Three more of my Hundred Nightmares.
Nightmare Twenty-Nine: King of the Dead
This was Bill’s favourite moment of the day; standing under a jet of warm water, imagining that it was washing away all the fatigues and irritations and frustrations of the previous hours.
Regeneration. That word always came into his head as he took his nightly shower. Regeneration.
He stepped out of the ensuite shower, threw on the bathrobe that hung on the back of the leather couch, and walked to the window. He drew the blinds so that they opened a fraction, and peered out into the city lights.
From here he could see the laundrette where he’d had his first job, thirty years ago. There were memories attached to nearly every street he could see from here. Some of them glorious memories, some of them humiliating. What did it matter? Life was a game of snakes and ladders, and he’d slid down plenty of snakes.
But here he was. Here he was.
He shut the blinds and went to the couch, flopping down on with a sense of satisfaction. He reached for the remote control and switched on the television. Let’s see what the mad world is up to now, he thought.
There was a game-show on television, but this was a game-show with a difference. All the participants were dead. The host was speaking, but his face was corpse-white and his eyes were staring into space, lifelessly.
“So we’re in a tie-breaker situation”, he said. “And the category is France.”
Bill guffawed. What would they think of next? He was about to change the channel when his mobile phone, poised on the arm of the couch, began to ring. McAllister, announced the little screen. Bill groaned.
“Yeah”, he said, still staring at the freaky game show.
“Bill”, said a voice at the other end. It managed to be apologetic and whiny already, with one monoysllable. Bill felt his jaw tighten. “Are you sure you don’t want to renew Brannigan’s contract? He claims he was given verbal assurances...”
“He wasn’t given anything”, said Bill. “I didn’t give him any assurances, and nobody else better have, either. Or they’re dead.”
There was a long silence. “I think Sophie might have….”
“Look”, snapped Bill. “That’s Sophie’s problem. She had no authority. Terminate Brannigan. He won’t be taking us to court. It’s all bluff. Goodnight, Bill.”
He cursed, put down the mobile, and changed the channel.
It was a game of snooker, just beginning a new frame. Bill leaned closer. Snooker was his favourite game, the sport of the man with a brain.
It was only when the camera showed a close-up of one of the players, chalking his cue, that Bill realised that he was dead, too. In fact, he was turning green, and his eyeballs...they had fallen in. When the camera cut to the audience, he saw that they were in various degrees of decay and decomposition, too. Some of them were almost skeletons, but all of them were following the game eagerly...with or without eyes.
Bill flicked through channel after channel. A cadaver was whisking eggs. Two bodies were committing mutual necrophilia. On an infomercial, a corpse in a leotard was standing with her legs wide apart, reaching down to touch each ankle alternately. She didn’t seem in the least deterred when one of her fingertips fell off.
Bill screamed and threw the remote control at the screen. It bounced against it and onto the carpet. He leaped from the couch and ran out the door of the TV room, down the hall, and out his front door, barely remembering to close the door behind him. He ran down the stairs of his apartment complex and out into the streets, still clad in nothing but his bathrobe.
The city was full of dead people.
They were driving taxis, smooching by streetlights, coming out of pubs. And they were looking at him as though he was strange.
He ran through street after street, hoping that the madness would end, praying that he would turn the next corner and see the pink cheeks and shining eyes of living, breathing, vital human beings.
But even the dogs who wandered the paths were decomposing. The stench was worse than the sight.
He began to run, ignoring the glassy eyes that stared at him. He ran through the streets where he had blazed such a magnificent trail, where he had beaten the city at its own game.
He stopped, and bent forward, heaving great breaths into his lungs. When he straightened up again, he saw that he was standing in front of the Dazzle laundrette, the place where he had started his career.
He walked in. The stink of decay was replaced by the cleansing aroma of steam and washing-up powder. And—- glory to God!—- the people queueing at the counter were alive. Mick, the jowly and gentle man who’d run the Dazzle since it opened, was smiling at a customer, his face a beautiful sweaty pink.
Bill walked to the head of the queue, grabbed his old boss’s beefy arm, and said: “Mick, I want my old job back.”
Nightmare Thirty: Easter Eggs
“Phenomenon”, said Andrew, lingering over each syllable. “P-H-E-N-O-M-E-N-O-N”.
His mother smiled at him, proudly. “You’re the phenomenon, chicken. You’re the phenomenon. You must be the cleverest child I’ve ever met.”
She reached out and ruffled his hair, and Andrew beamed. He loved lessons.
“Enough for today”, said his mother, closing the book. “Do you know, most kids hate school?”
“They must be weird”, said Andrew, putting his copy-books and pens into the drawer of his desk.
His mother laughed, just like Andrew knew she would. “Maybe you’re the weird one, Andyman”.
“Is Dominic coming to visit again soon?”, asked Andrew.
His mother’s smile faded a little. “No, chicken”, she said. “But Leo will come visit soon. Won’t you like that? You can play your football game with Leo.”
Andrew nodded, without much enthusiasm. “I like Leo”, he said. “But not as much as Dominic.”
“Well, never mind”, said his mother. “There’s a treat for you today. Andyman, do you know what day it is today?”
“Sunday, April the twelfth”, said Andy, promptly.
“Yes”, said his mother, rising from her chair. She was wearing her nightgown, and Andrew was still wearing his pyjamas. “But more than that. It’s Easter!”
“What’s Easter?”, asked Andy, eagerly. He liked learning new things.
“Easter is an ancient religious festival, chicken”, said his mother. “These days, it’s been taken over by Christianity. You remember Christianity, don’t you?”
Andrew nodded cautiously. He’d been fascinated by the story of Jesus, but his mother-— though she answered all his questions—- didn’t seem pleased by his show of interest. He could always tell. So he’d stopped asking. He’d looked for more information on the shelves of the house, but all his mother’s religious books had titles like The Ancient Goddess or Spirits of the Earth. There was one very old one, which his mother often read but wouldn't let Andy read, called The Hidden Arts. They didn’t say much about Christianity, and when they did, it was as though they expected you to know about it already.
“Well, when Christianity came, it took over Easter”, she said. Her eyes narrowed a little. “Like it took over a lot of other things. But that doesn’t mean it belongs to Christians. It belongs to everyone.”
Andrew nodded, unsure of the right thing to say.
“Never mind all that”, said his mother, clapping her hands. “The fun part of it is that Easter is celebrated with chocolate eggs. Chocolate eggs, Andrew! You love chocolate!”
Andrew smiled. He did love chocolate.
“And the even funner part of it is that we hide the chocolate eggs and you get to look for them!”
Andrew stood up, eagerly. Any kind of puzzle or problem or search was heaven to him. “Are they hidden already?”, he asked.
His mother laughed, and her eyes shone with pleasure in his pleasure. “Yes, chicken. They’re somewhere in the house. Now, Mommy is going to take a shower, and Andyman can start looking for chocolate eggs. Don’t open the door if anybody rings. Don’t answer the telephone.”
“No, Mommy”, said Andrew, automatically, his eyes already moving around the room.
His mother didn’t move. She stayed standing where she was, gazing down at her son. A look of intense love came over her face. All of a sudden, she knelt beside him and hugged him around his shoulders. Her grip was so tight it almost hurt.
“Oh, Andyman”, she whispered. “You’re wonderful. You can do anything. You hear me? Let me hear it say. Say I can do anything.”
“I can do anything”, said Andrew, who hated and loved these moments.
“I love you”, said his mother, kissing his cheek. “Have fun, Andyman”.
As soon as she had left the room, Andrew launched into the search. He looked under the couch, behind the cabinet, behind the books on shelves. He looked in his mother’s desk.
He found the hidden drawer at the bottom.
Inside, there was a grey plastic folder. It was full of documents. Andrew was a precocious child, but most of the words were beyond his comprehension. Words like “compensation”, “negligence”, “fatality”. One of the pages had the words CERTIFICATE OF DEATH at the top, and his own name underneath.
He put them all back, somehow guessing he wasn’t meant to have seen them, and went on looking for chocolate eggs.
Nightmare Thirty-One: Sisters
“Are you alright, honey?”
Bonny woke up from her trance, and stared at the old lady sitting beside her.
“Oh...I was just..”
“Are you going to an interview or something?”, asked the old woman, smiling sympathetically. She was looking at Bonny’s carefully-chosen clothes.
“Yes”, said Bonny, touched by the woman’s concern, but eager to avoid a conversation. “That’s it.”
The old woman patted Bonny’s knee with three brisk, hearty pats. “Oh honey, don’t you worry. You walk into that room thinking they should beg for you on their bended knees.”
Bonny gave a smile that she hoped looked grateful. “Thanks”, she said. The woman nodded, looking pleased, and turned back to the window.
Relieved, Bonny reached into her handbag and pulled out her old and battered mobile phone. She called up the latest text in her inbox.
I’M OK. FOR GOD’S SAKE LEAVE ME ALONE. XXX
She felt a nervous tugging in her stomach as the bus lumbered on towards her destination. What had happened to Caroline?
The feeling of strangeness became more oppressive with every moment. Bonny wasn’t the one who was supposed to watch over Caroline. It had always worked the other way around. Caroline was the wise one, the straight B student, the one who saved money, the one who had never had a hangover in her life. Bonny was the ladette, the party girl, the one who had to be coaxed from the wrong path by her big sister, time and time again.
The bus rolled on. This part of town had a shabby, tired, heavy look. A street sign told her they had reached Frogmarch, the area where Caroline had been spotted, discreetly followed, and seen going into a second-floor apartment.
And there it was...those squat, brown-brick apartments. Bonny put her phone back into her bag, pressed the bell on the rail beside her, and rose to her feet.
Caroline had disappeared five months ago. She had given notice at the solicitor’s office—- telling nobody but her boss—- paid off the rent arrears on her flat, and stepped off the face of the Earth. Or that was how it had seemed.
She refused to answer phone calls. She had sent one curt text, and no more.
Bonny got off the bus—- the only passenger getting off at this stop—-and began to walk towards Frogsmarch Way. It was an airless, heavy evening. Summer was almost over. Bonny hated this time of year. It felt rancid, used-up.
As she climbed the metal stairs of the apartment complex, she thought of the bedroom she had shared with Caroline for seven years. They had disagreed about everything. Music. Politics. Religion. Clothes. They had quarreled incessantly. But, underneath it all, they had been halves of one whole, like an upper and lower denture champing against each other.
Bonny had to find her. Even if she didn’t want to be found.
She was standing before number seventy-six. The paint of the blue door was faded and chipped. She rang the bell. Hearing nothing, she knocked.
She stood in the grubby hallway, waiting, for a minute or more.
The she heard somebody coming, and the rattling of a chain, the creaking of a handle. The door drew back a few inches.
Standing in a slice of orange light was a man. He was an old man, a scrawny old man in a heavy pullover and huge glasses. His grey hair was matted, his eyes were bloodshot, and his teeth—- when his mouth opened in a horrible grin—- were badly discoloured and crooked.
He’s the one who sent the text, thought Bonny, panic flooding her. Caroline is wrapped up in plastic somewhere inside—-
But when she spoke, her voice was calm and polite. “I’m looking for Caroline Hall”, she said, managing a smile. “I’ve heard she might be here.”
The man grinned again. It was a fiendish grin. At that moment, she caught the smell of stale sweat and long-unwashed clothes. It made her want to retch.
“She’s here alright”, said the man, hoarsely. “Come in”. A stream of salivia dribbled from the corner of his mouth. He wiped it away with the back of his hand, still grinning at Bonny.
He took her into the dim kitchen. Caroline was sitting at the table, drinking tea. She was dressed in a voluminous lime-green nightie.
She was heavily pregnant. Her hand rested protectively on her swollen belly. She gave her sister a nervous, pleading smile. Her eyes shone.
Caroline opened her mouth to speak, but she didn’t get the chance. The old man had grabbed her around the shoulders, and he was pressing his lips against her own. The stench was overpowering now, but she didn’t recoil.
Instead, she pressed her body against the filthy old man and returned his kisses with a desperate fervour. Suddenly—- even as her whole soul protested with disgust-- she wanted him more than she had ever wanted anything in her life.