When the storm hits, I’m caught in the open.
The rain pounds the rooftops, shakes tiles into the gutters, washes the cigarettes and paper across the cobblestones of Eskew and into the drains.
With my hood raised over my head, the city is limited and indistinct; a shimmer of golden building lights and silhouettes that seem to erode backwards into the rain and the darkness.
It’s as if Eskew is shedding its skin.
I’m soaking, shivering, shaking the newspaper out of my trouser legs as it decays and disintegrates.
I need a place to go. Any place.
I spend an hour or two on the underground network, passing up and down the train carriages with a styrofoam cup in hand, trying to make a few coins if I can.
This is dangerous work.
The commuters are friendly enough, and a few of them even take the time to offer me a shake of their head and a sympathetic shrug of their shoulders...
...but then they all pile off the carriage at once, and you’re left alone as the darkness flashes past, waiting for the train to pull up at a station that does not exist, with platforms that are quite empty and escalators that lead up into only darkness, nothing but darkness, and as you hurry back to the train you hear your footfalls echoing more than once, a pitter-patter of many others running beside you and behind you, first on their feet and then on all fours, and as you dive back into the carriage and the train sets off you get just a glimpse, just a split-second of your own hungry face with its jaw slack and its eyes black and oily as twin night skies, repeated in a hundred bodies crammed into the platform space, watching you leave them behind-
Next I try my luck at the old Regent cinema, the converted theatre with the rain-battered neon sign and the billboard that only ever seems to announce incomprehensible Eskovian films with titles that are just sequences of words and promise nothing, evoke nothing...
Sneaking into a screening is easy enough, as the teenage ticket attendants are chatting idly in front of the pick and mix.
And I take a row near the back of the empty room, lying across three seats at once, and try to get some sleep in the darkness, listening to the rain hammering on the tiles far above...
...but it’s hard, because the adverts finish and I find that I’m watching a jerky black-and-white film about a scowling homeless man who comes in off the street to take refuge in a cinema with a neon sign, but as he lies down across three seats near the back of the screen, there’s a crowd filing into the auditorium along either aisle, their faces masked in white cloth with round goggling eyes drawn on like cheap costume-party ghosts, and as they form a circle around him they raise the tools of deconstruction, and as they grab his limbs he begins to shriek, and as the hacksaw drives across his belly and splits the flesh to either side it isn’t guts or blood they pull up, it’s black ribbons of film, spooling out in all directions, and as they take one end they drag him, still screaming with his impossible bowels careening out over the carpet, and feed it into the projector, which flickers and lights up and then begins to show on the big screen a film about a scowling homeless man who comes in off the street to take refuge in a cinema with a neon sign, but…
...when the house lights finally come up and I’m ushered out into the street, it feels as if I’ve been there for days, but it’s still dark and still raining, and I have not slept.
There is refuge out there, I know.
And as I pause beneath a street sign that points me in the right direction, spelling out the name of my sanctuary, I feel as if luck must at last be on my side.
The other walking homeless have told me about the great undulating plains of Reclamation Park; where tall oaks and silver birch obscure the city skyline and the whisper of birds drowns the screaming traffic.
Not far from here. Within walking distance.
Beneath the black trees, in the long untended grass, I will find shelter.
And as I walk, I walk in hope, and the city no longer seems eternal and endless but cleanly mapped, and all at once there are no longer lights ahead beyond the great twisted statue of some ancient plaza, but instead a vast pool of empty black.
The park. A patch of pure oblivion, sewn into the fabric of the city.
I cross the square, pushing through the lingering tourists beneath their black umbrellas, find the iron fence with my fingers, and haul myself over one leg at a time.
I hang for a moment - then drop.
It’s like going blind. A descent into absolute darkness, my feet squelching into rain-sodden grass, my hands flailing out to catch my balance.
I stand there, listening to the silence, and wait for my eyes to adjust, until at last the trees are visible, looming out of the darkness like great grey mirrors; I stumble on, past them and around them, hoping to find a place where the rain no longer oozes through the canopy above.
And then I find myself standing on the edge of a grassy rise, and there are golden lights below me, illuminating the silhouettes of a playground just ahead.
A rickety iron swing. A climbing frame with slide. And a low tunnel that looks just dry and empty enough.
I bend down, cramming my knees into my chest, and force myself into safety.
It’s snug in here, and soon enough it’s warm as well; the rain drips just beyond my face but no longer soaks into my shoulders and hair.
I sit back, and close my eyes.
There’s a faint hubbub of voices in the park below. Laughter and popping corks.
Some kind of celebration.
Exhausted as I am, I begin to fall in love with the idea of slipping down there in the darkness, stealthily snatching myself a glass or a handful of canapes - because there’s always food, where there are popping corks, there’s always plenty - and then returning here, to the safety of my nest.
Or perhaps they wouldn’t question my walking amongst them, conversing with them. Confidence and the right sort of accent can go a long way, I hear.
The golden light blooms. There are fairy lights strung up amongst the trees, I realise, as if the park has been transformed specifically for their benefit.
I can make them out more clearly now. Swollen figures in tuxedos and cocktail dresses, clutching their glasses, arranged around a ghostly white gazebo.
Their laughter is careless; it’s loathsome because it’s so careless.
Their jowls shake as they talk. Their sightless eyes sing with happiness.
Do these people see what I see, I wonder? Will they ever truly know Eskew?
I am so caught up in my own contempt that it takes me a second to realise there’s something crawling up my arm.
I jolt back.
A brilliant, electric-blue bug is tottering up the sleeve of my coat, its fragile little feelers extended.
It’s beautiful; a tiny alien thing, a colour and a brightness that should in no way exist in nature, crawling determinedly up the sodden cloth of my coat as if something meaningful awaits it at the end of its journey.
I watch it worshipfully for a time, enjoying every teetering step and awkward backwards-sideways movement, until finally it gets a little too close to the skin of my wrist and I gently shake my sleeve, then a little harder, until it drops into the mud beneath the tunnel and is gone.
What will be the worst outcome, I wonder, when I get to the end of my journey?
If I come to the heart of Eskew, and am told that all my suffering was only a test, and I have been found worthy, and I am led into some room where my hand is shaken and my back is patted and we can all laugh about how it played on camera?
I think it might be better to come to the heart, and learn the opposite; that my unworthiness was exactly what led me to be here, that this is punishment of a cosmic sort, and I will never be free, because I can never be better…
That’s something to cling to. To revolt against.
There is no heart to any of this; I know that in mine.
And only those who dwell below in the park are a step closer to happiness, because they have enough comfort to forget.
I sit, and watch, as fireworks break over the sky of Eskew.
Great golden gushing lights, royal blues and reds, and those below raise their glasses and chant blessings to the night and lock their lips.
What are they celebrating? Is it Christmas, is it New Year? Does time still have meaning here.
I gaze up at the exploding stars, and the savage silhouettes of the city’s rooftops beyond, and at the lowest moment of my being, I make a resolution.
I will not spend the rest of my life in Eskew.
I will not go on like this.
I will not let more of my self be stolen from me.
And if Eskew will not let me go...then it will have to keep breaking me down, bone by bone and cell by cell, until there’s nothing left, because as long as there’s a single working part of me left in this body, I will not stop hunting, not stop running, and if it tears me down and snuffs me out, turns me into something broken and devolved like Kenneth or the architect or I swear my empty brain will keep my twisted mouth moaning out the words like a foghorn:
ESCAPE. ESCAPE. ESCAPE.
Yes, I remember their names. I have always remembered them.
I glance downwards. My eyes are brimming with tears.
The bright blue bug is crawling up my arm again. The same path, the same stubborn determination, working its way along the cloth of my sleeve towards the exposed skin of my wrist, as if looking for a place to lay its eggs.
I swat it; harder than I intended, or perhaps just as hard.
It falls, buzzing and bristling in fury and pain; when I look again, there are two severed, slender legs still clinging to the fabric.
I brush them away.
Of course I feel guilty, afterwards. I, too, am just one small creature traversing the surface of a landscape I’ll never fully understand.
And it’s at this precise moment that I begin to realise something is wrong.
Because the fireworks start up again.
And perhaps it’s just that fireworks are by their nature repetitive and forgettable, no matter how much we claim to love them - would you ever be able to recall the details of a particularly good fireworks sequence? - but I swear they’re playing out in the same patterns as last time.
Gold lights. Red lights. Blue lights.
And the sea of primped and puffy faces beneath me erupts in a cry of ‘To your health!’ and the well-fed and happy lean in to one another and begin to sing and kiss.
And I remember that time still has meaning in this place. The birds still take flight here.
My skin still ages, and fades with the years.
I gaze up at the imploding stars, and the savage silhouettes of the city’s rooftops beyond, and at the lowest moment of my being, I make a resolution.
I will not spend an eternity in Eskew.
I will not go on like this.
I will not let more of my self be stolen from me.
And if I should stay here for a little over a year, a little longer than I anticipated, then it doesn’t matter, because my resolve will not falter, and my resolution will not fade.
Eskew could give me back everything. My apartment, my job, my relationship, my bed - oh, God, my bed! That soft weight beneath my weight, the all-enclosing safety of the duvet!
Eskew could raise me up, and I would not forget what it reduced me to. And I-
-haven’t I had this thought before?
-and then I realise the electric-blue bug is crawling up my sleeve again.
Its shell is mangled, its pace slowed to a rickety marionette stutter by the two limbs that are missing, and it is humming, vibrating with the buzz of its own intent, an off-key broken sound that goes from quiet to loud to quiet and then starts up again.
I say it aloud.
“Stop it. Please stop it.”
But the bug just keeps on crawling, keeps on its dogged path to its own extinction, crawling its filthy limbs towards the skin of my wrist, and I have no choice now, none at all, as I smack my palm against my sleeve as hard as I can and feel the tiny thing break, hardness resolve into softness, and I wipe the disgusting mass of beetle, whirring and whining and twitching its limbs, down onto the mud beneath the tunnel and stamp with my foot, once, twice.
I feel dirtied and relieved all at once, as if I’ve sinned and as if I’ve cleansed myself all in one motion.
But - no.
No, it can’t be, it’s impossible that the little electric bug should still be alive, still humming from the debased wreck of its own innards and brain and limbs, its legs and feelers still flickering up towards my skin.
It’s just motor function, I tell myself. The thing is dead, and its body just needs time to understand that.
Time passes, and the bug does not stop.
In fact, it manages somehow to push itself back up onto what must be it’s front, screeching and whirring in triumph as it slopes a single inch through the mud, agonisingly slow, towards my shoe-
I stamp down again, and harder still, and I shout it this time.
“Stop it. Please stop it.”
And the fireworks break out again, the same pattern as before, and I know in my bones that I am trapped, somehow, in this park, in this moment of time within this park, that Eskew could trap me in a thimble, that there is nothing that cannot be made a prison.
Those below are singing again, but the words are different. The words are horrible.
When you go down to the end of the town
Be careful where you play
Because the shadow that’s down past the end of the town
Will surely take you away
The partygoers kiss, and their jaws clench with inhuman motion, and the lover devours the face of the loved, and half of the crowd below come away grinning and chanting with no cheeks and no lips.
The bug is crawling up my sleeve again.
It’s no longer a bug, no longer a stable structured creature, but a moving, fluid tumour of white insect guts and gorgeous glass blue shell shards spiking through the oozing flesh and three nervous spines that could be legs or feelers twitching uselessly through the air.
It should not be capable of movement. But it doesn’t seem to know that.
I know a metaphor when it’s crawling up my arm. I know a message when I see one.
Eskew wants to show me it knows how dogged one small thing can be - and how little it matters.
I try to brush it off. It keeps on going.
I shake it and shout at it, but it keeps on going.
And as it reaches the curve of my sleeve, descending onto the skin of my hand, it spreads itself, slopping out over my knuckles in every direction like white grease, like an oil slick-
The fireworks begin again. The singing begins again. The couples below lean in, and kiss deeper, and take more from one another.
And as the bug writhes and rises up my fingertips, there is a second mass of broken beetle crawling up my skin, and as the night sky explodes again a third, and a fourth, and the white boiling interiors are spreading along my arm, under my coat, reaching for my chest, for my throat, for my open screaming mouth-
The beetle’s gross mechanical hum is in my ears; in the marrow of my mind.
I close my eyes and scream. And the thought of my scream is this;
“I take it back. I take it back, I’m sorry.”
“Steal away everything else from me - but leave me more than this moment, this horrid, repeating moment.”
The fireworks crack like golden eggs in the sky, and I open my eyes again,
I’m lying sprawled in the mud of the park, before an audience of the well-dressed and wealthy.
They gaze up at me with hostility, irritation, amusement- above all, curiosity.
As if I’m a brave and unruly bug that’s crawled into the path of their polished leather shoes.
And then one of them says,
Allegra is standing amongst the well-fed, the washed, the happy. A single crudité halfway to her lips.
“David?” she asks again, and then she excuses herself from her companions and comes striding towards me up the grassy slope.
“David,” she says as her eyes meet my eyes in the darkness, and she takes my arm and guides me half-upright, as gently as she can. “David, my God, what happened to you? I tried your apartment, I tried everywhere, you’d just vanished- I thought you’d run away again.”
I fall into her embrace, which is welcoming and warm, no matter how long it’s been since I shaved or showered, no matter that I’m quivering with terror and hunger and exhaustion.
I am home, I think. I’m home.
Allegra’s shower runs steaming hot.
I peel back my rancid layers, exposing my frail body to the mirror’s gaze.
Eskew does know how, when you think you can’t go on, to give you just a little more. A little blessed relief.
And it’s only when I’m standing under the water that it occurs to me exactly why I don’t feel safe yet.
How did she know I ran away again?
I stand there for a moment, dirt and grime pooling from my feet and running down the plughole, before turning off the tap.
I slip into the white bathrobe that’s been laid out for me, and walk out into the bright, tasteful kitchen.
Allegra is cooking me eggs.
She’s talking about how it’s going to be OK; that she’s been building up her contacts and she thinks she’ll be able to find me work, perhaps at a school or a library, somewhere I’ll be happy.
She thinks I’ll like that; to have a sense of purpose.
The question comes to me, slowly and dully, as she’s ladling the scrambled white gunk out across her plates.
“Allegra,” I ask, “what were you doing in the park?”
She doesn’t turn to look at me.
“Oh,” she says, “it was a work thing. The town planners and the city architects. We were celebrating.”
Allegra faces me. Her eyes are bright.
“The expansion,” she tells me. “We were celebrating the expansion.”