STEVE FLUNG THE CAR KEYS on the table and sighed heavily. Ann was a few steps behind him, shoulders slumped.
As she passed him he grabbed her by the shoulders, being careful not to hurt her, and buried his face in her neck. “I’m sorry …”. He thought his voice sounded pathetic and infantile; just not up to the task of being adult and serious and supportive.
The consultant had given them the worst possible news. He was going to lose her and he could do nothing to stop it. His brain and his guts knotted up in anger and frustration.
Ann pulled away and went into the bathroom, shutting him out. She sobbed alone behind the door for over an hour.
The next day Steve felt as though he was wading through grey sludge, though it had nothing to distinguish it from hundreds of other days in his life. Except today he knew that Ann was dying.
When he got home from work, Ann’s friend Sayeeda was sitting in the kitchen with her. Steve’s heart sank when he saw her.
He said a brief ‘hello’, kissed Ann on the forehead and then went to change out of his work clothes. He loitered in the bedroom in the hope that Sayeeda’s visit was nearly at an end. He was glad Ann had someone to spend time with, but Sayeeda wouldn’t be good for Ann in her present state of mind.
The woman’s near-mindless optimism and insistence on quick fixes annoyed Steve. He felt as if she never really understood the complexities of any problem.
After nearly 20 minutes he went back into the kitchen. To his huge relief Sayeeda had her coat in her hand.
As she left she tousled Ann’s brown hair and kissed her on top of the head. “Hang in there. Think positive!” she chirped and was gone.
Ann turned her face to Steve. Her eyes were pools of despair, sunk deep in her skull.
That night Steve slept fitfully, a series of half-dreams rousing him intermittently.
It was hard to tell whether he was awake or asleep when he felt water lapping at his sides. He struggled to get up, but was held down by some unknown force.
He continued to strain to rise but couldn’t. Making a huge effort, he turned his head towards Ann. She was still at his side but, as he watched, her body lifted from the bed in the rising water. As it covered him, he saw her bloated body float away, swelling with decay as each second passed. He wanted to shout out but was afraid in case the water rushed in.
He knew he was awake when he felt the pillow hot with sweat beneath his head. Ann was beside him, sleeping deeply as she moved through the depths of a drugged sleep. Making sure not to wake her, he went into the bathroom and sobbed into a towel.
Each day became more and more difficult.
It was like living with a death sentence of his own, knowing that mortality’s malign children were growing uncontrollably in Ann, like a foul parody of the baby that had always failed to take root in her flesh.
The faces of his colleagues had taken on a grim, decrepit look; the office becoming a drably bleak prison for the eight hours he was trapped there.
When he got home Ann, her eyes haloed with red, was on the phone to her sister. He kissed her on the cheek and then left her to carry on her conversation.
After several minutes Ann came into the kitchen. Steve put down his glass of water. “Are you OK?” he said, pointlessly; he knew the answer. But she nodded anyway.
She sat down at the table opposite him. At first she seemed reluctant to speak before finally saying: “When Sayeeda was here she told me about someone who may be able to help. A man she’s heard about.” She pulled a leaflet out of her pocket.
Ann jumped in quickly when she heard Steve sigh. “I know what you think of her, but she says she’s met people who’ve been … healed by this man. And the thing is, he’s coming here. Soon.”
“He’s not one of those faith healers, is he? All teeth and torment …”
She flung the leaflet at him impatiently. “No!”
He picked it up and opened it, thinking it odd there was no photograph of this mysterious miracle man. In his opinion, these charlatans were usually weapons-grade egotists; only too eager to show you their plausible, smiling mugs that had been polished to within an inch of their life.
There was some vague gibberish about Chaos Therapy inside, followed by the usual rubbish about uncovering ancient secrets. He studied it for a few moments before it gave him a headache, then turned back to the cover.
Below the heading ‘The Stars Are Right for You!’ was the supposed healer’s name. It was almost unpronounceable, but given the number of Xs in it he supposed the man to be Basque.
On the cover was a photograph of the Earth from orbit and some odd-looking constellations that Steve didn’t recognise.
Steve grunted. “Well, it looks like a load of mumbo-jumbo to me, love.”
“It may be my last chance.” Ann stood up and came over to him. “He may not be able to help, but nobody else has been able to either. So what have I got to lose?”
Steve only just managed to stop himself from tactlessly blurting out ‘money’.
“If you loved me, you’d help me,” said Ann, with a note of hurt in her voice.
Steve knew that was unfair, but he wasn’t about to argue with her. He held her close, squeezed her hand and let the tears come slowly.
After lying awake for three hours, Steve rose and went over to the window. Darkness seemed to be his enemy lately, unwilling to let him enter the comfort of its soft, dream-filled deeps.
As he stared out through the gap in the curtains, he saw that the city was lit by an unusual luminosity. Looking up, he saw that a gigantic black star was moving down out of the sky, leaving its previously hidden orbit to draw near the Earth. It eclipsed the half moon as it drew nearer still.
Giving off rays of darkness, it flooded everything with its evil light, making things transparent so that the rot inside was visible. The only thing unaffected was him; he could still see his own hands and body clearly, while all that was around him faded away into an untouchable part of the spectrum.
He was gripped by a fear at what he might see if he turned to look into the room, yet he knew he had to do it. He closed his eyes and turned around, breathing deeply. Waiting for a vital few seconds as he gathered his courage, he then opened his eyes and looked towards the bed.
Ann lay there, her illness shining through her flesh, illuminating her skin with the dark and beautiful colours of a lingering death. Though it filled him with pain, Steve walked to the bed and looked down at her as the radiance of suffering and disease flooded out of her.
He sank to his knees beside the bed, balling up his hands and pressing them into his eyes, so he wouldn’t have to look any longer. A life without her was unbearable – it would be like being buried alive – yet he knew that was what he faced.
Feeling too tired to drive, Steve took the train across town. In the second carriage he bumped into two old friends, John Quinn and Eric Wallasey. They talked about old times, laughed about nothing in particular and whiled away the time pleasantly until the train came to Steve’s stop.
It was only when he was on his way down the station steps that he realised he hadn’t asked them where they were going.
Only when he was outside the station did he remember that John had been killed two years ago in a car crash in Turkey. He had no idea where Eric was in the world, or what he was doing now, but he was suddenly certain that he hadn’t been on the train.
Steve felt sick. He sat down for a moment on a low wall. It was obviously his lack of sleep that was making him hallucinate. Or maybe he’d dropped off in his seat without realising it. But it had seemed so vivid.
When he felt more himself, he set off to find the address he’d been given. The buildings in this part of town were old, grey slabs of forgettable architecture. When he found the place he was looking for, it was a dismal, forgotten cafe tucked away underneath one of these gigantic monoliths.
Steve was early. It was just beginning to rain as he went inside. He was the only customer. The air itself seemed to have a coating of grease, and the furnishings had a slightly dusty greyness to them. A small, bald man peered at him from behind an old-fashioned glass counter. Steve ordered a coffee and sat at a table in the centre of the establishment.
The chair was a strange design and not very comfortable. The walls hung with odd-looking musical instruments and artefacts that he imagined were from Eastern Europe; or Eastern somewhere, at least.
Steve had been sipping his coffee for a few minutes when a thin man in dark clothes came in and headed for his table. The man extended a gloved hand. “Mr Johnson?” he asked in a foreign accent. Maybe he was from Eastern somewhere, too, thought Steve.
“Yes,” replied Steve, indicating the empty chair opposite.
The man sat down but didn’t remove his gloves. He had an abnormally long, pale face with lank dark hair that hung over to one side. He caught the proprietor’s eye and, within a few seconds, a second cup of coffee had appeared on the table.
Steve fished out the leaflet that Ann had given him. It was crumpled, so he smoothed it out and placed it on the table facing the stranger. “Are you him?” asked Steve, jabbing his finger at the name printed on the cover.
The man shook his head. “No. My principal does not make appearances outside of his healing sessions. He feel it dissipates his abilities. But I did speak to you on the phone, Mr Johnson.”
The man told Steve his name. Even though it was a short name, when he tried to tell Ann what it was later, he couldn’t remember it but for the fact it began with a B.
Steve grumbled at the man about the vagueness of the leaflet. The man simply nodded and let him talk himself out.
When he got no answers, Steve tried the direct approach. “So what exactly is this ‘treatment’ and how much does it cost?”
The man tried to smile. Steve didn’t find it very comforting. “We ask no payment, except your time and your belief. I can’t really explain the details of it, as I don’t understand it myself. I have no medical certificates myself, you understand.
“But look on it as a focus of intent – a way of harnessing the necessary energies.”
Steve shifted in his seat. ‘Yes, I read all that in the leaflet. But what ‘necessary energies’? Necessary for what exactly?”
“Necessary to cure your loved one, of course,” said the man, patiently, as if dealing with a slow child.
At that moment, someone else came into the cafe and began to harangue the owner in a language that Steve didn’t recognise.
Steve sighed heavily at the unwelcome distraction. He’d had enough, and placed both hands firmly on the table, leaning forward. “Look, if you and this so-called ‘healer’ of yours are Snake Oil salesmen then I’ll …”
The man opposite stared at Steve with his dark eyes. “Snake Oil is actually a very successful treatment for arthritis, Mr Johnson. The phrase you use refers to fakery. I can assure you that what we offer is very real.”
There was both a depth and a hollowness to the man’s voice that took Steve by surprise. He was about to protest when raised voices and the sound of breaking crockery behind him claimed his attention. When he turned back, the man was already walking out of the door.
He’d left without giving any answers, without touching his coffee and without paying for it.
For a moment the whole situation angered Steve. He began to rise to his feet, to follow the man and remonstrate with him. Then he noticed the DVD case lying on the table in front of him. At least it was something tangible to show for his efforts.
Steve sat back down, sighed heavily and made a momentary effort to place the language the two men were arguing in. Whatever it was, he decided, it was being used to very good effect.
That evening, he and Ann watched the DVD. As he’d expected, it was frustratingly vague about details of the therapy and its cost.
But he had to admit that the ‘patients’ that it showed were in a pretty poor condition to begin with. Whereas, when interviewed after undergoing the therapy, they did look a lot better and more alive. Though they seemed somehow different, too. They sat differently and there was something in their faces; it was nothing he could put his finger on.
He was aware how easily the camera and the make-up artist could lie, but the people on the screen seemed not only plausible but compelling.
At the end there was an address, a date and a time. Steve quickly scribbled down the details, as Ann hugged his arm.
Later, while she dozed on the sofa, Steve looked up the unfamiliar address. It was in an area of town he wasn’t familiar with and had never visited. He’d heard it mentioned in connection with the army barracks. And he had a vague memory of some warehouses that were involved in a bizarre kidnapping case involving children and animals a year or two back. He was sure they were in the same district.
As he stared at the address, he felt an uncomfortable twinge in his gut.
Steve felt apprehensive about driving to the place, but it was too far to walk and a taxi would have been an idiotically expensive luxury.
As they came close to the address, he drove down the street slowly. Small knots of people, some down-and-out by the look of them, drifted in the same direction.
A hand-made sign with the healer’s name and the slogans from the leaflet stood in a gap between two buildings. Steve felt his heart in his mouth as he listened to the tyres crunch across the piece of waste ground that acted as a car park. The man that he’d met in the cafe stood at the end of the open space, directing people towards a set of dilapidated steps at the side of one building.
Ann clung to his arm as they made their way up the steps into the old building, then up a set of wooden stairs and through some double doors.
The room was laid out with rows of rickety-looking chairs, and there was a low stage at the front. Steve imagined that someone must have been burning incense, as the air was filled with a sickly sweet aroma. Probably to hide the smell of the damp, he thought sourly.
They walked cautiously towards the front and sat in the third row. The room was filling up, but nobody seemed to be talking, not even to the companions they’d arrived with. Steve turned to Ann and asked “Are you all right?” She smiled and nodded, but he could tell she didn’t mean it. Once more, he felt helpless.
Suddenly an echo of the night surrounded him. It was as if Ann was lit by the light from the black star once more. Vivid blooms of decay and morbidity showed through her skin. He’d dismissed it as a vision or a dream before, but now it was happening in a room crowded with people. He shut his eyes tightly and turned away for a few seconds. When he looked back, everything had returned to normal.
After a few more minutes, the long-faced man walked to the front of the room and stepped up on to the stage. “Good evening, everyone. Thank you for coming. I am sure that none of you will be disappointed and that you will all find what you seek here tonight.”
Then he introduced the ‘healer’, and Steve discovered that his name was as hard on the ear as it was on the eye. He couldn’t have repeated it if his life had depended on it.
From a door at the side of the stage, a tall man in dark clothes entered. No one clapped or moved a muscle.
Like the long-faced man, his skin was pale and his head was crowned with slick black hair. The man’s eyes were the most striking thing about him. They were an unusually pale green, and gave the impression of being lit internally.
Behind the man was a large black screen. But when Steve turned his head away slightly, it appeared to be a hole. He squinted and peered at it for a few seconds. It appeared to drink in the light around it, although the dimness of the room made it difficult to judge. He gave up wondering after a few seconds of eye strain, and waited for the ‘show’ to begin.
The ‘healer’ walked to the front of the stage and looked as if he was ready to speak. In an alarming trick of perspective, he seemed to grow taller as he took each step.
The man simply cast his gaze around the room, scanning everyone’s faces with his peculiar eyes. When it came to Steve’s turn, he dropped his gaze, refusing to play the game.
Then the man stepped back from the edge of the stage and began to say something. Steve concentrated for a few seconds before he realised it wasn’t speech at all. Rather than imparting any information, the ‘healer’ seemed to be chanting in a buzzing, droning voice. Steve groaned; this was precisely the sort of pseudo-religious crap he’d expected.
And there was something happening behind the man. It was coming from the screen. Or was it? Maybe it was inside the screen. Steve felt confused.
A mantle of what looked like flies settled on the healer’s shoulders and, within seconds, chitinous petals of disease bloomed on his skin. Behind him, there was a change, an opening up, an enormous blossoming in the blackness.
The man’s droning voice continued. It was cutting through his head and Steve wanted to stop him, once and for all. He knew now that there was danger here.
He turned to those sitting nearest him and tried to speak, but he could see straight through them, their vileness now visible in repellent clarity. A terrible coldness seeped into him.
Looking down at his hands he was appalled that he could see straight through them, the bones and veins and ligaments clearly visible to him. As he watched, the flesh took on a silvery translucence.
In panic he looked up at those nearest him, seeking help. But they too had begun to change, blossoming and unravelling in great fronds of gellid flesh. Silvery filaments extruded from their bodies, seeking out similar growths from those next to them.
In shock, he saw tendrils from his own body snake out and entwine themselves with those weaving their way towards him. He was joining them and his mind revolted against it, desperately seeking a way to escape, even if that escape was death.
The preacher’s voice still filled his head with an inexpressible agony, cutting his mind into pieces. Suddenly something else flooded his mind, crowding out all doubt, revealing a new truth to him. It felt hard and cold but perfect, too. And now he could hear it.
The healer’s voice was not alone but merely one voice of a wonderful chorus. But now he could understand what was said: “The stars are right'”. He knew it was true and that he too would become free and powerful and renewed.
Feeling compelled to affirm his belief in what they said, he added his own voice to theirs, even though he no longer had a mouth.
Mark Howard Jones lives in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, and has had dozens of stories published on both sides of the Atlantic. His novella ‘The Garden Of Doubt On The Island Of Shadows’ drew praise from Ray Bradbury among others. His collection ‘Songs From Spider Street’ is now available from Screamingdreams.com. Visit Mark’s website here.
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