Still Life

by | Fiction, Issue #6, Issues

       “Let’s not marinade in delusion and call it bravery for my sake, please,” I say, picking at the newly formed scab on my knee. The ones that leave a crater behind. “He’s dead and no amount of tapping my fucking temple or breathing is gonna help.”
      “It’s normal to feel weird or a bit lost right now, it’s not a race back to normality. These things can take time.”
      “Uh-huh.” Nearly got it, still stuck.
      The potato quality of the zoom camera only makes her grainy square even harder to see but I don’t have to glance up to know that she is frowning, lost for words of false encouragement. I’m not trying to be difficult, making her job more taxing than it has to be, but I’m tired of the constant pandering. I’ll deal with this mess on my own, without interference.
        She continues to talk about healthy coping mechanisms, and her voice is beginning to frustrate me, the same way an ulcer stings when you accidentally brush your tongue over it.
        There’s another pause. “I just mean, this is all a natural response to what happened, there’s no shortcut way of processing this. Grief isn’t linear it-” I snap the laptop close before she has a chance to utter another word. I’m done. Plucking both hearing aids out, I slide off the lip of the couch and onto the faux-fur rug. Sprawled out as a sacrifice to the ceiling. Silence. Peace at last. Eyes pin to the ceiling, counting the turns of the fan. One. Two. Three. The black mould in the top corner that I’ve ignored, too distracted with grief to fix, is growing sinister. Growing legs. A pulse.
        I usually numb myself. It’s a habit. A ritual, almost. Sleep. Wake. Drink. Sleep. That was how the days pass, with no regard for responsibilities. Although I can’t tame the feeling, I can just about tame that murky darkness. Just about keep it at arm’s length. As long as there was something in my hand, dissolving in my stomach, poisoning my blood to help me cope. If I manage to shower or hurl myself off the couch, maybe brush my teeth, it’s a good day. Some mornings, I don’t wake up at all, hibernating until night, sleeping straight through the TV playing in the background, both of my alarms.
        I glance around. I’ve run out, so I’m forced to face the demon sober. I tell myself I don’t need it. A lie to pacify my denial.
        It was quick. Apparently. A head-on collision somewhere on the M6. I should have listened to him. When he told me about the weird man he kept seeing in the house, at the bend in the stairs, in the garden, all the strange smells, the knocking, missing items. I didn’t believe him; I was too busy with work to give it a thought. The house isn’t even that old, and everyone has a draft or hears banging they can’t explain. I should have listened.
        “Are you his partner?” asked the officer, face stained blue from the flashing lights of the ambulance. “I know it’s a shock but I’m gonna stay with you for as long as you need, okay? Is there anyone I can call for you?”
        I zone out. The words were washing over me. Her mouth was moving but it was as though I had pressed mute on the scene. Not ready to hear the details.
        She placed a hand on my knee. “If it’s any help at all, it was quick. They probably didn’t feel anything.”
        I know she meant well, an attempt to soften the shock, but it did nothing. Nothing.
        I’m convinced that if I were to run up to the bedroom, the divot left by his wide-set back would still be there on his side of the bed. The right side. His sweaty pillow, and hoards of drinking glasses, half drank and waiting patiently on the dresser for someone to collect them. They’re still there; I can’t move them.
        I re-read his texts, replaying the voice notes until I can’t stomach another digital morsel, another second reliving in the past tense. I’m a glutton for punishment, so I re-read them when I’m tormenting myself.
       Brynn: the weird old man won’t leave us alone lol. Hes still following the car. xx
       Brynn: did u get my last messages?? Called the police but they told us to ignore it. Bastards. Speacj later. Love u xx
       The strangeness did not cease with the crash; if anything it was amplified. I’d come home to find miniature car toys. Hot wheels, all silver, dotted in random places. The same model as Brynn’s. At first, I thought it was a sick joke from a roommate who was staying over at the time. Even after they left, I’d open the cupboard, and a car would fall out from behind the pasta, or hidden inside empty cups. Each time it pushed me closer to the brink of psychosis. I don’t have any nieces or nephews so there was zero chance of it belonging to them. A toddler couldn’t reach it anyway. No matter how many times I’d collect them, discarding their metallic bodies, two more would pop up in their place.
       Still glued to the carpet. I’m on the verge of sleep, a feverish cocktail of discomfort and confusion. I can’t be bothered to move, so I lay there, absorbing the last of the winter sun.
        My body aches. For once it’s not alcohol induced, but an electric kind of anxiety sparking through every neuron. I shut my eyes tightly, leaning into that familiar deep merlot embrace, and listen. Voices. Fade in and out like faraway radio frequencies. It’s both far away and inside my skull. The murmurs mingle together in near-unintelligible whispers. I fall in and out of the surreal daydreams. The constructions of who they could be. Of what they were like. What kind of scene was waiting for me when I regained full consciousness?
        “Goosebumps are just kisses from the dead,” says a voice. Distorted. Hollow, teetering on a whimper. Invading my subconscious, playing on a loop the same way an alarm interferes with your dream. It’s close enough to tickle the fuzz on my ear. Breath curling on the mound of my cheek. I’m no longer alone. It’s Brynn. I know it’s him amongst the murmurs, his distinct lisp made him spray consonants like confetti.
        I peel my eyes apart, sleep-sticky and sundried, expecting to see a thin apparition of his figure, to match the sense that he’s here with me. I can smell the aftershave lingering on his denim jacket. Peppermint on his breath.
        The dusty fan is blocked from view by the bodies of four people. Blood-peppered denim and singed trainers. Floating at the edge of the piped plaster, their noses millimetres from touching the ceiling. Petrified.
I gasp. But the people from the crash above me didn’t move. No flinching. No movement. Lining the ceiling, like they were forgotten balloons at a birthday party, their hair the strings dangling down, fingers splayed. Breaking the confides that death had bestowed upon them.
        Scrambling up into a ball, my spine presses flush against the bay window. Wafting them back like flies. A sinking sensation stings in the pit of my stomach. Denial in every bone of my body, like trying to convince myself that the sky isn’t blue, but I can’t doubt that suddenly, everything is slowly piecing together. There is no denying it. The flesh, the freckled skin staring back. My ears may be broken past repair. Fucked. But I still have the nose of a bloodhound. Perfect vision. I never miss a thing.
       “It’s real. I’m real,” he says. The same heavy northern accent.
        I open my mouth to speak, to tell him all the things I didn’t get to say before he went, but the words dissolve as quickly as they form on my palette. I rub a clenched fist in a circular motion over my chest to sign ‘sorry’. Mouthing the words just in case he’s forgotten the sign.
        He doesn’t answer.
        Brynn gives a vacant smile, a white crescent punctured by dimples that sent my heart plummeting down into my gut. There’s something off; it’s definitely him but it’s as though the lights have gone off inside him and someone else is controlling the wiring.
       “Brynn? You know the sign? Come on. We did it all the time, remember?”
        His face is painted in patches of plum and blue, dark shadows that haven’t been cast by the light, but by a fist or two. He gets closer, leaning in. The right pupil is warped. Oversized and stretched, the smooth edges running down through the green and muddying the white of his eye. Impressionist. Ugly.
        He’s gone before I can ask him again.
        “It wasn’t your fault and holding onto the idea that you had control over this accident is not helpful nor true,” says my therapist; the video call is lagging so it looks as though she’s lip-syncing her words badly.
        “I should’ve paid more attention.” I couldn’t shake the idea that it was over before they could even escape: their fate had already been chosen.
        A silver car whizzes past my feet hitting the bottom of the door. It’s missing its front left wheel, just as Brynn’s car had been found. Crumpled on the hard shoulder, just like the empty Foster’s cans that litter the living room.
        The hall stretches for miles in either direction and mist crawls on all fours between the chipped dressing table and the spokes of the staircase. I was a kid again, trying to leave a haunted house at the local fair. Knocking into wavy mirrors, snot trailing off my chin. Screaming for help, but in this funhouse, there’s nowhere to escape. There is no help. The windows are boarded shut and the door creeps further and further away. Stuck. No matter how far I go, the door continues to evade my grasp, miles away just like Brynn.
        “Come back, I don’t like this,” I say, searching the dim hall for his apparition. Catching the quiver in my voice. Vulnerable. Alone. Exposed. Vomit inducing fear. “I don’t get it?”
        The door to what should be our dining room opens a crack, just enough for the crimson light within to bleed through the gap in the frame. Splitting it open, I enter. Everything in my peripheral vision is red. Viewing the world through the lenses of a subconjunctival haemorrhage. Floor to ceiling a bloodshot. Enclosing. Red.

Red                 red                 red
red                 red                 red               red
red                          red                       red

       The door closes behind me—the sound of incisors meeting their lower counterparts. Chomping together. Chewing me up.
       A saccharine sweetness hangs close in the air, so heavy I can feel it lick my skin as I walk through it. There are bowls of fruit sitting patiently for their portrait on a mahogany table, over-ripened and weeping with deathly nectar. Concord grapes, blistered pomegranates. The hydrangeas and the poppies withered, papery. A Juan Sánchez Cotán painting in the flesh, the cabbages, the cantaloupe suspended on their noose.
       I can’t help but feel as though I’m in the wrong decade. The uncanny feeling you get when seeing taxidermy birds and mammals, poised behind glass. It shouldn’t bring this level of overwhelming unease, but it does and it’s impossible to shake off.
        “Hello? Is there anyone here?”
        Writhing maggots gorge on the roadkill buffet, in numbers so high that it’s difficult to discern what they are feeding on, moving as one mass. A swarm, wobbling and keeling over; all drunk off dry-aged haemoglobin.
        “Brynn?” I say. I know my voice isn’t strong enough to travel the length of the room, so I try again a little louder. Knocking on the dull red walls.
        No answer. No help. Fucked. Fucked.
        On the far side of the room sits an old TV set with faux wood housing, like the one my gran had. Its bulbous face blinks against the red as the power supply is slowly withdrawn. I tip-toe with caution, curiosity fuelling me. It glitches, and bars of green. Red. Blue, streak the display as it tries to settle on the correct channel. The picture stabilizes. Returning with a road safety advert from the late 80’s. I don’t understand what’s happening, but like a car crash on a motorway, I can’t tear my eyes away and wait for the picture to take up the full screen.
        “Remember, safety belts saved Barbara Mandrell. Always wear a seat belt.”
        Is this a joke? Is this because I didn’t believe him quickly enough?
        The narrator’s voice is warped. Glitching. No longer emitting from inside the tv speakers, but present in the room. He’s in the walls. The shine of the red vinyl flooring. It’s difficult to hear it clearly, but he’s here.
“Always wear a seat belt and drive safely.” With a scratch, the advert stops and flashes red.

Red                 red                 red
red                 red                 red               red
red                          red                       red

        They say that the human brain can somehow always sense when you are being watched, and in that moment I wished I hadn’t peered over my shoulder. He sits on the edge of the couch. His bony frame bent forward as though each of his vertebrae have fused into a cane as a prize for beating death. Eyes puffy and underlined with purple. Empty. Dead.
        “He really should have been wearing a seat belt,” says a voice. It’s gravelly. Slow. “There’s a lot of reckless drivers on the road these days.”
        His lips part to reveal crooked brown teeth, like old pegs on a washing line. “It’s rude to ignore someone when they’re talking to you.”
        I froze. “Leave me alone.” Fists clenched rigid with adrenaline. “Please leave me alone.” My hands forming the signs out of habit, without hesitation of whether he can understand them.
        “This is my house,” he says, puncturing the stillness with a spray of saliva. “I’m always here. Always watching.”
        I don’t answer back.
        He peels himself off the couch, creaking life back into each of his tendons and joints.
        I want to run, throw up, and scream for Brynn all at once.
        The man is inches from my face. So close I can count the stray hairs that poke through his bone-white chin. One. Two. Three. Tasting the stale cigarette smoke and dirt on his breath.
        “This is my house.”
        My inner thigh is warm. Wet. The tingling sensation spreads towards my knees like sweat after a run, but it’s only when it reaches my bare feet do I realise what I’ve done. Glancing down at the puddle growing on the vinyl floor confirms my suspicions.
        He notices the puddle and tuts, shaking his head. “Most boys break that filthy habit in nursery school.”
        Fumbling a mix of rushed words and signs. I search for an exit. No windows. No door. Trapped. “Leave me alone.”
       “I don’t fucking like visitors.”
       They say that the dead can’t hurt you and that it’s the living that you need to be wary of, but I feel every single one of his cold bony fingers wrap around my throat. Dirty nails dig into the skin, pressing off the blood supply.



Rhys Evans is a Welsh queer writer with a fondness for the dark and twisted. His work addresses social constructs, death and underrepresented groups. He has pieces haunting publications such as BRUISER, Zero Readers, BLEACH! and Fifth Wheel Press amongst others. You can find him on Twitter (@rhys_evanss)