Matchbox empty, and no other incendiary devices in the house with the power out. The only option was not to smoke. Something she found too tricky to make worthwhile in the rest of her life. Stress knocking more off your life expectancy than twenty a day. But right then she was too scared to leave the house.
She moved slowly like a ghost to the window. High-heels gently rippling puddles of water. Outside a heavy fog had dropped down from the grey morning. The night before had been rough. Familiar shapes took on new qualities. Damp. Beaten. Torn. Nothing was how it should be. Her breath on the pane misted the day further, and when added to the haze of stress and nicotine withdrawal in her brain, the world looked like a strange hollow place that morning.
She wondered which way he would come from. The room seemed to stretch a long way from her in every direction. If he should come at her through the thin window, smash it and jump through, she would not be able to get away. The door to the corridor seemed out of reach, all the way over there on the far wall. She wondered if she’d locked the back door but was too scared to go and check. She told herself it was locked. Maybe she’d have more luck with this, everything else had gone wrong.
The drab blue of the smoke-stained paintwork matched her mood but her face was expressionless. She felt heavy in herself and if she tried to escape she would surely put a clumsy footstep right through the dull wooden boards of the floor. There was no escape for Rayne that morning. She would have to stay in until one of them came.
* * *
A drip of water came through the living room light fixture and dripped off the bulb onto the floor, adding to the puddle there. Rayne cursed not having power. One freak storm at the end of summer and the roof over your head could be penetrated. It was that fragile. Water had poured in through the gap in the tiles for a while and, fizz, it had been very dark last night.
Thoughts of the previous evening produced a sharp spike of pain in her temple, blurring her vision. Her house was a different place then. It was warm and lit with the light of suburbia and the furniture was dry. All the necessities of an existence indoors had been just a few feet away and Rayne could lie in her cocoon away from the harsh realities of the rough neighbourhoods on the other side of town. It wasn’t enough though, the weekend made her feel lonely. Like everyone else in the world must be enjoying themselves.
She lay lengthways on the sofa smoking a cigarette. The TV flickered on the other side of the room but she couldn’t concentrate on it. Her legs felt tense, uncomfortable and she kept kicking out at the armrest, trying to shake the restlessness from her limbs. She couldn’t sit in anymore. The place had been too empty since she made Tom leave. Just three weeks, but the time since had been strung out by constant nagging doubts in her mind. About the nature of everything.
She was trapped, the mobile practically out of credit and the land line cut off weeks ago because Tom had failed to pay the bill like he said he would. He said he’d do a lot of things, and then spent the money on another four-pack, or a certainty in the two fifteen, and more frequently towards the end, a hit of something stronger. And he’d always lie, about everything. Rayne thought about buying credit, but realised there was no-one she wanted to ring.
But she had to get out of her bubble if only for an evening, to see life even if she wasn’t part of it. Maybe being near to the living would be enough to shake her from the emptiness that made her body ache from anxiety, and the voices in her head that told her she’d done so much wrong.
* * *
As she stepped through the city streets, the day’s humidity was beginning to give way to a warm but hard breeze. She felt sad to look at her reflection in the closed shop-windows. Too dressed up to be walking alone. Her frame is similar to Lucy’s but Rayne is a bit shorter and not quite as muscular, bigger boobs. That night she was covered by a thin black summer dress. It flicked up revealing glimpses of thigh as the wind grew stronger, and blustered her blonde hair in her eyes. She crossed a bridge over a canal, the water looked violent, whipped into peaks and waves.
Half a dozen small doses of vodka had given her usually nervous character the confidence to dress all slinky and revealing and go out on the town. But even now, half an hour by train from her last drink, nagging inhibitions were questioning the decision, trying to pull her back to the safety of her little home. Silly girl, she thought, and repeated it quietly to herself in a little tune, “silly silly girl”, she sung to the echoes of her footsteps.
The bar was a theme bar, fans studded the ceiling. Watercolour scrolls adorned the walls that were freshly painted pastel shades. She was struggling to tell what the theme was. Made of stainless steel and filled with water, 2 half drainpipes on stilts ran from a hole in the kitchen wall at the back of the bar, and straight down the far side of the building. An endless procession of sail-boats moved along them. The little ships had elaborate looking drinks balanced on them. People sat on stools at a long bar in front of the canals. They were transfixed by the boats that were propelled by a mechanism under the water and not their fragile paper sails. They drifted down one canal, people took their drinks, shuddered around a sharp 180 degree turn, and floated back up the other.
Rayne got a seat at the bar and watched the drinks coming out for some time. If the alcoholic cargo was not claimed on their first trip the drinks went back into the kitchen and did not come out again, except for the occasional drink that was on fire, which went round and round until the boat’s sail had burned away.
Staff waited on tables and booths, they came up and took orders from the people at the bar, gave them numbers for their drinks. The theme definitely had something to do with pirates, thought Rayne. Still questioned taking the rare step of going out alone, feeling self-conscious sitting there next to the thin canal of sailboats, but somehow the theme bar made her feel less lonely for its eccentricities. She was glad when the waitress asked her if she wanted a drink because it gave her someone to talk to.
Rum was on special and she slowly began to drink too much. To stop it getting boring she drank many different combinations. By the time she plucked the third rum concoction from its little ship, she was beginning to feel drunk enough not to notice it burning on the way down. Why was I here again? Rayne drank from many ships that night.
She remembered leaning forward and lighting a cigarette from one of the flaming ships. Trying hard not to burn her hair on the flame and almost choking on the smoke as a hand was casually placed on her shoulder.
“Smoking’s bad for you,” said the man whose hand lingered on her shoulder with hardly any pressure. It was so casual, it felt like it belonged there, he made no attempt to move it. “Got a spare one?”
Rayne stared up at him and felt unsure. He was expressionless, his clothes and hair expressing the same lack of emotion. Not smart, not casual, just hanging around his slender figure like he belonged in the bar. Short dark hair sat a top a square face, attractive, but nothing about him stood out. He fitted in, even with the strange decoration of the place. Something about his lack of description made her feel comfortable.
“Yes,” she said and took a cigarette from her pack.
“It’s something I do when the company needs it,” he sat down beside her and took the smoke.
Rayne leaned back from him, hating social smokers. “I need it,” she breathed smoke.
“I need company tonight, was getting lonely here,” strange voice, toneless.
Rayne felt the same but didn’t admit that. “Plenty of other people in here,” she looked around, but the room was cluttered with groups of people, everyone at the bar had company. In some fluke occurrence she was the only one alone, this made her feel stupid.
The fans on the ceiling were turning too slowly, doing nothing to disperse the heavy atmosphere in the bar. She sucked hard on her cigarette. He smoked his like it were an extension of his hand, a prop he could do without. He flicked his hand towards the waitress and she came over. “Two more like before,” he said. She gave him the numbered ticket and in a few moments the strangely coloured drinks floated out from the kitchen. Rayne looked at them sideways, thinking she’d had enough, but caution had lead her only to despair over the last couple of weeks and maybe rum was a safer bet if she ever wanted to smile again.
“I’m not normally alone,” and Rayne disliked lack of truth in this statement.
“I was only coming out for a couple,” he replied, “it was a hard day, but I saw you sitting there and you looked like someone I would like to talk to, I can go if you mind but a couple of drinks,” he picked up one of the drinks and took a sip while handing the other to Rayne, “you know, it’s Saturday, and I didn’t have any cigarettes, you were just there so I thought maybe you wouldn’t mind. It’s lucky to find a bar you can smoke in these days. The staff in here don’t like to make an effort do they?”
“I dunno,” Rayne was already losing the thread of what he was saying, most people breath when they speak.
“It’s nice they wait on the tables, the place needs it, don’t think there’s another place like it in town. I like what you’re wearing but I don’t like the uniforms, think the other day I noticed some in a shop window, over by the Lace Markets.”
Rayne blinked at him.
“There’s a place like this further north, it’s Greek, changes all the time, one week there’s aeroplanes hanging from the ceiling, one week it’s topless, then there’s a swimming pool in the basement and the place is rigged like a submarine.”
This guy could talk forever, but his words somehow helped Rayne’s awkwardness, he seemed very relaxed and she felt less stupid not being alone.
“I took a trip to London the other week, found a whole club complex where the bars were linked together with tunnels,” he gestured with his hands, “it was like a community, people lived in there for weeks, I didn’t want to leave so I bought a cheap pair of shoes, so no one could read my footprints, walked around it for days, slept in alcoves.”
The boats began to look like they were in a gentle storm as they swayed down the canals. The man next to her was talking and his words were blurring into one long stream of sound, she couldn’t make out what he was talking about, but nothing jarred or sounded wrong, like he was reading from a script. She shifted her weight around to look like she was listening and his presence drifted into her. He seemed like he belonged next to her, like this was what she should be doing. “Yes,” or “No,” she said and nodded her head or blinked. Rayne drank another drink.
“Sometimes that’s just the way it goes,” the man threw his arms wide, “I never even knew her that well, but it wasn’t like the time was wrong or we were in the wrong place, life takes you like that when it feels like it, it hurts, but you move on, you always move on.”
The bar fuzzed around her, the air so thick with smoke and heat it began to take on a texture of its own. It shimmied, lulling her and Rayne felt her body softening, the words of the stranger who hadn’t even introduced himself were soothing her, making her feel lighter than the air. The dress felt like it was part of her, so light on her skin like the material was her skin. She crossed her legs and looked into the strangers eyes. They were oval and nice-looking but she couldn’t make out the colour or any emotion beneath the pupils, which did not dilate despite the soft light of the bar. She felt like the guy was looking at her naked body and blushed a little, but didn’t mind and almost smiled. Rayne smoked another cigarette. She felt her mind hazing to match the air and the drinks floated out from the kitchen at a flick of his hand. She sipped and smoked and one time, although she didn’t know why, she laughed.
Outside a heavy rain began to fall, cutting them off further in their smoke filled bubble. The noise around her and the alcohol and his voice took Rayne to a place where she could exist just in that moment. She felt her body loosening and the muscles falling back into their proper place, taking her true shape and sitting up, her back a perfect curve and feeling tall there under the spinning fans. For the first time in a long time Rayne felt like herself. Her lips were moist with rum, with anticipation and the man opposite her who had barely paused in his dialogue since he sat down was becoming more alluring.
The bar had not been busy all night, a handful of people at the bar and a few groups of people huddled around intent on each other. Rayne had been barely conscious of them, her attention fixed on the pretty little sailboats since she arrived and now she was completely lost to the stranger. She hadn’t notice how late it was getting until she looked around and realised they were now alone. The waitress sat smoking on the far side of the bar waiting for the stranger to flick his finger at her another time, so she in turn could trigger the anonymous cocktail guy to start stirring in the back room. The music in the bar was taking turns at classic rock and pop tunes from the last three decades. Their familiarity put Rayne further at ease. She turned her gaze back to the stranger
“I had a girlfriend called Eileen once,” he said, responding to the tune paying as if he could read her mind.
Rayne flicked the hair from her forehead out of her eyes. She licked her lips and tried to focus but she was at a point beyond the bar where all she felt was the stranger’s words and his eyes floated like pools of nothing in front of her. She was aware of the stool she sat on, his nondescript clothing, his featureless appearance. She sighed inside and took another sip, surely it must be time to leave.
He stood up and adjusted his collar. She took the hint and stood next to him, realising how tall he was and so casually he waved, a tiny gesture, at the barmaid. She didn’t even respond trusting he’d left enough money. He had actually left a generous tip and Rayne walked at his side to the door and he gently pushed it open.
The sound of the rain hit her and the wind took the smoke of the bar, pulling it out around them. A waterfall of rain fell from the roof of the bar, blocking the way out with an intermittent stream. For a second they just stood there, watching the water pour as Rayne swayed on unsteady drunken feet. She breathed and he was emotionless, a tall yet unimposing figure at her side. The alcohol hit her again and the world tilted to the left by a few degrees and she took his arm and steadied herself against him. He was firm and ungiving and she knew she would not fall if she clung to his arm. Through the stream of water she could make out the smudges of faint stars above the sodium-glaze that turned the sky the orange of wet street lights. She was stuck now, waiting for him to make the first move. He pulled an umbrella from a pocket somewhere and they stepped through.
* * *
Twelve hours on her head still hurt, but the hangover was gone. Someone walked from the left hand side of the wide window, towards the front door.
Now the front door seamed huge and imposing as it loomed across the room, too close. It visibly trembled with the weight of the fist being knocked against it and in the silence after her breath was painful and loud. He knew she was there.
Rayne got to her feet wondering whether to flee. What was the point though, the back garden lead to the street where they would find her and upstairs was just a trap. She stood next to the sofa and tried to lean so she could see who was at the door without them seeing her. This was just delaying the inevitable moment when she would walk slowly to the door and turn the handle. She needed to know.
A face at the window, eyebrows pointed into a frown, and a hand wiping at the glass, but the condensation was on the inside. Rayne leant backwards out of sight and felt dizzy with the movement, swaying on unsteady heels, her mind pulling her towards the ground, making her feel like she should just curl up but the floor was wet and she was stuck. Caught between standing and falling and hiding and going over to the door and throwing it wide. Letting him take her.
The Sun came out then and hit the window lighting up the person from behind, the features were masked and it was just a silhouette, staring in, looking for her.
A fist hit the pane and Rayne thought it would break, her body trembled with dull pain as the impact rung through her like she’d been hit herself, and then he was gone, and there was the knocking on the door again. She would’ve sold her soul at that moment for a cigarette.
* * *
The wind pushed them forward with the rain, blowing them towards a taxi, they drove through the wet city to Rayne’s house, it was warm inside. She topped up the rum with wine and smoked and played music and all the time he watched her. The rain was forgotten and she slid back and forth across the room always catching in his eyes which still looked distant. Maybe he could see the façade of confidence peeling from her as the rum churned inside her and the lipstick smeared onto her wineglass. The other girl was still underneath it all, ready to surface and shy away and hide again. Sex was definitely off the table.
But he would not let her hide, and followed her movements, standing by the stereo staring over at her, still he had not shut up. He seemed out of place now, his body jarred against the suburban easiness of her home. He did not belong like he had in the bar. He became irritating, talking in her ear, and now it was incomprehensible, a looming rambling figure behind her as she changed the track, poured another drink, swayed around her safe living room, sat back down reeling in the setting haze left from the theme bar in town.
Rayne picked up another full bottle of wine from the kitchen, swung it loosely back and forth as she walked to the sofa, it was her only salvation from this person she had invited into her life, and she tried to ignore him, just conscious of the occasional word in her ear, “frost,” and she swayed, “the Moon,” she sat down, “needle,” he was hovering above her, her hand went to get the bottle opener at her side but she looked again at his face and stopped. His face took on a different aspect, the features too thick, overblown, almost grotesque; a lavish picture badly painted, like some of the lines were out of place and clashing with the Ikea décor of her living room. The rum mixed badly with the red wine and she felt sick, too many cigarettes tonight and his face was a blank mask, the mouth moving into shapes which made words but she was suddenly sure they made no sense, no structure, just syllables and disjointed fragments of sentences.
She shrank back into the sofa and he leaned into her, putting a hand on the back of it to support his weight, he still talked at her, “this was all I had left of me,” her lips curled back away from him, and the music throbbed behind her, an urgent female vocal and a repetitive beat ringing through her, warning her, “if ever I knew it, I knew it was a lie,” he said, his breath suddenly horrible, “they never stop drinking, they’ll fucking lie to you,” she turned her raised lip towards him and pushed her head back as far as it would go.
“No,” she said.
And the other hand was on her shoulder, such weight that the points of the fingers bruised her flesh. Her whole body tightened to its repressed state and she thought that this was her true self, ready to curl up and hide again, the dull throbbing in her legs returned, but not restlessness now, just tension from fear and his breath was all around her. She could not turn away he was too close, too heavy and the rain crashed down outside and safe things were torn away in the storm. The night was everywhere, unavoidable, like the hand on her shoulder burning her skin, like the light hazy now not with smoke but with panic.
“I,” he spoke slowly like every word hurt him and finally there was an emotion, “never wanted,” his face didn’t change with the words but his intentions came from them, “to be,” he put his knee next to her on the sofa, “this”.
And his other hand was between her legs. Tightening and pushing inside her, dry nails against cotton. His face didn’t change, he stared straight into her and his whole eyes became black, and the grip tightened and the fingers pushed in slow but hard, and the beat behind them, the women wailing, the thud of the bass beating into her. His face didn’t change.
Rayne’s did. Contorting into a grimace and no sound but her mouth twisting, opening, she felt the deadweight of the wine bottle in her hand and it felt heavier than her whole self, the pain in her crotch, the breath and that face pushing its lips into her, depthless black voids in his eyes and his skin felt cold and leathery on her soft flesh, her fingers tightening around the neck of the wine bottle and even in a kiss his expression did not change, lifeless, hard lips pressing into her. And the tension pulsed all through her now, the muscles in her arm channelling the panic through her to the bottle at her side and it centred there, her body trying to pull away from him but she was trapped and all the force, all the life in her went from her body to her hand around the neck of the wine bottle. With the strength of terror she pulled at it and it still wouldn’t move. His fingers deeper, his face on her, his weight pressing her down and it all came together, in one sudden break, she pulled the bottle up and with every piece of disgust smashed it into the side of his head.
She was not afraid but the atmosphere in the room suddenly froze her to the bone and the air went dark. Now his face changed, thick ridges down the sides and centre of his forehead, the colour of his skin turning momentarily dark green. And the pupils were vertical slits, jet black, going on forever into nothing and his whole face was scaled and hard. His protruding mouth twisted in shock and his clothes rippled around him like they were part of his flesh. His fingers loosened inside her and his heavy body fell enough to the side for her to get out from under him, heaving the wine bottle with her. She’d hurt him, the hand was from her crotch but the fingers in her shoulder were pulling her back towards that lizard face. His movements were slowed by the impact but he was still strong, and she swung the bottle again, using its momentum to bring it down squarely on the back of his neck. He crumpled, body falling flat against the sofa. Blood splattered the floor and Rayne’s face as she brought the bottle up in an arch over her head and took hold of it with both hands. His prone body disgusted her, her face fixed in a snarl, there was electricity in the air, fingernails scraping glass, a wave of energy flowed through her shoulders and with all the hate Rayne now found inside her she brought the bottle down into the back of his head. Something broke. It wasn’t the bottle.
Blood spread from his temple, the back of his head and spilt onto the sofa. It poured around the emotionless face that had returned to its previous human look. Rayne wiped the blood from her eyes. She gripped the wine bottle so tight it was part of her hand.
Rayne kicked as hard as she could into his side. His body curling from the impact of her pointed shoe and retching, pain and fear, his face almost obscured by the blood he slid to the floor. She kicked him again.
“Get the fuck out!” she screamed.
She was at the door, opening it, screaming at him, his eyes registering the bottle, half crawling barely conscious, seeing the look in her wild eyes, the bottle at the end of a tensed limb. The storm outside inviting.
“Get the fuck out!” she never knew her voice could sound like that, but he responded, he was almost on his feet but his balance gone, he hit his shoulder on the doorframe and he managed to turn the bloodied face to her.
“I’m coming, back, for you,” he breathed, and fell through the door.
She slammed it behind him and pressed her back against it, unable to let the wine bottle go. She shook and the night was around her, it held her frozen there against the door, and fizz, the lights went out.
The Nightmare Effect