The house that Pierre’s childhood memories had sketched in my mind was structurally similar to the one I was seeing through my windscreen, but the years had redrawn it as lightless and peeling, and overgrown with dying greenery. But this was the place; the sprawling oak tree mentioned so often in Pierre’s reminiscences confirmed it. That, and the vulgar American car standing outside and gleaming silvery red under the night sky.
A gentle breeze sprung up as I got out of my own vehicle, blowing brittle leaves around my shoes as I crossed to the house and stepped onto the porch. Something crumbled gently beneath my foot, and I heard a crunch. Snapping open my petrol lighter, I knelt to get a better look – in the flickering light I saw a clot of damp soil, its middle flattened into the imprint of my shoe, and the smear of broken beetle I had crushed beneath my weight.
Suddenly, I felt as though thick, hooked fingers were squeezing my innards, sickening me. I stood and tried the door. It was unlocked, and screeched open on horror-movie hinges. That was when the stench hit me, invading my sinuses and filling my eyes with a stinging wetness. I gagged, covering my nose and mouth, but the smell crawled across my tongue. In my future I would smell it again, first on Yvonne’s breath and then later on Pierre’s but even then I knew it for what it was.
And as I entered the house, it grew worse.
‘Pierre?’ I called from behind my hand. ‘Pierre, it’s me, Jacques. Where are you?’
There was no answer. The house seemed silent but for the creak of floorboards beneath my feet and the rising gusts of wind whispering in the gloom.
I raised my lighter to cast a little more radiance and saw more piles of dirt scattered randomly along the hallway – blind things squirmed in some of them. I followed the trail, hardly aware of the tears on my own face. That uniquely noxious stench had settled upon my shoulders like gossamer cobwebs, mingling with my own sour dread. My bladder burned as though it were filled with hot embers.
‘Pierre?’ I was whispering now, though I was sure he could hear me. Suddenly, I could hear him. Beyond an open doorway filled with shadow, I could hear him breathing. Thick, muffled breaths.
I stepped through.
Pierre was sitting in the corner of the room, rocking gently and cradling his brother, poor, ragged Alain. He was holding him close, stroking hair that came away in his fingers. I thought he might be crying.
My numb lips mouthed his name, but no sound emerged. Pierre looked up anyway, and I saw that he was crying; huge, glistening tears rolled down his face and splashed upon his dead twin’s lips, cold lips that some patient undertaker had sewn into a soft, contented smile with tiny, elegant stitches.
Pierre was looking at me, and his smile was identical. Soft, and content.
Sobbing, I fled, and it was the early hours of the morning before I made it home. The journey back seems like a dream to me now, even the crash, hurtling off the road and gashing my forehead on the steering wheel. I looked at my split and bleeding brow in the cracked rear view and laughed. I laughed as though it were the world’s funniest joke; for a time, as Pierre might have pointed out, I too was riding the crazy train.
I told Yvonne I had crashed en route to the Leveque family home. She never believed it, of course; there were too many nights when I woke up crying and she held me, hushing my sobs and kissing away tears. But she never asked any questions. Love kept what happened that night a secret between us.
The next time I saw Pierre Leveque he was on television. And in the newspapers. Being arrested, being led slump-shouldered into court. I expected to be called as a witness, but the call never came. Pierre never mentioned our encounter to the police, and nor did I. The bribed night-watchman testified for the prosecution in return for a more lenient sentence, but they hardly needed him. The police had arrived at the crumbling house perhaps an hour or so after I had left, acting upon an anonymous telephone call. It wasn’t from Yvonne or I, as you may be thinking, and I often wondered if Pierre had arranged it himself, in advance. That secret died with him. According to the tastefully censored articles I saw at the time, the authorities found much the same scene as I had. The public outcry combined with Pierre’s apparent lack of remorse was what truly damned him – he chose never to appeal against the judge’s sentence of life imprisonment.
The bodysnatchers – a man and a woman – were never found.
* * *
Thirty years later, he looked at me from the bed of a prison infirmary where he would die less than an hour later, with his hand in mine. His eyes were ringed with blood.
‘You understand now why I did it, don’t you, Jacques?’ he asked, his words hoarse and reeking. ‘Poor Alain. He was alone, you see, all alone in the dark. He was scared, and he called to me. Please, Jacques. Tell me you understand.’
‘Yes.’ I told him. ‘I understand.’ And then that silence blossomed between us again, only this time, I am glad to say, it was the silence of friends.
* * *
The funeral was a week ago.
God, I wish Pierre was alive now, if only so we could laugh together about how wrong Alain was. It isn’t just sibling empathy that calls us back, you see, for I too long to reclaim wasted time – thirty years of it. Pierre’s body is buried deep, next to his beloved brother, and yes, I wish he were here now, so that I might embrace him for a while and he might stop the screaming in my head.
The tools are all laid neatly in the boot of my car, and though the earth is hard with winter frost and my arthritis seems so much worse this year, I will dig, and dig, and dig.