ReadingRoom

Short story: The Pack, by Kathryn van Beek

"They'll never believe her": a disturbing story by Kathryn van Beek.

Part of his brain tells him to piss in the bed. The other part tells him to get up. He swings his legs out from under the galaxy print duvet and plants his feet in a pool of vomit. He rubs his hands over his face, then takes the spare pillow off the bed and wipes his feet on it. Nothing some laundry powder won’t fix later. He plans the story he’ll tell his mates. ‘And then I found a chunk of carrot between my toes!’ They’ll laugh and marvel at the idea of responsible Jack Hanify stepping in his own chunder. He’s earning his stripes. He’s not a pup anymore.   

He shuffles, naked, to the bathroom. The lower-floor unit has always felt like some kind of upmarket prison. Hard surfaces. Grey walls. Windows so high that he can never quite figure out what time it is. But it doesn’t matter what time it is. He just has to get through this. His pee sprays around the toilet. His parents are going to turn this place into an Air BnB when he moves out in a few weeks. His mum’s already stockpiling good linen, bright cushions and organic toiletries. He wonders if she ever wishes she’d had a girl to lavish such luxuries upon. And that makes him think of Ashlin.

Thinking about Ashlin makes him vomit again. He hunches down and clutches the sides of the toilet bowl. There’s a bruise that looks like a bite-mark on his arm, a smear of mud or dog shit on his knee. This story isn’t funny anymore, it’s disgusting. He reminds himself that once he’s had a shower and cleaned the floors, it’ll be funny again. Once he’s changed the sheets and brushed his teeth, it’ll be funny. He stands up, washes his hands and rinses his mouth out in the sink. But the walls of his mouth are still rank with acid. His tongue is still gritty and lank. He doesn’t look at himself in the mirror.

On his way back to bed his heart flares. It doesn’t matter what time it is, but it has to be Saturday. It has to be Saturday because on Sunday afternoons he volunteers as a Big Brother. He said he’d take Phoenix to the Planetarium and he can’t let him down. He picks his phone up from his bedside table. It’s Saturday. 2pm. Thank fuck. His phone is swarming with messages, but he’ll deal with them later. He leans back against the remaining pillow. The rattle of the phone against the table sounds like laughter.

Normally there’s some kind of feeling underscoring his hangovers. Beneath the sour head and the toxic breath there’s normally a sense of hilarity or pride. After last night, he’d expect exultation. Recognition that his long incubation has ended and adulthood is about to unfold. But he’s never had a hangover this bad. And there’s no feeling beneath it. Just a pit.

Perhaps it’s tiredness. Who wouldn’t be tired, after the past six years. The gruelling conjoint degree. The tortuous master’s with the 40,000 word thesis. He hadn’t really expected that he’d walk into the kind of plum, world-changing job that would make Ashlin swoon. Not really. And the internship at Auckland Council will be fine. It’s a better start than most of his classmates are getting. He would love to take a gap year volunteering in Malawi like Barnaby, or an unpaid internship at a social justice firm in London like Azalea. But unlike Barnaby and Azalea, he’s got a student loan to pay off. 

Perhaps it’s Ashlin. On again, off again, beautiful Ashlin. A dove who refuses to be caged, but who swoops down to perch on his shoulder when he least expects it, checking in to see if he’s man enough for her yet. She was the one who got him into Big Brother – for his CV, she said, but the role got under his skin like she must have known it would. He’s learnt more from her than from any of the textbooks on his bookshelf. And won’t it be great, one day when he’s the next big thing, and her organic textile dying business is taking off, and they're traveling around the world winning awards and influencing people. Perhaps child services will take Phoenix away from his terrible parents and he’ll be able to come with them, too. 

But something about the pit is also like fire. A fierce, thrilling fire surrounded by dogs. He feels his stomach twist. Perhaps he should go and camp out in the bathroom. He can see how the next few hours are going to go. He’ll be wrung out and wrung out until there’s nothing left. He gets up, spreads a towel in front of the toilet and lies down in a ball, the cold seeping into his bones both punishment and salve. His eyes focus on the bruise near his elbow. Two pink half-moons face one another on his flesh, a malicious strawberry. Here and there the skin’s been broken in the pattern of teeth. He wonders if he could have bitten himself in his sleep. He stretches his jaw to test his theory. There’s no way he did this to himself. There’s no way this is a bite mark. Perhaps he fell down a hill and landed on a rock. He remembers the dark grass, the hiss of the nearby waves, the sound of wood snapping. He remembers the fire. He retches again. He passes out on the towel.

He finds himself lying just outside the bathroom door. He must have tried to make a break for the bed. His skin is cold. His head is hot. He wants water, but it’ll just come back up. Shiny rectangles hover and glimmer on the wall above him. His framed certificates and degrees. The photo from last year’s Law Society dinner, which is really just a photo of Ashlin – an island of art school cool in a sea of suits and tanned décolletages. A wave of bile washes up in his throat. Christ. He can’t ever get this drunk again. A serious young man making his way in the world may of course enjoy a drink every now and then. But he does not vomit on his own floor or sleep on a towel soaked in his own urine.

Slowly, tenderly, energy creeps back into his body. It spreads from his core to his scratched knees, his dirty forearms, his twig-crowned head. He takes the soiled pillow and dumps what vomit he can down the toilet. He makes a parcel of the pillowcase in the corner of the bathroom with the towel, and puts the pillow by the bin. He dampens another towel and squirts some soap onto it. He wipes around his bed, around the toilet pedestal, and folds the towel on top of the other one. Now it just looks like an ordinary pile of washing. His room just looks like an ordinary room. He reaches up to open his windows. He sacrifices five pumps of aftershave to the stale air. Anything to get rid of the smell. That rotten-sandwich-in-a-school-bag stench. He runs the shower and steps inside.

Water falls over him like rain, like relief, relief so sweet he whimpers. He parts his lips to catch the falling drops, each mouthful like holy water. Once he’s had his fill he leans forward and drenches his hair, then tilts his head back to feel the full flow on his face. He reaches for the soap. His fingernails are dirty, and he plunges them into the soap as if to erase what’s under them with its whiteness. The crust beneath his nails is black. It could be dirt, or soot, or blood. He remembers the darkness, the ocean. How they circled the fire, barking like dogs. The girls had gone home. Sensing the change in the wind, one by one they’d evaporated into the summer night. All the girls except Darsha. Darsha, who’d brought them to the brink in so many tutorials with her intersectional feminist theory, suddenly wanted to be one of the boys.

Beneath the steam from the shower his headache blooms like wine. He tips, stumbles, and steadies himself with his hands on his knees. Pieces of blonde grass are still embedded in their folds. He flicks them out and watches as they circle down the drain.

They’ll never believe her. The thought appears in his head like a thunder clap and embeds itself like an angry mantra. They’ll never believe her. They’ll never believe that one of them started barking, and the rest followed. It was just a game, something that could have happened on a school playground. But there is something else. Something else emerging from the pit. The damp and secret smell of fallen leaves. The sound of twigs cracking. The way Darsha’s face, lit up by the fire, suddenly changed. The way she turned and ran. And how, instinctively, they’d run after her. But not to save her. To pin her down.

They’ll never believe her. Anyone who’s read her blog knows she’s off her rocker. In her eyes, every normal part of life is some kind of racist, misogynist threat. She’s not even good-looking! She’s a steamed pudding of a girl, squished into self-consciously gender-neutral jeans and blazers. But there is something about her. Her sly eyes. Something about her that they all wanted. Why didn’t she try harder to fight back?

The water washes silt from his memory. It’s a river stone lying clean at the bottom of his skull. Someone started barking. Darsha ran. They followed her, barking, through the woods. Their veins raging with something primal. Exhilarated by the sounds of their own running footsteps, their own panting breaths. Someone had tackled her, and they’d all piled on in a scrum. And then …

He’s on his knees, water pelting his back. He’s on his knees, hands sunk deep into the grass, or is it hair? The barking, the smoke from the fire, the salt wind from ocean, the complicit trees. He howls at the moon. At the showerhead. He howls.

The water runs cold. He rises from his crouch and steps from the shower, leaving the water running behind him. He walks, dripping, to the doorway. His room looks the same. The bookcase.  The duvet cover. Pale light leaks down through the windows and onto the glass skins of his certificates. Onto Ashlin, frozen in her evening gown.

His phone vibrates on his bedside table. Another message alert, and then another. He looks down at the bite mark on his arm. A purple blush spreads outwards from the teeth indents. A pin-prick of pus emerges from the broken skin.

Next week's short story is by Laura Borrowdale.

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