’t hear his own words because he was crying too much, and he didn’t believe them anyway because Eric’s left foot was nothing but clear bone and he was losing so much blood, so much blood. There was only one thing he could do for his friend, now.

     He looked up the hill to the soldier, and once again an understanding passed between them.

     The soldier raised his rifle once more.

Dear Ma and Pa,

     This is my last letter.

     We have just received orders to go over the top at dawn. None of us are under any illusions. There is a thirty foot distance to the enemy trench, and they have machine gunners and artillery. Word has it they know we are coming.

     Last time this happened to one of our companies, Reggie O’ Donnell stayed in the trench while the others went. The sergeant shot him as a coward in front of all of us. So we all know, there is no way out. For king and country, and all that.

     Don’t weep long for me. Know that I did my part for England.

     Send love to Mary.

     Love Johnny.

Just yesterday he and Eric had been playing Xbox together, and now Dougie was holding him and Eric’s eyes were rolled back in his head and his brains were spread across the hill.

     Dougie had to leave when a black hand snaked out of the mud and took hold of Eric’s foot. He didn’t wait to see what happened. He just started up the hill, slipping now and then in the mud but otherwise unperturbed by the chaos around him.

     The soldier raised the rifle again, but Dougie walked on, deafened by noise, half blinded by mud and tears, exhausted, hollow. Yes, that was it, he was hollow. Whatever had made him who he was, whatever essential soul that had lived inside him only hours ago as he’d ridden so gleefully with the wind in his face and his best friend at his side was gone. He was a ghost.

     He walked until he was stopped by the gun barrel pressing into his forehead, right between his eyes. It was still hot from the last firing.

     Dougie looked past the barrel, and into the deep eyes of the soldier. Dougie looked down into the wells to the points of light a million miles away, and then he looked past those, too.

     The soldier’s finger tightened on the trigger. Dougie did not react. There was nothing inside him left.

     The soldier lowered his rifle and stood aside.

Dear Ma and Pa,

     I am sorry it has taken me so long to write to you. I suppose you’ve been thinking I was dead all this time. I thought I was, too, but tomorrow I will be officially discharged from the infirmary. I had a rough time, they tell me, and had a few close calls, but as of today I am a healthy young man again.

     You will never know the things I’ve seen and done, but at last it is all over, and there is no need to worry, as I will return to you all in one piece.

     Johnny.

 

The day Harry Yorker fell in love was the worst in his life.

At least, so far.

That was the thought on his mind as he lay in the middle of Plunder Road, blood streaming from both nostrils, face swollen, lips cut, and ten dollars poorer. He’d begged his father not to give him the money, knowing exactly what would happen to it, but Mr. Yorker was not one to give in to bullies. ‘It’s only one kid?’ he’d said, eyeing Harry from across the table. ‘You just hit him back, son, you’re big enough. Goddamn, you let some little bastard push you around, you deserve what you get. It’s a tough world, you gotta learn to fight.’ With the word fight he’d plunged his fork down into the rib eye on his plate as though it had done him personal harm, spraying juice over the front of his shirt.

Well, Miles Braider had learned to fight, and Harry got the distinct feeling he enjoyed it a hell of a lot, too. He never reacted to anything, Miles, but he had an intensity in his eyes when he hit Harry, an internal fire that no amount of pain would ever quench.

It was four thirty now, but Harry didn’t want to go home. Better to stay out as late as possible, come back pretending he went for takeaway. When his father commented on the wounds, Harry would tell him. Yeah, you should see the other guy.

For now he just wanted to get out of the world, away from Miles, away from his father, and away from himself – this weak friendless boy who could hardly think of a reason to go on living if, well, his life depended on it. As he dragged himself to his feet, awakening a whole world of aches and pains, he thought it would be real nice to get away from his body, too.

So he went to the park.

Anderson’s Reserve was an enormous basin like a meteor crater, and the trees were thickest right in the middle, at the bottom. In the past, Harry would lie on his back and stare up through towering Pines and Gums at the sky, and drift away. But as he descended into the shade and silence he wondered if he had the balls to stay there ten minutes, let alone all night. True night was at least an hour away, but down here it had come early, and even the crickets no longer chirped.

But God, it was good to be free. When he reached his spot, a soft circle of grass beside a manhole cover, he sat cross legged and closed his eyes, hands resting on his knees like a monk. The blood dried on his swollen face, and though he still felt pain with every movement, somehow it didn’t seem so bad anymore. He breathed the rich scent of pine needles and autumn leaves and listened to the gentle creaking branches and the occasional flutter of batwings.

He spoke to himself in a low voice, a habit long nurtured as an only child with no friends. All of his deepest conversations had been with himself, and now he had more serious things to consider than ever. Suicide, for example.

‘It doesn’t have to be bad. We both know there’s no heaven or hell. It would be just like this, now. Total peace. That has to be better than this world.’

‘No way. I’m not killing myself, not if Miles gets to live. It would just confirm I’m a coward.’

‘Not if you do it in a cool way. You could go out with a bang. Get a big knife, stab Miles to death. Run at the cops so they shoot you dead. That’d be a way to go. You could write a note, blame your dad.’

‘That’s twisted, man.’

He chuckled to himself. ‘Yeah. Think about it, though. Suicide, man. If it wasn’t so great, why would so many people do it?’

He fell silent for a long time, playing his Final Stand out in his mind, savouring the way it would feel to sink a screwdriver all the way to the hilt into Miles Fucking Braider’s neck, when the unmistakeable sound of leaves crunching beneath a foot made his eyes snap open.

It was a girl.

Holy shit, she’s beautiful. She was standing half behind a tree a few meters away, one bare foot in a patch of old leaves, watching him with wide eyes and biting her bottom lip as though guilty for disturbing him. She had hair the black of deep ocean, large eyes in an angular face, and a firm, slender body clothed in a torn black dress. Even from his sitting position Harry could tell she was nearly a head taller than him.

So stunned was he by her beauty that he didn’t notice what was wrong with her hands until she came a step closer and curled one arm around the thick trunk of a pine. It was a large tree, so that she shouldn’t have been able to encircle it completely, but encircle it she did – with a hand and fingers at least four times the length they should have been, silver pointed nails scratching the bark.

He scrambled to his feet and took one step back, wanting to run but not wanting to take his eyes off this strange girl. There was something about the way she looked at him – head cocked to one side, curious – that made goose bumps rise on his skin.

‘Uh… Hi. I’m Harry,’ he managed. She took another step forward and then hesitated when she saw him move away again. Gave him a small frown, then shrugged as though it didn’t matter.

What she did next pushed him as close to the limit of his sanity as he’d ever come, an act so effortless and yet so earth shatteringly impossible that he would leave the forest that night doubting everything about reality as he knew it: Uncurling her arm from around the tree, she used one of her delicate fingers to cut through the air, a black line appearing in the wake of her sharp nail as though she’d used it to slice open the fabric of a camping tent instead of empty air. Then she gave him a sideways glance and whispered, in a voice as light and dry as the wind, ‘Please don’t kill yourself, Harry,’ and in one smooth motion stepped through the opening she’d created and sealed it shut behind her. Besides a slight shimmer, flashing and gone in a second, it was as though she’d never been there.

Harry did not dare approach the spot, and turned and hurried through the trees as fast as he could, faint with terror and casting frequent glances over his shoulder as he went. ‘Never again,’ he muttered, weaving through trunks and hopping over low bushes, ‘I am never coming back here again.’

He couldn’t have been gone long, but the park was deserted and dark, and as he ran across the great football over it was starlight and not sunlight which illuminated his way. His father was going to be mad, but that was okay, because that was something normal and real, something that made sense. ‘Never go back. No way, no way, no way.’

But he knew he would, because for the first time in his life, Harry Yorker was in love.

*

His father was too bug eyed to notice, but Mr. Salander wasn’t. Harry had made it to the last period without anyone saying a word, but Salander did a double take when he entered the classroom with his hood up, and put a hand on his shoulder after class as everyone was leaving. ‘Hang around a minute, Yorker.’ Someone stomped on Harry’s foot on their way out and when he looked up he saw Miles flash him a deadpan look. Even if I don’t say anything, he’ll assume I did. Shit.

Salander was a good guy, but he didn’t know how things worked. He was young, clean shaven, and he always wore a suit to school. He had a sense of humour, but he tried to hide it by talking in a stern serious voice all the time and not smiling much. He was probably the main reason Harry had managed to get away with skipping school for so long.

When the door clicked shut after the last kids and the room was quiet save a ticking clock and the distant sound of laughter and banging lockers, Salander leaned against the blackboard with his arms folded and raised his eyebrows. ‘So, wanna tell me what’s going on?’

Harry shrugged, hands in his jacket pockets.

Salander sighed, eyed him over his reading glasses. ‘Look, if it’s your dad, there are places you can go for help. And if it’s another student, there’s plenty the school can do for you.’

‘Oh yeah? Like what?’

‘I’d take a photo of your face right now, for starters. Then I’d go about trying to get Miles Braider expelled.’

Harry stared at him, terrified. ‘You don’t know it was him.’

‘Just because I’m a teacher doesn’t make me blind, Harry. I teach two of Miles’s classes besides this one, but I only had to talk to him for about five minutes to understand he’s got some serious mental problems. In my opinion, he belongs in a school that specialises in the treatment of, ah, special needs kids.’

This is bad. This is going to be bad for me. Harry knew he should get out of there now and pray Salander didn’t do anything about it, but he couldn’t help his curiosity. ‘What makes you say that?’ he asked.

‘Come on, Harry. I majored in psychology at university, but you don’t need a degree to see he’s on a one way path to jail unless his parents get him medicated. I don’t have much hope for that, though – I met his parents. All the staff here are concerned about Miles, but we haven’t really been able to catch him doing anything too bad.’

‘It was him that broke all the windows last month.’

‘You can prove this?’

The principal had arrived early one morning to find every single one of the P – Block windows shattered, a smouldering pile of tables and chairs in the quadrangle, and the word DEATH TO SCHOOL spray painted over and over on the brickwork.

‘He told me.’

Salander winced. ‘Sorry, not enough. What he’s done to you now, though… we can expel him for that, Harry. That’s assault.’ He sounded eager, and Harry wanted so badly for him to be right. He was a good guy.

‘That’s not how it works,’ Harry said.

‘Oh? How does it work?’

‘I say he beat me up, he says he didn’t. His parents won’t want to pay for any special school, so they’ll back him up, say he was at home with them. The principal won’t be certain either because I’ve been to school twice before with bruises from my Dad. Can’t expel a kid without solid proof.’

He watched Salander deflate as he spoke, almost felt bad for the guy. Then he remembered the look Miles had given him on the way out and hardened. Whatever Miles was going to do was Salander’s fault, now.

‘There’s gotta be something…’

‘Yeah. Just leave me alone. I’ll be okay.’

He left the classroom for the fast emptying halls, where mean words followed him, friends talked in groups about a life of parties and girls of which he would never take part, and deodorant hung so thickly in the air it made his eyes sting. He wondered if he’d ever make it out of this place alive.

*

Harry never went home when he could help it. At least his dad had eased up about him skipping, but as long as the two of them were in the same room the tension was there, stretched taut like the skin of an overblown balloon. Dinner was the crunch of chicken bones between teeth, evening was the glug of scotch down a rough throat, bedtime was a blaring Television and drunken mutterings through a thin wall. Harry had become a ghost.

It’s better this way. As long as I’m a ghost, I can be free. This thought, coupled with the idea that he might see her again, buoyed his step and put a dark smile on his face as he turned off plunder road and hopped over one of the Private Property signs that bordered the park. On the nights he couldn’t sleep he would stare out of his window at the distant stars and wonder if she was looking up at the same constellations or if she was away, in her other world.

By the time he reached the clearing at the centre of the forest he was tiptoeing, breathing light puffs of vapour into the cold air, unable to shake the feeling that he might scare her away with his movement. He settled down cross legged beside the manhole, just as he’d done that first time, but he didn’t close his eyes. He wanted to see her arrive, tearing through reality as she’d done.

He waited.

Twice he closed his eyes and reopened them, but she didn’t appear. Night fell, the cloud cover blocking the moonlight so that even his dark adjusted eyes could only make out dark lines of trees and black ground. He got up and paced, abandoned. He jammed his hands in his pockets and started back through the trees, choking back tears. She hadn’t been real, after all. I’ll hang myself right here. Get a rope from Dad’s garage and tie it to a tree branch right over where I first saw her. No one will ever find me.

‘Don’t do that.’

He spun around, air catching in his throat, and there she was, standing in the clearing he’d just left, long fingered hands by her side, mouth turned down at the corners, concerned. Her black dress was badly torn at the hem, revealing a perfect white leg.

‘You’re real.’

She nodded, coming forward tentatively as though afraid he’d run again. But he couldn’t have run if his life depended on it – he was hypnotised. When she was a meter or so away she stopped and regarded him. Her neck was twice as long as his, and she looked down on him with as much curiosity as he did her.

‘W… Where did you come from?’ he asked, his dry mouth struggling to form words.

She looked confused at his question, and without answering turned and walked back to the manhole cover. He followed, terrified that she would leave him again, but she turned when she reached the clearing.

‘Would you like me to show you?’ she said.

When he nodded, heart in his mouth, she bent down and, with a single finger, flipped the manhole cover from its opening. It spun around in a lazy circle and then landed in the grass with a dull phum. The hole it left was blacker than the forest, as black as the opening she’d made. He knew immediately that this was it – an entrance into that place, wherever it was.

To his horror, she stood aside and gestured for him to go first.

‘Don’t…  don’t you go first?’

She shook her head. ‘I have to close it.’

He leaned over it, but there was nothing to see but void. She waited beside him patiently, a smile on her face that was half knowing and half challenge. Go on, it seemed to say, I dare you. That, coming from a girl like her? Harry would have jumped off a cliff.

He extended one foot over the opening, held his breath, hesitated. Fuck it. You were going to kill yourself anyway. He tucked his chin and dropped.

*

The first seconds were utter terror. The circle of dim light vanished above him as he fell, his stomach dropping out of him the way it did on a rollercoaster. He tumbled, tried to orientate, but there was no wind resistance, and the sensation of falling was replaced with one of floating. How is she going to find me? He thought with a rush of panic. I’ve gone too far – this place is too big. I’ll be here forever.

But just as that unsettling notion took hold she appeared, floating gracefully beside him with a wide grin. Her teeth were pearly white, small, and neatly tapered to points, but somehow he was no longer afraid of her. She put a reassuring hand on his back and he broke out in pleasant goose bumps.

‘Where are we?’ he asked. He searched for a source of light, but couldn’t find one. How could he see her so clearly?

‘Home,’ she said. Before he could press her about where home was, she tugged at his shirt and he experienced a strong sense of deceleration, though he hadn’t realised they were moving at all. They’d been spread eagled, like skydivers in freefall, but now their feet swung underneath them and they descended slowly. She pointed into the blackness below them, and an enormous landscape materialized from the nothingness – not emerging, but being created – fields and lakes and even a castle popping into existence on a giant floating rock about the same size as the reserve from which they’d come.

‘Oh my god. Are you doing that?’

Instead of answering, she waved her hand and the entire landscape disappeared without so much as a sound, and in its place she made a lake, its calm waters extending as far as Harry could see. An island of white sand and palm trees floated in its centre, and it was here the two of them landed, floating gently down to its narrow shore.

Harry went to his knees and dug both of his hands into the cool sand, hardly able to believe that it existed. But the island was real alright, though the sand was softer than any beach sand he’d ever felt, and the waters of the lake didn’t lap at the shores the way they did naturally – the ripples travelled instead away from the island, perhaps to lap at some other distant shore.

As he took everything in, from the palms illuminated with that otherworldly light to the bright green moss covered boulders, the word heavenly came to mind, and on its tail a worrying thought. ‘Am I dead?’ he asked.

She laughed, a high cold sound that struck him as mean until she said, ‘You are funny, Harry Yorker. I like you.’

He stood up, trying not to betray his relief that he hadn’t been beaten to death by Miles and come to such a lonely, if beautiful place. Not entirely lonely. I wouldn’t mind being dead if I could be with her forever. She’d turned away from him and was standing with arms folded, looking out over the lake, and he came up beside her. ‘I like you, too,’ he said. ‘What’s your name?’

‘I don’t have a name.’

‘Oh. Do you… were you born here?’

‘Yes. I floated for a long time, until I learned to make things. I made my body, too, when I went to your world for the first time and saw people. I added some things, though…’ She raised a long hand and waved her fingers, smiling. ‘Do you like them?’ But before he could answer, she ran one nail along his face, the light touch enough to make him shiver.

‘Yeah. You’re beautiful.’ He could never have said such a thing in the real world, but in this dreamlike place, anything seemed possible. Maybe he was losing his mind?

She didn’t reply, far more comfortable with silence than he was. A million questions fired through his mind, but he restrained himself. He had a feeling that he was here only because she was curious about him, and if he disappointed her in any way she would take her world and vanish from his life for good. He made himself wait until she spoke again.

‘Do you like this place? I can never make the things I want. I don’t know what they look like. That’s why I always visit your world. To find beautiful things.’

‘It’s… It could use some sunlight. And like, maybe a breeze?’

She nodded, and a moment later a ball of burning red appeared in the sky, bathing everything in a pleasant orange glow, though not quite like sunlight. A warm wind blew in across the lake, making her long hair flow. Harry stared up at the makeshift sun, trying to guess how large it was, and how far away. ‘Can you do that with anything?’

‘No. Only in this world. And I can’t make anything alive. Nothing like you.’ She stared at him for a long time, and when he met her gaze she reached out and touched him again, her hand running the length of his arm. ‘I’ve never seen one of you up close before. I’ve been visiting your world for a long time. I was always too afraid.’

‘You don’t have to be afraid of us. Uh, no, that’s not true – but you don’t have to be afraid of me. I mean, you’re like a goddess in this place. No one would…’ he swallowed, a thought occurring to him that jarred him as much for the evil at the core of it as for its potential. ‘No one would stand a chance against you.’

‘A goddess,’ she said, turning her chin up and smiling. ‘I like that word.’

‘I can tell you anything you want about my world. I could show you things – stuff you don’t have in this place.’

‘Really?’ her eyes lit up, childishly hopeful, and another jarring thought came to him, this one not so unwelcome: Sex. Holy shit, I’m going to lose it to a supernatural being. The thought terrified him almost as much as it excited him. For all her additions she was still the most stunning girl he’d ever seen. ‘Yeah. And I could bring more living things here, if you wanted. Animals – maybe even people, if I could find the right ones. Good ones.’

‘You would be my guide to your world? And bring life?’

‘Anything you want.’

‘How can I repay you?’

Say it. Grow a pair and say it. You’re in another universe, talking to an all powerful goddess, who wants to give you something. If you don’t say it I’ll make you cut your wrists tonight. He said it, with an expression of the deepest seriousness and only the hint of a smile. ‘You could kiss me.’

She furrowed her brow. ‘I don’t know what that is.’

‘It’s good – you’ll like it. It’ll be the first thing I show you. But you have to let me touch you.’

She took a half step back, wary. ‘It’s good?’

‘Definitely.’

She nodded and let her arms hang by her sides, waiting to see what he’d do. Heart racing madly, he stepped in, one hand settling on the back of her head, and kissed her before he lost his nerve. Her whole body was rigid, but she relaxed and opened her mouth for him, passively allowing him to explore with his tongue. He pulled back after a moment, watching for her reaction. She considered, shook her head as though uncertain, and then to his amazement pulled him in and kissed him again. This time, she bit down on his tongue just as he got going, hard enough to draw blood, and held him there for a second or two before letting him withdraw.

He staggered back in the sand, shocked, and she licked her lips with a mischievous smile. ‘What the hell?’ he said. She laughed and put a hand on his shoulder. ‘It was nice. But I liked the second one better.’

‘You almost took my tongue off.’ But he found he was laughing along with her, and soon the pain faded to a mild throb.

‘Thank you, Harry,’ she said, turning back to look up at the burning red sun. Though it hadn’t moved or changed at all, she must have read something on it because the next thing she said was, ‘It’s getting late. I should take you back.’

‘Oh, okay. I’ll be back soon, though, won’t I?’

‘Of course,’ she said, smiling. ‘You’re my guide, remember?’

And with that pleasant affirmation reverberating in his mind, she took his hand and the two of them flew back through the empty sky for home.

*

Harry was not his usual alert self the following day at school, and he kicked himself for it later, thinking how he’d wandered so carelessly through the school after fifth period, aware of nothing but the impossible memories playing through his mind. He deserved what he got, really.

The sunlit parking lot was so close, just a few steps to the end of the hall, when a door opened behind him and a hand took hold of his backpack and wrenched him off his feet. A second later Miles was pushing him against the back shelves of a janitorial closet, door swinging closed behind them.

‘What you tell him, Yorker? Did ya tattle on me?’ He mimicked a child’s voice.

Harry didn’t reply. He dropped his bag and stood with clenched fists, hoping a beating was the only thing Miles had in mind. His teeth were still loose and his bruises would be there for days yet.

‘It’s okay if you did. It wouldn’t change anything. You can’t get away, Yorker. Even if they expelled me you couldn’t get away.’

‘Yes I would. I’d call the cops on you. You could go to jail for assault.’

‘Ooooooh, I didn’t think of that. Assault, huh? Wow, that’s a serious crime. I bet I’d be in jail for a whole week.’ It was unnerving, the way he spoke. His voice was condescending, animated even, but his expression void.

Harry held his gaze, looking for a flicker, a sign that anything was in there besides whatever evil cogs and screws kept him turning. ‘What are gonna do, beat me up for my lunch money your whole life? Is that how you’re gonna make a living?’ He tried to inflect a mocking tone, but his heart was beating too fast, muddling his words and making his voice shake. He swallowed. Just hit him. Get it over with.

‘You know what you don’t get, Harry?’ Miles took a small step forward, hands dropping loose by his sides. ‘I don’t do this shit ‘cos I hate you. I don’t do it ‘cos I want your fuckin ten dollars either. I do it ‘cos I’m a dog and you’re a rabbit. It’s just who we are.’

He took another step and now he was in striking distance, but Harry was leaning back against the shelves, couldn’t do it yet, couldn’t overcome that formidable barrier between speech and violence that Miles crossed with impunity. ‘You’re not a dog, you’re just an asshole,’ he said, but he felt the truth of Miles’s words in his heart.

‘You wanna fight me, little rabbit?’ He was real close now, breath blowing in Harry’s face with each word. ‘Cos you know what’ll happen, you try to fuck with me? I’ll come back with a blade, and I’ll fuckin’ kill you.’

He spoke the sentence with such calm, the tone sharing none of the threat that the words held, that Harry didn’t see the strike coming. It was a gut punch, as shocking for its suddenness as its power. Harry’s legs buckled but Miles didn’t let him go down, one fist gripping his collar while the other unleashed slug after slug into his abdomen until his body revolted against the onslaught and he vomited. Miles saw it coming and took two quick steps back in time to avoid it. Harry collapsed and lay on his side, mouth opening and closing while his diaphragm spasmed, huge black waves passing across his vision, flashes of death.

As he was taking his first desperate gasps of air, Miles came forward again and crouched on a clean patch of floor beside him. His words would repeat themselves in Harry’s mind in the days that followed, while he waited to see if Salander did anything. ‘I know you think I’m threatening you, rabbit, but I’m not. I’m just telling you. If I get expelled, my Dad’s gonna chop my pinky off and tell people I got it stuck in the blender. And if that happens, I’m going to kill him and mum too, and then I’m gonna come find you. So if I was you I sure wouldn’t be telling anyone anything. Bye, rabbit.’ He gave Harry’s hair a playful ruffle and then stood up and slid out of the room, leaving him to suck in precious lungfuls of air until he was fully conscious.

Luckily, he had everything he needed to clean up his vomit.

*

He brought her the neighbour’s dog – a plump beagle named Rusty that liked to yelp at possums at three in the morning. As an afterthought, he also brought a dead magpie from the roadside, folding its soft body into a plastic bag. Once they landed, in an ocean of wavy green hills and fields, he let go of the Rusty and watched him go tearing across the grass at top speed. She followed him with comically wide eyes. ‘A real live thing,’ she whispered, ‘in my world.’

‘I brought this, too. I dunno, I thought maybe you could do something with it.’ He dumped the magpie onto the grass at their feet and she stared at it for a long time, glancing from it Rusty, jumping around with his tongue hanging out of his mouth.

‘Why doesn’t this one move?’ she said.

‘What? Oh, it’s dead.’

‘Dead?’ She knelt beside it and prodded it with a long finger, her nail sinking disturbingly deep into its feathers. ‘What is dead?’

‘You haven’t… well I mean it’s, it’s like the opposite of what we are. It’s like if I stopped thinking and talking and moving and just became a piece of meat. Just a thing, a dead thing.’

She held it up by one limp wing, analysing it. ‘I didn’t know things could go from living to not living.’

‘Yeah. In my world, it happens to everyone eventually. If you damage a living thing enough, it can die as well.’

She looked up at him, alarmed, as though he might drop dead at any moment. ‘Will you die?’

He nodded, then shrugged as if it were no big deal. He supposed it wasn’t, but she made him feel brave all the same. ‘Yeah but not for ages. Years and years.’

‘I don’t like that,’ she said, and didn’t smile when he broke out laughing a second later.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s just. I dunno. I don’t like it either.’

‘I don’t want the living things in my world to stop living. Then I’d have to find more to replace them. Can it be undone?’

He opened his mouth to say no and then stopped himself. ‘Not in my world,’ he said at length. ‘Not by people. But maybe here, with you?’

Rusty, tail wagging madly, yapped at them from a few meters away, wanting their attention. She twirled her finger and the sound stopped, though Rusty wasn’t fazed. Harry wondered if he could still hear his own noise. ‘He might want food in a bit,’ he said, considering for the first time that he might have made a mistake bringing the dog here. She didn’t reply, her attention fully on the dead magpie in her hands.

The bird’s wings fluttered and Harry’s heart skipped a beat, but just as he was about to ponder the implications of knowing someone who revive the dead he realised that she hadn’t done that at all. The bird was moving alright, but its wings turned strange circles and its head nodded and twisted unnaturally, its body jerking unnaturally, handled by external forces. The frustration was clear on her face. ‘I can’t make it move by itself,’ she said. ‘It’s just like all the other things, not like the dog at all.’ She let it fall to the grass with a wet thump.

‘That’s alright,’ he said. ‘I can get you more living things. As many as you want.’

She smiled at him and then kissed him with the casual ease most people gave hugs. ‘That would be nice,’ she said.

*

Harry stayed invisible for a fortnight. On earth, he was quiet and obedient until even his father struggled to find reasons to punish him. He took side streets and went the long way round to his classes. He made no eye contact, nor did he speak, except to answer questions. He stole pets from back gardens and tore pages out of National Geographics in the library, so he could show her different parts of earth.

He was a mouse living a grey, empty life. With her, though…

They travelled through galaxies together, floated across warm oceans, explored caverns that extended, for all he knew, forever. She asked him questions, and he told her everything he could. He told her about Miles, and his father, and how he’d wanted to kill himself the night he first saw her. Those long nights were the best he ever spent, and if only he could have gone on living like that he might have been happy. If only.

Then one night she showed him what she’d been doing with the animals.

She took him there without warning – hardly able to contain her excitement as they flew through the dark, yet she refused to answer any of his questions. They landed in a place unusually bare for her: a wide stone slab, empty but for a single house. It had an oak slab of a door and no windows at all. It was made entirely of wood, and stretched for at least hundred meters over the flat land, one long hallway.

‘What is this place?’ he asked her when they touched down in front of the huge door. This time she relented, facing him with a certain light in her eyes he didn’t like any more than the answer she gave him.

‘It’s my collection,’ she said.

‘Right. Your collection of what?’

Instead of answering, she pushed open the door and gestured for him to enter. He hesitated. A long hallway stretched before him, a scarlet carpet aligned down the centre and candle chandeliers along the ceiling, casting shadows across walls of rich mahogany.

Only when he’d taken a few steps inside did he see the doors. They lined either side of the hall, spaced several meters apart, each with a golden handle and a carved wood sign hanging above the threshold. The signs bore only a single word, and they followed a disturbing trend. Drowning; Crushing; Bleeding. One said simply: Knives.

‘What are these? Where are the animals?’ The doors stretched all the way along the hall, though he couldn’t see what was at the very end. He stopped in front of one marked Burning, halted by a sound from within: a crackling fire, a sizzle of bacon in a pan.

‘That’s my favourite,’ she said. ‘Do you want to open it?’

He didn’t. He wanted to turn and run from this place. He wanted to fly back to the sunlit beach with the soft sand and the palm trees and drink cocktails with her and forget that this place existed. But he found himself placing a hand on the gold handle. It was curiously warm. He pulled.

It was a possum he’d taken from the primary school. Each of the grade one classes had a pet animal: hamsters, a rooster, a mouse, and each child got a chance to take it home with him or her during the term. He’d been planning to steal at least one or two more from the other classes, but hadn’t got a chance yet. The walls and ceiling of the room were made of sticks, and straw covered the floor. The possum crawled towards him, staring with its enormous brown eyes, but a thick wall of glass divided them.

Harry was about to ask her what she was feeding it when the straw in the back corner of the cage burst alight, flames licking the back walls and spreading across the floor. The possum panicked immediately, scurrying into the far corner and huddling there, paralysed with fear. Oh, no. It can’t be what I think.

Only when the flames licked its fur alight did it move again, pelting around the room at full speed while hair melted and skin fried. Here was the sound he’d heard outside, the sizzling and cracking of meat in a pan. Harry’s stomach turned, but he couldn’t look away. Something still didn’t quite add up in his mind. The picture wasn’t complete.

When the room was filled with smoke and charcoal, the fire burned out, leaving the possum’s charred corpse in the middle of the room, a twitching heap of crispy skin and white eyes. She rested a hand on his shoulder, her fingers hanging over it like vines, and said, ‘Watch.’

The process that followed was not quite a reversal, though the result was the same. First the smoke and ash disappeared, replaced with fresh straw and sticks. The corpse shivered, then twitched again. Its skin loosened, new grey hair sprouted from fused pores, ligaments stretched and flexed, and a minute later the possum returned, squeaking, to life. ‘If they die in this world, I can make them come back,’ she said. ‘They can live on forever here.’

They watched the fire light up again, but before it reached the quivering possum Harry shut the door. He stared down the long corridor, wondering how many rooms there were, and how many were yet to be filled. ‘Why do you kill them?’

She frowned. ‘I have to kill them. You told me so. Everything alive has to die. If it didn’t die, it wouldn’t be alive.’

‘So this….’ He squinted down the corridor, trying to read more of the signs in front of the doors. ‘This is a collection of deaths?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s a collection of lives. Endless, beautiful lives.’

*

Harry vowed he would never go back. This world, he told himself, made sense, for all its ugliness. It had taken that possum, burning and being reborn – perhaps even with a memory of all its previous deaths – to bring home to him how utterly helpless he was in that other place. Did she have a room there for him? If you don’t go back, maybe she’ll make one.

But he couldn’t really believe that, either. Sometimes he caught her looking at him with a warm smile and soft eyes. She wasn’t sick, he knew that – not the way Miles was sick. Miles had nothing inside of him, but she did. It was just she’d had no one to bring her up. She’d simply existed, with unlimited power and a lonely soul. She was only curious.

He wanted to help her, but he was afraid of her.

So he went to school. He ignored Salander’s meaningful looks, and made sure he knew where Miles was at all times, every bit the frightened rabbit Miles told him he was. He told himself this would be his life for the next few years, at which point he could get a job, any job, and move far away from his father, from the dense forest, from her.

But as each midnight rolled around he found himself wide awake, eyes fixed on the moon, and his mind in another world. Thoughts of a different future, one in which he didn’t work an empty job in the big grey city, worked its way into his mind.

In his dreams, he saw the two of them driving down a seaside road somewhere in Europe, exploring, hunting. She could make anything they needed, money, food, a house. He would help her finish her collection of lives (and deaths), and teach her to take only those evil people from the world who had no right to exist in the first place – those who deserved a place in her great hall. With power like hers, nothing could stop them going where they wanted, doing good things – great things, even. He would teach her how to love, and earth would be their endless honeymoon. Sometimes he was still awake at sunrise, heart slamming in his chest, his head full of dreams.

It was only a matter of time before he started getting ideas.

All he needed was a single phone call.

*

Harry hitched up his school bag and headed back around the gym, wind blowing dead leaves against his ankles as he walked. He left the school via the back gate – the gate he always took. The one Miles would be watching.

Streetlights flicked on as he turned onto Plunder road, but he didn’t need their dull glow to know he was being followed. He didn’t look yet, though – he needed to keep up the pace until he could see that familiar, comforting sign.

‘Hey.’ He didn’t turn. The tone of Miles’ voice chilled him more than the night air, and that alone was enough to tell him his plan had worked all too well. Quick feet crossed a road behind him. ‘Rabbit.’

There it was: a low wooden sign in front of a narrow grass causeway. The path led a steep downhill, and there were no lights in the park, but that would be to Harry’s advantage. He turned at the entrance, heart slamming in his chest. All those long midnight hours spent dreaming and wishing, and here he was. No turning back.

Miles slowed to a stop, silhouetted by a streetlight. A truck rumbled by, but a row of trees and bushes separated Plunder Road from the highway. They were alone. Just as promised, Miles had a long knife in one hand. He let it hang there in full view. His eyes were wide and empty, and Harry found they reminded him almost of hers.

‘You told,’ Miles said. ‘I heard Dad talking to Salander on the phone last night. Telling him about things I’d done. I had to sneak out the back before he could get me. Slept in the fuckin’ bushes last night.’

‘Yeah. You’re gonna go to prison for sure. Assault, vandalism. Some boys home at least.’

‘No, I’ll definitely go to prison,’ Miles said, eyes flashing. ‘But it’ll be for murder.’

The next minutes were primal. Harry’s past and future vanished, and all that existed for him was the subtle shadows that showed him humps and ditches in the ground, the heavy thumping behind him, and his destination. He rushed, cold wind in his face, and for endless seconds that was all he knew.

Miles caught him on the football field, his long strides thumping with mechanical persistence. Harry could see the edge of the oval, but before he could throw himself down the slope Miles slammed into him and the two of them tumbled through the leaf strewn grass to the trench at the bottom. Miles buried the blade to the hilt into Harry’s back on the way down, but when they hit he lost his grip and rolled away. Harry got up first and staggered, dazed, into the trees.

For the next minute, the only sounds were loud breaths and thumping feet. No time for screaming, and no point. Harry dragged himself deeper into the woods, trying to suck air into a deflated lung, feeling hot blood soak his shirt. It was darker than it should have been, and when he laid eyes on the clearing it was barely visible, the corners of his vision closing him out.

But a moment later, he smiled.

Because she was here, after all.

The manhole stood open in the clearing, and her head hovered at the opening, watching him. Harry reached for her, but Miles’s arms closed around his legs in a rugby tackle and brought him down, winding him. Unconsciousness crept a shade closer.

Harry met her eyes, and reached.

He was too far away, but that was alright: her arms were long, and she had the strength of a goddess. She took his hot hand in her cold one, gave him a small, perfect smile, and pulled.

Miles didn’t even have time to scream.

*

Universes blurred past as she wrenched them through space, but Harry was oblivious to all of it, wrapped up in the agony of healing. She pulled out the knife and fused his flesh together where it had been parted, a crude but effective solution, though the process hurt far more than the wounds had, a hot melting pain that left no room for thought.

It stopped when they landed, and he gasped and rolled over onto his hands and knees, blinking. Floorboards. We’re in the collection hall. He scrambled to his feet and almost fell over, half expecting Miles to fall on him with the blade, but of course he was gone, whisked away in an instant. She alone stood in the middle of the hall, watching him.

‘I thought you weren’t coming back,’ she said. He rubbed his head and fought a wave of nausea as his stomach settled. He leaned against the nearest door. It was marked FALLING. He wondered how she’d managed that one.

‘I’m sorry. It took me a while to get him to follow me. But I got him. You got him. Where is he?’

Without smiling, she extended one of her black nailed fingers and pointed down the length of the hall. He followed the gesture, but the last door was too far away for him to make out the sign. A nervous chill ran through him. Is this really happening? He pushed away from the wall and started towards it. She padded behind him on pale feet.

‘The others won’t take that long, will they?’ she said.

‘No. No way. I’ll get better at it, I promise. Especially now he’s out of the way. I’ll be unstoppable.’ He half whispered this, as though to himself, and it gave him another thrill. His future was dawning on him. He would never return to his father’s shitty asbestos riddled unit. School was out forever, and the only job he’d ever have was to rid the world of monsters like Miles and send them to a hell of his own devising.

He turned to her before they reached the door and smiled, heart full to bursting. In that moment she looked more stunning than ever, rich dark hair hanging over the loose black rags she wore for clothes because, as she’d told him once, she liked to wear the darkness. He wanted to tear them off her then, but she wouldn’t understand. He’d have to explain it to her, later. ‘Do you love me?’ he said before he could stop himself.

She didn’t reply at first, searching his eyes for meaning. ‘Love you?’

‘Do you want to kiss me?’

She considered that, then nodded, and this time it was better than before, her tongue more eager and her teeth less so, letting him go with only a nip. ‘Did you like it?’ he said when she pulled back, still watching him so curiously.

‘Yes.’

‘That’s love.’

‘Oh.’

‘And there’s more we can do. Stuff that feels a lot better. I can show you.’

‘I’d like that,’ she said, and for the first time since he’d met her in the forest he found he had real hope that things were going to turn out alright, that he could teach her to love him and that his dreams might come true after all. Her eyes left his, darting to the door at the end of the hall and then back again.

‘Can I see?’ he said.

‘Yes. You’ll have to help me think of new deaths, later. I don’t have your imagination.’ At the last word, she traced a finger in a circle on his forehead, as though imagination was a physical thing, a liquid perhaps, locked in Harry’s skull.

This door was larger than the others, and made of a kind of wood so dark it was almost black. The sign above it read STABBING. He hesitated, something in his soul telling him not to do it, the same thing that had made him feel so sick and horrified when she’d shown him the Possum. This is different, he told himself. Miles deserves it.

‘Go on,’ she said, her voice high and breathy. ‘Open it.’

And God help him, he did.

*

Miles stood in the centre of a steel room. The left and right walls were lined floor to ceiling with bright blades, steeply tapered; they made for minimal internal damage and maximal flesh wounds. Miles didn’t so much as glance at these brutal instruments, arms loose by his side and head up. He faced the doorway, expressionless, not a hint of fear in him.

He really is empty. The thought jolted Harry, though he wasn’t sure what he’d expected. Even in his wild imagination Miles had never begged for his life or whimpered in fear – it just didn’t fit. But surely there should be something – an animalistic rage, some cold words of defiance. No, Harry saw now that Miles was not even an animal. Animals, at least, had souls.

A mechanical grinding sound started up, so deep Harry felt the floor vibrate. It was enough to make his adrenaline surge as if he were the one inside that death room, but Miles kept his steady, blank look, his eyes unfocused. Maybe he’s in shock.

The walls shuddered into motion and the blades began their slow progression. Still Miles didn’t move. Harry watched him with clenched fists, wanting him to scream, to beg, to threaten or plead or anything at all, but Miles didn’t so much as twitch, not until at last the razor points touched him for the first time, piercing his arms and shoulders first, instantly raising spots of blood like red beads on his skin.

And he smiled.

‘No,’ she said. So small a word, and whispered, but to Harry it seemed to freeze the universe. The walls certainly stopped moving, though the tips of the blades remained just inside Miles’s flesh, centimetres away from pinning bone and piercing vital organs, seconds from entering his twisted brain and severing whatever abnormalities existed within to make him the way he was.

His eyes, Harry realised, hadn’t been unfocused after all – they’d simply been fixed on something over Harry’s shoulder. Her. Harry knew this even before he turned and saw that she was staring right back at Miles, hypnotised.

‘He’s just like me,’ she said, and smiled a real smile. Harry would think of that smile often, trying to work out exactly what was behind it. In the end, he couldn’t believe it was real love. It was something else, something more like recognition.

There was time for Harry to feel his stomach drop out of him as he saw his future change. Not much time – the space of a few heavy heartbeats – but in a way it was eternity, because he left a part of himself in that space. He left his hope.

She sighed, and waved a long fingered hand.

*

Death wasn’t so bad, once you got used to it.

In a way, it was like sleeping. His days were short, compressed to the space of a minute or so, in which he stood in an empty room; in which he watched the walls closing in; in which he braced himself for six seconds of agony, followed by the blink of an eye, a single instant of oblivion which he learned to cherish.

He yearned for more of that, in time. If only he could be dead for a day, or a year, free from this reality. He yearned for that almost as much as he yearned for her.

She came to visit him, sometimes with Miles, who never tired of watching him die, and sometimes alone. She rarely spoke, only stood at the glass and looked, with a distant sadness in her eyes, but also, he told himself, fondness. He was after all the agent of her happiness, the one who’d brought her her soulmate.

‘Are you happy?’ he asked her the last time she’d opened his door – years ago, now.

She cocked her head to one side, considering, and he wondered if she really knew what happiness was. But the smile she gave him left no room for doubt. She was happy.

And that, he often thought to himself, as he was reborn in the bare room for the thousandth time, and the familiar grinding of unseen machinery began, was all he needed.

He closed his eyes and waited for death.

Damien didn’t find the game. The game found Damien.

*

‘You gotta relax more, man,’ Andrew told him. They’d received their results for the midyear English exam. Andrew barely glanced at his own paper as Mr. Rowe dropped it on his desk. He was chewing gum, hands behind his head, leaning back on his chair with a big smile on his face. He knew he’d aced it, and he knew it was killing Damien.

‘God damn it, man. How do you do that?’ Damien’s own neatly written essay, the one for which he’d studied exhaustively, had a large red C in one corner. As Rowe passed through the class, he left in his wake a chorus of groans and curses. ‘I mean, did you study at all?’

‘That’s what I’m sayin’, Damien. You overthought everything. You went, like, over the word limit.’

‘That’s a good thing, isn’t it?’

Andrew smirked and rocked his chair forward with a clunk. He patted Damien on the head. ‘Ah, you have much to learn, young one. Studying works for maths and science, but when it comes to English…’ he tapped his chest, ‘it comes from your heart.’

‘Oh yeah. So what the hell did you do?’

‘I played video games.’

‘You played video games?’

‘Yeah, man. Listen, I know you, you’re a maniac. You think too much and you work too hard. You gotta learn to let your mind play for a while, have some fun. One, two hours a day, guaranteed you’ll be better off. You’ll be more relaxed. Shoot a few monsters, maybe get rid of all that aggression, you know?’

‘I’m not aggressive.’

‘Ha! I was there when Brian Dunning called you a dick. You wanted to choke him out. You gotta get out and shoot some people with guns or something – in a game, that is. I’m telling you, you’ll be able to focus, think clearer.’

Damien laughed, but a moment later his eyes dropped to the mark on Andrew’s paper and the sound died in his throat.

‘Video games?’ He said again, eyeing his friend.

Andrew kept a straight face, crossing himself like a devout Christian. ‘Swear on my life, bro.’

So instead of reading Invest, Compound, Succeed, or doing a workout, or practicing his guitar, he found himself scrolling gaming websites after school. He almost stopped before he’d been on for ten minutes, an urgent voice in the back of his mind telling him he was wasting his time. But in the end, it was that voice which kept him going. Damn, if you’re freaking out this much about playing a stupid video game, maybe you are wound too tight. He couldn’t shake Andrew’s relaxed, happy smile out of his head. It couldn’t be a coincidence that he managed to get such good grades. Hadn’t Damien read somewhere that video games improved your problem solving ability?

Five minutes later, he found it. He’d narrowed the search to ‘New Horror Games’, and the first one on the list caught his eye immediately. It was called: Out Of Hell. It was classified as a survival horror game, and it was so new – the link to download was dated one hour earlier – that no one had bought it yet. The cover picture was a bird’s eye view of a dark city with maze like construction, and the description was a few short lines: A lost soul, you must navigate your way through the depths of hell while demons seek to eat you alive. Collect keys to access new areas of the map and level up. Can you find your way Out of Hell?

It was three dollars, cheap in any currency. Damien’s initial reaction was that it most likely sucked. Then again, if it did he’d only be down three dollars and he could at least tell Andrew to shut up. He bought it.

The download was less than a minute, and an icon popped up on his desktop when it was done: a black skull and crossbones. Damien leaned back in his chair and stretched. He glanced out of his window at the waning afternoon. His bedroom window looked out on an empty plot with a few trees and a children’s playground. You should be outside, you know. Getting some sun, being healthy. But he knew himself, and he knew that a pleasant walk would soon become a hard run. He shook his head. ‘No. I said I was gonna play. So let’s play.’ He clicked the icon.

The screen went black, and then his computer emitted a human scream that made him jump in his chair. The start menu popped up in red block letters and, chuckling at his own reaction, Damien pulled his headphones out of his desk drawer and plugged them in. Before he could strap them on, someone knocked urgently on his door.

‘Honey? Is everything okay in there?’ His mother’s voice.

‘Yeah, I’m fine! Just playing a game Andrew gave me.’ He said, smiling.

‘A game?’

‘Yeah. I’ll turn the sound off.’

‘Oh, that’s okay. Dinner’s in an hour.’ When she left, he got up and locked the door. She never opened it unless he told her to come in, she was good like that, but the scream had made him nervous, somehow. He didn’t want her to see him looking at… things. He got the feeling it was going to be an intense game.

The start menu had only three options: PLAY, CONTROLS, and EXIT. He skimmed the controls, which were easy enough. There was no attacking in this game, only movement. Guess you were stuck being the victim, here. He let the cursor hover over play for a second, savouring a sharp thrill, a feeling of exhilaration he couldn’t remember ever feeling before – certainly not from any kind of game. He realised he was smiling. Maybe there was something to this after all.

He clicked it.

Darkness swallowed the next twelve hours.

*

There was no music, only a steady heartbeat, which quickened when he ran, or when a demon howled nearby. It was a first person perspective, but the main character had no possessions, nor a health bar or stats of any kind. You were simply dropped into a dark forest and left to find your own way out. The trees were thick in some places and thin in others, the terrain limiting you to certain pathways, some of which came in the form of animal burrows or along tree branches.

It was also utterly terrifying. The forest was populated with several kinds of demon, but you never saw any of them unless you got too close, and even then you only caught a glimpse. The first time he ran into one Damien almost screamed, and spent the next few minutes furiously tapping keys to escape, the sounds of heavy footsteps and breathing loud in his ears. What he had seen of the thing – it was half covered in shadow and crouching behind a cobwebbed bush – had been enough to convince him that the makers of the game were exceptionally talented. The thing didn’t have the unnatural feel of Hollywood CGI, and whoever had designed it was an artist in their own right. The crooked, unhinged jaw and pulsing white eyes were enough to give anyone a nightmare. He escaped it by climbing a tree and waiting in the topmost branches until it gave up and left. The heartbeat soundtrack matched his own: heavy and fast.

He didn’t get caught, but though he found a rusted iron key at the bottom of a shallow stream, he couldn’t find the door it was supposed to open. In that sense the game was incredibly difficult, yet rewarding at the same time. He’d wander the through the same areas, growing more and more frustrated, barely escaping the clawing beasts, and then he’d notice a vine covered hole he hadn’t seen before and grin in triumph, knowing he’d solved the next puzzle.

Always there was the sense of movement, of getting closer to something. The effort of remembering the intricate pathways hypnotised him in a way, and only when he found himself passing and repassing the same area again and again, his unblinking eyes turning red, teeth grinding in frustration, did he give in. The game had saved automatically when he’d found the key, so he simply exited. He took off his headphones and pushed back from his desk.

It was dark outside, and for the first time it occurred to him no one had called him for dinner – or at least he hadn’t heard them. The house was dead quiet. He unlocked his phone and swore under his breath when he saw the time: four am.

Downstairs, his mother had saved dinner for him on a plate and he ate it – dry steak and salad – without tasting. His mind was in another place, a goofy smile on his lips. He was tired, that was for sure, but Damien didn’t think he’d ever felt quite so relaxed. It was just a game, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d made some real progress, done something of worth. He hadn’t died once after all, and he’d found that key. He couldn’t wait to find out where it led.

Normally, sleep came after an hour or two of incessant tossing and turning, but tonight he was out in an instant.

He dreamed of nothing.

*

Mr. Rowe didn’t believe in learning. He believed only in tests. ‘You learn by doing,’ he said at the beginning of every class, standing beside his desk and tapping his knuckles on the wood for emphasis, being sure to make eye contact with every student in turn. ‘And I hate to break it to you guys, but if you want to do well in school, get good grades, then you have to pass exams.’ Tap. ‘Tests.’ Tap. ‘And the only way you get better at passing tests is by doing them.’ Tap.

He passed his stern eye over the miserable students. The previous week’s assignment had been creative writing, and even the best students, Andrew included, shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. He leaned across and nudged Damien. ‘Hey, dude, how’d you do? I did mine last night. It was about a guy killing a bunch of werewolves with an ice pick.’

Damien blinked at him and just shook his head. The plan had been to pull an all nighter and finish the story Wednesday night, but he hadn’t been able to find the door for his key, and he’d discovered a new area on Thursday night and stayed up to explore it. He’d only slept for three hours.

Rowe went on. ‘Now, the last test was challenging, I’ll give you that. Some of you were a little, uh, paralysed by the prospect of the blank page. Let that be a lesson to you when exams come around: better to write two pages of trash than a hundred pages of nothing at all. Others,’ and here he lingered on Damien, who shrank into his seat. Why hadn’t he handed something in, anything? ‘Rose to the occasion.’ What?

            He handed out the tests, accompanied by the usual protests and chatter and faces in hands. Andrew shrugged when he saw his own mark – a C plus – and then raised an eyebrow when Rowe dropped a pile of evenly typed pages in front of Damien. ‘Damn. How’d you do all that in one night?’ Then he saw the thick red A plus and clapped Damien on the back. ‘Hey, there you go, buddy. I told you, all you gotta do is relax. Did you get a game?’

Damien stared at the pages he hadn’t written. They were neatly formatted. The title of his story was LOST BOY, and his name was printed beneath that. ‘Uh… yeah I did, yeah.’ He gave his friend a weak smile.

They read the story together at lunch, Andrew hunched over it while Damien looked over his shoulder on the pretence that he wanted to see if Rowe had made any corrections. He hadn’t. Their area of the yard was a wooden bench under the shade of a willow, and Andrew dropped down on it and started reading immediately, the sandwich in his hand wilting, neglected, until he finished.

‘Wow,’ he said, setting it aside. Damien, unable to keep still for a second, paced in the spring sunlight. A group of kids played football behind him, their shouts and laughter sounding off kilter, at odds with the haze of fear and darkness inside him. He didn’t know how that story could exist. He definitely hadn’t written it, but something about it was familiar all the same.

‘That was some dark stuff, Damien. It was good though, I gotta say. Did you just pull that off in one night? You look like shit by the way.’ He grinned.

Damien gave him a weak smile and rubbed his eyes for the fiftieth time. ‘Yeah, I guess. It was late, I guess I was in a weird mood. I was playing this game for most of it.’

‘Ey, nice. You took my advice, right? What did I tell you, man! I bet it got the juices flowing. Like, you could publish this. It’s good to chill now and again, huh?

Chilling was the word for it, but not in the sense that Andrew meant. For the past week, Damien hadn’t been himself. No more early morning workouts. No more reading. He barely had time for food, where once he’d calculated each calorie he consumed and made sure he was meeting dietary requirements. He hadn’t written in his journal. He hadn’t thought about his future, or his future career, or what university degree he wanted to take.

He thought only of tall trees and dark swamps and monsters.

*

The English paper was one of many A plusses Damien scored that term, and it was a matter of time before Andrew’s enthusiasm turned to something closer to suspicion, which in turn bore jealousy.

‘Come on, man,’ he said on more than one occasion. ‘I’m not buying it. You gotta be putting in some work to score like this in all your subjects. I mean, you can’t just write two thousand words on the Viking invasion without even reading the textbook.’

‘I told you, it’s the game. It’s just, like, putting me in the zone, somehow.’

‘Yeah, the game.’ They were on the way home, schoolbags over one shoulder, dead leaves and gravel sidewalk crunching underfoot. In the past they’d always unconsciously taken Ward Road and headed for Andrew’s place to drink milkshakes and toss a ball for a couple of hours, but Damien hadn’t done that for weeks now. He wanted it, but inevitably he’d remember what level he was at – always so close to the next landmark, the next hiding place – and he’d wave goodbye and head home. The thought of sitting down to his computer with a fresh coffee and listening to the sinister tones of the game’s soundtrack start thrumming in his ears was enough to make his heart race.

‘Oh yeah? Funny how I can’t find that game in a single online store.’

‘What, so I’m lying to you?’

Andrew shrugged. ‘Nah, man. It’s just you’re not being yourself, lately. If it’s such a good game, how come you don’t want to show me?’

Damien opened his mouth and then closed it again. He’d been about to say that of course he didn’t mind, that Andrew could come over and check it out if he wanted – it was such a cool game, right up his alley… But in fact he did mind. He minded a lot. Something was happening between him and the game, and it was giving him an edge, putting him in front of everyone else somehow, and until he knew how to use it better, he wasn’t keen on letting anyone in on his secret. Not even his best friend.

‘It’s just a one player game. I don’t think you’d enjoy it, anyway,’ Damien said eventually.

‘Whatever, man.’ They were coming up on Ward Road now, a narrow lane that split off Darrow Street, which led to Damien’s house. They stood awkwardly at the parting, a strange distant look in Andrew’s eyes that Damien hadn’t seen there before. ‘Just let me know if you ever want to catch up sometime.’

‘Yeah, ‘course. Anytime.’

‘Catchya later.’

‘Maybe after exams or something.’ But Andrew was already walking away. Damien stared after him until he was gone, and then the game called to him, and he smiled to himself. A long night lay ahead.

*

And it was a long night. His mother was dumfounded when he declined desert and headed straight up to his room after dinner. ‘I’m on a health kick,’ he said, though of course even a cursory glance could have revealed that for the lie it was: between his pale skin, dark circles under his eyes, and the doughish quality of his body, there was little of health to be found. He thought of his grades. Success took sacrifice, didn’t it? He’d look just the same if he spent each night studying, and that wouldn’t even be fun.

Headphones on, lights off, sound up, and he was in. Just as he was getting into it, ducking beneath a canopy of vines and rotted bark in search of a path, a pack of wolf demons started tracking him. They howled and barked and their lean silhouettes weaved between the trees. As he evaded them he stumbled on a place he’d never seen before, a long field of tall grass swaying in the wind. A night breeze drifted in through his open window and he broke out in goose bumps. His stomach clenched when he saw what he had to do. What happens when you die in the game?

The chase was on, and for the next six hours Damien’s gaze remained fixed on the screen, his heartbeat matching pace with the heady rhythm in his ears, and he navigated the ditches, wet patches and clearings within the field. All the while he kept just ahead of the hounds, but safety was elusive. He could not have been more terrified or more focused if his life was in real danger. Who knows, maybe it is.

The last five minutes was a mad dash across a barren stretch of dust and rocks. Once, his avatar tripped and sprawled across the ground and Damien jolted in his seat as if he felt his elbows scrape. The hounds were right on his heels now, twenty or thirty of the slobbering things, but it was alright because the end was in sight: a towering gate, the same bright golden colour as the key in his hand.

He reached it, but while he fumbled to jam the key into the lock – his index finger mashing the spacebar urgently – the hounds fell on him and the sound of tearing flesh reached his ears, his vision going red with heat and blood. At last, an echoing clank sounded and the screen went black.

Damien stared at it, horrified, each breath so strained it ended in a slight wheeze, his chest tight.

The following words appeared in silver blade letters on his screen: YOU HAVE PASSED THROUGH THE WILDERNESS. CONGRATULATIONS. YOUR GAME IS PERMANENTLY SAVED.

He took off his headphones, the silence an assault on his ears, and clicked the exit button in the top corner. Then, exhausted, he slid from his chair and lay on his back, staring at the ceiling without a single thought or emotion in his mind. Sunrise wasn’t far off, judging by the tone of light streaming from his window, and he was so drained he felt he could sleep all the way through the weekend.

Your game is permanently saved. He had no idea what that meant, but he suspected it had to do with death. Perhaps now if he died in game he wouldn’t lose any progress. He smiled at the thought, and less than a minute later was asleep.

*

He knew even before he opened his eyes that something was different. Tingling anticipation pervaded him, a dark voice whispering in his ear: wait ‘till you see this. At first, dragging himself off the floor, he couldn’t figure what it was. Only when he opened his window did the feeling manifest itself. Even then, it was subtle, a dimming only visible here and there. A tree that should have been vibrant green was bare of all but a few rotten black leaves. A raven perched on a windvane, watching him with a predatory eye.

As he entered the kitchen his mother was just dropping the last pancake onto a pile of them as tall as she was. She clicked the stove off and beamed at him so widely he couldn’t help but raise his eyebrows in question. ‘There he is, my famous boy,’ she said, spooning lakes of golden syrup onto the pancakes. ‘Sit down, sit down, I’ll bring it to you.’

‘Uh. Oh, okay. Thanks.’ She served the plate in front of him with a flourish and kissed him on the forehead, an action so unlike her that he froze in his seat. She sat down across from him, resting her chin in her hands, and smiled again.

‘So what’s the occasion?’ he said, hesitantly starting on his breakfast.

‘Oh, you know. I always knew you were talented, but I had no idea…’ She sighed, half lost in a faraway place. ‘I suppose I’m just relieved. Here your father and I thought you were disappearing into your room to play video games all night. We had no idea you were creating all of those incredible things.’

He chewed slowly, trying to figure out what the hell was going on, but before he could ask her any more questions she stood up, squeezed him on the shoulder, and left. The pancakes were delicious, but he couldn’t focus because of the way his stomach was churning. The game had done something, but despite his mother’s curious warmth, he wasn’t so sure it was good.

One way or another, it was going to be a strange day.

Andrew didn’t meet up with him on the walk to school like he usually did, and he was already in class for  roll call, sitting near the front next to Christine Sullivan, one of the quiet A plus types. She was blonde and delicate, and when Damien entered the classroom late and all eyes swivelled in his direction, it was hers he fixed on. Her pupils dilated when she saw him, becoming huge black discs like those of a doll, and she smiled openly – the first time he’d ever seen her do so.

The whole class chattered and whispered as Damien made his way to the only available seat at the back of the class. Andrew kept his head down, scribbling something in his school journal. Even after Rowe cleared his throat and brought order to the room, Damien caught several more discreet glances. All of them had the same large pupils, as though they were high on a powerful opiate drug.

Rowe made the roll call and for once everyone was present. Usually he would launch straight into their first lesson of the day – English – but this time he paused beside his desk, contemplating something.

‘Well, I can see you’re all struggling to hold back, so I suppose I should take a moment to acknowledge a certain young entrepreneur before you explode with enthusiasm.’ He gave Damien a wry smile and all heads turned again, revealing expressions of admiration, curiosity and dislike, sometimes all three emotions on the one face. ‘After all,’ Rowe went on, ‘True achievement does merit some sort of recognition. Why don’t you stand up, Damien?’

‘Okay,’ he said so quietly he couldn’t hear himself. He stood up on shaky knees. What the hell is going on? I gotta get out of here.

‘I have to say, Damien, for most of the year you’ve been a terrible student.’ This was accompanied by a few grins and smirks. ‘But for you to put in all the time and effort it must have required to produce such amazing art, I can only commend you for every D minus I gave you. I don’t advise any of you kids to neglect your schoolwork, but if you really love something and have a talent for it, well, I think you should go for it. What do you think, Damien?’

He shifted on his feet, the whole room waiting for him to say something. ‘Um, I mean, yeah, you know. You just gotta, you just gotta go for it. And you gotta love whatever it is, too. I probably just got lucky though…’ He trailed off, but no one seemed to mind. The room erupted in applause, and no one clapped harder than Christina Sullivan.

At lunchtime they crowded him – kids who’d barely ever given him a second glance – asking him questions he couldn’t answer. They made fun of him, too, but in a no harm meant kind of way that he wasn’t accustomed to from anyone but Andrew. Just as he was beginning to warm to it, they started producing the things they said he’d created.

Music CDs, books, even a few movies he’d supposedly directed – all had to be signed. Damien didn’t dare scrutinize these objects, not now when everything was a blur of noise and madness. But when Reg Towney stepped up with a bag full of merchandise he couldn’t help himself. ‘Hey, that’s great Reg!’ he said, speaking in a hearty voice that belonged to some fake celebrity. He found himself slipping into the role of the famous prodigy that he wasn’t. ‘You mind if I keep a few of those? You know, just for souvenirs?’

Reg gave him a funny look, but he let him have one of each of his ‘masterpieces’, and shortly afterward Damien made an excuse and left the school grounds, a group of his more hard core fans hounding him some of the way. Just when he thought he was free, he heard footsteps pounding pavement behind him and turned to see Christina Sullivan running up. She kept pace with him for a minute or so, as if waiting for him to ask her something, but he didn’t look over.

‘I’m sorry I’ve been so cold to you, Damien,’ she said.

He tried to hide his surprise. ‘Cold?’

‘I mean, I know we’ve never spoken at all, really. I guess I just – all this stuff you’ve done, you were never like, that popular before and I never really had the confidence to, you know, speak to you out of the blue.’

‘Oh.’

‘Anyway,’ she ploughed on, taking a deep breath, ‘I kinda always liked you a little.’

‘You did?’ He glanced at her sideways, expecting to see a lie in her face, but her pale skin was flushed, and she didn’t meet his eyes.

‘Anyway, I totally admire all this stuff you’ve created. You’re so talented, and it really, like, speaks to me, you know? I was just hoping we could catch up sometime?’ Her voice caught there, as if it was a long shot and she believed he might reject her. He almost considered it, too, out of sheer nerves. In the space of twelve hours his life had dropped out from under him and he was in unexplored territory. Then his eyes strayed from her hopeful face to the shape of her young, firm body, and something more powerful than fear took hold of him.

‘Sure.’

‘Okay! I mean, cool. Here.’ She passed him a piece of paper, scrunched up and warm from the heat of her fist, and then kissed him on the cheek. ‘Call me later.’

He walked the rest of the way home in deep thought, the weight of his creations in his backpack pulling at his shoulder straps and the phone number of one of the best looking girls in school in his hand. His internal voice ran a thousand words a minute, urgent and persuasive. Nothing bad had happened, had it? He was creeped out, that was all, but the truth was there was nothing to suggest he was in any danger.

When he reached his front door step, Damien paused and stared at the piece of paper in his hand again. None of it made sense. How could something like this just happen, all at once, to someone like him? But the internal voice spoke again, and the words it spoke gave him such a surge of brilliant satisfaction that he didn’t see the lies they hid: Who else has worked as hard as you for success at such a young age? If anyone deserves it, you do.

He slipped the piece of paper into his pocket, nodded to himself, and pulled open the front door. He couldn’t wait to hear what kind of music he’d created.

*

His parents greeted him with crooked, uncertain grins on their faces. Damien gave them a reassuring smile and asked what was for dinner.

‘It’s ready now, in the kitchen – your favourite,’ his mother said with an eager smile. She took his hand and led him into the dining room, where the table was set, tablecloth, silverware and all, and his father sat ready at the head. This time of day normally found the old man reclining in the lounge room with the paper and a cup of coffee and in no mood for conversation, but tonight he was all smiles. He indicated two glasses full of golden brown liquid and winked at Damien as he entered. ‘Got us a little whiskey.’

‘Thanks. Is someone coming for dinner or something?’

His mother laughed so hard she nearly dropped the pot of hot chilli chicken she was carrying. ‘Oh yes, Damien. We’ve got ourselves a celebrity over, tonight. His name’s Damien Jones, and he’s the youngest professional artist in the country.’ She gave him an exaggerated wink as she put the pot down and then clapped her hands, delighted. ‘And he’d better eat to replenish his energy, hadn’t he?’

His father questioned him about what he would do with his life and his newfound fame, his tone serious but his mouth turned up at the corners in an expression of pride. His mother told him at least fifty times how happy they were, how they couldn’t believe he’d been hiding such talent from them all this time. Damien had never felt so uncomfortable in his own home, but a part of him couldn’t help but enjoy it. Sure it’s strange, but it’s good, isn’t it? Eating here with your family, talking like this? The fruits of your labour.

They were bittersweet fruits, though, and Damien breathed a sigh of relief when he locked himself in his dark room and separated himself from the world. It was getting late by then, but he was wide awake, and this strange day wasn’t over yet.

He emptied his schoolbag onto his bed and set each one of his creations side by side, staring at them in the dim light of his desk lamp, fascinated. The album cover had a picture that had never been taken: a black and white of Damien standing in a smoky alleyway and cradling a black guitar. He had no emotion in his expression. A hollowness that seemed appropriate given Damien himself had never been there. Maybe you were, though. Maybe you were there when you were playing the game.

The CD itself was black, the title of the album printed in sharp silver letters: DeadBoy. He slid it into his computer and pulled his headphones over his ears. The track list popped up and he raised his eyebrows. Ooookay. So I guess this is the kind of music I write. Among the titles were Slit Your Wrists First, Dogs Are On My Tail, and Stare Into The Abyss. He clicked on the last one.

The runtime of the song was one minute, but Damien didn’t make it past fifteen seconds. The moment he heard the first chord, guitar strings shrieking like someone was drawing a blade across them made him sit bolt upright in his chair. What followed it could only be described as the sound of dread: A heavy bass building to something, a climax Damien knew he did not want to hear. It reminded him of the first time he’d watched Jaws as a boy and heard the iconic deep tones that made him feel as if he was out there, alone in the water.

He took off the headphones and stopped the song. His hands shook for a minute or so before he got control of himself again and ejected the CD. What the hell? People actually listened to that? Liked it?

He tapped his fingers on the table, glanced at the dark window. It was late, he should be asleep, but curiosity had the better of him. With each passing minute he felt more and more as though he’d been dropped in another universe, and he needed to know as much as he could.

He fired up his computer and went online. Typed his own name into the search engine. When he saw the results, he slid back in his chair and took a deep breath. ‘Wow.’ The first three articles were all accompanied by pictures of him, and at least the first ten were all about him. No, not you – just a guy who looks like you. But after reading through a few interviews and articles, he found himself wishing he really was this character.

‘I meet Damien in a dimly lit studio, where he’s apparently in the middle of painting several different works. The canvasses are draped in cloth, and he politely refuses to let me near any of them. Instead, he shakes my hand firmly and gives me a mischievous grin as he offers me a seat on a rickety chair. He apologises for the mess.

            ‘My first impressions of this artistic prodigy are all jarringly counter intuitive. He does not strike me as a sensitive artist at all, nor does he quite fit the stereotype of the drug addicted obsessive. He appears fit and confident, and he speaks clearly and honestly. If I could give his dark minded fans anything romantic to seize on, it would be nothing more substantial than a spark in his eyes, a crookedness to his smile. As you’ll see from the interview, he had quite the knack for slipping direct questions I put to him about his life…’

Damien blinked and shook his head. He could almost see himself, but not quite. It was an ideal version of him, someone he could aspire to be. But it isn’t you. But… It was how they saw him, wasn’t it? To the rest of the world, he and this stranger were the same person.

He closed the computer and shut off his light, though he knew it would be a long time before he went to sleep. If he didn’t play the game tonight, would he wake up in this world again tomorrow? He thought he would – after all, his progress had been saved.

As he lay on his bed, hypnotised faces and eager voices flashed through his mind. His parents, so proud and happy, not of him, but of that other man they thought he was. Did it matter how he got there? If he was inspiring people, giving them happiness? He recalled Reg Towney’s joy as he watched Damien sign all of his merchandise. Thanks so much, man, he’d said. I’m your biggest fan, for real.

No, it didn’t matter.

Much later, after midnight but still long before dawn, Damien gave up on sleep and went back to his desk. The screen lit up before he’d touched a single key, and Out of Hell started without prompting. The glow illuminated his smile.

He had so much work to do, yet.

*

The next level of the game was infinitely more difficult than the first. The enormous gate led down a highway which took him into an abandoned city, as big as New York or Tokyo. There were more demons than ever, each of which had a unique way of hunting. His only sanctuary lay in basements, rooftops and hidden rooms. The alleys and streets were terrifying, overrun with demons; Rats with black leather skin and rusty teeth swarmed in and out of sewers, blind but equipped with keen noses. Giants stomped between skyscrapers. Every building hid beasts in its shadows, and Damien found that it was only possible to save when he made himself completely safe. He had to be in a locked room in an empty building, and he couldn’t be injured. That last part was difficult – a fall or a scratch or bite from a pursuing demon made the screen flash red at the edges, and he would leave a trail of blood until he could find medical supplies.

Not that it mattered. Damien never felt more alive than when he was playing the game. His body was just as invested in that dark universe as his mind was, his senses fully attuned to the sights and sounds far more intensely than everyday life. When he managed to secure himself and exit the game, he invariably collapsed onto his bed, exhausted, only to wake up a few hours later and start the day. Mornings dragged on him. He was numb until the afternoon waned and night drew near, and then everything was all right again.

Three weeks of this madness went by, and Damien grew used to his new status. He woke with red eyes and tired body and dragged himself downstairs. His mother had bacon and eggs and pancakes ready for him, as she did every day. She’d pack delicious ham sandwiches for lunch and it would be curry or roast or homemade pizza for dinner. He was gaining weight, but it didn’t matter – no one cared. He left for school two hours late, and Rowe winked at him as he entered. ‘Up late again last night, were we?’

‘Yeah. Composing, you know. I was kinda on a roll.’

‘Ah, yes, the plight of the artist. Watch and learn, students. Real artists don’t wait for inspiration, they cut the time out of their day and make it happen. Now, on to history…’

He’d been holding off on calling Christina since she gave him his number, part of him too caught up in everything that was going on, but she finally gathered the courage to pull him away from everyone else at lunch time, leading him down to the bottom of the oval. Andrew was sitting under a hanging tree, and when he saw the two of them coming he stalked away, scowling back over his shoulder at Damien as he went. Whatever. He’s just jealous.

‘So what is it?’ he asked her, when they were out of earshot. They’d stopped walking, but she didn’t let go of his hand. She smiled at him and brushed her long hair aside.

‘Come on, Damien. Stop acting so cool. Just ‘cos you’re all successful now. You think that gives you the right not to call me back?’

‘I’ve been busy.’

‘I know. I’ve been listening to all your music. Is it true you’re writing your memoirs?’

Damien had no idea, but he suspected that all it took was for her to believe it, and it would become true. He could hardly wait to read them himself. ‘Maybe,’ he said.

‘I think you’ve been working too hard.’

‘Maybe,’ he said again. The last of his exhaustion slipped away, and he was alive again, the heartbeat thrumming in his ears just as if he had the headphones on. In a way, his life was the same as the game. Moving from one thing to another, navigating the world and trying to survive, always searching for the next thing. Maybe Christina was the next doorway for him.

‘Why don’t I come over later, and we can relax a bit. Watch one of your movies, maybe?’

He kept cool. ‘Okay. Is it alright if you leave around midnight, though? I’m working on something big right now. I don’t want to lose momentum.’

She nodded, eyes huge with admiration. Damien still hadn’t quite gotten used to those black discs on everyone else, but on her they looked beautiful. ‘Of course. I wouldn’t want to disturb your genius.’ She gave him a mischievous half smile, kissed him on the cheek, and left him there.

He left school early, knowing none of the teachers would care, and within an hour he was running down cracked sidewalks, rats on his trail, a steel key in his inventory and so, so close to that next gateway. He could almost taste it.

Time drifted on in another place, unnoticed. Someone knocked on his door, first quietly and then louder and louder, but he was charging down a fire escape while a giant demolished the building he’d been inside a moment ago, and heard nothing. Someone slipped a note under his door that said: DINNER, LOVE MUM. He didn’t notice it, because he’d found the way out at last. It was a manhole the size of a car, and it was guarded by a demon with the body of a dog and a head made of squid tentacles.

For an hour or more, drenched in sweat, Damien distracted and dodged and avoided the beast, but at last he managed to lure it with a trail of his own blood into an underground parking lot, and returned to the manhole. He turned the key, held his breath, and dropped into the darkness.

The message appeared: CONGRATULATIONS, YOU HAVE LEVELLED UP.

Damien pulled off his headphones, slid off his chair onto the floor, weak with relief and exhilaration, and passed out in minutes.

*

His room was still dark when he blinked awake, and when he crawled over to the window and pushed aside the curtains, moonlight flooded the room. It was so bright he had to shield his eyes, and when he squinted up at the sky he realised it wasn’t the moon but a silver sun, one that bathed the clouds and earth in grey rather than yellow light.

The world had changed again.

He felt a twinge of guilt when he saw the note under his door, and then another when he remembered he was supposed to meet Christina. She’d left missed calls on his phone, but he didn’t call her back. Better to be cool. He was the famous one, after all. In fact, he realised with a happy jolt, he was more than famous, now – he’d levelled up. The game had granted him something else, and he couldn’t wait to find out what it was.

Breakfast awaited, a steaming hot bowl of buttered porridge, but neither of his parents were around. His mother had left him another note on the table: GONE HUNTING. BACK SOON. It was a joke, of course, but goose bumps raised up on the back of his neck all the same, and he made sure he ate quickly.

He made the walk to school in a haze of paranoia. Everything was different and yet familiar. He jumped as a rat demon emerged from a gutter and scuttled across the road, and then he blinked and saw that it was only a black cat with shining eyes. The strange silver sun created a harsh contrast that made the world seem black and white.

The game is leaking into reality. Your success in that world leads to success here, but it lets in everything else, too. Better not play the game tonight – just wait a while, get everything under control.

He discovered his newest success as soon as he arrived at school. It was his memoirs – the ones he’d mentioned to Christina just the day before. He’d been working on them, then, but now it seemed he’d not only published them, they were a worldwide bestseller. The whole school seemed to be carrying a copy, and people began to cluster around him from the moment he entered the school grounds, demanding he sign them. They blocked him, crowding him with eager grins like hyenas fighting over the corpse of a zebra. Somehow, he broke through and slipped into his form room, only to turn and find the whole class, Rowe included, standing and clapping for him. Rowe had a pile of the thick black books on his desk and Damien, nodding and smiling, comfortable with celebrity now, went over to sign one.

Through conversation with his breathless, starstruck fans, Damien discovered that his memoirs had made him rich, and not just popular author rich – superstar rich. Reg Towney broke it all down for him, enthralled to have Damien’s full attention. ‘You could like, quit school and go travel the world or live in a mansion on the beach or something for the rest of your life! Like, how does that feel, man? How come you’re still coming to school and stuff?’

Damien shrugged. ‘I’m still getting used to it all, you know. But I’ll probably leave soon. Take a holiday or something, maybe come back and buy a house here.’ Plans were beginning to blossom in his mind even as he spoke. He knew the game was a trap of sorts, that it there had to be a catch in there somewhere, but it had given him everything he wanted. No doubt he was supposed to want to keep playing and push his success as far as it would go, but he was willing to bet this world would keep changing too, and more of the darkness would leak into this world until the demons inside the game escaped. That, of course, was why it was called Out of Hell.

But Damien wasn’t going to fall for the trap. He was going to cash his chips and leave.

‘Hey, Reg,’ he said in a low voice, while everyone else chattered away. Half the year level, as usual, was crowded around the bench he was sitting on, as if he was at a press conference. ‘Do you know where Christina is today? Did she call in sick?’

‘Sorta,’ Reg said with a half smile. ‘She skipped today. Actually, she told me she was going to meet someone at the beachfront. By the way, I was kinda tinkering with a piece to send in to the Rolling Stone, you don’t think I could interview you or something, do you?’

Meet someone at the beachfront. It was like a blade twisting in his guts. Damien had never understood jealousy before – there were plenty of fish in the sea, weren’t there? But now he did. He could no more have stopped himself from moving than if the law of gravity itself was pulling him to her. He stood up from the bench so abruptly he bumped Reg, who stumbled back and then collapsed on his rear, surprised. ‘Hey!’ But he was already going, pushing through the crowd and then jogging through the quadrangle, ignoring the shouts behind him.

Ten minutes out from the beachfront, that cosy nook shielded by a rock shelf where so many of the older kids liked to camp out, Damien realised how crazy he was being. A monster had grown inside him without his knowledge. She’s mine! It screamed, just as it had convinced him that he was deserving of all his success. It’ll all be okay as long as I stop playing the game.

He strolled along the beach with his hands in his pockets, watching dark grey waves roll onto shore with an icy wind that blew sand against his face. The sight of the water calmed him, and when he saw her at last, alone, he realised she’d been playing him along, and a smile lit up on his face before he could rein it in. She was standing with her arms folded, hair blowing out behind her, squinting out over the sea. He stopped beside her and draped an arm over her shoulders in what he hoped was a casual manner.

‘Hey,’ she said.

‘That was a mean trick. I was going to apologise, you know. I just kinda got caught up…’

‘Writing?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I read your memoir. I can’t believe you’ve been through so much, done so much, Damien. You’re so young.’

‘Sometimes I can’t, either,’ he said. He made a mental note to read his book at the first opportunity.

‘I couldn’t believe someone like you, so good and admirable…’ Her voice caught in her throat and he glanced sideways at her, catching a dampness in one blue eye. ‘Could have such darkness in your soul.’

‘Everyone has demons, Christina. I’m sure you do, too.’

She turned to him, and when she smiled he pulled his arm away from her as though he’d been burnt. Her face had changed again, warped by the game. Her eyes were smooth black pearls, and when she smiled her skin stretched like old leather.

‘It’s what made me realise I had to have you,’ she said, curling a hand around the back of his neck. ‘I had to have you in me.’

‘What – now?’ He swallowed.

‘No, not that,’ she said, sucking in a breath. She was kissing his shoulder, scraping his skin with her teeth. ‘I want your soul.’

She bit into his collarbone like a hungry dog, and in the split second before a harsh scream escaped him, he heard her moaning with pleasure.

But he’d been here before, hadn’t he? In an instant his mind switched over and he was back in the game. He tore away and kicked her, sending her railing into the cliff wall with a mouthful of his flesh. He slipped in the sand and then sprinted up the beach. He looked back over his bloody shoulder and saw her coming, hands outstretched and black eyes rolled back in her head.

She was fast, but she wouldn’t catch him. He had plenty of practice, after all, and a minute later he was hopping over fences and sprinting through backyards. He passed a small boy playing in a sandpit and small sharp fingers graze him as he went by. As he ran through a freshly mown garden a grown man emerged from his house, running on all fours like a dog, a tongue made of worms hanging from his mouth. Damien was in the zone,and this time he wasn’t controlling a character – he had his own body. Never in the game had he been able to move with such speed and agility.

At last he crossed an empty street and collapsed to his knees in his own front garden, dizzy. He winced as some of his sweat dripped into the open wound. He couldn’t see it, but the muscle there was swollen and blood stained half of his shirt. Just get to the game, and you can change something. Load one of your saves, something.

Clutching his wound with one hand, he got up, fumbled for the keys in his pocket and unlocked the front door, praying his parents hadn’t returned home.

*

His mother was standing in the front room as he stumbled in, hands on her hips. ‘There you are!’ she said. ‘Oh, no, what’s happened to you? Poor baby. Come, I was just putting dinner in for you.’

Before he could stammer an excuse, she took his hand and pulled him into the kitchen, where vegetables simmered on the stove and the oven glowed red. ‘Will it be long?’ Damien said. ‘Just because I’ve got some stuff I’m working on I should really get…’

He paused mid-sentence. Movement had caught his eye, but the place he thought he’d seen it – the oven – made no sense, so he ignored it. ‘Should really get onto it. Could you just call me when…’ There it was again, but this time there was no denying it: a heavy black thing thumped against the glass iron door. His mother turned at the sound and shook her head, clicking her tongue. ‘Should be unconscious my now, honestly.’

The thing twisted round and two bulging eyes raised up to meet Damien’s. Although he couldn’t make out any other part of the ‘meal’, he knew just who it was.

‘Mum? Who’s that in the oven?’

‘Mm?’ She turned, raising her eyebrows. ‘Oh, that’s Andrew. The boy you used to be friends with. He turned up here in some kind of a hysteria, saying all kinds of awful things about you. Well, I couldn’t take it, and on top of that I hadn’t bought any meat for dinner. So, you know.’ She shrugged.

She’s not my mother, she’s a monster. Damien’s shock broke at last and he pushed her, sending her down hard on the kitchen tiles. She shrieked, surprised, as Damien wrenched the oven door open and grabbed his friend under the armpits, screaming as his hands touched the metal grill. Andrew came out with difficulty – he’d been cramped into the oven, clothes and all, with such force that his knees and elbows jammed against the sides. When he came free at last the two of them collapsed against the cupboards under the kitchen counter. Andrew’s shirt and pants were smoking.

Damien heard his mother before he saw her – high heels banging the tiles hard enough to crack them as she stomped around the corner. She had tears streaming down her face and a pork slicer in her right hand. ‘How dare you, Damien! I spent hours on that roast!’

But Damien didn’t wait for her to come for him. He lunged forward, clamping her legs together in a low rugby tackle. She wasn’t the most coordinated at the best of times, and this time she smacked the back of her head on the tiles with a nasty crack. It’s okay, she’s not my mother. She’s not my mother, and this isn’t my world.

            He snatched the blade from her limp hand, grabbed Andrew’s arm, and dragged him to his feet. He was covered in grill burns and his breaths came in tight, short gasps. Damien got him upstairs as quickly as he could, keeping his ears primed for the sound of his father’s car in the driveway.

When they were alone in his room, the door locked, a minute passed in which neither could speak. Then Andrew said, in a numb voice: ‘You just killed your own mother.’

*

‘No way. She wasn’t my mother any more than you are.’

‘You’re insane.’

Damien said nothing. Andrew’s eyes were bulging out of his head, but they had none of that star struck quality. They looked normal.

‘Andrew. I’m cool, okay? A lot of crazy stuff has been going on lately, and I’m sorry I haven’t spoken to you or anything. I don’t know what people have been telling you, but I’m not crazy.’ He wasn’t used to seeing his friend like this. Absent was the relaxed smile, the half closed stoner eyes, the loose body language. This Andrew was rigid, back pressed against the wall, face taut and alert.

‘Damien, where are you, man?’ he said, and then, bizarrely, waved a hand in front of him. ‘Are you in this fucking world? Can you hear me?’

‘Yes I can hear you.’

‘Okay, then listen: you are not sane right now.’

‘I’m not sane? Are you serious? Do you have any idea what it’s like to live like this? People following me all the time, my own parents so hypnotised by me I can’t even talk to them. Everyone’s turning into monsters, Andrew, do you understand that?’

Andrew swallowed, holding his hands out in surrender. ‘Dude. Do you hear the shit coming out of your mouth right now?’

‘I just saved your life! Do you not remember being in the fucking oven a second ago? Huh? Now why the hell did I have to do that?’ His voice cracked at the end, and even to his own ears it sounded hysterical. He was waving the knife in front of Andrew’s face and he forced himself to take a deep breath, back off.

Andrew was shaking his head. ‘Do you believe that?’ he said. ‘That you saved my life?’

‘What? You saw what I saw.’

‘No. What I saw was, I was talking to your mother in the kitchen, and you came in and started freaking out. You were threatening us with the knife, and then you pushed her down, like, real hard, and then you dragged me up here.’

‘No way.’ Damien shook his head, running everything over in his mind. The game had something to do with this. It had changed everything. ‘You’re lying.’

‘I’m lying?’

‘You’re part of the game. You’re just another demon, trying to get to me. What, you’re gonna make me drop this knife, and then your mouth will get all big and you’ll eat me or something? Do you see this?’ He pointed at the wound in the side of his neck. ‘Christina did this to me, man. She bit me. She was trying to eat my – she was trying to eat me.’

‘That’s not what I heard.’

‘What?’

‘That’s why I’m here, Damien. Everyone was saying you tried to rape Christina. The cops are probably on the way here now.’

‘No way.’ Damien thought back to the beach, searching his mind for faults, supressed memories. He found only her gaping mouth closing on his shoulder, the pain and shock jolting his whole body like an electric shock.

‘You’ve lost it, man. Just give me that knife, okay? I think you burned out, that’s all. You’ve been working too hard. You just need some counselling.’

Damien gritted his teeth and then, before he could chicken out, he tossed the knife over his bed. He was sure Andrew would dive for it, teeth bared and slobbering – in which case he’d go for the door and start running again. But it was Andrew who went for the door, pulling it so hard it almost came off its hinges, and Damien heard him thump down the stairs two at a time. The front door slammed a second later.

All he could hear was his own breathing.

What if it really happened the way Andrew said? What if there are no demons?

But on the heels of this thought came another. What if this was the game? What if that was how it worked – by first granting you everything and then plunging you into your own personal hell. First he was famous, now he was a murder rapist? No, this was a special hell constructed for him by the game. There could be only one way out. One level remaining.

He was going to have to play.

*

The final level was unlike any other that had come before it. The manhole led into the city sewers, and the only way forward was down. The concrete tunnels and foul water soon gave way to slimy rocks, cliffs and cave networks. The screen was almost pitch black, but Damien could make out dim shadows and patches of deeper black, and each step he took sent visible sound waves echoing against the walls. He closed his curtains and turned off the light in his room so he could see better.

He’d never been so terrified in his life. The demons stalked him every turn, their growls and slithering steps audible wherever he went. All it took was one close call, a claw lashing out at him in the dark, and they could trace him by the smell of his blood. He ran, panicked heartbeat loud in his ears, taking turns at random, praying he found the last exit before whatever was behind him caught up.

It was impossible to tell how much time passed, hunched over his screen in a cold sweat, fingers tapping madly at the keys, no longer playing for fun but for desperation. He needed to regain his sanity, his old life. He needed to wake up to a world with sunshine and parents who were sometimes irritable and a friend who teased him about being too uptight.

He hit a dead end, practically ran into it head first. The things chasing him sensed it, and they let out ravenous screeches of triumph. When they reached him they didn’t bother to kill him – they simply took steaming bites from his body. Damien screamed, in the game and out loud, and then fell deadly silent as he watched himself die, pieces of him dripping from hungry mouths, a pale hand stretching out as if pleading for mercy, only to be torn apart by grabbing hands.

Finally, the screen went red, and two words appeared on the screen in silver letters: GAME OVER.

Five long seconds later, Damien’s computer powered off, leaving him in a quiet, dark room.

*

When he opened the door to the landing, he was met with an empty, silent house. Outside, a strong wind blew, and the windows showed a starless midnight. Dread welled up inside Damien as he descended the stairs and made his way through the kitchen. His mother was gone, and the house was dusty and ancient, as though no one had been there for centuries.

The streets were deserted, houses broken and vacant. The only light came from the silver moon, but it was enough to illuminate the way.

Damien kept to the sidewalk, moving as quietly as he could. His heart thudded steadily, too loud in his ears. Somewhere in the distance a jarring song played, and he recognised it as one of his own, a disharmonious string of notes and verses that made no sense and served only to chill your soul.

It wasn’t long before the demons took up his scent, and he started to run.

He was looking for a key, but he had no idea what it looked like, and a small part of him knew that he would never find it.

Somewhere on the next street, something howled for blood.

Death seldom comes quietly or painlessly, and even more seldom to those at peace with their lives. Marie Faye died in a violent chaos of twisted metal, breaking glass and fire. She would have died from her wounds: face torn to shreds, ribs, legs, arms and spine shattered, lungs collapsed. All of that would have been enough, but at the time the flames engulfed her, she was not dead yet. It was the fire that killed her, by searing strips.

*

‘She died instantly in the crash. I’m sorry.’

The news, delivered by a cop who’d done it too many times to really be sorry any more, and his twenty five year old female partner, who was herself on the brink of tears, was too much for Neil Faye. That was for the best, because instead of going to his knees with his hands to his face as he would have done, he turned and gave his only daughter the hug she needed.

Bridgette was limp in his arms, sobbing with a deep, all-encompassing grief he’d never seen or felt before. He would later, but for now he stared over her shoulder at the wall and thought of nothing at all.

More words were exchanged and the police left. Neil spoke to his daughter on the couch for a long time, they got takeaway, and she went to bed exhausted. Through all of this, Neil’s body acted without any orders from upstairs, which had gone ominously silent. He went up to bed around midnight and closed his eyes; opened them again when his alarm clock went off, though he hadn’t slept at all. He called work.

‘Hey Jim.’

‘How are you, Neil? Taking a sick day, huh?’

‘Wife’s dead.’

‘Sorry, didn’t quite get that.’

‘Wife’s dead. Not coming in. Tha…’ It was supposed to be thanks Jim, but something choked the words out of his throat and he hung up instead.

Bridgette wouldn’t wake up for a while, and he found himself driving down to the flea market, where Marie had spent so much of her time. He walked the aisles, a ghost, looking for her in the crowds. Twice he saw the back of her head disappear around a corner, another time he smelt her: fresh oranges and violets.

It was the way in which he discovered the Soul Box that he knew he’d found her. It was a powerful feeling – he knew it was her – yet when he searched for the source, he saw only a black bejewelled box the size of a closed fist. One minute he was shuffling through the crowd, the next he was staring into one of the shops that lined the alley. Not at any of the items on display, but at the black box, only the corner of which was visible to him beneath a low table stocked with jewellery. His eyes fixed on it and focussed of their own accord, his breath catching in his throat.

His sanity bent, but did not break. He fell to his knees in front of the alarmed stall owner – a plump saggy eyed woman in a kaftan – and wept bitter, grateful tears.

*

Bridgette sat on the back porch, her bare feet hanging over the edge of the deck in the icy rain, listening. Her mother had loved the rain. Her eyes were closed, so she didn’t know he was there until he sat down beside her.

‘Heya, Bridie.’

‘Hey.’

‘I know you’re probably in shock still. I know I am. But, uh, I just thought I’d get something for you, for when it gets hard, you know?’

Now she did look at him, but only for a second. ‘Oh. Thanks Dad.’

‘Here.’ He pressed the box into her hand. Black Porcelain embedded with silver jewels. Probably cheap rocks, but they reflected the grey sky with such clarity. She saw her own reddened eyes reflected back at her.

‘What is it?’

‘It’s a Soul Box,’ he said. ‘It keeps the souls of those who’ve passed. As long as you have that, Marie won’t leave you. Either of us.’

She couldn’t help but smile. It was typical of him, wasn’t it? He couldn’t be sweet without being corny at the same time. It wasn’t in her to make fun, though. She hugged him. ‘Thanks, Dad.’

‘That’s okay.’

They sat together for a while and she turned the box over in her hands until a part of it detached and almost fell into the wet grass. She hadn’t even realised it had a lid. She looked inside.

Her mother’s eye stared at her from the bottom of the box, wide with panic and pain and full of the horror of her final moments. Bridgette took a sharp breath and fumbled it. She looked again, but it was only a picture of an eye someone had painted on the bottom, bright green and white. It wasn’t even realistic.

‘What’s wrong?’ She showed him and laughed when he recoiled.

‘Jeez, Bridie.’

‘Yeah. Gee dad, no souls in here. I think you got ripped off.’

He shrugged. ‘Yeah, I guess I did. That’ll teach me to trust strange witch ladies.’

‘Witch lady? Where’d you get this?’

‘The Market. You know…’

Neither of them said a word for the next few minutes. Bridgette held the box out in the rain and let it half fill up before closing the lid again. She glanced sideways at her father and smiled. ‘She liked the rain.’

‘Yeah. She did, didn’t she?’ He put an arm around her and, for the first time in two days, she found respite from the grief that had so far threatened to consume her.

She didn’t meet her father’s eyes, or she might have seen that he was already consumed.

*

Two weeks of rain and darkness. Nightmares and oblivion alternated in both her waking and sleeping life. Her father refused to acknowledge his own sadness, smiling at her whenever he saw her, making tea, watching movies, going to work as though everything was the same. She told herself that her mother was inside the Soul Box, but she knew it contained only the painted eye and some water. She kept it by her bed day and night.

Until the funeral.

After all that rain, the sun shone in a clear sky and spring was everywhere. Fuck you, Bridgette thought. Fuck you for being happy, world.

‘So we lay to rest my beloved wife, Marie Andrea Faye. Beautiful, smart, the kindest woman I’ve ever…’ He trailed off. Bridgette hadn’t been able to take her eyes off her mother’s too fresh grave, the soil tossed and smoothed over, the stone so pristine and new – but in the sudden silence she looked up. Neil was staring, misty eyed, in the direction of the high sun. No, he was staring into the sun, without so much as a twitch of an eyelid. The hand holding his notes hung by his side. A soft breeze snatched one of the pen scrawled pages and sent it twirling over the cemetery, but he didn’t seem to notice.

‘Such a pretty face, she had.’ His voice so quiet it only reached her on the back of that same breeze. ‘Skin burnt to black flakes and blisters. Pieces of bone tearing through her cheeks. Her hair melted into her scalp. I remember the way her legs were broken almost completely backwards, like a bird.’ He gave a sad chuckle. Bridgette clutched the box so hard it threatened to shatter. Some of the water spilled and wet her palm.

‘The way she used to moan always takes me back. Especially when she was trying to drag herself over the asphalt, leaving bits of herself behind.’ He wiped his eyes and smiled.

‘Once, she said to me, “Neil,” she said – ’ And then, just as Bridgette was staring at the other serious mourners wondering why don’t they do something? He screamed at the top of his lungs, but not with his own voice – with Marie’s – and Bridgette dropped the box and fell to the grass on her knees with both hands pressed against her ears to keep out the sound of it. It was so full of pain, that scream.

It stopped abruptly and she opened her eyes as two men, one a friend of her mothers, the other an uncle she’d only met once, reached under her arms and pulled her to her feet. Everyone else crowded around, peering over each other to look at her.

‘It’s alright, its okay everyone, she’s fine,’ the uncle – Ian, wasn’t it? – was saying. He escorted her away from the others and sat her down under an oak tree. Her father cast her a worried glance and then cleared his throat and continued his speech. Ian felt her forehead and then squatted beside her.

‘Are you okay?’

She nodded. ‘Yeah, sorry, I must have had like a, a moment or something. Sorry.’

He had a trimmed ginger beard and crow’s feet like trenches in his face. ‘It’s too bad we had to reunite under these circumstances. Too often it takes a tragedy to bring family together.’ She tried to remember him and had only hazy impressions, of some event in the distant past, a grinning man in a suit and her mother’s laughter.

‘I didn’t, like, scream or anything, did I?’

He furrowed his brow. ‘No, no, nothing like that.’

‘Okay, good. Thanks. It’s just so soon, you know?’

‘Yes, of course. Do you think you’ll be alright?’

‘Yeah. I’m fine. Just freaked.’ She took a deep breath and sat up against the tree. It was good to be in the shade and away from that sweltering, inappropriate sunlight. Her father’s words floated over from the congregation. He was talking about her mother’s beauty, and the way her smile lit up a room. No burning flesh.

‘Okay. Stay as long as you need. No one expects you to be a social butterfly today. See you later.’ He got up and then paused. ‘Oh, almost forgot. You dropped this.’ He handed her a square tile of black porcelain. The Soul Box’s lid.

‘Thanks,’ she said. He gave her a reassuring nod and went to re-join the others.

She set the box down beside her, but as she moved to slide the lid into place, she saw her mother’s eye. Not the painted thing, but a real eyeball, rolling in a soup of red nerves and blood instead of rainwater, turning as though searching for something – Bridgette? – but before it could find her she closed the box.

The sound of the lid dropping into place was a heavy, stone on stone grind. It resonated inside her, making her body and mind vibrate with the weight of it, and she lurched onto all fours and vomited into the grass. She remained that way for a few minutes, panting, until the insane buzzing in her mind dulled to a hum. What was that about?

She sat back against the oak and stared at the box, wiping her mouth with a shaky hand. Just a box. She should open it again, now, to reassure herself that she was a disturbed, grieving girl and that was all there was to it.

But she didn’t.

She slipped it into her pocket, stood on weak knees and walked back to the congregation. Her father ended the speech in tears and everyone clapped and wiped their eyes.

Marie Faye was gone for good.

*

Routine became desperately important for Neil. It was the tightrope that kept him from falling into the black hole that Marie had left in her wake. He wasn’t so much balancing on it as crawling, and the end was nowhere in sight, but as long as he kept moving forward, he could continue to function.

He would wake up and have coffee and porridge. He went to work and maintained the basic level of mental ability required, only returning to consciousness when he arrived home. He had dinner with Bridie and then sat in front of the television drinking cup after cup of strong tea, watching but not seeing, until his eyes closed of their own accord.

Bridie concerned him, and she was what kept him moving forward along the tight rope instead of simply clinging to it. She’d never been talkative, but now she was downright broody. Not that he blamed her, but it wasn’t healthy for a fifteen year old girl, especially one as popular as she, to be a hermit. Her once animated face adopted the tired look of an overworked single mother. She ate without appetite and spent most of her time reading or sitting on the porch and gazing at nothing.

Curiously, she only went up to her bedroom to change clothes or sleep, and he wasn’t so sure she was sleeping much, either. On several separate occasions as he passed her room on the way to his own bed in the early hours of the morning, he heard whispering. Once he even pressed his ear up against the door and tried to hear what she was saying, but she spoke too quickly, the words running into each other like a stream hissing through leaves.

She had to work things out in her own mind, he supposed, just like he did. He wished she would talk to him, but she’d always been closer with her mother.

It didn’t occur to him that he might have been part of what was worrying Bridie so much until she came to him one night with the Soul Box. He was on his sixth cup of earl grey and couldn’t remember what show he was watching, an ad for bicep blaster 6000 screaming at him from across the living room. Her black hair was mussed and her eyes droopy, and she sat down beside him on the couch and put the Soul Box down on the coffee table.

He muted the ad and blinked at her, setting the tea aside. ‘Oh, hey Bridie. Can’t sleep?’

She shook her head. ‘Not for a while.’

He gave her a smile he hoped was reassuring rather than unstable. ‘Me neither. We just have to give it time, you know? And I’m always here for you.’

‘Thanks, Dad. Um, me too, right?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’ve been worried. I was thinking maybe you should have the Soul Box. I really got the feeling you needed it more than me, you know? And I just… Things that remind me of her can be kind’ve painful more than anything else. I appreciate it, you know, but you need her more than me.’

He looked at the Soul Box and smiled. It was as though Marie was there in the room with them. Her warm presence comforted him more than he could say. ‘I miss her so much,’ he said.

‘Me too, Dad.’

‘Well, if you’re sure. Thanks.’ He reached for the box and she tensed up. He cocked his head, hand still outstretched. ‘What’s up?’

‘Oh, I dunno. It’s just… I have this strong feeling, you know? Like, is it okay if we don’t ever open it again? I saved some rainwater inside, and I feel like that’s her soul, and if we open it she might get lost. I know it sounds stupid.’

‘No, no. I mean, yeah, it does sound stupid.’ They laughed, the sound strange but welcome in the quiet house. ‘But I know exactly what you mean. If we don’t open it, it kinda preserves the magic of the thing, right? Like you know a magician’s trick is just a trick, but as long as he doesn’t explain how he did it, you can always believe, just a little bit?’

‘Exactly.’ She smiled.

He picked up the box, still warm from her hands, and turned it over, hypnotised by the way the light glanced off the jewels like tiny mirrors.

‘Magic,’ he said.

*

She couldn’t tell him the real reason she had to get rid of the box. He was dealing with enough on his own without having to handle the thought that his daughter might be losing her mind. There was something else, but she didn’t admit it to herself except late at night when she tossed and turned and wondered: what if I I’m not going crazy, and the Soul Box is real?

After she gave him the box, she watched him closely for signs that he was experiencing the same things she had. But he smiled at her over coffee, he asked her about her day, he watched television into the early hours, he drank more than he used to. Normal behaviour, now.

It was impossible to talk to him about it. How could she explain to him what it had been like? Her mind had twisted things so that the box became a source of dread. She left it by her bedside and didn’t go near it all day. And when she did, oh. The heaviness that settled over her when she opened her door and looked into her room; the way her stomach churned and her skin prickled, as it did strapped in to the front seat of a rollercoaster in the last moments before take off. How she’d heard her mother’s voice in the twilight hours of morning, somewhere between sleep and waking, whispering. She couldn’t quite remember the words, only that they were nasty, and mentioned things she didn’t want to hear. Once she’d woken up in a cold sweat and swore she heard the tail end of a sentence hissing at her from inside the box: Feel it burning all the way to my bones forever… How could she tell her father these things?

The night she gave the box to him, she’d fallen into a deep sleep and hadn’t woken for twelve hours of pleasant sunlit dreams. No dread, no fear – only grief, and now that the whispers were silenced, she could bear the grief.

Neil seemed comforted, but she couldn’t help but wonder if he wasn’t keeping everything to himself. He laughed too easily, smiled too often. He didn’t leave the box in his room but kept it in his pocket at all times. She never heard it whisper when she was with him, but sometimes he cocked his head to one side and his smile faltered.

Bridgette took the days one at a time, and things got easier. People died, and you moved on because you had no choice. It was sad, but no one could be sad forever, and as the weeks went by and she returned to school, and friends, and normal things, she thought of her mother less and less.

Sometimes, in her dreams, she remembered the things her mother’s voice had whispered, and she woke up with a scream in her throat. On these nights, she was glad her father had agreed never to open the box.

If there really was something in there, it would be better not to know.

*

Marie was back. Not in the flesh, of course, not in person, but he could live with that because he’d fallen in love with who she was as much as what she was. Better to have her mind and not her body than the other way around.

It was magic, alright, and he wished so badly he could tell Bridie everything, but Marie wouldn’t let him. She can’t hear me, honey, she said. I tried. And occasionally she would call out to her daughter, but Bridie never responded, and in the end, as Marie told him, that was for the best. She’s better that way, Neil. She needs to move on, and that’s okay.

He could hardly sleep the first week. He talked and talked and let all his grief and worry leak away because she was alright, she was here with him, hadn’t left at all, and even when he died one day she reassured him they could still be together. He talked because he didn’t want to hear. He was too afraid to ask her what it had been like to die, or where she was now, and she didn’t tell him. He was afraid, also, that she wouldn’t be able to answer because her voice was really his own mind giving him the comfort he needed. She sounded happy, and that was enough for him.

For a while.

Curiosity gnawed in a dark corner of his mind so quietly he never knew it was there until he started asking her the questions he didn’t want her to answer.

He would set the Soul Box on the kitchen table and talk to her for hours while Bridgette was at school. Reminiscing, laughing and joking, loving each other with words. It was on one of these occasions, two o’clock on a summery Tuesday afternoon, when he asked her, ‘Is it okay, where you are now?’ He hadn’t known he was going to ask until the words fell out of his mouth.

Are you sure you want to know? She whispered.

‘I dunno. I mean, I guess heaven is a crazy idea, when you think about it – kinda just too good to be true. But it can’t be all bad where you are, right?

It’s lonely.

‘God. I’m so sorry, Marie. You won’t be alone forever, I promise you.’

She didn’t answer, and for a long time he sat at the table in silence, squirming. How bad was it? How long had he left her there, alone?

‘Listen, just tell me what happens. Where are you? Marie, maybe I can help you somehow. Please tell me?’

A pause, then, her whisper mingling with a sudden gust blowing in through the kitchen window, she answered: ‘Open the box, and I’ll show you.’

*

Bridgette walked home with her face up to the sky, letting the sun fall across her skin in between clouds and feeling okay. There was a certain sadness beneath everything, a melancholy that would never quite go away. She was fine with that. She wouldn’t truly lose her mother unless she lost that sadness, she –

The Dread.

It was like walking into a wall. She stopped mid stride and shook her head, blinking. Was there someone behind her? No, it wasn’t that kind of dread. It was something worse, a terror without cause. She was suffocating, but no matter how deeply she sucked at the air, she couldn’t get enough oxygen into her lungs. She doubled over and fixed her eyes on the cracked concrete sidewalk, willing herself not to vomit. She broke into a cold sweat and her hands shook. Tears welled up in her eyes and dripped onto her scuffed school shoes.

She was less than a hundred meters from the street she on which she lived, but she doubted she could walk five. A vast cloud rolled over the sun and she went to her knees in a dark, empty street. Was she dying?

No. It’s the box. It’s the same feeling the Soul Box used to give you, only worse. For a minute she was paralysed with her grief, forehead touching the ground while tears poured from her eyes, but such an intense feeling couldn’t last for long without making her faint, and as soon as it relented she forced herself up onto her feet and stumbled forward, wiping her eyes. She dropped her school bag in the street and didn’t look back. Something’s happened. Oh, God, something’s happened.

She didn’t stop again, nor did she look up, her mind focussed on landing one foot in front of the other until she reached her front lawn. This time it was the smell of roasting pork that struck her, and the thin grey smoke that escaped the half open front door. She knew even then what had happened, only not why, and she collapsed onto all fours in dewy grass and screamed until she had nothing left.

He might not be dead! He might not be dead! This thought was enough to drag her back up and on, through the front door and, following the smoke, down the hall toward the kitchen. She heard the awful sound she remembered from the funeral: heavy stone grating against stone and settling into place with a final thump.

He was still alive.

Smoking, red embers settled in the black husk of his body, knees to chest in the foetal position at the foot of the kitchen counter, eyes like white boiled eggs bulging from a scorched face, a pair of scissors and a metal skewer lodged deep into each ear, lips peeled back from blistered gums and cracked teeth. Yet his mouth drew the slow raw hiss of a lifetime smoker; still alive.

‘Oh, God, Dad.’

She went to her knees in front of him, though not close enough to touch. His ashen flesh radiated heat like an oven. The floor and wooden cupboards were charcoal black, and the can of lighter fluid he’d used lay on its side. His eyeballs twitched at the sound of her voice and a pained cry escaped his throat. Then a hushed word: ‘Bridie?’

‘Why, Dad? How could you do this?

But whatever answer he might have had for her died in his throat, along with the rest of him. Fire tightened tendons in his right hand loosened, and the Soul Box fell from his grip and tumbled, without opening, against Bridgette’s knee. While she was weeping, she thought she glimpsed her father’s blue eyes in the reflection of one of the silver jewels, weeping with her.

When she managed to pull herself to her feet again with the aid of the countertop, she saw a note lying on the kitchen table. It was written in her father’s familiar block letter handwriting, scrawled in such a frantic rush it was barely legible. He’d signed the bottom of the page, but his wasn’t the only signature.

The other read: M. Faye.

*

Bridie, sweet Bridie.

            I’m going to do it. I’m so sorry but I have to do it. You warned me not to open the box and, Oh God, I opened it. Your mother only did what I asked, she showed me what happens. What happens.

            I had to go to her, Bridie, I couldn’t leave her to face it alone. I had to share her suffering.

             She didn’t die fast at all. It was slow, so slow. And do you want to know what happens? When you die, you die. You experience your death. Over and over.

            My eyes have been opened, and one day yours will be, too. I don’t want it to be a surprise for you like it was for Marie, so I’ll tell you now, my poor sweet Bridie.

            Your life is a tunnel, and it stops in a dead end, a cul de sac, a blank wall. There is nowhere left to go, so you just stay there, stuck in a rut. Life is a well that ends in mud and stagnant water. Life is a coffin from which there is no escape, and death is the dirt that keeps you in.

            Think of all those people, the children who drowned, the men who died bleeding and terrified on a thousand different battlefields across history. Think of the women insensible with pain who died in childbirth, of the innocents tortured to death over the centuries. Think of the ones who starved and the ones who were taken in inches by disease. Do you know where they all are now, this very moment?

            They’re living the last minutes of their deaths, over and over again. They’re stuck in the enclaves at the ends of their lives, where your mother is, where I will be.

            No one should have to suffer that alone, Bridie, so I went to join her.

            Maybe, one day, you could keep us company?

            We miss you so much, Bridie.

            We love you.

 

*

Bridgette was fine.

For a while.

Neil had killed himself in a rush, but he’d made a new will directly after Marie’s death that took good care of Bridgette. When she was eighteen, she moved to an apartment in the city, where the bustle and nightlife made her feel less alone at night. She got a few jobs, but couldn’t hold them down. She went out and got drunk, took drugs and tried to meet people.

But somehow, everything was pointless.

She kept the box beside the bed and tried not to listen to the words that escaped it in hushed secretive tones late at night and in the dark hours of the morning. There were two voices that spoke now, and they meant well, but she could hear madness behind the things they said. Their pain was becoming too much for their minds. At least they were together.

Some nights, Bridgette didn’t go out at all, but stayed in with a bottle of vodka and played music loud enough to drown the voices.

One of these nights, she stepped out onto the balcony with the Soul Box in one hand and the bottle in the other. It was a smoker’s balcony, narrow and minimalist, the railing made of cement rather than glass, so she could climb on top of it and balance, rainy air whipping into her face as she sang with the music.

Each time she reached the end of the railing she’d take another swig and then turn around, so the arm that hung over the bright lights of the city twenty floors below changed each time. First the bottle hung over the drop, then the box, then the bottle, then the box. When half the bottle was gone she tripped and accidentally kicked her radio from its perch. She watched it fall without breathing, counting ten full seconds before it shattered in the alleyway beside a metal dumpster.

In the sudden silence she stood, facing the empty night. She leaned forward and would have fallen if it weren’t for a correctly timed gust of wind blowing up against her. She swallowed another shot of vodka and coughed. She lifted the Soul Box in front of her and rested her thumb on the edge of the lid, knowing it would take the slightest flick of her nail to open it.

‘I miss you so much, mum. I miss you, Dad.’

Misssss you tooooooo, honey.

            ‘Why did you leave me?’

Haven’t lefffffft. Here foreverrrrrr.

            It wouldn’t be such a bad death, she thought. Soaring toward the pavement at ten meters a second, air roaring in her ears, the night enveloping her; it would be like flying through space. If that was to be her eternity, well, there were worse ways, weren’t there? They wouldn’t begrudge her a sense of peace in her final moments, when they had only pain, would they?

She wobbled again, regained her balance and took another burning swig. Only a quarter bottle left now.

Come to ussssss, Bridgette. We misssssss youuuuuu.

‘I miss you too, guys. I do. I hope you’re okay, wherever you are.’

She took her thumb away from the lid, closed her eyes, and opened her hand. She didn’t see the box fall so much as felt it, that heavy dread leaving her weak in its absence. She didn’t hear the sound of shattering porcelain because her knees gave out and she collapsed backwards onto the balcony, the bottle of vodka shattering against the cement.

The rain fell harder, but she didn’t notice, curled up under an alcohol blanket, weeping for her parents. She cried for them, and for all the dead, and for the fate that awaited her.

But she was alive tonight, and whatever lay ahead, she still had tomorrow.

In time, a smile found her sleeping lips.

Dean was the tough guy of Werner beach. The bro, the alpha dog. The guy who was out there in the middle of winter, in a storm, when the waves were big enough to block out the sky. He practically lived out there when school was out, and when class was in he’d often skip it if the surf was good.

So when he saw the rock pool for the first time, he didn’t see a rock pool at all. He saw the next adrenaline fix, the next competition. The other two tough guys of Werner beach – his friends Ron and Andy – were with him, and he knew they didn’t have the guts to go as far as he did.

‘Check it out,’ he said, pointing. They’d been walking across the rocky point to the next stretch of sand to see if the waves were better around the cove. It was a tricky business, navigating razor sharp rocks, slippery seaweed and deceptively deep pools, while strong waves pushed and pulled at your ankles.

‘So what? It’s a rock pool,’ Ron said. He’d been swimming all day but was so anxious to get back into the water he was shifting on his feet.

‘Nah, mate, not just a rock pool. It’s who can go the deepest.’

They peered over the side. The day was overcast, and it was impossible to see below a meter. Dean had grown up here, though, and he knew the nature of such pools: they twisted and turned and joined networks, but they didn’t end.

‘It’s probably not even that deep,’ Andy said, salt matted hair blowing in his face as he squinted into the water. The pool was about the size of a billiard table, and unnaturally circular. The sides were brittle rock and coral, the kind that would cut you if you so much as brushed it.

‘Go touch the bottom then,’ Dean challenged. ‘Bring up a handful of sand and I’ll give you five bucks.’ He didn’t know for sure it was deep, but he sensed it, the same way he could glance at the surf from the beach and sense where the rips were. When you went out to sea, beyond the waves, you could feel the depth under you. There wasn’t anything to say the sandy bottom was more than five or ten meters down – but you knew it wasn’t: it was hundreds of kilometres below your kicking feet.

‘If it’ll shut you up,’ Andy said, and with hardly a breath he dove into the middle of the rock pool and kicked, his pale feet vanishing into the dark, straight down. He and Ron waited for ten, twenty seconds.

Ron raised his eyebrows. ‘Shit. What if he doesn’t come up?’

‘Where’s he gonna go? Even Andy isn’t dumb enough to take a tunnel or something. He’ll either hit the bottom or chicken out. Bet I know which one, too.’

Dean counted another twenty seconds, and was about to say something when Andy rose to the surface and pulled himself over the side, gasping for breath.

‘Bloody hell. It was deep, alright. I went down far as I could go. Shit, my ears are killing me.’

‘You’re supposed to equalise, idiot,’ Ron said, folding his arms.

‘Yeah, well. It was way deeper than I thought. How long was I gone?’

‘Almost a minute,’ Dean said. ‘Did you see anything?’

‘Total blackness, man. Scary as. When I started back up I couldn’t even see the surface properly. It was just a blur of light way up there.’ He grinned, wiping sandy hair out of his face. ‘It was a rush, though.’

‘Alright,’ Dean said, nodding. ‘It’s on. Time to see who the real man is.’

*

Ron was next, and Dean timed it on his dive watch. One full minute. When he came back up, half senseless with oxygen deprivation, the first words out of his mouth were: ‘Did I beat Andy?’ And then, ‘It goes forever.’

Ever the cocky bastard, he was scoffing at Dean before he was even in the water. ‘You won’t beat a minute, mate, don’t worry. The pressure gets you, for one thing, squeezes your skull. Plus you get disoriented in the dark, don’t even know which way is up. Check this,’ he turned to show Dean the side of his arm, which was badly grazed. ‘Couldn’t even stay in the middle.’

Dean patiently unbound his watch and handed it to Ron. ‘Yeah, but then again, you guys are sissies, aren’t ya?’

Andy laughed. ‘Yeah, alright, buddy. Show us, then. Come on.’

Instead of replying, Dean winked and then turned away from the rock pool. He pried around until he found what he was looking for: a hefty rock lying at the base of the cliffs. It was the size of a basketball and weighed maybe twenty kilos. Perfect. He started back to the pool, cradling it to his chest. Ron shook his head as he approached. ‘Don’t do it, Dean. You’ll run out of breath.’

‘This is how real men do it,’ Dean said. He took a long, deep breath and then entered the pool in a long, smooth stride, not wanting to hesitate. He heard Andy mutter two words a second before he went under, equal parts scorn and respect: ‘Fucking crazy, dude.’

Dean sunk through ice cold pitch blackness for twenty seconds, clutching the rock, and as the light from above rose further and further out of sight, it occurred to him that maybe Andy had a point.

*

He gripped it for longer than he should have. It was impossible that this pool was so deep. Thirty seconds of such a quick descent should have put him at least thirty meters under, but he didn’t feel like he was anywhere near the bottom. He floated in darkness, and now that the rock was gone and he was no longer moving, he had no way to tell which way was up.

Panic arrived with the first stirrings of discomfort in his lungs – but then he fixed on something, a tiny speck of light as remote as a star. Surely the surface wasn’t that way – he was looking between his kicking feet. Had he turned himself upside down in those few seconds?

No time to think. Ten more seconds at this depth and he wouldn’t have the air to make it back. As it was, his lungs seized and black flecks jumped across his vision as he propelled himself upward, his strokes more urgent and less controlled as he drew nearer. He was going to make it, and best of all he was certain they’d never break his record. No human being was ever going to reach the bottom of that shaft, anyway.

He pulled himself over the side with arms so weak he had to roll onto his back to catch his breath before standing. He stared up at the grey clouded sky and sucked in salty air for a minute or so, a wide smile on his lips. No one said a word.

‘Man, that was deep,’ he said. ‘I bet I smashed you, Ron. How long was it?’ He held out his hand for one of them to help him up, but no one took it.

He sat up. The rock shelf was empty save a lone oncoming wave. He managed to stand before it hit, and scanned the beach for the other two. Nothing and no one. The whole beach was deserted, in fact, which was strange in itself – there’d been at least ten surfers out on the breakers when they’d arrived.

‘OY! STOP BEING ASSHOLES!’ Dean shouted. They had to be hiding. It was either that or they’d headed home as soon as he went under, which made no sense at all unless they were playing a stupid trick. God damn them – Ron still had his watch!

He walked around the cove, but they weren’t on the next beach, and nor was anyone else, so he gave up and went back to Werner, where he found his towel and possessions missing as well. So it was a prank, then: make him walk home in the cold and wet. Record, what record? he could imagine Andy saying with a furrowed brow. I don’t remember any rock pool, do you, Ron? They were jealous he beat them. Fine, whatever, he’d go straight home and they could laugh about it later. Screw them.

How they’d made ten surfers disappear, he didn’t know.

*

Something was wrong.

From the stars in the midday sky to the empty streets to the black clouds which had been grey an hour ago, everything was off kilter, false. This feeling struck him about ten minutes from his house, and it was strong enough that he stopped in the street and looked around, disoriented. An old man and his granddaughter walked hand in hand along the quiet road, and Dean watched them, trying to work out why they made him uneasy. They were just people, weren’t they?

Forget it. Go home and eat and play some Call of Duty and sleep, and Andy and Ron can go to hell.

            But he couldn’t enter his house – not through the front door. He went around the back and tiptoed in through the laundry, craning his neck around corners as though he expected someone to be waiting with a hammer and a grin. The only sound was that of a ticking clock, so it came as a surprise when he entered the kitchen and found his family. His father smiled as he entered. He was stirring an enormous pot on the stove while his mother set the table, at the head of which Gina slouched and flicked through a magazine.

Dean smiled back, but a crawling sensation worked its way along his back. His Dad never smiled. Mr. Holmes, as Dean’s friends called him, was an imposing and ever professional man, the type who wore a suit to every social event and always kept rigid posture and perfect manners, even with his children. Now, Dean observed his casual stance and the loopy expression. Was he high or what?

‘Hi, Dean, just in time for dinner,’ His mother said. ‘Where’ve you been all day?’ She was just as off putting as his father. She never cared where he’d been, and her voice tended to be flat and full of dry humour, not this sprightly chime. And Gina, who usually flooded him with a million words from the moment he entered a room, barely raised an eyebrow at him before looking back at her magazine. ‘Hey.’

‘Just at the beach,’ Dean said, taking a seat beside his sister. The smell of the cooking wafted over to him from the stove and made him want to gag. Once Ron’s mother had made him a stew of slow cooked lamb, but the meat was bad quality and past fresh, and the bones gave off the smell of rot. This wasn’t dissimilar.

‘The beach?’ his mother said, continuing to set the table. Her smile wobbled. ‘Why would you go to the beach? There isn’t anyone there. I notice you didn’t bring anyone back for dinner, either, unlike your sister.’

The comment was so bizarre that Dean couldn’t bring himself to reply. Why had he been at the beach? It was his second home. And what did she mean Gina brought someone for dinner? There wasn’t anyone here but the four of them. He just shrugged and said nothing. Gina looked up from her magazine long enough to stick her tongue out at him, but he hardly noticed, because he’d just seen the cutlery his mother had set in front of him.

Technically, it was a knife and fork, but not like any he’d used before. The knife had a blade eight inches long with a serrated edge, and the fork had only two long tines. He wasn’t certain, but they looked an awful lot like real silver, too. He opened his mouth to say something and then shut it again. Don’t do it or they’ll know.

Gina sniffed, and her eyes were on him again, but he didn’t meet them. Instead, he watched his mother go into the kitchen to check on whatever his father had in the crockpot. She whispered something in his ear and he smiled widely, chuckled and shook his head. Dean’s father never chuckled. He laughed, but only when a man he respected told a joke, and then in a false, hearty voice – never with genuine mirth. His mother leaned on his shoulder and looked into the pot, her left hand sliding down her husband’s lower back and settling on his ass.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ Gina said. There was no trace of the giggling teenager he knew in her expression or voice: instead he saw a cold, cynical girl with steady confidence beyond her years. A stranger.

‘Just had a… weird day, that’s all.’

‘Didn’t get anyone? That’s unusual for you. Were you really at the beach?’

Get anyone? What is she talking about? ‘Yeah. Why, where were you? Who did you bring?’ If he kept the questions on her, maybe she’d stop probing. She seemed suspicious.

She sighed and rested her head in her hand, flipped a page. ‘Don’t even talk to me. Got run out of like three places, almost bloody lost my head. Ended up snatching a baby from up the road, just got lucky. Won’t be enough though, so you better get it together tomorrow. Less people every day.’

‘Oh. Yeah.’

She flipped another page and something caught his eye on the glossy paper. It didn’t seem right, so he shifted in his chair to get a closer look. Maybe there’d be a clue there as to what the hell was going…

Meat. Saws and screaming people, blood. An image of a crying naked child having its throat slit by a laughing mother. A long article along one page with the title PREY A DAY: HOW TO ENSURE YOU LAND FRESH ADULTS ON A REGULAR BASIS. Beside it was an image of a smiling family holding the disembowelled corpse of a bulky man.

Dean looked back to his bowl and then over at his parents. His father was spooning hot stew into bowls which his mother lifted and brought over to him and Gina, who was once again staring at him with that intense look.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ She said again.

‘Gina, stop pestering Dean – he’s clearly had a bad day.’ She set the bowls in front of them and went back to the kitchen.

‘Why do you keep asking me that?’ he said, trying to sound annoyed, trying not to think of the things he’d seen, and the internal voice that screamed at him to get the hell out of there before something happened.

‘Why do you smell so scared, then?’ she said. Her nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply, leaning in towards him, and then she settled back in her chair with a smug grin. ‘You’re pissing yourself!’ She said. ‘Mum, Dean’s losing it! He’s as scared as a legless bunny!’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Gina. What would Dean have to be scared about?’ But as she and his father sat down at the table she sniffed the air and cocked her head, considering it.

Time to go, man, time to go…

Dean scraped his chair back, pointing his long knife at his sister. ‘You’re mental. I’m not scared, okay. Something happened out there and I don’t want to talk about it.’ It was the first thing that came to him, but he saw doubt in her eyes and found hope. Maybe he could pretend to be mad and storm out with the knife. He could be back at the beach before the realised something was wrong.

His father had brought the pot to the middle of the table when he came over so that anyone could help themselves to seconds whenever they wanted. Now that he was standing, Dean couldn’t help but see what was inside, and when he did, the panic that had been simmering inside rose up and consumed him.

Ended up snatching a baby from up the road… Pale hairless flesh bobbed to the surface of a still simmering broth of potatoes onions and tomato, a thick brown sauce. A pudgy hand. At that moment, all three of them stared at him, his father’s mouth falling open in surprise and his mother gasping, a hand flying to her mouth. It was as though they could all see his terror as clearly as if it were a physical thing.

At that moment, the front door opened and Dean himself stepped in, someone’s severed torso and upper body hefted over one shoulder. ‘Sorry,’ he called out, turning to shut the front door behind him. His shirt was covered in blood. ‘Helped Andy and Ron out with this one, so we had to split him three ways. Tried to fight, but we took him down with rocks in the…’

He saw Dean and froze at the threshold. The body dropped to the floor with a sick thlomp! Leaking dark blood onto the floorboards.

*

Had Dean waited a moment longer, the spell would have broken and they’d have had him. As it was, his father managed to curl an arm around him as he pushed past, only letting go when Dean sunk the knife into his neck and pushed him away. The kitchen erupted in screams and clattering pots but Dean was out of there, through the back door and out into the street well ahead of them.

Cold evening air whipped his face as he ran, tears of panic streaming across his face and bare feet slapping asphalt. He didn’t see anyone at first, but when Gina started down the road after him and let out her piercing shriek, people began appearing from the shadows. They stared at him from alleyways and over fences, confused, curious. One man almost got him, an enormous slab who came around the side of a wall and lunged for him, baggy shirt brushing Dean as he leapt aside.

When his feet landed on the blessed soft sand, he chanced a look back. The Other Dean was in front of all the rest, sprinting over the road toward him, his eyes wide and bright: he was as shocked to see another version of himself as Dean was. Behind him, several others emerged from the short houses that lined the beach, necks craning, fingers pointing. He was the Other in this place, there was no doubt about that. And he didn’t want to find out what happened to outsiders here.

The rocks, sharp enough to draw blood even when you stepped lightly, tore his feet apart as he ran across them. He cried out but didn’t dare slow down. His other was gaining quickly now, letting out a whoop of exhilaration that Dean recognized as his own, the triumphant shout he would let loose as a wave took him the first burst of speed propelled him through the spray. From this other mouth it had a different meaning.

He was at the pool. He might have missed it in his panic if the last rays of the setting sun hadn’t glanced off its surface and made it shine for an instant, one dark patch out of many. He turned, gasping as a row of barnacles turned his soles to mincemeat. A large rock lay nearby – the shape and size of the one he’d dropped, in fact – and he stooped to pick it up, aware of his Other’s footsteps drawing up behind him.

He turned at the side of the pool, and the Other came to a stop a few meters away, eyeing the rock. The others were only just climbing the shelf far behind him. For the next couple of minutes, they were alone. Dean wanted to throw himself into the pool now, but he couldn’t. For one thing he was out of breath, his own chest burning with each inhalation (the Other hadn’t so much as broken a sweat), and for another, he dreaded that the pool was a one way trip. No going back.

‘What are you?’ he said.

The Other didn’t approach, knowing he’d have plenty of help soon. Instead, he stood back with his arms folded, glaring at Dean. ‘What are you?’

‘I’m human. I live on earth. What’s this place?’

‘Hewmin? Urth?’ The other spat at his feet, which were covered in a thick layer of callous, not bleeding at all. When they met eyes, it was very clear to both who was predator and who was prey. The Other smiled, showing white teeth that tapered to points. ‘Where can we get more of you, then?’

Perhaps it was the adrenaline coursing through his system and the knowledge that he was most likely about to die a horrible death, or perhaps it was this image of himself, an arrogant, musclebound, bastard looking down on him, but either way Dean felt a surge of anger and gave the Other a mean grin of his own.

‘Trust me, you don’t want more of me,’ he said. ‘But if you do, you’ll have to go all the way down to hell.’

The others were too close now – he could hear their feet, see their slobbering mouths as they pelted over slippery rock toward him. Before the Other could reply he let himself fall sideways, the rock pulling him as he curled around it and hugged it like a baby, eyes clenched tight and the only sound that of his heart slamming in his chest, burning the oxygen in his body like so much firewood.

When everything was pitch dark and he felt that he was no longer falling but floating, he looked down between his legs and saw a faint light, the pale grey of an overcast sky. Please, please let it be home.

Dean let go of the rock and swam toward the surface.

*

When he reached for the side of the pool two strong sets of arms grabbed him and hauled him up onto the rocks, coughing and spluttering.

‘Jesus, man, we thought you were dead. How long was that?’

‘Four minutes easy.’ Ron’s voice.

‘Four minutes, man. Are you alright?’

Dean turned over and vomited some seawater, got up onto shaky hands and knees and crawled away from the hole. He kept going until he got to the dry flat rocks and he settled there with his back to the cliff, watching the hole. The other two stood in front of him, exchanging worried glances, and the sun shone into his eyes between two clouds.

‘So… did you make it to the bottom?’ Andy said.

‘Nah. I just went down and down, but it was black all the way. Nothing, no bottom or anything.’

‘Wow, what happened to your feet man?’

‘Shit.’ Dean pulled his feet in and winced at the sight of them. It looked like he’d stuck them in a blender. Now that relief replaced terror, they were starting to sting a hell of a lot. ‘I don’t know. I was kicking really hard on the way up, must have hit the rocks. Can you guys help me back?’

‘Yeah, sure, man,’ Ron said.

‘Hey, you totally win, dude. Ice creams on me, yeah?’ Andy slapped him on the back but Dean couldn’t manage more than a faint smile. ‘Just in a bit, though,’ he said. ‘I want to chill out for a while.’

For a long time the three of them sat and trash talked, Dean barely saying a word, and watched the sunset. Beautiful as it was, Dean didn’t so much as look up at it while they were there. Instead he kept his eyes on the rock pool, watching wave after wave wash into it until the tide came in and obscured it completely. Occasionally the light tricked him and he thought he saw a shadow moving just below the surface, but nothing emerged and he shook himself out of it.

When the sun was gone and the air took on a fresh chill, Andy and Ron locked their arms into his and pulled him to his feet. He gritted his teeth against the pain of sea salt in his wounds, but didn’t say anything.

They shivered and licked ice cream and laughed and joked, but the other two went easy on him, sensing he’d been in much more trouble than he admitted. Their own relief was palpable and he realised they must have been on the point of running for help. Just before they parted ways, Andy put his hands on Dean’s shoulders and looked him in the eyes. ‘Hey, man, are you sure you’re alright?’

Dean nodded. ‘Yeah, yeah I’m good. Just shaken up a bit. Let’s hit the surf tomorrow again, yeah?’

Andy gave him his goofy grin and nodded. ‘You know it, baby. Alright, catchya later dude. Chill out, okay?’

On the walk back home, Dean found himself eyeing everything with suspicion, watching the cars and people closely. But he saw nothing, and when he returned home he was met with stern parents and an overly talkative Gina and an overwhelming sense of gratefulness.

He’d made it out alive. For now, that was all he wanted to think about.

*

They were the Alpha Dogs of Werner beach. They were heroes in their world, and Dean, the first to cross the bridge between the worlds, was the greatest hero of them all. Future generations would erect a statue in his glory. At first, the three boys were the only ones who had the lung capacity to make the journey, but as time went on and food grew more scarce, other hunters came to match them.

Word spread, and before long Werner grew into a prosperous border town, a place to stay before you ventured into the new world. Old and young alike who’d never seen it for themselves spoke in hushed whispers of great cities filled with prey. They could be dangerous in numbers, sure, but a skilled hunter could feed himself and his family for as far into the future as they could see.

There was no longer a sun in the sky, but the day was bright all the same, and Jerry Friedman was smiling as he stepped out into the light. He waved a cheerful good morning to his neighbour Lance, who was also heading to his car for the morning commute, and got a pleasant response.

‘Hey there, buddy. Gonna be a good one, huh?’ He hated Lance. That guy was like this even before good took over. As smug as he was boring. An asshole, perfect in every way. Jerry wanted to drag him into a dark alleyway and tear him to pieces.

‘Oh yes, sir. Looking forward to it.’

The commute was easier, he supposed. You didn’t really drive. You just sat there and watched your car shoot along the roads at an insane speed, somehow navigating crowded intersections with barely a pause, inches to spare yet never so much as a scratch on the paintwork by the end. An hour long journey became ten minutes with such ideal coordination. He was always early. Everyone was.

He was lying out in the back garden when the eye opened in the sky. He had a gun in one hand and a half empty bottle of vodka in the other, celebrating his divorce to Grace. Ten years of hell with that bitch. He cut her loose and it still somehow felt like the worst day of his life. He remembered her sneer the last time he saw her, the familiar way her lip curled up on just one side. ‘At least I don’t have to sneak around with Dean anymore.’ He didn’t know who Dean was and he didn’t ask. ‘He’s my boyfriend. I love him.’

‘I didn’t fucking ask.’ That memory was clear in his mind at the moment the eye blinked open. He sensed it at first, a softening of the light and a cooling, changing from noon to a sunset in a moment. He stared up at the sun – or at least where the sun had been, and there it was, looking right back at him. No iris, just a round white ball with a dilated pupil in the middle.

Watching.

Work was accounting. It didn’t used to be, because he hated maths, but once he started work there – no interview required – he found it so easy that he could let his mind wander while his hands moved the paper. He was doing that a lot lately. His mind usually wandered to happy places, like the place where he had Lance, or maybe Dean, tied up in his basement and he got to work on them with a baseball bat.

He greeted his co-workers, chatted about his new life and how great it was. No need to worry about that paycheck, isn’t that fine? Gene from customer service asked him how his ex wife was doing. He’d been dating her while the divorce was going through. Today, he kept his tone light and his eyes on her face. ‘Not an ex for much longer! We’re getting back together!’ Everything anyone said these days ended in a cheerful exclamation mark, their expression one of perpetual joy.

‘That’s great!’ she said. He felt something break inside him. It wasn’t a new feeling. Every day he woke up and saw that eye he moved one step closer to insanity. It would reach him any day now. He felt like he was in a car with the brakes cut, rolling down a steep incline toward a bottomless canyon. No way to stop. All you could do was hold on tight and watch it come. You didn’t even get to scream.

On that first day, Jerry found himself doing things. He didn’t decide to do them, or ponder them, or motivate himself to do them – he just found himself already doing them. He’d stared at the eye for a minute or so, wondering if he was hallucinating, and then he’d got up from his deck chair, dropped his gun in the dustbin and emptied his vodka into the kitchen sink. Him, who’d rather pour liquid gold down a sink than vodka. Since then, he ate mostly vegetables and lean meat, drank only water, and never over ate.

Television was on for exactly half an hour each day, blinking on automatically when he got home from work, and it showed world news. There was no world news. No accidents, no disasters, no new inventions. Statistics, happy news stories. A dog that could talk, a new nature reserve, the tallest building ever built, a world government formulated, another prison closed.

He came home to a pristine house, and Grace had cooked him dinner. They sat down to eat it, talking about their incredibly boring days, and he watched her eyes for signs of life. He thought he saw some hatred in there, and that gave him a little hope. He envisioned sticking his fork in those eyes and popping them into his mouth like meatballs.

‘You know, it’s best for everyone. I mean, I don’t know if it’s God or what. I suppose He must be, to be so powerful.’

‘Could be the devil.’ The words made it all the way out of his mouth and there was a short silence while they pondered what that could mean. She made a funny choking sound and he realised she was trying to swear. Didn’t work. Shit.

‘Anyway,’ she went on as though nothing had happened. ‘It’s a force for good. Everyone guaranteed a hundred years. No pain at all. Nothing bad.’

‘Nothing bad.’ He said. ‘Nothing…’ It was possible, sometimes, to communicate like that. Get across a point without saying it. There were times he was grateful he still had his thoughts, but most of the time he wished he didn’t. That abyss came closer by the day, opening out before him so he could see the emptiness for which he was destined.

‘You have to be thankful that in the end, good won.’ She said, shining him a brilliant white toothed smile. Her smile had never been white, nor cheerful. It had been yellow and mean, like a stray dog with bared teeth.

‘Yes. Good won.’

And the days passed this way, uniform and perfect. They had two kids, and on a daily basis, even as he took care of them and played with them, Jerry envisioned smothering them in their sleep or drowning them in the bath. They weren’t his children, really – they belonged like everything else to the eye in the sky. The only difference was they’d never had it any other way. They had no idea their bodies should be theirs to control, not the insane being that scrutinized their every move.

But there were no suicides, no murders, and the world hummed along without mishap for decades.

Good won, he told himself many times as he saw the face in the mirror, always smiling, grow older, but not weaker, nor senile. He only looked older, but felt like a younger man than the year before. Good won.

The abyss grew larger and darker. Sometimes, when he looked deeply into the eyes of his friends and colleagues he could see that they’d already lost their sanity, and that nothing was left behind the shell that walked the earth. Who knew what thoughts scuttled through the broken things that had once been human minds? What were they now? Toys?

No prisons, no hospitals, no police. Early to bed, early to rise. Board games with the kids. Good won.

He could see inside the abyss, now, and there lay a question there that he didn’t like at all.

Thoughts of destruction. Torture and death and executions. He imagined skinning his family alive and setting fire to his work. He imagined sinking an axe into Dean’s head and shooting Lance in the face. His mind was on fire with thoughts while his body bought groceries and laughed at knock knock jokes.

The question was, if there was a God, wasn’t there also a heaven?

The air was never too cold or too hot. Pain of any kind no longer existed for him or anyone else, nor even discomfort. He ate but was never hungry. He slept but was never tired. Night time never came, only that pleasant orange sunset light.

Good won? Perhaps there hadn’t been a battle, at all. Maybe good had had it from the start.

The abyss was looming now and the screams within him, the thoughts of bloodshed and murder threatening to consume him utterly.

The question was: what had he really done with the gun the day the eye opened in the sky?

Walking towards his car, Tom looked up at him and waved. ‘Hey there, buddy!’

‘Hi, friend! Gonna be a good one, today, huh?’

‘Oh yes sir.’

He smiled at Tom, but though his lips moved, there was nothing behind his eyes. Only the dark, stretching onwards into eternity.

‘Supress your nature all you want, you sick bastard. It’s still in there, waiting to come out. Not fighting, no, just waiting. Because it knows that if it just keeps hanging around in there, eventually you’ll have to let it out or go crazy. In the end they both come to the same thing, anyway.’

In truth, the man staring back at Anton Kave through the mirror and saying these words with him looked pretty damned crazy. His hair was messy, his eyes were so black around the sockets he looked like he was wearing two layers of eyeliner, and he hadn’t shaved or eaten in days. Not a good look, but then it was exactly fitting, considering the kind of things that were going through his head.

He looked down at the basin and saw a few drops of sweat fall onto the porcelain. When he looked up again, he thought he looked a bit more composed. Someone it was conceivable to do business with, maybe. He hoped so, but he was mainly relying on the fact that someone seedy enough to sell him a Cloner wasn’t used to dealing with trustworthy types, anyhow.

He cleared his throat.

‘At any rate,’ he went on, watching his reflection to make sure he maintained an air of respectability, ‘it’s none of your business what I want it for. You’re a seller, and I’m a buyer, and that’s all there is to it.’

He slammed his hands on the sides of the basin, stood up, and nodded at himself.

‘Now let’s do business.’

The central New York City business district was simply named B1. In a world where there were simply too many districts, streets and cities to name, everything was reduced to letters and numbers. There was still slang, though, and so B1 was also known as ‘Shark City’. That was the place where the high rollers and the big dealers and the real business tycoons went to build their empires, where the streets were squeaky clean and not a single begging hand could be seen extended from a dingy alley. That was not where Anton went this day.

Anton went to B9, ‘Dark Towers’. It was the kind of place you’d get if you condensed the whole of 21st century India into one city and then propelled it two hundred years into the future: better technology, same problems.

As he shuffled down B9-19th street, he found he was glad for his dishevelled appearance, because he fit right in with everyone else. Hell if anything, he was overdressed. People saw him, but a rough snarl and a wild look deterred anyone who gave him a second look. He was just another broke nutcase in the city to them, and that was good, because if anyone had so much as guessed that he had over sixteen million dollars under his tattered overcoat they’d have fallen on him like starved wolves.

He made it to the Ragman without any holdups, but he had an idea the journey back was going to be harder. He wished he’d thought of buying some piece of trash bike to ride in, so no one would bother stealing it. Then again, it would have made the whole crazy hobo act a little harder.

‘No shit. You got the money, huh?’ These were the Ragman’s first words as he brushed past the dirty curtain in the shop front.

‘That’s right, I got it.’

The room was small and cramped, but it was just a front, like the dirty curtain. To a casual eye the Ragman was just that, a poor bastard trying to make his way with a cramped little shop. Truth was, he owned most of the building this little room was in, and most of that was storage space.

‘Sure I got it,’ Anton said, pulling out the wad of cash from his inside pocket. He sat down in a splintery chair and laid it out on the table in front of him. It was all in ten thousand dollar bills, and as a result didn’t look like much. The Ragman raised a grey eyebrow at it and rolled his fat body forward in his wheelchair. He leaned right over the wad and brought his head in close, analysing it. After a few moments, he nodded, grinning.

‘That’s the real deal, alright,’ he said.

‘Okay, so where’s my Cloner?’ Anton said, leaning over his cash protectively, for all the good it would do.

The Ragman chuckled and winked, pushing away from the table and swivelling around to the door in the back. ‘Just gimme a second. No need to be on guard so much, buddy. I gotta do business, ya know. I’ll rip you off, but I won’t steal. I’m an honourable man.’ This last was called back to him from the next room, which Anton already knew was a place the size of a cathedral.

When he came back, he was holding a bundle of electronic parts and wires. He rolled over and dumped it on the table in a grey mess, which he began to separate into its various elements.

‘That’s it?’ Anton said, frowning.

‘That’s it? You a dumbass? You come askin for a Cloner, I give you a Cloner. You think this isn’t a Cloner?’

‘No, I’m sure that’s it. I mean… But how’s it work?’

The Ragman rolled his eyes. ‘Give me a minute, will you?’

Anton gave him a minute, though he wanted to get the hell out of this dingy, oily den as fast as he could. It smelled so strongly of petrol he swore he was getting high on the fumes.

Finally it was all separated into different components across the table. Anton noticed, to some dismay, that his money had vanished.

‘Okay. So you got the processor here,’ the Ragman said, pointing to a long rectangular compartment. He slid open the top and showed that the insides were clean and empty. ‘You stick a bit of yourself in this part,’ he said gleefully. ‘Could be anything, but the more matter it’s got, the quicker the clone. So, you stick in your baby toe, it’ll be a few months before you got a full clone. Put in your leg and you got one in a week. My advice, kill the first clone and freeze him so you got body parts for the next ones.’ He chuckled, ‘and they wonder why this shit was outlawed.’

He slid across the desk and pointed at a pile of four metallic cones.  They were dark silver, and not connected to any of the other pieces. ‘These are the makers. You stick em up around a room, any room. The one that has TOP engraved on it, goes highest up, and you gotta have the pointy part aiming at the middle of the room, where the compartment is. Next one says TOP MIDDLE, then BOTTOM MIDDLE, then BOTTOM. You get it?’

‘Yeah.’

He nodded and pointed at the final piece. It looked pretty unimpressive in Anton’s opinion: just a metal box with a few knobs and dials on it.

‘That’s the operator. See all those different knobs and dials and shit?’

‘Yes,’ Anton said, anticipating a headache.

‘Ignore that shit. I already set it up for you. Don’t touch it or your clones are gonna come out like fucking mutants. Same thing if you pass through the room where the cones are while it’s going on. See the green button on the side? That’s all you gotta press. It’s that simple, man. You set up the cones right, you dump the body part – the fresher the better – in the compartment and close the door, and you press the green button. The clone will come up in whatever room you set the cones up in. Leave the machine running until your clone moves away from the original spot, and I dunno, says something or gives you the finger or whatever. Then you press the green button again and it shuts off, and you got yourself a clone.’

‘Okay. That easy?’

The Ragman chuckled again. ‘Sure. He gives me sixteen million and then asks if it’s that easy. Yeah, sure. Listen, I’ll give you some advice because I feel sorry for you. Put the cones in a secure place. Don’t let your clone out for a while.’

This time it was Anton’s turn to chuckle. ‘Don’t worry, that won’t be a problem.’

‘Oh yeah? So what, you gonna talk to him for a bit? Explain to him why you so desperately need a clone army to take over the world?’ He gave that dry chuckle again. ‘I mean, shit, you wouldn’t believe the reasons I’ve heard. I had this one chick come in to buy a Cloner one time, no joke man, she was planning to put herself out on the streets as a whore. Use herself to make money. Oh, and she told me she was gonna make six. Six! You believe that shit?’

Anton smiled blandly. ‘Sure.’

‘Anyway. Nine times out of ten, dudes that clone more than once get arrested in about a month, so good luck. And don’t come crying to me, either, this baby is untraceable. Oh yeah, one final thing.’ The Ragman leaned forward so far across the desk that he would have touched noses with Anton if he hadn’t reeled back at the last moment, surprised. ‘You point so much as a finger at me if the law comes… I’ll kill you.’

He didn’t need to say more than that – didn’t need more detail. It was all there in his eyes. Anton nodded. He stood up and packed the three parts of the Cloner into a compact bag he’d brought with him, realizing for the first time that it was going to be much harder getting out of B9 than it was getting in.

‘Hey, by the way. What the hell do you want this for, anyway?’ Anton looked at him sharply, all his prepared answers and suave retorts disappearing in a moment. He was in a hole within a hole within a hole: It didn’t matter.

‘I’m going to satisfy the lifelong homicidal urges I’ve had by murdering my clones,’ he said. And then, because his mouth had already started running, he added: ‘I’ll probably torture them, too.’

Ragman stared at him with a look that was shocked but not totally surprised, and as always, there was a hint of s mile there. ‘Shit,’ he said after a moment’s silence. ‘You think you heard it all.’

Before he finished the last word Anton shoved aside the curtain and stepped back onto the street.

How he made it out of there alive he wasn’t sure, but he again he attributed his luck to his acting and attire. Whatever, it didn’t matter. He was home, and the Cloner was set up. The past eight years of fantasy had suddenly become reality, and now he didn’t think he could deal with it.

‘You sick bastard,’ he told the mirror. ‘Don’t even do it. Go back to the Ragman and get a refund, and if he won’t take it back then chuck it in the street.’ He said this with conviction and determination, but he didn’t believe his words. He didn’t believe that he was a sick bastard – in fact he knew he wasn’t. A sick bastard would have started killing as soon as he got those strange, compelling urges. But he hadn’t, he’d held out, fought them for eight years. He’d never so much as harmed a hair on the head of an innocent, and he wouldn’t for the rest of his life, either. It wouldn’t even be murder, what he was doing – just suicide. Perpetual suicide. He chuckled, didn’t like the look of the grin in the mirror and turned away.

The Cloner was exactly as easy as the Ragman had told him it would be, except for one part. The salesman had so nonchalantly mentioned putting a finger or a leg into the compartment, but he’d neglected to go into detail about the removal process. Anton spent about half an hour with a butcher’s blade poised a foot above his left hand and his teeth gritted. Try as he might he couldn’t bring himself to chop.

Eventually, he decided it would be enough to cut all his hair off and drop that, along with weekly nail clippings and daily drops of blood into the compartment. After a month he thought he had enough. The compartment was packed with these scraps of him, and as he looked down at them he couldn’t help but wonder if it hadn’t been a swindle after all.

But there was no going back, now. He’d spent too long on this project to stop – his whole life, it seemed. The clone room alone had taken an eternity, and not least of that was getting hold of the Halothane gas that waited to be pumped into the room from a large black container fitted into the wall like a perverted air conditioner.

He went into the darkened room, and put the compartment in the middle, laying it down as though it were made of glass. He couldn’t help but feel the prickle of the ‘makers’ as though they were loaded guns pointing at him from the corners of the room, and as soon as it was down he backed out of the room fast and shut the door.

He’d installed a thick window into the room (one way tinted – Halothane gas was sensitive to light and he couldn’t risk his clone waking up early) and he looked through it now. He could practically feel the potential for life radiating from the metal box, as though another version of himself could explode from it at any moment. He bent down and picked up the operator, and the sense of potential grew.

He moved his finger to the green button and let it hover there for a moment, running over the process in his mind. The clone would appear in the next room, which was locked from the outside. It was airtight, and there was no escape, and if he knew that then so would his clone. He’d flip the switch and the gas would pump into the room, knocking Anton 2.0 out long enough for Anton 1 to enter and set up the kill room. After that…

The thought of things to come turned his stomach to jelly with excitement and goose bumps rose on his forearms.  He closed his eyes and listened to his quick breaths, savouring the moment, the same way a sky diver might savour the moment before jumping off the plane. His eyes still closed, he placed his finger firmly on the button… and pressed.

There was a sensation of being pushed on the back, hard, and he fell forward with both arms out to protect his face. But instead of falling into the adjoining wall, he kept going until his forearms hit the cement floor.

He lay there for a moment, his eyes screwed closed. Something was wrong. The floor in the living room was carpeted. The only room in the house with a cement floor was…

He opened his eyes and saw nothing at all. The room was pitch black, which meant the door was still closed and locked from the outside, just as it was meant to be. He swore and then flinched at the loudness of his voice in the small room. As he struggled to his feet he knocked the compartment and froze. There was something wrong with it.

It took a few minutes of scrabbling on all fours before he realised that the metal box was no longer a box. It had unwrapped, opened up like a Christmas present with all sides flat on the floor. And it was empty. His hands should have touched the crusty mess of hair and nails and blood but they hadn’t.

That was when he heard the hissing of gas entering the room from a small hole in the wall near the tinted window. That was impossible – that had to be manually turned on with a dial that was outside the room and there was no one… He froze.

‘No.’ His instinct told him to back away from the gas, press up against the far wall and hold his breath, but his despair was far stronger, because it was born of everything he knew of himself. And everything he planned. Numb with horror, he could only wait for the gas to take effect and pray that he’d calculated the wrong amount and that he’d never wake up.

He woke, and God help him he woke exactly the way he expected to: tied fast to a steel chair in the middle of the kill room. Next to him was a fold out table decked out with over thirty different tools. The idea, he recalled, was to test out as many different things as possible on the first clone to see which were the most fun. The light was on, and so the next thing he laid eyes on was himself, standing in the open doorway.

Anton Kave was not used to feeling strong emotions of any kind, but he felt something at that moment, and it was pure and unadulterated terror. Terror because no sooner had he seen himself like a reflection come to life, he knew there was no hope. Still, he tried.

‘Stop, please. You don’t understand what’s going on. I am not the clone, you are! This should be the other way around.’

The clone stared at him, eyebrows raised, a mildly curious expression on his face.

‘I know you think you’re real, but just hang on a minute and try to remember the rest of the day. What were you doing this morning? Do you remember the rest of the week – or the rest of your life?’

The clone nodded slowly, fixing Anton with that bloodshot stare he’d seen just that morning in the mirror. ‘Yes, I can. I’m sorry, but I’m the real boy, it’s you who has the fake memories.’

Anton stared at himself, speechless at first. But as the clone chuckled and reached for the shears, a thought occurred to him and a thin, mad smile broke out on his face. Anton 2.0 hesitated. ‘What?’

‘Oh, nothing,’ he said in a shaking voice. ‘I just realised that whatever you do to me, you’re going to get worse yourself. Much worse.’

‘Really?’

‘Damn straight. You know why? Because I’m only the first one, remember? After me, you’re going to want to make another one, and when you use the machine, you’ll see exactly what I mean. You’ll be sitting in this chair yourself in a month or so, looking at Anton 3.0, and he won’t believe you either because he’ll have all your memories. And I’ll be laughing, alright – dead or not I’ll be laughing. Unless you stop this now. Let me go, who knows what we can achieve with two of us? We’re too smart to get caught out.’

The clone stared at him for a moment, his brow furrowed. He shook his head, slowly. Anton managed to hold his gaze, but he had an idea the other saw only the sick fear of death in his eyes.

‘You really believe you’re me, don’t you?’ the clone said. He put down the shears and reached for the pliers instead. Anton struggled, but his heart wasn’t in it even then, because he knew exactly how he’d planned to restrain himself and there was really no hope of escape. And now the clone had his index finger between the two blunt edges of the pliers, right at the second knuckle.

‘I’m kind of disappointed in myself, you know?’ he said. ‘I mean, of all people who should have known me better than to make stupid arguments, it would be you, right?’

Anton gave up and just sat, blinking cold sweat from his eyes.

‘I mean, what were you expecting? Hey, you’re right, you really sound like your memories are the real ones, and I’m the clone instead of you. I guess we should just switch places now, huh? I’ll strap myself into that chair there, and then you can have all the fun.’

He shook his head, chuckling, and Anton closed his eyes as he felt his own hot breath in his face and this time felt not just terror but revulsion. Only now did he realise what a monster he was – in a way worse than a serial killer who’d given in to his urges, because at least that man would have looked after himself.

‘God damn,’ said the clone, grinning as though he’d heard the best joke of his life. ‘I can be so dumb sometimes, huh?’

And then he gripped the pliers with both hands and began to squeeze.

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