My daughter’s had a bad dream, and she’s crying out to me to come to her room and keep her safe.
Her shrill voice is like a siren in the night.
Wearily, checking the clock, I slip out of bed in my pyjamas and fumble my way through the dark to the corridor, and I’m already stepping through the doorway to her bedroom when I recall that I do not have a daughter, that I never had a daughter, that there is altogether too much I am at risk of passing on for me to consider having a daughter.
And yet there she is, all the same.
Standing in the centre of her room, clutching at a thick pink safety blanket with a smiling rabbit’s head dangling from the corner, her face contorted with anxiety.
‘Daddy,’ she wails. ‘Daddy, he was on the ceiling, he was walking on the ceiling…’
I only hesitate for a heartbeat.
I don’t have many memories of my own father, but I’ve watched enough TV shows to understand how they’re meant to act under these highly specific circumstances.
I scoop my daughter up, lifting her back into bed and settling the covers around her, and I address her with comforting words that seem to settle the issue of the objective non-existence of monsters while glossing over the trickier nuances of what constitutes a monster and whether we can ever truly trust the evidence of our own eyes.
I don’t look up at the ceiling, of course. I’m not stupid.
My daughter, who did not exist when I went to bed last night, refuses to be soothed. She keeps insisting that the monster was right there, Happy Jack Adam, walking on the ceiling, and it lowered its long black neck until its face was level with her face and it looked at her.
“Do you remember when we went camping,” I ask her, “in the hills overlooking the city?”
She nods, wide-eyed.
Caught you out already, you little brat. We have never been camping in the hills overlooking the city.
“Do you remember the words I told you then?” I ask, inventing wildly. “The ones that would protect you against any monsters?”
My daughter nods again, and even seems to gain some new level of resolve, her thumb retreating from her mouth, as if I really had once told her something impossibly wise and clever and fatherly that she could now call upon in her moment of existential terror.
“Just keep those words close, then,” I tell her. “Remember them, and they’ll keep you safe from Happy Jack Adam.”
“Okay,” my daughter says, softly.
My first act of parenting is complete, and it appears to be a triumph.
I glance back, and Allegra is standing in the doorway behind me.
She’s winding a silver bathrobe around her waist - and it suddenly occurs to me that we used to walk around this apartment naked, but now we have been clothed, as if Eskew has layered us both up in anticipation of parenthood.
“Everything all right?” she asks.
“Lucia had a bad dream,” I tell her.
I don’t know where the name Lucia comes from, whether there’s something deeper at work here or it’s simply wild improvisation on my part. But Allegra seems to accept it.
She comes in and sits on the other side of the bed and touches Lucia’s hair and whispers,
“Poor baby. Poor, poor baby.”
Our daughter stretches out her little arms, greedily seeking affection, and draws us both in close to her in a group hug.
“It must have been so scary for you,” my wife croons to our daughter. “You were alone and in darkness and there was nobody there to help you with it. But we’re here with you now, aren’t we?”
“You don’t ever need to be alone again.”
I watch my daughter over the breakfast table the following morning with growing distrust.
She appears, on the surface, to be normal enough. But I know for a fact that this cannot be true.
And perhaps the signs of something unnatural are there, after all. Is that peculiar, rhythmic way she’s eating her cornflakes normal, for a child her age, scooping up the milk, slurping it, returning the spoon to the bowl with most of the cornflakes attached?
Why is she spending so long staring at the packet?
And that song she’s humming, what is that? It doesn’t sound random, it must have come from somewhere.
My daughter realises I’m looking at her. Either misunderstanding or wilfully mocking my bewilderment, she begins to play peekaboo with me, slowly ducking her head beneath the parapet of the cornflakes, so that I’m staring at the cartoon mask of a cereal-loving cowboy, and then peering up at me over the top, emerging like a crocodile from primordial mangrove swamps, first her eyes and then her nose and then her wicked grin.
It suddenly occurs to me that my entire body is tensed, my marmalade-coated knife in my hand, ready to leap out and lash out or else to upend the table and dash out from this apartment and go running again, into the Eskovian night.
Because I’m expecting something to change.
My daughter will raise her head over the top of the cornflakes packet, and her face will no longer be her face, but some grinning and empty mask, chalk-white with oozing, oily eyes, the diabolical hollowness of her true nature revealed.
But she just keeps pulling the same gentle face, the same game and the same motions over and over again, and I know she must be some hideous glitch or mutation of Eskew because there is no creature in this or any other reality that could find satisfaction and humour in doing the same thing so many times.
Quickly, I snatch up the cereal packet, removing it instantly from the equation and affording my daughter no further hiding place from which to menace me, and pour myself a bowl of cornflakes.
Checkmate, you little monster.
Lucia seems to find my action and my stony expression amusing, because she begins to giggle from behind her hands like a babbling brook, loudly and endlessly enough that Allegra stops in from the hallway and says, curiously,
“Having fun, in there?”
Oh, yes, we’re having fun.
How could we not be?
It’s impossible that I could have had a child, and not remember it. Even here.
But the days drag on, and my daughter shows no sign of turning on me.
The evidence that she is some kind of Eskovian apparition sent to torment me is, on the face of it, compelling:
Item 1: She did not exist four days ago.
Item 2: The games she plays with her railway set do not follow a stable narrative pattern, but veer back and forth, as she mutters half-realised conversations to herself, and different participants vanish from the story, and nothing truly ever seems to conclude.
Item 3: She never says thank you.
Item 4: When she does say thank you, it becomes immediately clear that she could have said it all along, that she understands the significance and purpose of saying thank you and knows that she’s expected to do it, that there’s a hidden intelligence and a secret world there that I, as a parent, am simply not allowed access to.
Item 5: My daughter sees monsters.
The occasional night terror I could understand, but this is different.
We drop her off at school. The teachers call us by 3pm and ask us to pick her up, because Lucia keeps insisting that all of the other children are not children, they’re all one thing, some hideous contraption connected by wooden rods at the feet and the joints of the hands, a web of puppets clacking and clattering from across their evenly spaced desks.
We take her to a birthday party. She wants to go home all at once, because when the other guests are eating cake, their jaws distend and their teeth whirr in a circle like a blender of twisted bone and gum.
We leave her alone in the bath. She begins screaming that the darkness beneath the plug is rising in long snaking fingers through the water, trying to pull her down.
There are monsters in the linen closet, monsters on the stair and waiting in the threshold, monsters watching from the windows and clattering the tiles on the rooftops, monsters in the smiling faces of the people she encounters.
And above all there is Happy Jack Adam, the monster that walks on four angular legs like a great black lizard, crawling over the walls and ceiling, and at the very end of its long craning neck is a face that’s like a human face, a squashed corpselike smile with no eyes, only lids, face that could belong to Mummy or Daddy, and that face is the first thing you see peering around the corner and over the threshold, a smiling sightless human face, before the rest of the monster comes out and is upon you and gobbles you up.
This particular visitor seems to occupy a special place in her thoughts, as if at one time or another she’s half-woken from sleep to see Allegra or I gazing in on her from the bedroom doorway, and that one innocent vision has warped, and darkened, and fixed itself in her mind.
My daughter is frightened all of the time.
There’s a pattern to this, I think as I sink back into bed beside Allegra. A hidden meaning.
“Is it normal?” I ask her. “For her to react this way?”
“What’s normal?” she asks, and rolls over.
I press her.
“No, but. Is our daughter all right? Do we need to help her? Is there anything we can do, some course of therapy or new trial medication, or,” in a moment of inspiration in case something is listening to us, “perhaps we could all wake up one morning and find ourselves living out in the countryside beyond the city where things are better and she no longer has any reason to be afraid?”
Allegra sits up. Her eyes are pale and glimmering, cast in the crimson light of the digital clock.
“When you were young, David,” she whispers. “When you were young and in London, before all of this, what were you most afraid of?”
I think for a moment.
“I was alone a lot back then,” I say out loud. “I was alone, and unhappy, and I was afraid that I’d be alone forever.”
“Now you don’t have to be alone,” my wife says. “So why are you so suspicious? Why do you keep agitating at this?”
I want to say, because it isn’t real. Because I can’t trust any of this not to change.
Because I know that if I accept this comfort, these people, if I open myself up to love, all of these things will be turned against me at some later date.
Allegra runs her palm over my chin, feeling at my scalp with her fingers.
“David,” she says, softly. “If you’re always driven to pick away at your happiness, you’ll never be left with more than fragments.”
From the other side of the bedroom wall, my daughter begins to cry out that there’s something behind the curtains, something that keeps pressing its face against the fabric, but it isn’t there when she tears them away.
I am developing plans for my escape.
I have left a small cache buried in the nook of the old stone wall, remnants of some medieval house or abbey, that stands a little way from Allegra’s apartment.
Tinned vegetables. A compass. A pen-knife. Chalk.
I have checked in on these items periodically over the past three weeks, and so far they seem remarkably stable.
The chalk has changed colour, from pink to green. The smiling lady on the tin of sweetcorn is smiling a little more broadly now.
I can live with that.
Truthfully, everything seems a little more stable, since Lucia came along.
Today I take my daughter to the park, and push her back and forth on the swings, and fend off her questions about why Happy Jack Adam won’t go away, what will happen to her when Happy Jack Adam finally gets her, whether the human face at the end of Happy Jack Adam’s long black neck is just his own face, or if it belonged to someone else once upon a time.
Whatever Lucia is seeing in the shadows of Eskew, I’m glad to no longer be seeing it.
I have made the most of this opportunity. I’m sleeping better, exercising more, beginning to entertain new fantasies of how I might leave the apartment, abandoning my wife and my daughter, snatching up these items and departing Eskew once and for all.
I’ve tried driving out, of course. But if I stock up on enough petrol, it may not run out on me while I’m still in the featureless flats of the repeating countryside.
I’ve tried the trains. But perhaps I could stow away on the roof of an empty carriage on one of the lines that shudders its way out into the countryside, clinging on with all my might and forever able to see what lies ahead?
What if - and stay with me here - what if I learned to pilot a helicopter? What if I launched myself from the spire of the cathedral on a great orange hanglider, dropping petrol bombs as I swooped away over the river and into the horizon?
Eskew can alter its streets and distort the foggy roads, but can it change the open air? It doesn’t seem likely.
Even if I crashed, it seems plausible that I would simply die; that I wouldn’t have time to change.
This, in its own way, would be a victory.
And it has already occurred to me that Lucia might have been brought to me as a kind of peace offering, an anchor to keep me in this city, a kind of scapegoat offering who can see the same horrors I no longer have to…
... if so, then she’s not enough.
She can’t be trusted any more than anything else, even if she does look like me.
Even if her fears and furies and moments of happiness seem so clearly to mimic my own behaviours that it seems impossible she could not have been born from me.
She is not mine. And sooner or later she’ll spring her trick on me, changing into something fleshy and toothed and vile, some twisted approximation of humanity, and I will have to run for my life with her screeching in my ears knowing that this time has been wasted, time I could have used to escape.
I continue to push her back and forth, back and forth.
She says whee, tirelessly, like a real child or an automaton.
And quite suddenly her body goes stiff with terror, and my daughter is staring out over the grass at something that I cannot see, and she begins to scream that Happy Jack Adam is crawling towards us along the footpath, that he is a little bigger and a little closer every time she swings upwards, that she wants to get down now, Daddy, that she needs to get down now.
And something in me snaps.
This is a gift I did not ask for. This is a burden I do not accept.
I am getting out of this city. It will not trick me into staying. It will not make me protect her.
I stop pushing Lucia. The swing creaks back and forth once more before coming limply to a halt.
“He isn’t real,” I observe. “You’re not real either. Nothing is going to happen. And if it did, it wouldn’t matter.”
But Lucia doesn’t listen to me.
Her head is turned from mine; she sobs and points and yells deafeningly that he is coming, he’s smiling at her and tilting his great awful head and scuttling along the path like a colossal spider, as if she expects me to save her and keep saving her from now until the end of time.
Instead, I shrug.
“I can’t see anything,” I tell her.
Then I turn, and I just walk away.
My daughter is behind me now, still presumably sitting on the limp swing, shrieking that he’s coming to get her, Happy Jack Adam is coming to get her, Daddy, Daddy, he’s coming towards her, Daddy, Daddy-
I will not turn.
She is not real.
None of this is real, so none of it can matter.
I will find my cache, I will steal a car, I will not listen to her whining and wailing.
She is not mine. She’s not my responsibility-
And then the screaming stops, and I hear my daughter fall from the swing.
I stop walking immediately.
She’s there on the concrete, a small bright colour amongst the grey, on her hands and knees, visibly uneaten but looking baffled and hurt, with a single thin black line spreading like a smile across her forehead.
She looks more alone than anyone in the world.
As I come running back, Lucia looks up at me,
“He got me. Why did you let him get me?”
And the black smile across her forehead opens up, and my daughter is bleeding.
Why is my daughter bleeding?
I snatch her up in my arms, pressing my palm against the gash, fumbling for a handkerchief, a tissue, anything which I can use to stop up the gash that is opening up in my daughter’s forehead, the black widening smile, and she just stares up at me and asks me to tell her why.
‘It’s OK,’ I mumble. ‘It’s OK, I’m going to take you to the doctor, I’m sorry, just hold onto me, just hold on and we’ll get you to the doctor and we’ll fix everything, OK?’
My daughter does not hold on to me.
She hangs in my arms like ballast, and the black smile is becoming a circle.
And she just says,
“He got me.”
Holding that small weight in my arms, I run out across the park, in the vague direction of a doctor’s or a pharmacy, anything at all where they might be able to fix my daughter and make her well again, but the black hole is opening out across my daughter’s head, spreading downwards over her throat and up her fingertips, swallowing my daughter up from every direction until there’s less and less of her, only her mouth which keeps moving, keeps accusing me to the last second, and then my daughter is gone and I’m holding nothing at all.
I’m still carrying that weight somewhere deep within the bowels of me when I stump back up the endless staircase to Allegra’s apartment and unlock the door.
My wife is playing jazz on her phone, chopping peppers for our evening meal, and she looks up at me with a face full of silence as I step into the threshold, alone.
I clear my throat.
“I lost Lucia,” I tell her.
She stares back at me.
“You were right,” I say. “You were so right. The city gave us something solid, something stable...and I couldn’t accept it. I kept worrying away at it, I couldn’t let it lie, and it was taken away from me. Away from us.”
Allegra puts down her knife.
“Well, that’s you all over, David, isn’t it?” she says, and her voice withers the very core of me. “You don’t really want to live here, but you don’t really want to get away, either.”
“And the worst of it is that you blame the city for it. You reject everything you’re given, you hunt for the flaws...why can’t you just live here? And Eskew has given you so much, David. So many opportunities, so many fresh starts. It’s willing to change for you, time and time again, if you can only bring yourself to change for it.”
I sit heavily on the floor.
“You won’t survive here,” my wife says. “Because you won’t adapt. And how many chances, really, do you expect to be given? We’ve been more than kind to you, David.” Her voice takes on a mocking tone. “If we let you hold on to your little bag of toys, if we let you continue pretending that you’re actually going to wake up one day and walk away from here...will that be enough to finally make you happy? Because we can give you escapes. Daring ones, moments of self-realisation and courage, and once the glow has begun to ebb away and you’ve picked at the fabric of your achievement until it’s clear that you’re still in here with all of us...well, then you can escape all over again. And you can keep escaping. Will that give you what you’ve been searching for?”
The shadows have crept back in, with every word she’s uttered.
I can see the city again, I realise, and a new panic rises in me. I can see it in all of its hues. Whatever was passed to Lucia, it’s been passed back to me.
I can see the shapes shuddering behind the drawn apartment curtains.
I can hear the pipes rattling from behind the wall as something moves langorously through them.
And Allegra’s face, as it passes through shadow and light, seems only intermittently to be her face, and not the face of something else.
I can see the veins in her cheeks and forehead, spreading and splitting like city streets.
She says, coldly,
“Have you at least thought about what we’re going to tell our son?”
For a moment this simply doesn’t register with me.
I sit with my head buried in my hands - and then abruptly, I look up at her.
“Our what?” I ask.
And then I hear him, for the first time.
The wretched sound of something heavy and large and ungainly skittering along the walls and the floor and the ceiling.
There’s silence, a mere heartbeat of silence, and then the face appears in the doorway, peering blindly around the corner as if sniffing me out, a wrinkled and shrunken eyeless head upon a long black neck.
He’s just as she described him to me. Happy Jack Adam.
One child has been replaced by another.
The horrible face fixes itself upon me for a second, cocking to one side and then the next, with that big hideous smile never wavering from cheek to cheek, and then my son - true child of all my fears - comes galloping in on four awful legs towards me, ready to begin our play.