There are a couple of versions of this story. There’s the version below, and another, very different incarnation that was broadcast a handful of years ago on UK radio. The radio version was actually called Blood’s Dream, which is a horrible title, but was all I could think of at the time. The broadcast version is actually one of my favourite readings of my work, and the presenter was kind enough to call my story “spinechilling”. I remember being thrilled because it was the first time I’d heard anyone say anything like that about my work. I was extremely grateful for the comment, but goodness only knows what she would think about the version I’m serving up below …
She was staring at her reflection in the hard silver skin of the juke, dreamily unmoored to the wiry, leather-jacketed stranger staring intently back at her. The stranger’s image curved weirdly across the polished shell, distorted and distant, as though she was seeing it in some fairground hall of mirrors. She saw a half-child in monochrome warpaint; beneath the tangled spill of stormcloud hair her eyes were ringed with black, glinting dully like dirty glass, hollow orbs tattooed with living ink on the inside, pupils and irises and lacework veins. Tonight, she decided, the stranger’s name was Emma.
She selected the last of her three tracks on the juke and punched in the numbers. The first of her chosen 45s was plucked from the ranks and flipped on to the turntable. A moment later Patsy Cline commenced to serenade the breathing shadows in their smoke-fogged booths, singing about how crazy it is to love somebody. Emma turned and walked slowly back to the bar, sensing his cold, insectile gaze crawl hungrily over the swell of her breasts beneath her black t-shirt.
He hadn’t changed much in the last eight months. He was perhaps twenty-five or so, tall and muscular, sporting the same stubbled scalp as his companions. He wore the right jeans, the right trainers, and the football shirt of his team. They all did, just as they all drank the same beer and shots and smoked the same brand of cigarettes and leered stupidly over the same vacuously pneumatic models and pop stars.
When she’d walked in alone from the night and the sky’s promised tears he’d whispered something to his mates and oh how they’d laughed. It was then that she’d turned and made eye contact, held it for that all-important extra moment, the one he’d read as Yes, come on over. Talk to me.
She’d sat at the bar and ordered her drink from a claret-haired woman whose tired smile told her a lot. Whiskey and lemonade. The taste was cloying on her tongue but she drank it down and ordered another. Let them think she was in the mood for something sweet.
They were watching her now, filtering her presence and behaviour through a murk of male intuition, thinking with their scrotums, their sour cargo the only grey matter that mattered to them. If a woman’s alone then she’s waiting for a man. Fuck off and die means she’s playing hard to get, or she’s frigid, or she’s a lesbian. She imagined their conversation about her, full of lewd speculation and so-called compliments wrapped in dirty silk.
Nice tits …
Bet she bloody gives it away …
Yeah, she’s a dead cert …
She watched him for a few more minutes, in the long mirror behind the bar. Watched his companions goad and cajole him into making a move. Watched him and waited. She didn’t wait long.
He slithered up behind her, fed her some chat-up gambit strewn with cobwebs – it wasn’t Do you come here often? but it was close – and offered to buy her a drink. Smiling, she accepted. The second of her jukebox tracks was on now. Cheatin’ Heart. He offered her a cigarette. Again, she accepted, and smoked it slowly. If nothing else, she knew she gave good filter. They talked for a while. He asked her a few impersonal questions she gave him the answers he wanted to hear, knowing he’d never remember them anyway, the way he didnt remember her. Twice during the brief conversation, he forgot the name she’d given him.
Eventually, he said, ‘My car’s just outside.’
She never did get to hear that last 45.
They stood in silence in the car park in the rain. She felt cold and soul-dead, her flesh as drained as a wrung-out rag. The world around her was a dirty, metallic grey. Colourless neon rippled and swam in the puddles at her feet. Grey thoughts in her head. Grey memories of a grey job in a grey factory, cutting small parts for some vast, unknown machine. Grey threads in her hair, though she was only young, she thought. Grey dreams.
‘So,’ he said. ‘Your place or mine?’
‘No.’ she told him. ‘Here. Now.’
He half-smiled, surprised … and maybe a little scared, she thought. Good.
‘Erm … okay, right.’ He held the rear door open for her and grinned unpleasantly. Emma felt her revulsion uncoiling. She had a sudden, barely controllable urge to shatter that grin into a handful of enamel splinters.
Instead, she got in.
Sliding across the back seat, she caught sight of herself in the rear-view mirror. Her make-up had bled in the rain; behind the damp tangle of her fringe, her eyes were clogged with mascara tears, sunken grey moons in decaying orbits. They were naked now, it seemed; the stranger was gone. Quite suddenly she remembered a seventeen year old girl she had once known, taking a short cut home one winter’s night, across the waste ground that bordered the estate where she had lived. The girl had known she was taking a risk, the stretch of forbidden desolation was unlit and deserted, a landscape of burned out cars and reeking vegetation erupting through ancient concrete, of ruptured refuse bags and discarded condoms. She had been scared, scared of the dark and the silence, but not as scared of these things as she was of getting home late, of causing her Mum and Dad to worry.
Emma found herself wondering if she would ever remember what became of that girl, but then the man was scrambling on to the back seat beside her, his bulk squeaking against the cheap vinyl. She turned, hitching up her skirt and holding him in a dual embrace, like a spider, arms folded across his meaty shoulders, stockinged legs wrapped around his hips. Her hands ran through his wet hair like curious mice. He squeezed a hand between their bodies, unzipping and sliding his blunt fingers the length of her thigh. He meant to hook her panties aside, she guessed, his bloodshot eyes widening when he realised there was no need.
‘You’re cold,’ he breathed hoarsely. ‘I’m cold, too. Let’s see if we can’t warm each other up, eh?’
Emma didn’t answer and he didn’t seem to notice. When he tried to kiss her his breath reeked of beer and stale cigarette smoke and she turned her face away. He didn’t seem to notice that, either.
His tongue probed her ear like some squirming, eyeless worm as he held her open and guided himself to her. Emma felt him pause momentarily, perhaps wondering if he should use some protection but deciding to chance it anyway, after all if she ended up with a kid it wouldn’t be his problem would it and only queers caught AIDS didn’t they –
God Above, she wanted him dead.
He pushed himself a little deeper, cautiously, frowning as though something within her was blocking his way. She smiled and drew her legs back, pulling him in all the way in one sudden movement; sour air hissed between his teeth, pain or pleasure, she didn’t care. Finally inside, he whispered a name that wasn’t hers.
She felt him half collapse inside her, his lust stolen by the unnatural chill of her. ‘What -‘ he had time to say.
Her hands tightened suddenly against his skull, the blackened fingernails slicing his scalp like razor blades. He snarled and tried to snap his head back but Emma was stronger, stronger than she looked and stronger than him. She pressed her cold lips to his and he screamed against her mouth, thrashing between her legs and clawing frantically at her hands. Emma felt nothing. He tore at her clothes, and she found it good that it wasn’t drunken passion that drove him now but terror. Now she might start to enjoy this. His fingers seized a handful of her hair and pulled; it came away in his grip, strands of black and grey. He clawed at her face, make-up and meat peeling away beneath his fingernails.
Her tongue, somehow sinewy and slimed with filth, squeezed between his teeth and in horror and shock he bit down on it. It burst in his mouth, ejecting its payload of eggs laid in dead flesh. She heard his cries, choked and choking, and felt a wondrous savage joy bloom inside of her.
He struggled for a time and then was still. Emma disentangled herself from his remains and got out of the car. She could feel her tongue in tatters behind her teeth but knew it would heal.
She reached into her jacket and took out her own cigarettes and lighter. She leaned on the car and smoked, listening to someone else’s choices play on the jukebox. Her cigarette was only half done when she decided to flick it away, watching it arc across the dark like a shooting star, and only hearing its whispered death in a pool of dirty water.