I had seen those two words every day growing up. They appeared on the brick wall opposite the front of my house when I was eleven, and they were still there when I moved out at eighteen. When I left the house to go to school, I saw them. My bedroom was at the front of the house on the second floor, and looking out of my window I saw them. Opening the door to let the postman in, to greet the pizza delivery guy, to turn away a rabbid pack of Mormons – I saw them.
I never thought about what the words might mean. It seemed sort of obvious: apocalyptic, Biblical judgement. Maybe it was a quote from the Book of Revelations, or maybe an HG Wells novel. Probably a local kid just thought it sounded grown up. It was not a part of my life’s narrative, this ghost that haunted Blakemoor Road; it did not haunt me. I never dreamt about it until last night.
Before I could entirely remember the dream, I had an alarm to contend with – placed on the other side of the room to make sure I didn’t hit snooze and go back to sleep. My head was heavy with something other than morning tiredness, and I vaguely recalled taking an extra dose of Zopiclone last night, my insomnia less bearable than usual on account of the rain pummeling the roof above me, pounding on the windows like a spirit begging to be let in. With the extra meds, I was snuffed out like a candle. No wonder I felt like a walking brick wall in the morning.
That thought, as I switched off the alarm, made me think of the wall outside my old home for the first time in nearly a year. I hadn’t visited like I’d promised. ‘Do you really have to go?’ Mom had asked that question incessantly in the days before I left, while I packed boxes and bags, putting old clothes and unwanted DVDs in a box for goodwill. Mom said it was like I was trying to cross myself out. Until I left, I thought she was exaggerating. Dad said to me ‘Marianne Freer, you better come back and see your mother from time to time. I know you’re going to be out living your life and doing your own thing but you can’t just leave her behind, even if you do become some hot shot’. His voice dropped to a whisper, partly conspiratorial: ‘if you do, I swear she’ll drive me crazy’. I wonder if he was joking or confessing.
If Dad went crazy, or Mom for that matter, I wouldn’t know. I never went to see them. I ignored most of their phone calls. Sent apologetic “been so busy” template texts, impersonal. Made promises I had no intention of keeping.
The dream last night seemed like a sign. I never really believed in that sort of thing but Mom did. Maybe her faith was strong enough to send me a sign, to convert me like she’d always hoped it would.
In the dream I was in my apartment. It’s a two-floor thing; the estate agent called it a ‘duplex, loft-like thing’ and that’s how I thought of it. The upstairs was open, so that you could look over the side of the bedroom and into the kitchen below. There were windows facing onto the street in the bedroom. Downstairs, the kitchen windows overlooked a brick courtyard, the outer walls of neighbouring buildings forming an enclosure, the most depressing view. I kept the blinds down in the kitchen. That way I could pretend.
But in the dream the blinds were up and I stood there at the sink, looking out of the window. The courtyard was no more – the three adjacent brick walls had been partially demolished, standing only a few feet high, as if a bomb had decimated them but considerately stopped just shy of my apartment. Over the remains of the walls I could see my old house, my family’s house. It had never looked so big, or so close. I wanted to go there. White lines, words maybe, decorated the courtyard ruins. My eyes wouldn’t focus.
When I turned around, my brother Alex was behind me, looking at his phone. I asked him a question, and the thunder outside was the only answer I received. Rain fell in my dream as it did before I slept. A restless storm out there as I wondered if Alex was mute. Then I wondered why he was here; I never let my family visit, worried they’d see through it, worried they’d drag me back.
I wasn’t depressed, living at home. I wasn’t unlucky, like my gay friend Luke who left as soon as he could to escape the zealous bigot he was unfortunate enough to call “mother”. I didn’t have a secret boyfriend (or girlfriend, not that my family were conservative enough to care); no forbidden love, no star-crossed desire propelling me to leave. Not even an addiction to sniffing glue. Just a feeling that in the family house – surrounded by the faces that had kept me safe and happy, and the wall-hanging effigies of happy selves that I could never again emulate – I was sinking, in danger of some unknown sameness. I used to think I was afraid that my clean-cut and happy upbringing would alienate me, put a wall between myself and the people in the world that were not so lucky. I wanted to help them, even when I was young. I was supposed to do good things, take action where it mattered, make a difference. I felt like I was suffering from some third-party survivor’s guilt.
I wanted so badly to go back. My house was there – my family! And in the house maybe Alex would speak, maybe he was just afraid in my apartment. He had always been sensitive, withdrawn even. He struggled in new environments, but back at home – he’d be talking my ear off, I was sure of it. Telling me about books he’d read and things he’d built and maybe give me a comprehensive history of black-and-white cinematography or Ancient Grecian theatre or 1920s American jazz music. I wanted to cry, to plead with him for words, any words even if they didn’t make sense, but instead I watched, instead I waited.
I blinked and he was gone and so was my apartment. Hell had opened up to welcome me, the sort of Hell I’d seen pictures of in school – unreal red flames and black jagged edges, a glint reflecting through the smoke no doubt from a pitchfork held at just the right angle to impose its threat. Another blink and Hell was gone and I was on a school bus. All the children were dead, grey, blood-covered, butchered. Their clothes were soaked through, even their little socks poking out of their little shoes. I looked down at my lap, saw my own clothes wet. I screamed out to the dead kids that I smelled like gasoline and they ignored me. My hands were shrivelled like when I would stay in the bath too long when I was a kid.
And then I was in a bath, a huge bath full right to the brim, water sloshing over edges and flooding the floor because I was too big for the bath. And then I was too small and I saw the ceiling through a watery filter and I tried to scream to the empty room that I was drowning. Instead I screamed ‘gasoline’ and water filled my lungs and I spluttered, lost. And then something shining overhead faintly, growing larger and more sparkling until it pierced the water, pierced my side. The pitchfork, perhaps a trident.
I was at a door. I opened it as I said goodbye and then I walked through and closed it behind me. Then I opened the door and shouted bye and went through the doorframe and shut it as I went. And then I opened the same door and said the same goodbyes and walked the same steps through that same door, shut it in that same way, kept doing it, trapped in the doorframe and around it, always saying goodbye and always trying to leave. I opened my mouth and water poured out, all over the floor of my apartment. The ceiling was leaking. Alex was back, stood beneath the leak, getting soaked. His face was pale but his neck seemed dark, bruised almost. His lips were still a silent reminder that I hadn’t kept my promise.
I remember he texted me two weeks before my dream. He said ‘I’m sorry you never want to come visit. I know why. But I wish you could’. Even now I see him, sitting on the windowsill in my old room, looking out at two words on a brick wall, almost innocuous, tainted by the white. For a moment he felt another’s thoughts in his head, as I had, and that tight dread, certainty of doom. He sent the text and began to cry, leaving my room, but by the time he crossed the threshold the tears had stopped entirely. He would wonder why his face was wet.
I skipped my shower that morning, glad that I had showered the afternoon before. The black top and trousers I had picked out and ironed last night slipped onto me without protest. I pulled my hair back and tied it in a tight ponytail. ‘You look so severe’, they used to say when I wore my hair this way. That’s why I stopped. That’s why I started.
The mirror showed a version of me that I couldn’t reconcile with the way I felt, with the me I knew, with the dream still impregnating my thoughts. Nothing added up, as though these parts of me were sliding, off-kilter and out-of-focus, each one struggling to keep up with the others. I saw myself and my life in exploded-view, projected like an artwork by some other person in some other time. I remember reading once that you can’t see reflections in dreams. Maybe it would be too painful for us.
I left those other versions of me behind. Like the me in my dream, I walked through the door and said goodbye. Like the me in my dream, I would be back, whether I wanted to or not.
I walked the wet pavement, puttering through puddles left by the flood that swept through last night, here and in my dreams. Wishing I had slept more. I sat on the train, unable to read, to think, even to put my headphones in. Wishing I was the sort of person who kept promises. Wishing I was like Alex, good pure Alex with his encyclopaedic knowledge, his relentless interest, his endearing shyness, and a quietude that was far removed from its cousin silence, the mute Alex of my dream. Being around him was enough to calm a twister or an uprising. All the noise would leave and his smile, a smile that did not know how to be anything else, would radiate through any lingering clouds, shattering them like mortal enemies. Joyous Alex.
In my dream-apartment he was something out of a movie, his flesh seared and raw and open, his eyes glazed over, clothes tattered, hands and raw arms held out. He was screaming, and the water which had poured out of my mouth and out of the roof and up through the floorboards beneath our feet, was up to his knees. His usual smile had left no trace on this pink and grey hamburger face, and the silence was now filled with his howling, like a wounded animal that wanted the burns to be deeper or the water to be higher, anything to put an end to the hunt.
From the corner of my left eye, I saw my father, arms outstretched. He did not look as injured as Alex, but his flesh was much the same, the colour of meat, the texture of illness. To the side of my other eye, standing on my left side, my mother. She was reaching out for something, perhaps the missing chunks of her head. Her new flesh was more like mine than Alex’s. Her pyjamas bloodied, her wedding ring glinting on her bloodied hand like a pitchfork in a fiery pit.
Alex to father to mother to Alex. All of them staring – or, for my mother without eyes or face, trying to – screaming their accusations disparately until a single refrain emerged, a chorus for the number one song in Hell’s Top 40 Chart: you should have kept your promises. And it’s too late. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, Alex to father to mother to Alex to –
The church looms above me. I have not been here in so long. I look up in fear, that childish worry creeping back. He knows. Like magic, like Santa. All the deathly secrets of my broken heart, all the things that I have broken. He knows and he will be your judge. He will be the executioner of your sins or your soul. You can play the jury.
I walk through the doorway, saying hello. I do not combust as I enter. The gates of hell do not open. I take a piece of paper with their names on it, Herbert, Colleen and Alexander Freer, and I sit down at the back. I read the words again in my head, accusation and death sentence. Father to mother to Alex to –
– father to mother to Alex, and now he is the only one left. The water is up to his neck and he looks peaceful. He opens the hole in his face and words travel across the water like skipping stones. ‘I’m sorry you never want to come visit. I know why. But I wish you could.’ There is no roof above us anymore – the rain pours directly in, tsunami like, dousing us. I can just about make out the shape of my apartment in the murky depths. My bed like a shipwreck in a corner.
‘I’m sorry you never want to come visit. I know why. But I wish you could.’ He repeats it over and over like a campaign mantra until the water is in his mouth and even then he doesn’t stop. Dead parents float around us by the dozen. One Alex, still living, still fighting, does not look away from my face, pale but not grey. I try to tell him I’m sorry but we can no longer hear each other. A wall somewhere gives, and like a ruptured aquarium the water pours through splinters in a slow trickle and then all at once, and I feel myself drop. I can’t see Alex.
Outside, still raining. When it rains, it pours. If only there had been a downpour last week. If only there had been rain in April, as there had been every other year for time immemorial. If only a sudden flood had come down, like the wall had always said it would. Maybe a flood could have stopped it, but I don’t think so. My parents were too far gone, they didn’t need the fire.
The fire came anyway and my former home burned to the ground on the last night of April, while I slept in a bed fifteen miles away. No one in the house could stop it or put it out because they were already mostly dead. Mom was missing most of her head, Dad was at the source of the blast that set my home ablaze. Alex was cowering in helpless shreds, sheets of red hanging in his eyes as he probably scrambled for his phone on legs that couldn’t stand. Two days later, May Day, was his seventeenth birthday. I was planning on making a rare phone call. I would have apologised for never visiting. I should apologise to the closed casket just a few feet away from me. But how could I?
I read his name for the hundredth time on the damn memorial paper. In loving memory, neglected wonder, smothered star. All the sliding selves of his from my dream come to me. The mute one at the front, his silence heavy with questions that I couldn’t answer from here, from a church I rejected, from the land of the living. Why not me? Why didn’t I visit him, save him, save all of them? Why did they leave me alone? Someone puts a hand on my shoulder, but it’s too late.