We’d all known Dennis had less than a week and we’d all braced ourselves, for all the good that would do. This was going to tear us apart and leave a ragged gaping hole in all our lives. But that would be it. It would fit within our understanding of things and we could all assume he went wherever we thought people go. That would have been so much easier, so much less troubling than what actually happened. Dennis had been diagnosed with cancer a couple of days after his tenth birthday and it was all downhill from there. There was never an upswing, never an opportunity for surgery. All the scans showed the same thing, the oily black webs having grown larger and denser. The fact that we were twins, and had looked identical right up to when he started chemo just made it worse. There I was right beside him, a perfect image of what he used to be before his hair fell out and his colour drained and his cheeks sunk down into his skull. An emaciated ghost constantly contrasted with what he should be.
And then finally the doctor shut the case, snuffed out the last wisps of hope:
‘Dennis will most likely not last more than four days. A week at the most.’
So we’d all set up camp in his musty room at the hospital. The walls were freckled and pea green. The only light slanted in from between the shutters, glaring bars stretching out across the floor to end just short of Dennis’ bed. The staff managed to bring in another, simpler bed for me, and my parents slept in old wicker chairs.
Dennis looked really bad at this stage. You could as good as see his skull. We all wanted to talk to him, to make the most of whatever time was left, but he slept for most of the day and when he woke up there’d just be silence. Nobody knew what to say, there were no right words, and there was this underlying fear that the moment anybody interacted with the situation, they’d somehow make it real and it would hit everyone. The first sound would knock us all off the tightrope and we’d fall into tears and chaos and we wouldn’t be able to pull ourselves back up. So there was silence, my parents occasionally forcing smiles that never made it to their eyes.
The third day was when it finally happened, when the steady beeping of the heart-monitor started to break down into frantic electronic wails and Dennis began to shake feebly as a dry crackling sound rose up from his mouth.
My parents exploded out of their chairs, my mother heading straight to Dennis, grabbing his shoulders and pleading at him to stop it and be all right. My father was at the room door, screaming down the hallways for help.
The doctors and nurses at the hospital had changed lately; they’d started treating Dennis differently. Before the resuscitations were always these frantic, desperate efforts, like hundred meter sprints. There was a desperate desire to succeed in every single movement. Now it was different, more like a steady jog. These were people who were going through the motions, ticking off things they were meant to try from little checklists in their minds.
I don’t think it would have made a difference either way. The cancer had finally tipped over and his system just couldn’t shoulder it anymore. They called it and left, offering their condolences and saying they’d take away the body when we were ready. The door clicked shut behind us: me, Mom, Dad, and Dennis’ corpse.
We all inched closer, up to the side of his bed and just looked. My mother cracked, breaking into great howling tears. My father pulled her close, trying to keep it together but losing it in his own way. No sobs from him, just the occasional tear running down his face and sharp breaths bursting through his clenched teeth.
I was just quietly staring at Dennis’ face.
We all stood there for a long time. I finally realised that this wasn’t just one thing, this wasn’t a single event. For the first time my mind started running away with itself and unfolding all the endless implications of this, every one of them causing my gut to sink and for me to miss him so much even though he’d just been here. I was never going to talk to him again, he was never going to laugh at me again, we were never eating dinner again, we were never going to school together again, we were never going to be in the same class in school again, or talk during classes at school again. It just kept going and going as I realised that this wasn’t just one person I’d lost, I’d lost a million things, something that was meant to be this constant presence was gone and nothing would ever be as good as it should be again. Everything I was going to do would be soured by the certainty that I wouldn’t be doing it with him, or that I wouldn’t be able to tell him about it later. It had only ever been a childish assumption that any of that would happen.
I was the first to see his lips quiver.
‘Mom, Dad, his lips are moving.’
My parents froze, still clasped against each other, my mother curled over and supported by my father.
We looked down as his lips continued to quiver. My parents went quiet again. They must have been trying to hold back hope, assuming it was some kind of nervous tick. But it kept going, and finally, in a dusty, hoarse voice, so faint it was like you were hearing it on the wind, he said my name.
My father sprinted across the room, yelling for the nurses to come back. My mother was clutching her mouth and stumbling back from the bed. The workers tumbled back in and went through the checklist and shocked him with the defibrillators a few times and reached their verdict.
‘We’re sorry, he’s still dead.’
‘But I heard him talk,’ said my father in a small, pleading voice.
‘Look, it could have been gas escaping.'
‘But…’ said my father before a tiny, scraping sound cut through the room, everyone turning towards its source. It was coming from Dennis, halfway between a sigh and a croak.
‘Harry, it’s all so dark. So cold. So dark and it’s pulling down, pulling at my insides and taking me down.’
A moment later nurses started on their rounds again, but this wasn’t some perfunctory run through the checklist. You could see it on their faces, in how hurried their movements were. They didn’t know what was happening, they weren’t even sure they were doing the right thing.
They moved onto the defibrillator again, sending crashing waves of power down through Dennis chest before listening with a stethoscope.
‘…doesn’t make sense it doesn’t make sense,’ one was mumbling.
After ten minutes they all just stepped back. They’d run the checklist out, nothing had happened.
‘What’s happening?’ my mother screamed.
One of the men, a doctor I think, answered.
‘Nothing is happening. We try and pump in oxygen and it does nothing. There’s no pulse, and we can’t induce one for more than a second or two. The body temperature’s down three degrees. He’s deceased.’
‘But we heard him,’ I said.
‘I know, but he’s dead.’
The dry grating came again, and everyone shut up.
‘Please Harry, where are you?’
I walked over to his side. I wasn’t relieved he was talking, I was only afraid. This was wrong I wanted to run, I wanted him to just be gone so I could cry with my parents and be done with it but I kept walking and put my hand on his, his bony, cold and clearly dead hand.
‘I’m here,’ I said.
‘I can see grey. A little bit of grey but it’s so far away. I don’t just see it I feel it. I feel it and I never knew something could be so far away. I’m already so far down but I need to go so much further to get to the grey.’ I didn’t know how to respond, so I just stood there, stood there and listened to him talk about the darkness and the distant grey smudge. Sometimes he’d answer me, sometimes he wouldn’t. A lot of stuff happened around me in the next few hours. Everyone who worked at the hospital must have been in and out. Even my parents started to leave sometimes when they accepted I was the only one Dennis seemed to be aware of. Dennis was looked at by every type of doctor they had in there and nobody understood. They started moving him around on a stretcher, taking him to the equipment they couldn’t just bring to him. I had to come along; I was the only one who could keep him talking.
It was a long time before anything was turned up. They’d gotten desperate and had put Dennis in an fMRI machine. They’d fully prepped a corpse and put it in a machine for the living. My entire family was in the room.
A cold, confused fear had settled in my gut, making me feel a little bit like throwing up.
‘I…think we’ve got something,’ said the technician who was looking at the monitors.
‘Please just tell us what’s happening,’ said my mother. She’d moved past terror and hope and was now above all else exhausted, her red face slack and empty.
‘Look, this scan looks for where the blood is in the brain. Well, the thing is that none of the blood in the brain is moving, we know that from his pulse, but something is happening in there. Something the machine can only pick up a little, but there is some kind of activity. Now I can’t be sure, but I think the activity is clustered around some the parts that control movement. Everything else is totally dead. He’s obviously conscious, he’s using complete sentences but…’
‘But what?’ said my father.
‘But it’s like whatever’s doing the thinking is somewhere else, still interacting with the stuff that does the talking.’
‘That’s exactly right,’ came a voice behind us. I looked over my shoulder and saw and old man in a grey business suit. He had a well-trimmed silver beard and was all around a strange contrast to the clumsy chaos that had engulfed the hospital.
‘Who are you?’ said the technician.
‘I’m Daniel Coannes,’ he said, handing the technician a crisp business card. ‘I’m with the Orpheus Institute. We’re a semi-private medical research body and we’ve dealt with a few cases similar to this one. The hospital President has already agreed to let us look into this.’
Almost invisibly, a number of men had moved in behind Coanne and were now making their way over to the technician.
‘These men will help explain the confidentiality situation surrounding issues like this. We’ll handle the boy from here.’ More men, these ones in pure white scrubs that had a strange logo on the left breast, got Dennis back on the stretcher and led us all into the hallway. We followed wordlessly, never thinking to say anything because at least these new people represented new possibilities, a completely new road that might lead to an explanation. They rolled Dennis into an operating theatre and my mother gasped.
‘Look, just what are you doing?’ said my father in a husky voice that made it obvious he was still holding in tears.
Coannes, who had been striding ahead of the stretcher with a speed that belied his age, had stopped once we got to theatre and was now taking deliberate care to look us all three of us in the eyes. We were still in the hallway, the operating theatre door shut beside us.
He answered in a low, comfortable tone.
‘We’re not performing surgery, it’s just the quietest part of the hospital, and there are no distractions in there. We want nothing more than to understand what has happened to your son. This sort of thing has happened before. Your son is conscious and, as we understand, he will only talk to his brother here. We want to use Harry to ask Dennis our questions. We believe this would work best if he and Harry were alone. We’ve got the theatre wired, so that we can hear the answers.’
My parents didn’t say anything for a while. My father broke the silence with weak, staggered words:
‘Do you think he might come back? I know that even if he does it won’t be for long but…I’d really like him back, for however long. I didn’t say enough. I wasn’t big enough to say the things we had to say to each other.’
‘If such a thing is possible, I swear we will do everything in our power to make it happen. We’ve prepared a private waiting room for you two.’
Coannes gestured down to the turn in the hallway. There were two people in the white scrubs standing there.
‘Pete and Shirley will lead you to there, if you would please go with them.’
My parents began to shuffle down the corridor, my mother still buried in my father’s side. My father kept throwing looks back over his shoulder at me, like he was afraid I’d vanish. Soon they were gone and I felt Coannes hand come down on my shoulder. I turned around to him and he knelt down so we were closer to being level.
‘I know this is very hard on you. I know this must be the worst day of your life, but do you think you’re up to a quick history lesson?’
I couldn’t bring myself to answer properly, but some curiosity managed to rise through the delirium and shock and I nodded.
‘One of the most significant moments of human history was the moon landing. And it’s not even the fact itself that makes it so important, it’s that we had contact with them the whole time they were up there. They were sending radio signals back to Earth, and could be talked to. Do you think the moon landing would be what it was if we didn’t have that kind of connection to our men as they strode the unsettling and inhospitable surface of a place we were never meant to have knowledge of. What if they’d just gone up, and never came back. What if we knew for sure that they got there but had no signals from them?’
I was still quite out of it, so I can’t say I was properly digesting all of this. I slurred out, ‘I don’t know.’
‘They didn’t know if they could get the astronauts back, It was a very real possibility that they’d be left to die up there, stranded. Yet they still did it. It didn’t matter if the mission was a failure. It didn’t matter if there was no triumphant return. Do you know what mattered? What mattered more than anything was speaking to them while they were up there, to have that connection to three brave men in the void, describing man’s first steps into the unknown. If they’d never come back it wouldn’t have changed anything, as long as we down here managed to make that connection to the beyond, as long as we down here, for however long had men up there, men to describe the soil, men to explain the feeling of being so light, men to tell us what the Earth looked like, cut in half by the Lunar horizon, men to teach us about a new world.’
His hand tightened on my shoulder.
‘None of that would have been possible without the people in Houston, without the men who talked to the astronauts, kept them focused, made sure we got the information we needed. Harry, we believe Dennis is in a very strange place that humanity would do well to learn about it. You are Houston, your brother is an astronaut.’
He pulled a laminated sheet out from under his lapel.
‘Here’s a sheet with some topics you should focus on and questions you should ask. This should help you get the most useful and needed information. But the most important thing is to keep him talking. Stop talking for five seconds and you could lose him.’
I accepted the card, having given up on reaching a decent understanding of the situation. He ushered me into the operating theatre and shut the door behind me. I was alone, the only sound an almost inaudible ringing that emanated from the mass of stainless steel racks and implements, and the cold sturdy operating table Dennis was lying on.
I approached the table and, in need of any sort of guidance, I looked at the laminated sheet:
Try to keep your loved one/ the subject unaware of their deceased state. Past experience suggests that the shock may cause disconnection.
Maintain constant conversation as this has been shown to help maintain the connection.
Do not ask leading questions such as whether your loved one/the subject is having experiences in-line with your own religious beliefs.
First step: Ask your loved one/the subject to describe their experiences and/or surroundings. Encourage them to be as…
A gasp pulled my attention away from the sheet.
‘Harry,’ Dennis said.
‘Yes, it’s me,’ I answered, grabbing his hand. There was now no doubt that he really was dead. The hand was ice cold and the fingers had locked in place at odd angles with rigor mortis. His entire body had gone from the sickly white of the dying to the rain-cloud shade of the dead.
‘I got to the grey…to the ground. Came down easy, like a leaf. Cold. I’m standing there now.’
‘Dennis, can you describe where you are?’
‘It’s…still grey, but it’s more real now, solid. Grey sand underneath, grey ocean behind me. Grey clouds above. Don’t remember…going through the clouds but they’re there now. The clouds…they’re screaming.’
‘An ocean?’ I said. ‘Can you see anything in the ocean.’
Dennis took in a phlegmy, pointless breath.
‘Far away…the horizon, it gets dark. Dark hungry line where even clouds stop where everything stops. Darkness is clawing, moving like it’s alive, miles and miles of angry hungry dark. Can’t go there can’t go that way.’ At this point I lost the thread of the exchange as perspective suddenly hit, all the things I didn’t understand and the fact that whatever Dennis was he wasn’t alive. I broke, crying and wailing and digging my face into his bare, emaciated ribs, cold like meat straight out of the fridge. I kept squeezing his hand, harder and harder, pushing the stiff fingers closer together.
‘Dennis, please come back please, wherever you are just get back here.’
‘Harry? Harry, are you crying. It’s hard to tell. So much here already sounds like crying.’
His words struck me deep enough make my sobs catch in my throat, and I just started looking at him again, settling back to my previous catatonic distance from what was happening.
‘I can’t come back. No getting back. Like spilling something on the ground… no getting it all back inside and right again.’
It took a few seconds to force myself to accept this but I carried on, hoping that maybe I could steer him towards some sign that he was wrong.
‘What’s in the other direction, away from the ocean?’
‘That’s the way I have to go. If I try and swim the darkness will tear me up, shred away everything until only my pain is left and it’ll toss that into the clouds…into the clouds and I’ll scream.’
‘Dennis, tell me what’s in the other direction.’
‘Just the sand. The grey sand, on and on. Not many bad things yet. Not many bad things to see yet. There’ll be more when I get where I’m going. I’m going to start walking now Harry.’
‘Where are you meant to be going?’ I said. I’d started digging my nails anxiously into my forearm. There was something nauseatingly, dreadfully true about everything he was saying. It was like the first time you learn the world is round, and it feels weird for a few seconds, but soon you get used to the idea and you see it’s the truth, that’s the big secret and it doesn’t matter how flat the ground feels. It doesn’t matter how little sense it makes; it’s true.
And he just kept talking.
‘I can see another person’.
‘Can you talk to them’ I said, trying to keep my voice steady, feeling like I shouldn’t be the one who couldn’t keep it together.
‘I suppose I could, but I can’t.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s just not a talking kind of place. We were supposed to have done all our talking before we came here. Now we should just keep quiet.’
‘But you’re talking to me Dennis.’
‘But my voice isn’t here, my voice is all the way up there, with you.’
‘Dennis,’ I said, now squeezing my eyes to force the tears back in. ‘Dennis, please, tell me what’s happening.’
‘I think I finally died. And what’s happening now is what happens next, the thing that was always going to be happen next. It feels right, in a scary way. It’s been expecting me for so long, since before I was even a fuzzy little thing that might happen, since before our parents and their parents and so far back it’s been expecting me.’
‘Please stop talking like that. You don’t talk like that, you never have.’
‘Sorry, you just sort of see things different here, some things you know without ever being told, some things you forget.’
I couldn’t think of anything to say and started to worry, remembering that if I left the pauses too long he could stop answering.
‘Hey,’ said Dennis, and the edges of his mouth strained out, awkwardly imitating a smile. ‘I see a few more…more people and they’re all naked but, really naked. Their clothes are off and they’re all grey and wrinkly but that’s not it, you can kind of see inside them, like all the walls have fallen down and you can see who they are, all their thoughts and feelings, just kind of hanging around them like ghosts. It’s like someone’s pulled the clothes off their whole past. They’re so naked Harry.’
He made a light, coughing sound that was meant to be a laugh.
‘That’s really scary.’
‘Oh, I thought you might have thought it was funny.’
‘I don’t think we’re going to laugh at the same stuff anymore. I think you’re different now.’
‘I guess that…makes sense.’
‘So, what are all the people doing?’
‘Most of them are moving, same direction as me, towards the centre.’
‘The centre of what?’
‘It’s just called the centre, the centre of this place, maybe the centre of everything.’
‘But what?’ I said, starting to lose control, ‘Why do you have to go?’
‘I don’t have to. Nobody has to, just like you don’t have to shake someone’s hand when they put it out, or answer them when they talk to you, but it would feel wrong not to. It’s what you’re meant to do, and there’s not any other good options. You don’t want to stand still.’
‘What happens when you stand still?’
‘Depends, a few days ago I passed this woman…’
‘A few days?’ I said, gripping the cold steel of the operating table as I was filled with an eerie sense of vertigo. ‘You’ve haven’t been dead for even a day.’
‘I passed her a few days ago’ he said, carrying on like he hadn’t heard me. ‘She didn’t reach the centre. She just sat down, started going her own way. She’s pulled one side of her ribcage out and it’s all stretched, spreading up to her left so high, stretching out the arm grabbing its corner. Most of her skin’s started to get hard and flaky, like old wood, or crumbling stone. I can see her self. Musician, liked music, kind of thought of her life like a song. Sometimes it repeated itself, some bad notes here and there but it was pulling itself together, she was reaching the chorus and it ended, it was over so fast and she can’t accept it. She’s picked this sharp rock off the ground and she’s scraping it past her ribs like a huge harp or something…angry. Trying to make music, keep the song going but it’s an awful sound, sawing bone and it’s never going to replace what should have come next. She’s already grown into the ground…she’s going to be here forever, trying to make the music she missed out on.’ There was nothing to say to that, so I just went quiet for a while, assuming he’d keep talking.
No answer. A terrified jolt ran through me and I started slamming my fist onto his chest.
‘Dennis, come back Dennis!’
A growl tore out of his mouth and his frame thrashed upwards, causing me to jump back and tumble down onto the floor, smashing into surgeon's shelves and causing gleaming surgical instruments to rain down around me. I didn’t have time to think before I’d forced myself up again and bent over the operating table to stare desperately into my brother’s eyes. I took his hand again, squeezing it as hard as I could.
‘Harry’ he said and relief flooded through me.
‘It’s been so long…so long it’s been years’.
‘I’ve been walking for years. Years and years and it keeps getting worse.’
‘It hasn’t been a day.’
‘It’s been so many years and everything keeps getting worse.’
‘What, what’s worse?’
‘It gets worse closer to the centre. There’s so many people now, thousands, tens of thousands and they’re all walking to the centre.’
‘But what’s so terrible?’
‘There’s more, so many more like the girl with the harp I told you about, stuck in place, trying to fix what happened, angry about what happened. Rooted to the ground, moaning, calling out names of the people they think did this to them. Sometimes a few join up, and when they get all hard and crackly like old statues, they start to grow together, start to feel each other’s pain. Sometimes there’s mountains of them, entire landscapes of people crying about how unfair it all is. I’m still walking.’
‘But where are you going?’
'I told you, the centre. I’m getting close now. All the clouds with their screaming faces are curving...all curving and being pulled in the same direction, twisting their way into the centre.’
‘Please just stop walking and come back.’
‘Can’t. No coming back. Besides, I have to keep moving like everyone else. Doing something weird; it’s the quickest way for the walkers to notice you.’
‘Oh God, what are the walkers?’
‘Started…started seeing them more as I got towards the centre. They’re all over the place now. They’re these things, walk around on three legs like stilts, covered in sharp, black shells, like thorns. Remember the aquarium? They’re kinds like those urchins we saw at the aquarium, but the top part, the main part, it’s more exact, kinda arty, like a sculptor designed the shape. Reminds me of some kind of chess piece. When they notice you, they come over you, toppling towards you but never falling over on those long legs. Spindly; yeah, that what you’d say, their spindly legs. And they stop, right over you, you’re just between their legs and you see the holes underneath their main bit, and the tendrils come out. Red windy tendrils with these itchy hairs come down and they start curling and swinging all around you. You almost don’t mind at first because they’re red. You’ve been seeing nothing but grey and black for years and the tendrils are red and it’s beautiful but then they touch you, they touch you and it’s awful. Every bad thing you’ve ever felt, every bad thing that ever happens to you start bubbling up to the surface, drowning you, all the pain that ever went into you rises, up and out and the walkers feed on it. They lick it with their tendrils. They love the taste, the taste of all the things that shouldn’t have happened. They love to taste the misery. Eventually they get full and move on, and you…you get up and keep walking.’
‘Jesus, Dennis. Jesus.’
‘It’s fine. They’re bad, but you get a sense of perspective here. Sure, they’re scary for you but they’re nothing next to the centre. They’re bottom feeders, moss that grew on the outskirts. If they’re really like sea urchins then the centre, the centre must be like a shark, or a whale, or some huge thing right at the bottom of the sea that’s too big to come up near the surface.’
‘You’ve never said things like this before.’
‘I don’t know how to describe it. When you’re here, stuff just breaks down a little and you don’t always need to have learned a word to know it. This place is less obsessed with causes and two plus two equalling four. Its job isn’t to make sense.’
‘But what is its job.’
‘I don’t know. Maybe I’ll find out at the centre.’
He went quiet again, and this time I wasn’t sure I wanted to stop him drifting off. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear any more of this, but regardless of what I wanted another groan soon creeped out of his mouth and he was back.
‘Shit. Shit I see it now. I see the centre.’
His hand began to close, slowly but inevitably around mine, overcoming the rigor mortis to press in on my fingers like an iron vice. I kept trying to get out, almost yanking off the table but I couldn’t even budge inside the agonizing grip.
‘It’s inside, inside this huge thing like a bee hive, floating above the ground. Its grey too, grey and covered with streaks and ridges like it was used to be liquid and hardened or it’s like made of web or something. So big Harry. I’ve never seen anything like it. All the clouds are swirling down into the hole at the top of it, still screaming. Hundreds of holes, messy ragged holes pitch black on the inside. It’s bigger than cities Harry and everyone’s heading towards it, thousands and thousands swarming under it, pushing against each other to climb the bridges, messy bridges from the ground right up to the holes, right into the pitch black the centres in there Harry I’m here.’
‘Please,’ I said, whimpering with the pain in my hand. ‘You can’t go in. There’s nothing good in that place.’
I knew this as a fact, not just because of the description, but as a gut feeling. I knew that what he was talking about was real and fundamental, as important a part of our existence as the sun and the moon and birth but bad somehow, dripping with wrongness to its core.
‘Where else is there to go? I’m at one of the bridges.’
‘Please, you can come back.’
‘No. That’d be like going back into the womb. Can’t be done. This is what’s next. Oh.’
‘Oh God, I’m starting to feel something. I think the centre’s doing it. I’m getting…bitter. Every mean, spiteful, everything angry thing in me, it’s swelling, spreading out and smothering the rest of me. I’m so mad Harry. I’m getting so much smaller and my hate is getting so much bigger.’
His hand tightened and I screamed.
‘Why was it me? Why was it me and not you? What did you do that I didn’t? What did I do that you didn’t?’
‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ I said, fully in tears.
His voice had changed, it was still quiet, but it was rabid, each word growled and soaked with vitriol.
‘I hate you; do you know that? Still able to stand, still able to run, still able to breathe. I fucking hate you. I was hurting all the time and you just stood there feeling sorry for me. You couldn’t feel any of it, just waiting to see me die so you could fuck off and do everything I never would.’’.
I was yelling and screaming for someone to come in and help. I’d almost pulled Dennis off the table, his torso hanging over the side, held straight by whatever force was allowing him to squeeze his hand. In all this his eyes were still as dead as they’d always been.
And then we went limp. His hand let go, his back sagged and he crashed to the floor. He’d broken three of my fingers but shock was keeping it distant. I threw myself down onto my knees to see his face, slapping it and looking for any sign he was still there.
He gasped again, fainter than ever now.
‘Oh no. Oh Jesus. I’m inside and it’s so much worse than I thought. It’s beyond worse. It’s so far past the worst I thought something could be.’
‘Please Dennis listen, please tell me what’s happening.’
‘It’s the centre. It’s so big, big and floating above me, It’s so much bigger than the hive, so much bigger than what it’s inside the whole inside is so much bigger it’s so big. It’s grey too, always grey, grey and cracked like stone all over endless miles of it’.
His voice had changed, it was whiny and small and afraid.
‘It’s hurting me Harry, it’s hurting me more than I’ve ever been hurt and it hasn’t even noticed me.’
‘Please, the man told me you need to describe it. He said if you kept talking you might stay.’
‘So big’ he said, his voice wobbling and breaking like he was crying. ‘Its fingers are bigger than skyscrapers, and it has so many fingers, millions, and ribs, the body is all ribs or are they just fingers all folded up I don’t know but they’re so many and so big Harry and the masks, Jesus the masks…’
‘The masks, its faces bigger than countries all different. Some the eyes are perfect circles, others have huge pointy holes where the mouths should be. Some are blank and some have eight eye holes and some look like human faces, like perfect human faces with deep dark hollow eyes all of them, the inside of all of them is so dark, a living dark, a pulsing dark pulsing all together and it’s so huge, so huge and you can feel it pressing in on you, filling the air with badness and crushing down on you and from inside you can feel the bad in you reaching out to it, out to it like a baby reaching out for its mom and Jesus Christ Harry.’
He was breathing in and out faster and faster, shallow scared breaths, instincts overcoming the fact that he didn’t need air.
‘Dennis talk to me what is it? What is it?’
‘It’s not the Devil. No, that’s what I thought at first but it’s not. It’s…it’s more like God. It’s like if God hated everything.’
His breathing hiked up again.
‘Oh Jesus. It sees me. Please, please promise me one thing, just one thing please…’
‘What, what is it…’
‘Please…don’t ever die.’
One last breath rolled out of his mouth. I tried everything to get him back, everything I could think of in an animalistic burst of desperate energy. I hit him, shook him, pleaded, but he was really gone this time. I knelt there in the room for a while, his last words carving into a deep part of my mind I knew I could never dig them out of.
The next few hours, in fact the next few days were kind of a blur. I remember men in the Institute’s white scrubs coming in and dragging me away from the body. I remember getting my hand seen to and put in a cast and sling. I remember Daniel Coannes sitting me down in a bright white room and interrogating me (he called it a conversation but it was an interrogation, a warm interrogation by a man who could be kind if it meant getting what he wanted).
He asked me if I’d had any visions or any strong sensations, if I thought Dennis was telling the truth and if I could explain the ways in which Dennis was acting differently than he already was. I was detached and drowsy from exhaustion and trauma and pain from my hand and just answered honestly. At the end Coannes made me memorise a phone number and sign a load of confidentiality forms, making it very clear that not a word of this could leave the hospital. I was to call if I started experiencing any phenomena I thought were related to my Dennis and, finally, they left.
My parents and I took a taxi home. We didn’t talk about what had happened after Dennis died, and I suppose that even that was this secondary add-on to the simple fact that Dennis was now properly dead and not coming back. We went home, got to bed and the next morning we had a wordless breakfast with an extra chair pulled out.
The years flew by and the whole experience became something I just had to live with, some dreaded thing my thoughts would sometimes steer me back to but mostly I managed to keep living, to accept it all as something I couldn’t understand. The fact that Dennis was gone was always worse than the way he went, however terrifying and unnatural it was.
But lately I’ve been having a dream. It started off vague and incomplete, but every few nights it repeated, getting longer and more vivid.
It always starts the same, with me and Dennis, both of us kids again, on a green hill on a bright, clear day, crisp air sighing past us.
I can’t remember most of the words, but the gist is that he’s bragging, showing off, saying that dad loves him more, that he’s better than me, that he’s going to keep being better for as long as he’s alive. He’s going to keep making dad love him more for as long as he’s abel.
And I get so mad, way madder than I’d ever have gotten if he said those things in real life. I see a rock, and without thinking I pick it up and attack him with it, knocking him over and beating him again and again until his skin was swollen and torn and you would see parts of his skull underneath. He managed to push me off and run and I followed, never thinking twice about it. I chase him so far until finally he runs into a pass between two mountains in a long, dark range that I somehow never see until that point. The range extends to either side, seemingly forever, and the sky above it is saturated with heavy dark clouds. It’s like Mordor or something. I always stop running at this point, knowing that I’ve chased him far enough; the job is done.
I start to leave my body, surging forward down the pass, no longer myself, just a nameless, thoughtless observer, gliding like a ghost for lack of legs. He runs down the dark pass, on and on and into a sunless, barren country on the other side, a place where the soil is grey and dry. He runs for ages but soon he stops, stops and falls and curses me, screams about how much he hates me and how much I cost him by driving him into this place. He rages for a long time. Then a second person comes, sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, sometimes old, sometimes young. They say they too were driven past the mountains, or that they wandered past them by mistake and can’t get back over. Dennis always says the same thing: ‘Then let’s suffer together. Let’s hurt together.’
And this person always latched onto Dennis and Dennis latches back and they scream or cry and say they want to see people who wronged them skinned alive. And more always come, a trickle first, then a flood, latching onto Dennis and the first person, all of them clasping together and piling up into a giant, deafening mass of squirming bodies and eventually it’s huge, almost up to the clouds.
And then there’s a rumbling, a massive shifting sound. The countless bodies start to rearrange, forming deep canyons of flesh that make up a horrendous, rage filled outline of a face. There’s a shift greater than any earthquake the pile moves, rolling forward, pulling itself with enormous appendages made of the miserable and the bitter and the despairing. It inches and tumbles on and on, crashing down and dragging itself onward with overwhelming, apocalyptic sounds and then I see that it’s heading for the mountain range, it’s heading back to the bright place with all its anger and hate and vengeances, and as much as it’s made of millions and millions of people I always know it’s still one thing, one thing with one will but all the hatreds of everyone buried in it, all the way back to the first one, the first one to curse, his rage still in there, rage directed at the first one to sin. It gets right up to the mountains.
Then I wake up.
I think something’s coming, something that got started a long time ago, something that strips away good and builds itself on the bad and I think it’s almost strong enough to set out, to start moving, and I think when it gets here the living will be no better off than the dead.