It was the feeling of cool grass against her skin that pulled her back to consciousness. Her face was pressed to the ground, and she breathed in the smell of the damp earth.
Peering through the grass, Arsha could make out a dark blue sky, half covered in cloud. The sun seemed to already have dipped below the rooftops. The air was chill and a breeze gently rippled through the greenery, whispering in the branches of the trees.
She sat up and took in her surroundings. She was in a park of sorts, surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence with the paint all peeled off. She was close to a path that ran across the park, from the gateway nearby to the distant fence, shrouded in darkness. Beyond the fence she saw rows of blocky grey towers, ugly shapes that clustered over the skyline.
There was noise, a constant, distant buzz of movement, the sound of great machines of some unknown purpose, but she could not see any of it. The sounds seemed to come to her from far away. Near to, all was still, save for the breeze.
Arsha stood and tried to brush off the marks of the muddy ground and the wet grass as best she could. She looked around uneasily, but could see no clear sign of where to go. There was no sign of movement or life. Eventually she picked a direction at random and set off down the path.
Ahead she could make out some lights burning with a yellow haze in the misty air. They illuminated a rough rectangle on the ground, edged with logs and covered in a carpet of woodchips, surrounding various pieces of play equipment. The designs were slightly unusual, but she could pick out familiar shapes. Swings, a climbing frame, a merry-go-round; all rusted and old, the brightly coloured paint peeling and flaking from the metal.
The playground seemed to be empty. Cautiously, she crossed the boundary of rough hewn logs and approached the swings. The chain jingled as she nudged the seat with one knee. In the fading sound of the chiming metal she felt certain that she heard another, like someone laughing. A little girl, maybe.
Then she heard the creaking of a metal axle turning. She wheeled around to see that the merry-go-round was moving. Though there was no one pushing it, the metal frame turned faster and faster. As she watched, a shimmer in the air seemed to form around it. She could make out the shape of two figures, ghostly and translucent. A fair skinned woman with long blonde hair tied back in a pony-tail, holding onto the bars with her feet resting on the lip, leaning back as far as she could go as the wheel span. She had her head flung back, eyes bright with laughter. The other figure was sitting in the centre of the merry-go-round, holding tight to the bars, and staring up the woman in wide eyed wonder. A young girl with a pretty face framed by that same bright blonde hair.
Then the image faded, and the rusted iron wheel began to slow to a creaking halt.
“She loved the merry-go-round. That was her favourite.”
Arsha turned at the sound of her voice. Rachael was sat on one of the swings, hands clasping the chains, rocking gently back and forth. She was looking at the empty merry-go-round as if seeing something else entirely.
“Swings was good too. She’d try to push me higher and higher. Kept saying that one day I’d go all the way over the top. But she loved the merry-go-round. She’d make me hold on tight, there in the middle, and push it as fast as she could. She’d be laughing so loud and everyone would stare at her, but she just didn’t care. All the other women, they’d be sat on the benches with them disapproving looks, like… Y’know, store thingies. Mannequins.”
For a moment Arsha couldn’t think of anything to say. It was all so strange and so perfectly ordinary at once. She couldn’t escape the feeling that she was a voyeur, seeing things that she had no right to.
“Rachael… Where are we?” she said.
“This is the park, where she always took me. When I was little. She was happy then. But it got worse, the more I got worse. And Mum and Dad kept arguing, fighting. It got so bad, I’d just get out the house. They wouldn’t even notice I were gone. I’d come out here for the quiet. Late at night I could be alone, a little.”
Looking out over the empty park, Arsha thought, for a moment, that she caught a glimpse of a girl of maybe ten years, sitting alone on one of the benches. A thin jacket pulled tight around her shoulders and a sketchbook on her lap. Then it was gone.
“But he left in the end. Didn’t he?” Arsha said, quietly.
“Yeah. I remember, I actually told myself it was good. That things’d be better, with him gone. But I missed him so much. At nights I’d be lying in bed, thinking about the way he smelled when he came back in from work, all covered in oil and stuff from the garage. He’d come in late sometimes and kiss me goodnight. I couldn’t understand it, how I could miss him no matter how much I wanted to hate him.”
Arsha nodded, her mouth too dry to speak.
“But Mum… She fell apart. It wasn’t just the money, or looking after me. It was him. She hated him, and she missed him. Every day. It was…”
Rachael tailed off. Arsha noticed that the girl wasn’t looking at the playground anymore, but at something in the distance. One of the tall buildings that formed the skyline, a dark blocky shape eerily reminiscent of a tombstone.
“So then I’d come out here to be alone again. To be away from her. From that place. There were older kids that hung out round here. I started hanging out with them. They’d score ciders and forties. It wasn’t much, but I guess it didn’t take a lot to get me smashed. I liked it, because it helped me to forget about everything else. Some of the kids liked to run. They’d show me how to do flips and drops and stuff on the climbing frames. Taught me stuff about ‘parkour’ and all that. We’d get drunk and make each other do stupid dares and stuff. Sometimes, it was like things were all right.”
“Is that it?” Arsha said, looking across at the distant building. “The place where you lived?”
“McAllen Estate. It’s horrible there. Just four blocks of flats and a little square in the middle. I hated it.”
Arsha considered this for a moment, still feeling all too much like she was falling with no safety line.
“I… I think we should go there,” she said.
“I can’t go back there.”
Rachael shook her head firmly. “It’s not… I didn’t even close the door.”
“When?” Arsha said.
“Nothing. It don’t matter,” Rachael mumbled, her voice barely audible.
“Rach, you have to take me back there. I need to see.”
“No. You don’t. You think you want to, but you don’t. No one wants to see. They just look past you and pretend it’s not like it seems. Because it’s easier than knowing what really goes on around them.”
“So show me,” Arsha said, firmly. “You have to take me there. Please Rachael, you have to show me.”
“Says who?” the girl snapped back at her with a sudden fire. “I don’t have to take you nowhere. I don’t care. I don’t want you asking all these questions. I don’t want none of this.”
“Please, Rachael. You have to,” she said, hearing the desperation in her own voice.
“Why? Why should I?” Rachael shouted, leaping up from the swing to stand with her fists clenched at her side.
“Because I need to know,” Arsha said, the words catching in her throat. “Because I’m your sister and I need to know why you’re hurting like this. Because we made a promise.”
Rachael looked at her with cold, penetrating eyes. It was a vicious look, taking her measure, searching for some sign of motive. Of weakness.
“Yeah. Sure. Come on then, I’ll show you,” the girl snarled as she stalked away across the empty park.
Soon enough they moved from damp grass to tarred black roads with faded lines painted across their surfaces. Street signs clustered every corner, some twisted at odd angles or painted over with scrawled markings. Graffiti adorned almost every spare inch of wall. Here and there a withered husk of a tree or a bush grew, all showing signs of mistreatment.
At one intersection Arsha looked to the side to see a mangy looking dog wander across the road. It had a collar, but it could not have been fed properly in weeks.
They made a final turning and the cluster of tombstone buildings stood before them, four identical towers arranged in a square. As they approached Rachael’s footsteps slowed. Arsha saw that the girl’s hands were shaking. They stopped at the entrance to the courtyard at the centre of the four towers.
Everything was grey. The buildings were some sort of stone, formed seamlessly. From the centre of the courtyard she could see the tiered walkways rising up around them, lined with iron railings, the paint long since peeled. Stairs lead up on each side, all exposed to the open air. Along each walkway she saw a row of doors. Once they might have been blue, but the paint had long since faded away, or been covered by layers of graffiti.
Foul odours arose from blotchy stains on the floors and walls, some obviously recent. The freshest stains were the only thing that seemed new. Piles of shiny black bags overflowed a yellow container, their rotting contents spilling out where the black skin had split and peeled back.
“What kind of place is this?” Arsha said, looking around.
“Council flats. Hundreds like ’em, all over this city. They just sort of stamp ’em out, like machinery.”
“It’s where you live, if you ain’t got nothing else. If you ain’t lucky enough to have a good job, or good education, or whatever other bollocks it is they want from you. Right face, right clothes, all that.”
Arsha nodded. She’d seen places like this before in some of the larger cities she’d been to. Factory workers houses, built by the dozen in identical rows. Narrow, crowded buildings, sometimes holding a family on every floor, or so her dad had told her. She felt the sting of the memory, and pushed it aside.
“I hated it here,” Rachael said. “Next door was always drunk, and upstairs you could hear ’em shouting all hours. Some of the other kids were alright, but most of ’em were right horrible.”
She tailed off.
“Well it don’t matter. It’s not home now.”
Suddenly the girl turned, and began to walk away.
“Go see whatever you want to,” Rachael growled. “I’m outta here.”
As the girl swept past her, Arsha wondered if she only imagined that Rachael was holding back tears. She turned, reaching to grasp at the girl’s hand, and as she looked back the way they had come she saw something that seemed to turn her body to stone.
Where before there had been a city, stretching out into the far distance, now she saw only a wall of grey, almost like fog. Something deeply unnatural, utterly impossible. It was like staring at nothing at all. Where it met the street and the surrounding buildings there was only a ragged line, like a broken edge, as if whatever had been beyond that grey wall had simply been torn away in one swift motion.
Just ahead of her Rachael was also staring up at the endless grey wall. Where it touched touched the surface, the road was crumbling away, the fragments flying off into nothingness as if swept up by a violent wind. The buildings too were being eaten by the grey wall. Trees, street signs, all shredded into chaff, an inch at a time.
“What is it?” Rachael said, her voice trembling.
“I don’t know,” Arsha said. “But it’s getting closer.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I think it’s falling apart. This world. Rachael, you created this. Everything here, you made this when we went through the gateway. It’s the only thing that makes sense. This can’t be the real London… It doesn’t even look like this anymore. When you went through, you made this place.”
Rachael’s mouth pressed into a hard line.
“Alright smart-mouth, so where do we go now?” she growled.
“Inside, I think.” Arsha said.
“No. I ain’t going back in there. No way.”
“Rachael, we have to. It’s the only place left.”
“Why? Why do you keep… why can’t you just leave it alone?” Rachael said, her voice rising to a shriek as she rounded on Arsha angrily. “You keep asking all these stupid questions, keep pushing at stuff and it’s not right. You don’t belong here and you don’t have no right to… I never wanted to go back to any of this. I didn’t want to remember. I didn’t want to.”
Flexing her hands in agitation, Rachael began to pace in circles. She swung a vicious kick at a loose piece of stone, which sailed into the wall of empty grey, vanishing instantly.
Arsha said nothing. She just turned and began walking towards the nearest stairs.
“Hey. Where you going?” Rachael called after her.
“Inside,” Arsha said, with a sullen shrug. “Come along if you want to.”
“Hey. Hey don’t go. Don’t leave me out here,” Rachael called after her. At first, Arsha kept on walking. Then at the bottom of the stairs she turned and looked back.
Rachael was on her knees, her hands tangled in her hair, face twisted in a look of torment. The girl seemed to be frozen against the hard ground like some awful statue. Her stomach twisting, Arsha knelt down in front of the girl.
“I don’t know why you’re doing this. I didn’t want you here,” Rachael whispered, her voice hoarse.
“I think you did,” Arsha said, gently.
“Why do you keep saying that. Why do you keep acting like I planned all this. Like I ever wanted any of this?”
“I didn’t mean that. Rachael, I…”
Arsha looked down at the paving stones.
“I know you didn’t want this. I didn’t either. Fates, Rachael… When I think about what happened back there. About those people getting killed. About those men that were after you. About Dad… What he did. It’s like my heart’s going to collapse, like it’ll just crumple in on itself completely. And I can’t do anything to stop it. I’m here with you, and I’m trying to make sense of all this. And I need you. I need you to help me find a way for us to get out of here.”
Rachael looked up, just enough for Arsha to see her eyes under the tangle of her hair.
“What makes you think I want to get out of here?” the girl whispered.
For a moment, Arsha couldn’t think of anything to say.
“I mean really,” Rachael continued, “where else am I supposed to go? I tried being part of Justin’s world, but I never belonged there. I tried being part of your world, and all I did was make things worse for you. So where else am I supposed to go?”
“You know what? I don’t know. I’m just… Just some stupid little kid who’s spent her whole life hanging off her daddy’s arm. So I don’t know what comes after this. Fates, Rachael, I just found out that I’m not even human. How am I supposed to answer something like that, when I don’t even know where I belong anymore? But I’m going to find out. And you’re coming with me.”
Rachael looked up at her, eyes wide with fear. The girl didn’t say a word, but when Arsha stood and offered her hand, Rachael took it. They turned and walked together towards the stairs. Rachael lead them up to the third floor. A long row of doorways stretched out ahead of them. At the end of the row, one door stood ever so slightly ajar.
The crack was wide enough to reveal a glimpse of a filthy beige carpet and a few scattered cigarette ends. As they approached she caught a breath of foul air that slipped through.
“I can’t,” Rachael said, her voice choking off into a whimper.
Arsha said nothing. She just took her sister’s hand in her own, and with the other she pushed at the door, swinging it wide open to reveal the room beyond.
The apartment was vile. The carpet bore innumerable stains. Tiny brown and black circles dotted the fabric, each tailed by a little streak of grey ash like shooting stars. The furnishings were similarly pitted and scarred. A battered couch with threadbare cushions faced a flashing box full of colours and light and noise. A clock ticked away on a mantelpiece, next to a framed photograph with cracked glass. The photograph showed a woman and a girl. Rachael and her mother, just as they had been when she glimpsed them on the merry-go-round. There was a man with them, his blonde hair cut razor short, a smile on his face. The frame was nearly concealed by a dozen empty cans, each reeking of sour beer. More empty cans littered every surface, and more still were strewn across the floor. Layers of peeling wallpaper covered the walls. In some places the paper had been scratched or worn right through to the plaster.
The woman lay sprawled across the threadbare couch. One arm trailed to the floor, knuckles brushing the carpet. Between the fingers a cigarette had burned to a stub, leaving tiny red marks on her pale skin. The tips of her fingers were stained a dirty yellow. She wore a green sweater, one sleeve rolled up. Her arm was pitted with a thousand tiny scars, and a fresh scab seemed to have formed there just recently. Her mouth hung slightly open, yellowed teeth as uneven as the buildings outside. The lips were painted a deep crimson. Blonde hair, long and matted, sprayed out across the arm of the couch in a shower of gold.
The woman’s eyelids were open but the eyes were rolled back, showing only a ghastly white. In spite of how monstrously transformed it all was, Arsha still recognised the face of the woman in the photograph. It was older and harder, but the same shape still lurked beneath the layers of decay.
On the table lay the contents of a small cloth bag. A length of clear tubing, a metal spoon with its neck bent at a sharp angle, a tiny packet of white powder and a clear glass syringe.
She felt Rachael’s hand tighten around hers. Nails dug into her skin, and a second later Rachael was doubled over, violently expelling the contents of her stomach onto the pitted carpet. Horrified, Arsha could only stare at the scene in front of her. She could scarcely understand what had happened. She had only the vaguest sense, things half overheard, pieces that gathered together, buzzing at the back of her head like angry wasps that she desperately wished to ignore. She did not want to know, did not want to understand. Everything before her was simply too horrible, too nightmarish to be allowed to be real. She wanted to shut it out, to step back from the room, slam the door and run away from it forever.
Rachael continued to cough and retch. Arsha watched with horrified fascination as the puddle of vomit inched towards her boots.
“Rachael… Oh Fates, Rachael… What happened?” she said, as the girl drew ragged breaths.
“I did. It was all because of me. Dad never sticking around, and everything that happened after. It was me.”
Eyes swelling with tears, Arsha fell to her knees, heedless of the vile liquid that squelched into her trousers. Still holding Rachael’s hand in hers, she put her other hand to her sister’s shoulder and pulled her close, their heads resting together.
“Rachael, you can’t blame yourself for this. Not for this.”
“There’s no one else,” Rachael said, her voice cracking. For a moment Arsha could only stare at her, head swimming.
“There’s me,” she said, at last. “If this really happened just because of you, because you were different, then it wasn’t really you at all. It was me. My Fate. My fault. I’m the one to blame for everything that happened. Rachael you know it’s true. If you have to hate someone, hate me. Not yourself.”
“No. No, it can’t be your fault.”
Rachael shook her head, her eyes squeezed shut.
“Why not? You said it yourself. If this is all because of what my dad had to do to protect me, then I’m the one who should be responsible.”
“But you can’t be. It has to be me.”
“Why? Why does it have to be you? Rachael, this doesn’t make any sense.”
Rachael drew a shuddering breath.
“Because I wanted this. Because I wanted her to die. I hated her so much. For what she did. For what she was.”
Rachael looked up at her with eyes overflowing with tears.
“It was like she was hardly ever here sometimes. She’d come home, three or four in the morning. I’d hear her screaming and crying and throwing things around. She’d drink and drink and fall over on the couch. Most nights I’d wait until it was quiet… ’til I knew she’d gone to sleep. I’d come out and put a blanket on her. Try to clean up some. She pissed herself sometimes. If I could manage it, I’d leave her skirt and stuff in the tub, run some water to rinse it. But she never said thank you. Not even once. Like, it didn’t matter. She didn’t even care. Or like it was just something I was supposed to do. And then she’d bring these guys home… and they were always horrible. I just hid mostly, stayed in my room. I… I crawled under the bed with my pillows so I wouldn’t have to hear. And then she started bringing the needles home instead. And I knew what it was cos the kids at school all talked about it, talked like they all knew about her. There were stuff they called her… it made me so mad. I’d fight ’em for saying it, kick the lot of ’em in the faces. Got in so many fights. But it just made me hate her even more, because it was true. All the stuff they said about her, the names, it was all true.”
Rachael sat back on her haunches and looked up at the body on the couch.
“When I found her… I didn’t know what to do. I just… I packed a few things and walked out the door. Didn’t even close it after me. I just left her lying there. I just left her.”
There was blood on the back of Arsha’s hand where Rachael’s fingers had squeezed tight enough to break the skin. A darkly glistening red film joined the places where their hands met, the blood slowly thickening, sealing them together as it dried.
“When I found her… when I found her, I thought ‘Thank God.’ I felt… happy. Cos it was over. Cos it was…”
Tears rolled down the girl’s cheeks as the words spilled out in a wretched gasp.
“I was happy. I was happy that she was dead, because I wouldn’t have to hate her any more.”
Scarcely able to breath, Arsha pulled her sister into a tight embrace, feeling the girl’s body shudder in her arms as she gasped and sobbed. Around them the wallpaper peeled and rotted, falling away in damp chunks. The carpet withered back to the concrete floor, which slowly crumbled away. Furniture collapsed into worm-ridden piles. On the couch the woman’s body shrivelled, the skin and flesh rotting away until only bones remained, as the cloth of the couch fluttered away on a foul wind that burst in through the crumbling walls. The winds tore the ceiling away, and Arsha saw that the whole building was gone, only the room remaining, falling to pieces around them as the world collapsed into endless grey.
“Sometimes… sometimes I’d come home and find she’d left dinner out. It was just sausages or something with canned spaghetti and stuff. She’d put it all in a bowl with cling-film on. And she’d leave a glass of juice out. Like she was still trying to be a mother.” Rachael choked back a sob. “She was trying. She just… She just didn’t know how.”
Arsha pressed her sister’s body closer.
“Rachael… Rachael, I’m so sorry. Fates, I just… I wish there was something I could say. As if there was anything I could say. I just… I’m here. I’m here for you,” she whispered, lips pressed closed to her sister’s ear. In answer, Rachael shook her head and pushed her away.
“No,” she said, her voice little more than a wet gasp. “No, you have to go. It’s all coming apart. You can’t stay here, Arsh.”
“I can’t leave you here,” she said.
“Yes you can. It’s still here, the Seed. It’s still inside me. I can… I can send you back.”
“I don’t care,” Arsha said, her voice rising. “I’m not leaving without you. You’re coming back with me, Rachael.”
“I can’t,” Rachael sobbed. “Don’t you get it? I belong here. You were right. This is where I was meant to be. I tried. I tried so hard to get away. To be somewhere else. Be someone else. But it weren’t real. I kept trying to escape, but I just kept bringing myself back here. ‘Cause I deserve it. All of this. This place. This life. This fucking city. I was so stupid thinking I could ever have anything else.”
Rachael wiped a hand across her face, blinking back her tears as a trail of snot ran down her chin. Her eyes turned to the grey wall, where the motionless form on the couch had been.
“It’s not like no one’ll miss me none. And it’ll be better for you, with me gone. All I ever did was make things worse.”
Rachael turned to look at her again, a twisted portrait of a grateful smile spreading across her face.
“It’s OK,” she said. “You don’t gotta pretend you understand. You’re lucky, not understanding. Not knowing. You shouldn’t have had to…”
Rachael trailed off, the smile fading.
“You never shoulda had to see this. You never shoulda cared about me. I didn’t deserve that.”
Half choked by tears, Arsha’s voice came like a whip-crack, like something sharp and hard tearing out of her chest.
“Shut up. Shut the hell up,” she snapped, as her hands tightened around Rachael’s shoulders. “Of course I don’t understand. I can’t… I can’t even try to understand. It’s too big. It’s too awful. It’s like it won’t fit inside my head. I can’t…”
She gasped for breath, her body shaking as tears streamed down her face, the grey wall hovering at the edges of her vision.
“…I can’t ever pretend to know what it was like for you…”
Her hands moved to frame her sister’s face, tears running slick between her trembling fingers as she set her eyes on Rachael’s and did not blink.
“…But I know that I’m not leaving you. Not now, not ever. And don’t you dare tell me no one would miss you, because just thinking about losing you is worse than anything I’ve ever felt in my whole life. I don’t care what you think, I’m not leaving you behind. You’re my sister and I love you,” she gasped. “So please, please… Come home.”
Rachael looked up at her, eyes wide with fear and doubt, and just for a moment Arsha saw the briefest hint of a nod. Then everything fell away, and nothingness swallowed them completely.
Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.