People still startle when they see us. The reaction usually follows the same pattern. They notice him and cannot help but stare. Some are outright scared from the looks on their faces. They look at him, then at me and quickly walk away. Others are rather curious and linger for a while. But as soon as they realise they’ve been staring at him, they blush and walk away. A rare few only show disgust. An old lady spat on the ground right in front of us once. Didn’t say a single word; just uttered a retching sound to match her facial expression and spat. A big bubbly pool of saliva mixed with yellow and green bits of snot. She wiped off the remnants from the corner of her distorted mouth, gave us another hateful look and walked away.
Most people just ignore him, pretend they can’t see him. They stare into the empty space between us, not really looking at either of us as they pass. Their eyes react though; I always notice it. They widen just for a fraction of a second before they put on the blinkers. Stiff and ignorant they walk by; unnaturally and just that little bit too fast to be convincing. I wonder if they take the blinkers off when they look at themselves in the mirror.
But that’s it. That’s the pattern. It always happens that way. Startle – reaction – walk away. Everyone just walks away. As if his presence hurts them. As if walking away makes him cease to exist, closes the hole that he left in their immaculate world.
I like being in his presence. I can’t tell exactly why, but he has something soothing about him, to me at least. It’s not like he is very entertaining; he doesn’t even talk. Actually, I don’t think he can. That lipless, jagged slit across his face is a mouth, I think. But there is no tongue inside. Not that I know of anyway. I haven’t directly looked into it, but I’ve caught a glimpse or two. No tongue. No teeth either. Just whitish flesh, like scar tissue.
I could ask him of course. Kind of an awkward question “Hey, do you happen to have a tongue?”, but what about our relationship isn’t awkward?
The day we met I startled myself. I was one of the curious ones and moved on to stare. Only I didn’t walk away. He’s ugly alright, but I immediately felt calm, even comfortable when I saw him. When I asked his name he only stared at me. It was the only time I’ve ever seen him stare at someone. Normally his eyes are aiming towards something on the ground. Nothing in particular it seems to me. Like he’s searching for something that should be there but isn’t.
They are fascinating his eyes, hypnotising. I don’t know how long we stood there staring at each other. Him at me and me into those big black pupils in his otherwise milky eyes. They’re like a pit. Not even a hint of what’s on the other side. Dark, mysterious and seemingly endless they devoured my gaze and shackled me instantly. I simply got pulled in, that’s probably the best way to describe it. Pulled in and wasn’t let go until he allowed me to leave again.
That’s how he came to his name: Black. My name for him anyway. I bet he’s been called different names before. None of them nice, obviously, but they never took the time to look at him to really see him for who he is. Black is who he is.
He never left my side after this. It’s ridiculous if you think about it. You meet someone one night in some small alley, in between garbage cans and old furniture. You don’t have a conversation or any form of agreement; you just meet and naturally walk on together. As if bound by an invisible and inexplicable link.
So here we are. Walking on.
The way to work is short, but it used to be enough to make me nauseous. At least in summer. I took the night shift for a reason: I get to and from work in the darkness and I’m on my own while I’m there. Not in summer though. At 9 pm there is still light outside, people are everywhere. The cafes and pubs along the way are cramped with chattering, laughing and shouting people. Cars still jam the roads, honk and let their engines howl. Even kids are around. I hate kids. They’re everywhere. Running and shouting, bumping into me and crying. As if all the noise wasn’t enough, they turn up the volume to make sure my head almost bursts with pain. Going to work in summer had me press my hands onto my ears and on the verge of crying out in agony by the time I reached work. More than once I arrived panting and shaking. With tears in my eyes and sweat dripping from my forehead.
Now I don’t mind it any more. Being outside still isn’t pleasant, but it’s bearable. All the noise and the light is still there, but it’s dampened, dull. He is like a painkiller. No cure for my condition, but the symptoms are gone. No nausea, no headaches, no panic. I suppose the fact that he attracts the looks now rather than me helps as well.
I still take the shortest way through the city, though. No need to take any chances. In and out as quickly as possible.
The way home, as usual, is okay. At 6 in the morning the streets are generally deserted, except for a few isolated drones. Most importantly there is silence. If I’m quick enough I don’t even have to rely on him to numb the pain. I hide from the rising sun in the shadows of the tallest buildings. Close my eyes in the gaps and face west wherever I can. It’s so embedded in my system that I do it automatically. The few sun-rays that breach my defences are blocked by him. He’s my cover.
Even with him around, arriving home is a relief. Shutting the door and turning the keys in every one of the three locks is the best moment of my day. My souterrain apartment only let’s in indirect light. It’s cool and quiet and I don’t have to walk past the neighbours to reach my door. We make our way through dirty laundry and pizza cartons to sit down on the couch and turn on the TV. I sit on the couch anyway. He has his nest. It’s a pile of dirty laundry, old styrofoam packaging and plastic bags, but he curls up in it as soon as we arrive home and goes to sleep. A bit like a dog I can’t help but think.
I sleep through most of the day. Helps me avoid most of the perils associated with light and other people. As I get up in the afternoon I feel dizzy. I go into the bathroom to have a drink of water and chase the aftermath of sleep away. In the mirror I notice a small cold sore on my lower lip. A feeling of unease starts to grow in my stomach. I walk to the living room to be closer to him.
His nest is empty. He never gets up until I enter the living room. I walk over to the kitchen to check if he’s there. Nothing. The unease spreads from my stomach up my chest and into my throat. I swallow to try and force it back down and start searching every room in our apartment. Once, twice, a third time. I turn over his nest, look behind the furniture and under all the rubble I left lying around. He’s not here.
I brace myself and go out to look for him outside. I check all the places we’ve been together. Grocery store, post office, bank, chemists, pawn shop, but nothing. My head hurts. I can’t stay out here without him. I return home to wait for him to come back.
Closing the door behind me helps a little. At least my head stops throbbing. The nausea stays though. It presses against my throat. I run to the bathroom to puke. Except for a few dry coughs nothing happens. I look in the mirror again. The cold sore on my lip has grown. It has a little yellow circle of pus in the middle now. And it hurts.
At 9 pm I decide to walk to work. He’s not there. Not on the way, not in the office. I feel restless. I can’t stay at work while he is missing. Back home I pace up and down in front of his nest. “He’ll be back, he’ll return”, I keep telling myself.
Sleeping should help, it always does. I’ll wake up and all will be well again.
I wake up with scratches on both my arms. His place is still empty. In the bathroom I splash cold water on my face just to see that the cold sore is now the size of the nail of my thumb. I run my hands through my hair in disbelief of all that is happening. Strands of hair drop down in front of my face into the sink and onto the floor, lots. More still sit in the palms of my hands. Panic starts to cloud my mind. I can’t think straight. I run to the place we met.
The alley almost looks the same as it did that night, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Can’t bear the sun, I need to go home.
Shaking, I sit on the couch staring at the wall. My mind races. What happens now? Every thought I have seems to vanish as soon as it enters my mind. I can’t tell what time it is any more. I must have been sitting here for hours. A puke stain covers parts of the couch and the floor and the biting stench of old urine fills the room. I reach for my pocket to take out my phone. My right hand is covered in bruises and scratches. Hair sticks to the already formed crusts. Hair from my head. I take out my phone. Eight messages. All from work. I listen to the last one. I’m fired for not showing up four nights in a row. Four nights.
I stumble towards the bathroom. The front door is open. I limp over to close it. Lock it as I always do. The relief doesn’t come.
Bloody shards cover the bathroom floor. I stand over the sink and wash my face. The sink looks like someone skinned a rat in there. Exhausted I raise my head and look up into the broken mirror. The cold sore has ruptured. It’s now an open wound. Pus and blood oozing from it. Patches of hair on my head are missing and the skin underneath is raw and bloody. My face is completely pale. I look into my eyes. They’re red and sunken into their sockets. I stare right at them. Right into them. As I keep staring I slowly sink into the depth of the blackest pupils I have ever seen.