Something Very Creepy For Hallowe’en
I had a complaint from a reader about the following story, which appeared in the e-collection ‘Frightening’. She said it had kept her awake at night. I said that was the point of writing it. Happy Hallowe’en!
The dingy Edwardian pub was called The Grand Duke, but there was nothing grand about the place now. Its windows were covered in peeling gig posters, but half of the bands advertised had since split up, so that only their flyers survived.
Inside, the pockmarked walls and jaundiced ceiling had absorbed a century of cigarette smoke and spilled beer. Bands occupied a rickety stage at the rear of the old saloon bar.
The Duke no longer attracted the music stars of the future. Instead it hosted the bands of the past, those singers who had been granted a brief moment of fame, only blow their main chance.
Onstage, a shaven-headed DJ in a ragged death metal shirt was selling raffle tickets from a blue plastic bucket. Sasha Field made her way through knots of students to the bar, where her new best friend Tamara was buying drinks. At sixteen she was a full year older than Sasha, and was allowed to buy alcohol at the licenseeâ€™s discretion, and as he didnâ€™t care she was loading up on another round of Red Bull vodka shots and lager chasers. Both girls went to the same school, and both had parents who would have been horrified to see where they were now. But that was the point; neither Sasha or Tamara wanted to do anything their parents wanted them to do.
They were here to see a band called Drexelle & The Iconics. Sasha had been raving about them, particularly the lead singer, but she hadnâ€™t stopped complaining since they arrived. The poster had used the wrong typeface for the bandâ€™s name, they had put the singer above the lead guitarist when everyone knew it was Riley who was the real driving force, it was too hot, too crowded to see the stage properly. Tamara was beginning to wish she hadnâ€™t come along. And the place was seriously skanky. How good could a band be if it was willing to perform in a venue like this?
â€˜Letâ€™s get closer,â€™ said Sasha, accepting her drinks and pushing forward. â€˜We can get to the front.â€™
â€˜Itâ€™s fine back here, weâ€™ll only get shoved around if we go further.â€™ Too late. Sasha was already on the move and all she could do was follow.
â€˜Where did you get the money for those?â€™ Tamara asked, looking at the yards of pink raffle tickets hanging from Sashaâ€™s fist.
â€˜Karenâ€™s purse,â€™ Sasha replied, stuffing the tickets into her jacket. â€˜She gives me anything I want. Itâ€™s so easy to handle her. All I have to do is say stuff like how much I miss my real mother and sheâ€™s like, buy yourself something pretty. A total pushover.â€™
â€˜I wish my parents were divorced. Instead they stay out of each otherâ€™s way. Just as well, really. The thought of them touching each other makes me physically ill.â€™
â€˜Karen will get fed up with him eventually. Sheâ€™ll see what a sad old man heâ€™s become.â€™
â€˜Donâ€™t you ever hear from your real mum?â€™ Tamara knew her friend was touchy about the subject, but had been wanting to ask for ages.
â€˜She texts me all the time. Sheâ€™s just been really, really busy lately. Iâ€™m going to stay with her in the summer. She has a big house in Devon.â€™
Tamara sensed it was probably best to leave it there. â€˜Whatâ€™s the big deal with this band?â€™
â€˜I keep trying to tell you but you donâ€™t listen. Youâ€™ll see when the lead guitarist comes out. Itâ€™s all about him. He formed the band, he writes all the songs. Drexelleâ€™s just a crappy one-octave singer who does what sheâ€™s told.â€™ Sasha downed the vodka shot and chugged some of the lager. Her face looked flushed and feverish in the lights of the stage. Tamara made a mental note to give her some cosmetic tips. In an effort to appear older, Sasha had plastered her face until it had a strange doll-like quality. Not so hot for fifteen, she decided. Why has she slathered her makeup on like that?
The band members filed onstage to unenthusiastic applause, took their positions and launched into their set without stopping to acknowledge the audience. Riley looked so skinny and craggy that he barely matched Sashaâ€™s memory of him. Drexelle had the wasted facial features of a seasoned heroin user. Sasha had been shown pictures of drug abuse at school. She had always known that Drexelle would ruin her lead singerâ€™s chances of success. The bitch was jealous of his talent. As soon as Riley started singing, Sasha lost herself in his molten silver voice and knew that she still loved him. When he sang, she was ten again.
The band played four songs in quick succession, and when they finished Tamara noticed that tears streaked her friendâ€™s face. Sasha was the only one there who knew all the lyrics. At the end of the set the applause stopped before the band managed to file offstage. The DJ pushed back on and made the announcements for next Saturdayâ€™s show before drawing the raffle. He could have been reading out his shopping list.
â€˜What do you win?â€™ Tamara asked, trying to see if there were prizes on the stage.
â€˜Tickets for concerts, but I donâ€™t want them,â€™ said Sasha, the spots from the threadbare lighting rig shining in her eyes.Â â€˜One of the prizes is that you get to go backstage. It always is. That means you get to meet Riley. Hardly anyone else bought tickets and I bought loads.â€™
â€˜Wow.â€™ Tamara couldnâ€™t keep the sarcasm from her voice. How cheap was that? Riley had looked as if he didnâ€™t know where he was. Drugs and rock â€“ it was all just so predictable. â€˜So you donâ€™t win, like, a bottle of vodka or anything?â€™ She couldnâ€™t see the point of wanting to spend any more time in the presence of the band than was strictly necessary.
â€˜What are you talking about?â€™ Sasha shouted back. â€˜Itâ€™s the best prize you could ever want. Heâ€™ll go it alone after this and become one of the biggest stars in the world, he has to, and this is a chance to meet him now, before it finally happens for him.â€™
â€˜I think Iâ€™d prefer the vodka,â€™ said Tamara.
Sasha sat on a beer keg in the freezing brick corridor outside the dressing room, waiting to be summoned. The winning ticket had been held so long in her hand that it had become pulpy with sweat. She felt the heat of the alcohol she had consumed reddening her face, and tried to see herself in the smeary broken mirror on the wall above her head. The dressing room had originally been the pubâ€™s outside toilet, but the landlord had covered its roof and turned the side alley into a passage.
After twenty long minutes the door opened and Riley swung out. He had changed into tight black leather jeans and a brown, loosely woven sweater with holes in, and had slicked back his bleached hair. He smelled sharply of sweat, cigarettes and alcohol. â€˜You the girl that won the raffle then?â€™ he asked.
She nodded, unable to speak. The words she had prepared dried in her mouth.
â€˜Iâ€™ve seen you before, havenâ€™t I. I never forget a face.â€™ He was clearly trying to think, but his eyes looked unfocussed and dimmed.
â€˜I was outside MTV for your first-ever live TV performance. Iâ€™m – â€™
â€˜Donâ€™t say youâ€™re my biggest fan, like some kind of bunny-boiler.â€™
â€˜What do you mean?
â€˜An old movie, forget it. Drexelle doesnâ€™t like it when girls hang around the band. Sheâ€™s not very good at dealing with fans. She thinks theyâ€™re rivals.â€™
â€˜Thatâ€™s okay, I came to see you, not her.â€™
He tapped long fingers against his bony white throat. â€˜You really did?â€™
â€˜Of course. Youâ€™re the talent. She just plays what you write.â€™
â€˜You like my writing?â€™ He leaned back against the wall and folded his arms, studying her afresh.
â€˜I know every song youâ€™ve ever written.â€™
â€˜Even the bad ones?â€™
â€˜There arenâ€™t any bad ones.â€™
He laughed in surprise. â€˜Youâ€™re probably the only person who thinks that. Even Drexelle canâ€™t remember all the lyrics to my songs. Not any more. Is that it?â€™ He seemed to be looking for the key to her.
â€˜You want to be a singer?â€™
â€˜No,â€™ she said quietly, looking down at her shoes. â€˜Iâ€™m not good enough for anything like that.â€™
â€˜Then what is it you want?â€™ he asked, a smile forming. â€˜What is it you want most of all?â€™ He reached across and picked up her hand. Her fingers looked absurdly small in his calloused palm, as if they belonged to a doll. â€˜Why are you here?â€™
â€˜I wanted to meet you,â€™ she said simply.
She followed him down the corridor to a strange red-flock wallpapered room behind the stage. Once it had been part of the public bar, but now it was used to store canned drinks and cartons of snacks. He found some glasses and poured her a warm vodka and coke, then pulled the dust-cloth off an old sofa. They sank into the damp cushions beside each other and talked. Riley seemed so different offstage, so intense and connected to what she was saying, even though it was obvious that heâ€™d been drinking. He wanted to know all about her.
â€˜My life sucks,â€™ she told him, dropping her head back onto the split sofa cushions.
Riley leaned forward and studied her, placing his arm along the back of the sofa. â€˜How old are you?â€™
â€˜Sixteen,â€™ she lied. â€˜Nearly seventeen. Iâ€™ve always been small for my age.â€™
â€˜Are you still at school?â€™
â€˜Just for a little longer. Iâ€™ll be leaving soon. I may not go to uni actually, I may want to start earning so I can move out and get a flat in town.â€™ It wasnâ€™t quite a falsehood; she hadnâ€™t discussed it with her father yet. Talking to Riley seemed to help crystallize her thoughts. â€˜When did you leave school?â€™
â€˜Me?â€™ He looked shocked by the question. â€˜Jesus, years ago. When we got our first TV break I really thought we were on our way. Turns out we werenâ€™t. We only got those chances because Tinaâ€™s father paid for the demos.â€™
â€˜You mean Drexelle?â€™
â€˜Tinaâ€™s her real name.â€™
â€˜I didnâ€™t know that.â€™ Sasha was amazed. She thought she knew everything. It was all becoming clear. That was why Riley had kept her in the band. He had no choice; her father was picking up the bills. He didnâ€™t love her, he just needed her there to keep his career chances alive. Sashaâ€™s heart lifted. She turned and found him staring into her eyes with an intensity that was almost comical.
Without any further thought she raised her face and kissed him. And to her amazement, he kissed her back with a hard, probing tongue that parted her lips and slipped deep inside her mouth.
Sasha told herself she would not cry.
Tamara had gone home without her, leaving her to claim her prize. Now she wished her friend was here to help, but there was no-one she could turn to. She limped out of the filthy alley at the side of the pub and tried to pull her hooded jacket back together, but the zip was broken.
Her jeans were buttoned wrongly and the fly was wet with blood. The heel of her left boot had split, and the top of her thigh was so sore she could barely walk. Now that the booze-blast was wearing off, her head was burning. She had dropped her Hello Kitty purse somewhere, but did not want to go back and look for it.
She tried to understand how it had all gone so wrong, but could not even pinpoint the moment when she had lost the initiative. She had gone from encouraging him to slowing him down, gently resisting, then fighting him off, all in a matter of seconds. It was only when she had looked into his drugged, uncomprehending eyes that she realized the gravity of her situation.
She hobbled around to the front of the building hoping to find the landlord, but the pub was locked up and the lights were off inside. She realized that he probably knew what was going on, and didnâ€™t care. That was why the back room had not been locked; the band members were allowed unlimited use of it.
Tamara had asked why the raffle hadnâ€™t offered bottles of vodka as prizes. Why should they give away alcohol when the tickets could just as easily be used to deliver girls to the bands? She felt dirty and ashamed, disgusted with her own stupidity. Anyone looking at her now would be able to see exactly what had happened. It was as if she had been branded.
She had allowed a burned-out junkie to force sex on her, lying on a filthy couch in the back of a pub. No – not allowed – but she could have fought back harder instead of just begging him to stop. She had lost the most precious thing she owned and had ruined everything.
She could go back and accuse him. She could go to the police and tell them what he had done. But she was underage and they would want to know where she lived, and then they would insist on talking to her father. Nobody would understand what it had been like.
Even Tamara would not speak to her after this. No matter what she told people, it would be her word against his. She had beaten the raffle by buying most of the tickets and had chosen to go backstage â€“ even Tamara would be forced to admit that. She had been seen hanging around outside his dressing room door.
She knew it would be obvious to others that she had been drinking. To accuse him publicly would be to expose herself to an entirely different adult world, one that she would not be able to control.
Although she had dropped her purse, she still had her Oyster card in her jacket pocket and could catch the tube home, but it was brightly lit down there and she felt sure that the other passengers would stare at her in disgust.
She didnâ€™t think of the obvious word for what had just happened. It didnâ€™t seem entirely applicable. It wasnâ€™t as if he had jumped out on her in the park with a knife in his hand. In her mind, the line that had been crossed was scuffed and blurred. She was afraid that something had been irrevocably altered inside her. It wasnâ€™t just her fantasy that had been destroyed.
It was still raining hard outside, but for once she was glad. The obscuring downpour could cloak her guilt and hide her from others. She limped through the backstreets in tears, and even though she knew that it was too far to walk, nothing on earth could make her face the accusing looks in the underground.
Eventually she was forced to catch a night bus. She walked quickly past the other passengers with her eyes fixed on the floor, then slouched down on the furthest back seat. Her MP3 player â€“ another gift from Karen – had been in her purse. She wished she had it now, so she could listen to music and shut her eyes and pretend she was somewhere else.
She returned to find the house in darkness. A note in the kitchen explained that her father had taken Karen out for dinner.
Sasha sat in her room and studied herself in her pink bedroom mirror, trying to gauge the extent of the damage. Her private parts felt raw and bruised, but apart from a thin scratch on the inside of her right thigh and a number of faint blue-grey bruises where his fingers had dug in hard, there were no other outward signs of coercion.
She threw away her torn jeans and pants, knotting them in a binbag, then ran a bath. Keeping the water as hot as she dared, she scrubbed at her body until her skin was red and tender. After drying herself, she put on the quilted pink dressing gown her mother had bought her and dug her old teddy bears out from the back of the cupboard. They smelled faintly of chocolate and childhood, so she arranged them along her pillows. Then she climbed into bed and swallowed a Temazepam stolen from Karenâ€™s bathroom cabinet. She fell asleep with â€˜Beauty And The Beastâ€™ still playing on her computer. She resolved not to cry anymore; crying was for the blameless.
As she sank into unconsciousness, she tried to bury the terrifying thought that he had used no contraception and had come inside her.
â€˜What was it all for?â€™
Her father rose from his desk and walked to the windows. He could not let his daughter see his face, because he was close to tears. â€˜Tell me, what was it all for?â€™
â€˜All what, Dad? What are you talking about?â€™
â€˜The private education, the extra tuition, all the effort your mother and I put in to give you a good moral grounding in life.â€™
Sasha thought this was a bit rich coming from a man who had an affair behind his wifeâ€™s back and then asked for a divorce when she announced she was willing to forgive him. She studied his shoulders, knowing that he couldnâ€™t bring himself to look in her eyes.
â€˜I thought they gave you sex education classes precisely to stop this sort of thing from happening.â€™
â€˜I go to a convent school, Dad. The teachersâ€™ idea of sex education is to warn you not to have impure thoughts. They donâ€™t understand. Sister Prudence says that modesty and reticence are guardians of chastity. Sheâ€™s always going on about hygiene.â€™
â€˜Youâ€™re just a little girl. The only reason your mother and I put you in that school was to ensure you got the right grades for university. Christ, it wasnâ€™t about religion.â€™
â€˜But thatâ€™s what they drum into you, all day every day.â€™
â€˜You didnâ€™t have to pay any attention to that part. All you had to do was concentrate on your studies and be sensible around the mature boys.â€™
â€˜Well Iâ€™m not likely to meet any there, am I?â€™
He swung around to face her, and now she could see the fury in his eyes. â€˜You went out looking for a boy, did you?â€™
â€˜No, of course not. I didnâ€™t want this to happen.â€™
â€˜Then you should have listened to the sisters.â€™
â€˜Listen to them? You listen to them.â€™ She pulled the pamphlet from her satchel and read. â€˜For the Catholic girl there can be no impurity, no premarital sex, no fornication, no adultery. She must remain chaste, repelling lustful desires and temptations, self-abuse and indecent entertainment.â€™
Harry waved the words aside. â€˜I donâ€™t want to hear anymore of this.â€™
â€˜Neither did I, Dad. The follower of Our Lady must be pure in words and actions even in the midst of corruption.Thereâ€™s no practical advice. It doesnâ€™t tell you there are boys out there youâ€™ll lie to your face and try to get you drunk just so they can â€“ â€˜
â€˜Youâ€™re not a complete idiot, Sasha, youâ€™re supposed to know that. Itâ€™s just plain bloody common sense.â€™
â€˜Common sense? He pushed himself on me â€“ â€˜
â€˜ â€“ and you did nothing to stop him.â€™
â€˜I tried to talk to him, but wouldnâ€™t listen.â€™
â€˜I donâ€™t understand why you didnâ€™t tell me earlier.â€™
â€˜I was scared. I saw the nurse and she said she would contact you, so I had to talk to you first.â€™
â€˜Well, thank God youâ€™re still under fourteen weeks.â€™ He was uncomfortable and wanted it to be over. â€˜Iâ€™ll arrange for you to enter a private clinic and no-one else need know. I can tell the school youâ€™ve got flu. But before that youâ€™re going to tell me who did this to you. Youâ€™re not leaving this room until I get his name and address.â€™
â€˜I canâ€™t tell you that,â€™ said Sasha. â€˜I hate what he did to me but I canâ€™t ruin his life. Itâ€™s his baby as well.â€™
â€˜What the hell are you talking about? You were raped, Sasha, he forced you to have sex with him against your will â€“ â€˜
There it was, that disgusting word. It made her feel diseased, marked on the outside so that all the world could see. She needed to reduce its stigma. â€˜It wasnâ€™t entirely against my will,â€™ she said carefully. â€˜I started out wanting him to, but he wouldnâ€™t stop. Look, Iâ€™ll find him, and Iâ€™ll find out if he wants us to keep the baby.â€™
Harry threw his arms wide. â€˜I canâ€™t believe Iâ€™m hearing this. Are you out of your mind? He doesnâ€™t want to marry you, he doesnâ€™t want anything to do with you, otherwise he wouldnâ€™t have done what he did. You think he has any respect for you at all? What, did he think now was a good time to start a family? You were just some silly schoolgirl he picked up and dumped, just like those tarts over in the council flats, the ones whoâ€™ve collected half a dozen kids from different fathers by the time theyâ€™re twenty five. Youâ€™re no better than them.â€™
â€˜Is that what you think?â€™ she asked quietly.
He looked into her eyes and relented. A moment later he had come to her side and was holding her in his arms. â€˜Youâ€™re my daughter, Sasha. Youâ€™re my little girl. We have to sort this out. You canâ€™t protect him. Donâ€™t you see, heâ€™s shown he has no respect for you. What he did to you was illegal. Itâ€™s something no man can do to a girl without her permission. Please, let me help you. We can solve the problem together. Promise me youâ€™ll think it over tonight, and we can talk again in the morning. Iâ€™ll make the necessary arrangements.â€™
She nodded. â€˜All right.â€™ It was better to agree when her father was like this. Lying was a survival technique. â€˜What are you going to say to Karen?â€™ She could imagine her stepmotherâ€™s first reaction. She had gone to the mall to have her nails painted. Hardly a day passed when she wasnâ€™t undergoing refurbishment.
â€˜Iâ€™m not going to tell her anything, and neither are you. God, that would be the last thing she needs to hear.â€™
â€˜Why canâ€™t I talk to her?â€™
â€˜She mustnâ€™t know about this. It was difficult enough when she found out I had a daughter. I canâ€™t turn around and tell her that sheâ€™s about to become a step-grandmother.â€™
â€˜Is that all you care about? What she thinks? Are you going to tell my real mother? No, of course not, because that would mean speaking to her, and youâ€™re too ashamed of yourself to do that.â€™
Sasha was angry with herself for losing her temper. It made her vulnerable. She rose and walked unsteadily to the door, praying that her shaking legs would support her until she was outside.
What We Mean By â€˜Terminationâ€™. Sasha re-read the pamphlet with growing horror. There was a full description of the process, illustrated with diagrams of a blankly smiling girl with her legs in stirrups. Despite all the assurances that the procedure was painless, it looked barbaric. She checked the number on her ticket. 38. They were only up to 14. It was all she could do to stop herself running from the room.
The young woman who had leaned over to talk to her was smiling pleasantly. She looked exactly like her favourite aunt, who had died at such a tragically early age.
â€˜You shouldnâ€™t look at that,â€™ she said, indicating the pamphlet. â€˜It will only upset you.â€™
â€˜Itâ€™s awful,â€™ Sasha agreed. The bland pictograms lightened the horror of the situation and only made her think about it more. The idea of cold metal being inserted inside her to kill something, it was like a bayonet slicing into a babyâ€™s soft skull, something a Russian soldier might have done to a pregnant woman during the war.
â€˜I know, itâ€™s terrible what they do to the little babies. They feel everything, you know. Theyâ€™re torn out and thrown into the bin, and they feel it all. They take a long time to die.â€™
She had a soft American Mid-western accent. Sasha snuck a look at the woman. She was fortyish, dressed in a black sweater and waistcoat, in very wide-beamed Guess jeans. Her shiny moisturised face was free of makeup, and her faded blonde hair was tied back to reveal hoop earrings, not real gold. She looked broke.
â€˜I canâ€™t keep it,â€™ Sasha said, lowering her voice. â€˜Iâ€™m at school.â€™
â€˜But can you really do this?â€™ The woman examined her with unnervingly intense eyes. She stared at Sashaâ€™s stomach as if X-raying the unborn child.
â€˜I donâ€™t have a choice.â€™ Sasha folded up the page decisively.
â€˜But you see, you do,â€™ said the woman. â€˜There is another way. One that will take away the little life inside you gently, without any pain.â€™
â€˜How is that possible?â€™ asked Sasha.
â€˜My nameâ€™s Martitia,â€™ said the woman. â€˜Your number wonâ€™t be called for half an hour at least. I know this place. Letâ€™s go and get a coffee.â€™
The room was overheated, the furnishings as nondescript and battered as those in any other low-rent business hotel near the railway terminus. It was the kind of place where you checked yourself in with a credit card and were issued with a pass key without having to see another human being. Where you might die in the night without anyone noticing.
â€˜Make yourself comfortable, love,â€™ said Martitia, opening her nylon backpack. â€˜The fifty pounds is just to cover my expenses. I donâ€™t make any money out of this.â€™
â€˜Then why do you do it?â€™ Sasha asked.
â€˜Doctors use drugs and scalpels to conduct an operation that deserves to be more natural and sympathetic to the mother. Iâ€™m from a long line of healers who use more spiritual methods. Wouldnâ€™t you prefer that?â€™
â€˜Yes, but â€“ â€˜
Martitia turned to study her with unnerving clear eyes. â€˜The decision has to be yours, of course. But isnâ€™t that what you want?â€™
â€˜I wish I could â€“ â€˜
â€˜You canâ€™t keep the baby if you canâ€™t look after it. Iâ€™m sorry to be so blunt, but I want whatâ€™s best for all you girls. I know the options must seem so black and white to you, to terminate or to keep, but there is another way.â€™ The eyes had softened now, misting with her own private grief. â€˜Thatâ€™s why women like me do what we can to help take away your confusion and pain. Itâ€™s about whatâ€™s best for you. I imagine youâ€™ve had enough of people accusing you or telling you that what you did was wrong. Now you need a more practical solution.â€™
â€˜What do I have to do?â€™ asked Sasha.
The process was old and not without its risks. It had been passed down among the womenfolk from one generation to another. Martitia told her to sit back and relax, but Sasha was nervous, and in the back of her mind there was a suspicion that she had made the wrong decision in coming here.
â€˜If it helps, you can think of this as an ancient homeopathic remedy,â€™ said Martitia, sterilising a needle in spirit. â€˜I need your blood and urine, just tiny amounts of each.â€™ Inserting the needle in the crook of Sashaâ€™s arm, she withdrew a small vial and emptied it into a plastic beaker, to which she added something pungent from a white paper packet, and a brown liquid. The combining process took just a few minutes. When she had finished, she asked the girl to remove her jeans and pants.
Martitia sang softly to herself as she donned a pair of plastic gloves with practised ease. It sounded like a folk tune, dirge-like and vaguely annoying, the sort of thing old people hummed as they pottered around their flats. â€˜Now, I have to feel inside you, just as far as your unborn babyâ€™s head. It wonâ€™t hurt, but you may feel some discomfort.â€™
â€˜Are you sure that â€“ â€˜
â€˜You mustnâ€™t worry about anything. Why donâ€™t you just lay your head back on that cushion and close your eyes for a few minutes? I need to put some lubricant on, and it will feel cold. Try to think of something nice. Think of a time before all this happened, when you didnâ€™t have anything to worry about.â€™
Sasha tried to relax but she could feel the chill, slippery wetness, the alien hand between her thighs. She thought of her mother, and of Riley singing on the player in her bedroom when she was ten. She thought of innocence and the sheer simple pleasure of not knowing. There was a brown stain on the ceiling, beer or a burst pipe. Martitia was humming again. The sound seemed to pass through her, washing away her apprehensions.
â€˜There, how are you feeling?â€™
She awoke with a start. Martitia had removed her gloves and was washing her hands in the bathroom basin next door. She raised herself and pulled up her pants, still a little sticky. â€˜All right, I think.â€™
â€˜Well done. Thatâ€™s all for today.â€™
â€˜What do you mean?â€™
â€˜There are two more treatments, exactly the same as the first. It has to be done over three days.â€™
â€˜You didnâ€™t mention â€“ â€˜
â€˜Well, I didnâ€™t want to alarm you.â€™ Martitia came back into the room, drying her hands. â€˜Just come back at the same time, and now that you know the procedure I imagine weâ€™ll be through in about twenty minutes.â€™ She went to the desk and wrote out her number. â€˜Here you are, hang onto this. Call me if you need to move the appointment slightly, but itâ€™s important that you try to make it roughly the same time each day.â€™
â€˜What happens at the end?â€™ Sasha asked.
â€˜At first, nothing. You wonâ€™t feel any different. Then after about ten days you may feel a slight change â€“ nothing very strong, just enough to make you want to go to the bathroom. Youâ€™ll pass the â€“ what would have been the baby. Thatâ€™s all. The very same afternoon, you could go swimming or play a game of tennis, although you probably wonâ€™t feel like it. Every process we undergo takes something from us, but weâ€™re strong, our bodies can handle a surprising number of changes.â€™
Martitia could not have been kinder or more solicitous, but there was something about her â€“ the way she fiddled with her neck-chain, the occasional piercing stare – that bothered Sasha. Stepping back into the street she drew a lungful of cold air and felt suddenly safer in the uncaring crowds.
Back at the house she avoided her father and Karen, who were arguing in a distant, weary manner about a weekend to be spent with Karenâ€™s family near the coast. She lay on her bed thinking about the baby, its tiny head anointed with â€“ what, exactly? Some kind of ancient remedy that would send it to sleep forever, although she only had Martitiaâ€™s word for that.
The TV was on with the sound down, some inane grimacing comedians and a singer with too much makeup. Riley could have been given his own spot on TV instead of this rubbish, but the programme makers were as stupid as their audiences. They had no imagination. If Riley hadnâ€™t been misled into drugs by Drexelle he would have become famous. He would have kept his beautiful innocence.
And then she realised; the baby was half his, which meant it was likely to be like him, and if she kept it the baby might grow up with a talent far greater and purer than its fatherâ€™s.
Once planted, the thought grew. Other young girls found ways to keep their babies, didnâ€™t they? What if she didnâ€™t go back to that awful hotel room? She had not give Martitia any way of contacting her. The woman had been completely trusting. She hadnâ€™t even been paid yet. And what had she been doing anyway, wandering around the vast waiting room of a hospital drumming up business for her home remedies? She had just wandered in from the street, on the con or simply mad, or perhaps some kind of creepy paedo-lesbian getting her kicks from young girls. And an American â€“ werenâ€™t they all religious crazies hellbent on stopping abortions?
Three days of treatments. If she didnâ€™t go back it couldnâ€™t work, otherwise why would the woman have kept pointing out the importance of returning?
Sasha told herself she would decide in the morning, but she had already made up her mind. She would not go back.
The next morning she folded up the slip with Martitiaâ€™s number and tucked it under her computer. Then she went back to school as if nothing had happened.
Over the next few days she evolved the plan. She would lie to her father and say she had taken care of the problem. Karen would never need to be told of what had transpired. And when her jeans no longer buttoned up and the baby started to show, she would run away to her motherâ€™s house in Devon, where no-one would bother looking for her. She would call her mother soon, but not just yet. The time had to be right.
She tried to pretend that her meeting with Martitia had never happened, that she had not been persuaded to accompanied her to a station Travelodge so that the crazy woman could fake some mumbo-jumbo in order to feel her up.
The passing days made her nervous, but when her period failed to reappear she relaxed, knowing that her baby was alive. On a rainy Saturday morning her father drove out with Karen, and Sasha sat in her bedroom downloading pictures of Riley. She printed them out and matched them with photographs of babies, trying to imagine what hers would look like. Would it have his incredible eyes? She thought of him how he had been when he was still innocent, not about the corrupted thing he had become. She decided she had finally made a good match with the photographs when her mobile rang.
â€˜Sasha, I have to talk to you.â€™
She recognised the voice immediately, and almost hung up.
â€˜Please, it took me a long while to find this number. I wouldnâ€™t have called, but we had an agreement.â€™
â€˜Iâ€™m sorry, Iâ€™ll pay you the money I owe you.â€™
â€˜Itâ€™s not about the money, Sasha. Why didnâ€™t you come back for the rest of the treatment?â€™
â€˜I changed my mind.â€™
â€˜But we started the process. I warned you there were risks.â€™
â€˜Iâ€™m fine. Iâ€™m well. Iâ€™m going to keep my baby.â€™
â€˜You donâ€™t understand. The process isnâ€™t reversible. I explained this to you. Your baby isnâ€™t the same anymore.â€™
â€˜What do you mean?â€™
â€˜Itâ€™s not really fully alive.â€™
â€˜Thatâ€™s not true. You just want me to come back.â€™
â€˜I want whatâ€™s best for you.â€™
â€˜You donâ€™t even know me!â€™ Sasha cut the call and threw the phone onto her bed. It rang again, and she let it go to voicemail.
Her Father was spending more time with Karenâ€™s family at the coast. Since his daughterâ€™s loss of innocence, he was less inclined to spend his evenings with her. She was no longer the little girl he had loved so much. The couple went to Scotland for a week, leaving Sasha alone with the housekeeper, and he had barely bothered to say goodbye.
She wandered about the place looking for something to do. Tamara no longer spoke to her. Although the pregnancy didnâ€™t show, it was as if the change transmitted itself to other people, separating her from them. She felt different too; she had experienced something they had not, and it had matured her.
She was about to make coffee and watch a DVD when a sudden spear of pain cut across her groin.
It came in hot sharp stabs about fifteen to twenty seconds apart. As each attack subsided, it left behind an ache that felt like food poisoning. She made her way to the kitchen and filled a rubber water bottle from the hot tap, pressing it against her lower abdomen, then lay down on her bed. The pain remained at the same level of intensity, each burst dropping back to a cruel, persistent gnawing. Finally unable to stand it any longer, she went to the bathroom and ran the tap until the water was nearly scalding.
She wanted to lower herself into it but was too frightened to do so, and besides, while the heat might deaden her pain it could also harm the baby. Placing her hands over where she felt the new life to be, she was certain she sense feel something tiny shifting about, twitching and nipping, pulling at its life-cord. But whatever was inside her had altered somehow. It felt upset and anxious, but surely it was too small to experience such feelings?
She took two sleeping pills from Karenâ€™s beside table and washed them down with cola. Then she undressed and fell asleep on her bed, hugging her old Edward Bear. It was a little after ten oâ€™clock.
Her dreams were storm-tossed, crimson and violent, not scary but merely disorienting, strange and sad. She seemed to be tilting about on a raft in a hot red sea.
Then she awoke to find the bed steaming with her blood.
It had just turned midnight. The room lamps did not work. The street lights made the blood look black, and when she gingerly lowered her hands between her legs she knew the baby was gone. Using the light from her cellphone she searched through the bloody covers, sure it had somehow chewed through its cord and freed itself, but there was no sign of it.
She saw the trail, though. It led from the bed to the chest of drawers, smeary little prints on the cream carpet, first on all fours and then in tiny pairs, as if it had already learned to walk.
A wave of weakness overcame her, but as soon as she felt strong enough she pulled the dresser out and searched behind it. She found it in the corner, black and shiny with dried blood, an upright foetus with a bulbous delicate head and tadpole eyes, a mouth that would have been comical, so wide and gummy, but it just looked unfinished and unready to be born. She had arrested its development but the magic had allowed it to live on.
The baby was making a noise. It sounded like the folk-song Martitia hummed in the hotel room, but now some of the notes were wrong, and the melody was menacing. She found herself thinking This is absurd, itâ€™s so tiny, what possible harm can it do? But when it suddenly pulled itself away from the wall and took a faltering step toward her she found herself backing toward the door.
It hissed now, a startling high-pitched noise that resounded inside her head. What scared her most was not knowing what it wanted. She had kept the slip of paper with the telephone number on it. Snatching it from beneath her computer she fled from the room, convinced that the ugly little thing could not possibly travel any distance.
Dropping to the landing steps she punched out the number. It rang eight times.
â€˜This is a strange time to be calling.â€™ Martitia sounded half-asleep. â€˜Iâ€™m guessing the baby has left your body, hasnâ€™t it?â€™
â€˜Itâ€™s in my bedroom. I donâ€™t know what it wants.â€™
â€˜I canâ€™t help you now. You should have come back. Itâ€™s not human anymore.â€™
â€˜It still has my genes.â€™
â€˜Yes, but in a mutated form. Itâ€™s between two worlds. Itâ€™s very hard to understand what such creatures want.â€™
â€˜Canâ€™t you do something?â€™
â€˜Iâ€™m afraid not. I canâ€™t see you, Sasha. It knows I poisoned it and will only try to hurt me.â€™
â€˜What about me? What will it try to do?â€™
â€˜It will either love you, or it will hate you.â€™
â€˜What should I do?â€™
â€˜You must wait for it to tell you what it wants. Neither result is desirable. If it loves you it will try to hide inside you, where it feels warm and safe. It will tell you what to do next, because it is you.â€™
â€˜And if it hates me?â€™
â€™It will eat your flesh until it reaches normal size, so that it can continue to grow after youâ€™ve gone. Soon it will make up its mind. Until then you must try to stay awake. Itâ€™s dangerous to fall asleep.â€™
â€˜When I went near it, it started hissing.â€™
â€˜Then maybe itâ€™s already decided that it hates you. I donâ€™t know. Itâ€™s clever. It knows exactly what youâ€™re thinking because itâ€™s a part of you. You can try to kill it, but it will know where to hide and how to hurt you. It knows what you really want. It will wait in the dark until youâ€™ve fallen asleep. You canâ€™t run away, because it will always be near you until it gets what it wants.â€™
â€˜And whatâ€™s that?â€™
â€˜It will decide for itself. It will tell you.â€™
â€˜Itâ€™s a foetus, you crazy bitch, how can it talk?â€™
Martitia sighed as if sheâ€™d had enough of the conversation. â€˜It will. Itâ€™s hard to explain. You see, it isnâ€™t really there.â€™
â€˜What do you mean?â€™
â€˜I told you, itâ€™s between two worlds. Yours and his.â€™
â€˜Youâ€™ve seen this before?â€™
â€˜What happened to the mother?â€™
Behind her there was a sound of scampering feet.
â€˜What happened to the fucking mother?â€™
The sound of the baby was coming nearer.
She lowered the phone and held her breath, slowly turning. Behind her, no more than two feet away, the baby swayed in the shadows on shiny wavering legs, its blackened flesh cord hanging down like a puppetâ€™s cut string.
She stared down at it and tried to understand what it wanted.
The baby slowly raised its wet tadpole eyes to her and opened its gummy mouth to speak.
Its voice sang inside her head.
It said, Letâ€™s kill Daddy.