Gareth was tall and lanky and blond, with deep-set green eyes, and he looked my age, early twenties. He also looked like the last person to know anything about gunshot or any other wounds. And he seemed to have a case of the sniffles, which, I was sure, was not caused by a virus.
“Alright, where’s the wound,” he said all businesslike after he gave me a curt nod when Pete introduced us.
“It’s in my head,” I said.
Gareth sniffed and shot me a look full of what I thought was contempt.
“Yeah, right. Pete, I haven’t come here to take part in some sick game you and your girl are playing. I don’t have time for crap like this.”
I turned my head left and parted my hair. Gareth gasped.
“Jesus fuck! What the hell is that?! What the hell is that?!”
“It’s the wound I told you about,” Pete said and if I didn’t already love him more than anything, I would’ve started right now. His voice was so cool, so calm and aloof, I wanted to kiss it. I turned around facing Gareth who’d taken a step back, his face taking the very familiar Three O’s shape. He pointed a long, pale and slightly trembling finger at me.
“The fuck, man! That’s her skull! She’s been shot in her skull!”
“Right,” Pete said nonchalantly. He was so getting lucky today if I survived. Which I would, I already knew that but I wanted the bullet out of my head.
“Fuck! I’ve never seen anything like this!” Gareth continued, as if he himself was a huge wound gushing emotions instead of blood. He’d clasped his hands tightly under his arms and stood there gaping at me.
I had had enough. I turned to him and crossed my own arms on my chest.
“Look, can you take out the bullet or not?”
He just gaped. I sighed. This was starting to get exasperating. I looked at Peter for help.
“Gareth, it’s just a bullet and she says the wound doesn’t hurt, so…” He nodded encouragingly at Gareth and made an inviting gesture to the kitchen table.
“Fuck,” Gareth said again but more quietly. He took a step towards me and gingerly reached out to my face.
“Can I touch it?” he said. Maybe he was finally coming round.
I turned my head and parted my hair again. A moment later I felt the tips of his fingers touch the wound.
“Jesus Christ,” he whispered. He touched the bullet. Then I heard him swallow hard. I turned around.
“So?” I asked.
“I’m not sure I can do it. No, I’m fine,” he added when I opened my mouth to say something nasty about him wasting my time. “But it’s lodged into the skull and I’m not sure how to take it out. You’ve had some luck it didn’t go all the way in, you know. And it’s a small caliber.”
“Yeah, I’m superlucky,” I agreed. Lucky was the last thing I was but there was no need to share this with Gareth. Even if the bullet had gone all the way in, that wouldn’t have made a difference, I was sure, but I wasn’t going to tell Gareth this, either.
“Can you at least try?” Pete asked and looked at me encouragingly.
“I could… But it’ll cost you.”
So, that’s what all this was about. I sighed and rolled my eyes at Pete.
“How much?” Peter asked.
“A grand,” Gareth said. He looked uncomfortable, and at the same time both fascinated and horrified. I envied him a bit for this display of emotions. I was getting bored but now I switched to mad in an instant.
“What?!” I couldn’t believe it. “No way!”
“Take it out yourself, then,” he said, avoiding my eyes.
“Might as well, since you freaked out at the mere sight of it,” I said.
“Hey, stop it,” Pete interrupted. “Gareth, I can give you 500. That’s all I have.”
“But only if you do your job,” I added quickly. If he didn’t he was getting nothing and I wasn’t going to argue about it with Pete. It wasn’t as if we were rolling in money, after all.
Gareth glared at me for a couple of seconds and then he turned to look at Pete.
“Okay, I’ll try. Just for the novelty of it. But if your bitch dies, it’s not my fault.”
“Don’t call her a bitch,” Pete said very quietly and very menacingly. I’d never heard him talk like that and apparently neither had Gareth because he froze. Pete’s voice sent shivers up my spine but not entirely in a sexy way.
“Yeah, sorry, man,” he said and looked around the room. “Where are we doing it?”
“Kitchen,” I told him and pointed. “It’s got tiles. It’ll be easier to clean the blood there, if there is any.”
“Oh, there will be, believe me,” Gareth said.
I shot him a look that I hoped conveyed all my scorn and went into the kitchen. Pete and I had already taken out a couple of clean towels from the cupboard as well as the pot in which we usually made spaghetti, to boil water.
I suspected some of my hair around the wound would have to be shaved and I didn’t like the idea too much but it couldn’t be helped. My hair was the best part of me – it was long, it was thick, it was shiny and it was a natural hazelnut color that I really liked. The shaved bit wouldn’t show, after all, I told myself when I sat at the table, laid my head on it and parted my hair so the wound was once again exposed.
I liked the feel of the cool tabletop against my cheek. I was starting to feel a bit nervous. I couldn’t help it but it wasn’t very bad. I was so certain nothing bad would happen to me it was a bit weird. I heard Gareth take something out of his backpack, tools perhaps but I didn’t raise my head to look. I closed my eyes instead and let the men do what needed to be done.
“Joe, you OK?” Pete asked and put his hand on the nape of my neck. So gently. He was a bit nervous too, I could hear it in his voice. I opened my eyes and met his. He was leaning next to me. I smiled at him.
“Of course I‘m OK, don’t worry.”
“I’ll make sure he behaves,” he said with a smile and he kissed me on the forehead. I closed my eyes again and drifted back to that night at the club, while Gareth was jingling with Hell knows what.
I hadn’t realized how long I’d been staring into my glass when I finally looked up to see if Charlie was still there. It was as if the world around me had disappeared for a moment and I hadn’t noticed, which was strange. I realized this in the second it took me to raise my eyes from the glass and turn my head slightly to the left, where Charlie had sat. Only Charlie wasn’t there any more. Neither was his friend or the other people we were with. That’s when my glass fell to the ground. The table was surrounded by monsters and the club was full of them.
I say monsters and I know that’s not an accurate word at all. “Monster” can mean so many different things to different people. I was surrounded by demons. That’s more accurate, I guess. I’d seen pictures and drawings of demons in Google Images and I’d watched my fair share of horror flicks, so there, demons. Ugly, scary, spiky, misshapen, sharp-toothed, beaked, some of them winged. Yellow-eyed, black-eyed, red-eyed, eyeless. Scaly, slimy, dripping, looming, crawling, crouching. Demons. Instead of fainting or screaming I looked around, feeling like I was a camera, emotionless, moving automatically, registering everything around me. I think I just didn’t have the energy to scream. Fear had sucked it all out of me.
None of the creatures seemed to be paying any attention to me. I slowly moved my head this way and that to make sure that yes, the club was full of them. Where Charlie was sitting there was now a hunched gray-skinned creature that looked a bit like Gollum but wasn’t so charming. Its skin was oily and stank of what I thought crude oil smells like—a heavy, sour smell. Its teeth stuck in every direction, it had spikes on its elbows, and its eyes were a dirty orange with cat’s pupils. It was gurgling at the demon that sat next to it, where Charlie’s mate had sat before. That second monster looked like a hybrid between a T-rex and a centipede, and that’s all I’m going to say about it. It had no eyes. And then I heard Charlie’s voice whisper in my ear.
“Do you see them? Do you see them, Joe?”
I jerked my head around to see Charlie kneeling beside me, horrified. I nodded and glanced around. There seemed to be a space cleared around us. I slowly raised my eyes and felt my stomach fill up with lead. Cold lead. Now the monsters were looking at us. They were most certainly paying attention to us. I met the yellow gaze of a humanlike one who towered over the still kneeling Charlie. I say humanlike and I mean the creature had human features but it was covered with grayish-black scales and had a forked tongue, which it showed me when I caught its eye. I looked away quickly. It had wings as well. I could see their tips resting on the floor.
“What are we going to do?” Charlie whispered again.
“I have no idea, Charlie,” I whispered back, not looking at him, staring at the floor. You might think I should have known I was hallucinating, that there had been something in the drink but it didn’t feel like a hallucination. It felt so real there was no space in my head for the possibility that it wasn’t. And Charlie apparently felt the same way. He was about to piss himself, I could see it. And he did, when the scaly yellow-eyed thing with the wings grabbed him by the neck and pulled him up.
“Nick likes to play and so do I,” said the thing. It spoke like a human, a regular, educated human, and that somehow made it even scarier. Who the fuck was Nick, I wondered for a second, before I felt the clammy hands of the gray demon that was sitting next to me close around my wrists. I tried to pull away, it was instinct, not thought, but he was stronger and pinned me down. It gurgled something I couldn’t understand. I looked up hopelessly into Charlie’s face, which was whiter than a sheet and sweaty. His eyes were wide open and he was breathing in quick, shallow gulps of air.
“Help me!” he moaned.
I tried to wriggle free again, not caring if that might irritate the creature enough to kill me. I couldn’t move my arms at all. The thing growled in my ear and a few of its spiky teeth touched my skin. I flinched and whimpered. I couldn’t help it. The thing was cold, its breath stank and I had a feeling the teeth were poisonous. I don’t know where it came from. I met Charlie’s eyes again, seeing in them the same despair that he must have seen in mine. I could feel the first signs of a delayed panic attack. My palms felt sweaty, I started shivering with cold and I couldn’t feel my stomach. I felt only emptiness.
I knew I’d soon start shaking and my skull will start feeling all numb and tingly. That’s what happened when a car ran over my dog when I was twelve and I saw the whole thing. Little, but old enough to remember all the signs. And that’s when the scaly thing holding Charlie passed his hand – his paw – across Charlie’s throat and cut it open. Charlie’s eyes popped out and I started shrieking and thrashing in the gray demon’s hands. I’d forgotten it had me pinned down because it was ten times stronger than me. I’d forgotten I was afraid of its poisonous teeth. I wanted to get away from the blood raining down from Charlie’s throat, from his suddenly glazed and lifeless eyes, from his gaping mouth and wet crotch.
The demon let his body fall to the floor and grinned at me.
“Like the game?” he said so casually I went completely mental. I thrashed so hard I almost managed to free one of my hands. My throat burned from the screaming, my face was wet from tears and my mouth was as dry as desert sand but I screamed and screamed. Until the gray demon sank all its spiky teeth into my neck. Then I passed out.
I could feel Gareth pull at the bullet with something that had sharp edges, tongs probably. If he had tongs in his toolbox. The bullet wouldn’t move. Gareth was swearing but more quietly this time. Pete was silent. The pulling stopped.
“I think I’ve got to loosen it up a bit,” I heard Gareth say.
“Loosen it up how?” Pete asked. His voice was sharp.
“You know… Like you loosen a tooth before pulling it out. I was going to be a dentist, you know? Did two years at medical school.”
“Really,” Pete sounded totally unimpressed and I smiled. “So how do you loosen a tooth?”
“Well, you sort of widen the hole it’s in with a little chisel and then…”
“This is my skull you’re talking about,” I said. “It’s not my mouth.”
“Yeah, but… I’ve no idea what else I can do. The bullet’s lodged in the bone.”
We were all silent for a second. Pete took my hand and I squeezed his. The only other thing we could do was go to the hospital and have the bullet removed in surgery. And I really didn’t want to do this.
“Okay, give it a try,” I said with a sigh.
The reason I hate hospitals so much is that after I blacked out that night in the club, I came to in a hospital. With a scream. My hands immediately went to the left side of my neck but there was nothing there. I thought I’d had the worst trip ever. The worst trip imaginable. But then the door opened and a monster came in. So the trip wasn’t over. This one had the head of a grasshopper, a gangly body with human-like arms and legs, and stumpy, leathery wings. I used to like grasshoppers but no more.
I opened my mouth to start screaming again but the thing quickly put a finger to its huge and disgusting mouth and I closed mine. My throat hurt like hell and so did my wrists. What did it matter if I screamed anyway? The trip would sooner or later end. The thing had a syringe in its other hand and it emptied it into the IV attached to my right arm. I hadn’t noticed that before. I blinked and… the monstrous grasshopper turned into a nurse. In the blink of an eye. A middle-aged one, short, plump, the motherly type. She smiled and asked me if I was feeling better. When I nodded, she said there was someone to see me.
My mom, of course. She was all red-eyed – in a very human way, around the rims – with trembling hands but unlike other times I’d been in trouble she didn’t start complaining I was going to drive her to an early grave. She took my hand, gripped it tightly and said:
“Charlie’s dead, Josie, hon. Charlie died.”
I had just about enough breath left in me to whisper “How?” and she said that he’d had a brain hemorrhage. Pretty rare in 20-year-olds but not unheard of. The doctors thought the drugs we’d taken had something to do with it, so my mum was happy I was alive and that’s why she had skipped the usual routine.
Gareth was gently hitting the chisel with our meat hammer. I still didn’t feel any pain. I could feel the chisel first on the right of the wound, then on the left, then on top, then on the bottom. Gareth was thorough. He asked me three times if it hurt and his voice got more frustrated with each repeating of the question. I could understand – he was working on a conscious patient who didn’t feel pain from something that must definitely have been painful. But it wasn’t and I didn’t feel like helping him deal with this fact. Pete was still holding my hand, squeezing it unconsciously every time Gareth started hitting the chisel again.
While I was trying to get to grips with Charlie’s death and listening to my mom ask me what we took, why we took it—there were no traces of known drugs in my blood—and how I was feeling now, someone else came into the room, a doctor. Friendly guy, who looked at my chart and asked, of course, how I felt. I told him I wanted to go home as soon as possible.
When he said they needed to make sure I was okay, I rolled my eyes, sighed and turned my face away. The doctor passed into my peripheral vision and for a second I saw a demon instead of him. Something fat and hairy with several horns on its head. This only looks funny in cartoons, by the way. In reality it wasn’t funny at all. I jerked my head back to him and there he was – a youngish man starting to go bald, with a pretty fit body. He caught my eye and smiled pleasantly. I looked away again and there the monster was. I could see it out of the corner of my eye though not very clearly.
I closed my eyes and told my mom I wanted to go home. They couldn’t force me to stay, could they? My voice was trembling, my whole body was shaking and my mom was already freaked out enough to do whatever I wanted just because I wasn’t dead, so the doctor had to give in. But not before I saw the evil, angry glint in his eyes, or so I thought.
“OK, I’ll try to pull it out, Joe,” said Gareth. I think he sounded a bit less unfriendly. Maybe chiseling someone’s skull makes you feel somehow close to them, I don’t know. I still didn’t like the guy but I appreciated him staying and trying. I felt the tongs again and Gareth pulling. For a couple of seconds nothing happened and then I heard a smacking, wet noise and I felt the bullet move. It tickled.
“Yes!” Gareth yelled, while Pete pressed a towel to the hole in my head. I put my hand on his and raised my head slowly.
“Are you OK?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. He bent down and kissed me. I responded hungrily, sticking my tongue into his mouth without bothering with preliminaries like lip-grazing and whatever. Peter bit it. I pulled away with an effort. It took me a few seconds to re-focus on the world around us.
“Do you want to see it?” Gareth asked and stuck out his hand. On his palm was the bullet. It looked like the bullets I’d seen in movies and TV shows, small and yellow. Well, mostly yellow. There was also some blood.
“Thanks, I’ll put it on a chain and wear it around my neck,” I said but didn’t move to take the bullet from his hand. He put it on the table.
“We should do something about the hole, plug it or something,” he said but didn’t sound very certain. Gareth was staring at me as if he was doctor Frankenstein who’d just brought his monster to life.
“It’ll be fine,” I said. And it would. Just like my neck where that thing had bitten me. There was nothing when I woke up at the hospital but when I took a look in the bag with the clothes I was wearing that night at the club, I saw blood—quite a lot of it—on my T-shirt. My mom thought it was someone else’s blood and I didn’t argue. I just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.
The demon in charge of me took out the IV, pronounced me alive and well and let me go suspiciously easily. I thought maybe they didn’t know I could see them. And there were a lot of them. Perhaps half of the staff we passed on the way out were demons. I kept my eyes to the ground and tried to see as many as I could from the corners of my eyes. This wasn’t a trip. Even if it had started as one. And I knew exactly what started it, of course. The drink with the smoke. I wanted to see Charlie’s body, to see if he had a torn throat but what I wanted more than that was to get out of here and go home. Charlie was dead, he could wait. I hated myself for thinking that but… there it was.
“OK, it’s your head,” said Gareth, putting away his tools. Pete removed his hand from the towel and went out of the kitchen to get the money.
“Thanks, Gareth,” I said. “Can’t say it was a pleasure but thanks for the help.”
“No problem. I just got something to tell my grandchildren if I ever have any,” he said with a grin that wasn’t too ugly. I grinned back. I still kept my hand on the towel but I stood up to see him off. Pete came back with the money and Gareth took it without counting.
“Thanks. And don’t play with guns any more, alright?”
We both promised.
When he was finally gone we went back into the kitchen and I took the towel off my head. There was a circle of blood about the size of a scone in the fabric and that was it.
“Let me see,” said Pete and I let him see.
“How is it?”
He took my hand and put the fingers on the wound. The place where the wound had been. Now there was just a hollow there, a hollow the size of the hole, covered with skin. Maybe the hair would grow back and maybe it wouldn’t, I didn’t really care.
“Just like you said,” he said with a smile and pulled me to him. I couldn’t wait. I guess dying does that to you.
After we went home that day with my mom, I shut myself in my room to try and make some sense of everything that had happened. My memories from those days are crystal clear. The drink, the monsters, Charlie, the gray demon, that Nick the other demon mentioned. For some reason I had this uncomfortable feeling that I was dead. It’s hard to explain but somehow I just didn’t feel really alive, didn’t feel like before. I looked at myself in the mirror for an hour but I couldn’t see anything different. Still, that feeling was lodged in my stomach and in my head, like a sort of emptiness. Not really unpleasant but definitely uneasy.
I thought I’d do an experiment. I took my Swiss army knife (a present from Gemma for my 16th birthday), clenched my teeth, pressed the blade to my arm, a little above the wrist where all the veins met, and pulled. It was a little cut at first but as I watched my arm in disbelief I continued cutting. I didn’t feel any pain. I could see the skin opening, the blood, budding and starting to trickle, I could even feel the parting of the skin and the blood flowing—and squirting when I accidentally cut through a vein—but it did not register as pain. I suddenly went weak at the knees and sagged to the floor, staring at my bloody arm. I was trembling all over but that lasted no more than a few seconds. Then it just went away. I looked at my arm. It was bloody but there was no wound. It had healed.
So I was immortal now, that was my first thought. Then I remembered that feeling of being dead. Maybe I was a zombie? But I didn’t feel like eating human flesh or brains. Ridiculous. I sat there for a couple of hours, thinking about all this stuff and I didn’t get anywhere beyond the conclusion that there must have been something supernatural in that drink. I even knew what it was—the smoke, of course.
That night I had my last supper in this house, my mom’s house. Next day I started looking for a flat and I was out by the end of the week. The thing was that Frank, Charlie’s father, was a demon. I saw him that night at supper and then I just couldn’t stay in that house. Not that he was threatening or anything. I just couldn’t.
As far as I could see my mom didn’t know anything. Actually, I even thought I was mentally ill and everything was a hallucination, including the lack of pain and the self-healing. I was better off on my own in any case, so I moved in with Gemma, got a job at the café and a couple of months later I joined the local community theater. It took me a while to get used to this new life, if it was a life and not an after-death experience. I still wasn’t sure, although I did more than one experiment with my body.
I was cool and calm most of the time and that wasn’t like me at all. Even Gemma noticed and she’s not one to notice a lot of things around her, which is part of the reason why I moved in with her. I didn’t want to be around observant people, so Gemma was perfect for a housemate. Still, she noticed I wasn’t as emotional as before. I didn’t get angry about every little thing that went wrong and I didn’t cry at least once a week, usually while watching a stupid movie. I’d started accepting this change and I actually liked it.
I didn’t fall in love with unsuitable guys any more. I just couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to any men. And some of them, those that I met at the shop, the pub or the mall when we went there with Gemma, were demons, of course, even the ones that looked sexy in their human form. Sometimes I thought “What a pity,” but most of the time I just looked away. It got funny after a while—demons going about their business, not trying to eat or kill or torture anyone. Or maybe they did it in secret.
I still remembered what that scaly one had said about some Nick and how he liked to play. I came to think that Nick was the guy who’d slipped us the smoky drinks. But how come I’d become immortal or whatever and Charlie had died? Maybe now only a demon could kill me, I guessed. I thought a lot about all this but couldn’t find answers to the hundreds of questions I had. And there was nobody I could ask. Until I met Pete, that is, not that it helped much.
I sold him earphones, we went out for a beer after work and fell in love. Yeah, just like that. When he came into the shop, I looked at him sideways. This had become a habit. I wanted to know straight away if I was dealing with a monster or a human. But then I saw Pete doing exactly the same thing: turning his face slightly away and shooting me a look from the corner of his eye. I stared at him. He stared at me. He had the most beautiful eyes, a light, icy blue framed by a darker rim. I was temporarily mute, so he was the first to speak. He put the earphones on the belt and said:
“What time do you finish?”
I said “Seven.” He paid for the earphones without taking his eyes off me.
“I’ll see you then,” he said, smiled shyly and went away. He was back exactly at 7, I saw him through the glass doors of the shop. He waved but didn’t come in. When I got off work, we went to a nearby pub and spent the next five hours there. Then we spent the night at his place. A week later I moved in. You know what I remember most clearly about that first date? There was no moment of awkwardness, which is very unusual, especially for me and my non-existent experience with men. I’d never had a long-term relationship. I was all for one-night stands and casual flings until I had that huge crush on Charlie. Which I told Peter about that first night. But the first thing I said when we got to the pub was “So, you see them too.”
It wasn’t really a question. He nodded and looked around.
“I’ve been seeing them for a while,” he said.
And it went from there. He’d had a drink with smoke in it a couple of months after I did. He was lucky, though, and hadn’t witnessed anyone’s murder. He’d got away from the monsters that time and after he’d kept seeing them every day he’d decided he’d gone nuts and had tried to kill himself.
“I jumped off the building I live in,” he said, embarrassed.
“What?!” Even after my experiments it was hard to believe someone could jump off an apartment block and live.
“Yeah. It wasn’t pleasant I can tell you that right away.”
I laughed. I was horrified but also a little amused. It did sound ridiculous. I made it even more ridiculous.
“Did it hurt?”
He shook his head. I felt a bolt of heat shoot through my body. I wanted to touch him.
“You know, that was actually the scary thing. It didn’t hurt at all, though I could feel my bones breaking. I just lay there and waited for them to heal, so I could walk away.”
“Weren’t there any people?”
“It was the middle of the night, luckily. But you know, that jump convinced me I wasn’t nuts. First I thought I’d died and now I was having an out-of-body experience but then I got up and walked back to my flat and I met the girl who lives next door and she saw me and said ‘Hi’.”
I got hit by a pang of jealousy at the mention of a girl. Was he sleeping with her? I shook my head to drive these thoughts away. This was something important we were talking about.
“Nothing,” I said and bit my lip. I felt like a cat in heat and that was seriously embarrassing. “So what happened then?”
“I guess the effect of the drink wore off and I started seeing them less often. Unless I looked at them sideways, like you saw me do with you,” he said with a smile. “That was a major stroke of luck.”
“What was?” I was distracted by the way his lips moved when he spoke.
“The fact that I didn’t see a monster when I looked at you,” he said.
“Um… why?” Okay, I was thick. Or just too distracted.
“Because I don’t think I could fancy a monster,” he said and put his hand on mine. I blushed not just because of his words but because I felt so stupid.
Since then we’ve talked a lot about all this and whether it was the drinks and their effects that drew us to each other. Pete is sure they didn’t. He’s kind of romantic and doesn’t like the idea. I’m not so sure myself but I’ve stopped wondering. We’re together and we’re reasonably happy, even with the monsters around, so why bother? If even a bullet to the head and a jump from the top of a tall building can’t kill us, I guess we’re luckier than most.
“How did Gemma take it?” I asked. I didn’t really want to hear the answer but I had to ask. She was my friend. We were in bed, my face pressed to Pete’s chest and my hand tracing lines along the side of his body. He stroked my hair.
“She swore she hadn’t told anyone,” he said. “I believed her.”
“Yes. It was quick.”
I raised my head to face him.
“We had to, didn’t we?”
Pete nodded. We both knew we had to protect our secret. Word about weird gets out fast and travels wide. We didn’t need complications so we took care of people who had accidentally seen something they shouldn’t have. Like Gemma. Like Gareth. Pete had slipped him a little from his special stash with the money. He was sure Gareth wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation. I didn’t care about Gareth but Gemma was my friend. Had been. It hurt. I guess I would just have to learn to live with that pain.