Paper Over These Things
I bustled out the door, scurrying down the garden path and fingering the change in my pockets; trying to jingle it into being enough for the bus. The cut of bright moon was diluted whiteness flouncing within puddles as I splashed through. Shadowy humps of frosted cars lined the street, glinting in the still dark.
A cluster of objects semi-obscured under a base of hedge drew my attention as I rushed by, causing me to pause and stoop. The time needling at the back of my mind, I observed a little arrangement of stones piled in a circle in the soil at the end of the grass garden section.
Checking my phone, I brushed dirt and twigs away to clear the area – shifting some of the little stones to the side, I could see angular markings scraped out in the earth. Little arrangements of triangles and skewered lines wove into one another. They seemed to be tinted red – powdery flakes shrouded within the soil sparkled in the soft moonlight, adding colour and texture to the markings.
Jerking my head back to take in a fuller view, I could see it was some kind of peculiar hieroglyphic-type scrawling. How odd. I rustled the stones back into their original setting. Perhaps there were kookier sorts living in my building than I knew. They were all vague faces as it was, rushing past in the shadows of the stairwell, muttering stilted acknowledgements.
My thoughts were pulling me back to the bus stop and the journey into work when I saw another pile of round stones, not a foot away. Shimmying over in my squatted position, I nudged them around and observed similar crude markings, dotted with shining red. Pressing my hand over the arrangement, I thought I felt a gentle throb pulsing.
When I looked up again, shaken, I could see the whole garden was surrounded with these little glowing markings encased in their stone circles, lit up like weird Christmas lights.
Struggling to my feet I rubbed dirt from my hands and rushed for the bus stop, aiming sharp glances back at the receding red shapes flickering in the distance. The cold bit my skin but I was sure it had been more than that as I slipped out the garden; almost the softest of sonic shivers, vibrating in a ripple as I left.
The working day passed in a slow roll of clicking keyboards, streaming numbers and rustling paper. Cloudy shadows sifted by in the dull glow of my computer screen; pausing ties drooping from crisp white shirts and depositing ever more sheets of data into the pile on my desk.
It was my impression that people seemed in general to be of a more tired and even reticent disposition than usual. Heads were hung and interaction was stilted and rushed. Many eyes were underscored with dark, tired patches and it felt as if the early year chill had bled into systems; frost seizing up our collective veins and sapping our morale. In the back of my mind the glimmering symbols scratched into the earth pulsed, full of some strange power.
Sitting on the bus on the way home I stared at ragged icy patterns creeping over the window; glancing forward at stops to watch the next group of shivering pedestrians stagger on, rattle change into the machine, tear their ticket stubs and sink into vacant seats. A kind of communal hush settled as the bus rumbled along. Nobody was shuffling newpapers or clicking at phones. Heads bobbed, chins near to chests, and I could hear a thin, high-pitched tremor flickering at the edge of my consciousness.
The deadly calm was spreading and, spooked, I jerked my head around. A skinny man was standing in a seat near the back of the bus, alone in rising amongst the sea of sunken heads. His eyes were so large as to seem like the heads of soup spoons, wedged deep into his skull above hollow cheeks. His hands were stretched out straight down either leg, an unnatural stance, and he looked directly at me. As he spoke the dull tone seemed to seep, rising in volume, and the rows of people on either side blurred into grey bobbles.
‘You are protected, at this time,’ he said, loudly and forcefully, his voice low and ringing; blending with the atonal vibrations.
I shifted round in my seat, clutching at the metal curve of its tip. His great white eyes bore into my own.
‘There is a darkness here, a sleeping evil which has always existed but can only take shape within these variables, only at this point in time. You cannot shirk this darkness; the world that you knew only papers over it. You paper over a lot of things,’ he added, shaking his thin head in an odd thrusting way-up and down, left and right; all to the rising static ring, ‘you paper over these factions that exist between light and shadow.’
Softer now, the mechanical ringing dispersed and individual heads around me manifested back into view. The spoon-eyed man sank back into his seat, but not before shaking a long, skinny finger at me and booming a final warning.
‘This skin you accept as your own, but you have not earned the right to it. I am tired of what you accept of as real.’
With that his head slumped into his chest, assuming the position of every other passenger. Nobody else seemed to have registered his speech. The bus slid into my stop and I stumbled off; hurrying past the lifeless, grey congregation.
Threading my way into my street, replaying the spoon-eyed man’s words in my mind, I could see the timid pulse of the red markings in my garden. They comforted me. I was protected. The yellow wash of the streetlights above pooled around me as I strode towards my door. From a distance I could see peculiar daubings on it. Streaks of red paint angled into a crude approximation of the same scrawlings encased within the stone circles in the garden. I was about to step inside, avoiding the wetness of the paint, when I saw someone lurch out of the block of flats next to mine.
Some clutching intuition told me to duck down behind my fence, as odd as it felt, and I peered at the lumbering shadow of man through a tufty metal net. As he passed under the lamplight, I could see his face, grey and waxy. He was moving with extreme discomfort. My fingers gripped the fence as he approached but he appeared to flinch upon stepping near to it; clucking a bizarre, guttural sound and tensing up in jerky spasms before staggering back into the middle of the road behind him. I pushed grassy scraps away from the metal and watched him retreat back into his building.
(You paper over these factions that exist between light and shadow. I am tired of what you accept of as real.)
Whether he was a vision or some kind of guardian, the spoon-eyed man had been right. Something was happening, some kind of change was being affected. Keeping beneath the line of the fences that bordered the street gardens, I padded down to the next block of flats, edging over the dewy grass and up to the nearest window. Poking my head up in the corner of the pane, I could see my neighbour, grey and tired-eyed, bustling about inside. He was moving with the same awkward jerks as the man repelled by the red markings in my garden, and was scratching insistently at his thick hair.
Nestling into a grassy padding, I watched as his scratches turned to plucking tugs, pinching a tuft of hair between thumb and forefinger and appearing to pull backwards. His other hand came up to drag a separate clump in the opposite direction, and with rising horror I realised his scalp was splitting open. A sliver of whitish red smeared between parted lines of combed black hair appalled me to the point of turning away to gag. When I plucked up the courage to look away, sweating and shaking, this neighbour of mine was peeling rolling flaps of skin away from his skull and down to his arms with swift ease, layers unfolding with sticky snaps of gluey substance.
Unravelling the skin of his legs like twisted meaty stockings, the throbbing mass of black, dripping muscle discarded the sheet of skin in the corner and lumbered out of his living room door.
For a split second I was frozen, staring at the lumpy pile of discarded skin, folded like a hairy pink wetsuit. Then I was tearing back to my building, crunching blows over the frosty kerb and heaving wispy white trails.
As I pushed through the outer door I looked back to see several staggering black figures repelled by the glowing markings; one slick, meaty arm lashed in fury at a circle of stones only to have his arm frazzled into a dark, pulpy mess.
I left the thick shadows gathering and bolted up the stairs to my flat, crashing through the door and slamming it shut. Feeling for the lightswitch, I clicked it on and tensed in confusion.
My flat was empty of almost all my possessions. The curtains were drawn but other than that all my furniture was gone, all my books, all my music, everything I owned…
A sudden exhaustion claimed me and I slid down the wall in stages, clinging to my work bag, shaking and slipping from consciousness.
When I awoke the spoon-eyed man was standing in his awkward straight-armed pose in the corner of the empty living room. His circular, milky eyes pressed into my own, but he was silent for the time being. With a slow raising of his hand he gestured towards the window.
Pulling myself upright I padded over and drew the curtains open. I could see the garden below; the soft twinkle of the red markings in the clipped dewy grass, the pretty stone circles.
Fanning away from my building the world had changed. Vast, bulbous black hives of some sort sat festering in place of the buildings in my street. The road was torn and cracked and pools of oilish sludge snaked between the rivets, releasing clouds of grey smoke. Grotesque black creatures waddled amongst the streams, spitting garbled cries; above the sky was scorched red.
I stepped back from the pane and in the dull reflection I could see my eyes were large white saucers filling holes in my thin face.
The spoon-eyed man placed his hands by his side again and leaned ever so slightly towards me.
‘This is just another link in an unbroken chain,’ he spoke, and his voice boomed again; deep yet gentle and laced with static waves, ‘it began this way and so it will end.’
Stepping over, he removed my hands from the curtains and pulled them together.
‘You never knew these people anyway,’ he offered, as if in belated consolation.
Darkness hung over the room as the last of the red light was blotted out and together we sat cross-legged on the floor, the spoon-eyed man and me. If this was what we really were – if this was our fate coming full circle, then all the better for it. Better than to paper over things. I felt released, and strangely optimistic for the first time in years. The spoon-eyed man sat perfectly still, hugging his skinny knees. I tugged at flakes of wood on the carpetless floor as muddy howls and distant rumbles shook through the walls.