The drumming had reached a fever pitch by the time Brandon reached the bathroom. It was like a tribal orchestra, fists rebounding in precise, hastened strikes off goatskin djembes.
Deafening, constant. BUMP bum BUMP bum BUMP bum BUMP.
His skull felt like an earthquake, torn to pieces by fissures.
He dropped his backpack; it clattered onto the ground, the keys clipped on the outer straps chiming loudly. He unsnapped the top flap and grabbed the knife from inside wrapped in layers of cloth. He unraveled it.
The knife slid across his skin with the grace of an ice skater, gliding through fat and muscle. Brandon quietly made a crisscross of incisions across his forearm, pressing his head against the tiled wall behind the toilet. He had to keep his grunts low or the old Jewish guy in the next stall might decide to get nosy. Start thinking he’s some weird pervert jerking off frantically to the bouquet of stale urine and mildew that permeated the restroom.
He felt a euphoria wash across him as the rhythmic plop plop plop of blood dribbling into the bowl began. The porcelain vanished beneath the surge of a murky black cloud suffusing the toilet water, obscuring the moldy black waterline. Brandon clenched his hand into a fist, caused a fresh spurt of warm blood to jet into the toilet; it crashed and sent speckles up onto the backsplash. His mouth hung open. He tasted copper. Ecstasy worked its way through every synapse, shook loose the tension that had stiffened his limbs. So much weight off his back; so much silence in his mind. His free hand tugged one of those mini 50ml bottles of Maker’s Mark out of his bag’s side pocket. He stuck the lid in his mouth and twisted it with his teeth, then spit the cap into the toilet before downing the contents. It was sharp with a faint waft of vanilla that swept across the back of his throat before settling in his belly.
The man in the next stall ripped a loud fart and flushed. Brandon heard the jingling of his belt buckle as he worked his trousers back on. Looking down at his scored arm, he breathed out. Slowly the drumming fell away, a distant drumming behind layers and layers of walls. It was never gone, though. If he listened closely, or if it was very silent, Brandon could always hear the pounding beat, reverberating through him, sending trembles through every bone and ligament.
Blood gushed out again, hot and red and wild like the pandemonium of pastel colors in an abstract painting. He slid to his knees, resting his cheek on the thermoplastic toilet seat and watched himself drip out into the bowl. The water was black now – a surface of black glass rippling in small waves as he continued to exsanguinate.
Count to five… he reminded himself. Count to five.
Eyes closed, cheek pancaked on the seat; he breathed in. The spores of feces and mold filled his lungs, but they were minor, overall, compared to his other problems. He rummaged through his bag, finding the soft texture of a ball of gauze nestled into the bottom corner.
His mother had taught him the ritual when he was eight years old, screaming frantically as the drum song ripped his skull apart. She had wrapped him in her arms, squeezing him in hopes the fit would pass. She rocked and cooed, kissed his cheeks. He felt her salty tears splash on his cheeks, roll down into the corners of his mouth, but the mania continued.
“Help me momma!” he had wailed and she cried as she lead him to the bathroom, held his arm over the sink, and with a quivering hand cut him like a London Broil, leaving shallow diamond patterns across his forearm. His hollering had reached fever pitch before he noticed the ebb of the drums, then squeezed his arm himself, milking out spurts of blood. She had stopped him, told him to start counting to five.
“Think of good things and good people, baby, and count to five,” she had said.
So he did. Every other week he’d cut and cut and become ever more and more precise.
They never went to a doctor. His mother said a doctor couldn’t fix this. She knew, though. Whatever ‘this’ was, she knew.
“What’s wrong with me, mama?”
“Nothing, Branny, nothing is wrong with you,” she said, wrapping his arm tenderly in gauze, nimble fingers trembling faintly as she hovered over the cuts she’d put on him. “There’s nothing wrong with you. Nothing wrong with you.” She kissed his forehead and cried.
He never forgot the other thing, though: a magnetism. The drums pulled him west, dulled when he moved towards them, flared in anger when he moved away. The drums wanted him to go west. Huddled there in the stall, watching his blood slow to a syrupy slow dribble into the toilet, he remembered still.
The speakers overhead crackled in brisk Chinese that the train would be boarding soon.
He had been following the drums since his mother had died. It was all he could do. He had to follow the drums. Gradually, feeling lassitude drape across him like a blanket, he pulled the ball of gauze from his bag and began to count.
He dreamt of fire again. Always fire.
He was standing in a valley without stars, bracketed by the vague impressions of mountains with unperceivable peaks. There was no moon. Shadows stretched across the terrain, with only the dim, smoky torch of remote red light far off, where the sky and the dark earth touched. The ground beneath his bare feet was hard and cold. The air around him was cool and moist, wisps of mist crawled out of the gloom and licked his hands and legs before slithering away, leaving his palms slick with condensation. He walked, in the dream. Walked for countless miles. Maybe only a few feet. Maybe he didn’t move at all. Nothing changed in those lands; he was a shade in Sheol, chasing the light.
Find the fire, someone was whispering. Maybe he was saying it.
Find the fire.
Then the hand would come – a great hand like a claw wreathed in flame. Its spiny fingers would flicker and snap like whips before scraping across the starless sky, leaving gashes that bled fire into the valley. Like a Biblical deluge, the conflagration ballooned into a titanic wave.
Count to five and find the fire, his mother’s voice screamed in his ear.
Count to five and find the fire.
Then the wave would swallow him, washing away the shadows and the mist and scouring away the mountains like dross and he howled beneath an ocean of flame and a volcanic sky.
He woke up with a pounding in his skull that felt like it would send his eyes shooting out of their sockets. He felt fevered and tight; his skin squeezed too hard on his bones; his blood too thick in his veins. He felt like a sausage jammed into its casing.
It took only a moment before he registered the footsteps coming down the corridor. Feather-light steps that would have been camouflaged by the muted rumble of the train speeding across the tracks for most people. He shouldn’t even have been able to hear them over the loud drumming in his head. But Brandon knew the sound of those steps well. The dreams of fire came first – heralded the arrival of those maleficent things that shambled in the dark.
Sweat had soaked into his pillow. The shirt felt sticky, glued to his lower back and around his biceps. He wiped the wetness out of his eyes and tried to steady his heart. The steps were getting closer.
He reckoned he was about 1,500 miles into the Trans-Mongolian Line.
Through the window, he could still make out the distant silhouette of Ulan-Ude’s buildings, and the ghostly mountains crowned by moonlight.
Brandon had boarded in Beijing, scrounging together cash he had swindled out of people during his journey. He couldn’t afford much – one of those 4-berth rooms. Platskartny, the natives called it. Best for the budget sensitive travelers. Adjacent to him, an old Russian man in a flat cap huddled under a wool blanket. Lunar light slashed across his pitted, bristly face as the car rumbled along. They had spoken sparse words earlier over bowls of rassolnik. Brandon found the pickled taste of it to be strange, but pleasant. The man had grumbled that his name was Vyacheslav before stuffing his mouth with a piece of black bread that had been drifting across his bowl, like a dislodged island across a turgid ocean.
In the bunk under him a young Asian woman with short-cropped hair slept. Across from her was her sister. He thought the one across the aisle from him – the pretty one with green eyes – was named Cho. He had never seen an Asian girl with green eyes before.
Would they see it? He wondered. Would Vyacheslav or Cho or her sister see the thing as it rounded the corner? But he knew the answer. They wouldn’t. Nobody could see when the things came – not even his mother. She couldn’t see them, even when they came for her. Even when she knew they would come. But Brandon could see them.
His hand slipped into his backpack next to him and found the knife again, fingers squeezing painfully tight around the chestnut colored handle. He heard the steps moving inexorably towards him, like the gentle splash of the river moving over stones. He whispered an apology to his bunkmates.
The things had first found him when he was a boy, after the drums started, after he had started the cutting. He and his mother were still living in Islamorada, a strip of land in the Florida Keys. His mother was renting a small house perched on a stretch of sandy beach, dotted with palm trees just along the shore. The house was close to a shanty, but it afforded him the freedom to run outside and zigzag through the trees and build sandcastles at his leisure. More than most kids could ask for.
He was supposed to be at school, that day, but his mother had kept him home. The cuts were fresh, bandaged up and liable to rip still. She told the school he was sick. When his friend Jorge’s parents called on his behalf, she told them he was sick and couldn’t come out to play. He loved Jorge and his family – his burly father, Carlos, would dangle the boys off his swollen biceps and then fling them into the water. Sometimes he snuck them drinks of beer when the mothers weren’t looking. While Brandon never knew his father, he liked to imagine he was like Carlos.
“If they see the cuts they’ll take you away,” she said.
Still, she let him run outside on the beach behind the house. He was out there, idly walking in circles around a tree, listening to gulls squawking at each other while they hovered like hoary kites in the sky. That’s the first time he saw the thing.
It looked like his mother. She was in a sunflower dress, dripping as if she had just emerged from the ocean. Her soggy red hair fell like frayed rope around her lithe shoulders. Her clothing clung tightly to her, revealing every delicate curve of her body. He almost thought it was her. Except for the large, egg-white eyes that fixed on him and the rictus, piranha toothed smile it flashed him.
He ran screaming inside screaming for his mother as it began walking towards him.
Even at eight, he knew it was odd she didn’t question him. She didn’t try to soothe him. She turned linen white and threw him into the back of the station wagon with nothing but her wallet. She had just closed her own door when he looked up from his seat and saw the grinning thing against his windowpane, long, grimy nails clicking against the glass.
The sound in his skull had shifted from drumming to explosive concussions, like an assembly of shotgun blasts. He stared at its very white teeth juxtaposed with its dirty nails and his mother’s contorted face before slipping into an apoplectic fit.
“Where is it, Brandon, where is it?” his mother screamed before seeing him convulsing.
They shot away in an explosion of dirt and the screech of wheels.
They never went back to Islamorada.
It had followed them everywhere. Followed them across every city and every state and across the ocean. It caught them, once. All it took was once.
He squeezed the knife as it drew closer, looking around at the strangers who had unknowingly become part of his macabre story.
He was stupid for getting on the train. Stupid for trapping himself.
It came around the corner. At first all he saw was the shrouded back of its head, red hair pulled back in a tight bun against its scalp. It sniffed, its shoulders rising and falling from the exertion as it worked to track its quarry. Then it turned and stared at him through the dark, the outline of a face in the shadows. A splash of moon light revealed his mother’s still young face with those great, big, white eyes and the toothy grin. The hungry grin.
The thing’s thick, grey tongue slid between its teeth, oozing black ichor onto the walkway before it sat down on Cho’s. It stared at him smiling, glistening teeth sharp enough to rip through fat like paper, crunch down on bone like hamburger meat. He knew. He watched it work once. He still heard his mother screaming.
Detonations of pain exploded along his skull, the agony cluttering his vision with a congestion of purple and white spots. The thing kept smiling at him and then looked at Cho. It brushed a few coal-black threads of hair from her face and leaned down to give her a kiss.
He held his head while listening to the screams, wishing someone could hear them, knowing nobody could. He heard Cho’s screams and his mother’s screams smashed together like the screech of a hurricane and began to count to five.
This week’s Garage Fiction prompt was provided by me, Dogwood Daniels…
“Fires” – Photographed by Chris Cloete
Found on the Cape Town Tourism website
We kinda never asked Mr. Cloete permission to use his work, so please kindly visit his website and support him in any way you can: Chris Cloete
These weekly scenes & stories are part of an ongoing project codenamed “Garage Fiction”. Since January 2015, three writers (Nicholas Brack, Jinn Zhong, and I) have committed to writing a flash fiction or scene each and every week. We post on Fridays and dissect on Tuesdays via podcast.