Ebony didn't know how long she'd been here for, lying across the floorboards in the dark, like a corpse displayed upon a mortician's table. Her eyes took in nothing—not the fungus spores creeping across the ceiling or the blistered wallpaper. The atmosphere was heavy and foreboding, as if death had seeped into the very bricks and plasterboard, the flesh and bones of the building.
In a way, she supposed it had.
There was a knot of Serpents in Ebony's belly. She could feel them squirming and twisting around her innards. Her fingertips trailed across her ribcage, resting upon her stomach like a mother-to-be.
Well, not exactly.
Ebony's stomach couldn't be described as anything close to swollen. Her entire body was wasting away, shrivelling up like a discarded strip of orange peel. Because that's all I am, she thought. A skin. But theirs was a conflicted relationship; as much as the Serpents pained her, Ebony welcomed them. Wished they would devour her completely.
And yet it was a slow process. They'd been there for almost six weeks now, taking root before the dust had settled on her old life. But her memories were like fire and when she thought of them, (as she frequently did) an odd and frightful thing would occur. The Serpents would clench and blood-red spots would appear around the edges of her vision. She was convinced she could even taste them, bitterness and bile coating the roof of her mouth.
It was maddening.
She closed her eyes and tried to imagine what it would be like to be dead. Yes, it was morbid, but so what? There'd be no more fighting. No more disturbing thoughts or impulses. She'd been doing a bit of DIY in the kitchen a couple of days ago, constructing a spice rack from some tattered manual she'd found underneath the sink. She could pick up the claw hammer or maybe even the power drill, make a hole in her head and let all the bad things seep away.
Watch them as they swirl down the plughole.
The doorbell rang.
Ebony had forgotten it was Thursday. With a strength which had previously eluded her, she got up and opened the front door, stopping when it jerked on its chain. The young man grinned, holding out a red tub. Rain dripped off his glasses and ran down the bridge of his crooked nose. Ebony half-hid behind the door. "I'll just get some change," she said.
There was a glass jar in the sitting room. Ebony had spent the previous night—and the five before that—counting out eighty-eight pounds and twenty-four pence. She went back to the front door and stuck her arm through the gap. Her long fingers slotted in five pounds exactly.
This was the part where he was supposed to leave, but he didn't. Instead, he hopped around a bit as if he was gearing himself up for something.
Ebony cleared her throat. "Can I help you with anything else?"
His face went fire-engine-red, and then he blurted out, "I wish everyone else around here was as kind as you."
"Not by a long shot."
He laughed and Ebony noticed that the gesture crinkled the skin at the corners of his eyes and plumped up his cheeks. "That's the million pound question," he said. "Why donate to charity when you can spend it all on booze and cigarettes? It's easy to ignore the trouble going on in the world when you're the one having a good time."
"Yes. I've heard that alcohol is a lot of fun."
"So, you don't drink then?"
"Of course I drink."
"No, I mean you're tee-total?"
"I suppose so."
"Me too," he said. "But, if I'm being completely honest with you, I did have a wee slip-up last weekend. Work party. Suppose it's hard when you've got your so-called mates shoving shots of demon spunk in your hands. So, how long have you been on the wagon then?"
"Yeah, you're something all right."
"Yes, I am."
He blew into his large hands, breath misting the air. It was a typically wet November evening and there was a change in the weather, a chill which hadn't been there before. There was a jar of coffee in one of the cupboards and Ebony thought she should probably offer him a cup. He'd have to drink it on the doorstep, of course . . .
"We're saving up to buy a new homeless shelter," the young man said suddenly. "It's taking a hell of a lot longer than we thought it would. But that could be down to the time of year, too."
"What time is that?"
"And we've to get another bad winter this year. It's horrible to think of all those poor people going without and I bet you anything that it'll be worse in Glasgow and Edinburgh."
He continued on and on like this, but Ebony was only half-listening, the cogs now slowly turning in her head. This was the fourth time she'd donated to the young man and she was fond of their little routine. She liked the brief exchange of pleasantries, the shy smiles and, of course, the knowledge that she was doing something good.
But it had to come to an end.
Everything did, didn't it?
"Stay here, please," she said, before slamming the door in his face.
Ebony returned with the glass jar, dragging it across the ground. She removed the chain and the man grunted as she heaved the jar up, thrusting it into his chest.
"Wow. How much do you have?"
She told him.
"I can't accept this."
"It's too much."
Ebony didn't understand. She had money and the charity required it. He was staring at her now and Ebony suddenly felt very exposed. The door was wide open and the wind was whipping at her baggy T-shirt, which had more stains on it than the floor of a greasy spoon. Her long, spindly legs were bare and she'd neglected to shave them recently. She tried to flatten the shirt against her stomach.
"I've got an idea," he said. "How about you come and do some voluntary work with us instead? Yeah, the people there are dead nice. Really friendly—okay, so maybe a little bit bonkers, but all the best people are. Plus, we do a great night out . . ."
"I don't think—"
"And," he lowered his voice conspiratorially, "it'll get you away from here." He removed a leaflet from his bag and wrote down a telephone number. "Just tell them Rick Armstrong gave this to you." He smiled again and Ebony noticed that he had a dimple at the corner of his mouth. He placed the jar at her feet, and Ebony watched as he walked back down the path, back out of her existence and amongst them. There was a flutter, a sudden ache in her chest—something which had nothing to do with Serpents, but a lot to do with something else she didn't quite understand.
"Coffee!" she shouted.
He stopped and turned around, a quizzical look on his face.
"Umm . . . Would you like some coffee? I have a jar." She looked down at the ground and chewed the inside of her mouth.
"Sure," Rick said. "Coffee would be great."
Ebony returned to the door five minutes later with a steaming cup of something which resembled tar. She'd been unable to find any sugar and the milk in the fridge looked like cottage cheese. It had stopped raining now and Rick was sitting on the step. Ebony remained standing, fingers curled around the mug as she offered the handle to him.
As he sipped, Ebony looked down the liquorice-whip road and across the deserted football field beyond. The lights from the houses in the distance looked like glowing eyes in the darkness and she imagined they were regarding her with malice. She crouched down, balancing precariously on her toes as she leaned forward. "You've encountered them, haven't you?"
"The people who live here. I was wondering what they were like."
"You don't get out much, do you?"
She didn't say anything.
"Do you want me to be completely honest with you?"
"I think," Rick paused to wipe the steam off his glasses, "that if Blackcross was to vanish, nobody would really be upset. Sometimes it's not just people who cause problems, you know, but a place. I know that sounds weird, but it's true. I mean, you just have to take one step into this village, and you know it's got nothing to offer anybody. But places like Blackcross take a while to die and always take a body count with them."
"Do you think bad people are drawn here?"
Rick smiled weakly. "People are people. You're going to get a variety wherever you go, aren't you? Every place has its good and bad. Maybe Blackcross is greyer than most, but it doesn't change that. I mean, what about you? You just . . . I don't know, seem different." He drained the last of his coffee and turned around. Ebony could feel his breath across her face, could see the stubble around his jaw like iron-fillings. He was looking at her intently as if he was trying to figure something out and the answer was held within the depths of her eyes. He gave her the mug back, his hand touching hers. "Lost or something."
The Serpents coiled inside her, tightly like a spring.
A line had been crossed and it was her fault. Without another word, she stood up and drifted back inside, down the hallway and into the sitting room, stopping at the threshold to the kitchen.
"Hey," he said. "Hey!"
But his voice sounded tinny and faraway. It was all Serpents and Red Mist now, clouding her head, clouding everything. And then she could hear him somewhere behind her, coming into her space uninvited.
"You left your jar outside." He paused. "Wow . . . Did you make all of these? They're incredible. I've never seen anything like them—"
"Stop talking, please."
"Okay." There wasn't a trace of annoyance in his voice, just confusion. "I'll go, but I don't even know your name."
"I can't tell you."
"I just can't."
"That's not an answer."
"I . . ."
The floorboards creaked and Ebony felt as if she'd been impaled with an iron spike.
But he'd taken another step and Ebony's fingernails cut little half-moons into her forearms. "It's too late. If you run now, it'll only trigger something inside me and then you'll leave me with no choice; I will chase you and I will kill you."
"Like a wolf?"
Ebony didn't say anything. She was trembling all over.
Rick was oblivious. "You've got a strange sense of humour, girl." He stepped closer. "I knew you were different."
"What's your name?"
She could smell him now, could feel the warmth secreting from his skin like a toxin, rushing over her, ruling out rhyme and reason. And then he made his final mistake as he reached up tenderly, moving the hair from her neck, his thick fingers brushing against her scar.
The Red Mist swelled and Ebony couldn't see or feel or hear anything. There was nothing. She was nothing. And then there was a shrill noise in her head, like somebody had replaced her brain with the power drill. And then Rick screamed, the sound disappearing—or becoming one with?—the drone.
When the Red Mist lifted, Ebony saw the terrible thing she'd done.