When I took my boyfriend, Freddy Krueger, home to meet my parents, they were disappointed, grey, fatigued, but not at all surprised. They stood apart in the doorway and leaned, peering out of the frame like famine victims, their faces lit by the yellowing horizon.
‘At least,’ sighed my father as he closed the door behind us, ‘we don’t need to muzzle this one.’ They frowned at us from their side of the table and picked at their food. On the wall above our heads a wooden clock gave out stiff, arthritic ticks.
‘I don’t understand,’ my mother complained. ‘I thought we were going to meet your new boyfriend.’ She gestured with her fork. ‘This is Freddy Krueger.’
‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘It is. Freddy Krueger is my boyfriend.’ She looked at my father.
‘Mr. Krueger,’ he began cautiously, ‘aren’t you a little old to be dating our son?’
‘Significantly older,’ my mother put in, ‘the age gap is remarkable. Look at him! He’s positively wizened.’ She stabbed a sausage with her fork. ‘You’ll have nothing to talk about, nothing to bicker over, it’ll drive you straight to the heart of things. Haven’t I warned you, son,’ she said to me gravely, ‘to keep away from the heart of things?’
‘A wasteland,’ my father muttered to his mashed potatoes, ‘a frozen, empty place.’
‘So what if he’s a little older,’ I moaned. ‘No one’s going to get sick and die over it. Are they?’ I looked pointedly at my mother. I saw her in rags, skeletal and delirious, clutching at her throat and gasping for breath, smoke filling her eyes, that I-told-you-so smirk. She would go into the earth as she had lived upon it: outraged, confused, faintly scandalised.
There was a pause. ‘No.’ she decided. ‘No I suppose not.’ She rested her eyes on Freddy for a few seconds. Her mouth fell open. ‘Have I – seen you before?’ Freddy hiccoughed in response. I rubbed his back. ‘Poor baby.’
‘I have,’ she insisted excitedly. ‘I know I have. In an ad for something. Something silly and macabre.’ She was snapping her fingers. ‘One of those mops that mutate into something altogether different.’ She narrowed her eyes, twirled her fork. ‘Something decidedly un-moplike.’ She gave a triumphant laugh and thumped the table. ‘You’re not Freddy Krueger.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I said, rolling my eyes. ‘Go on, Freddy. Tell them who you are.’ I would stand by whatever he said. I’d whisper it to toddlers, scream it from the backs of speeding cars. But when I looked at him, Freddy had transformed. His lips had paled and his eyes swiveled madly in the creases of his sweat-drenched face. His jumper had darkened around the armpits and a hot, dizzying smell like urine came off him in waves. For one horrifying moment he looked like any old man who finds himself in an unfamiliar context, trying his best to hold back a burp or the n-word. At last he pinched his lips, puffed out his cheeks, then pitched forward and vomited onto the kitchen floor. We watched it leave his mouth in one quivering, shining sphere. My mother set her knife and fork down on her plate. Ice entered her voice.
‘Where did you find this one?’ She raked Freddy with her eyes and drew back. ‘He’s drunk.’ She dropped her napkin on the floor. ‘What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you bring home a nice boy? Why do you have to – this display! What are we like,’ she looked at my father, ‘why do we play along?’ She waved her hand in disgust. I muttered to my feet.
‘What was that?’
I blushed. ‘I just want an enchanted life!’
She stiffened, as if struck. ‘You’ve got one, haven’t you?’ She reached for my hand. ‘I know I have.’
‘No,’ I shouted, pulling away. ‘No, I don’t. Everything’s the same and dead.’
She swayed slightly, as if waking from a spell. Calmly, she rose and began to clear the table, ignoring Freddy’s apologies, and dumped the plates in the sink. My father lowered his chin and appeared to consider burrowing underground, starting a new family, maybe he would finally learn Italian.
‘So that’s it?’ I asked her shaking back.
‘That’s it.’ She ran the tap. My father stood and gently pushed his chair in. ‘Thank you for coming,’ he said to Freddy and, I realised, with a chill, to me. ‘I think it’s time we said good evening, don’t you?’
I looked at the tiles, the cupboards.
She turned and gave me a long look. It was resolved and complete, this look, it was a 1000 years old. It was pushing me out the door. It was a look that said: I have seen you now. Now that I have seen you, get out of my sight.
Outside in the cold night air, the two of us walked, embarrassed and not touching, our arms flat against our sides.
‘Stop doing that,’ he muttered after a while.
I felt my ears go flat against my skull. ‘Doing what?’
His mouth curled with disgust. ‘Looking back.’
I had only been to Freddy’s house once before. He wasn’t at all surprised to see me. Perhaps he thought I was someone else, one of his regular callers, the ones I had seen come and go through the summer, tripping over the front step at odd hours and blinking their way to the bus stop. We looked at each other in this hopeless, familiar way, the way I imagine two skeletons might look at each other in the yearless, bottomless murk, and a lot of decisions were made right there and then, needs identified, assumptions made. A claw floated out of the dark and beckoned. I had heard the stories, I had seen his face. It had appeared to me like a hologram night after night, a loosely arranged system of eyeballs and teeth stretched end to end across my dreams, and now, here he was. The neighbours who were watching from their windows at the time will tell you otherwise, but, if you ask me, it wasn’t a young boy they saw enter that dark and terrible house. No. Not a boy at all, but a lonely dog. Lost. A stupid dog.
By the time we got back to Freddy’s the cold air had revived him to his usual spirits. He passed me a can, told me to hold it steady, then thrust a knife into it near the bottom and forced the slit to my mouth. We drank and drank, listened to Ministry, Prodigy, more Ministry, sat miles apart on the lumpy sofa. Thick fog, pouring from a smoke machine in the corner, rolled around the room and unmoored the furniture. His bloodshot eyes glittered redly in the mist like cursed jewels, and his mouth was fixed in a ferryman’s sneer. When he drank he grew quiet, stern, given to erratic, deafening roars and a liquid, mercurial laugh. He laughed, and you knew that behind a door somewhere there was a soul twisting on a hook, and that he had something to do with it. He would have made a legendary GAA coach.
The cheap stuff went straight to my head. ‘I have to tell you something.’ I bounced my knees. ‘I’m not 18.’ I slurped at my can. ‘But it doesn’t matter, because I’m not a child either. I don’t think I ever was one.’
‘Alright,’ he said, setting his can on the armrest. ‘Since we’re sharing. I’m the type to say one thing and mean another, perhaps a teeming hoard of other things. I need to be asked,’ he whispered, ‘a few times in a row, how I am, before I tell you how I really am.’
Dead flies dotted the windowsill and lifted their tiny gnarled legs to the ceiling. A dark cyclonic stain was slowly spreading on the wall behind Freddy’s head. Detectable, though not present in the room, was the sheer cold of empty cots, the aborted cheer of discarded party streamers. A bloodcurdling scream suddenly pierced the air. ‘Sound effects,’ he grinned, fiddling with a remote control. ‘Some ambiance, perhaps?’ I winced as wolves lifted their mournful song from the shadows.
‘I should tell you,’ I said, after a while, ‘I never dream. Not anymore. I was hoping that someday they’d be able to broadcast infomercials right into my head as I sleep, so that I won’t have to worry about who or what I’m going to see in there, you know? Static would be better actually, yes. Endless static. On and on. That would be bliss. I’d never want to wake up from that. Never, ever.’ I loved those words. I would have painted the walls with them if I could, I would have worn them to school and to Sunday tea. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Never.’ He was watching me quietly. I shook my head. ‘I hope this won’t be a problem.’
‘Problem?’ He guffawed. ‘That’s the least of your problems.’ He drank greedily and crushed the empty can in his hand. ‘There’s a fight going on,’ he said quickly, his eyes darting left and right. ‘At all times. Are you aware of this? It’s a fight to go to sleep and it’s a fight to wake up. It’s a world of corners, a world of ropes. You’re either fighting or you’re hanging. Do you see? What?’ Dogs, hundreds of dogs, in the shadows, barking. ‘Do you?’
I nodded slowly, amazed. ‘No,’ I said. Then added, brightly, ‘Am I winning?’ He sat forward, looked right at me, took the whole mess in. He sighed and sank back into his cushion. I squirmed. ‘Is it bad?’ There was a pause. He opened another can.
‘Oh, it’s a massacre,’ he said, passing it to me. ‘You poor thing. You never stood a chance.’
‘My career has reached a low point,’ he said one afternoon. ‘All the signs are there. You should see some of the scripts they send me. It’s humiliating.’ His head rolled off the armrest and hung upside down. His eyes mirrored the metal sky. ‘It’s a strange world.’
I hummed distractedly. I was reading about the Terminator on my phone. The Terminator is a shape with roughly the same diameter as the Earth. I scrolled through pictures of the planet, its face disfigured by a wandering shape. The Terminator separates the portion of Earth experiencing daylight from that experiencing darkness. it moved like a slow hand over the city, turning off all the lights. They would be here soon, I thought, the other half of the world, dragging themselves out of their beds. I imagined myself at the foot of every one, hooded and scarred, my face a barcode horror. ‘Go back,’ I’d hiss. ‘You go right on back to sleep.’
Freddy snorted, and I saw he was tearing at his clothes, cutting up his skin, there was snot, a pearlescent glue weeping down his face. ‘Freddy! Stop that!’ I screamed in horror. ‘Your beautiful jumper!’
He turned to me, feral, and snarled: ‘I have hundreds!’ Sometimes his face slid around on his skull and revealed another one lurking underneath, gasping and frightened like a creature under ice. It was doing that now. I realised, then, with a mixture of revulsion and delight, that it would one day slip off and I would have to catch it. I was confident I would smooth it back onto his skull without complaint, without even having to think about it. It would be an act of scalding tenderness. I would kill anyone who laughed.
‘No,’ he moaned, one hand covering his face. ‘You can’t see me like this.’ He jumped up and dashed out of the room, then returned carrying a small stack of manuscripts, his head turned away from me. ‘Go,’ he said. His nose appeared to be upside down. ‘Take these. I’m running out of options. Read them. Pick one. I want you to pick one. Go, now.’ I took them under my arm and he hurried me out the door. I went to a local bistro where I laid them out on a table, ordered a coffee, and promptly fell asleep with my head in my hands. When I woke up my coffee was cold with a thin film of scum over the surface. My phone was flashing with messages from Freddy. Hastily, I took a picture of the script nearest to hand and sent it to him.
‘That one?’ he wrote back. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, closing my eyes. ‘Yes, I’m sure.’
We got hammered most nights and slept well into the afternoon. We blocked out the sunlight with black bin bags and lounged on the sofa, farting and scrolling.
‘It’s raining in Beijing,’ he said gloomily, his face green in the glow of the tablet. ‘They’re shooting crows in Budapest.’ His breathing quickened as he rubbed my chest with his free hand and read, ‘Boy, 17, stabbed to death is named.’
‘Lower,’ I said, and his hand slid down my stomach and disappeared into my jocks. I closed my eyes and raised my hips. ‘Okay, now say it. Say the name.’
The shower was a blowtorch, or else it thundered hail, and black sludge sometimes spluttered from the kitchen tap. At night the house sank, the floorboards swelled when it rained. When it rained the rats came inside and ran around in pairs, sucking on the wet hair caught in the sink. I watched Freddy hang dripping masks from the clothesline, I heard him whispering on the phone in the bathroom. I didn’t like to go upstairs because that’s where I saw the apparitions. A man, sometimes a woman, going up and down the stairs, closing doors quietly behind them. A hunched figure sailing quietly from room to room. Flashing lights. The one I liked had white hair and purple lips. I saw her smoking in the garden once. She called me Pet.
‘Oh, them,’ Freddy said. ‘Yeah, they’re new.’ He encouraged me to get to know them, there was footage online, I should have a look, see what they’ve done in the past. They walked right up to me, pointed cameras in my face and touched my hair. ‘You’ve got lovely hair,’ the girl said. ‘Mind if I play with it? The things I could do with this hair.’ The videos I found online were lurid and disorienting. The sounds didn’t match the action; at least I couldn’t then conceive of how those sounds could possibly match those actions. No, I decided, putting my phone away. I didn’t want to understand what I was looking at. When the washing line turned in the afternoon wind the hanging faces lifted to the sun like Saints.
A train hurtled from my sleep one night. Everyone I knew was on it. I sat up, sweating, the shrill horns still ringing in my head, and looked over at Freddy, who was snoring like a champion. I opened my mouth and closed it. Wake up, I don’t feel well, please come back, I’m scared, I don’t want to go, are all things I have failed to say sitting up late at night in someone else’s bed. I lay back down and closed my eyes and walked straight into an enormous hotel with beautiful white fountains in the lobby. The woman behind the desk greeted me with a smile. ‘Welcome,’ she said, sliding a bowl of keys across the counter. ‘There is a life for you in every room. In every room you are weeping.’
It didn’t happen often, but when I was left there on my own I poked around his things and prowled the dim, empty house, like a bored widow in search of torment. I filled the kettle, picked at my sleeve while it boiled, then waited for the water to cool before boiling it again. This was my new role and I found I could play it quite convincingly. I flew my face from window to window. I appeared in several headlights. I should have been out looking for a job since I’d failed a lot of my exams and had demonstrated, according to most of my teachers, a frightening inability to conceive of or make plans for a future, but instead I made different faces in the mirror and wandered from room to room, yawning. I practiced my exits and entrances. I didn’t call my parents.
The freezer-fridge was well-stocked with ice and cans of off-brand cider, unless it wasn’t, in which case Freddy would send me to Londis with a fiver and a slap on the bum. ‘And bring back the receipt!’ he’d grunt after me. Leaving Freddy’s place was like leaving the cinema in the middle of the day, the street outside shone so brightly! It was as if something terrible and wet had swam down it and it hadn’t yet recovered. It might never recover. They were scary, these streets where nothing happened. They didn’t seem safe. Their reigning quiet was its own dubious hazard. Just go ahead and try, the street said. See how far you get. Prick.
I went out less. There was nothing for me out there. I like being in a relationship. I wrote to a friend, who hadn’t replied to or even opened my last few messages. There’s always so much going on. Things happen during the night, and that’s just the way it is. It’s called growing up and I wish I never did it, ha ha. Don’t do it. Hello?
‘Who’s that big boy?’ my mother exclaimed as I stepped out of the dressing room in my Communion suit. I wondered what she’d say now if she could see me. ‘Help!’ probably, or, ‘Who’s this boy? Excuse me, does this boy belong to anyone? Oh, God. Pet, are you lost?’
‘The heart is an animal,’ he said above the engine, and lifted his hands off the steering wheel. In bars, people took notice of him straight away, and quickly became transfixed; heads turned, one after another, until the night seemed to spin out of his laughing mouth. Alone, he danced with mesmerising speed, his knives erect and elegant as the spread feathers of a peacock. In the smoking area I tore up coasters and avoided the eyes of the girls watching me.
‘So how long have you two been together?’ someone asked. I closed my eyes and went back in my head for an answer, and I couldn’t quite believe that I was the sort of person who sits in the dark with strangers and thinks, now I will have my answers.
‘How long?’ she asked.
‘Forever,’ I said.
She leaned back and exhaled. ‘Jesus, that’s romantic.’
I fell asleep once, sitting upright at an empty table. He kicked my foot to wake me. There were two young guys standing beside him. ‘They’re coming back with us,’ he said. One of them said something in Italian, and they both grinned. ‘I told them you were cool. Okay?’
‘Oh.’ I wiped my mouth with my sleeve. ‘Sure. Okay.’ We sat while Freddy finished his drink and one of them gripped my knee under the table and an instrument inside me shivered. In the house, they laughed loudly, and I couldn’t keep still. I made inelegant, fluttering movements. I tried to tell them to be quiet. Please, I begged. They’ll come down if they hear us. We must be very quiet. This is not a normal house. One of them kissed me, hard, nearly knocking me over. The apparitions arrived with their lights, bending around us.
‘Look at me,’ one of them said. ‘That’s it. That’s it. Now look away. Look far, far away.’
‘Look at Freddy.’
‘Yeah,’ he sneered, guiding my hand, ‘look at me.’ His face was red and boiled. ‘Touch yourself.’
When they were getting dressed to leave, one of the men – the one who had shown a fondness for my baby toe – picked up my underwear and started to put it on. ‘Oh,’ he said, frowning at his crotch. I curled up tightly, brought my knees up to my chest.
Then someone flicked a switch and it was morning. I watched Freddy get up and move and I thought, I should do that. I should get up and move. Instead I looked at my arm for an hour. I moved it at last, to cover my eyes, because they were crying. I looked at the window and I heard myself say, ‘You said it wouldn’t hurt.’ When I turned over he was walking away.
‘The heart is an animal,’ his back said.
Slashes appeared on my face and my arms, usually after a restless sleep. Thin streams of blood ran out of them, and continued to run no matter how many times I toweled them dry. Fresh towels appeared, folded and warm, in the bathroom overnight and this always, for reasons I could not explain, made me furious. I’d leave my face clean and unharmed in the bathroom mirror only to find it destroyed and wobbling in the dishwater. I’d splash it and drag wet hands through my hair and add healing to the list of things I just hadn’t got the hang of. In the shop they gazed into my cut-up face and asked me to hold my hand still, to try again, and told me to have a nice day.
‘I’d like to buy a condolence card,’ I said to the cashier once, ‘for someone who has sort of really badly fucked up his life.’ With a flourish he spread a selection across the counter. I bought a handful and wrote long, tumbling, heartfelt messages to myself, then dropped them, unstamped and unaddressed, right into the post box. I don’t remember what they said. I remember instead the repulsive rhythm of those days; gangly, indistinguishable strangers with dead, indistinguishable eyes; the histrionics and the silence, the washing and the drying, then doing it all over again. Every morning the same white cat writhed in the garden. In the kitchen the same box of cornflakes stood empty, there was the same carton of gone-off milk. The same pink striped mug fell from my hands and smashed to pieces on the tiles. The same pieces.
‘Again,’ said a voice. The same tears rolled down my face.
A large hand aimed an even larger lens at me. Somewhere a man sneezed, sneezed again. The apparitions were engaged in a balletic argument. The way they opened doors and cupboards was thrilling. They were not vagrant or listless; they radiated a sense of purpose and zeal that cast a spectral pallor on my own awkward, regrettable movements. They gave me tips, offered me advice.
‘Clench your jaw a little.’
‘Relax your mouth.’
‘Activate your core.’
Dexterous hands arranged cobwebs above the television. The girl with white hair caught my eye and smirked, then returned her attention to the phone in her hands. Another one openly scrutinised me, his arms folded, his eyes narrowed.
‘Hey,’ he called, ‘can we get some more blood on his face? He’s looking conspicuously unscathed, considering what he’s been through.’
‘Sure,’ she said, sauntering over to me.
‘Can someone tell me,’ I whispered, as she tilted my head to face her, ‘what exactly it is I’ve been through?’ She put her phone in the back pocket of her jeans.
‘We haven’t shot that scene yet. It’s coming up soon. Right?’ She was looking at me. ‘Do you have someone to run over your lines with?’ I squinted up at her.
She giggled behind her hands. ‘You’re funny.’ But when she lowered her hands she was frowning. ‘That doesn’t really come across on camera. Now go to the bathroom. I’ll be with you in a minute.’
She snapped her fingers. ‘Close your eyes.’ There was a click. She patted my face with something soft. After a while she said: ‘I’ve been watching you. You have this very vacant thing going on.’ The wet tip of a brush swept across my cheek. ‘I like it.’
‘Thanks,’ I said. The bathroom fan whirred. ‘Do you want to hear something funny? I tore a pillow case in half one afternoon, then I stuffed it into my mouth, crawled underneath the bed and screamed.’
She dabbed my lips with her thumb and hummed. ‘Are you… method?’
I told her to forget what she thought she knew, that nothing was what it was. I told her about the Terminator moving hungrily through space. ‘I think it’s looking for me. I think I would like it to find me. Do you dream at all? You should forget those too. You mutilate your dreams when you try to recover them.’ She opened something, then snapped it shut. Soft feathery blasts struck my face. She didn’t seem to be breathing.
‘You can open your eyes now. Turn around. Have a look in the mirror.’ Her voice changed. ‘Look at what I’ve done to you.’ We both looked at the boy in the mirror.
‘He doesn’t look so good,’ I said after a while. She laughed. ‘He looks horrendous,’ she agreed, and turned to leave.
My voice went out like a hand. ‘He needs help.’ She froze, one hand on the doorknob.
‘He does, doesn’t he.’ She chewed her lip. ‘There are numbers for people like you,’ she said. ‘There are services and,’ here, she rolled her eyes, ‘long, interminable queues. If you’re interested.’
‘People like me?’
She shrugged. ‘Lost people. People who look like they’re concentrating on trying to disappear.’
‘I have, I think, I’ve disappeared.’
She brushed my cheek with her free hand. ‘Oh, baby,’ she said. ‘Me too.’
She opened the door and slipped out. Before she shut it, a man strolled past wheeling a trolley with one hand and cradling a baby calf’s head with the other. It had a lick of white on its head and there was a hole in its cheek, pulling its features into a smarmy, cartoonish grin. Later that night as I lay in bed it descended on a chain from the ceiling and hovered just inches above my face. The factory still churned in its black, lustrous eyes. I saw its mother standing apart from the others, staring at passing cars and swinging her great pensive head after phantom hooves. I ts jaw awakened and it opened its mouth and screamed. I lunged out of bed and fell down, hard, on four trembling hooves. Quivering backsides jostled my face, tails twitched and flicked and made me flinch. A metal gate swung shut with a crash, and a farmer’s crooked shadow went bobbing across the wall. Another gate crashed and we surged forward. Freddy’s face rose above the rest, straining from a heifer’s thick, veined neck. He winked at me, then vanished. I stumbled after him, crying out. ‘Wait,’ I said, ‘please, wait.’ I pushed with all my strength past the others and fell to my knees on the bathroom floor. The door closed behind me.
‘Quickly now,’ whispered a voice. White hair, purple mouth. She reached down and pulled my face off with little grunting noises. The calf’s head flopped, deflated and rubbery in her hands. ‘Now wait here,’ she said, wiping my tears with her thumb. ‘We’re almost there.’ The bathroom fan wheezed. She opened the door a crack, listening. She exchanged heated whispers with someone on the other side. She looked over her shoulder at me. Her face was sad. ‘Good luck,’ she said, and slipped out. I took one step forward. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered. Then the lock clicked.
The lights flashed out. The fan continued to whirr heroically, then it began to falter. It chugged and choked. Infant flakes of ice crept over its white, astonished face. A light broke loose, then died inside it, and out of the polished emptiness my own uncomprehending eyes stared back at me. The toilet water, mercifully clean, froze into a pane of pure glass; the shower head and faucet put forth silver tusks of ice. The mirror went black as a screen and thickened with the undulating presence of another realm. I stood very still. An explosion was taking place in my chest. The mirror bulged out, then broke cleanly like a bubble. The floor opened out beneath my feet and I tumbled down in jerking, awkward dangling movements, like an abused puppet. I started to worry it might never end. They’ll find me, I thought, light-blue and lipless, bones all jumbled, my eyelids eaten by razor-toothed lizards. When it seemed I couldn’t fall any further, I walked until I found the hallway, though it took me a moment to recognise it as that. Thick white blankets of snow covered the stairs, the floor; cakes of snow on the tables and chairs. Snow fell from the ceiling in controlled, efficient spirals. I turned to go back the way I came but it was a blizzard, blackness, a cold vocal wind. Footprints, half-covered from fresh snowfall, led down the hall and into the living room. On the wall, written in Freddy’s hysterical scrawl, were the words: ‘This way to The Heart of Things.’
I found myself on the sofa watching a boy who looked like me and a man who looked like Freddy wrestling, naked, on the television screen. They were struggling and grunting, sweating and cursing. The boy held a plastic bag open against his chest and the man was rifling through it. Its dark contents spluttered forth in quick, pressurised spurts, gloving the hand thrust inside it. The bag, I soon discovered, was his skin, torn wide and discoloured. The camera zoomed in. It was like looking into a sloshing sea cave full of frightened, thrashing creatures. For a split second I saw the man from the boy’s perspective. A bright material that might have been blood hung like wings from the man’s frenzied arms, and twin infernos spun where his eyes should have been. Wet sounds, sucking sounds, some very uncomfortable angles. The searching hand, slick with blood, went sliding and sank deeper, closing around the boy’s delicate spine. The boy’s eyes rolled up into his head as the man, his hand jerking violently, roared into his face, ‘Would it kill you to fucking open up?’ Snow fell across their heaving forms, then filled the screen completely.
Behind me a telephone rang out in shrill, piercing tones. I wiped it with my sleeve and brought it to my ear. I opened my mouth, then closed it. There were voices already talking.
‘What did you do today?’ My mother’s voice.
‘Nothing. Stuff.’ Mine.
‘Hello?’ Her voice was round, like she’d turned in her seat to face the receiver. ‘Can you hear me?’
‘Nothing, I said.’
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘okay. Sorry.’ A lamb barrelled past me, breathing heavily and dragging a mangled leg. A fox swiftly followed in quick, merry steps.
‘What did I tell you?’ The phone began to buzz in my hand. The voices, in unison: ‘I warned you.’ Black snow, soot, fell and covered everything. A point of red light described an arc through the air, then vanished. Hushed voices. ‘Sshh,’ someone said. ‘Here it comes.’
‘Mam,’ I tried to say, but the words didn’t come out. My mouth was wobbling so much I had to hold it. I wanted to tell her everything, but I just stammered and gagged. My head swam with nausea. At the far end of the hall something thrashed and dragged its enormous length. You could hear the senseless weight of its head swing and collide with the walls. I imagined its lightless grin in the dark, like a planet edging into the sun. It revved its chainsaw mouth and screamed, ‘Important words! Important words! Our teeth have replaced important words!’ My mouth filled with saliva. I spat it out and watched in horror as it wriggled blindly on the floor. I groaned and dug my heel into it, but when I lifted my foot it was still writhing.
‘Who did that?’ cried a voice from the shadows. ‘Who did that to him?’ It spilled freely from my mouth then. Someone retched. Cold hands gently held my face. I went down on my hands and knees and vomited until tears came to my eyes. Someone yelled ‘Jesus! The phone! Someone get the phone!’
‘Hello? What’s happening? I don’t understand,’ my mother was crying. ‘What are you saying to me?’
In the weeks that followed, I went around in a daze that failed to materialise into anger, or hate, or whatever it was a person in my situation should have been feeling. Google told me to rest and talk to people I could trust. I removed the sim from my phone and slept at high, illegal speeds, waking exhausted, curled up in different corners of the house. I ignored Freddy with all my remaining might, which wasn’t much to begin with. In terms of emotional warfare, my arsenal consisted chiefly of sighs, but this was nothing to dismiss. You could sigh a whole person away. He brought me tea, mug after mug of strong, heartbreaking tea, and I glared at it until it separated into venomous, oily swirls.
I stopped going along with things. I looked the wrong way, stood up when I should have lied down, bumped into stuff, knocked things over. Eventually the apparitions left. On her last day she found me in the kitchen. ‘There you are, pet. Listen, I’m going away for – what are you doing?’ My hand was buried in the cutlery drawer and I was dragging it back and forth noisily, looking for a spoon. She shrieked and grabbed my wrist, then grimaced and held it under the tap. ‘What did you do?’ The thing in the sink was a frightening shade of red. Her eyes were wet, her voice a whisper. ‘Are you hurt?’ She didn’t know my name. She searched my face, but there was nothing there. Her expression frightened me. I tried to pull away from her. ‘Are you hurt?’ she repeated, shaking me.
‘I don’t know,’ I kept saying, louder and louder. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’
I started to receive texts from an unknown number. They sent me links to various homeware websites and clips of cheesy advertisements. The sender wrote to me, Watch it closely. Look after yourself, Pet. I clicked on one of the links and pressed play. It was an ad for a mop that, as it was thrust into a pair of agitated hands, didn’t quite look like a mop, and before I could look away I saw Freddy’s fingers flex and his eyes turn black as the damp, lifeless tentacles began to twitch and curl back like the fingers of a supplicant prostrate on the altar floor, their whispering mouth lost behind a halo of fallen hair. After a few violent twists he presented the grotesque result to the camera, cracked his eyes, and smiled.
‘My career has reached a low point,’ he said one afternoon. He was slumped on the sofa in just his underwear and had the jaded, evacuated look of a man who has spent the afternoon Googling himself. He lifted his sore eyes to mine. ‘They’ve all gone,’ he said. ‘All of them.’ He looked around the room. ‘Gone.’ The house was deserted, it was true, and they weren’t coming back. ‘There’s no one else like me,’ he grumbled. ‘I’m Freddy fucking Krueger!’
I burst into peals of unrehearsed laughter. He scowled at me. ‘You’re a funny little man and there are millions of you.’
No one stomped around upstairs, or laughed on the landing, or coughed beneath the window. And no one, I observed, as Freddy shivered in his grimy robe, no one had paid the heating bill. The electricity went next. At night we ferried ourselves through the dark with long white candles. More than once, as I sat reading by candlelight at the table or in bed, I would feel a tingle and look up to see the crimson outline of his hateful face hovering above a tall, motionless flame, just standing there at the door, glaring at me. ‘This is all your fault,’ he said.
We had more and more of these nocturnal interactions until it dawned on us that we hadn’t either of us slept in quite some time. What was it now, two, three? Hours? Days? We lay like hostages side by side, waiting for sleep but it never came. Still, the night flowed on. ‘Are we dreaming?’ one of us asked the other. The road outside was polished within an inch of its life. I could barely see it. I started to doubt it was even there. Maybe they took that with them, too, I thought. He cried when they took the fog machine. They left us only the towels. I imagined plundering the closet upstairs and piling the awful towels in the garden. It would not take much to illuminate the sordid night – a splash of diesel, a struck match – to consign the whole mess to flames. ‘Do you hear that?’ I asked.
Freddy cocked his head. ‘No. What is it?’ he asked anxiously, ‘what do you hear?’ Moonlight flickered over our faces.
A flake of salt turned on my tongue and dissolved… It sounded like everything I had ever heard. ‘The sea,’ I said at last. ‘I hear the sea.’
We took timid steps up and down the stairs and into the kitchen, where we ate cold beans on stale bread, not even bothering to eat around the mould. After rattling around the cupboards for an hour we came to the somewhat ominous conclusion that there was not a single pack of cards in the house. If nothing else, I thought, I have been spared the miserable task of pretending to truly enjoy playing round after round of Snap. Soon we were down to our last tea lights. Freddy held their faint heartbeats in his hand. ‘If only we could take his ones, too,’ he said lamely, looking at his own reflection in the black glass. The two of them looked at me and smiled, ruefully. One by one the tea lights dwindled and went out. Their departing embers hovered in the air, then buried their faces in the dark. There was an audible click, like the sound of a hatch lifting. The house trembled as with long-awaited release and began its long descent. Outside, the night ran quick and strong against the glass, frictionless and calm as a river.
Freddy went down on his hands and knees then. ‘Please,’ he sobbed. He was just an old man desperate to make it through the night. He pressed his dripping nose against my crotch and wept. ‘Please help me. I don’t understand.’
But I could barely hear him anymore. An unseen presence had entered the room. Blood pushed against my eyes like a mob. With my hands I discovered the abrupt ruin of Freddy’s head, a fossil rising mouth-first from the earth. ‘I have you,’ I said gently, ‘I have you.’ I flicked my fingers and his jaw wrenched open. I could feel it all: the trapped light, the lost years, roiling like magma in his skull. ‘It’s over,’ I said. The tips of my fingers sank as into wet clay and his face came away in smoldering lumps. My hands kept digging until they met each other and he slumped forward onto the floor.
Then the sea exploded in my ears and ran over my skin, which was alive and torrential with a million swimming lights. I smiled in the direction of the Terminator, who was passing silently through the room. I crawled into bed feeling likea warm bubble bath and sank, crackling, into a wide, widening sleep. All was brightness wrapped in darkness, wrapped in brightness, wrapped in darkness. I drifted through it, a stray bit of something.
Then everything went blank. I shot to the surface with a shout and squeezed my eyes. No, I cried, twisting and burying my face, no, no, but it was too late. Someone was already pulling back the blinds. A wooden chair barked as it was dragged across the floor. Soon, chattered a voice, very soon you’ll have to get a move on, soon there will be nowhere else to look. And then what will you do? The hectoring voice moved to and fro with increasing delight. I stared and stared as it bent over me. Well? I went into convulsions. My bed began to shake. What are you going to do?