WARNING: Contains Adult Content, including sexual situations, drug abuse, and strong language throughout.
“I became a hero only because I survived.” ~ Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman
He became a hero because of his face. Or, more accurately, his eyes, which were the black of sacrificial chocolate drunk from Aztec gold. A sickly prettiness had made him what he was, and what he was made him walk the streets at night when saner people were locked up tight in their homes, where the vampires were just shades on a TV screen and only the wicked stayed out after dark.
He had never been wicked, not in his heart; but stay out after dark he did, because it was expected of him.
The light was neon pink, a bubblegum comet skating over wet tarmac. Funny how a few lights could make even the gutters pretty, he thought, as his eyes squinched down against the passing headlights and the Hubba-Bubba splash on the pavement dwindled behind him. Too fucking pretty, maybe. His head ached in gentle fits and starts; the splashes of colour in the gutter twinkled and flashed like falling stars. They were lousy clubs round here, all noise and lights and kids without a decent score between them. Downtown would be better, with the hookers, the hard drinkers. Downtown, that was where the action was. The Jack Daniels had done little more than tap the edges of his thirst; still he ached in the bone with need and every passing light was a stab in his eye.
Girls passed him, eyed him, faces torched with streetlights and booze. He laughed, tipped his glasses as a gentleman doffs his hat. One foot plunged from the curb, splashed down into run-off ankle deep; but he just laughed again, shook it off, and then the girls were gone in a sweet trill of laughter and a whiff of scent. Their fading perfume pounded against his headache, but no matter. Another hit would fix it, another spliff, another drink. There was nothing he wouldn’t try. Not anymore.
Would his mum care, if she knew where he was? He doubted it. She had taken up with that tosser, hadn’t she, that new-age tree-shagger, the one that kept preaching about the vampires and their quiet, ineffable spread. He’d been down these streets fifty times, a hundred, and he’d never seen a single fucking vampire. Media hype and wishful thinking, that was all it was. Scaremongering.
There were no vampires.
There was rain, however: at first only a gentle dash on his lips and in his eyelashes, then the broader lines of a shower cutting down the lenses of his glasses like stripes. The air had chilled; he had come out without his jacket, forgotten it, he thought, in the last club, and so he hugged his arms across his chest and wished his vest had sleeves. Its hem flopped wetly about his belly like sail cloth; his feet had been trudging through the run-off in the gutter for half a block before he noticed that his socks were soaked through. It was the girls, of course – they had distracted him, with their sweet, boozy musk and up-thrust, rain-damp breasts. He felt a stirring in his jeans, his dick hardening and uncoiling against the denim. Another itch to be scratched, and soon. Another need.
The Pink Pussycat floated out of the haze like a ship emerging from a fog, its candy floss lights burning up the vapour in the air. Then its noise, its bass line thumping through the pavement and into his blood, a wall of sound offering a slight resistance as he pushed through. The Pink Pussycat was always a good bet, now that his regular venues had dried up. Now that he daren’t show his face anywhere it would be recognised.
Inside the bodies were dense as the noise and the noise dense as thought, and his ears tried to crawl inside his head to escape its walloping beat. The heat hit him like a blast from an oven door. Right up to the entrance couples swayed, packed too close to dance and too tight to fall down no matter how drunk, and he almost reconsidered. It was prime ground, and he was certain to score; but already the ripeness of so many sweating, smoking, drinking, druggy dancers made him gag and the heat seemed to bake the hair from his arms. On a nearby table a girl stood up and yanked down her top to reveal two small, pointed breasts painted red with disco lights; under another two young men were kissing with their hands in each other’s crotches and their shorn hair alight with sweat. And for a moment, just a moment, he wondered what he was doing here, amongst the losers and the scag-hags and the terminally unemployed. But it was only a moment, and it passed; and he was just about to push his way through the crowd when he felt a hand on his arm.
“So there you are, Babe! About bloody time, the blokes in here are about as much use as a limp dick.”
It was bellowed over the din, and he turned his head with no idea, at first, who had spoken to him, or whose red-varnished nails rested on his arm. She had come close to roar her greeting in his ear, stooping a little; she stood taller than him in her six-inch heels. Blonde hair exploded upward from her head in an ’80s top knot, the roots black, a bandana in lurid yellow binding it in place. Her lips were a Halloween orange in the coruscating neon but outside, he knew, they would be pink as the Pussycat’s sign.
“Tracy,” he tried to say, with a relief he hadn’t thought to feel; but the music was too loud, and the word was lost.
He felt a sweaty hand slipped into his, and then he was being led out through the door at his back into the rain-washed street. Outside the downpour had thickened and passing cars threw sheets of spray onto the pavements; their feet splashed through gutters gurgling with foam and litter as they jogged across the road, away from the pink lights and the black noise, and into an alley. He went where he was led. It was expected of him.
Tracy had her mouth on his almost before they stopped. Her lips were greasy with lipstick and her breath was a swoon of booze and cigarette smoke, but it was easy to respond: easy to imagine those girls with their wet clothes and high, musical laughter, and feel himself harden again.
It was expected of him.
“So what were you lookin’ for tonight, sugar?” she asked, taking her tarry tongue from his mouth long enough to snatch a breath. “Cash, was it?”
He pointed to his sweaty brow, his fever-bright eyes, and saw that his hand was shaking. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“Oh, I can sort you out there, love, no problem. And let’s see about getting you some grub, you look like you haven’t eaten in weeks.”
He smiled wanly, and it felt like a pencil-mark on his face; but Tracy beamed back as if he had kissed her hand, and pressed her chemical-tasting mouth to his once again. He disappeared into her lean heat with his mind uncoupled from his body like a train carriage from its engine.
It was quick and messy and the rain beat into his back and down his bare arms, but Tracy herself was warm and close as he slid inside. His arms trembled as he lifted her against the wall; perhaps weeks was an exaggeration, but today he hadn’t eaten a thing. She came quickly with a high, shrill giggle and the taste of fag-ash on her breath; he came without enjoyment but with a kind of desperate, weary relief.
He let her down onto her wobbling heels and for a moment stood with his forehead pressed into her neck; weakness swam through his head and his eyesight had pulled in at the edges, like a tide. He closed his eyes and listened to her slowing breath and let her boozy heat warm him – but it was only skin-warmth, this. It couldn’t thaw the ice in his bones.
“Poor duck,” he heard, in his ear, and then her big, laundress’ hands settled in his hair. “So pretty, with your black eyes.”
He pulled away, reluctantly, back into the cold. Another moment . . . another moment and he would be crying on her, and that, like so many things, wasn’t expected of him.
“Sod off,” he said, dismissively. “There’s more meat on a bloody wishbone.”
“Well. Maybe we can go see to that next.”
They stepped back out on to the street and Tracy lit up a fag to puff as they went along. The rain had stopped and the people had begun to venture out onto the streets, making a mad dash to wherever they had to be before the April showers began anew. Some of them cast glances in the direction of the mismatched pair, and Tracy smirked around her cigarette with a mouth now devoid of lipstick. In the shop lights her round face looked every bit its forty-odd years.
“They’re not lookin’ at me, love,” she said, at last.
“Yeah. They’re probably wondering where the rest of me is.”
Tracy wisely said nothing, and they walked on, her heels high, bright chimes on the wet pavement.
She bought them fish and chips and they ate it from the paper with their fingers, sat on the broken wall of a car park nearby; and if she noticed how listlessly he ate or how his fingers fumbled at the fat-crackled papers, then she said nothing.
“You can’t go on like this, you know,” she said, at last.
Around a snapping mouthful of batter, he mumbled: “Like what?”
“Like what, he says. Like you’re trying to kill yourself, that’s what. One of these days you’re gonna get a bad customer, you are, or take a bad dose, whichever happens first. You’re a good kid and I don’t want to see on the news how another one turned up dead in an alley.”
He swallowed his mouthful and didn’t reach for another. He only sat, drumming quartz from the wall with his heels, and said nothing.
“Not gonna defend yourself?” It was mild, cool as the breeze that blew desultory drops of rain from the trees.
“Trace, look, come on, you know why not. You know what I did.” At least, you know some of it.
Tracy sighed. Set aside the vinegary paper still half-full of chips, and turned bodily on the wall to face him. Her eyelashes were frosted with damp and a soot of mascara powdered her eyelids, but he saw that under the scum of paint, her eyes were kind. “Look, why don’t you come home with me? I’ll pay you for the night and you can get a good kip for a change. One condition, mind: I won’t have you shooting up at my gaff, you can save that for the morning. Now how about it?”
But he was already shaking his head, no; the half-empty paper drooped, forgotten, in his hand.
“For fuck’s sake, is getting high really that important to you? You’d rather walk the fucking streets than skip it for one night?”
“It helps me forget,” he said. Quietly. He wouldn’t look at her.
The big, wash-roughened hands silently laid aside the remains of her dinner; peeled one of his from his knee; stroked it, with her calloused thumb. He could feel her eyes settle on his badly-cropped hair, his gaunt cheeks, the glasses sliding persistently down his nose. Still, he couldn’t look at her. In his hands the chip papers were a roadmap of oil and vinegar, waiting, perhaps, to offer up their secret to any eyes that cared to search for it; still, he wouldn’t look at her. Still, he felt how badly she willed him to accept.
“It wasn’t your fault, you know,” she said; and the unexpected gentleness in her voice caught at his throat like a fish hook.
“Well, it was someone’s fault.” Benny’s. It was Benny’s fault. But that didn’t make him feel any better.
Silence. Then: “You didn’t know it was cut. Did you?”
He shook his head; something dripped from his chin into the open papers, making a transparent circle in the paper like a landmark amongst the vinegar-stitched roads. Raining again. But no; it wasn’t raining. There was no water coming from the sky. There hadn’t been for ten minutes.
“Well,” Tracy said, at last. “You killing yourself ain’t gonna bring ’em back.”
She withdrew her fitful hand, and after a moment and a mumbled malediction he heard her rummaging in her handbag. Then he felt a plastic bag slipped into his redundant hand, and looking down saw the syringe and the spoonful of white powder he had been dreaming of since nightfall. Small, so small, so much larger than his hunger or his need for sleep. He could refuse it, he understood; he could go home with Tracy and maybe she would want more from him in exchange for his bed and maybe she wouldn’t, but it would be easy, now. Easy to give her what she wanted, when she had been so kind. He imagined clean sheets, a hot shower: tea in a cracked mug and so syrupy with sugar that the spoon stood up in it unaided. An electric fire, maybe, something to huddle against and feel his skin thaw.
But his bones: they would never thaw. His heart.
He didn’t deserve them to.
“You’re still giving it to me?” he said, incredulously.
“You paid for it, sugar. I would’ve taken the cash, but it’s none of my business.”
He realised that Tracy was standing up; dusting salt from her skirt; settling her handbag on her bony shoulder.
“You come and look me up if that shit don’t kill ya,” she said: brusque now, the business concluded, her hands washed of it. “See if you can’t learn what’s good for you and accept some bloody help when it’s offered.”
The streets emptied, the further he walked. The lights paled, became less regular, winked out. Occasionally he passed a single livid white street lamp, an isolated moon casting its smoky orbit onto the dark ground . . . but for the most part, and to the relief of his aching head, there was darkness. Like a coat, like sleep. The windows he passed were likewise dark – boarded or merely unlit, he couldn’t tell. Mist trawled around his knees and sparkled under the rarifying lights, and the buildings looked unfamiliar. The street had the look of shuttered houses and dismal, empty rooms. No cars stood at the curb, no dustbins flanked garage doors or cats lolled on garden walls. And there was silence. Gone was the throaty bass beat spilling from a club doorway, and the vibrations of speakers kicking out sound. Only the warbling splash of the water at his feet remained. That, and the thud of his own heart in his ears.
There were a lot of areas like this, now. Since the vampire stories leaked people panicked, became convinced of marauding creatures tearing through their homes and through them like Nazis raiding the houses of Jews. It was nonsense, of course; if the vampires existed anywhere but in the minds of newspaper editors and TV producers then they would take the fringes of society, the runaways, the drunks, the dispossessed. But he was the dispossessed, the drunk, the young thing walking alone at night through darker streets than this one, and he had never seen so much as a shadow in the trees. The monsters he had encountered took a much more mundane form.
He slipped behind the nearest of the garden walls and sat, cross-legged, with the brick nicking skin from his back and the mud squelching under him. It would wash off, he decided; in the past few minutes the air had begun to fill once more with a steady, uncertain drizzle, and over to the east sooty clouds amassed like iron filings drawn towards a magnet.
The stuff in the bag was a good #4, cloudy white, and not the scuzzy beige he sometimes scored, the eighty-percent quinine or dirty chalk. Good shit, this. Maybe strong. No mass adulterants from Tracy, no, not her, and not after . . . not after what had happened two weeks ago. Ajax. That fucking shipment had been cut with Ajax.
There was something else in the little plastic sandwich bag – a keyring. On it, two Yale keys attempting a lonely jingle as the plastic shifted under his fingers.
Oh, Trace, he thought. You’re still trying to save me and you can’t. You can’t.
But he could imagine so easily the way that those keys would slip into the little round disc of metal in her door – the outer door of the tenement and the door of her flat, he had no doubt – and the little tug as they turned in an old lock. The quiet inside.
Until the nightmares started, that was. Until he fell asleep and his victims, those people whose faces he had never even seen except in newspaper halftones, woke up. Until Benny rose from his unquiet grave in that industrial incinerator, a horror of blackened muscle adhering to the charred sticks of his corpse, too burnt now even to bleed.
He had to tear the elastic from his underwear for a tourniquet, and held its end in his teeth as he felt for a good, plump vein. The needle slid into him as he had slid into Tracy: easily, the wistful relief of slipping into a hot bath at the end of the day. Even the tiny pinch at his elbow was nothing, a pin-prick, a mosquito bite. Only this mosquito brought a different kind of poison.
As he waited he watched the stars, feeling the eager rush of his heart pushing the blood around his body – at first only tilting his head against the unkind wall, then sliding full-length into the mud with his limbs splayed and the soft rain plinking onto his glasses. Little April showers. Fucking Disney. Fucking fifties-style optimism, cartoon bunnies and fluffy morals. He might well see talking rabbits tonight, but not of their sort. Not of the kind that were really there.
The cold receded like a wave from a broken pier, the artifice of the rain and the dark streets pulling away from his own, perfect warmth. The hard edges of chimneys against the amethyst sky grew gently blurry, as if the camera had been adjusted, the lens greased over. Contentment, at last. The moon was a perfect silver coin in the sky.
He saw it so often, that moon, that he barely spared it a glance anymore. Waxing towards full tonight, it emanated cold fire that did nothing to chill his internal warmth; it only sailed above him in perpetual silence, pulling the tides on an invisible line and waking witches to clandestine sabbats.
He smiled to see it, all the same. He had spent nineteen years under its baleful eye, three of those mostly roofless and nocturnal, but he had never taken much notice of it until one day last summer, and a chance encounter with a family at the turn of dusk. Since then, he had always remembered to look up.
At first he didn’t believe the face looking down at him with impassive good humour; he only removed his streaky glasses, sponged them clean with the hem of his vest, replaced them. The figure was still there, blurred now by smeared glass. It was a woman, but large-boned and pale, her body a thing of building blocks and unkind edges. Something about her looked wrong, the way the face of a Down Syndrome child looked wrong: recognisably human, and yet different. But unlike a Downs child this woman looked hard, ugly; she had none of their gentle good humour.
“Can I help you?” he asked. Already it was hard to form words; his mind had fragmented like light passing through a prism, and no one thought seemed connected to any other. Overhead, the stars whispered.
“We don’t see many people down this way,” she replied. “I wondered if you were – you know, looking for custom.”
He blinked. Waited for the square face to make sense, to become, for want of a better word, human. But even removing his glasses did nothing to rationalise her; and in the deepening night, her eyes glowed.
“What makes you think I’m that sort of boy?”
Reluctantly, he nodded. The sky seemed to turn on its axis at even that tiny movement, and he held still, and waited for the carousel to stop. “But I don’t think I’m up to much right now, lady.”
“I can see that. But you can’t blame a girl for asking. You have such pretty eyes.”
Like he hadn’t heard that one before, from bored housewives, from starved singles. Pubescent schoolgirls with tiny buttocks under their pleated skirts, wanting their cherry plucked. Men, sometimes, although he never accepted their offers. Black eyes like a demon prince. Smooth young face like a fallen angel.
But there wasn’t much farther he could fall. Not anymore.
“Look, I can’t manage it right now,” he said: and in his head, through the gaussian blur of the heroin and the numbing sedation of so much food at one time, he thought he would never manage it with this woman, this block of granite who gave off the jumbled auras of an hermaphrodite and whose chilling eyes glared down on him like ice frozen over a splash of blood. “But we can arrange something for tomorrow, if you like. I’m available.”
In the following silence he found himself hoping for a refusal. Some women only came to him on a whim, before their common sense could overcome their lust; the moment details were discussed they slipped away like ghosts, without following through, without cheating on their husband or losing their virginity or paying money they couldn’t afford. Say no, he willed her. Say forget it.
You frighten me.
But the woman only tucked her clotted blonde hair behind her ear, and narrowed her eyes as if seeing through his haze of lethargy and into the mind below: reading him, and his reluctance. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist,” she said – and then large hands fastened over his mouth and around his ankles, iron knuckles clamped his nostrils closed and squeezed off his air. The stars sputtered, there and then not, and the round white moon grinned down on him with holes for eyes. Green cheese and shadows, the moon, and in it a man cast his fishing line to catch the world and a rat bit through the line before the hook was sunk. He didn’t struggle, didn’t make a sound, even as the rat failed to bite and the hook sunk deep . . .
. . . and then, the stars winked out.
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