I know where I was; sitting on my parent’s couch and watching my good-for-nothing brother manhandle a girl, so intoxicated that she was barely even conscious, towards the staircase. I watched him with wide eyes and my lips pursed tightly, knowing that I should say something and knowing that I should put a stop to what was about to happen, but lacking the courage to stand up to big brother Henry.
Henry nudged her up onto the first step, but she failed to summon the energy to climb and instead fell into a heap with her back against the wall and her legs sprawled. The skirt of her dress was bunched up around her thighs, so I got a pretty clear view of her red panties and I felt my cheeks flame with the shame of even looking at her in that sorry state.
Dignity, I thought, where was her dignity?
I glanced distastefully at the crystal punch bowl Henry had dug out of the kitchen cupboard, especially for the occasion. I’d watched him fill it earlier this afternoon, not with punch but with a deadly concoction of spirits, fruit juice, and a circular white pill he had diced up into a fine powder before sprinkling it in.
“What is that?” I asked him.
He looked at me with a crooked smile, “Just a little something to mellow out the chicks, Billy boy. You’ll see.”
There was something about that self-satisfied smile that chilled me, even though he was my older brother. I might have only been fifteen at the time, but I knew that wasn’t some herbal relaxant he had just put into the ‘fishbowl’ as he called it; it was drugs of some kind, cocaine maybe, or something worse.
I’m ashamed to admit that I was curious about the fishbowl, more curious than I wanted to be. After all that they told us in school about the use of hard drugs, I knew, for sure, I wanted to stay away from them, but I couldn’t help the little frisson of excitement at the prospect of trying it, of experiencing that high that Henry often preached to me.
“Un-fucking-believable, Bill.” He would exclaim, spraying spittle in his eagerness to explain. “My brain is going a mile a minute, and my cock is harder than a fucking tree trunk. I swear to god, Bills, I’m on top of the world!”
What had stopped me on more than one occasion when Henry offered me some of his ‘gear’ was the memory of him after he had come down from the high. The memory of his bloodless face and dark bruising under his eyes, his quick temper, and his fists. My brother, in all his wisdom, would spend more time suffering from his beloved crack or heroine than he did actually enjoying it. So, I stayed well away.
That afternoon it was like the fishbowl was the Holy Grail, and I was aching for a taste. Watching Henry prepare it began as a mild curiosity at what all those spirits and fruit juice mixed together would actually taste of. I’d tried beer for the first and only time when I was twelve; I’d been begging my father to have a can with him and Uncle Steve, and he had eventually given in, watching me with amusement and something like caution. Henry had already been on his path of substance abuse at this point and it had begun with alcohol and cigarettes, so I guess my dad was worried that my first taste of beer might trigger my own decline. It actually had quite the opposite effect. As soon as the thick malty taste of it hit the back of my throat, I choked and hacked it all back up again, to the sound of their laughter. Since then, I’d tried a few other things at the two high school parties I’d actually been to; cocktails, mixers, and the like. I wasn’t keen on straight spirits; they hit the taste buds like acid with a burning aftertaste that left you gasping for water, but I quite liked cocktails and anything fruity; the juice took the edge of the alcohol and made it drinkable.
That was probably why I was so tempted for a taste of Henry’s fishbowl, not that he had added much fruit juice, “Just enough to take the edge off,” He had told me with a wink as he’d poured in the cranberry juice. But maybe it was also the mysterious drug he had added that had some allure for me. I remember thinking, how bad can it be all diluted with liquid like it is?
As it was, I only had a sip of the stuff that was enough for me. It tasted like a bowl of vomit; I had to fight to keep my supper down after only one sip. I was shocked to see Henry’s pals and party goers keep going back for more cups of it.
Henry was sneaky; I’d watched him throughout the evening; it’s not like I had anything else to do. Everyone who showed up was Henry’s friend. No one paid me much notice being the only fifteen-year-old there amongst a bunch of college students.
I sat on the couch and watched the party unfold, all the while wondering what our parents would say if they could see what we were doing while they were away visiting family. Henry only had a few drinks, which was quite unlike him, I must say, which is probably why I noticed. He was constantly refilling girl’s drinks for them and offering plastic cups full of the fishbowl to any newcomers. Eventually, he homed in on this one poor girl who was already in quite a state. He’d given her three cups of the fishbowl, and I watched her with rising pity and disgust.
Now she sat on the stairs with her legs spread wide and her panties on show to anyone who wanted a peek. Her eyes were hooded and almost shut, mascara smudged beneath them both and a thin trail of spittle across one cheek. Whose spittle it was, I couldn’t tell you; she and Henry had been making out pretty heavily for a while in the old cozy armchair opposite the TV. I had to keep my eyes averted the whole time. I felt like an intruder watching something that should have been strictly private, especially when Henry pulled up her skirt and slid his hand under the waistband of her panties. Just remembering that sent a hot shiver down my spine, it wasn’t entirely unpleasant, and I am ashamed to admit that I couldn’t help my eyes from drifting constantly over to them, and my own groin stirred just watching them caress each other.
Henry grabbed her under the arms and practically dragged her up the stairs to his bedroom. One of her stiletto heels dislodged on the third stair and came completely off, but Henry either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
Probably the latter, I thought, staring at the patent black heel lying on its side on the plush beige carpet. Mum would have a cow if she saw that.
She was a firm believer that shoes should not be worn in the house. That, coupled with the fact that she was a clean freak, meant that any loose shoes found around the house were worthy of a slap with the feather duster. I’d learned from a young age not to dare wear my shoes in from the porch, or to carry them if they were coming to my bedroom with me. Henry, however, had not. In recent years that even my mother was wary of upsetting my brother in case he was in one of his foul moods, which happened more often than not these days. Instead of giving him a slap as she once would have for committing such an act of disobedience, she would simply look down at the offending shoe (or shoes) sniff with repugnance, and leave them outside Henry’s bedroom door without a word to him.
I looked around at the ongoing party with another pang of guilt. It was Henry’s party, that was true, but I was here too, trusted to be alone in the house for seven days, not even twenty-four hours in and we were breaking one of the rules. I felt like a shit. A betraying little shit. If I told Henry how I felt, he’d tease me for being a mummy’s boy or call me a prick and tell me to man-up and enjoy the party.
And now Henry was taking some unknown girl upstairs, maybe even against her will; who could really tell what the poor girl wanted considering how trashed she was? She didn’t need Henry slobbering all over her, she needed a ride home, and to be put to bed.
I glanced up at the ceiling; she was being put to bed all right. The music was pumping out too loud for me to hear anything, but I had spent many a night lying awake and listening to Henry’s bed springs and the grunts and groans that floated through the thin walls.
Before me, more and more girls were dancing and chatting and laughing, and everyone was drinking. The punch bowl was nearly down to its dregs now and the atmosphere in the house had reached a fever pitch. The more I watched, the more I realised that dancing had become gyrating hip-to-hip, chatting had become sucking face, and laughter had become grunts and moans.
Dear god, I was at what was likely to become an orgy.
I decided I’d had enough when one of the ‘ladies’ for want of a better term, dropped to her knees before Pete, one of Henry’s best pals, and freed his cock from his jeans. I took one look at that erection, jumped to my feet, and made a beeline for the downstairs bathroom. I kept my gaze downcast and only bumped shoulders with one girl who was walking drunkenly back the way I’d come.
Thankfully the bathroom was empty; I shut the door briskly and turned the lock with a quiet snap, as though somehow that might magically whisk the party goers and all the mess away. But the music carried on thumping through the whole house; even in here with the door shut I could feel the vibrations of the sound system.
It was cooler in here, which was a relief. Someone had left the window wide open. I could see a small brown moth fluttering in the pane trying to make its way inside to the fluorescent bulb hanging from the ceiling. I didn’t mind; I’d never been one to make a fuss about bugs or spiders.
I unzipped my fly to empty my bladder, and it was only as I was aiming my flow that I saw the vomit-strewn toilet bowl. I wrinkled my nose in disgust, but it was too late to stop now, even though I felt dirty pissing over someone’s half-digested dinner. My own stomach turned as my eyes automatically registered the chunks of chicken amongst the bile-colored slop.
I zipped up and turned to the sink, bracing myself against the basin. My eyes made contact with their reflection, and my shoulders sagged. Stark shame burned deep in the pit of my stomach. My parents trusted me. I grimaced at my reflection. Look at what was happening in their house. Alright, so it wasn’t my party, but that truth did nothing to still the guilt in my heart, I was here after all wasn’t I? I wish I had the balls to stand up to my brother. But like all big brothers, Henry had this sway over me that I just couldn’t shake, despite the fact that I was losing, and perhaps already lost, that hero worship that a small boy has for his big bro. Five years ago, Henry was my hero. Now I could hardly meet his eyes without feeling embarrassed and ashamed. Henry didn’t have that trouble; he would look at me square in the eyes, his face set and his eyes glassy and bloodshot, that twinkle was almost daring me to look away, daring me to feel sorry for him. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d tried to talk to Henry about the drugs, and both times I’d come out with a black eye that took two weeks to heal.
I still had the ghost of the last bruise around the socket of my left eye then, and it made my gut tighten to even look at it. I looked, instead, at the toilet bowl again. I guess I’d have to clean that up sooner rather than later. I didn’t much fancy scraping dried vomit off the toilet seat tomorrow morning.
I set to cleaning, trying to breathe through my mouth to keep the rich stink of bile at bay. It didn’t help much; I could still taste the bitter tang of it in the back of my throat, and twice I felt my stomach clench as if to say, hey Billy, fancy adding to that slop do-ya?
If I didn’t get that stink out of my mouth, I was afraid I might do just that.
I took a quick swig of water from the tap and washed it around my mouth, spat it down the black eye of the drain, and got back to work. The vomit was still pretty fresh, so it came away easily with a quick wipe with toilet tissue, I launched the tissue into the bowl and flushed it as soon as I’d got the worst of it off. There were splatters around the tiled floor, but even they came up easy. Now that I’d done the worst of it I figured I’d bleach the whole room (hell the whole house!) in the morning when all the people were gone.
It was as I was scrubbing my hands furiously with soap that it happened. The prelude to the global event that essentially ended the world.
The shrieking started first. A loud, high-pitched mechanical whine. It came from everywhere and nowhere all at once. I clapped my hands over my head and covered my ears, but it did nothing to quiet the piercing sound, and I realised that the sound was in my head as well as out loud. It came from the walls of the house, from the drain in the sink. It came from the molecules in the air and the electric current in my brain.
After a few seconds of the noise I felt for sure it would drive me insane. I could feel blood trickling from my ears and down my jaw, my mouth was stretched wide in a terrified ‘o’ and my eyes were squeezed shut against the onslaught. I fell to my knees on the bathroom floor and cracked my head against the sink basin on my way down. Pain exploded in my forehead, and a part of me hoped that I would pass out, at least then the screeching would stop bothering me. But I didn’t pass out. I simply knelt on the cold floor watching small droplets of my own blood splatter on the white tiles and my mind was ticking over at breakneck speed; please god could I just pass out now? Blood is dripping out my frigging ears, my brain is turning to liquid in my skull, what the hell is that NOISE?
The flash of light came a moment later and if I hadn’t been looking at the floor I wonder if my eyes would have burnt out of their sockets just from looking at it. The heat that came with that light was scorching and stifling and it brought tears to my eyes and sweat to my brow. Vaguely, I heard the window shatter as the light shot into the room with all the force of a cannonball, and all the heat of a furnace.
I turned to look at the bizarre burning ball of light; against my better judgment are you insane?! Your eyes will melt! But I couldn’t help myself; I was drawn to the light, drawn in a bigger way than I had been drawn to Henry’s fishbowl, more drawn to the light than I’d be drawn to anything in my entire life.
In the blaze I could just make out a shape, a figure, something moving. And for a second, I almost saw what its true form was behind the blaze and my mind teetered on the edge of insanity.
The shape morphed then, and the bright burning light that surrounded it died down to a mild glow. The figure that emerged shocked me to my core. It was a man; but not a man. His skin was alight with the glow of a dozen fairy dust particles and he had the shadow of great white wings protruding from his shoulders. He looked most peculiar in his dark denim jeans and his rubber-soled work boots. He wore a plain white shirt and a brown and black checked flat cap.
He reached down and placed his hand over mine which was covering my ears and suddenly the screeching died down from a crescendo to a mild annoyance. I stayed with my hands over my ears for a moment longer, lost for words, my mouth still agape in that silent scream.
The man, this shape-shifter, stood straight again and observed me mildly, his face unreadable. He looked ridiculous in the tiny bathroom, his feet planted on either side of mine as I lay curled in the fetal position around the toilet bowl.
It’s a standoff! I thought with an insane inner giggle. He obviously has something to say, but is waiting for me to open the conversation, and I have no idea what to say, except what the hell are you doing in my bathroom pal!
My mouth was as dry as the Sahara Desert and I had to swallow a few times just to get my tongue moving. “You came in the window,” I said, not realising what was coming out of my mouth until I’d said it.
The man stared at me thoughtfully for a moment longer. “You are William Phillips.” He said. His voice was cool, like smooth peanut butter.
I got to my feet and immediately wished I hadn’t. It wasn’t the biggest bathroom in the world, but it seemed a hell of a lot smaller when I was on eye level with this strange shape-changing man. “You going to pay for that glass, mister? Jesus shit, mums going to have a cow.” I said, wiping my dry lips with the back of my hand nervously.
“You are William Phillips.” He repeated, it was less of a question this time.
“Yeah.” I said, meeting his eyes for the first time.
It didn’t really surprise me to find that he had bright white and yellow swirling eyes, the same colour as the light that had surrounded him before he changed into this man shape.
“Who are you?” I asked him.
“I am light.” He said. “One of many.” His lips twisted in a wry smile. “I’ve come to save your soul.”
I let out a short bark of humourless laughter and closed the toilet seat lid, so I could sit down on it. “Save my…” I shook my head. “What the fuck is going on.”
“There is not much time to explain. This is, in fact, non-time, and there is no way to say how long it will last.” He said thoughtfully. His voice was crisp and clear, but I was overwhelmed with the idea that he was not from around here, like he was some kind of foreigner, as my dad called them. But I also had an idea that this guy was from a bit further away than Eastern Europe. “When this non-time is finished I will be departing this world for good and I would like for you to come with me.”
I nodded, as though this made perfect sense. “Who would fix the window?” I asked him.
He frowned at the glass shards scattered beneath the frame, “William Phillips, the world is about to end.”
“Right,” I said, chewing over this new piece of information. “I always imagined what I would do if the zombie apocalypse came,” I said. “Doug Harrison thinks I’d be eaten right off the bat, because I have a pretty face, but I think I’d fare better than him at least. He’s asthmatic and he can’t run very fast.”
The man raised his eyebrows, “Are you feeling alright?” He asked with no real concern.
“I hit my head and I think I might have a concussion,” I said, massaging the rising lump on my forehead.
“William Phillips, this is a waste of the non-time. I need your answer now, boy. Will you come with me or not? I will be long gone by the time the carnage begins.”
“Where would you be taking me?” I asked him.
“Beyond existence.” He said simply.
“And that’s better than being here because?” I asked him.
“You would be safe.”
“And my family?”
“It’s too late for them.” He said dismissively.
I met his gaze levelly, “Let’s pretend for a moment that this is all real, and not just a concussion from where I knocked my head just now.” I said. “You want to take me ‘beyond existence, which I’m assuming would mean I would no longer exist, and you want me to go without my family. Are you nuts? How many people would actually go with you when you put it to them like that?” I asked him incredulously.
He cocked his head, “My brethren have already collected three billion of the earth’s population.” He studied me for a long moment. “If you knew what was coming, William Phillips, perhaps you would not be so flippant.”
I opened my mouth to reply when the distant wailing picked up its ferocity, it sounded almost triumphant now as well as being so strong it made my ears bleed.
I saw the panic on the visitor’s face now, the first real emotion he had displayed upon arriving in my bathroom. “The non-time is almost over. Make your decision William Phillips. I can do no more to convince you except to tell you that to stay here will not mean simply death or pain; it will mean eternity.”
My eyes found the small pile of shattered glass on the floor and I knew that this was real. Everything that this shape-shifter had told me was real and I knew it in my gut. It was the same sort of knowing you get when you’re sitting on the tube and you get that tickle on the back of your neck, you look up and immediately spot the person who you knew was watching you. The same knowing that you get when you walk up to your front door and you know that those keys are not in your pocket, you dig out your pockets anyway and practically turn yourself inside out, but you knew as soon as you saw your front door that those keys weren’t with you.
It was also the pile of glass that made up my mind for me. I would never forgive myself for leaving it. And mum really would have a cow if she saw I’d gone and left that mess behind.
© Emma Stead