CHAPTER FOURTEEN

You often hear about this idea of hitting rock bottom – of being as low as you can possibly go – and you imagine that, if you ended up there, then that’s about it for you. It really is The End. It’s like you disappear out of existence when you land on rock bottom. The floor’s made out of a trillion snapping scissors that shred you into blood and shit in half a second. You’re so far down that you don’t even need to pull a trigger or take a pill. Sheer depression and social abstraction will blink you out of existence.

But of course it doesn’t work like that.

Nothing shreds or pulps you. Your heart feels as broken as it ever could, like a physical injury inside you that you can’t possibly bear, but you don’t die from a broken heart, and everything is bearable. It’s impossible but true: the pain goes on, but it doesn’t kill you. Your whole body feels like this fatal wound, but you’re still aware of it: it’s curled up on the floor, collecting a numb handful of indifferent sensations, and no amount of concentration or desire can rob you of it. This is where you are. Not dead. Not even dying. You’re just waiting to get up, and – sooner or later – you’re going to have to.

It’s just difficult.

Some emotions feel so enormous that by rights you should be able to fall into them forever; they should be able to close up around you until there’s nothing left for people to see. But they’re never as deep as you expect. Ultimately, you still need to pull yourself off the ground and do something, however ‘just difficult’ it might seem. Even the most desperate of suicides still needs to jump.

And so, after a while, I got up. I’d stopped crying by then, but the water was still splattering down from above and I wandered underneath it, soaking my face to the bone and my body to the skin. It was ice cold, but I didn’t care; I needed to wash her away from me. Never had anything felt quite so important. The noise the water made on me was softer than on the ground, and I tested out shifts in tone as it pattered on my head, shoulders and then, ever so quietly, on my outstretched hands. I moved away, and the harsher sound returned: a silenced, spluttering machine pistol.

Shivering, I wiped my wet forearm over my wet face.

Amy was dead.

I’d known all along, and I realised now that all I’d done was twisted the grief into a new shape and channelled it into something emptily constructive. How could she not have been dead? Even before I found Kareem, I must have known: four months without a word.

And now I’d found her.

The routes that had brought us both here were too complicated to catch a grip on. All I knew was that I felt responsible for their architecture: for not taking so many of the turnoffs that would have delivered us somewhere better.

Amy.

You deserved somebody better than me.

I’d told her that before, and she’d said the same thing back. And we’d both always said the same thing in reply: But I love you.

Well at least now we knew who was right.

I started to cry again, looking down at the remains. They were as unrecognisable as a tree growing from a grave would have been, and at that moment I couldn’t imagine doing another thing with my life. That feeling of rock bottom again, and then it passed. I wasn’t going to dissolve, or cease to exist. At least, not without some help.

I touched the lump of the gun, hanging in my pocket.

There’s no God. No Heaven. Nothing after death. I didn’t believe in any of that stuff. But nothing seemed like it might feel better than this. Right then, it felt like I could go for nothing.

Nothing felt about right.

But not this second, I thought. I had money in my pocket, and my stomach was achingly empty. I was soaking. For some stupid, undefined reason, it didn’t feel right to die on wasteground, even though Amy was here with me. It felt like I needed to take control and do it right: make some kind of insignificant ceremony out of it.

So I said goodbye to Amy, and then I touched the gun again, turned around and headed back to Fairway Street.

I got something to eat in Combo’s Deli, hesitating for maybe a second before crossing the street and heading inside. But nobody looked at me twice; even the guy showing off his balls seemed to be staring at something in the middle-distance that was more interesting than me. It felt okay – not threatening in the slightest – and I realised why even as I wandered inside: I belonged here. I was downtown, swept under the carpet. Jettisoned from society, unwanted and aimless and uncaring, just like everyone else here. And we can smell our own.

When I was younger, I used to imagine what it would feel like to know you were going to die. I figured it would be both scary and liberating. Scary because I didn’t want to die, but liberating because you could do anything you wanted. I thought that being about to die would make you aware of how much society ties you down. You’d never have to look someone in the eye again if you didn’t want to. Never have to answer to the law for what you did. Not have to worry about the hangover or the injuries, or what anyone might think of you. Never say please or thank you.

But old habits died harder than I would.

‘Coming right up,’ the owner told me, after I’d asked him for a cup of coffee, and a plate of sausages, bacon and chips, and then said please to round it all off. He turned away to his sizzling grill, warning me: ‘You wait here, boy. There ain’t no table service.’

He slopped it up. I paid him (I said thank you, too) and took my food to a far corner of the caf?. It was delicious: as revoltingly greasy as anything I’d ever tasted, and as good a final meal as anyone could have hoped for. As I ate, I watched the outside world of Downtown through the misty window. You could even see the entrance to the wasteground from where I was sitting. Fuck it, though. I dabbed my mouth with a paper towel and took the tray back over to the counter.

‘You rent out rooms, here?’ I asked.

The owner took the tray off me, looking bored.

‘We rent out rooms,’ he said, ‘yeah. Thirty a night, breakfast is extra. Are you on your own?’

‘Yeah.’

‘You want to be?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I just want a room.’

‘Money’s in advance. How long’re you here for?’

‘Just one night.’

‘Just one night. Here you go.’

He slipped a set of keys off a hook behind the grill. I pulled out thirty pounds, and we traded.

‘Stairs over there,’ he said, gesturing to the far corner. ‘You change your mind about the company, I can sort you out with something. With anything.’

‘I won’t.’

‘If you’re not gone by ten tomorrow, we come looking for you.’

Well, that would be nice for everyone.

‘I understand,’ I said, and went to find my room.

The room at Combo’s was as awful as you’d imagine. There was a bed, a table and a chair, and that was about it. The shared bathroom was down the hall. There was a bare bulb hanging down in the far corner, beside the black square of a window, but the light was sickly and weak, and it gave the room an appearance of wasting illness. It was like the room’s liver had failed.

Worse than that, though, were the walls. They had been painted a pale and anaemic green, but there were brown patches on three of them, varying in size and height. The colour had faded, presumably through scrubbing, but it was still recognisable for what it was: blood. It looked like somebody had been butchered in here. There was a spattering of it above the headboard of the bed, and I bet that if I’d have pulled off the white cotton sheet from the mattress I’d have found a stain there, as well. But I didn’t think I was going to do that.

I put the gun on the bed beside the damp pile of papers I’d collected. Then, I went over to the window and closed a pair of thin beige curtains against the Downtown night. If you’re keeping count, there were flecks of blood on the curtains, too.

Honestly, I didn’t know how I was going to do this. I was shaking. To calm myself down, I lay on the hard bed, hands crossed behind my head to form a rough pillow, and closed my eyes.

Breathing slowly, I tried to find a picture of Amy in my mind to steady myself. It came easily enough, but it seemed slightly faded. Lifeless, like a photograph. I supposed I hadn’t seen her in four months and shouldn’t be surprised, but I was -and disappointed, too. I wanted something vivid that I could run towards. I wanted to be with her, in some way, when I did what I was going to do. The last thoughts that got blasted out onto these walls should be of her.

I started to cry, frustrated with myself, and sat up.

The room looked better blurred, and so I cried for a while, and thought unhappy thoughts. I ran through the scenarios. I imagined her cursing me as she died. I saw her crying and screaming as they raped and tortured her to death, and then unfolded these thoughts backwards to see us sitting in our bed, side by side and miles apart. I thought of all the things I should have told her, and I said them to her now instead. Most of all, I imagined sitting with her, trying to explain how sorry I was. Still she wouldn’t come.

Get it together, I told myself.

Just get it together.

I opened the file and flicked through it, maybe for inspiration. But I stopped at the first page, which was the e-mail she’d sent. Except she hadn’t, of course: it must have been somebody else.

I looked at it again, and then rubbed my fingertip over the printed text of the header. If she hadn’t sent me the footage that would lead me to her body, then who had? How had they found it – and me – and why?

It occured to me for a second that she might not be dead at all, and I felt a flurry in my heart. Immediately, I shot it down.

She is dead.

So who wrote the e-mail, then? Who else had access to the account?

I couldn’t think of a single person, but maybe she’d told someone else the password. After all, she hadn’t known about Claire Warner. So maybe she’d had someone that I didn’t know about.

I felt relieved to be thinking this through, without really knowing why, and so I went with it. Either Amy had sent the message, or someone else had. That seemed clear enough. It was certainly Amy in the beginning sections of the video, and the continuation in it suggested that it was her remains that had been set on fire at the wasteground. That was the implication. So she couldn’t have sent it. But who would have been able to find those videos? Certainly not Graham, not in the time he had. Hughes was dead. And why would anyone have sent me them at all?

The conclusion? Nothing about that blank e-mail made sense.

I turned it over and looked at the next page, which was the beginning of Dennison’s insane manifesto that texts were alive. As I skimmed through the pages, I wondered what state the internet was in right now: how much of it was left and how long that would last. That led to another idea. Dennison believed that the description of Amy being killed had started the corruption in the database. The text-file that got lost on its way to my inbox.

So maybe the description of Amy was behind all this. Maybe it really was alive, in some weird way. Perhaps the text itself had sent me the e-mail message, lulled into doing so by memories that were haunting it. Memories of what it once was.

I turned the page, revealing the list of ‘Marley’s in Thiene.

A flash cut of Amy’s body being carried onto the wasteground.

I glanced down the page, remembering what I already knew. There were thirty names on it, with addresses and phone numbers. Thirty strangers was too many to sift through if you didn’t know what you were looking for.

Another flash cut: a zoom.

The blurred close-up of Marley’s face, with the bright tip of his cigarette burning a hole in the screen.

I lay back down on the bed, holding the piece of paper face down against my chest, and closed my eyes.

It occurs to me sometimes that everything we think we know about ourselves is only fiction. There’s no such thing as the past or the future: they don’t really exist – in the proper, physical sense that a cat exists, or a dog. We live in this ever-changing, single moment. If I want to claim that a particular object is red, then I can point to that object. The evidence is there in front of me. But if I want to claim that it was once red – when I saw it last – there’s no physical evidence at all beyond the way the memory of me seeing it is wired up in my brain. It’s just a story I remember about the way things were. That’s the only evidence there is.

The past is all fiction. It only exists in the form of hundreds of thousands of differing narratives wired into hundreds of thousands of different heads. The stories overlap, and sometimes they contradict each other, and when that happens we tend to pick the stories which appeal to us most.

My grandmother was a religious woman and she always used to say that we were put on this Earth to do the best that we could. To make it a better place. I don’t know about that; I’m more material than she was, and less confident that anything has any real value at all. I think that it’s all just words on a page that nobody’s actually reading. But what it seems to me is this: while we’re here, what we try to do is star in as many stories as possible. That’s what being important and influential really means. It’s nothing more than binding yourself into as many narratives as possible, in as many people’s minds. And when you die, all it means is that your stories are over: you’re finished with writing them, and now it’s just a matter of whether anybody reads them and remembers you.

When I woke up, the hotel room was dark and I felt disorientated. Something was wrong. It wasn’t the light: I remembered turning it out, half-asleep, when it became obvious I was dozing off. And it wasn’t the dream I was having either, which had been cut short. It was the door.

A creak of floorboards.

Fuck – the door was open.

I swung myself upright and pulled the gun up from the side of my leg. A figure, which had been creeping into the room from the bright hallway beyond, stopped moving immediately, and then moved its hands up slowly.

I clicked off the safety catch and said:

‘What the fuck are you doing?’

‘Easy.’ It was the guy from the counter downstairs. ‘Don’t shoot.’

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ I said again.

The silhouette shrugged.

‘I heard a gunshot. It sounded like it came from in here.’

I frowned to myself in the dark. From what I could remember I’d been dreaming about gunfire – I remembered loud shots and bright lights. I’d been in a front room, watching a television.

‘I knocked, but there was no answer.’ He shrugged again, sounding more confident now. Obviously deciding that I wasn’t going to shoot him, he turned away and moved back into the doorway.

‘Got to look out for myself.’

‘Right,’ I said, as he closed the door.

The darkness felt uncomfortable, so I switched on the light and rubbed the bad dream from my eyes. The memory of it was fading, and I couldn’t remember too much of what had happened in it. But I knew that, just before I’d jerked awake, I’d been a young boy, sitting in an armchair in a dark front room. I was watching a pale blue television, which was flashing and banging away in the corner, but I didn’t like what I was seeing at all: it was pictures and sounds of people being hurt by somebody. I knew that there were other people in the room who were watching me for my reaction, and so I wasn’t allowed to look away from the screen. These other people were just vague, dark shapes in the other chairs; I couldn’t make them out, or even tell which one was speaking to me. But I remember asking:

‘Why is he doing that?’

One of them said, ‘Because if he didn’t, there wouldn’t be a story.’

I found it too frustrating. ‘That’s a stupid answer.’

The same voice: ‘It’s the only reason anyone does anything.’

And then the guy from downstairs had disturbed me.

I didn’t want to go back to sleep, so I sat on the edge of the bed for a minute, feeling sick. Whenever Amy used to wake me up in the night with one of her bad dreams, it felt like this: a kind of awful, sleepy nausea. It always passed, but never quickly. Now, as I waited to feel better, I saw that there was a screwed up ball of paper on the floor in front of me. I put down the gun and picked it up, unfolding it carefully.

Thirty names. Thirty addresses.

I put the paper down on top of the gun and held my head in my hands.

Five minutes later, I went down to the shared bathroom at the far end of the hall, with the gun tucked into my trousers. The whole room seemed strangely sterile: walls of white porcelain; garish lights overhead; and water everywhere – hanging in clean beads on the wall tiles and mixed into muddy footprints on the floor. I ran some into a sink the width and depth of a small well and splashed my face a few times, and then leaned on the edge, inspecting myself in the mirror.

I looked normal: a little tired and rough around the edges, but still me. My standard face. Neither good nor bad looking, neither smiling nor frowning – just weathered and slightly beaten, but not as much as I’d expected. I was my normal tune, played in a minor key. Water dripped down my cheeks and I saw my eyes watching it. Looked back up, only to catch them doing the same.

Thirty names.

The choice was made easier by the fact that I didn’t actually want to kill myself tonight. It felt too soon, somehow. I had a deep, aching pain inside me whenever I thought about Amy, but at the same time I felt like if I died tonight I would have missed something. There was also the small matter of cowardice; I’d be able to do it, I thought, but it would probably be easier if I surprised myself.

So, the choice was made: I wasn’t going to kill myself here in this shithole.

Three men dead in the last forty-eight hours, all by my hand. Suddenly, that didn’t seem so bad. I figured I could give myself another week, check out the names on the list, and maybe add one or two more to that tally.

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