Listen, you are OK. I don’t mean you’re ok, I don’t mean you’re fine or safe. You’re neither of those things. You never will be either of those things. You are OK. That’s your name. I know it’s a strange name but you’re more than used to it after sixteen years and besides everyone else here has names like that. Your father is HT and your mother is D4 and your brother, the dead one, was 7J. That’s just how things are.
Listen. That’s what the Pale Man said to you. Listen, OK. You were bathing in the lake when the Pale Men came. You are used to men watching you bathe in the lake. You are sixteen and have breasts and your face isn’t disfigured or strange. You don’t even have any scars because your father never beat you. The sky was clear and the sun was huge and pale. A dying sun. The sun is always huge and pale. There is no moon on this side of the earth. The Pale Men are huge and pale. They have no eyes and their bodies are clean of hair. Their skin is smooth and cold like a snake’s. There are four of them. There are always four of them.
The one who speaks, the Pale Man, tells you to follow him. You follow him through the forest to the cliffs. Below you is the valley and beyond the valley is the city and beyond the city is the tower. The sun hangs in the sky behind the tower so the tower looks like it’s cutting up through the sun. The sky is white.
“Listen,” says the pale man, “you need to go the tower.”
It’s not a suggestion. You know that. Your father once told you that if the Pale Men come for you they won’t suggest what they want. They’ll speak and you’ll obey.
You’re still naked but the Pale Man doesn’t care. He can’t look at you like everyone else looks at you.
“Why do I have to go there?” you ask him but he doesn’t answer.
That night you find it hard to sleep so you sit outside your parents’ tent and listen to the cicadas. A creature is howling. There are too many creatures in the valley. Eventually you fall asleep and in your dream the Pale Man is there. He has got into your dreams. You are walking through the valley with him and the creatures are watching. In the dream they only watch but you know that isn’t how they’d really act. They want to devour you. Everyone wants to devour you. You follow the Pale Man through the dead city and into the tower. You climb the tower and when you reach the top you open a door and come out onto a balcony. The sun is huge and pale. A boy is standing on the balcony. The sun turns black and the boy turns black and you wake.
Listen, now you’re awake you can pretend you have a choice. You can go back inside and get into bed with your parents and pretend that the Pale Man never suggested anything. Until he comes again. Or you can go now. You can leave like 7J did.
Listen, it’s best not to wake them. They’ll only cry. Just go, ok.
Listen, I got kicked out of school ok. I told you that already so don’t go thinking you can ask me loads of stupid questions. Stuff went bad for a while and I did one particularly terrible thing. That’s what school said anyway. School said ‘Rory you’ve done something terrible ok, we have no choice but to ask you to leave’. I didn’t cry and beg them to let me stay. I hated that school anyway. I was only there because my dad went there when he was a kid and his dad too but they’re all dead now so what does it matter. They can’t be disappointed in me or anything because they’re dead and really they can’t ever know what happened or that I let them down. It’s only the school and my mum who are disappointed but mum is in Dubai anyway. Mum is always in Dubai.
What I’m meant to do now is go home and spend the summer in the Maida Vale house but I don’t feel like being stuck in London all summer. I hate London really. I hate the tube especially but the thing I hate the most is that I might see someone from my old school and they might ask me about what I did because they’re bound to know and I won’t know what to say. What can I say anyway? Say someone, someone like Yazmina or Carter, sees me and asks me why I did it then I wouldn’t have even a half decent answer. I don’t know, I’d probably say, I just felt like burning something. Yazmina would be the most upset. We slept together twice and she thought she was pregnant but everything ended up ok. She thinks we have some connection though. She’d probably go, ‘Yeah Rory but why’d you have to burn a cat?’ She loves cats. She would’ve even loved that cat even though it was blind, red eyed and had this massive tumour lump on its back. She’d have this lovely picture of a kitten in her head and she’d shake her head and walk off probably. Even Carter wouldn’t understand that it wasn’t about the cat. He’d probably say, ‘Man, that’s messed up’ and walk off too. Even he wouldn’t understand that Mr Fino loved that cat and I hated Mr Fino so it was obvious. The cat had to go. Anyway, I can’t go back to London for other reasons that you wouldn’t have the time to hear about now so I just get on a train and go north. Go wherever. What’s weird is that I could have gone east or west or even south, gone right the way south over the Channel to France and all the way down to granddad’s place near Carcassonne even. But I go north and I get on this train and I sit in this seat and there behind the crappy pull down plastic table are the pictures. Four pictures of this girl. Four pictures with four times and dates and four locations scrawled on the back. I didn’t even think people had photographs anymore, I thought that was something only people like my dad ever did, people who didn’t realise what century they were living in. All of the photographs are of this really beautiful beyond beautiful girl with hair blacker than mine. She’s like the type of girl I’d make up, she’s that beautiful. And all the way north I stare at her and I get this feeling in the bottom of my stomach, this realisation just the same as the cat and Mr Fino, the obviousness, that I have to find her, that I have to find her and tell her how beautiful beyond beautiful she is. It’s only as my train starts to slow and a city I don’t know passes by the window that I look properly at the writing on the back of the photographs. The writing looks almost like it’s been printed, it’s precise and uniform. I look at each of the four times and dates again. I look at them about ten times just to be certain but it doesn’t make sense because none of the dates have happened yet.
You know nothing about how the world broke. You only know that it’s cold and you’re walking away from your home. One day you’ll know how the world broke but right now all you know is what everyone else knows. The broken bits of memory. The bad wars. The changing skies. The terrible rain. That there are creatures out there.
“Stay in the village,” is what your father always says.
You never listen to him.
You’re not listening to him now.
You follow the old road down out of your village. Behind you are the tents and hovels of your people. Behind you is everything you’ve ever known. The road is overgrown and after you’ve walked for a while there might as well be no road. You keep walking through trees into the forest. You can hear an owl. You know there are no creatures this close to the village but still your heart is pounding. You grip the knife harder. You hadn’t even realised you’d drawn it but there it is in your hand. You’ve killed animals before but never a creature. Could you kill one, OK?
When you reach a stream the Pale Man shows himself.
“You came,” he says.
You can feel every hair on your body. Even though you’re wearing your father’s bearpelt you are freezing cold.
“I didn’t want to,” you say.
The Pale Man smiles. He looks at the knife even though he has no eyes. You see him lower his head as if he has eyes, as if he is looking at the knife and you push it back beneath your belt.
“You came even though you didn’t want to come,” he says.
You have questions for him. So many. You want to ask them but your teeth are chattering with the cold and it’s almost like your voice is frozen.
“You want to know why you are going to the tower,” says the Pale Man.
“You want to know what we want from you there,” he says.
His skin seems blue in the gloom. The trees hide the white sun and it might almost be night. You sometimes wonder what night would be like.
You nod again.
“We want you to climb the tower,” says the Pale Man. He points north. You know the dead city is north. Your body shivers. Your lips tremble. It is the cold not fear. You are not afraid. You are not afraid.
“In the city?” you ask.
“Beyond the city,” he answers. “My brothers and I cannot go there. We want you to climb the tower and wait for us.”
“Why?” you ask. “What will I be waiting for?”
The owl hoots. Something howls far off. It might be the howl of a creature. For a moment you think that you could just turn around and go home but then you see the Pale Man. He has no eyes but you know he is looking at you, into you. He knows your thoughts. You know there is no going back. You know you have made your choice.
“We want you to climb the tower and wait, that is enough for you to know,” says the Pale Man.
The Pale Man moves closer. He towers over you. The world feels suddenly colder. Colder than it has ever been. Colder than it should ever be. His milk white hand reaches down and touches your face. It is ice. He strokes your face. His fingers move up to your hair. They stroke your hair, lift the black strands and let them drop back to your face. He moves his hand over every part of your face.
“Are all of you so beautiful?” he asks.
You don’t answer. His hand moves away. You close your eyes and the owl hoots again.
When you open your eyes he is gone. You kneel by the stream and splash the icy water onto your face. The water is nowhere near as cold as his hands.
I get off the train and I have to ask this dopey looking old woman where I am. She looks at me like I’m mad but she answers anyway.
“Liverpool,” she says.
She’s standing by these two statues, one of a pervert-looking old man and one of an old woman like how old women used to look. The dopey old woman looks sort of like the old woman statue.
I buy a sandwich and sit in the station for a bit. I can’t stop looking at the photographs. I keep looking at her, just staring at each picture for a very long time. I wasn’t this obsessed about Catherine Cormack and she was the first girl who let me finger her. But then Catherine is nothing like this girl. Catherine was pretty because she wore very short skirts and was always pouting in pictures. This girl isn’t pouting at all. She isn’t even wearing that much make up which is strange because and she was always naked on Instagram. Every girl I’ve ever been in love with wears buckets full of make-up. This girl is just smiling, like a normal every day smile. She has very blue eyes and her hair isn’t that long, sort of shoulder length. She sort of looks the same in every photograph too. She’s looking off at something else, like she doesn’t even know she’s having her picture taken. In one she’s standing on these steps just looking down past the camera. On another she’s sat in this café and in another she’s in a bookshop not even paying a bit of notice to the books or anything, just looking past the camera. To be honest the photographs, the composition of them, is a bit corny. It’s a bit like some sort of amateur model shoot from about 1974. I really would hate looking at the photographs if it wasn’t for her. I just keep going through them. Her on a train. Her in some museum. Her in a restaurant. Her by a phonebox.
I sit there for about an hour just slowly eating my sandwich and looking at her. I start to get really obsessed with who she is and then I start thinking about the dates. I sort them into chronologically order. I’m always doing stuff like that. I had my room back at school really neatly organised so I knew exactly where everything was and where everything should be. I had this bookcase but I didn’t keep books on. To be honest I can’t stand books. I kept most of my school books in this cupboard so I could keep them away and not look at them. The only books I ever liked were The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve never liked any other books and I’ve only read them both once. But I still had a bookcase. What I had on it was these very collectable toy cars my dad bought me. They were all still boxed and everything. I had them organised so that the oldest was on the top shelf and the newest on the bottom so from the top left to bottom right I had this chronological display. I was very proud of it but sometimes the other boys on my corridor would come in and mess with the order. I never used to let them know it bothered me but it did.
I get the photographs sorted pretty quickly. The first one, the one with the nearest date, is tomorrow. I look through them. They’re all dated over the next four days. I smile at that. It’s a very funny thing to do really when you think about. Leave a load of photographs of this model pretty girl on a train and write on the back these very mysterious dates but make them sort of tantalisingly within reach. It sort of makes me want to go to where the first one was taken, is going to be taken, in three days just to see what happens.
I finish my sandwich and take out the pay as you go phone I bought last week. I dial the only number I’ve got stored.
It rings seven times and then goes to answer phone.
I ring it again just in case. In fact I ring it four more times just to be really sure but no one answers. I don’t know why I think someone will. I keep telling myself it’s impossible.
I pay thirty pence to use the toilet in the station. After I piss I look at myself in the mirror. It’s weird because I wear a uniform nearly every day so when I see myself out of uniform it feels like I’m not looking at myself. It’s only when I look at myself that I realise I didn’t bring a suitcase or bag or anything with more clothes. The only clothes I have are what I’m wearing; pea coat, green The Great Gatsby t shirt, an old pair of cords that are really too long and my best brogues. I feel pretty foolish for forgetting to bring more clothes but at least I have money.
I buy two more sandwiches and a coke then I go out to the taxis. It’s raining hard and it must be late because the station is pretty much deserted and there’s only about four taxis parked up.
“Where’s the best hotel?” I ask the driver.
He turns and looks at me. He’s thinking I’m taking the piss.
“I’ve got money,” I say.
“As long as you’ve got money to pay me I don’t care where you want to go, lad,” he says in this very hard accent.
He drives me through the city but I don’t pay much attention to the place. When we get to the hotel the receptionist looks at me the same way as the taxi driver. It’s only when I get out my American Express card that she gets more helpful.
“Do you have a bar?” I ask her. She’s quite pretty in the sort of way most girls who work in hotels like this one are pretty. In a sort of type of girl who’d sleep with her boss pretty sort of way.
“We do,” she says. She looks at me trying to decide whether she should worry about my age.
“It’s ok,” I say. “I feel like a walk.”
I leave her a too big tip and go up to my room. I take the photographs out of my coat pocket and lay them out on the bed. I go to the window and open the curtains. It’s dark out and raining still so I can’t see very far. I have to peer right close up at the window to see out past my own reflection. The rain is falling viciously on the water of the docks, that’s about all I can see. I watch it rain and then I get thirsty so I go out to find somewhere that will serve me.
You are deep within the forest now. Let me tell you something about this forest. Do you see how the trees are white like lime washed bone and the leaves are crimson like blood defying gravity, like blood trying to escape skyward. This isn’t how trees used to be. I remember when trees were mostly brown, how their leaves were mostly green. Ok, there were some trees in autumn whose leaves changed to red but never so crimson, never so sparkling with moisture like the blood is fresh. And the trunks could be white but never so purely white. These trees are white like they could be no other colour. They are white and if you touched one you wouldn’t feel wood. You’d feel bone. Hard bone. Bare bone. Be careful not to touch them, OK. The trees are dangerous.
Your father told your brother that. He told 7J not to go into the forest.
“What is there here for me?” 7J said.
It was a cruel thing to say. It hurt your father very much. He cried later about that because he knew the truth of it. All your parents ever had was the tent and the two beds. Nothing else.
“There’s nothing in the forest for you,” your father told 7J.
You were a little girl then. You were naked on your mother’s knee.
“There are creatures,” pleaded your mother. “They’ll take you.”
Your mother was crying. There was a pan of stew going cold on the table. 7J had caught a fat hare that morning. The house stank of boiled hare but the stew was full of meat for a change and the fur would do for shoes for your always naked feet, your dirt blackened feet. Winter was always just a breath away and your feet were always cold.
“I’ll come back with more hares than you could ever eat,” said 7J.
You don’t know this but your father walked him to the very edge of the forest even though nothing scared your father more than the forest. Others came too. The town lords watched from a distance but there were children who didn’t know any better and they came right to the forest edge.
A little boy gave 7J a blunt knife.
“Kill a creature for us,” the boy said.
OK, when the creatures found your brother he did kill one with that knife. Pushed it right deep into the creature’s eye until he could feel the creature’s brain pushing back, the soft meat, the dumb meat. It was only one dead creature. More came. I saw them take him away up into the highlands but I didn’t see him die. OK, would it comfort you to believe that maybe he is still alive up there?
There are the highlands now. You are deep into the forest, deeper than even 7J got, but not deep enough so the bone trees are inches apart and the sky a canopy of blood. You can still make out the white sky. You can still make out the ridge of the highlands.
There is a creature on the ridge. Don’t be scared, it doesn’t smell you. It is sniffing for a mountain deer. That will do for a meal tonight. You will not be devoured tonight, OK.
Keep walking, OK. There is a long way to go. Let me tell you a story to pass the time. Let me tell why your brother had to leave.
It was your mother’s fault. You don’t know this but your mother wasn’t born in the village. She was born in the dead city before the forest started to grow. People could still pass between the dead city and the village with ease then. That’s how your parents met. Your father made what money he could by escorting travellers along the forest road and your mother was on the road one day. I know, there isn’t any road in the forest. If there was you could just follow it but instead here you are tumbling over roots, through blood drops, I mean fallen leaves. The road is there still, somewhere. Maybe it’s just a few days’ walks from here, maybe you could find it if you tried hard enough but then maybe you’d just get lost and end up back where the creatures took 7J. I remember there was a statue, one of the ancient statues. It was of a man on a horse. The man was in military uniform, the horse was rearing. The man held a sabre aloft in his right hand. Your brother’s foot might still be near that statue.
I’ve wandered. Don’t wander, OK. Keep going north.
Where was I? That’s it. It was your mother fault. She was to blame for 7J’s dreams. He would always dream, you know that. He would often tell you about his dreams.
“There’s a living city out there,” he would say.
“What’s it like?” you would ask.
“It’s like how things used to be. There are millions of people and no one is malformed. There aren’t even any creatures.”
You would laugh at that.
“Don’t be silly. There must be creatures.”
He was certain. He had seen that city time and time again. He would sometimes sleep just to see it. Your mother sowed that seed.
Before you were born on the nights your father was lake fishing, she would tell 7J about the dead city. She would tell him about her old home and her parents. She would tell him how her mother grew up in the sewers. She would tell him that your grandmother’s skin was almost green from the water the sewerfolk would drink. She would tell him about your grandfather too but everything she told him about your grandfather was a lie. Your grandfather started the lie.
“I was born in the living city,” your grandfather would tell your mother. “There are no creatures in the living city.”
Your mother never believed the bit about no creatures but she believed all the rest. She believed the parts about the clean water, the healthy air, the never dark, the safety in numbers, the so much food. She told 7J every part of it.
Why didn’t she tell you the same stories, OK?
She promised your father never to tell them to you. He could see the dreams in your brother’s eyes. He knew that the dreams were there, deep in 7J’s mind and they’d never leave him. That’s why he didn’t fight for 7J to stay. Your father always knew your brother would leave one day.
And now you’ve left, OK.
Now you’re here and the trees are closer. The sky is less. The sky is crimson. You can’t see the ridge or the creatures or the poor mountain deer. You can only hear the constant rustle of leaves. The occasional bark of a bird. A frog growling. A rat humming beneath the fallen leaves. A woodpecker hammering bone with both beaks.
Now you’re here so deep within the forest, so far from the village and your tent and your parents and you have no idea you’re being watched.
Shush now. Stay still. She’s there waiting for you. She’s from the dead city but she’s not your mother.
The truth is I have very little memory of the last six hours. Drink does that to me, especially whisky.
I know I drank about a dozen badly made Old-Fashioneds. I’m a bastard for drinks like that. I watched Mad Men once, just once, and I couldn’t get the Old-Fashioned out my head after that even though all the sex addicts and drunks in Mad Men made me sick. Every time I think of the sixties now I start coughing because all I can see are the drunks smoking, there’s smoke everywhere. I’m not saying I hate smoke it’s just I sort of hate how everyone in the 60’s sort of seems to drink all day and smoke all night and nothing else. Dad did that and look where he is now. Maybe I should blame the 60’s for what happened to dad but then he was only born in 1954 so he didn’t really ever know the 60’s. I don’t think he watched Mad Men either or drank Old-Fashioneds. He was more of a gin man. Whole bottles. No tonic. No ice. No lemon. Just gin. I can’t stand gin. Old-Fashioneds are all I ever want to drink now. I used to make them for myself in my room at school and get really drunk on them every Tuesday so I could deal with Billinger’s Latin class in the morning. It’s been a while since I got really badly wasted on them so that might explain why I’m sitting in a bus stop crying and there’s this terribly ugly prostitute staring at me, shouting across the road at me every time I look back.
My nose is bleeding. My lip is cut. My cheek bone is bruised rotten. I can still see the prostitute’s pimp or boyfriend or whoever standing over me. I can still remember that even if I’ve forgot the rest.
“Pay her,” he shouted at me.
I felt like I’d read this. I felt like it was someone else’s story. I wished to god I was making it up but it was real. Real real.
I was going to pay him even though she only gave me a hand job. I was going to pay him the whole £100 even though I knew it was way too much but when I got my wallet out and he saw how much money was in it he just started punching me. Even after he had me on the floor and I was crying he started kicking me really hard in my ribs and calling me a ‘fucking thief’.
I stole a hand job. That must be it. That must be what they both thought. They’ll probably never see that you can’t steal something you’ve over-paid for. If I went into some car showroom and said I wanted to buy their expensive Jaguar and they told me it was about £20,000 I wouldn’t be a car thief if I paid £40,000 for it would I? The police wouldn’t be chasing me. I wouldn’t have to go to court. The judge wouldn’t lean over at me and call me a ‘fucking thief’.
She’s still looking at me. I’m still crying too. Taxis go past but I don’t hail them. I just bend over and clutch my ribs because I think her boyfriend must’ve broken at least two. There’s blood coming through my Gatsby t-shirt. That annoys me. I get all brave then and look up at her, give her a really dirty look but she just laughs and then some drunk students come up to her.
When she takes one of the students into the same alley where I stole a hand job I get up and start walking. My legs won’t stop shaking. If you saw me now you’d think I was a coward, that I was terrified of her boyfriend coming to do me over again but it’s not that. It’s the drink really. I’m wasted and I want to be sick. My legs always tremble when I’m wasted.
It won’t stop raining.
I know why. You can’t have a nice clear night when there’s someone like me walking like a cripple through a city he doesn’t know. You need rain for that, really bastard non-stop rain.
I can see one of the cathedrals and I walk towards that. I stop at this bench and for a minute I think someone has left loads of suitcases all over the place only when I touch one it’s hard and cold. They’re stone. Just loads of stone suitcases for no reason. I laugh at that but my ribs hurt so I light a cigarette.
I just started smoking tonight. I can remember that. It was when I’d only had one drink. I got cocky and started chatting up these three girls. They were chubby really so I wasn’t that intimidated. One of them was fifty per cent pretty but not stunningly. Her name was Chloe.
“Do you smoke?” she asked. When she stood up her skirt rode up a little. I could see these purple knickers and I got an instant hard on so I told her that I smoked.
I didn’t cough or anything when I took my first drag. It wasn’t that bad really. Just sort of like eating wood. I sort of liked it.
I messed things up with Chloe though. I always mess things up with girls. Usually I mess things up by ditching them after sex, not texting them or emailing them constantly, but with Chloe my words did all the messing up and I didn’t even get to sleep with her.
I told her about the photographs I found. I kept going on about how beautiful the girl in the photographs was and then I started telling her about the dates and times.
“What do you mean?” she asked like she was the most stupid girl in the world. That didn’t make sense. She said she was studying medicine so she couldn’t have been that stupid. Her asking that got me angry though. Angry at her being stupid when she was going to be a doctor for one but more angry at her for not getting it.
“What do you mean, what do I mean?” I asked and it went downhill after that.
I told her that maybe the photo girl was from the future. Chloe started asking how old I was then. Some guy she seemed to know from her uni was there too and he started saying I was fourteen. I told him he looked like he should be in a home. He did sort of too. He looked sort of slow, like his eyes were too big and he had this slight under bite.
He pushed me.
“Who is this, Chloe?” he asked.
“No one,” she said and that was that.
It took me an hour to find somewhere that’s served Old Fashioneds then. The bar man hadn’t heard of them but he was ok because he googled it. He didn’t have sugar syrup so he just used sugar. I told him it was a good effort but he didn’t get better at making them even though I ordered seven more.
The drink hit me when I stepped out of the bar. Drink always hits me right in the face when I go outside. It hits me harder than the prostitute’s boyfriend hit me. It hits me and makes me do silly things.
That’s when I saw her. I thought she was just a girl waiting for a bus at first but when I realised what she really was I was all cocky and drunk. The thing is I was so cocky that after she’d given me the handjob I tried to get all lovey-dovey with her and started kissing her. I thought maybe she’d want to have sex with me but she only started shouting at me, asking me did I think she was a pervert who shagged little boys. I asked what the difference between a hand job and sex was and she started saying I was only twelve. That she had a son older than me. That I was a pervert. That’s when I told she was the pervert for giving a twelve year old a hand job even though I’m not twelve. I’m fifteen so really it was only a bit perverted of her.
I don’t know how I manage to find my hotel. One minute I’m lost and then the next I can see the docks and the river. When I get into my room I sit on the window sill and take out my phone.
I take out my phone and call the number fifteen times. On the fifteenth I tell myself he’ll answer but he doesn’t.
I lean my head against the window and start crying again. My blood smears the window. My blood mixes with condensation. I lean back and I write my name with the blood like when you’re a kid and you blow on a window to draw a smiley face. Dad used to do that. Say we were in the car going somewhere and we were at lights he’d blow on his window and write something funny like boobs or poo. He’d always do it while mum was changing the radio station or doing her make up. It was like only me and him knew about it, like it was our joke. Mum never caught him once, not even when he wrote ‘Mummy is a fatty’. She wouldn’t have got that joke. She was doing a lot of crash diets all the time but the truth is she only lost the weight when dad died. People might say that was grief but really it was because of Fernando and all the sex she was having with Fernando.
I can’t stop crying now. I want to. I’d do anything to stop crying but I can’t. I sort of crawl to the bathroom and I tell myself to be sick. I can feel the drink-sick bubbling way in my stomach but I can’t throw up for the crying. I must fall asleep like that, my head on the toilet seat, because it’s morning when I wake up. I hear this beeping and it takes a few minutes before I realise that it’s my phone, that someone is messaging me.