|The Other One
a short story by Mark Morris
I usually glibly refer to "The Other One" as my Jack the Ripper story. It's a story about paranoia and alienation and was my attempt to write something that captured the dislocating terror of nightmare. It's perhaps one of my least accessible stories, but also the one that I'm happiest with. It's one of the few occasions where I've managed to capture the exact mood I was aiming for. All of this may be because it's the story of mine that I've found easiest to write. Usually writing is a bloody hard grind, but this story flowed from my head on to the page so quickly that at times I couldn't get the words out fast enough. I wrote it long-hand, over a four-day period in Bolsover whilst dog-sitting for my mum who had gone on holiday. The last 2,500 words I wrote in a single sitting, in the course of which I somehow managed to produce a sentence which to this day Nicholas Royle (editor of Darklands 2 where this story first appeared) claims is one of the scariest lines he's ever read.
The television was gone. They must have come in the night and taken it. It was so unfair of them to do that, they must have done it purely out of spite.
He was angry but tried not to show it. The best thing to do was not to give them the satisfaction of knowing that they'd upset him. He would act as if nothing had happened, as if he hadn't even noticed. He sat up in bed, rubbing his eyes and yawning, pretending to be still half-asleep. Then nonchalantly he pushed back his single blanket, set his feet on the floor, stood up and wandered over to the radio.
When he switched it on all he heard was static. He moved his head closer to the speaker, his movements slow and cautious, fearful of receiving another electric shock. Not that he'd had one for a while now, but you could never be too careful. They were cunning as well as spiteful. They hated him far more than he'd ever hated anybody.
Beneath the static he could hear someone speaking. Making sounds at any rate, singing or howling wordlessly. He listened more intently and thought he heard someone say his name. Alarmed, he turned the radio off.
He wondered whether to disable the radio but decided not to. They'd know they'd got to him if he did. Besides, it would probably provoke them, not that they really needed an excuse. The radio couldn't do him much harm when it was silent, not like the microwave which he'd secretly incapacitated. He wondered how long it would be before they found out what he'd done, and how they'd react. Whatever happened it would have been worth it. He was damned if he was going to allow them to cook him slowly from the inside.
He walked down the corridor to the little bathroom on the right. The corridor was narrow, and the lights set into the ceiling bulbous and blank, like the eyes of fish. It had taken him a long time before he was able to hide the nervousness he felt walking down here. Even now he found the thought that he could reach out with both hands and touch a wall at each side obscurely terrifying. Worse, though, was the certainty that they were watching him at every moment, waiting for the slightest error, the chance to be provoked. They were ghouls feeding on his uncertainties, doubtless crowing with savage glee whenever he let slip the anguish he was surely entitled to feel. That, indeed, was why it was imperative that he mask his true feelings - to starve their sadism, frustrate their joy at his awful predicament. They might be the ones who set the traps but he was not the animal here. Wasn't he the only one who had retained his dignity, after all? Wasn't he the only one who had a reason for his actions?
He washed himself slowly and methodically, paying particular attention to his feet and his genitals. The towels they provided were not much use (although rough, they merely moved the water around on his skin rather than soaking it up) but he never complained. They were probably gawping at his nakedness now, making jokes about his weenie, but he didn't care; let them. He would simply rise above it. He wondered where the cameras were. In the mirror? The taps? The light bulbs? Behind the tiles?
Already the anticipation of his boredom was starting to depress him but he would never let that show in his face. There were things to do yet - get dressed, see if his food had arrived, look out of the window. He tried to make everything he did last a long time. In that way he could convince both himself and them that he was calm and in control. He didn't even mind when they hid his clothes; indeed, rather than disorienting him, it helped to pass the time. Upon returning to the bedsitting room, he discovered that they'd hidden his clothes today. He searched for them with no real sense of urgency, and eventually found them in the fridge.
He'd been naked for a long time and was starting to feel the cold, but putting on his clothes made him feel far colder. For a while, until the heat of his body began to warm them through, his clothes would feel as if they'd been made of ice. He was shivering, but only on the inside; he clamped his teeth together beneath his lips to stop them from chattering. They must have run out of jokes about his weenie, now they would be congratulating each other on hiding his clothes in such a fabulous place. So intent was he on not giving them the satisfaction that he forgot to close the fridge door.
The thing that formed out of the whiteness and tried to speak to him almost emerged, but he managed to slam the door just in time. Now he was shivering on the outside. Damn them! Damn them! Damn them! It might be only a small victory for them but it was a victory nevertheless. He had to subjugate the effects of it as quickly as he could.
Every nerve, every sinew, screamed at him not to, but he opened the fridge door and, what was more, made it look nonchalant. He bent down and peered into the fridge, fear closing up his throat. He felt the cold whiteness shining out and caressing his face, felt the hum change and crack and try to become a voice.
He closed the door again before it could, but this time without revealing his panic. So that they would not see through his show of bravado, he opened every single cupboard and peered inside as if searching for something, though he knew full well that the cupboards were empty. The pristine whiteness of the kitchen units disturbed him, reminded him of the other place. He tried not to squint, though the glare made his eyes ache.
As ever, he could not leave the kitchen without first inspecting the waste disposal unit. The two stainless steel sinks, side by side, looked brand new, a fact which again disturbed him though he couldn't define why. When he turned on the tap with the blue lid in the first sink (the real sink, for washing things in), water came out more powerfully than he had anticipated. It spattered up off the stainless steel and covered his clothes in droplets that instantly turned to small dark patches, like little shadows. Some droplets speckled his face, sudden and cold and wet as shaving cuts. He closed his eyes and turned the tap off. They would be laughing at his little accident now, and so he smiled to show he didn't care.
The waste disposal unit was in sink number two which had no taps above it. He opened his eyes and leaned forward a little, aware of the sudden intensity of his heartbeat which made his body feel like nothing more than a living pump. He peered into the metal tube, an exposed throat tapering to darkness. The throat was lined with a tight prickly spiral of blades like steel teeth which made him anxious and excited at the same time. He was relieved to see that the waste disposal unit was as new-looking as everything else, that there were no...shreds, clinging to the teeth. What fascinated and appalled him was the fact that the blades were at their most lethal when you couldn't see them. As if to demonstrate the thought to himself, he turned the machine on.
For a fraction of an instant nothing happened; the waste disposal unit remained in stasis. Anyone could have put their finger into the throat in that milli-second and then taken it out again and they would have been fine. But then with a whir the blades began to rotate, and were almost immediately spinning at full speed. Now you could no longer see the blades. They resembled nothing so much as a swirling white mist which looked cool and slow and inviting.
He couldn't help it. He was so entranced by the paradox that he grinned, revealing all his teeth. He knew it was a weakness which they would exploit, and so he folded his lips around the grin and turned off the machine, angry inside.
Abruptly he left the kitchen, hoping to convey the impression that the waste disposal unit had been nothing more than a diversion with which he was now bored. He decided to see whether his food had arrived. Back he went down the narrow corridor, concealing his nervousness, passing the bathroom on the right without so much as a glance.
At the end of the corridor, facing him, was a door. He opened the door onto a gloomy landing, steps leading downwards on his right. Echoing up the stairwell were sounds that worried him. Bumps, slitherings, sometimes even what sounded like voices that broke up into indeterminate echoes before they could form words.
There was no food. He was so eager that he almost saw the box sitting there before realising it was an illusion created by the angles of walls and floor and the strange shadows that formed from these. He shrugged in an attempt to hide his disappointment. Even here he was certain that they were watching him and gloating. Their methods, unlike them, were very sophisticated.
He went back into his flat and rearranged his furniture for the third time in as many days. He tried to look absorbed in his task. He didn't want them to know that he was doing it because there was nothing else to do. He still hadn't looked out of the window, but he felt too dispirited to do so today. Besides, he didn't want to have to fall into a routine. That would be a sure sign of stagnation, which would undoubtedly delight them.
After a while he checked to see whether his food had arrived yet; it hadn't. He hated their petty manipulative methods but he didn't show it, he just shrugged again as if he couldn't care less. He lay on his bed, wondering whether to masturbate, whether to give them something to ogle at. In the end, though, he didn't. He just fell asleep.
Perhaps it was his hunger that enabled him to walk the city in his dreams. He strode with purpose and confidence, and seemed to know exactly where he was going. It was twilight, the outlines of the buildings bold and dark and sure. The sky was like blue marble, venous with darker cloud.
His boot heels trampled the miles underfoot, clicking on paving slabs, crunching on gravel, whispering on asphalt. The city was a vibrant place, full of sights both wondrous and terrible. His eyes feasted on it all - the fire-eaters and snake charmers, the three boys kicking a puppy to death with their bare feet for amusement, the great artists reduced to sketching caricatures of tourists on the quayside. A crone lifted her skirts and flaunted her diseased pudenda; an old man, eyes white with cataracts, offered him a live lobster, its claws snapping. He skirted a crowd who were gathering around a gallows, listened for a while to a lonely black man playing a lonely trumpet on a street corner. He watched fireworks bursting in the sky, a street fight involving young men in immaculately tailored suits. And he embraced it all, for this was his city, his domain, and these people, whether paupers or socialites, were his people.
As usual he failed to reach his destination, wherever it might be. Initially he tried to incorporate the ringing into his dream, but eventually it became too shrill and too insistent and pulled his sleep, and thus the city, apart - for now at least. He awoke with his face half-buried in the pillow, one arm hanging over the edge of the bed, fingers touching the floor. He was desperate to pee and he had a full erection. As ever, he found the incompatibility of this infuriating.
They'd stripped him naked again and, it seemed, hidden his clothes. He was so annoyed he felt like pissing despite his erection, spraying himself and whatever else happened to get in the way. But if he did that he'd be playing right into their hands; they might even start up with the electric shocks again. The ringing was coming from the telephone, which he never used. Trying hard to conceal his nervousness, he picked it up.
He didn't hold the receiver too close to his ear; he wasn't that stupid. Silence rushed at him from the earpiece like gas, filling the room, making him dizzy. He was terrified of speaking in case there was something wrong with the voice that answered him, in case it didn't sound quite human. Far away, behind the silence, he thought he could hear the eerie ringing cry of tortured metal.
How long he stood there holding the receiver inches from his face he wasn't quite sure. It seemed like a long time, long enough certainly to make his arm first ache, and then jump with muscle spasms. At last, however, the silence ended. Crawling from the receiver like an insect came a dry and hideous sound, like bones chuckling. Even now, with the muscle spasms in his arms becoming ever more frequent, he couldn't replace the receiver, couldn't face the consequences of what might happen if he did. Fortunately the decision was taken for him. There was a sound like a heavy dice being rolled and then a flat electric hum.
He replaced the receiver slowly and carefully. It took a great deal of control to prevent it leaping from his hand like a frightened kitten. He was cold, but when he looked down was surprised to see sweat glistening on his chest. His penis was now white and shrivelled as a whelk.
It took him a long time to empty his bladder. The piss, bright yellow and cloudy, gave off a strong-smelling steam when it hit the water. He was almost finished, the piss coming in intermittent spurts, when he heard the clatter of the letterbox. Immediately a trembling started at the back of his legs, travelled up to his buttocks and then pushed through into his stomach.
No matter how much control he tried to assert, this new intrusion could not prevent his body from shaking. The last few drops of his piss hit the toilet seat and speckled the carpet; his stomach lurched, making him gasp, making him lean over the toilet bowl and open his mouth, certain he was about to be sick. It made him realise how little control he actually had. If they decided to really turn the screw they could reduce him to a gibbering wreck in minutes.
The knowledge depressed and infuriated him. Helplessness encompassed his entire body like a wave of black ink. Saliva flowed into his mouth to aid the passage of burning vomit from his stomach. He spat the saliva into the bowl in a long frothy string and then jammed his hand down on the flush lever. Water roared and seethed in the toilet bowl. He made himself straighten up and breathe deeply and slowly, filling his lungs and then letting it go.
At last the urge to vomit passed, though his stomach and his bladder still ached. He was not sure he would have the strength to walk until he tried it and found that he could. As soon as he stepped into the hall he saw the envelope on the doormat. Trying to convey defiance in his expression and in the way he moved, he walked over and picked it up.
He did not open it until he was sitting on his bed, one leg bent beneath him. The envelope was white and cheap and had nothing written on it. He could tell by feeling it that the object inside was about three inches long and shaped like a pen or a twig or a piece of chalk. There was a dark brown stain on the back of the envelope that reminded him of a tiny butterfly. He tore the envelope jerkily open and tipped out what was inside.
It was a human finger, severed raggedly just above the third knuckle. It was very white, as if whoever had sent it had taken great care to drain as much blood from it as possible before putting it in the envelope. Nevertheless, the splinter of bone that protruded from the stump of stringy pinkish-brown meat was encrusted with dried lumps of blackened blood. It was the finger of a woman, the nail curved and long and painted with dark pink nail varnish, slightly chipped. It still wore a ring, a thin gold band inset with three tiny red stones.
He looked at the finger for a long time before touching it, and wondered whether they would be able to pick it up on their cameras. If so, they would find some way to use it against him, even though it was obvious that he could not possibly be blamed for what had happened. At last, after sitting motionless for perhaps three minutes, he picked up the finger and the envelope and went into the kitchen. The finger was cold in his hand, the linoleum equally cold on his bare feet.
It took some pulling to get the ring off but eventually he managed it. He found the beaker which they'd hidden in the empty bread bin and filled it with water. He popped the ring into his mouth like a pill and gulped water until he'd swallowed it. He placed the finger into the metal throat of the waste disposal unit and turned it on.
There was a reddish-brown tinge to the white blur of the blades and that was all. Next he rolled the envelope into a tight tube and fed that in too. He left the waste disposal unit on longer than was necessary, but even so, when the blades stopped spinning he saw minute clots of matter clinging to some of them. He spent ten minutes picking off the bits of matter, rolling them between his fingers like bogies, and dropping them into the exact centre of the metal throat.
Eventually he was satisfied that he had done all he could. He turned the machine on again briefly to clear the little balls of paper and flesh, and then he walked back into the bedsitting room and lay down on his bed.
At last he felt able to walk back down the corridor to the door to see if his food had arrived. When he opened the door, the first thing he saw were his clothes, folded neatly on the landing. His food, however, still hadn't arrived, which didn't actually bother him as much as it ought to because he was no longer hungry. The sounds drifting up the stairwell sounded unnervingly similar to the ones (of rending metal) that he'd heard on the phone.
He carried his clothes back inside and dressed slowly in the bedsitting room. As he still had no food, he decided to look out of the window. It was a dreary day, rods of grey rain falling almost vertically. From his high vantage point the landscape seemed composed of slabs of polished black onyx.
A spark of colour caught his eye. The little girl, pushing a doll's pram between the silent buildings, was wearing a yellow sou'wester with a coat to match. He watched her, craning his neck until she was gone. He was suddenly hungry again.
He pursued someone through the city. His prey wore a dark cloak and a top hat and carried a cane. It resembled a shadow more than a person, forever threatening to merge with the glowing fog and disappear. He was hampered in his pursuit by street vendors and party goers bedecked with streamers who tried to lure him into their drunken clique with offers of whisky and rum. Something with glowing red eyes whispered to him from an alleyway. Somewhere far away a jazz band was playing.
No matter how quickly he ran, his prey matched him step for step, always maintaining a reasonable lead. The fog shifted and curled seductively, like the sad and silent ghosts of sensuous women.
He found himself beside a canal, warehouses looming blackly over the water. Small waves lapped at the bank, trying to reach his feet. The sound of water dripping beneath the tunnel just ahead was the repetitive sound of a clumsy kiss.
He heard his prey moving in the darkness of the tunnel, saw the vague black flap of its cloak before the fog swallowed it up. He followed, breathing fog into fog, his feet sliding on the slick stone.
In the moving living darkness it was waiting for him. He saw it slumped against the dank wall, its body an inchoate mass, a shadow partly composed of solid matter. Slowly, accompanied by the lap-drip-lap of water, it raised its head.
And he almost saw its face...
The telephone woke him before he could. When he opened his eyes he found himself on the floor, reaching for the receiver with his outstretched hand. Before he could prevent it, his hand grasped the receiver and pulled it towards his face.
Immediately a voice asked, "Is it you?"
"Yes," he said.
The voice seemed to grin as it asked, "Did you get it?"
His head was buzzing. He wanted to recall the face in the dream, but the memory of it slipped away from him. "Yes," he said again.
"Did you like it?" said the voice.
The question unnerved him. He said, "I can't trust you. You'll have to come back."
There was a short silence, and then the voice said, a little pleadingly, "I can't. Not yet. I'm starting to really like it here."
"But we promised them-"
"You promised them! I didn't promise them anything. I didn't have a choice."
"It's the same thing. You've got to come back."
"Come and fetch me."
The line went dead.
His hand tightened on the receiver until the plastic creaked. At once he was furious and unable to contain it. He hurled the receiver across the room where it was pulled up short by the soft spring of its lead, swung round and sent clattering against an item of furniture. He jumped up, swept a chair from the floor and hurled it against the wall. It split the wallpaper and dented the plaster beneath, but it was not enough to vent his rage. If only he had a knife, he could cut...he could cut...
Suddenly exhausted, he slumped to the floor.
Later, he walked slowly to the bathroom and washed himself thoroughly, even his hair. He scrubbed himself until his skin hurt but he could not remove the indelible stains of shame and regret that marked him. They would have seen everything, undoubtedly; they would probably have recorded it. It would be something they could use against him for a long, long time. It was not fair that thirty uncontrollable seconds should take so long to erase, but it was the way things worked and he could do nothing about it.
Did he receive an electric shock when he touched the tap? It was so mild, so fleeting, that he was not sure. Bracing himself, he grasped the tap again and felt nothing but metal made hot by the scalding water inside. He was so dejected that he found he didn't much care if he had received a shock. He towelled himself semi-dry and put on his clothes. The coarse material stuck to his damp back and made him itch.
Half-heartedly he checked to see if his food had arrived. It hadn't, or maybe it had and they had taken it away again as a punishment. What could he do now? There seemed so few options open to him. In the end, he lay on the floor of the bathroom and masturbated without issue until his arm grew tired. To avoid weeping, he slept.
The city looked grey, its walls pitted and crumbling. Small dark shapes, rats perhaps, scurried to and fro, keeping to the shadows. He felt aimless now, at odds with this place. He wandered about, trying to remember where he was going, who he was looking for.
It was night, the air murky and cold, the street lamps gauzed by haze. People slipped like blood clots through the arteries of the city. They were subdued, and seemed to shun him, turning their faces away.
There was life somewhere. He could hear it. The sound of calliope music, the good-hearted din of people having fun. And there were flashes of coloured light - blue, green, red, mauve -which appeared at the periphery of his vision and winked out again when he tried to focus on them as if taunting him.
He tried to make for the hubbub, but it remained elusive, always just around the next corner or over the high unscalable wall of a dead end street. He did not feel welcome here now, he was not the person he had been before. He had come here to avoid weeping, but when he awoke to the clatter of the letterbox, the tears were wet on his face.
There was a parcel on the mat this time, wrapped in brown paper and secured with transparent tape wound round and round and round in the manner of a spider spinning web about its prey. He was still fully-dressed. Evidently they had moved on from the minor irritation of taking his clothes and hiding them.
He walked despairingly down the corridor, which seemed to elongate, to recede from him. The parcel, when he eventually reached it, was smaller than he had thought.
Beneath the brown paper, and layers of newspaper whose articles were written in a language he did not identify and whose photographs were so grainy he could not make them out, was a man's left hand, hacked off clumsily at the wrist. The hand, as white as the finger, was covered with a fine layer of coarse black hair. On the third finger was a wedding ring, a plain gold band. The flesh beneath the well-manicured fingernails was a bluish colour.
He picked up the hand. It was colder than marble, but soft and quite pliable. The fingers were curled over slightly. When he straightened one out, it sprang slowly back until it was curled over again. When he pressed his thumb into the soft fleshy area between the bones of the thumb and index finger, the indentation remained and seemed to turn a greyish colour as if his own thumb had been dark with newsprint. The hand was heavier than one might think. He estimated that it came from a man in early middle-age. He turned it over to examine the life line and was a little amused to see that the line curled right around the base of the thumb and became lost in a small forest of spiny black hairs.
Even as he examined the hand, turning it over and over, entwining its fingers with his, he knew that this was a brand new game and that he was playing it strictly to their rules. There was no way he could win now, or even resist them any more, and the worst part was, it was his own carelessness which had caused this. No doubt they would claim such a circumstance was always going to be inevitable, and maybe they were right. That didn't stop him loathing himself though, it didn't stop the despair from pounding like nails in his head.
When it came to the crunch, he found that he couldn't even dispose of the hand. He hovered by the waste disposal, agonized by his own reluctance. In the end, he opened the fridge door, tossed the hand inside, and ran sobbing to his bed.
The time before the next phone call passed in a confused blur, like a home movie chopped up and pasted back together in the wrong order. Did he look out of the window? Did he check to see whether his food had arrived? Did he gaze into the whirring teeth of the waste disposal unit? Did he wash himself? Did he sleep and dream of the city?
Yes-No-Don't-Know. Before he was given time to think about it, the phone rang and he was picking it up.
"You liked it, didn't you?" the voice hissed. "Admit it, admit it."
This time he went berserk. After destroying most of his furniture, he found himself crouched on his haunches before a metal waste bin in which paper was burning. He scooped up the hand which was lying by his feet and dropped it into the flames.
He watched it for less than ten seconds before plunging his hand into the bin and retrieving the hand. Even in that short time the hand had begun to bubble and char. He dropped it on the carpet, flailed at the flames until they went out. There was a lot of dark smoke, pungent with the stench of rancid fat and burned hair. Skin had begun to peel from the hand and turn black; the fingernails had turned black too. Even now, blisters were forming and bursting on the hand and the heat from it was beginning to singe the carpet.
As if in sympathy, his own hand was hurting like buggery. He jammed it beneath his armpit as if that would help. He staggered to his feet, head swimming with the smoke and his own pain and confusion. Picking up the metal bin, which was hot but not unbearably so, and in which newspaper still flickered with flame, he stumbled ape-like to the kitchen.
He switched on the cold tap full force, drenching himself as it spattered up from the steel sink, and placed the burning waste bin beneath it. The paper sizzled momentarily, then succumbed. Under the onslaught of water it broke up quickly, became a blackish grey pulp which floated on the water's surface like scum. Turning the tap down to half force, he thrust his own singed hand beneath it. The water played over his hand for a long time, dulling the pain of his burns.
When he switched off the tap and examined his dripping hand, he saw it was red as sunburn and blistered. Almost immediately, without the cooling water to quell it, the pain began to rage again. Gritting his teeth, he stumbled back into the bedsitting room where smoke greyed everything. His legs felt hollow, his stomach quivery with nausea, his lungs bruised. The hand lay on the carpet like some black crustaceous creature, poised on its curled fingers.
He picked it up gingerly. It was both crisp and greasy to the touch. He stood indecisively in the middle of the room for a few moments, the hand dangling from the index finger and thumb of his good hand, then he carried the hand back into the kitchen and put it in the fridge.
He slept in the bathroom, where the smoke was less dense, his body curled foetally around his injured hand. He shivered with cold and shock, his feet jerked and kicked with involuntary spasms. His breathing was stertorous. The air which he drew down into and up from his lungs tasted of barbecued meat. His head rested on a towel whose dampness stuck his hair to his face.
Before he drifted uneasily into sleep he imagined he could hear the hand scuttling about in the fridge like a large black spider trying to get out. The scuttling followed him into the city, where something large and black was clinging to a wall. Before he could focus on it through the fog and the brownish light, it scampered across the scabrous brickwork and away, losing itself in the shadows.
The city had been devastated, torn apart by riot or war. Buildings lay in ruins, scattering their rubble into the streets. Cars burned, their black skeletons engulfed with flame. Glass crunched underfoot. Items of clothing, washing machines, televisions, furniture, lay strewn and broken, bits of people's lives uncaringly destroyed. Despite the immediacy of the devastation, however, the city seemed deserted. He stumbled from one street to another, sobbing, crying out a name he would forget the instant he awoke. He was lost. One street was identical to the next.
The sound of someone pounding on his door awoke him.
By the time he reached the door, whereupon he dropped weakly down onto his hands and knees and puked up a mound of dark smoky vomit on the carpet, the pounding had stopped. He felt like shit, both mentally and physically. They would be loving all this, of course, but he felt so bad he had gone beyond the point of caring. He had thought it would take a lot for them to break his dignity and his pride, but in fact it had taken very little.
Outside the door, propped against the wall, was another parcel. He had been hoping it would be his food arriving at last, although he was no longer hungry. It was surprising he had had anything in his stomach to bring up; certainly when he examined what he had produced, he saw nothing in it that he recognised. It looked like a mound of ashes mixed with some sort of colourless gelid material.
The parcel was encased in bits of brown cardboard, cut and bent to the shape of the object inside. The object was long and thin, longer than a snooker cue case but shorter than a paddle. He carried it into the bedsitting room where a haze of smoke still greyed the air and the walls. He listened for a moment but no sounds were coming from the fridge. His burned hand was hot and sore, but the pain was bearable.
Lying amid the debris of cardboard and paper which he tore from the parcel and hurled around the room in a kind of righteous rage, was an arm. It was the arm of a young woman. It had been twisted or gnawed or chopped off at the shoulder. A smooth rounded knob of bone protruded from the ragged stump like a caravan coupling. This limb, because it was larger, had evidently been difficult to drain of blood. Though for the most part white and waxy, blood had collected beneath the skin in some areas and congealed there. These areas, like terrible bruises, were a purplish blue-black.
The arm had long fingernails, nicely rounded, and painted with pale pink nail varnish, evidently carefully applied and maintained. There were no rings on the fingers, but there was an elegant gold bracelet on the wrist.
"Oh," he moaned and raised his head to the hazy air, his whole body shuddering, "oh, oh." The sound was one of despair or ecstasy; he was not quite certain which.
When the phone rang, he sprang across the room like some predatory beast and snatched it up.
"Do you like it? Isn't it beautiful?" The voice was full of a kind of mocking eagerness.
At first he could not reply and the voice became agitated.
"You do like it, don't you? Please say that you do."
"It's..." He struggled to find words and at last he said, "...difficult for me."
The voice seemed satisfied. "So can I stay here?" it asked.
"I don't know. You have to be careful."
The line went dead.
In a sort of trance, feeling nothing at all, feeling empty in a way that was almost sublime, he ran a bath half-full of cold water and put the arm in it. The movement of the water made the arm seem to shimmer, to ripple. This illusion of life almost made him weep. However, the instant he left the bathroom and closed the door behind him, the feeling of serenity simply dropped from him like a discarded cloak. He began to snivel, to moan incoherently. He sank into a shivering twitching heap, listening at the bathroom door, uncertain of what he might hear but terrified all the same.
Finally he could stand it no longer and crawled spastically away. He found he could not make his limbs function properly. He was like a man with a broken back. He slid through the pool of vomit on the doormat, lunged at the handle, perhaps intent on escape (he was not sure), and managed to tug the door open. Creaking moaning sounds, like metal things dying, were drifting up the stairwell, but he barely heard them. He stared and stared, unable to believe his eyes.
Someone was standing on the landing, looking at him.
It was the little girl he had seen from his window. She still wore her yellow coat and sou'wester, both of which dripped water onto the floor. She looked unreal, like a painting of a beautiful child. Her eyes were very large and dark, and her skin - oh, her skin.
He stretched out a hand and said, "Did they send you?"
She tried to take a step back but it was too late.
The city was gone. There was nothing left but smoking rubble. He awoke to the sound of a woman calling the girl's name, her cries becoming increasingly frantic. He was in bed, naked. The arm was beside him, still damp. This close the arm did not smell so good, but he pulled it to him, hugged it, kissed the pale waxen hand.
Eventually, to his relief, the woman's cries faded.
When he next woke the phone was ringing. He rolled from the bed, sprang to his feet like a panther, swept it up. He felt wonderful. He hoped they were watching. They could not fail to be awed by him.
After a short silence, the voice said flatly, "I'm sorry. They are coming."
His confidence fled in an instant. He smashed the receiver into its cradle, wrenched the lead from the wall.
"No," he screamed, "no, no." He screamed the word over and over until it became meaningless, an ululation of rage. He snatched up the arm from the bed, spun with it, battered it against the window again and again until the glass broke.
He tossed the arm through the window, saw it slither and bump across the roof tiles before disappearing.
He ran to the kitchen, tore open the fridge door, took out the charred hand, threw that out of the window too.
The smoke was dissipating, threading its way out through the jagged star of broken glass.
There was a knock on the door and everything stopped.
He stopped. The sounds he was making stopped. His breath stopped.
And then he saw the smoke still filtering out through the window.
He tried to moan but could make no sound.
Out on the landing the voice said, "It's all right. It's just me."
He went to the door. "What do you want?"
"I've come to help you. Let me in."
"I can't. You know I can't."
"You can. Just close your eyes."
He closed his eyes. The door opened and he heard footsteps enter. They moved towards him and then stopped. He heard the bathroom door open, the footsteps enter, the bathroom door close.
There was a pause, then the voice said, "Okay, you can come in now."
He opened his eyes, entered the bathroom. It was empty.
The voice said, "I'm here."
He turned and there was the other one, staring at him from the mirror.
"How-" he began, but the other one shushed him and said:
"There isn't much time. Listen."
He listened. They were coming, he could hear them. Coming up the stairs. Making their terrible sounds.
"Join me," the other one said. "It's the only way."
Now he saw what the other one had done, how he had been tricked. "No," he said, "this isn't fair."
"It's the only way," said the other one, smirking, his voice full of mockery.
Enraged, he pistoned out his arm, hand balling into a fist. He saw the other one's look of astonishment and horror and then the mirror exploded. Glass fell into the sink, shattering. He saw the blood on his hand and suddenly he felt the old strength surge through him.
They reached the landing, erupted through his front door.
He selected the largest shard of glass he could see and turned to face them.
© Mark Morris 1992, 1999
This story first appeared in Darklands 2, edited by Nicholas Royle.
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