He carried the woman out of the boot of his car using a fireman’s lift. Her wrinkled hand with knotted arthritic joints grazed his cheek, making his skin crawl. He could almost feel the dirt under her nails infect him. Of course, he wanted to help her but, regardless, he was repelled by her feral state.
The pair were at his cottage in the country just outside town in a sparsely populated neighbourhood where it rained so much the rivers swelled to twice their size in winter and the trees dominated the horizon.
He heaved her onto the sofa bed – the springs groaning, moths fluttering out of the crumpled sheets. The woman sighed and showed signs of surfacing. He bolted all the doors and pulled up a chair opposite her – ready with mace and a rope in case things turned nasty. He rolled himself a cigarette with the artistry of a calligrapher.
As the woman came to, she propped her head on her hand and absorbed the scene – red velvet curtains drawn, stale smell of potatoes, spiders’ webs assembled in every corner. This wasn’t a home, definitely not a bachelor’s pad, but a place where untold pain had been suffered. The man licked another cigarette into a perfectly smooth cylinder and offered it to her. She shook her head with a grimace.
It was then she noticed the rope and mace he’d placed on the floor that was lined with plastic sheeting. Trying to shrug off her nausea she said, “I have nothing and I have no family for you to blackmail. Kill me if you want.”
“I’m not going to kill you, and I don’t want anything from you. I’m here to help.”
“So, you’re one of those twisted freaks who gets off on power. Well do your worst.”
“You haven’t aged well,” he said, flicking through some notes. “Says here you’re thirty-two. You look sixty. I’m guessing the drug you’re on is Fathomalide, right? I’ve seen these aging effects before, but not so pronounced. What are you doing on a posh drug like that anyway?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m your repo man and now the best friend you’ve got.”
“Whatever, mate, I’m past caring. You’ve already taken everything from me.”
She stretched her arms then scratched her cheek, loosening a scab of dry skin that floated down from her face, nestling amongst the folds of the duvet. The man noticed her sagging skin hanging from her throat.
“So, you’re going to get me clean? I’m no normal fiend, I warn you.”
“I’ve seen it all before,” he said, prodding his phone, scrolling through pictures of her belongings. “Give it twenty-four hours, you’ll be a new woman. See, my method is I show the addict pictures that connect with their past. It’s cathartic. Taking drugs blocks the emotions, getting in touch with the past sets the mind free – free from the ties of addiction. Being a repo man gives me the perfect opportunity to access their possessions.”
“You don’t have family a family do you; otherwise why would you care about a random stranger like me? And you ain’t no Mother Teresa either, so what gives?”
The man began to tap his foot – disgruntled. He stood and decided not to defend himself. He went to his room, grumbling under his breath, flopped onto his bed and continued analysing pictures. He uploaded the pictures to his laptop and let them scroll across the screen, one after another.
She began to sweat – a cold fever taking control of her body. She could only wait. She pulled on a single strand of hair, curled it around her finger and then plucked it out. By the time the man returned she’d cleared a tiny bald patch above her forehead. He sat and stared at her, curling his upper lip with disgust.
He pointed at her; “your face is – is disgusting. It’s all peeling, look.”
There were flakes of skin in a small heap beside her, mingled with loose strings of hair.
“Let’s get you into a bath and clean you up.”
As they moved into the bathroom, through the open door of his bedroom the woman could see the pictures displayed on his computer. She spied one photo in particular – a shot of an elderly couple – and as the man helped her fragile frame along, her legs buckled from beneath her. She gasped. The man struggled to maintain their balance, feeling her hip bone dig into his side. He rested her on a stool by the sink, drew the woman a bath, laying out some worn towels and a shrivelled-up piece of soap.
“What just happened? You nearly fell,” he said
“My parents, a picture of my parents. They died recently.”
She wiped tears from her eyes as steam clouded the bathroom mirror. The man turned off the taps and the last few droplets splashed into the body of water.
“Take a long soak. We’ll get through this.”
“Why are you doing this to me?
“Take as long as you need and when you’re clean maybe we can look at some more photos. It’ll quicken the process.”
The woman took off her hoodie, leggings and beaten-up trainers as the man closed the door on her. Her naked body was hunched and blighted with scars from bedbugs that had ravaged her skin. She lowered herself into the water and began to shake, falling into a silent fit, losing control of her senses as time ground by slowly.
An hour later the man opened the bathroom door and chucked inside a clean tracksuit for her to wear. As she returned to the living room the man noticed her appearance was significantly altered – her posture was erect, her skin was taut, her scars healed, the leaden glare in her eyes, gone. She was transformed. Then the man’s attention was drawn to a stench emanating from the bathroom.
“Smells like something died in there,” he said, and he went to investigate. As he peered through the door, scouring the room, everything was normal, until he realised laying by the bundle of the woman’s dirty clothes was another pile, consisting of a mysterious material. An odd fly dipped and dodged about the mass, that on closer inspection looked like flesh. He poked it with his foot. It gave way and rippled. The form reminded him of flaccid, discarded intestines.
“The old me,” the woman said, grinning from ear to ear, peering over his shoulder. “I tell you; I’ve never felt better.”
“What just happened?”
“I thought you’ve seen it all. Come on, let’s look at some more pictures, I want to finish this.”
In a daze the man got a bin bag and scooped up the rotting flesh with rubber gloves and it oozed through his fingers. He recoiled in disgust. He dumped the bag outside as maggots squirmed in the creases of the mushy bundle.
After dinner the man collected his laptop from his bedroom and set it up on the kitchen table allowing the woman to comfortably focus her attention on the photos of the possessions that had once represented her entire world.
“Stop,” she said after a dozen or so photos had drifted by, “let me look at that one in more detail.”
A brown teddy bear was pictured – a toy without any real distinguishing features – and yet the woman reacted to it violently, clutching her stomach as if she’d been stabbed. Within seconds, her belly had swollen, stretching her top out as if she was six months pregnant. She pulled up her hoodie and pressed her hands against the naked bulge, stroking bruised veins that poked out of her skin. She whispered gentle words to the unborn soul. “It’s ok,” she said, “this time will be different.”
The man dragged his fingers through his hair and wore a look of disbelief.
“I’m going to need pears, lots of pears,” she said, eyes glued to her tummy.
“Uh, ok. Listen, do you know what’s going on? Because I don’t know what’s going on.”
“I think I’m pregnant.”
“Yes, it looks that way.”
“Ok, you really want pears. Give me an hour and I’ll stock up. I have to lock you in because we’re not finished. I hope you understand. But you’ll have your pears soon and we’ll figure this out.”
As he returned, heaving groceries under each arm while juggling his keys, he looked around for the woman but she was nowhere to be seen. Only then did he notice a streak of blood marking the floor. He heard a sharp cry. He dropped his bags and raced into the bathroom. The woman was on the floor, resting her back against the bath, writhing in pain. Her lower body was stripped bare and blood gurgled out of her crotch. Then something slimy, something large forced its way out of her, moving imperceptibly, maybe even breathing.
“You did this,” said the woman, “you.”
“Did what? How?” he said.
“Never mind. It’s dead. I don’t know why I thought it would be any different this time.”
“Please explain, what’s happening.”
“My drug, it eats my insides up. I’ve had one miscarriage after another throughout my life. Seeing that teddy brought all the memories flooding back – memories of a time when I was preparing to become a mum.”
“We need to keep you off the drug and clean your system out. Maybe looking at some more pictures would help. Trust me I know what drugs can do. I never had a proper family because of them. That’s why I always wanted to be a dad. But it hasn’t happened for me yet.”
“That’s a touching story. Look, I believe you mean well but I don’t want this anymore. I can’t do it.”
She got to her feet, blood and mucus pouring down her thighs and walked into the living room as the man laid a towel over the dead foetus, ready to be binned beside the skin festering in the trash cans outside. Despite her anguish, she looked fresh and full of life. Her hair glossy, teeth white. She had oily skin too and was breaking out in spots around her forehead and temples. She could pass for a teenager.
She picked up the laptop, with the man’s phone still hooked up to it, raised them above her head and sent them crashing to the ground, spreading broken electronics to each corner of the room like scuttling cockroaches. The man dashed out of the bathroom, head in hands, and screamed at her with every sinew in his body, causing the girl to cower. “Why!” he cried, “don’t you see that was our only hope!”
“Hope for who? Maybe there’s hope for you, but not me. At least if I can block any memories that trigger me, I can avoid going through more pain.”
The man took several deep breaths. There was always a solution.
“Listen, let’s gets some sleep, we’re both on edge and I’m sure we’ll see things clearer in the morning.”
That night, while the girl tossed and turned in bed – troubled by sinister dreams of rabid dogs attacking her stillborn baby, the man injected her with a sedative and bound and gagged her. By the time she woke up she found herself seated in a large room illuminated by halogen lights and filled with boxes – some nailed shut, others crowbarred open, with possessions spread across the floor.
“This is your lockup, and these are all your repossessed belongings,” said the man. “Now I’m going to take off your gag. Scream if you want to, the place is deserted.”
Once she was freed the girl said, “What now?”
“Well, we find the next trigger.”
“Where does this end? Please let me go before something worse happens.”
“Don’t look at it that way, we’re on the cusp of something important.”
The man began to sift through boxes, ripping open lids and burrowing deep inside. He fished out clothing, kitchenware, paperwork, and held them up to the girl in the hope that an object would spark a reaction. When he found a child’s watch, with the design of a unicorn floating on a rainbow, the girl sat bolt upright, straining against her ropes.
“This is something, isn’t it?” He said. “Who does it belong to? Did you have a child after all? What is it, tell me?”
Her neck began to shift from one side to the other making a loud cracking sound. The man hid the watch from the girl’s view and her body immediately slumped in relaxation.
“Ok,” he said, “I want you to be entirely honest with me. And if you do, I will let you go. This whole thing will be over for you, I promise. But you have to explain yourself.”
“Yes, I have other things to do too you know.”
“That watch belonged to my older sister. She died of a brain tumour when I was young. I didn’t really know what was happening, I was too little, but anyway I wouldn’t stop crying after she passed. I cried and cried and my parents couldn’t cope. Their solution was to put me on a new drug at the time, Fathomalide. Well, the crying stopped, but it had side effects – uncontrollable vomiting, joint pain, weird growths on my body – things like that. But my parents kept me on it and I seemed to adjust.”
“But now,” he said, “you’re suffering consequences in ways you could never imagine, right?”
“Right. Now do as you promised, let me go.”
“I did promise, didn’t I. But to be honest it’s just too tempting to find out what will happen next.”
He held out the watch, dangling it by her nose as she began to gag and her body rocked from side to side. Her lips trembled and snot dribbled into her mouth. He moved the watch closer to the girl’s nose, dangling it with a steady hand as the girl fell into contortions.
“What are you? What can I do with you?” he said.
The girl spat at the man’s cheek and he wiped off the saliva with the cuff of his shirt. Suddenly there were ripping sounds. Her tracksuit tore as bones jutted out of cloth – spine, shoulders and knees, poking through like jagged knives. He could see blood dripping from her flesh. She tried to close her eyes, but somehow, she was compelled to maintain her gaze.
“Help me!” she cried.
Then everything changed. A cascade of vomit spewed out of her mouth, knocking him back on his heels sending the watch flying across the room. Then a gel-like substance was excreted from her pores all over her body, casting her in a thick layer of gunge from head to toe. As the gel solidified around her body, he could hear the sound of bones shifting and crunching again.
The man listened as her voice murmured from inside her casing. He could hear the girl sobbing, becoming desperate – a clawing cry that set the man’s nerves on end. He couldn’t hold back any longer. He thrust his arms into the gel and searched around, finally grabbing hold of her as she shuddered with fear. He pulled out the body and a green discharge spurted across the room. He unveiled a child of about two years old, draped in sopping wet rags.
“It’s OK, it’s OK,” the man said, wiping the pus from her face. The child took some deep breaths, ceased crying for a few seconds as she took in her environment, her new body and the man staring intently into her eyes. But it didn’t take long before she started up like a car engine and began to wail again.
“Ok,” he said, “what do you want? What shall I do?”
The child was inconsolable. There was the sound of activity outside. It was dawn and the lockup was opening for business.
“We’ve got to get out of here. Hold on to me. I won’t let you go.”
He gathered up the child in his arms and raced to his car before his bleary-eyed co-workers could discover any wrongdoing. The man placed the child in the passenger seat and strapped her in. Still crying, he held her by the shoulders and said, “This doesn’t fit but it’ll have to do for now. Listen, you belong to me now. I can look after you in the ways your parents never could. You will need me like I need you. I know I treated you badly but one day you’ll understand why it had to be done. So, let’s both start over. Just please, please stop crying.”
They drove off into the morning streets, sun nestling behind a block of trees, casting a long shadow in the man’s rear-view mirror. They had no place where they had to be, nothing tying them down. They would find their own way, in their own time – into the burning heart of the future.