In the only home I have ever lived in, in the only bedroom I have ever known, sits the bed I have slept in every night since I was twelve years old.
My father didn’t approve of spending money. He nailed together the headboard of my parents’ bed and two planks from an old sofa. The second-hand mattress tilts to one side like a tectonic plate, and crumbs of toast roll down it into carpet magma. Dad did at least paint two footballs onto the bedposts for decoration. One football had black hexagons, the other black pentagons. Perhaps rudely, I pointed out the asymmetry to him. He was annoyed. Maybe that was why, a short time later, he left.
Most of my time since has been looking after my mother. Social services helped until I left school, then they figured I could manage on my own. And I can manage on my own, so long as there is nothing else to manage but Mum. With benefits and charity donations, I can keep all the plates spinning around her diagnoses. These have become near-monthly events, as Encephalitis January becomes Chronic Fatigue Syndrome February; as Arthritic March blossoms into a Fibromyalgic spring.
I would never say that I have stopped caring, but each diagnosis brings no change to either her condition or mine: she remains in bed much of the day, I still have to cook for her, clean for her, wash her, and make sure the trappings of her old life are sustained. I can imitate her handwriting to sign bills and write Christmas cards. I can trim the ivy which obscures her window in the spring. I can wipe her clean when she doesn’t make it across the hallway, and on the nights the pain is too great for her to sleep, I can lie with her and point out the bird calls as the tawny owls fade into the larks and robins of dawn.
I first became aware of the thing under my bed when I was fourteen. One morning, Mum’s old nurse shouted at me for allowing Mum to eat Philadelphia spread, which triggered her acid reflux and sent her vomiting her breakfast over the nurse. I remember washing it off the nurse’s lanyard, unsure how I could stop Mum from eating Philadelphia for the rest of her life. That afternoon, at school, a boy called Simon ran the edge of his keys down my arm. A long, thin cut, it bled little and fascinated me. I prised it open with my fingernail until Simon ran away. That night, I came home and had to hold Mum down while she screamed. When she was finally too exhausted to move, I walked across the hall to my own bed, and it began to speak to me.
I knew instantly where the voice came from. With a mattress so lopsided, there was plenty of space for anything to make its home underneath.
COME TO ME.
That first night, I didn’t say a word in response. I was scared, I’ll admit. I’m fairly sure I pissed myself, but then my clothes were already soaked with Mum’s, and it was hard to tell the difference. I lay there, knowing I should look, not looking.
YOU WILL, MYLES. YOU WILL.
A force seized my spine then, forcing it upwards, arching my back violently until I was sure my body would begin to levitate above the bed. But it only lasted a second, then I was thrown back onto the sheets. I lay there in the streetlit dark, waiting to be taken. But nothing happened, and eventually it was morning and the nurse was letting herself in.
Leaving school was a relief. My last few friends had long found me difficult to spend time with, and the end of classes gave them the chance to distance themselves respectfully. I met the social solitude with some relief. It had been a long time since I’d enjoyed anyone’s presence, and still longer since they’d enjoyed mine.
I knew that I was now an adult, for 16 was the age at which I could make my own decisions. Much stayed the same, but some things changed. The carer who hit Mum on her bad days was the first decision — she went. The money Mum wouldn’t accept from a brother who never visited — that stayed. The collection of knives in the knife block — they went. And then there was the question of me.
A man who had approached me near the end of school said I would be a perfect fit for the army. Soldiers get free housing. Soldiers get out and see the world. Soldiers’ families are entitled to care packages. Within hours, the fantasy was fully formed. I cooked Mum’s meals with a soldier’s posture and arranged her pillbox with military precision. Sleepless nights were spent with a laptop at the edge of Mum’s bed, rewatching Saving Private Ryan. I spoke to the army man four or five times on the phone, and he visited twice. He told me that Europe was under attack, and I knew from the woman who lived opposite that you couldn’t go into London anymore for fear of terrorists. He told me I could help.
I had signed the forms and had been given an enlistment date when the army man visited a third time. When I returned from the shops, I found him on top of my mother. I used a trick I’d learnt from Simon at school and left a bloody gash down his arm. My keys are still stained to this day.
Once I’d thrown the last of his clothes after him, I returned, shaking, to my bedroom. I couldn’t talk to Mum. And then it came again.
MYLES. YOU’LL NEVER GET OUT.
I knew it was true. Night fell as the thing under the bed hissed its words to me, and I was unable to distract myself with my upcoming Army exploits.
YOU WILL BE MINE.
My back, stiff and sore from my practise sit-ups, was thrust to the sky once again. My spinal joints popped and cracked as my torso was forced backwards towards my legs, and my mouth gaped in a silent scream.
DEATH IS LESS PAIN, MYLES.
My ears thundered, and out of the corner of my blurred vision I thought I saw a flayed, scabby hand grasp the corner of my mattress, like something clinging to the corner of this world. Then some sound escaped me, waking Mum and sending her screams heavenwards too. I crashed back down onto the bed, released, once more, to serve.
That was almost three years ago now. I have tried to remember the days as they pass, but there is little to distinguish them. When did Mum watch that programme on TV and begin to paint? When did my uncle pass away and the payments stop? When did Mum stop getting up from the wheelchair for her daily smoke in the garden?
The first painting Mum finished was of a snail. It sat proudly in the corner of the living room until I found her chewing at it three weeks later. The second and third were birds. She called them both “Self-Portrait.”
I didn’t know what to make of this, so I went upstairs, lay down in bed, and spoke out loud.
“Mum’s started painting. I think this is a good thing.”
I WILL CLAIM YOU, MYLES.
The iron grip seized my spine once again, as it had so many times before, but my body was battered and numb to the pain. I gripped tight to the browned duvet, and said,
“I’m going to ask her to draw her childhood house.”
There was a pause.
The tone of the voice was no different, and yet it had changed.
“I don’t know. Because I don’t know, I suppose. I don’t really know that much about her.”
SHE’S YOUR MOTHER. YOU SPEND ALL YOUR TIME TOGETHER.
“But I never ask her about anything. Not about before.”
SHE IS A FOOL, AND YOU ARE A GREATER ONE. I SHALL CONSUME YOU.
I was thrown into the air once again, my forehead scraping the ceiling, blinking blood onto the bedsheets. And yet, I thought, as my back began to twist, I had been listened to.
It has become a habit, a game, in the months since. Each night, I come into my room a little earlier. Mum no longer has the strength to rise from bed even if she wants to, and so the hours I have to myself are greater. By the time I lie down in bed, I have already stretched and limbered my back; I have already thought of my first distraction.
A few weeks ago: “I think birdsong means something different to me than to most people.”
I KNOW NOT OF THE SOUNDS OF DAY. I LUST FOR FLESH.
“But you hear the birdsong start each morning. That’s your cue to leave.”
MY BIDDING IS NEVER DONE. EACH NIGHT I RETURN TO YOU. UNTIL YOU ARE MINE.
“Of course. But the birdsong drives you away. And it keeps Mum calm. Mum thinks my grandma comes back to see her as a bird. She thinks my grandma’s in the wrens. Wrens are the smallest native bird, and my grandma was short. But that’s Mum. I think for most people, birds represent nature.”
YOUR THOUGHTS ARE ANODYNE. OF COURSE, BIRDS REPRESENT NATURE. BUT NATURE IS NOT BEAUTY AND PEACE — NATURE IS POWER AND PAIN. BIRD CALLS ARE SIRENS OF LUST AND DEATH. EACH MORNING THEY SCREAM CRIES OF RAPE, OF WAR.
“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” I said. Feeling a twitch on my spine, I continued to speak. “But birdsong isn’t hostile. Not to me, anyway. It doesn’t matter how something is intended; what matters is how it’s understood. And to me, I hear birdsong as freedom. The idea that you can fly away from yourself.”
YOU WILL ALWAYS BE YOURSELF.
“Thanks,” I said without thinking.
I — I DIDN’T MEAN — I MEANT THERE IS NO ESCAPE FROM YOUR TORMENT.
And then I laughed at it.
The next morning, I woke up hopeful. Even Mum seemed less shaken than normal when I roused her. She remained settled until late morning, when a woman in a red coat on the news sent her into a frenzy and she began painting the woman in her own blood. I wrestled her back into her wheelchair and pushed her down the hallway, and the wheelchair caught on the cracked kitchen tile and Mum’s skinny frame fell out of it, cracking her head on the doorframe and causing her to bleed even more, and I tried to dab it up but she kept spitting in my face, and I tried to pick her up but she sunk her claws into my forearms, but she let me carry her into bed and was soon asleep, exhausted with the exertion.
My blood mixing with hers on my shirt, I would once have broken down and cried. But I went upstairs, lay down in bed, and waited for the dark. And I told the thing all about it. It cursed me and threatened me, but it listened. It had to. If I had to listen to it, it had to listen to me. In the weeks since, we have sometimes spoken for five minutes before the threats begin; sometimes it forgets even to torture me.
Now, it is early evening. Late November, I would guess. It seems foolish that I don’t know — I will need to remember this date. I have been frozen numb for the whole day, since I woke up this morning.
Finally, the last wisp of sunshine disappears behind a ray of cloud. I go into my bedroom and lie down.
MYLES. I SHALL –
“Mum died this morning,” I say. “Her body wasn’t cold, but her fingers were already rigid. I changed her clothes and did my best to rid her of the smell. But I couldn’t get it off me. I can still smell it now. Maybe she always smelt like this. I don’t know. I can’t think.”
SHE IS DEAD?
There is nothing more to say, so I fall silent and wait for my back to spasm. I almost want it.
WHAT WILL YOU DO?
“I don’t know what to do. I should call someone, I suppose. But I don’t know who to call. I don’t know how I never prepared for this.”
THERE’S A FUNERAL DIRECTOR’S NUMBER IN THE YELLOW PAGES IN THE STUDY. IT’S AN OLD COPY, BUT THESE THINGS DON’T TEND TO CHANGE.
Downstairs, I find that it is right. I call the funeral director’s, they call an ambulance, they deal with the body, they speak more kind words than I’ve heard for many years. They tell me to go to bed, that they’ll call me in the morning. Of course, they don’t know what going to bed means for me.
Upstairs, I’m almost asleep when I remember to thank the thing.
YOU KNOW I WILL STILL HAVE TO CONSUME YOU.
“Yes,” I said. “I think I’ve always known.”
PERHAPS THE TIME HAS FINALLY COME.
I think about it for a second.
“Yes,” I say again.
And a scabbed hand appears at the corner of the mattress. And another. And together, they heave into my vision a blackened, blistered body, with holes for eyes and a gaping maw, void of teeth. A chunk of flesh sloughs lazily off its shoulder as it looms above me. Knowing it will consume me, and soon, I can face it with calm. There will be no more pain.
It lurches towards me, scrabbling up the bed, staining the sheets a dirty red. It pins one arm down, and then the other, until it is fully above me, and all I can see is its toothless void centimetres above my own.
And then something catches its attention. It looks up, and notices the two footballs painted on my bedposts.
I’M SORRY I NEVER NOTICED ABOUT THE HEXAGONS.
And then it swallows me whole.