Stephen McQuiggan

Am I Clean?

Hackett hated shaving because it took so long. He had so many areas of his face to avoid, too many accident blackspots to manoeuvre around, and all the while the distracting pounding of his Aunt on the bathroom door, accusing him of masturbating. Her constant harangues made his nerves quiver and his hand shake until blood seeped through the foam like raspberry ripple atop an ice cream cone. As if there was anything in the house to masturbate to; even his imagination was filled with limp terrors.

After he finished his face Hackett shaved his head, then his chest, his arms and legs. The whole process seemed to take forever, and all the while Aunt Marie crowing, ‘Are you tugging at yourself in there, boy? You’ll turn yourself inside out, you little fool!’ Then he stepped out, just a towel wrapped around his mottled body, covered in bleeding little nicks but, thankfully, no hairs.

Aunt Marie rubbed her hands all over his smooth torso. ‘You’ve removed your Devil fur,’ she clucked.

‘Just for you,’ he smiled, kissing her, running his long lumpy tongue over her dentures. He plucked himself from her panting grasp and locked himself in his bedroom. He needed solitude to begin the long process of getting dressed.

He stood in front of the full length mirror on the back of the door and (Are you fiddling with yourself again?) took a can of spray paint (Are you shaking your demon wand?), humming to himself as he applied the first layer to drown out his Aunt’s querulous voice. He sprayed his legs red and his torso green and his arms yellow. He avoided his genitalia and his buttocks; on his face he daubed a white foundation he had pilfered from Auntie’s dressing table.

He waited an age until he was dry (You’re awfully quiet in there, have you gone blind?), breathing in the harsh chemical hit of the paint in the small airless room; feeling high, feeling mighty. When he was sure he was no longer dripping he opened his wardrobe and perused his night-time collection. He sighed; it was impossible to decide – he would have to do Eenie Meenie or flip a coin.

He settled on a waistcoat made from baby bones, that was left to him by his Father, and a necklace of eyeballs; still fresh, if a little crusty. He put on a skirt of tempered female flesh, enjoying how the stiff folds flapped when he moved and how the hairs prickled his shorn skin. Hackett admired himself for a time, pulling faces in the mirror. He knew something was missing – he took a scalp from the drawer, licked the blood from it, and hung it from his skirt: Perfect. He growled menacingly at his reflection then went back out to confront his Aunt who was sitting on a boulder in the dark hallway.

‘Well,’ he said, trying to hide the nerves in his voice, ‘am I pure? Am I clean?’

‘You’re one of the filthiest, evil looking things I ever did see,’ she said. ‘Why, the stench of you alone is enough to curdle my gut. You’d give Old Nick himself the jaundice.’ Aunt Marie’s brow knitted as if she were in pain, then her ratty little face broke into a vicious grin. ‘Come here, you monstrous big bastard, and give your old Auntie a hug!’

Hackett spun her in his arms, so happy he could howl, but careful not to crush his eyeball necklace; it took a lot of work to harvest them, and his large clumsy fingers struggled to string them.

‘Are you going out now?’ his Aunt asked when he set her down, ‘it’s just about sunset.’

‘Yes,’ breathed Hackett, unhappy how his voice had risen to a harmless timbre in his excitement.

‘Well, don’t forget your boots.’

Hackett sighed; he loved his boots, all human skin and studded with teeth. ‘They don’t fit me anymore,’ he said, pointing down at his toenails which had grown so long they curled like a Genie’s slippers.

Aunt Marie tutted. ‘You really are disgusting,’ she said, kissing him long and slow. ‘Now go out and kill something, make an old woman proud!’

Hackett made his way up the dusty tunnels, leaping the corpses of the mangy dogs that had sustained them these last few lean months, his Aunt’s voice at his back. ‘Give them hell, you filthy Swine!’ He laughed to himself – Swine – it was the greatest insult she had in her limited arsenal, and although it sounded childish to his ears he knew she meant it from the dregs of her rotten soul.

When he emerged from the cave and into the damp bracken the sun was just setting, casting red jailhouse bars across the fields below. Hackett shivered, though the night was mild; down in the meadow he could see the old donkey grazing by the riverbank. How he hated that donkey, hated it because he feared it – the stoic old donkey had eyes that seemed able to burrow down and rummage through his darkest secrets.

He didn’t want his secrets to be exposed. He would be ruined. Auntie would turn him out of the lair if she found out he…No, he must remain calm; he was a disgusting creature, a foul shade, everyone said so. He would march past that donkey and tear it limb from limb if it so much as looked at him out of the corner of its flyblown eye. Still, for all his sudden bravado, Hackett wished there was an alternate route that wouldn’t cross its sardonic path.

By the time he got to the forest several of the toenails he had been cultivating had broken off like the brittle twigs that littered his path. Hackett barely noticed. He beat his chest and, now that he was safely past its probing analysis, roared at the donkey as he plunged into the trees, moving toward the shimmering lights of the village that sparkled between the trunks. Somewhere a wolf howled and sharpened the sickle moon until it sliced at his eyes. Hackett moaned, fighting back the urge to return to the cave; the thought of his Aunt’s disapproval drove him on.

He stopped as the darkling woods thinned out, sprawling on his belly on the crest of a bank that overlooked the park. There were swing sets down there, a climbing frame, a roundabout and, best of all, a slide. Sometimes, in the chill early hours when he was supposed to be hunting, Hackett would take turns on all of them, giggling to himself all the while.

Part of him hoped that no-one would turn up tonight and he could have a go on the slide, but he knew that was unlikely – it was a Friday night and that meant the bigger kids would show up, drinking wine and sniffing glue and groping each other undercover of darkness. He hoped there wouldn’t be too many of them, that was why he had arrived early. They tended to drift into the park in small clusters and Hackett was confident he could pick one of them off if their numbers were small.

And if they didn’t stand too near to the duck pond. Hackett was scared of the ducks – vicious, feathery little bastards, with their black knowing eyes.

He kept his head low, his breathing shallow, listening for a sound that did not belong here. Soon he heard it – laughter, a snatch of song – and his heart pressed up closer to his ribs; the sound of young flesh, and girl flesh at that. Hackett sank back down into a thicket, sucking on an eyeball from his necklace as he waited for the voices to come a little closer.

There were two of them, all shiny hair and short skirts and earrings that looked like screaming fish mouths. They were smoking cigarettes in an ostentatious manner as they walked, as if by blowing toxins out of their puckered little mouths they might somehow transcend the emptiness of their bleak lives.

Hackett grinned, the eyeball plopping out of his drooling mouth and slapping wetly against his chest. He was confident he could handle two little girls; Auntie would eat well tonight, she would be so proud of him to boot! Maybe she would even compare him to his Father. The thought made him tingle below.

He had to move quickly before the others arrived. He knew only too well that a couple of little girls, like flies around dung, soon attracted a gang of little boys; little boys with liquor and itchy groins – a combination that often caused little boys to act like heroes.

Hackett waited until the girls wiggled their way over to the bench by the slide. He had already picked out the plumpest one to target, the one who would be slowest and provide the biggest meal (the other girl was only good for soup), before he made his move. Their chatter soon ceased, their faces lit by the sterile glow of their phones, as they texted away oblivious of the world around them; lost in a nether world of self love and boundless vanity.

Hackett rose slowly before launching himself down the bank with a bowel loosening roar, charging toward the young girls with his huge arms outspread, his waistcoat of bones clacking, his eyeball necklace swinging maniacally, his hairless flesh gleaming in a multitude of gaudy colours. He bared his pointed teeth, the drool dripping from them like silver rain.

The girls looked up from their phones, frozen for an instant by the sight before them, their mouths open to unleash screams that would rouse the whole village; but what emerged instead from their pouty little mouths stopped Hackett in his tracks and sent him scurrying back into the trees: Laughter.

Cold, heartless, mocking laughter.

‘What the fuck are you like!’ one shouted after him, giggling fit to burst. ‘Pervert!’ yelled the other, her voice full of joyful malice as her phone flashed like lightning to document his retreat; ‘Freak! Paedo! Weirdo!’ The insults stabbed home hard, every one, until Hackett found himself mercifully out of earshot.

He collapsed in a sobbing heap at the far edge of the woods, crying so hard the foundation ran from his cheeks. Lurching back to his feet he skirted the fields warily; the old donkey would be waiting for him, mocking his failure with its inscrutable black eyes. Oh, how he would love to tear that foul beast apart, beat it to death with its own hooves – but even the thought of approaching the foul thing terrified him.

Trailing a moan of despair, Hackett sprinted back to the caves, discarding his waistcoat, his necklace, his pathetic baubles of borrowed horror on his way. He lay naked in the tunnels amongst the half chewed corpses of the village strays, weeping until his lungs hitched painfully and his heart was spiked by sorrow’s stabbing blade.

Auntie Marie came to him then, smoothing his matted hair down with a hoary old claw, whispering soothing obscenities in his ear. ‘What did they do on you, my darling boy?’

‘Oh, Auntie!’ he wailed, ‘they…they laughed at me!’

‘Jaded little fools,’ she tutted, licking away his tears, fondling him down below, ‘What do they know of real monsters nowadays.’

Hackett sat up, wiping the bone dust from his chest. ‘But,’ he began, unable to finish the terrible thought that now consumed him.

‘But what, child?’ cooed Auntie Marie, picking the burrs from his ears and chewing them slowly.

‘But what if I’m…clean?’ Hackett blurted out, ‘What if that’s why they laugh at me, why they aren’t afraid? What if I’m clean, what if deep down I’m pure?’

Hackett began to shake uncontrollably until Auntie gripped his shoulders, digging her cancerous black nails into his flesh. ‘Listen to me, whelp,’ she hissed, her breath a carrion nightmare. ‘You are one of the most disgusting, ugliest, worthless creatures to ever have been spawned from a rotten womb. You take after your Father, an Ogre amongst Ogres – why, the Devil himself would gag looking at you.’

She hugged him tightly and Hackett melted in her embrace, hiding his wet eyes on the bristly patch at the base of her throat. How he loved his Aunt. He loved her so much it shamed him, for he believed that love was where his purity stemmed from. Maybe if he were to kill her then –

No, the thought repulsed him beyond measure. He hugged her ever tighter, counting her ribs with the tip of his long black tongue; better by far to be clean and scorned than to be truly wicked and alone.

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