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Banshee

Banshee


Estimated reading time — 71 minutes

Thick hazy air hung beneath the shaking lights as raindrops shivered and splattered across steaming glass. A curious, hollow stench lashed out like an invisible whip from one row to the next, and not even the labored breath of the midnight breeze could batter the smell away from him as his sweating fingers now clutched at the briefcase more urgently. From under the sickly pulses of tungsten light, he peeked out from beneath the black fedora that slept atop his gaunt skull, to observe, on the other end of the bus, a man. He was wrapped from head to toe, with a sticky yellow ooze slowly slithering between the cracks of thick, crinkled, fleshy bandages. Beneath the wrapping, two pale, beady, bloodshot eyes were gazing blankly across the space, stinging in the air but refusing to blink. The eyes were beginning to grow cloudy, and as he watched, a fly landed on the man’s retina. There was not so much as a twitch. The man could well have been dead.

Before long, the bus heaved across the final corner and thrust itself into the heart of the city. As it thundered by, cluttered clouds of smog and clots of neon whisked up into a strange spectral entity that coiled its starving hand around the jittering vehicle and pulled it further into its bosom. He shifted in his seat, trying to compose himself, his skin itching beneath the stretching fabrics of his clothes as his muscles grew tense. His pale hands, still clinging to the handle of his briefcase, began to quiver. A faint echo carried its way through the open window. It was inexplicable. It tickled like the softest of sighs, yet somehow carried itself over the spluttering of engines, the sharp screeching of wheels, and the cacophonies of coughing that accompanied him on his journey home, to somehow reach his ears. He turned with a sudden dread to the rear window and gazed out with wide eyes, searching for the source of the sound. It rumbled in his mind, a melancholy shriek. Far out in the blackened night, withering branches swayed, and glowing leaves glittered beneath the bright, penetrating moonlight. He continued to stare out at the tree line, expecting to see something between the wizened trunks that warped themselves within shadows and waned and wavered among the howling wind. He swallowed a great gulp of the humid air, his eyes shifting frantically now, his ears straining, his hands tentatively pulling the briefcase even closer to his chest. Yet, whatever that sound was, it could no longer be heard. There were soon no more trees in sight. Instead, within the frame of every window there now lurked gaping monoliths of metal, erecting themselves proudly before their starry backdrop, jutting like daggers into the skin of the sky, piercing the very stained fog that the bandaged man beside him continued to choke on.

It was now a stop before his own, and he had turned away from the window. He brooded over the sight of his pale fingers that still coiled around the lavish leather handle of his briefcase, noting the many scratches upon them. As he did so, another man, draped in thick black formal attire and possessing an alarmingly pale complexion, huffed out of his seat and lifted a bloated black bin-bag onto his back, the size of which nearly dwarfing the man himself. The man seethed hot bubbly spit between his teeth and staggered slowly across the bus before finally emerging out onto the street and fading away into the fog. It was clear to him now that the stench had not arisen from the bandaged man – who still stared up at the decaying ceiling of the bus as if enraptured into a trance, yet simultaneously writhed about on his back, seemingly struggling to rest inside his own flesh. It had, in fact, originated from whatever that bulging black behemoth was that drooped from the slender shoulders of the other man, who had now completely vanished into a snakelike alleyway, the haunted stench creeping along not far behind. The only smell that remained now was the cluttered, comforting, nostalgic smell of fresh pollution, that tickled his nostrils and left his mouth dry. He was now in the city centre, soon to be home again.

With a final hiss the bus spat him out onto the sidewalk, and he leaned on a lamppost to stretch out his cramped limbs, his hand pressing down on a creased damp leaflet hanging from the rotting wood. A missing-person poster. He could not say that he recognised her. He wrapped himself up in his trench coat and, navigating the tumbling litter that scratched at his worn leather shoes, trudged back home, the glassy gaze of apartment windows glaring at him from above like hungry vultures willing on his demise.

His apartment was sparse, almost empty, with imposing grey walls scribbled with cracks and no decoration save for the moaning metal pipes which slithered their way like vines across the apartment, echoing faint clangs that visited the room like whispers from a different world. A single sofa, crimson-red and wounded, sat in the middle of the room, facing towards an oversized television which now churned out the static that provided the only source of light, the monochrome pixels illuminating no less colour than was ever otherwise present. He hunched over the briefcase and for a moment resembled an overgrown foetus curled up inside some barren industrial womb. He grunted and strained, and finally, the briefcase opened, a mighty creak vibrating through it and up through his fingertips. Inside he only saw blackness. He pummeled his fist inward, reluctantly but with purpose, almost as one would when dissecting a corpse. Inside, the briefcase felt far more spacious, like an entire dimension flowing past his knuckles, contained inside a single box, growing hotter and denser. Eventually, his fingers groped a small red USB stick that felt smooth and cold like the cool stiffness of a severed appendage.

Checking his wristwatch, he quickly inserted the USB into the television and paced back to his seat, phone in hand. He then leaned forward in anticipation; eyes fixed on the screen. The maze of static morphed and mutated before dissolving into voluptuous panoramas of skyscrapers, sunlight dancing sensuously off their rigid structures like waves of glitter, the strange metal protrusions glistening in a twilight haze as soft electronic beats fluttered out from the speakers. The camera swooped and swiveled around these great chiseled towers excitedly as the pinkish light caressed their glossy glass, and they let out a silent metallic purr, kissing the clouds as they did it. Soon the camera hurried inside one of these ominous beauties, losing itself within its steel arteries and being dazzled by great neon organs that swung about the urban caverns like ripe fruit daring to be plucked. In each passing shot, the image faded in and out like a heavy breath, sighing from light to dark, and back again, each proceeding shot closer than the last, as if the image was going to penetrate the very atoms of its subject.

As this display continued, his phone shuddered to life, and, remaining silent, he lifted it to his ear as it whispered cryptic murmurs that slowly reverberated through his skull. The voice was muffled, unintelligible, with a distorted, deep pitch. As he still scanned over the flickering screen with twitching eyes, he replied quietly.

“…It is done.”

One final murmur ruffled through in acknowledgement, and the line proceeded to crackle in a final macabre giggle, before dying. He held the cold object beside his head for a while longer before he let his arm go limp and his eyes droop down from what was now static once more.

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Soon after, he perched himself like a lanky ghost beside the window which now creaked gently against a gelid wind; one eye tracking the blotches of neon light that flickered among the dark crevices of the city below him like dancing nymphs playing in the dark; another eye on his own pale, solemn reflection. He saw his own stale blue eyes, his gaunt face looking back at himself, yet he could hardly recognise his own gaze. With a grimace, he sighed, and as the cool exhaled air visibly slathered the reflection of his face, he realised that the room around him had suddenly turned dreadfully cold. With another heavy sigh, he sulked away from the window and limped flaccidly to his bedroom.

In his bed, he wrapped himself up tightly, as if to mimic the bandaged man whose glazed-over eyes still glimmered in his memory. In many ways, he missed the company of the bus. Even if they were a sickly paralysed starfish flopped on their back and crying puss, they were still a fellow traveler inside that shaking metal capsule that rocked and rumbled its way through their world, both within the city, and yet, providing a sensation that he was always somehow without. Sometimes he would gaze out those icy windows and watch the hurried stride of an ambiguous stranger tangled up in winter clothes, fighting off the spits of rain and harsh lashings of wind as they navigated pavement to pavement. As their hands would clasp onto the door-handle of which they would turn and push, he would sometimes imagine the hand instead clasping his own. He imagined the warm, fuzzy feeling of two hands intertwined. But often, when he did so, a strange sensation emerged, and it was indeed of a hand, but a gaunt, pale, skeletal hand, sat squat like a spider beside his own, or scuttling across the minute hairs that perked up on his slender arm. Just as with the peculiar temperature of his apartment air, he had not the energy to address these sensations nor his recollection of them, and merely drifted off to sleep. The faint reflections of the straining lights from outside his window danced beneath his door and trickled atop his eyes as they dilated and closed.

Where there once was a blotchy static darkness within his vision there was now a great emergence of kinetic colour; splashes of bright emerald green lit up by great swooning bursts of amber sunlight; a harmony of leaves shimmering and singing, accompanied by an ethereal hum of insects and the soft shaking of undergrowth. She was crouching down, tending to a silky white rose, which beamed in the tender daylight and swayed softly as she patted the roots beside it. He stood watching her, leaning on one leg, a twitching hand in his pocket, with a smile creeping up his tanning skin, and when she turned to him his eyes lit up with a loving passion, and she quickly turned away once more to hide her gentle grin, displaying it only to the flowers. He approached her slowly, lifting his hand to stroke the soft arch of her neck, to feel the flowing river of blood that pulsated through her slender veins as she immersed herself into her garden. He felt her heartbeat, heard it even, as it merged with his own to build a drumming cacophony of bumping organs. The busy buzzing of insects was now unexplainably absent. His fingers made contact but where flesh was there was now trickling water. His hands were dirty, muddied, being cleansed by an icy stream. She was gone. There was no smiling gaze to stare back at him. His eyes only met his own. They were distorted and cloudy, reflected back at him in the cold muddying water like deep blackened pearls uncovered by the splashing stream. When his waking eyes opened to greet his hollow apartment, those watery reflected pearls still glared back at him in the puddle of his mind.

The next day his apartment was still cold. Thin veils of frost began to slowly creep up along the glass, obscuring the slithers of daylight that began to emerge from the horizon. It was not that the heating for his apartment had suddenly cut off, for the pipes still gave out their everlasting melancholy ballad above his head as he stared down at the sink, washing his hands…

…They had been looking for someone with an open mind. Someone who is susceptible to stimuli. His job was not to make decisions as such, but rather to simply assess what was sent to him and intuit what was being demanded. Sometimes, however, what was sent to him was not a task, but rather a reward, or an explanation of the impact of what he is doing. Sometimes they provided entertainment or even erotic material. Furthermore, apparently – they had notified him of this – they also continually watched over him, monitored his actions, studied his interpretations of their… stimuli. Not once, however, had he caught a glimpse of any possible indication of their surveillance, other than a queer feeling that it was building inside him, a feeling that he was never quite alone. Alas, that was his contract. It indeed paid well, however his desire to spend his earnings had recently, unexplainably, evaporated, as if some idle depression had seized him.

They had paid him only in cash, thus great wads of slender green notes amassed in some rotten clump in the corner of his apartment. He rarely set his eyes upon them. He could leave if he wanted. But, like the icy water that monotonously plunged down from the rusting metal tap and down into the deep chasms of the pipes below, his trajectory to him felt inevitable, as if guided by an external pull. But not one that forced him, but rather, entranced him. The city, for all its gaping shadows, nurtured a promise. And so, he spent his days wishing to stumble upon it, whatever it was.

But there was another reason for remaining in his current situation. He had a wish not to draw attention to himself. Ironic, considering his contract. But they were private employers. What he was wary of, was the public. They had a potent eye, capable of dissecting every expression, devouring every blemish, absorbing every drop of sweat. He sought to avoid that mighty gaze, and so he stuck on what he felt was the straight and narrow, hoping for joy, and cowering from attention.

Nevertheless, a blankness to his reasoning was now evident to him. It was as if he drifted under these neon lights no different than if he were some discarded plastic bag. The dances he made in the cluttered urban wind were hardly ones he pre-meditated on. This was, after all, why he had been sought out for the contract. They had not been looking for a thinker, some logical analyst, some wistful mediator. They were looking for a compulsive, someone who would leap up at a suggestion with the instincts of a bruised dog.

Enclosed in rumination, he now found himself frowning down at shivering hands that were turning blue beneath the trickles of water. The sunlight was finally climbing up past the great metal giants that were lined up beneath his window, and vast rectangles of the orange light swept over his apartment, caressing the groaning pipes and dancing among every crack and dampened stain. He glanced over his abode in self-pity, clueless of precisely how he would invest his money in refurbishing it.

Just as he did so, a door to a far-off room creaked open. The room resided in what was currently, and usually, the darkest corner of his apartment. It was his bathroom. Suddenly the chill of the room now pierced straight into his bones. With rattling teeth and twitching muscles, he slowly approached the door, which now leaned eerily ajar. As he peered inward, he blocked out most of the sunlight into the room. However, he saw enough, and suddenly he was reminded of it all again. He leaned, one arm clutching the door, and stared downward, relieved, yet still maintaining a sensation of uneasiness. Uneasiness, more than anything, for why he had felt at all frightened. Below him, illuminated by the faintest slither of sunlight, was a pair of red, swollen, stiffened bare feet, pointing sharply up at the ceiling, and riddled with bulging greenish veins.

“She hasn’t moved. But of course not, how could she?”

Meanwhile, out in some damp, obscure part of the city, a simple black briefcase sat atop a bench as if a lonely spirit, brooding on the life that once was. It had been left there for some time now. In the night a harsh, bitter gale had stabbed through the city and a tree had fallen, cutting off the flow of traffic. Thus, the recipient of the briefcase had not yet arrived. It continued to sit, by its lonesome, squatting idly as hurried salarymen sprinted past without so much as a glance at the ominous, abandoned object. Despite all this, however, the latches of the case blew gently in a trickle of cold air, and before long, the case lay open. A pale, withered hand scuttled along the edge of the bench, and pincered itself into the clammy black gorge of the briefcase, dissecting it of its original contents and penetrating its warm black insides with a new object, not dissimilar from the first. With another howl of wind, the hand was gone, and with it the case was shut once more, left awaiting its recipient.

He finally arrived, pulling up his lapels on his coat as to conceal his face from onlookers, and without a thought lifted the briefcase and held it close to his side, hurrying his way back through the rainy streets. He could not take the bus back due to the road blockage, and he frowned as a midday thunder was rumbling and roaring above him as lashes of lightning lit up the sky.

The streets had become empty, and he soon found himself alone, hurrying along the littered pavements on foot, dashing past puddles and stumbling over disregarded cans and tangled packaging and swatting away billows of stinging smoke, holding his nose to fight off a lingering putrid tendril of gas that seemed to stalk his every move. Trudging through the muck and grime proved a tedious effort, and before long he was crouching over, attending to his laces. As he did so, he saw a tall, gaunt figure, clad in much the same formal black attire as himself, rise up in the murky reflection of a puddle beside him; a faint, ghostly silhouette, seemingly floating in the air, watching him. He stood up and turned to the figure, to see that it was heavily bandaged, but unlike the man on the bus, this man was not sick. Upon meeting his eyes, it made no effort to run or hide, but simply turned and walked away again, its gaze lingering upon him for as long as its movement allowed. As it did so, the stench equally made its departure. Despite the oddity of this encounter and the confirmation that he was indeed being spied on, he merely shook his head and kept on walking. After all, he had suffered stranger interactions with his employers.

His shortcut finally brought him to the edge of the city, overlooking old, wizened woodland that, for all the thunderous gales battered against it, still stood strong. Beside it however there was erected a great maze of ladders and pipes, surrounded by rusting machinery and pools of sticky clay, and puffs of steam whisking out from the ground like the dying breaths of some spectral creature. It was a construction site, and the metallic clangs of moaning machinery and bristling pipes echoed and harmonised across the increasingly cold air like a death rattle. Metal beams stood up like trees and the tendrils of steam navigated them like fish, great shoals coming together to form a nauseating haze that wrapped around him as he continued hurrying through, caking his boots in wet clay, and he grimaced, eager to get home and out of sight. But then, within an instant, he stopped.

Through the haze, a bright, circular light beamed out at him, as if like an arm reaching out to touch him through the shimmers of rain. For a brief moment, he felt his body freeze, becoming rooted firmly into the ground. He could taste rust in his mouth and smell the odour of rotting bark. Suddenly and without reason he was worried that the muddy pool beneath him with all its sharp chips of metal would swarm up his limbs and consume him, but he could not look down to see as his eyes were fixed on the light, and were beginning to sting, tearing up in the mist. His muscles began to ache, his arms began to shiver as if he was succumbing to an epileptic seizure. His jaw began to chatter, and his fingers squirmed, still clutching the briefcase, but he refused to let it drop. And then instantly, mere seconds after it had started, the sensation vanished.

He jolted back into a sprint and hurried on through the construction site. All the while, however, the light remained. It seemed to follow him through his journey and, somehow, seemed to grow brighter, blinking like an eye as he rushed past each trunk of metal. The clanging had now given way to a hollow breeze of those ancient, wrinkled trees. As he emerged from the haze, they were all that could be seen.

The light had once been piercing through from where he now stood. Swiveling around to search the haze now behind him, there was no light there either. He turned back to the woodland that stood before him with a quiet menace, seemingly both towering immediately in front of him but also residing far out of reach, trundling away into the horizon as if the ground around him was expanding. He strained his eyes, staring straight into the blackness between the tangled tree trunks. For one brief moment, he sensed a pale pair of watering eyes, gazing back at his own. There was a slight squeal. It was as quick and high-pitched as a sudden squeak of gas, yet possessing the elongated breathiness of a faint, anguished sigh. He could not tell if that was him, in his abstract terror, or a noise from the construction site. Or indeed, something out there, in that forest. But whatever it was, it too, just like the forest itself, felt as if it were both right beside him, and echoing from far out in space.

There was no time to brood on this disturbing experience beyond the opportunity provided within the duration of the encounter. He had a job to do. He had little else of interest to participate in besides his work, so he simply told himself he would address the matter later. It was not that he was, for a change, overriding his impulses – this was not something he had learned to do. It was simply that the impulse to obey his clients struck faster and harder than to inquire into any personal matter. It was also the case that, in this particular instance, there was very much an impulse not to investigate. So, as he shuffled inside his languid, unloved apartment, and set down the heavy black briefcase on the floor in front of his sofa, he merely gulped down a glass of water with a mix of prescribed medications, flung off his hat into some obscure corner, and relaxed the tension in his bones to prepare his body for the reception of another signal.

As he opened the briefcase, a faint wisp of air blew out from the dark interior and wafted around him as he plunged his hand deep within. It stank like rotting bark. This, he assumed, would be informing him of the location of his forthcoming quest. As ever, he found a small, cold USB stick, in the heart of the object’s velvety insides. Yesterday’s footage was a reward. Today’s footage will be an order. As part of his contract, he agrees every night that, whatever suggestions he receives the following day, he will complete them without hesitation. With his phone at the ready, he sat back, and braced himself.

There was only an icy, hissing static. His phone did not ring. He waited, growing increasingly anxious and impatient as the minutes oozed by. He sat alone and unsatiated, gazing into a fluctuating array of pixels that were sparkling within his frosty apartment. However, above the static he could hear the low groaning of the metal pipes. As he honed in closer on the sound, It became strange to him. There was a clanging that was almost rhythmic, as if there was something inside the pipes, crawling. No, it was not a thing. It was a force, like a harsh pummel of air, vibrating against the metal like an earthquake, that now picked up both in rhythm and intensity.

The static dissipated, leaving only a hollow blackness on the screen before him. Now he could see nothing, save for the slender rays of sickly tungsten trickling inward from his window that illuminated faint silhouettes in his room. Among these silhouettes, he thought he could see a geometric shape shift, silently. The metal clanging stopped. In its place, there was a shy, awkward creak that whispered in the blackness. He realized that his hands were fiercely scratching against the leather of his sofa. With a clenched jaw and shivering bones, he stood up, almost struggling for balance.

But as soon as he stood the television with a great roar burst into life and a kaleidoscope of colour flooded into the room. Amidst the shouting spectrum of light, he saw for a brief moment that his bathroom door was open, before his attention was drawn back to the screen. Before him meshed the dancing of reeds, the web-like structures of branches, and a great shoal of leaves washing over the image, all these great vistas of vegetation overlapping each-other and pulsating with hues of molten magentas, galvanising greens, and yowling yellows, image after image crashing on top of the other like a tidal wave of pure energy, vaporising the darkness. Through the television there echoed the blow of a mighty wind that sharpened as the many branches and leaves before him panicked and swayed and began to mutate and morph before his eyes into a giant dancing floral ocean. The television itself began to shudder as if it was rejecting the very contents that were inserted into it, like a dying patient whose body was rejecting a donated heart. The recorded wind was gaining ferociously in pitch and volume. Within it a cryptic, chiming chorus began to emerge, and instinctively he leapt for the remote and tried to quieten the primordial gale but even as the volume hit zero the roar vibrated only harder still, and the humming developed into great straining howls, the noise increasing until the metal pipes of his apartment began to clang again as if that wisplike formless beast that was once contained within them had now been let loose into his apartment. He crouched down onto the floor in agony, crumpled, and clutching at the sofa before resorting to clamping his ears with sick, sweaty hands. He squeezed his eyes shut so as to not be blinded by the colour, but even through his eyelids seethed through and stabbed at his senses. It was an energy so immense in its anger, yet simultaneously so intoxicating in its beauty, it was as if it was something resurrected that was stricken down before its time, only now to tear its way out of the confines of death and lash out violently at the very world that had plagued it.

Yet, when he could cower no more and found the courage to open his itching eyes and uncover his bruised, tender ears, he found that the television was black once more. There was an utter silence. There was not even the hollow reverberation of sound, the great orgasmic affair left no afterglow. All he could sense in the mighty engulfing blackness was his own tingling body. The tungsten rays from the streetlamps outside had also departed. With a shivering posture he turned and scanned for the window to find his bearings, having collapsed completely to the floor, and now standing utterly untethered from anything in his hollow abode. Squinting in the darkness he could see a faint, hazy green, of some abnormally illuminate moonlight, being crisscrossed by the black beams of his window-frame. But then these lines shuddered, as if being stroked by an unseen force. He felt, on top of his already depleted temperature, an added pang of particularly sharp coldness stab through his joints and slash at his aching muscles. The window was open.

As he moved closer, the geometry of it made no sense. Instead of four rectangles of light formed by the window beams, there were only two on one vertical side, and the others were partially blotted by blackness. There seemed to be a dark curvature behind the lines obscuring the emerald moonlight. It was a figure. It was behind his window. There was someone gazing inward at him through the open glass, breathing into his apartment. Just as he stumbled backwards in horrific realization, the shape dashed away, and with immediate regret at his prior instinct he sprang forth at the window and wrenched it all the way open and glared fiercely out at the lurid midnight scenery.

The streets below him were dark and empty. The metal buildings before him were glistening as ever with neon lights that eyed the tenebrous dark like gluttonous voyeurs. Yet below, the streetlamps were only managing sudden spurts and belated blips of light before dying again. As he watched, they were resurrected with a sudden electrical gurgle, spewed out another pathetic glimpse of light, and then continued the cycle once more. It was rare to catch such a glitch in the infrastructure in this city. Even if the lights were in working order however, he had the sense that he would have found nothing on the street below him.

He turned to the trees far off in the distance, shimmering in the moonlight. They were so, so far away, perpetually fading into the horizon. All the same, the dirt-clad, prickly roots were slithering their way like a writhing phallus into the city and penetrating every concrete crevice like a ravenous rapist feasting on a forbidden prey. With fists tightening on the glacial, rusting windowsill, he glared ghoulishly into the forest. Whatever he had found in that briefcase, he sensed that it was not of his employers’ making.

“Is someone else trying to contact me?”

As he slammed the window shut with an abrupt haste, chills scuttled over him.

“But how could someone stand outside my window?”

He thought of acting upon these observations, yet the growing coldness of his room and the intensity of these sudden torments rendered him weak and weary. He had not eaten in some time. Since his wife had died, it had become increasingly difficult for him to maintain a healthy diet. Since his wife had died, his hunger had grown immensely, yet his appetite would always leave him. Gaunt, starving, and fragile to the cold, he often found himself incapacitated by his own habitation, left only with the dissected memories of what once was…

…It had been a normal day like any other within their newly acquainted routine. He had returned from work and his dinner was waiting for him. He had stumbled into the bathroom – he had gone inside since the door was open and the room was dark – and found her there, face down in a puddle of cold water. She was flaccid and bloated like a slug. She had drowned in the bath. The bath was not overflowing – the drowning would have taken serious effort. Strangely, her clothing, a green floral dress, was still clinging to her body. Even stranger still, her entire body was wet. Her complexion was a flushed, oozing purple that, as he had watched on in a sharp, demoniac paralysis of body and soul, sank into a pallid white. During the very few times that he dared to look back into that dreaded room in the weeks that had passed since, he saw the body bloat further still, almost doubling in size, and mutating into a sickly green complexion, as the body began to eat itself, salivating over its own organs with putrefying acids as the bacteria gnawed on the flesh for its own survival, with dark tendrils spreading violently over the skin where the blood vessels once were. In recent days, the green flesh turned finally to red, as the oxygen retreated for one final time from the body, and her bloated frame shriveled and shrank even from the size it once was.

Even before any emotional response, there came to him the instinct to view this as another cryptic message from his employers, as macabre as it was. Because of this, he never moved her body. He never reported the death. No eyebrows would be raised, as she was a stay-at-home wife, and they were a closely bonded and solitary couple, the introverted kind that found all the warmth that could nourish them simply between one another. She had known no one in the city and made it her intention for it to be that way. She had in fact despised urban life. She had agreed to move there solely under the pretext that the city was where the only high-paying work was, and if they were to start a family, they would need all the savings they could muster. The arrangement was that he would work tirelessly and save all he earned, while she would sculpt their humble abode into the most floral of urban dwellings as could be achieved, such that every arrival back home would be as pleasant and serene as he could wish for, even in a place such as this.

When she had died, to be surrounded by her plants was simply too much for him. He disposed of them all, thus the only greenery that surrounded him after her death was the great clots of cash that grew like mold within the corners of his, now only his, personal cuboid chasm. They had believed firmly in physical money, the ability to truly see one’s success, and the capacity to spend without trace. Money, of which he now had no purpose for, and of which he quickly, and unintentionally, perhaps out of the sheer handicap of grief, forgot its original intended purpose.

It was not a bout of madness that made him keep her body where he found it. He knew all too well how incomprehensible, uncanny, and foul such behavior was. He simply did not want to risk displeasing his clients. What if it was a message, a hint for what to do next? Of course, he could quit. But then he feared that, for whatever reason, he could not simply quit. He could alternatively make the most of the modest wealth that now flattered him, but he feared too that spending without the permission of his clients would also not be taken well – even if they could not track his purchases directly, he sensed that they would still, somehow, know. He did nothing that was not in service to his employers. His escape seemed impossible, and his rewards were meaningless.

Sometimes, he would ponder how he ever came to sign such a contract in the first place. Many others offered money. But these men had appealed to his skills, they had appealed to him, personally. It was almost as if they had begged him to work for them, with the same vigour of a conscription officer. He supposed that the appeal to common vanity was for him, like many others, simply too irresistible. But, and maybe it was vanity that made him think this way, he did not believe that was the entire cause of his peculiar attraction towards the contract when it was presented to him.

As he crept over to the bathroom door and observed once more that, despite the creaking movement he had both glimpsed and heard faintly during the violent eruption that had emerged within his apartment, the withering, decomposing frame was still exactly where it had been for the previous three months, he remembered furthermore that he could never even hope to call out for help. He could never hope to explain this. On some nights he would gaze over the sodden corpse of his beloved wife and try to piece together the puzzle, relieved only with the fact that his apartment’s ventilation filtered out the stench of rot.

On other nights, such as tonight, he would collapse onto his itching, crusty mattress and tangle himself up in sheets and weep himself to sleep like a lost babe dangling atop some abyssal depths. Among the tears his torso would convulse and his ribs would bruise and he would quickly run dry of tears. He took comfort in believing that, like a dying man with no faith left in his waking life, at least his dreams would surely be peaceful. But even within these delirious dreams, with a subconscious shame-laced scorn, as his sleeping breaths hung frosted in the bitter air, he interrogated himself…

“…If you keep on wishing for her to come back, why are you so glad she hasn’t moved?”

And even in his dreams she did not move. She stood solitary over the river, tangled up with slender, pale trunks of birch that blended with her bare, pale flesh. Unfettered by smog or the haze of city light, she gazed across to him with that playful grin of hers, her bronze hair lashing and lavishing some old carving in the bark which her softly glistening face now smudged against. Yet all he could feel was the river; it’s heaving, crashing, spitting, it’s pummeling through lands of men and lands unknown, churning up soil toiled and untoiled, burying deep down into the earth, rumbling and roaring, writhing like some wretch, splashing like a spastic, etching its own fierce carving into the grassy plains. It was his personal helicon; a blackened, muddied vessel which both buoyed and eroded the reflection of his shimmering visage. This stream was one of many streams, and he supposed that in this dreamland there must be such a stream for every man and his woman.

But voices said to him in weary whispers through the leaves of waning trees that this was no innocent flow of water. The blushing blossoms told him of curious things in their rhythmic sway, of a river that vomited up into the world from a deep darkened chasm, an eruption of clotted, sickly liquid regurgitated from the earth’s very core. These floating flowers said things that were often said in dream, fanciful notions that would be washed away upon waking. They whispered that in this world its core was not a solid burning sphere, but that it was merely the outer flesh of a foreign, ravenous void, gaping in it’s gluttony, where sadistic souls from a far off world hung in a web-like plasma, staring up with a single dilating eye at the hovering liquid ocean of metal that rippled far above them, and which dripped down onto their shivering bones, welding their ghostly tendrils into pipes and coils and wires and the dreaded antennae, that vibrates their signals up through the alloys of the earth, dissolving into buried clots of stained smoke and underground lakes that had been birthed from the spilling of blood. Though he could not see these ash-tinged metallic souls of malformed men, or these plagued miasmic gasses, or these poisoned wells of writhing water, he could feel the beating of a ferocious, frantic heart in some dark empty place, and in one final moment, as his eyes overpowered the dried dust of tears that sought to blind him from the waking world, and the last remaining shadows of those ghostly limbo souls morphed back into torn trench coats and broken lamps, he smelled the nostalgic odour of fresh urban pollution and tasted again flakes of steel and flakes of mud and flakes of blood, and felt the heavy beating of that rusted metal heart both in his own chest and in some void far, far below.

The languid remnants of the metal men left a heat in his chest that now burned distinctly, for his limbs were lavished in an icy chill as he woke. His apartment had grown colder still over the course of his sleep. The glass of water that he maintained at his bedside was freezing over, and as he staggered to his sink to refresh the glass with a shivering grip, he found his tap would hardly budge. He found also that the ventilation in the apartment had ceased to function. His head was throbbing, and he wobbled on his feet, feeling queasy. The anxiety both from his experiences and his dreams, accompanied now with palpitations of his chest, were ever present, and increasing. He was beginning to doubt the quality of the pills his employers had prescribed him for “likely occupational stress”.

He swallowed his pills all the same and turned to his misted, creaking window. It appeared as if the waking world had been held in limbo from since he had last departed it, for no sunlight trickled through to brighten his pallid place. Instead, a thick gluttonous cloud sank sordidly down into the city, sludging through cracks in the rows of rigid monoliths and slobbering over the groaning glass. The only light that shone to meet his eyes was the jittering bulbs of neon from far off vehicles, which ploughed through the smog that was now more condensed within the urban air than since he had first conjoined with the city. Occasionally, he would observe a flickering flash of light from a distant window of another apartment, as if the other lonesome men of this tenebrous city were desperately communicating in a frail network of Morse code. The more he stood and observed the fluidly fluctuating lights of the other urban folk, the more he acquired the eerie sense of some queer orchestration, as if his companions in this land of increasingly plutonian atmosphere were not men but robotic imposters, churning through a congested chain of pre-ordained sequences.

For all the detachment that the city gifted him from the physical and emotional intimacy of others, it was as if he was being coded into the very neural structures of his neighbors, that they would share every sensory stimulation and unite to assemble each as a scale upon another fleshy scale, functioning as merely the sensory membrane of a great autonomous arm that twitched and strained and prodded of its own apathetic accord. It was an intimacy of its own nature, too abstract to be boonful, yet too overshadowing to retreat from. At least, he felt, for all this emancipating loneliness was an infliction, he did not have to be relied upon. There was a comfort, particularly given his current neurosis, in knowing that with or without him, the city would live on.

It was perhaps for this reason that he elected to, for a moment, shirk his duty to his employers. Given the experiences of the previous night, he felt it prudent to journey to the forest not far from his home, keeping his head down and trying not to become disoriented in the gathering fog as he did so, a task made increasingly challenging by the throbbing of the head that had persisted since his waking. Despite the icy character of his apartment, he found that the city’s air was, if anything, more humid than before, so clogged and clotted as it was with the sticky smog that laced around every lamppost and lashed out at the rumbling cars that seemed to veer all the more frantically around every corner. However, it was when he left the heart of the city that he was greeted with the unhallowed wind once more, chilling his aching bones and forcing him to cloak himself in his trench coat and form a cocoon against the sudden blast of cold. Walking still onward, he saw that the fog had now utterly vanished, as if he had trespassed through a mist-clogged portal into a different, less dreary world. Though the frost in the air made it somewhat harsh on the lungs, there was still a palpable pleasantness to it, and it seemed that in accordance with this that the trees that loomed beyond the outskirts of the city were taller than since he had last remembered. As he walked down the ever-crumbling road towards the woodland area, he saw that roots were snaking like fierce pythons upon the concrete, yet even as he gazed down at them, he saw a tar-like rot slithering upon them, as if some primordial war was waging beneath his feet. It appeared that the trees were commencing to crawl closer to the city, yet as they did so, were met by an inexplicable barricade of decay and death.

Now, as he stood atop a raised meadow of high, howling grass, overlooking the forest, he turned back once more towards the city, only to hear, and soon see, a rushing, roaring black dagger swipe across the air and pummel itself into the urban fog. The train was gone as soon as he recognised it, obscured within the thick miasmic cloud that wrapped around the city like its own personal stratosphere. The neon lights still scorched through the fog however, sparkling through the haze like some foreign glitter, shifting in colour and drifting up and down and side to side like the observing eye of some airborne alien that hid within the clouds. The way the light danced delightedly within the fog and among the mighty metal obelisks, and how it fragmented itself into a thousand kaleidoscopic reflections of glaring colour upon the fleshy glass of these geometric structures, possessed a strange, enchanting quality. In this moment it almost had the power of sucking him back into the city, impeding him on his journey. Yet the wind battered him once more and nearly shook him off his feet in his unawareness, so he returned on his trek down to the shadowy woodland with haste.

Though the forest was as densely packed as any, he was surprised to find a great many stumps of dead, stolen trees, that protruded like an infected gash out of the moss below. He observed them increasingly with the further he went into the forest, finding it to resemble that of an unkempt graveyard, with rugged graves of oak whose ancestral headstones displayed foreign carvings that had been etched into the bark some great many eons ago. It was as if the forest had once been decapitated, only to have risen up again and marched forth from its burial ground. And, though the fog had dissipated, there were thin tendrils of mist that swam like hovering snakes between the trunks of the trees and seemed to whisper within the gusts of wind like the flutes of forgotten lands. They were of a thick, web-like quality, that left droplets atop the waving grass, as if this mist was not a mist at all but a ghostly gardener that now watered its formidable floral fortress.

Despite the mist and the wind however, the forest was deathly still. The flora of the place, though alive, was gaunt and tarnished with shadow, seeming zombified in the silver half-light that dripped down into where he now stood. Neither bird nor insect was to be seen or heard. Nevertheless, the river flowed intensely, and soon he found himself standing before it, as if he had returned once more to his mystic dreamland. There were no bickering blossoms, nor the whispers of far-off phantasms, to encroach upon his ears this time, however. The aching in his bones and the migraine he had been carrying from since he awoke were beginning to subside, and he knelt down to the river, to look upon his reflection. He saw his corpse-like face and his pale, wrinkled eyes, and he grimaced. He could bear not a glance more at this corrupted visage. He knelt further downwards, tilting his face away from the stream so that he gazed sideways across the river. With the icy water lapping at his ear, he let out a faint murmur to be carried far off into a land he did not know. Despite himself and his agnostic nature, he hoped the river would carry his prayer well, to whoever could heed it.

Shuddering in shame at his moment of distraction, he bent back upright before cupping some of the icy water in his hands. He had not drank all day, and so he drank the crystalline liquid with haste. It tasted different to the water he had become accustomed to, perhaps not surprisingly, however he was struck by the sheer significance of the disparity. It was marvelously lighter, soft as silk, and had a slight flavour he could pinpoint as that of grape juice, of which he had seen still somehow grew in this mystic forest. Something about it was energising in the way that the hard, acidic water he drank from his tap had not been, and almost as soon as he felt this, he felt his ailments further subside. His head grew clearer, and as he stood, he felt that he was truly awake for the first time since the cloud had come down over the city. This, however, he knew to mean only one thing. He must get to work.

Just as he set to leave this strikingly placid forest however, something vibrated in his pocket. His phone was ringing. His employers had never called him unless they, with their omnipresent eyes, knew he had received his latest assignment. He raised the phone tentatively to his ear.

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At first, he heard nothing, not even static, only his own breathing. Then, amidst the silence of the forest, he noticed something. His was not the only breathing he could hear. With a chill, he glanced around himself quickly, for he could not quite discern if the breathing he heard originated from his phone, or from somewhere around him in the forest. Amidst the blackened tree trunks and the tendrilous branches, and as the daylight grew slighter still, his mind galloped frantically, and in his sudden swivels upon the ground to pinpoint the noise he could swear he could see the dashing blotches of silhouettes of many figures, watching him. But he calmed himself, slowing his heartbeat, breathing delicately, just as his wife had taught him for aiding his bouts of panic. Soon, there were no figures that he could see beside his own that were standing in the static woodland. Yet he could still hear the breathing, and it was matching his own tempo. He was about to conclude that it was in fact only his own breathing, and that he had heard in some sort of mental hallucination, and thus turn off his phone, as another noise approached him. It was a sigh, light at first, then it grew heavier, before repeating itself. It grew in volume and momentum, before soon a cacophony enveloped him, now of unrelenting shrieks, piercing and maniacal, dancing around him. The noise leapt from tree to tree, whipping through the withering branches, mocking him, propelling him into a drunkard spin as he sought to locate the source with eyes stinging and his brain throbbing once more. It felt as though the once serene setting was now turning with anger against him, the sharp black branches lashing downwards to where he stood, cracking like whips. Yet, with a sudden jolt of energy, he relinquished himself from his trance and turned off his phone with a shudder. The screams had been an agony to him, and a cold sweat had now spread over his pallid features like a plague. He brushed his brow and breathed slowly once more, still glancing over his shoulders. As soon as he had turned off the phone, the screams had dissipated, and the woodland was calm once more, but an unpalatable atmosphere remained. With a shudder, he hurried off back to the homely humidity of the city, where it was too shrouded to spy shadows in the dark.

Yet despite returning to the city, his mind grew only more turbulent. Though the figures he thought he saw in the woodland could have easily been a trick of the light amidst his spinning vision, he nevertheless had the sense that there was some truth to what he saw. He knew that sooner or later; his employers would catch onto his shirking of his assignments. He did not know the consequences of failing to fulfill obligations, only that they possessed the habit already of probing him in any which manner, at any which time, and from any which place that they desired, thus he wished to not provoke them into further torment.

However, this presented a problem. To receive the order from his employers, he must locate the missing item from the briefcase that must have been replaced – by some obtrusive fiend – with the immeasurably maligned memory stick before he retrieved it. This narrative he had settled on, for his employers had never previously directed him towards the forest, nor was the nature of the recording and its ensuing chaos in line with the style of his employers. If, however, this was the work of his employers, the instincts that led him down this path were, after all, what he was hired for. He could not discern for what exact goal his employers had actually hired him to achieve – no clear specification was given, only the promise of regular income in cash, flexible hours, and a workload that lacked in monotony, in exchange for his promise of “an open mind and soul, and passionate devotion…”

By now he had made considerable progress into the city, and presently found that the fog around him was dissipating, not entirely, but enough to see more distinctly in front of him. His instinct was to head back to the lowly bench where he first acquired the briefcase, and scan the area for clues, but he was halted in his tracks once again by tingling nerves. A wailing was echoing among the fog. This time it was not all around him, but from a distinct location to his side, across the street. It was not the eerie sighs of the forest, nor of his previous encounters, but a deep, guttural moaning, one of physical discomfort. Sweating nervously, he crept towards the reverberating moans, and as he did so, the fog parted to reveal a lonesome, rusting caravan parked up on the street, with a wonky, half-constructed merchant’s stand pitched up next to it. At the stand was a withering old man, half bandaged and dreadfully frail, groaning in anguish as he sought to pluck a tooth from his mouth. Just as he arrived at the scene, washing over with relief, and wiping away the sweat from his brow, the old merchant successfully severed the tooth with one final yelp, and bent over pitifully, unscrewing a jar containing some queer liquid, and dropped the tooth inside, before hastily concealing the jar and staggering upwards to meet the perplexed gaze of his latest customer. They locked eyes for a moment before the pale, unkempt old man waved at him with a bloodied, dripping, shivering, shriveled hand, conveying that in his current state speaking was not to his preference.

As the old man hobbled around the back of his motorhome, he glanced over what was on sale. They were a varied collection, or more so a disordered heap, of grungy videotapes of a distinctly lurid quality, most of which were old-school pornos or obscure editions of once banned video-nasties, some he recognised as being screenings he had attended in the local cinema – now closed – when he and his wife had first moved into the city. The gore films he had never minded, but it was the more psychological ones that were plagued with subliminal, headache-inducing imagery and a silent, sickening droning, which perturbed him. Such exhibitions were only short films, often unnamed, and played between feature screenings, and were deceptively harmless and often domestic in content, yet nevertheless disturbing in a manner hard to pinpoint. They unsettled on a purely sensory level; there was something uncanny to how the film would linger on certain images and repeat certain sounds, producing audiovisual distortions of otherwise banal occurrences, as if the film was warping reality before the eyes of the audience, and weaving like a spider, tendrils of abstract notions into the very dreams of the viewer. His wife had eventually refused to go to the cinema due to the frequency of these shorts, saying that it was not normal practice, and they made her both anxious and ill. He had kept on attending screenings however, until the cinema had closed. There were rumours a fire had been set in the building, likely by a group of outlaw residents that were in fact a cult of psychedelic using metal purists – as close to Amish as this new urban ecosystem offered – who, according to news reports, proclaimed to wage war with the “blasphemous alloy world” and spread earth’s “spirit” in place of the sickly evil they saw to fester in the cities. Why these cult members had attacked the cinema specifically was unknown, though with consideration of their obsessive abuse of hallucinatory plant-based chemicals, they were likely as clueless to their motive as anyone else, or so it was said.

He continued to scan the videotapes – most of which seeming to be old, third-hand VHS copies – until he saw one with no label whatsoever, caked in dirt and mud. Intrigued, he held it in his hand, and felt a strange pull towards the object. As he did so, the old man returned, carrying with him an overbearing odour as if the man’s body was already decaying whilst still yet animated. Seeing him with the tape in hand, the rotting old merchant waved his hand harshly at him. In response he began to pull money out of his coat pocket, but the merchant continued to wave at him, almost hitting him, gesturing him to leave with the tape. Regardless, he felt pity for the lonesome old coot who served alone on the street in the twilight haze with only old videotapes and a severed tooth, so he tossed some money over to the man and elected to purchase a VHS of an uncut edition of “The Evil Dead”. Holding the tape of the film gave him a melancholy nostalgia, for it was this exact film that led to meeting his wife in a screening at the theatre in his hometown those precious years ago before they had relocated to the city. It was also the film that they had first watched in the city upon passing through, and it was the happy coincidence of the local cinema screening films such as this that convinced them, as one is often convinced by ultimately trivial and meaningless coincidences, to reside in this city above all others. It was odd, he thought, that today of all days he was drawn to purchase this film, but he saw it as a chance to reflect on his memories and begin the process of healing over his grief, the grief that still struck him sick and squalid and screaming into his bedsheets when sleep would not visit him. He clutched both tapes tightly and submerged them into the depths of his coat, and he turned to thank the ageing merchant, but as he turned, he saw the man muttering incomprehensibly to himself with glazed over eyes, hobbling around idly, as if in a deluded rapture. Upon this pitiful sight, he took his leave without a word.

As the fog continued to dissolve in the darkening air he felt as through the towering structures of the city had grown taller since being blanketed in the shroud, as if they had extended like penknives into the sky to pierce the cloud of fog that had balefully bore down upon them. He felt as if at the bottom of a gaping, shadowy chasm, dwarfed by almighty cliff-faces of jagged metal, that were weathered only by the incoming acid rain, that scratched against the protruding pillars, and gnawed at the few remaining stone bastions of an older world. The rain trickled like blood from the sky, as if the city towers had scored a fatal blow on the ever-expanding void that had opened its great starry mouth from far above to spew down nature’s will. All wind had temporarily ceased, and so the billows of ashy smoke that crawled up from the snakelike sewers below merely hung in the air, taking the form of dusty rainbows that wrapped around every street corner, lit as they were by the shifting neon lights emanating from the many windowed apartments where the city folk now hid.

It seemed in fact that the streets were altogether barren, with even automobiles growing scarcer in number. The buildings seemed to have shifted within the fog, clanging like tectonic plates into new formations, rubbing together and emitting mighty, noiseless vibrations that made the bones chatter and the mind whirl. All the while city life confined itself only to isolated dimensions of interior apartments, where only beams of neon and the silhouettes of sneaking geometrical shapes revealed themselves to a voyeurs eye. He pondered that there must be many a voyeur in the city, who gazed with fascination from their own window to the windows of others, to spy around the angular corners of the superstructures to acquire a glimpse of an exotic other world, or perhaps a sign of familiarity to justify one’s own style of existence. He supposed that if this were true then he would become prime victim of many a voyeur, being the only man to walk even on the high-street, where almost every window flickered on and off with breathing lights that seemed to flow like clockwork from window to window, as if the many lights and rooms and buildings were not distinct inanimate spaces of habitation, but organs of a living, conscious, organic creature. He wondered then that it could even be the case that there were no voyeurs altogether, or people at all within those neon capsules. Perhaps in the cages that stood stacked up all around him there were only corpses and rooms lingering with that atmosphere of a place that harbored only the memories of the dead. Perhaps the rooms lived autonomously with their lights and their shifting ornaments and doors and appliances, the whole place seeming like a kingdom of phantasmagoria, a home of electric poltergeists, performing invisible parodies of human habitation. But he could not fancy a place such as this, and so kept his mind settled on the explanation of reclusiveness, caused by the malice of the weather.

Still, as he made his way from the high-street and nearer to the bench that overlooked the wooded plains beyond the outskirts of the city, having navigated the whole diameter of the city on foot with mysterious speed, almost confirming his sense of shifting layout, he saw that the tree which had blocked the road like a clotting of the artery had not been removed, but merely cut. It was one of very few trees that had been kept within the city borders. Now, it’s discarded remains were still scattered over the pavement, and already etched with doodles and graffiti, proving after all a human presence. The bark rotted intensely in the acid rain, shriveling like fruit on the concrete pavement with captivating speed. Indeed, to his eyes, it seemed as if the whole world was moving more quickly, and, though his eyes were still plagued with a twitching mania from prior experiences, he refused to accept that this was all the trickery of a weary mind. After all that he had seen and heard and encountered in this place, he could no longer irk the conviction that some elusive process was afoot. Perhaps it was pride on his part, but he refused to put his increasingly gnawing longing for, and anxiety of, company as the culprit for his increasing delirium. He wished only for acquaintance with normality, nature unperturbed by imposing oddities. Yet, as if in mockery of this desire, fluttering and darting low in the sky above his head was a whirlwind of bats, emanating, he assumed, from the disregarded open sewer tunnels he knew bats to reside in, and seeming now to be fleeing in a great haste and high-pitched panic from the city, fading into the night air, as if for the last time.

A grating chill stabbed through him. This was, to him, the final straw. Something in this sight, after all the other sights, snapped loose a screw in his brain.

“…The plants are rotting away, the weather is growing ghastly, the people are barricading themselves inside, this wretched city appears to be moving, and now even the disease-ridden rodents fancy this city too vile to breed in…”

“…My employers, I cannot understand them. My apartment is malfunctioning, the television, the ventilation, the damn taps… My pills are not working – are they distorting my head? Oh, but it could be the stinking water, the dire filth… and the queasiness I feel…. Oh my wife you plague me worse day by day, is it the rot of your once tender skin that makes me feel you move in that ungodly room?… And the noises, those damned noises. The calls, the cries, the screams, like some dreaded banshee haunting me… What is it? Who is it?! Is it…. Is this all a job, an assignment, another petty task?! Oh, but could they know…”

In a sudden convulsion brought on by his mental anguish he collapsed to the ground, and sizzling vomit burst from his shivering mouth. He crunched his teeth, strained his eyes, and clawed at the grainy wet concrete beneath him. He was sweating all over, flaccid, soaked in the rain, and now his vision grew hazy, as if a spell was cast upon him. In this haze, just as he tried to stand, a figure hovered before him, not in his view, but in front of his view, as if superimposed in the realm between his eyes and the world. And in a flicker, it was gone, a green blotch of faint flowing tendrils that vanished like smoke just as it arose. He stumbled, and slipped over on the street, losing his footing, and smashing against what he realised was the bench he had journeyed to find. Seething in pain, he was not sure whether the wail he heard was his own or another, pleading from afar. Nevertheless, as he composed himself, he saw what he had slipped on.

It was a mobile phone, jagged and bulky, contained in a strangely shaped casing, that was both caked in rain and… a goo of some sort, some faint wispy substance that mediated between liquid and membrane. It was soap-like in texture and gave off a hideous reek, but he wiped it away as he gained a grip on the phone, holding it in his hand. It seemed to have been blown from the bench as if in a gale before he had picked it up. Now, he turned it on, to see it was fully charged, but possessing some cryptic language unfamiliar to him, and no apps or widgets to speak of. There were merely static pixels dazzling on the shining screen. He pocketed the device, anticipating it to ring sooner or later.

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During this time the rain had all but gone, yet in its place the fog had returned, suddenly, like the second advance of an invading army. Partnered with the fog, the wind came once more, rumbling like a barrage of smoke, and with the damp ground and his staggering gait and diluted vision, maintaining his balance became immediately and intensely strenuous. The fog poured in thick and fast, with clouds of almost solid vapour charging through the air like beasts, gathering up dirt and mud in their wake, ripping up loose pebbles from the aged concrete. A storm became a mighty gale without clear direction, then almost a tornado, lashing out within the confines of the street, bouncing like a pinball from wall to wall. He clung to the bench, shielding his eyes from the flying dirt, desperately struggling against pummells of air to keep himself upright. As he did so, blurry lights refracted through the shards of glassy fog and seemed to dart from placed to place and rotate within the air as if the entire universe was shifting on an axel right below his feet. The ground spun and the dirt stung and the lights dazzled and the wind howled and his wet hands lost the grip of his bench, his brain burning with a fierce throbbing that panged as it was rattled by every roar of the monstrous air. He was spinning endlessly now on the ground, pulled to and fro like a clockwork ballerina, yet refusing to lose his footing even as more vomit boiled up to his throat and skin was scorched by the flying earthly debris and his nose choked on some horrid stench that was battered into him. He saw that in the air bushes and bugs and birds and bats were now caught in the mighty blast, skinned and shredded and dead, splatters of blood painting over the city structures, sometimes a bird whacking with a thump and a splat against the metal walls. One bat even smashed through a window, and he anticipated a shriek from inside the building, but heard none. He supposed the room was empty, and in his despair, he clamoured towards the gaping window, hoping for shelter. Even whilst being shoved from side to side by the storm, he scampered on to the window, only to cut his wrists on shards of glass as he fell towards it. The room was dark and empty, but the shallow growl of some urban mechanism lingered. He could not fit through the hole in the window, but as he went to smash the remaining glass, in the place where his hand had wiped away the mist, he saw a reflection as clear as a mirror, and through it, a figure, standing behind him, motionless in the mighty storm. Faint vaporial garments blew softly in the fierce gale, as did the hair of the thing – it appeared as a silhouette of a woman, unrecognisable in the fog, but distinctly pale and deathly, with a shroud of vapour gathering around her, freezing around her eerie atmosphere. The wet, glazed over, reddened eyes stabbed through the shroud however, and he saw the shadow was crying. Without a single thought he lurched towards the figure of the woman, responding, he only recognised as he did so, to a grief-stricken shriek emanating from the figure that cut at his bones and pierced his heart with a palpitation like none he had before experienced. But as he stumbled forth to embrace the shadowy figure, the storm gave in and dissipated with a dastardly haste, causing him to trip and fall through calm, current-less air.

He found himself alone on drying ground, damp and sweating and caked in dirt and wincing with bloodied hands and a pounding skull, and a heart that still stung with stabbing pain. He regained his footing once more, almost falling multiple times, and sought frantically after where the figure might have disappeared to. But soon, after tumbling back and forth through the street, his energy was utterly drained, and he returned panting and in pain to where he had fallen, checking for any dropped items. In his coat, he felt something clinking and broken. He retrieved the item, only to find his copy of “The Evil Dead’” with case and tape both wrecked and ruined. His other videotape was undamaged, however.

He then looked to the ground by his feet. There was one, small, solitary puddle, despite all the rain having slithered into gutters on the sides of the road. He crouched down to examine it, pricking his finger with the static water. He put his finger to his tongue and found that the water tasted of salt. Taken aback, he shuddered harshly.

“What is this… tears? But was that figure not a figment of my struggling mind? How could she have vanished as she did? Are these tears my own?”

With all the haste he could muster, he retreated from this cursed street, but as he did so, a ghostly black bus lurched around the corner with searing headlights that widened and scorched his retinas, almost blinding him, and it stopped with a screech right before him. With a hoarse sigh he flapped his arms and cried for the door to open, as if portraying a discordant bird, before crawling aboard the vehicle. He heaved and sagged into his seat without a single look to the driver, hyperventilating with twitching eyes, wrapping himself in his coat, for despite his sticky heat he had begun to shiver. The bus lurched forth once again and he rested against the glass, which was blackened, with only the harshest of lights from the city piercing through.

He leaned up against his own shadowy reflection, and fell suddenly into sleep. All around him was a space-less void, and in it a shrieking figure, dancing in disorienting shadows, hiding behind dazzling headlights. It continually ran from his grasp, wailing in some hollow void, and he chased after the figure, endlessly, his body engulfed in a thick black mud, before the lights gave way to a rupturing, plagued sky of jagged clouds. He climbed up a rugged slope that stretched out before him, pushing in front of him heavy lumps of mud like some pathetic, grief-stricken, sub-human Sisyphus, before his crawling lead him finally to a meadow of dead, wretched trees that stood solemn in the dark like graves. There was a pool of water in the heart of this meadow, and he saw heavy footsteps before him that lead to the water, the parting mud exposing splintered bones that jutted out of the miasmic mud. He stumbled forth as hateful daggers of lightning plunged from the brooding sky, flashing white light over the grayscale horizon. He waded into the water and trudged onward as the bursts of lightning illuminated his path. However, something rose out of the water to greet him. It was the stained skeleton of a long dead corpse, wrapped in tendrils of grass and reeds. He knelt down to touch the skull, yet he instead found himself reaching down through the vertical tunnel of a ghostly well that stretched ever downwards, and beads of sweat and dripping mud from his own skull whistled and rang down this endless tunnel and rippled the water far below. As it did so, the skeleton began to sink back into the water. He saw however that the bones were not stained or discoloured. No, they were…rusted. The metal skull slid beneath the water’s surface, to reveal a floating dagger of glass, and, as he made this out in the water that rushed towards him up through the well, the lightning screamed out from the sky once more, and in the dagger he saw for one brief instant his own pale, bloodshot eye, staring back at him, and even as the thunder scraped at his ear drums, in the one final moment before he woke, he could hear the frantic, fluttering beating of his own heavy heart.

It was a phone call that pulled him out from the dream-puddle, of which he had the increasing fear of being drowned in. He knew not how long he had slept on the bus, and since the windows were blacked out, he had no reference point. The phone that rang was the one he had found on the bench. He held the phone to his ear without hesitation, and the call began automatically, yet all he could hear was echoing, cryptic garbles, like that of a computer. It stung his already sore eardrum merely to listen to, but the more he listened, the more he thought he could make out words. They were not words directed at him, but from conversations, near and far, and the more he listened to them, the more he was given a sense of space, and a vision of whom he was hearing, as if the phone itself was gifting him echo-location. Over his phone call he flew through all sorts of incoherent mutterings across the city, from apartment to apartment like an electric ghost, and even swooped downward into the underground nightclubs and concert halls, where the pained reverberating moans of tormented rock-stars made him dizzy and disoriented, and though he heard the words, he could not understand them, as if they were of a foreign language. However, as he listened more intently, the static and white noise faded away and the words grew clearer – though still near impossible to understand – and intimately nearby. He turned gingerly to his side, peering tentatively towards the passengers behind him. The voice grew more distinct, and he knew what he was looking for was indeed with him inside the vehicle. Many passengers were asleep as he once was, cloaked in ragged garments like cocoons, sickly and ravished with ailments of the flesh, some reeking with a queer stench, others possessing some wound or deformity of some odd, unfamiliar sort. However, there was one who was awake – a frail, sweating, nervous, fidgeting man in a stained black trench coat whose face was heavily bandaged but whose eyes flickered around frantically, and who was breathing harsh, hoarse whispers into his own phone. They were pleadings, riddled with anguish. He examined the man like an abstract painting, stimulating his mind on every gesture and fidget of the eyes of the subject, listening to his most immediate instincts as they arose…

“…This man has a guilty conscience, a desire for escape…. He seems in trouble, mentally… he has troubled someone, physically… Disappointed someone…”

With this, he turned away from the man and hid the phone in his pocket. He sighed in elation, feeling more awake than he had in what felt to him like years. Despite what he had just learned and what it entailed, he nevertheless eased himself. For he now knew what to do.

As he stood to leave the bus, knowing not where it would drop him, he briefly glanced back at the other passengers, to see each and every one of them awake, glaring back at him with a fixated stare, and he could not say if they were confused, vaguely frightened, or if they were even indeed awake. Puzzled, he hastily made his way to the door, and as he rushed by he could have sworn that there was never any driver at the wheel at all.

Upon returning home, the first thing that struck him in his still exhausted state was a bitter stench ruminating in the air. It was a foul odour that within an instant had clawed at his already eviscerated nerves and sent him dizzying to the floor. As he regained his composure, he knew that it was emanating from the bathroom. It may have been cold in his apartment, but it was not cold enough to prevent the ongoing decomposition. Without the ventilation he installed functioning as it once did, her rotting, blackening flesh dominated the room with its disdainful pungencies. He knew that as the rot continued and her organs liquified, the stench would only amplify in intensity as more screaming gasses would rupture from her ever-shrinking body as her once pearly teeth would tumble away from liquifying muscles and only her beautiful bronze hair would remain in its dire, withered form, clinging desperately to her sodden, submerged skull. All the while as these artefacts would drip away from the bones and dry up in the reeking air, the mold from her body would begin it’s advance, and creep up like a spider over the bathtub and scuttle along the walls, merging with the mold that already webbed over the walls within the dank shadowy cave of his apartment. And when her once passionate heart and her once silky skin and her once tender soul liquified and dried and spewed out a putrid cloud of sour miasma that would hang forever like a demented fog in the air, he knew that untraced and unfelt months would have passed since her death. It was only the shifting colours of her corpse, and now her gasses, that kept him anchored to time, but he knew that both would soon depart him. Thereafter, the only proof to him that time existed at all would be the stained gooey liquid of her heart sinking and sludging into the blood-drenched water beneath her bones before finally evaporating. And then, there would be no proof. There would be no time. There would only be the city, and his twisted dreams.

He splashed a glass of freezing water over his face to regain his alertness, only to find that it stung his cheeks and forehead like an acid. Grimacing, he collapsed onto his wrinkled leather sofa, deflating like the corpse in the room next to him. He pulled out the muddy videotape from his coat with a yawn and a twitch of the eyes, stroking it deliriously before crawling to the television, opening the enigmatic black case, and seeing that it was not a VHS tape, but in fact a DVD, he slid the disk into the innards of his television. He crawled back and watched, conscious of the very real possibility that this was yet another assignment from his employers. As his eyelids wavered, the screen churned and hissed and woke from its slumber.

There came a playful laugh of some sort, that echoed and reverberated around the room. There was still only static on the screen, but the static rippled like water, and occasionally cryptic images bubbled up to the surface. A hand, a smile, a face. Fields of old, days of youth. A first touch. The memories of some couple, he thought, a romantic vignette. A slight wind trickled among branches of trees, and a river quietly sang in the breeze. The static began to fade. The image laid itself bare before him, grainy and glitching, fidgeting within the screen, as if it was being transmitted live from somewhere unknown.

It was an image from his own dreams. It was her face. It was her endless smile. It was her pearly teeth, shining softly in the gentle sunlight that caressed her golden skin. It was her beautiful tendrils of bronze hair, dancing in the branches and waving in the wind. She had placed a white rose in her hair and her hazelnut eyes gazed through the screen and towards him where he sat sinking into his seat as the light from the screen crept up from below, harshly illuminating his strained and distorted features. She continued to stare at him, unfazed by his ghastly visage. Then the screen shuddered, a wave of static emerged, then departed. She was now regarding herself, her eyes closed, head turned from him, a twitching hand in her hair. Then the static rippled over the screen once more. She was staring at him again, as she was before. Then the static came again, and her eyes were closed again, as they were before. This repeated, over and over, as blotches of white light zig-zagged over the screen and burned the pixels, and the television continued to churn.

At every repetition, he felt as though something would happen, something would change. He remained glued to his seat; his eyes transfixed by the searing electronic heat of the screen as its itching pixels continued to formulate the exact image of his dead wife’s face. But it was not her face according to a photograph, it was her face according to his eyes, according to his mind. The whole world behind the screen seemed to be the very world in his dream – a dimension, he knew, to not be derived from reality, but from fantasy. It was as if someone had livestreamed onto a projector his mind’s eye and recorded the playback, for what purpose he knew not. All he knew is that there were no eerie blossoms nor any whispers in the wind to talk to him now. Would they say that every man and his woman have a disc like this, also? He could only ponder as he sank further into the leather beneath him, and his eyes could not look away and he could not bring himself to move.

He was then aware of a slight, sinister droning, almost inaudible, that accompanied the footage, that made his eardrums shudder. As it did so, the footage began to snap occasionally, and in sudden flashes between the loop of her face were other images, but these were not of his dreams. These were of him and his wife in the waking world. They would be walking through the city, holding hands in the rain. She would be sleeping on his shoulder on the bus. He would be holding her hand in the cinema. She would be planting a rose on their windowsill. He would be in the midst of an argument with her. His arms would be outstretched, his mouth agape, her shoulders hung low, her brow furrowed even lower. It would be about their need for money, her discomfort with the city, his need to work. It always was. How could he convince someone so carnally antagonised by the environment in which they lived? There was no logic to it. In those moments, she was a child, and he hated her. All she had to do was live at home planting the plants and grooming the room and preparing the food, whilst he ventured deep into crevices of the city of what nature he dared not wonder, fulfilling assignments. He would bring the money home, she would spend it, he would save the rest. They were happy most days, but some days when their prayers for a child felt to be in vain and the city’s sickly air nagged at her nerves too strongly, they would argue like this. But it was only a very small part of their lives, and a thankfully rare occurrence. Most days he was calm, and she was strong. Why did it linger so in the film? A tear snaked down his stinging cheek.

“…What would it be like, to have your entire life recorded, and watched over by a stranger, replaying it endlessly? Would they come to know you? Would they understand?… Or would they only see the surface of your existence, judge only your actions, and not the heart that stirred them, or the soul that would aim and hit, or miss, and struggle, and wane, and tangle itself up in that which it honestly was not but that which was foreign to it, that which prodded inwards and infected it all the same… The soul is a leper. Once a flower, now a wretch, a dying mockery of itself, a victim to existence, a once innocent and pretty creature that dreamed of so much only to be torn and twisted and tortured into a shameful aberration that scares and disgusts those that see it from afar, and everyone wishes to turn a blind eye to such a thing, for no one wants to pity something they are so disgusted by…”

“…Or maybe the soul was always a wretch that had delusions of grandeur. Maybe it was a primal unruly thing with a cure within its reach. And maybe its failure is worthy of shame… Am I trying to save my own soul, through this disparagement? Damn me, but I cannot be to blame for all of this, please!”

“…If this is my life recorded here, and someone is to see it… what do they think of me?”

It was hours later when he woke. His sleep was without dreams, for all he could recall. The television was still playing, but there was only static. Moonlight beamed like a ferocious spotlight into the apartment. He saw the night was absent of mist or cloud, yet as he wrapped himself up in his coat and hat and hid his garbling foreign phone from any possible onlooker, he felt that the air outside was still intoxicatingly humid. Yet, he supposed, it could merely be the contrast to his apartment. His eyes were still stinging from staring at the screen for hours on end, and he even had a slight dread that he had slept with his eyes open towards the static.

Like a gaunt somnambulist he trudged through the night, draped in black and with bloodshot eyes probing every corner for the silhouette of a ghostly figure in green. Instead, he found another figure huddled in an alleyway. Before him was a sick, shivering man in formal black attire, partly bandaged, who, as he approached the man, stood up from his vomiting and glanced around nervously before hurrying along the street. As the figure stumbled away from the corner, the phone in his pocket began to spasm and through it he heard the unstable panting and sniffing and gulping and convulsing of the sick man. The man hobbled stiffly and slowly, as if half-dead, sometimes even keeling over and folding almost in half on the pavement. As the man did so beneath the lamppost in front of him, he could hear the whimpers that were indicative of a suppressed sob, shuddering through the phone that was now in his hand. It was clear to him that it was the same agitated, frightened, and dreadfully ill man in tattered and torn bandages from the black bus. His assignment was clear.

He continued to follow the sick man to his apartment block, one that seemed to be a virtual copy of his own and watched as the man crawled up the stairs more like a wounded, growling animal than a grown man, and he watched as above him the light to the fourth floor apartment lit up flickering and pale above him. He spied the snaking pipes beneath the window, and mustering all his remaining strength and dexterity, climbed up the scaly rusting metal. He peered inside the window to see a withered flower atop the windowsill, bedsheets flung all across the room, and discarded, bloody bandages slain across the floor. The man had collapsed on the slashed remains of his bed, face down, outstretched like a shuddering starfish. The window was open, and he saw that in this apartment also the ventilation and fans were all broken, and the room stank of something ghastly. Yet unlike his own room, this apartment was oozing with sizzling heat, to the point where paint was dripping languidly from the walls and ceiling like the final squirts of blood from a slashed artery. Seeing that the sick man still did not move, he lifted the window up as far as it could go, and slinked slowly into the room. Once he had crept onto the floor, utilising the bandages and bedsheets to soften his step, he stood up and looked down upon the quivering fool beneath him. He breathed slowly, but suddenly a cough caught his throat by surprise, provoked in all likelihood by the baking heat and foul stench of the place. Below him, the man suddenly stirred, howling and moaning like a disemboweled ape, writhing on the bed. Startled, he stumbled backwards and fell into the bathroom behind him.

He found himself lying on top of a thick black bin-bag, and unable to get to his feet. There were what felt like a collection of moldy fruit beneath him, rigid and heavy yet in some areas hollow, liquified, and soft, but not shaped like fruit he had ever encountered. As he squirmed, he tore open the bag they were concealed in, to reveal the decaying, maggot infested, divided corpse of a woman, her still bulging eyes and gaping, blood-stained mouth greeting him with an expression of maniacal terror that matched his own erupting visage. He stumbled backwards once more, seeing heap after heap of discarded bandage and shards of a shattered mirror scattered across the room, along with what appeared to be blank, broken videotapes and discs, resembling those he saw at the old merchant’s stand, and which gave him a recording of his own dreams. Without a further thought he stammered up to his feet, clutched the thick, weighty phone tightly in his fist, kicked away the bathroom door, and charged, screaming like a banshee, leaping like an unchained monster towards the sick pathetic figure that was still writhing on the bed and mumbling and sobbing inaudibly into his pillow.

As he pinned the man down and began to bludgeon him with the phone, hammering away hysterically at the sweating scalp of his victim, the man only continued to sob in the same manner he had before. It was not a sob of agony, but of a sort of miserable sadness, self-pity, and remorse, like the wails of a child who had been yelled at by their father. The man did not resist the onslaught, but continued to writhe on the bed, as if purposefully laying himself out before the attacker. And as the attacker continued to chisel away at the man’s skull, it began to crack like porcelain and blood began to splash into his face and around the room like a fountain, and the man began to shiver more and more violently, until the shivering stopped, and with it the pitiful sobbing. Soon all that was left of the back of the man’s skull was a flowering of brain that blossomed out of the battered bone like a pulpy glue. He rubbed away some of the matter from his own face, and stood back, hyperventilating. If there had been a struggle, perhaps he would have felt some catharsis, but as he gazed over the stiffening body, it did not make him feel anything at all. He had killed a killer, and to him, all was fair. Yet as he continued to look, he saw the man’s pale, soft, youthful quality that, even as it was hardened in death, did not resemble that of a creature savage enough to murder another creature.

As he chopped up the man’s body using the saw in the man’s apartment that he supposed the man had himself used to divide the woman in his bathroom into fractions, he made careful attention not to look at the man’s face. He had never seen the face properly before and did not wish to do so now. For all he had been unaffected by his deed, he did not desire to become affected. And so, he piled up all the pieces into a black bin-bag when he was done and hauled the hefty bag over his shoulder and hobbled slowly out the door and down the staircase without a single resident to bother him. The city responded to the great sobs and wails of a dying man as indifferently as it seemed to respond to anything else. He dared to carry the body even onto the bus back home, because, in all likelihood, he had not so long ago witnessed another man pull off the same feat. The city was asleep and dreaming and its dreamers were sick and haunted. Monsters slipped through and by just as the rain did. And so he rode home with an abysmal stench in his wake, though he did not mind it, for it was a stench he had now become well acquainted with. The passengers he rode with did not even give him a glance, and as he looked around, he got the sense that they were just as dead as the slices of man slung over his back.

But something did linger on his mind. If he is to dispose of this body in the forest, as he had so planned, did it not also invite the disposal of another? The prospect daunted him. To finally take the act of removing her, burying her… he could hardly discern how it made him feel. Would it help him move on, or only exaggerate his loneliness? He supposed that it would allow for the bringing of guests to his apartment, but then who in this forsaken place would he ever wish to host?

He reached his apartment after a great struggle with the mighty weight on his back, yet as he approached he could hear the television playing inside, and that a pan was boiling, water was flowing, and cutlery was clinking. He could hardly stop in his steps, for he was already close to collapse with the body on his back. He knew that this was indeed his own apartment, but as far as he could hear, someone else had now taken up habitation inside. With an unparalleled terror tingling over him, he unlocked his door – for he found it locked – and he crept slowly inwards. Just as he did so, an awesome wave of lethargy washed over him and brought him to his knees, with the body-bag thudding to his side. As he drifted off to an immediate and spiraling sleep, he saw that his room was entirely empty and uninhabited, but his window was open.

In his dream he was not a body. Instead, he was as he was when his employer’s phone had rung. He was floating like a phantom, hovering in the open air, flying across the city. The rain was thick, and the fog was thicker. He swooped down aimlessly from roof to roof, mingling among the silhouettes of skyscrapers in the moonlight. This was not a fantasy land, or some psychosis, but a crystal-clear vision of the real world, from a vantage point he had never seen it from before. He drifted down to figures in the street who were shuffling by with shrunken shoulders and sombre eyes and shriveling skin, seeming almost mummified. As he approached them in the fog, their very shapes distorted as if behind a pane of warped glass. He spoke to them in silent words, but they would not answer him. He was asking about his wife. None could hear him, but in their miserable states they shook their heads all the same, and like a foreigner to the world who was lost in translation and mystified by the human race, he stumbled from body to body baffled and desperate, outstretching his palm, whispering through the wind as to where his wife could be. None answered. None heard him. But they all shook their heads all the same.

Soon he was floating through walls, caught in a malaise from one room to the next, staring down upon the empty and the disorderly and the secretive and the odious with equal measure. Both angel and wretch he would drift by longingly, echoing to all the same question. None would heed his call. Through the city, through the world, he did wander through all, gazing down upon them all, inside, outside, all spaces as one, all time frozen like a glacier. The city was less humid than it was, the weather less turbulent, the streets more populated. The burned-down cinema stood once more, and he asked usher and audience and actor on the screen alike for where she could be. None even gave him a glance. And he waded through apartments again, hurt and alone. This time he took care to stay with the people he found. Maybe they could show him the way…

First, he found a man, naked, shaking with fear and repulsion, with a tear in his eye, probing at himself in front of the mirror. In his room were stacks of CDs and an open laptop with an unfinished diary entry. In his bed was a woman who looked dreadfully pale and ill, who tried desperately to peer into the bathroom where her partner stood to see his secretive self-depreciation. Beside her a fan whirred intensely, and an open window echoed the wisps of the wind, but not his voice. It was dreadfully hot in their room, and their pipes chimed and clanged in pain, and something above them was snaking and slithering and salivating in shadows. He did not wish to linger in this room.

In the next room he found a more harrowing sight still. The whole apartment was damp and overflowing with water – a shower had seemingly left on for hours – and in the puddles that seeped onto the floor were the remnants of a smashed mirror. Wires were strung about the room like a spider’s web, and empty pill bottles also floated in the water. A man clad in leather attire had a guitar hooked up to speakers dispersed all across his room, and attached to this guitar was an electric chainsaw. The man panted and giggled uncontrollably in line with the thrashes of lightning beyond his window. Beside that window was a polaroid of the man, a rock-star, posing on his own, with a charming and youthful smile on his face, and a glitter in his eyes. The man’s eyes were now only rageful, and his smile sinister. On the bed in front of him was another partly bandaged man in formal black attire, with each limb tied to a banister, and who was squirming and gargling incomprehensibly. Quickly, he sought to leave this room also, just as the rocker plucked gleefully at his guitar and a mighty roar erupted in the room and the chainsaw began to whir.

Lastly, he found a woman’s room. It was more spacious, more barren than the ones he had previously lingered in. She stood there alone in her robes and absorbed in her work, and behind her camera equipment laid about on her desk, and her double bed on the opposite end of the room hardly resembled a bed at all for how distraught it was. Outside her great gothic windows were the glares of neon light from other far-off windows from other similar skyscrapers, where shadowy silhouettes of men could be seen moving in an eerie, unpleasant manner. She faced away from all these things, and continued pouring over her photographs, even as icy footsteps trickled up and down the stairs outside her room. She was pinning her photographs onto her board, utterly transfixed by them, arranging them into a sequential pattern of some sort. She too was looking for someone. He felt that she might show him the way. But he also felt, more than in any previous room, that she was in personal danger, danger that she was oblivious to. She was rubbing her stomach, but she was not pregnant. She was gripping her ring finger anxiously. She was now staring at a single photograph, a monochrome profile of a black cathedral that stood out on its own in some empty wasteland. As she stood back, he approached it. And he kept on approaching it. And he zoomed further and further inward until he was inside the photograph itself.

Now he stood before this very black cathedral. The bells chimed ominously, echoing out endlessly as if announcing an almighty rapture, and reverberated in the blasted, blackened ground like a monstrous heartbeat. From the abandoned cathedral a wind trickled out like blood, and upon doing so made a slight, breathy sound. All around it, the ground was barren and tar-like, and above it, there were no clouds, there was no sky, there was not even a single star that dared to twinkle above it. It was bulging out of the earth like a tenebrous ulcer, ravaging the land around it. It was comprised of an oily black material that made it impossible to discern details of the building’s exterior in the heavy night, yet he still sensed that the door before him was open. This was all a dream, and dreams were the product of memory and experience, but he could say that he had never seen this place before, nor felt these sensations before. Something was pulling him towards the cathedral, and all his muscles grew stiff and scorching, feeling as though his soul was being seized from his body and pulled out through every stinging orifice by a rusting, burning, oily black chain. He felt as though he could vomit up his heart. The door before him creaked open some more. He did not wish to enter, but he was engulfed with the dread that he would one day. He pulled back away violently from the structure, away from his dream, but for a moment, the eidolon held its tendrilous grip, and even when eventually he did pull away from the dream and back into consciousness, he did not feel that it was because he won back control, but that this unholy monolith wanted him to.

Upon waking, he was in a cold sweat, shivering on the floor with numb hands and what felt like frost on one side of his face. He swiveled and scanned his darkened room for apparitions, still hearing in his mind the dragging of moaning, decrepit chains across a damp oily floor.

“What was I searching for? It makes no sense. I know where she is. She’s right here…”

He staggered to his feet, knowing that he would now have to get to work with stuffing her withering bones into a bag and then burying them. He trudged towards the bathroom, his whole body vibrating with an enigmatic uneasiness…

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“…To do this is to truly confirm her death, to cement it in the ground, to send her off to the fields, for the maggots and worms to eat at her and excrete her into the soil and trees. Is her soul already free, or is it still trapped with me inside this home of mine? Have I… have I imprisoned her in here all this time? Oh God, but to take her away from here…”

He was shaking with sobs, scratching against the door, unwilling to go inside, but knowing it was his duty. It was best for her, best for him.

“But is it? Is this what they want?”

He could bear the pain of doubt no longer. With a forceful inhale, he kicked the door open.

But the bathroom was empty. She was gone. There was not even a stain. Not even a patch of mould. Not even a single hair. There was not even a drop of water in the tub. She was gone.

He felt sick, more than anything else. Not even confused, or scared, or relieved, or any other possibility of emotion that could greet him. There was only sickness that pervaded his mind. Not a thought could grace him. There was nothing, only a mental fever born of utter emptiness. He could not breathe, he felt a mighty weight crushing down on his chest, and he clutched on the door to keep his footing. For one moment he felt as though, in a devilish irony, that his heart would give way and he would topple back into the bathtub and die then and there and become the very corpse his wife once was.

Instead, he staggered through the door, and in that very moment godless freak leapt out and shrieked at him, and he turned to see a wretched ghoul that howled and clawed at him with pale red eyes that flew through the darkness of his room towards him, and he screamed in terror and swiped at the air and tumbled backwards onto the body-bag of the man he had slain, and in that moment he could finally sympathise with the sobbing soul he had taken from this world. And then the thing before him was gone. He spasmed and squirmed and sobbed on the floor. He felt true personal fear, fear of his own bodily annihilation, and he found that this sensation was similar to that which had plagued him in his dream. It clutched at his heart and squeezed it in its fist and stiffened his muscles.

But in the next instant he hurled himself up from the floor, and like a seething maniac grabbed a torch and shovel and flung the body-bag over his shoulder and scampered down the staircase and limped through the abandoned streets, heading out beyond the city and towards the forest that loomed over him and the world, and even as he looked seemed to tower further and further up into the plutonian vistas of star and cloud and ominous fidgeting light within. He tossed the bag off his shoulder and started dragging it on the ground as he began to stumble down the hills like a lost member of some tribal cult, grimacing and grunting like a diseased ape. Straight into the pitch-black woodland he stampeded, and as he reached the tree line, he heard an ear-splitting screech slice at the air above him and for one moment glanced back to see a train stabbing into the city and told him itself it was merely it’s homely industrial call but knew in his heart that it was not.

He pummeled further into the heart of the forest, and where the graves of trees were laid out before him, set to building his own grave for his shattered sobbing friend. And as he dug deep into the soil, he sensed that this man and he could well be rewarded the same sinful epitaph. He dug and he dug, and he dug until he was cloaked in mud and dust and a worm was wriggling in his damp sticky hair that hung about his face and cut at his frail cheeks. He hauled the body-bag into the hole, and with bulging, fidgeting eyes, rapidly covered the thing up with such primal haste as to appear possessed.

But just as he was about to finish his work, he hesitated. Before him was one final patch of bin-bag, and he suddenly desired to see the man’s face. He now had pity for the murdered soul and wished for his eyes to be seen upon one last time before they sank into the depths of the earth. He clawed back the bin-bag and recoiled in a singular spasm of every muscle and tendon and bone in his whole malnourished body, and he clutched at his skin and patted himself down and gulped at the air and began to weep and shout and stumble around and gawk like a stranded bird. For before him in that dismal grave was his own gaunt face and pale blue eyes and mouth agape with the fear of a thousand centuries. But before he could do anything at all, the face began to sink into the ground, the eyes clouding and rolling backwards in their sockets, the hair turning white and disintegrating, the skin burning into a putrid blackness, and the whole visage rotting away, leaving only the muddy, worm-infested earth. The trees around him wavered and washed over him with slithering leaves, and as he groped around aimlessly in the dark, finding that his torch had been stamped on and broken, the air around him began to breathe. All around him there were elations and exhales echoing in the wind, and suddenly, a mist thicker than any city fog advanced towards him, and soon he could hardly see in front of his own shaking, muddied fingers. But even in this blinding mist a bright white light beamed out at him. It burned right into his retinas, but he did not attempt to cover them. He stood there, dropped his shovel, and his entire body went limp. Like a moth towards the flame, he walked slowly and sleepily towards the great light, until his feet were ravaged by water, and the sudden icy cold woke his senses.

The light was gone, and he stood in the centre of a stream. The fog was all around him, and there was not one tendril of moonlight that crept through the tree line. Yet, he could now see as clearly as if it were day. He could see every wrinkle of every tree trunk, every bubble that fizzled in the water around his feet, even the spectral currents that wisped around in the air. But he could not hear a thing, for in place of sound was now an unbearable noiseless droning that brought him to his knees and shook the trees around him with an evil and oppressive force, tearing leaves from branches. The noise was so loud and deafening in its muteness that his teeth began to ache and his eyes bulge and his nose bleed and he clamped his hands on his ears for dear life. And then he could smell a reeking stench of mud and blood and rot swamp him and seem to be almost visible in the air and make the branches before him wilt and wither. And then he saw before him that the trees were bleeding. It was human blood, thick crimson snakes of gooey excretion, drizzling down through the cracks and crevices of every tree trunk. And the forest around him continued to wail and rage. And the droning in his ears was no longer a mute droning, but the scream of a thousand widows, flanking all around him that scratched and stabbed at his scorched eardrums like barbed wire against the breast of a babe. He spiraled around in agony, screaming in sync with his tormenters, searching desperately for the wretched figure of the apparition that haunted him, and he continued to spiral around, losing himself in the army of trees that tiptoed towards him, freezing in the icy winter water, and his mind was beginning to drown. And then, from behind a tree whose bark seemed to resemble that of a mortified human face, it appeared. She was clad in floral green and her flesh was a pallid white that dazzled in the midnight air as the mist cleared away. Her eyes were bulging, and her mouth was opened to inhuman levels, with blood pouring down from the lips like saliva. Her skin and hair and clothes were all dreadfully wet and floated about her in the air as she pummeled towards him, gaunt veiny arms outstretched with nails like daggers as tears flowed like rivers from her pale red eyes. And as she shrieked it was not the pain that hurt him so and made his heartbeat frantically and stab in all directions from his chest, but it was the sorrow. In that discordant wail was a terror and an anguish and a grief and a pathos so immense that it angered him to be so inflicted by such sadness. It was an intensity of feeling that maddened his senses and made his eyes twitch and his fingers spasm and claw at his hair and pull strand after strand out of his scalp and each of his nails seemed to want to dig into his very skull and let out his soul. But all he could do was turn away from his cursed banshee as it plunged through the air towards him. Her arms wrapped around him, and they stabbed through his clothes into his flesh with such a jutting coldness as to paralyse him and rip away the nerves from all they touched like a demented poison. She crawled all over him and he collapsed into the water beneath him, face submerged in the stream. But in that stream, there was something glistening, and he clutched at it, finding that it was warm and sharp. It was a shard of glass, and in it he saw his own eyes, bulging and bleeding and forever dilating, staring back at him in the water. His body was growing numb, his flesh overwhelmed with cold, his limbs stiffening and straining, his muscles burning, dissolving in the water around him, as the creature on his back continued to squeeze at his heart, and his brain throbbed and his heart hammered in his chest, and his vision began to slip away, but his mind was of a greater fury than ever…

“Oh, I will stab this dead bitch right in her foul and thankless heart! I will grab her by her tangled and twisted hair and shove her grotesque ungrateful face into the bottom of this sickly puddle, and hold her there as she shrieks and splashes, but oh! All her pathetic cries will drown out and echo far away to some other miserable man in some other haunted land! Ha, ha! And the whore will be drowned and her heart will bleed through her wench corpse! And then, and then, I will know it would be done and the cunt was dead for sure…”

Arising from the water, blade laced in his victim’s eerie vapour, he stood over the corpse of the banshee that had plagued him so, and watched as it floated downstream and the currents of the river turned her head to face him…

“…But of course it is her, who else could it be?”

For one bitter moment he smiled bitterly at the thing, it’s drowned dead face confirming what he all but knew but had refused to accept. From since the first day, he sensed that the wailing corpse out there in the woods was the ghost of his wife. He had only been confused because he swore that banshees tended to warn of death rather than remorse it, but it was the fault of his naive mind for thinking such superstitions held up to any real scrutiny. But was she weeping over her own demise and his fear of addressing it properly, his failure to amend all she felt he had done wrong? Was that why she had tormented him beyond the grave? Indeed, he knew it was her, but was it this that compelled her?

And then after the smile there came cries, and he tried to lift her face out of the water and cradle her, but the body had already vanished. Was he really such a terrible husband? Did he warrant such a treatment? No. This was not that. It could not be that. Was it warning? But of what? Was it spite? But she was an unspiteful soul… Was it warning? But of what?… No, he knew what this was. This was what everything else had always been. This was another message from his employers. This was his punishment, he saw that now, for not doing so many assignments when his wife was alive. He had always refused to kill for them. Steal, sabotage, of course. But kill? He could never. He would never. He would not… But this was the cost. And it led him to kill all the same. And from the cries there came anguish and desperation. He clasped his hands together and kneeled in his dead wife’s grave and prayed and swore, swore that he would never disappoint his employers ever again, that he would follow all their orders to the letter. He swore it over and over in the bitter cold of the river and let his prayer carry far, and knew that they would all hear him well, for they watch over him now, just as they always have.

And then from the praying there came the urge to run home from this evil place and prepare for his next assignment. He must redeem himself; he must honour the contract they gave him. And around him the fog had descended once more but he sprang forth through it all without a care for any obstacle, and sprinted home through the city, embracing with joy the homely humidity and soothing smog and the comforting alien lights that dispelled the darkness of night, and zig-zagged from corner to corner, and that he knew to be the eyes of his employers. And he screamed and swung and sprinted across the streets of the city that now thundered with the onslaught of rain that washed over his wailing body and cleansed him of his tears. He staggered up the stairs with all his might, and he smashed through his door with all his anger. And then he stood very still.

In the room before him were potted plants, were items of furniture with homely decorations, were pans boiling on the hob, were plates of food laid out on the table, were sets of curtains drooping gently and cushions propped up comfortably. And he saw that in the corner his cash was stacked up neatly, divided into planned sections, and was delightfully plentiful. And he heard the television play a calming wildlife documentary and he heard the radio talk of the local news; of new, interesting films to be screened at the nearby cinema, of the debut album of a punk band that was cherished in the clubs of the city, and of the construction of new apartment complexes for new immigrants to this small and serene city that was only one modest example of the many glowing, glittering cities of this bright new world. A lovely aroma of warmth wafted through the softly glowing place, and an air of tranquility graced his shivering skin, and the delicacy of his dinner caressed his nostrils and the homely ambiance stroked his aching ears and in his burning eyes before him was… his beloved wife. Oh, but it was his beloved wife, his beautiful wife, his young pretty wife of just twenty-two, his devoted wife, his loyal wife, his wife that would always smile, and would always hold his hand, and was forever his. His darling wife, his gorgeous wife, his living wife, his wife forever, his beloved wife. His wife, ever alive, always alive, now alive, alive before him. His wife that he loved with all his beating heart. She stood before him elegantly and with her bronze hair lightly kissing her golden cheeks and wearing her long flowing dress of glistening emerald flowers that she loved so much, and that floated around her marvellous figure like an enchanted atmosphere. She looked him over and smiled.

“Oh my, you look terrible baby. Bad day at work, huh?”

He staggered dizzily, shaking his head and turning away from her, unable to speak, and tossed away his hat and laid his coat onto the chair before him, and collapsed into his seat. His coat and hands were left with not a mark, not a speck of mud nor a drop of blood. He could speak only to his own mind…

“Was it all a dream? Had I simply fell asleep on that dismal black bus on the way home from work, and the intoxicating fumes infect my mind’s eye? Was it all such a fiction, was it all the plague of my own mind? Is it… but is it all a dream?! All of it?! All the pain, the sorrow, the torture, the grief, the, the… the violence, too? Oh, my beloved, were you never truly gone?!”

Seeing his exhaustion and how he sat enraptured into some internal trance, she smiled at him once more and gestured to his dinner, and so, noticing her again, he did eat. A gust of wind blew in from the open window and cooled down his senses, and he soon was able to swallow the lump that had built in his throat, and breathe freely, as the air continued to caress him. He was about to speak to her at last, nay, run up and embrace her, but he saw that she had left to pour a bath, so he continued with his meal, lavishing in the banal peace of his surroundings, and the serendipity of homely warmth. And he spent much time leaning back into his chair, gawking around his room, at the grace of its decor, his face lit up with childish awe. And then something small and cool began to purr gently in the coat beside him.

His phone was ringing. He smiled, wondering who it could be. To be able to bring guests into this home! Life felt so normal again, and normal felt joyous, it felt euphoric, it felt serene, it felt… The phone in his hand felt rough and jagged with a layer of slime caking its casing. He picked it up and examined it. It was the very same phone he had found beside the bench, the one he had thought he had broken when….

“But no, that was all a dream, right? But then this phone was a dream also?”

It rang all the same. He held it in his ear as the icy wind continued to creep inwards and scuttled over his twitching neck. From the phone there came a voice, and it was clear for the first time. It spoke like the wind and whispered from afar, as if it had travelled from the bottom of the world. And in its voice, there was something strange that touched him and made him shudder. It spoke with such calmness, such peace, such articulation, but held such command of his senses. It spoke with true, undeniable authority. For all that it said to him, he could not pull the phone away, he could not sever the voice from his ear. The vow he made compelled him, but there was something more. Something reverberated in that voice, that snaked its way into every nerve in every joint in every inch of his body. It was seductive. It was oh, so, so seductive. In vain, he still tried to resist.

“But, but my wife! My beloved, my beauty, my heart and joy, my everything! But her, but she is alive! But I love her, but she is mine! And I am hers, and she is here, and she is… she is…she…”

But the voice still spoke. It echoed like a chant, flowing like the wind that pulled at his hair. And he shook and he squirmed, and he struggled and he tried to pull the wretched phone away from his ear, but he could not. And it spoke, and it spoke as if it had not even spoken at all. And it spoke all the same. And he heard. And it said unto him simply:

“…Kill…

…Kill….

…Kill.….

…Kill……”

Credit: Toby Rodwell

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