This is the first time I have submitted a story here for feedback. It's not something many people have read, and since I have come to feel quite comfortable here, I thought I would see what you guys think.
WARNING: This story carries a definite M for Mature rating. While it doesn't contain graphic sex or violence, there are references to mature subjects as well as some (censored - but if I missed any let me know!) language. The story also deals with very adult themes, some of which may upset more sensitive readers. If you are easily offended, turn back now.
The morning Stuart Bradford loses his mind, he wakes up half drunk in the clothes he fell asleep in, anything but alone. He wakes up sleepy in a stale, unmade bed and itches all over. His tee shirt stinks of spilt ale and cigarettes. His blue jeans are brown and green.
As he rises, the dark-haired girl sleeping next to him stirs, and moans. She stretches, and one flailing arm catches the alarm clock beside the bed. When it hits the carpet, it reads 8:17am.
He knows he has gone too far.
His memories consist of fragments and notions, blurred and unsteady, like chewed video tape. Played back to him, they make no sense – he recalls snippets of conversation, distorted faces and ear-pounding noise. He looks down at her, and a chill snaps through him. He remembers nothing about Rachel.
Beneath her, the cream sheets are spotted red and brown with blood from the previous night’s adventures. Fresh scratches glisten across her bare shoulders. A shallow cut curls around her neck like a sleeping snake. Seeing her there is like finding a checklist of bad ideas, with all the boxes checked and his name heavily underlined at the top. The enabler. The host.
It isn’t that he doesn’t love his girlfriend. It isn’t that he loves Rachel. Rachel pushes his buttons. That’s the whole story. She sets him alight from the inside, and since the first taste he has been crawling half-blind at her feet. He knows he’s obsessed. Still, he longs now to be rid of her, to be tucked up at home instead of here, with his foot caught in his own trap.
He sniffs his clothes and weeps a little.
He goes into the kitchen and eats eggs and is normal.
Every time he closes his eyes, he hears Kathy crying.
When Stuart creeps through the front door and out into the February snow, the clock reads 8:56 am. The contrast between the frosty weather and the warmth of his rushed breakfast leaves him shaking inside, and he feels almost cripplingly sick. Somehow, this morning, he finds it warmer outside. Perhaps not though – perhaps outside, the cold becomes too bitter to feel, the wind so sharp it leaves the skin numb. So cold that it isn’t anymore. Something in that absence reminds him of the drunk on the park bench; of falling asleep and dying.
If he does shiver, it is for another reason entirely.
Under his feet, the snowy ground is white and red.
He remembers that way back, before Rachel and all the hell that followed in her wake, he was happy. He had all that he had been taught to seek: the love of a beautiful woman; a house with a nice garden and a view of the sea; emotional and financial security he didn’t dare dream of, dropped right into his lap. He got along with his boss, and never worked weekends. Every night, he went home and was fed, held, and loved.
It was everything he needed, and it wasn’t enough.
He stands now outside Rachel’s front door, freezing, staring down at the blood on the snow and thinking of all the things he’d meant to do. Of all the events that have washed passively over him as he watched, and wondered. He had meant to say no, every time. He had meant to go home late last night with stories of unexpected overtime, instead of this morning with nothing to say.
Setting off slowly down the icy path, he thinks of meaning to leave Rachel the moment he looked into her hot black eyes and felt anything close to love – and notices the red and orange flecks following beneath him. He imagines one of the neighbours, more than likely inebriated, staggering home from a punch up in town. Or a small child, its feet unsteady on the wintry ground, slipping onto its face and howling thunder through the streets. As the trail thickens, he imagines Kathy, stumbling through the garden in her nightdress, screeching at him that the cramps are getting worse – and the blood on the ground is almost hers.
He realises at that moment that he doesn’t want to go home.
At her gate, he pauses, and the frost bites into him like an angry dog. His temples throb. The memory of Kathy is a weight in his soul.
Stuart walks home along the river, and watches the frost melt into the water. As he walks, he clenches and unclenches his hands, flexing, full of nervous energy. He feels like he just fell off the Earth. His heart and lungs insist that this is so. They pound and quake furiously, as though trying to escape from his body, and Stuart can’t blame them because he feels that way, too.
Falling asleep and dying. If only it were that easy.
Five minutes into the journey, he has become curious about the droplets of blood splattered on the street. The faint trickle mirrors his path, and he can’t take his eyes off it. In places, there are small puddles of blood fading into the snow – to Stuart, these look like they might taste of fruit, and he feels sick in his throat. He starts to wonder whether all that blood came from a person, and where such a person might be.
It’s funny how you care. He hears Kathy with him, and his guts turn to fire. It’s funny how you’re a f****ing saint all of a sudden.
In the front pocket of his jeans, his phone vibrates. He knows who it is, but looks anyway, then stuffs it back into his pocket and carries on. No words can help him. No excuse will suffice.
The melting frost drips into the river and it sounds like a countdown – though to what, he couldn’t say. And if he is honest, he will admit to being more concerned about touching the blood than explaining it. He thinks: imagine falling over. Imagine slipping on the snow, throwing your arms out in front of you, and getting a handful of bloodsicle. Wouldn’t that be the worst?
He notices his shoelace is untied.
When he bends to tie it, he sees something far more dangerous. Rachel has scratched the backs of his hands. She has taken tiny pieces of him away with her teeth. All at once the stain of her covers him like a shroud. Away from her, he feels nothing, and his actions disgust him. He doesn’t understand them. With her, she is everything, and this is how he knows it isn’t love. He only needs her when she’s there.
Except for now. He really needs Rachel right now, if only to keep him from following the trail.
They’ve been circling the drain for two years now, playing chicken with each others’ lives, and it isn’t a question of whether he wants to get caught. It’s a question of why. He’s lost a lot of sleep, and still can’t explain it. He’s turned himself inside out wondering why, knowing that their relationship is more like a drug addiction. The weight has fallen off of him, to such an extent that most of his clothes no longer fit. His appetite is almost nonexistent. He will say anything to get his fix.
It’s his ‘f**k you’ into the mirror, and it feels pretty good.
The day everything fell apart is with him now, as it is with him always – it is the place he visits in his sleep. Every night, Kathy hugs him in the back yard and says ‘it’s positive’ and cries with laughter. The sound is like a gun held to his head.
The backs of his hands itch but when he scratches, his fingernails are clogged with skin. Scratches become gouges. The tips of his fingers are bloody and cold.
By the time he reaches the end of the river, Stuart is deeply concerned. Here the trail diverges, and he has to make a choice. To the right is Fanner Grove, and if he peers around the hedge on the corner he can see into his front garden. He is perhaps a hundred yards from Kathy. To the left, the water disappears beneath a concrete bridge and out of sight, but he can see the red droplets peppering the pavement, and doesn’t know what to do.
He knows what he wants to do. He knows what he should do. The two are almost always mutually exclusive. He never wants to do the right thing, and when he does, it is with himself in mind. This is how it works: if Kathy finds out he’s with Rachel again, she will leave him. He doesn’t want to spend years letting someone get to know him again, to become accustomed to his flaws and fond of his quirks – it all takes too long. It might not be the same.
He doesn’t want to hurt her, because then he’s losing out.
He already has, so he follows the splattered blood. It’s either that, or go home. He has to know.
With every step, he hopes that Kathy will see him. She’ll come down that path any minute, and call out to him. This is what he has been saying all along, with his weight loss and exhaustion, his subconscious hints and feeble excuses: help me, Kathy. Please help me. Save me. Make it go away. He still doesn’t understand why.
This is the mirror’s ‘f**k you’ right back.
Stuart walks under the bridge, unnoticed. The walls underneath it are coated with blue paint by local schoolchildren, and brightly painted sunflowers mark the beginning of a mural. The graffiti is still showing through. There is no snow here, so the blood is tougher to see, but he manages. He comes out the other side, squints against the morning sun, and looks around. Ahead of him, the fields look like giant canvases stretched out for him to spoil. Beside him, tucked just under the bridge, is a dark green skip the size of a small van.
This is where the trail ends.
He braces himself, and steps forward.
The thing he remembers most about the clinic is the colour lilac. Everything from the walls to the letterheads was the same apathetic shade of almost purple. Unless you went upstairs, you wouldn’t see a white coat, or a nurse’s uniform. It was all so casual. The patients got called by their first names. No one was judging anyone.
Stuart spent his four hour visit in the waiting area, dumped in front of the TV in a room full of pallid people staring at their shoes. There was no conversation. Mostly, people held each other, and cried. He and Rachel sat two seats apart, glaring in opposing directions, and if he reached out to touch her hand, she would snatch it away.
He told her he couldn’t go through all this s**t with Kathy five months gone.
He always wished he had done it the other way around.
Three weeks after he convinced Rachel to go through with the termination, Kathy called him home from work. She would only say that it was urgent. What she didn’t tell him on the phone was that she had taken every love letter, clinic pamphlet and item of discarded underwear, and spread them out across the bed upstairs. She didn’t tell him she had taken the liberty of packing a bag for him. When he arrived home, she was waiting in the garden, with a rucksack sitting at her feet.
Then the cramps started, and for a time all of this was forgotten. All that mattered was the shared loss that pulled them back together. All that mattered to her, anyway. For Stuart, the important part was knowing it was all his fault. Both gone, just like that. Two birds, one stone.
He knows he is just the worst kind of person.
Lifting the lid of the skip is difficult, if only because he has been telling himself that nothing in here could ever be worse than what is waiting at home for him, and Stuart is a sore loser.
What he finds in there makes no immediate sense, because there is nothing to find. The skip is empty, save for a small pile of rags stuffed into the corner. The dirty green material is soaked red and brown.
Somehow, this is worse than anything he has imagined – and he has imagined so much. He has seen clearly in his mind the face of the dismembered teen, poking through the torn black bags. When the great unveiling arrives, it cannot compare to the epic, almost operatic scenes of chaos and violence he has privately conjured.
Nobody has ever bothered to tell Stuart that sometimes less is more.
Gone are his plans for the afternoon. He could’ve found someone dying in there. He could’ve helped. It would have been the perfect excuse. Instead he has to go home and face Kathy, and her tears.
He is lowering the lid when a flutter of movement catches his eye, the tiniest flurry right in the far corner of the skip, near the rags. A snowflake, or the wind rustling through the cloth, or...
Stuart leans in closer. He sees the maggots, and has to fight to hold onto his breakfast.
He reaches in, and opens the rags.
Stuart drops the contents as though they are on fire.
All he can think of is that the head is about the same size as a cooking apple. The legs are like chicken thighs. The whole thing looks like a doll that’s been ripped apart by an animal. It has to be a doll, because if it isn’t then he’s going to scream, and he might not stop. He might shriek the vomit right out of his guts. He glares down at the blood smeared over his shaking hands, at the discarded rags and scattered maggots and doll parts, and the scream rises. He feels it building up in his chest with the sudden urgency of a sneeze, and when he bites down on his hand to suppress it, the pain almost knocks him down.
The screams stay inside of him forever.