by GRAHAM TUGWELL
Because of the rumours.
That’s why we went to him.
None of us were friends with him. I don’t even think any of us had ever really spoken to him before.
But there were rumours...
When he was young he had done a terrible thing, so everyone said.
He’d found a book. He’d followed the instructions he found inside and he did something wrong, or did something right, and his little brother had died.
No more details than that. That was the story.
He was tall and two years older than us and he had this look about him, pale and thin. Something spent and used up. He was on his own, sitting between the hedges, his face turned up to the sun.
“Is that him?” Keith asked, knowing it was but wanting to be sure.
“It’s him,” said Pauly and he had certainty. “He’s the one. He got into a story. He was at the centre of one. He survived.”
I found myself low whistling.
Pauly stared. “His grandfather knew things... Strange things. Awful things.”
A cloud got in the way of the sun and Laurence’s face came down to look around in shadow.
“How the town works... How it can be made to work for us.”
I smiled, feeling the tightness of the wrong side of my face. “Shouldn’t we ask him now?”
Pauly shook his head. “Not now. Break is almost over.”
The bell went and with that it was.
Laurence Oannes walked home alone and went by a long route. Even with Keith we managed to head him off. We stopped him by the bend and asked him.
Keith began. “We ah. We ah. Wanted.”
(Bloody useless Keith.)
Laurence stared at us. “What do you want?”
“We need your help,” I said. “There’s a thing. We could use your help with the thing. And.”
I stopped and smiled.
Words were not too good with me.
“You were in a story,” said Pauly very softly. “Could you do it again?”
He pointed at himself and Keith and me.
“Could you make us into a story?”
“One where all the people who bully and hate us die?”
I gave a thumbs up.
“Die painful,” said Pauly and he chanced one of his rare dark smiles.
We were looked at.
“Fuck off,” said Laurence gently and turned and walked away.
We looked at each other.
And I said “Balls.”
And Keith said “Oh.”
And Pauly said “Plan B.”
We pester Laurence for weeks.
One of us is always there.
We knock on his door.
We phone his house.
We are there between classes.
We are there after school.
I am sitting on his fence when he looks out while brushing his teeth.
We are relentless.
I’ve just launched myself out of a tree at him.
The others said it was a stupid idea.
“Alright, fucking alright,” he says, as I curl to plead between feet. “Alright!” And as I get up and brush myself down he points a finger at me to put me in my place. “I’m not agreeing. I want you to get that straight. We’re just doing this theoretically? Okay?”
“No,” he says, “I want to hear you say it.”
“Okay,” I say, “Theoretical.”
We gather to hear and he is uneasy, walking back and forth before he can speak. “You want to be in a story.”
“You think you can choose your story?”
“You think you can control it?”
Pauly stares and Pauly nods.
And after a long, long silence, Laurence says, “There’s a thing you could make. And having made it, make it do whatever you want.”
“A simple story but you need four to make it. Characters. Three’s too few and five’s too many.”
Laurence laughs and shakes his head. “You should get a girl. Or a dog. You know, do it right.”
Pauly’s voice is soft. “Will you Join us, Laurence? Will you make the thing with us?”
He shakes his head.
And he points at us.
“I won’t be trapped in a story again. I’m telling you, never again.”
Keith empties a sigh, knocking his crutches against each other.
Pauly goes to Laurence and whispers something in his ear.
Something that is not for us.
Pauly steps back a pace and stares, and Laurence looks from him to us. The last colour gone from his face.
He looks back at Pauly.
It’s a barely-there word.
And then the edge back in his voice: “But I get to add what I want. I get to make it mine as well.”
We nod agreement
“Tonight,” says Laurence Oannes and he towers, two years older than us. “We do it tonight or it doesn’t get done. Easter Monday, that’s the time for this.”
“And whatever happens. Whatever happens. None of it’s my responsibility. None of it’s on my head.”
So the three of us meet at Pauly’s house at the edge of the bog. A soft night; the air as warm as indoors, save for a little wind and up we go to the reservoir.
The coldest place in the town, a bowl under the sky, kept unspoiled and ageless. An open place.
“Open to more than sky,” says Keith.
Trees are white and naked and very, very close.
And looking down the water is the clearest clear.
We can see all the way down to blue stones at the bottom.
Laurence waits for us on the edge of the reservoir. “Come close,” he says. “Line up on the lip. We haven’t got all night.”
The crack of leaves and twigs and we come forward to the slabs around the reservoir
Keith is careful where he puts the feet of his crutches.
Laurence is dressed in black and navy, his belt buckle standing out silver, an old thick book under an arm.
Probably for show— not once does he read from it.
Keith whispers “Is that the book he used on his...?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. Probably.”
Laurence catches my whisper and glares. “Do everything I tell you,” he says, “When I tell you. No arguments.”
His finger prods on my chest.
“I don’t argue,” I say.
But he makes a noise like “Ah!” and shakes his finger.
“We’re calling something and we need to be careful. First. You need to make yourself into words. Write down what you are and give it to the reservoir.”
Keith and I look at each other.
“Not what you’d like to be,” Laurence continues, “Not what you think everyone sees. What you know yourself to be.”
Down on haunches.
Pulling from a satchel, pieces of paper and pencils and passing them around.
We write down what we know we are.
Words, I said before, sometimes I find them hard and I have to cross out quite a bit.
Keith shakes his head. “I don’t know what to write.” He looks at the points of our pencils scratching. He bites his tongue and begins to write.
“Done,” says Pauly.
“Me too,” I say and Keith nods as well.
“Good,” says Laurence.
He takes a strip of cardboard from his pocket and unfolds it.
“Prick your fingers,” he says. “Mark what you’ve written with a drop of blood.”
Pauly helps Keith juggle his crutches.
“Now. One by one. You first,” He points at me, “Then you,” –Keith— “Then you,” –Pauly— “Then me. Walk to the edge. Drop a point of blood into the reservoir. Say your piece. Drop your words.”
Laurence points at me. “Begin.”
I take a breath. Make a faint noise. I pierce the end of my finger and with my thumb pinch a point of red.
It oozes up and runs down the side of my finger and falls.
It makes the water a cloud of pink.
I watch it drift away
Water made clear again.
And I am the first to speak.
“Em. Em. Let it have... knives for hands. Let it breathe fire. Let it burn. Let it be tall and. And. It should have spines along its back. And things like that. Please.”
And I grin.
Imagining what will happen.
I can’t stop.
I open my hand and let the water take my words.
“You,” and Laurence points to Kevin.
The pin opens the end of his finger, he winces as it bleeds.
“Let it be strong,” says Kevin, “Let all parts be healthy. Let it be better than all of us.”
His hands work the grips of his crutches.
Words go down into the reservoir.
And Pauly, not waiting to be told to go, jabs the point home and bleeds and shouts before it drops: “Let it be a terrible thing.”
Such a glow in Pauly’s eyes.
His tongue in the gap between front teeth.
He holds out his hand.
Holds it out.
And lets it go.
Laurence the last to bleed and speak, gentle voiced.
“Let it be a story. Let it be real.”
The final scrap of paper falls.
Nothing more disturbs the reservoir.
We see ourselves reflected.
Paper scraps go to the bottom and are gone.
“It’s done,” says Laurence.
And Keith in a low voice: “What happens now?”
“The first part’s over,” says Laurence. “Time for the second.”
Some of my skins a different colour, and feels different too like leather under my
eye and in the corner of my mouth. That’s the left side
When I’m older I will grow a beard and cover half and comb my hair down and cover the rest. I’ll be normal and no one will know. No one will say a thing to me. I’ll just be me.
Oran’s birthmark covered half his face, a deep dark purple, and I had crutches since I was seven and Pauly’s second name was Lynn, and he was small and weak, enough for the bullies to pick on him.
Calling him Pauline.
Amongst other things.
It started as
One more stupid, unworkable idea.
But it was Pauly who took it and ran.
I went along with it as best I could.
We’d have our revenge.
We’d make them pay.
Our thing would tear through them.
Our weapon, aimed directly at their throats.
But lying at the foot of my bed and moaning and crying and losing soft parts of itself—what kind of story was that?
Two nights after we gave blood and words to the reservoir and still nothing. We
sat on a wall near Pauly’s house.
“This is baaaaalls,” he sighed.
And Pauly muttered something none of us could hear.
And Laurence was avoiding us.
I smiled for them and said “Give it time. The story might just need a night or two to begin. Sometimes there’s, like, a prologue. Or a bit where the characters are introduced.”
I waved a crutch.
“I am Keith and I have crutches.”
“Foreshadowing,” I boomed, portentous.
That night the sound of something heavy hitting the floor shocked me awake.
I found myself in my room and I was breathing.
I could hear it.
But something else was breathing too.
Something in the room with me.
Turn every piece of me to glass.
Shatter me with the softest touch.
I wanted to run.
More than any time in my life.
I wanted to be able to run.
But I lay in bed and watched the darkness shape itself. Something sending out hands to splay the walls, trying to grasp and pull itself up.
Books and my ships and a globe crash down.
A picture frame gives birth to glass.
Noises but still no shape, as yet.
“Help,” they are saying. “Help. What am I? What am I supposed to be?”
My eyes accustom to the dark. Black are navy and grey, streetlights make my window a pale orange square.
Almost, I can pull it into life and shape.
I look at the thing we created.
Put words around it: a totem pole of flesh, a long stretched column of faces eating faces, all painted half in purple, all half-made from warm-worked leather.
The next emerging from the mouth of the one before.
Put names on them:
Myself— a freckled square in blonde.
Coming from my mouth a face I’d never seen before; the transparent pale of a ginger boy.
From its jaws came Pauly— sharp and dark.
And though the shapes are theirs, each face has the wrong coloured eyes, the wrong rim of teeth. My mouth was full of Pauly’s.
It’s rising, pulling the bedclothes down.
It’s letting the warmth out.
It speaks through Pauly’s mouth, and all other teeth bite down on foreheads, half-swallowing them, it speaks with all our voices, singly and in chorus.
“Tell me what I am. Please.”
I see what it’s using to pull itself up through dark— a pair of palms and from them
grow another set of hands, and from the palms of them another.
I see my own; the little wart on the little finger.
But not my wrists. Not my scars.
Trying to stand, four sets of legs from one set of hips, flaunting my own withered pair; feet twisted to point into each other.
I am alone with the wailing of the creature.
My father should come and break down the door.
Pull me from the bed and save me.
But he won’t come and I can’t shout.
I don’t want to anger the thing.
It rises and falls and rises again.
Fingers almost reach my face.
It falls away down into darkness where softening wails lengthening into whisper-snores.
Oh please be sleeping.
I move in slow stages.
Turn on my side, pull my left leg up until it bends, reach for the...
But they’ve been knocked to the ground and I must throw myself down to get my crutches.
My escape is painful, glacial; a terror in ice on the back of my neck.
It could wake any moment. Follow me.
We wished such terrible things onto it.
Slowly down through shadows, step by aching step.
I leave our creature sleeping and go for help.
The air is a hammer of cold. “Help,” I shout, snapping it broken against the uncaring iron back of night.
Slowly, I stump with crutches, too dark to tell where the potholes are. My forearms bruise when I go down in a dip.
I think I’ve opened my sole, dragging dead legs down the road.
But I keep going.
I will not be defined by my broken bones and twisted feet. I will overcome any obstacles placed in my way. I have no need to tell myself this. I know it. It is fact. My name is Keith Astor and I will never be diminished.
You are Laurence Oannes now.
You are in bed and thinking, finding yourself thinking and thinking in circles.
Years now of empty, interrupted sleep, years of memories.
Birds in circling flight around the reservoir.
The round of red held in the palm of a hand.
You made a mistake when you were very young.
It wasn’t a book, just a page.
A terrible page.
Pulled from broken glass.
Things your grandfather wrote and kept.
Promising an Easter Treat, from a body touched in the right way, pressed hard enough.
And too late, you were in, the last spiteful fragment of your grandfather’s story,
sent down through years, a trap hidden to close in lengthy grass.
Your brother died.
You held a horror part of him, that heat, an Easter Treat, still beating.
And the story swept you out and left you stranded in epilogue, forever haunted.
You close your eyes.
Sun going down in pink and teal.
Open your eyes.
Close eyes again.
You wake to outside noises.
Shouts and beating things and running feet.
Your mother opens the door and they shout at her, whoever they are, and you are down the hall in seven strides to rescue.
“We want him.”
“We need him.”
Arms past your mother reaching for you.
“It’s okay,” you say and close her away behind the front door.
You look at two boys, years younger than you.
The one on crutches in dirty pajamas.
The dark one stares, a dressing gown tied round his thin body.
You forget their names.
Behind them, the fat one kneels at the end of the driveway, something long in a bed sheet by him. He’s pushing it beneath a hedge but there isn’t any room.
More than two feet stick out of the roll.
The dark boy hisses “What are we supposed to do with it?”
The boy in the crutches points and cries “It’s screaming. It’s in pain.”
And softly the dark boy “It’s broken. You made us make a broken thing.”
“You said it would work.”
His fist works his fingers to crack.
They are shouting now.
You push them down the path where you can talk.
Or try to.
You say you made no promises.
You tell them it took the best bits of them.
One of them must have been too weak.
Or dishonest in their words for the reservoir.
The fat boy glares at the one on the crutches who recoils, shouting “Don’t look at me. This isn’t my fault!”
In his anger he slips a half-stagger on crutches.
The fat boy gets to his feet and fixes him with a finger.
“You fucked this up! It was you and…and…and your fucking bollocksed up fucking legs—” and his dried purple face seems as if it will split. He pushes to make the other stagger.
A crutch swing— it smacks a dull bop on the fat boy’s temple.
Wide eyes in offence
A soft pathetic fight begins.
And the dark boy kneels by the thing in the blanket, his voice as soft as hands holding a rescued thing. “It should be carving a red path through them all. It should be eating bits it’s pulled from them. It should be kicking and cleaving and laughing in ruin. I wanted a better story than this.”
Movement under the blanket.
The dark boy looks at you and asks “How did you kill your brother?”
And you just look at him.
Finally saying, “An... accident.”
Moan and shift beneath the cloth.
And the voice of the dark boy: “Do you think you could do it again? Have you another accident in you?”
Whatever is kept in blankets wakes.
Fights against its binding.
“You’re in this, Laurence, as much as us.”
An arm composed of hands unfurls and pulls aside the blanket.
And you see—
There amidst the long meat...
One of its faces is your brother.
Around you they fight, the boy with the scarred face and the boy on crutches and the other one—
The little one.
The dark one.
Stares at you as the thing thrashes and beats and sends “What am I?” up into the night, sends hands to grab, hands to hold. It kicks with too many legs and writhes in grass and gravel.
Your brother’s face.
Your brother’s voice.
Mouths open all along its length.
“Squeeeze me Laurence.”
So many bellies.
“Get your prize.”
Teeth breaking forehead skin.
Tongue between the gap
And eyes you remember.
From the first time.
Something in you breaks.
Get back inside.
Shut the door and lean against to keep it closed.
Keep the noises of fighting out.
Keep the sight of that away.
Ignore the beating on the door.
Ignore the pleas.
What more could you have done?
What more are you supposed to do?
I am my mistake. That is all I am. Nothing I will ever do will make up for what I’ve done. But I will never stop trying.
You want to know what I look like?
Imagine a rat in a school uniform.
Take away the tail and the top of its right ear.
That’s all I am
And all are right to think me worthless.
On the lip of the reservoir I say to Laurence Oannes, quietly so the other two cannot hear me: “We’ll do it. With our without your help. It’s a thing that will get done and you can’t stop us. But with you we can get it right. Or you can stand and watch us fail and you’ll have that on your head too…”
It takes a while.
I am at the centre of things.
For the first time I’m looking out instead of looking in.
I go to sleep.
Thinking of the deaths they’ll face.
The bones in Bosco Sherlock’s hands, broken, extracted, one by one.
The bursting lips of Donkey Conroy.
I go to sleep.
Everything so soft and warm.
I go to sleep.
We wrapped it up in a sheet
It was as long as two of us put together but for its size it was light.
Three of us could carry it.
Down the street, into pools of amber, into swathes of black
Keith on crutches stumping along behind us.
Hoping no-one would see us with the body.
Hoping no-one would stop to look under the cover and see the thing that was our melted selves.
We carried the thing as far as we could
Into the dark.
Where we wouldn’t be found.
We should have brought it back to the reservoir.
We should have dumped it whole or in pieces back in the water.
Stood and watched it sink and be an ending for us all.
But that was too far and the night was too old.
We find ourselves in Laurence’s garden.
And I’m kneeling and I’m listening to him.
“You asked for story to happen to you. You asked to be put at the centre of
things. But that’s not how it works. It decides what story is, not you.”
But when he sees the faces of what we made, he flees.
He hasn’t got the stomach for this.
“Okay!” he shouts.
The crutch hits the stones beside his head.
“I give up! I give up! Stop Keith, stop!”
And the head of the crutch is raised.
But they are too tired to keep fighting.
“I’ll do it,” I whisper.
They look at me.
“I’ll do it. My fault. What I wrote. I wrote what I thought was the truth. And it made this thing. Laurence is gone. It’s up to us. We brought it here.”
I pick up a stone.
And the faces of our thing say:
And my own face says:
“Name me. At least name me. Before...before...”
Keith is whispering something to himself.
“It isn’t happening. It isn’t happening.”
I bring the stone down.
I bring the stone down.
I save my face for last.
I take my time.
I hit until it is unrecognizable.
Until I split open in pink and purple and green.
Scatter teeth. Scatter bone.
I keep hitting.
I keep hitting.
I keep hitting.
I keep hitting.
I’m nothing but a broken thing. I’m nothing but a broken thing. I’m nothing.
Graham Tugwell is an Irish writer and performer and the recipient of the College Green Literary Prize 2010. His work has appeared in over fifty journals, including Anobium, The Quotable, Pyrta, THIS Literary Magazine, L’Allure Des Mots and Poddle. He has lived his whole life in the village where his stories take place. He loves it with a very special kind of hate. His website is grahamtugwell.com.
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