All The Rest Of Us
Issue Two: Companions
A DREAMI am curled into a fetal ball, spinning and kicking aimlessly in a void of bright nothingness. I can’t see - my eyelids refuse to open and I have not been granted eyes for sight regardless - but all around me, on all sides pressing against my skin, colours and light flows through this shared liminal space and onwards through seams in reality. Claustrophobia settles in and only gains ground against my mind as I feel the space shrink and trap me, my muscles screaming against themselves as I push outwards against invisible walls, trying to postpone my fate but failing unquestionably. The void freezes my chest in place and I cannot draw breath into my lungs, and I am on the verge of asphyxiation when the nothingness opens up beneath me and spits me out like primordial ooze, a stain upon the carpet. I can stand, with difficulty. I am knee-high in thick black mud, and the cold mire clings to my skin. There is nothing here, just myself and the mud, a bog that spans as far as the horizon and far over.
I stand in the mud for years. As the sunless days pass me by and I gaze up at starless night skies, I strain every sense I have for any sign of life. It takes several lifetimes, but eventually I hear it: a blunt, rhythmic thudding, somewhere in the distance beyond the mud. There was no source that I could see; but the thudding was all there was, and so I moved towards it. Slowly, at first, every step demanding all my body has to give to wrench my foot from the grip of the mire and place it forwards, plunging down again into the muck and again the momentous effort to bring the other foot with me...but at the same time I glide effortlessly forwards without movement, the mud motionless around me as I sail on. I see both. I do both. The thudding gets louder as I persist.
I am at the centre of the swamp. There is a small grove of scorched trees here, little more than blackened trunks and a few branches between them. They form a circle around a singular mound of dirt, upon which rests a wooden block, stained with blood, muck, ooze and foul scum. The thudding is at its loudest, and as I listen to it I can begin to discern figures surrounding the block. They look roughly human in a crude manner - but their outlines are frayed and warping, their faces are blank and featureless but radiate hatred, and I can see each of them holds a cleaver, chopping incessantly at something upon that filthy block. They hurt to look at, but I peer closer, desperate to see the meat they are butchering. I vomit when I finally make out what lays upon their table.
It’s me. I lie on the table, every blow of the cleaver carving away at my body. They start at my feet and I cannot move as every landing of the blade bloodlessly hacks away a sliver of flesh, only for the cleavers to rise and fall again. Another figure at the end of the of the block tears away each strip and tosses it behind itself into a dark hole in the ground. I thrash and struggle and attempt to break free but I am unable to move as the cleavers move up my body and the chopping grows louder until it is all there is; I can only watch as I am portioned up into neat sections and discarded into the hole.
As the last cleaver lands across my eyes the hole behind the last figure opens up and envelopes the world. The figures, the trees, the block - it all melts away as I fall, now little more than remnants of a spirit forgotten. My fall is long and gentle, a slow sink into an inky darkness, but eventually it ceases and my ethereal feet touch solid black. In front of me is a woman, back faced to me while she quietly weeps into her hands. In front of her is a bloodied pile of viscera, the scraps of my body cut, quartered and discarded. I reach out to touch her, to console her of my death, to comfort her that I am not all gone - but my hands fall through her. She turns. She has my face. I see through her eyes as her arms raise and take a tight grasp around my neck. I can only watch as she slowly strangles what it left of me.
John wakes sharply with a shout and startles Francis, who swerves the car as he involuntarily pulls the steering wheel a bit. The car on the inside lane blares their horn and Francis swears out the window, before he settles himself and gets comfortable again. John quietly breathes deep and slow, and holds a hand to his chest as he calms his pulse and anchors himself on his surroundings. He is in the passenger seat of Francis’ car, and they are just outside London, travelling on the M1 towards the city proper. Maybe an hour left to go. John’s been asleep since Milton Keynes.
“Bad dream there?” Francis asks, and John frowns to himself trying to recall the details. Dread fills him as he searches his mind and he quickly tucks the emotion away in a dark corner.
“Horrendous. Can’t remember it now.” John replies. Francis nods in that wise-looking way. John shifts in his seat and fishes for the photo of Cheryl out of his pocket - his memories of his sister are fresh as ever, and he looks over the picture trying to shake the despair he feels at seeing her face. The dream eludes him, but scraps of Cheryl, of dread, and of an immutable oncoming disaster linger with him. Francis looks over John’s shoulder, curiosity trumping privacy.
“Who’ve you got there then? Old friend? Paramour?” He puts an extended, exaggerated tone on ‘paramour’ that irritates John. “That who you’re off to see?”
John pauses, wondering how best to respond. He has not shared any aspect of his personal life with anyone since Cheryl’s disappearance, and it almost feels like he has forgotten how.
“She’s my sister. Cheryl Constantine. I haven’t seen her in a long time.”
Francis nods again. “Moved away? Or fallen out of touch? Can’t say I like to spend much time with my family.”
John hesitates , and then decides to be done with it. “She disappeared. Nearly two years ago now. Coppers couldn’t find anything. Thought my father had done it for a while but...probably the only thing he’s genuinely clean on. Missing presumed dead.”
Francis swallows the confession quietly and surveys the road ahead as he digests. When he replies, he asks only one question. “Do you think she’s dead?”
John takes a long moment to search his core. He hasn’t dwelled this long on Cheryl since he got out of Ravenscar. It hurts in a way that feels cold inside. He had never considered that she may be dead after all, that closure would never come and his life would be forever defined by the hole she had left in it. But something stirs inside him and it is with a resolute and absolute confidence that he says: “No. She’s alive.”
Francis draws a deep breath. “Alright then.”
They drive for a bit longer; then Francis changes the subject, hoping to lighten the atmosphere in the car. “Who you off to see then? This old chum of yours.”
“Gary Lester.” John pauses, but Francis doesn’t respond, so John elaborates just to fill the silence. “We used to go to school together, all three of us. Weirdos, we were. Those kids who drew spells on each other in biro during class and made oujia boards on our school books. Never knew anyone else other than Gary who liked the macabre like I did, and I think Cheryl just humoured me so I didn’t feel like so much of a freak. And we were all into our punk. Used to dream that we could cast some magic to turn us into rockstars. ‘Mucous Membrane’, we would’ve called ourselves. Soon grew up, though. And then when Cheryl went missing...we were all out of our minds. Said some things I regret. Made some cruel accusations and poked at open secrets. His mum moved him to London and we haven’t spoken since. Wrote him some letters while I was…” John pauses. He’s not sure how much he should open up yet. “...away, but never got anything back. If he’s still around, I need to repair what’s left. Make my apologies. Find some closure. Un-burn the bridges.”
Francis gives John a look of respect. “That’s some very noble honesty there, Johnno. Takes a lot to allow that humility in yourself. When do you plan to go see him?”
John shrugs. “Dunno. Day’s getting on now. Guess it’ll be tomorrow.”
“You got anywhere to stay when we get to the city?”
John shakes his head, but doesn’t say anything or look at Francis.
“Got a free sofa. And I’m still off work tomorrow so I can give you a lift to the address. And to the hospital after, if needs be.”
John feels the same warm swell of gratitude again, and envisions a tether between himself and Francis. He feels an innate sense of trust in the London cabbie, and hopes that Francis feels the same in him. John nods.
“Yes, please. Thank you. You’re being...very kind.”
“It’s no bother. You seem a decent bloke.”
“All the same. Thank you, Francis.”
“You’re welcome, John. And call me Chas. All my friends do.”
“Chas.” John repeats, nodding. He smiles, for perhaps the first time since he went into Ravenscar. The smile quickly turns into a scream of fear as John is forced to brace himself against the door as Chas brakes and swerves across all three lanes of the motorway to gun down a slip road to services. He cuts off a lorry as he does so and the horn from the front cab pierces through John, although Chas only responds with more swears and gestures out the window as they accelerate away and into the carpark. John’s face is a picture of stunned fear as Chas parks up, and Chas chuckles as he pulls the handbrake up and takes a look at John as he steps out of the car.
“Sorry pal. Got distracted and nearly missed this turn off. Last whoppers before the city. Can’t be helped.”
John just blinks, and then laughs a deep, long laugh while Chas watches, puzzled but amused.