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Phantom

by C S Hughes about a month ago in psychological

In hell there is a lake of ice as well as fire.

He was a skinny, handsome Indian man with a goofy smile and kind eyes.

 "Now this shouldn't be an issue," he said. "I've helped people with all sorts of problems –smoking, weight loss, anxiety, depression, fear."

He held her elbow as she lowered herself into the recliner, "I also do a stage show, it is very funny. I do this bit where I get a smoker from the audience, and I say, 'You are a chicken, you are a chicken, chickens don't smoke', and in an aside to the audience while the fellow is clucking and behaving like a chicken I say, 'What can I tell you, I also get the free eggs.' Oh that always get a laugh. Now relax."

After that she sank towards blackness, then a vortex. And she woke, chest heaving, standing above the doctor, on his knees, saying, "Something red, something red.

There were three raised welts on his face. The receptionist was clawing at her arm. The doctor was saying something in a language she didn't understand, and "Don't let her back."

Outside the sun hit her, harsh, blinding. The headache came on like a lake so cold mist hung stilly above it, erasing distance, and horizon. Everything except the dizzying, unsteady ground. Tears flooded from her eyes without reason. She didn't sob.

At home she fumbled with the keys, dashed into the bedroom but the insistent ringing of the phone ceased as she reached for it. Silence. The vibration of the phone, but not the noise, seemed to persist in the air. Her forehead was damp. She stepped out of the hard pinch of shoes and crumpled on the bed.

She woke in darkness. There was a smell of damp earth, foetid, as if, after a thaw. The faintest cry, perhaps a stray cat. Or a baby crying in pain, need and exhaustion.

 Seven-thirty was a more reasonable time to wake, in the glare of a cloudless summer morning. She felt a twinge in her belly and skipped breakfast. A quick coffee and apple and pear juice in a box for the bus ride to work.

 She'd forgot her sunglasses. Why was the sun so bright? She could see the heat in clouds of exhaust fumes billowing off the road. Despite that, still the hint of cold ache behind her eyes.

 She had a cat, it went away.

 At church the preacher raved; how in olden times, "The way to God was over the ashes of the ungodly.“ And one of the marks of a witch were moles –known as ‘The Devil's Teats.’

She shuddered, imagining Satan's little imps crawling stealthily over her cooling skin, grasping at the few nubs of darker flesh she had on her shoulder, chest, side, with sharp little claws and greedily suckling.

She remembered the feel of her mother's hands, soft but firm, holding her face.

 "Who is she?" Mother would ask.

 "She's the cat's mother." she'd reply.

Then the slap. Stinging, eyes watering. Her mother wore fake nails back then, long, crimson, like talons. She still had pale traceries of scars on her cheek. She laughed then, a short gulp, at the thought of her mother's nails still growing, underground. How thick and crimson were they now?

A spectre, sunken mouthed, hollow eyed, with lank long grey hair, rose up in her mind. Something red behind it. She shuddered, shook. The memory merged with the spectre. She felt the slap again. Rank, cold.

"Remember what I told you."

She'd hide in the bathroom.

She hid in the bathroom.

Clotted blood came out her nose in clumps, like drowned spiders, legs twitching, distending as they hit the damp white porcelain of the sink. Lots of them.

She woke that night in the dark, the faint mewling again, the side of her face, tight. Sticking to the pillow. In the bathroom half her face was a mask of blood. She hadn't had a nose bleed since she was a child. Her mother's slap. She imagined the spiders. Disappeared down the sink in the underworld of drains and pipes now lurking, grown so big. But they would have died by now, anyway. And they weren't real in the first place. Nothing lived, down there. Above the frozen lake. In the hollow chambers.

It was small, mottled brown. It swung around the waiting room at mad speed, wings beating, and smashed into the glass door. It dropped to the floor, stunned, lay twitching. No one else moved. She stepped over toward the door, to open it. One dark eye watched her, flickering. The other was bloody. With the fury of panic the bird struggled, gained air and battered repeatedly against the glass, leaving a smear, then fell again. Too exhausted to escape, it lay crumpled on the floor. She picked it up. Cupped in her hands she felt its heart stop, felt the frantic life escape. She stood holding it. It seemed like ages. Someone took it out of her hands. She didn't notice who. She brushed tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand and stepped outside.

 The ringing phone was incessant. She snatched it up, "Hello?”

“Miss Carter?” There was something snide in the woman's voice,“Westbourne Women's Health Clinic. It's about your appointment on Thursday the 17th. We have to cancel…”

 “My appointment was last month. The 17th. Last month. There was a bird.”

“We won't have to cancel, then–” –then there was just harsh, insecticide clicking in her ear from the disconnected line.

 She remembered Scott's mother, but not Scott, only the thing he'd become. She was standing under the white mulberry tree, thick with fruit like pale, nascent grubs, when his mother drove in from the poppy covered hillside. Fields of pale purple flowers. They grew them, under a government licence, for the pharmaceutical industry, and some for blue poppy seeds for bakeries.

Scott’s mother wore a straw hat, a straw coloured dress, painted wooden clogs. She was brown and creased from too much labour, too much sun. She dragged the matted brown corpse of an animal by the leg out of the tray of the pick-up track, and dumped it at her feet.

“Tasmanian Devil. They're dying out – face cancer.” Emma understood she meant it as a kind of nature study, a local curiosity, but there was something primal about it, something disturbing. There was a thing, dark and wet, like a flower, like a spider, on the creature’s nose and jaw.

 Then Scott was there, tut tutting, and saying, “Mother,” but she could only remember the skeletal thing he'd become.

She saw it saying, “Mother, Emma doesn't want to see that.”

It was only two weeks later he was too exhausted to move, barely a month again, a wasted, incoherent, skeletal thing.

She couldn't carry that with her, so she left it. She wasn't there at the end, but it wasn't Scott. The though of it made her feel infected. She certainly couldn't carry its child.

But now her belly was swollen, aching. There was something inside her. Something savage. Gnawing. An ugly red spider. A dead bird. With Scott’s withered heart, and the teeth of a malignant animal. A devil.

The window was cool, blue, purity, the sun a promise of warmth. She could see herself all broken on the pavement, but the thing still inside her, feeding.

Jagged pain, claws that had been skittering, suddenly insistent. On the drum-tight skin of her distended belly, dragging welts.

She took the cold steel handle, its curve so elegant, the geometry of its blade so harsh by comparison, a hard white triangle, she saw the guts spill out glistening, something red, something yellow, something black from the belly of the animal as Scott’s mother ran a small knife down its side.

In the bathroom she grasped the towel rail for support, warm damp cloth and cold steel under her fingers. As she took a stance, adjusted her grip on the knife, turning it inwards, put her other hand to her belly, lifted, she felt a brief caress on her palm, almost tender.

She thought of tea and white hands as the blade went in. A confusion of cutting and scrabbling, her chest heaving. The white pain was a relief, the pressure dissolved. It fell out of her onto the porcelain floor tiles in a wash of blood. It was a thing, all red. Spindly tentacular arms, writhing, skittering. Glistening and bulbous. It left a trail where it crawled. Its mewling pierced some inner membrane of hearing. It slithered to the toilet, its appendages lashing, crawled up, slid over the seat.

Emma could hear it call, as she ran, stumbled, staggered, dragged to the window. She could feel the red spiders below the earth, above the lake, alive and not, their awareness, a sudden demand.

The air pricked the sweat on her face. She felt the sun for a moment.

psychological

C S Hughes

C S Hughes grew up on the edges of sea glass cities and dust red towns. He has been published online and on paper. His work tends to the lurid, and sometimes to the ludicrous, but seeks beauty in all its ecstasy and artifice.

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