Horla Fiction (February 2020)

 

WE LIVE IN CONCRETE CASTLES IN THE SKY

by MELISSA ELBORN

 

I WANT to tell you about that night.

Because I know you’ll have questions, many, many questions. I want to tell you the truth, the way I see it, the way I feel it. But the truth is a slippery thing. You think you’ve grasped it and you hold on tight, but somehow no matter how hard you squeeze, it slips right out of your hands.

I was born in this concrete tower that I call home. My mum left it too late to make it to the hospital. She drank vodka to numb the pain like she did every day after. Mum nearly bled to death after I finally pushed my way out. She reminded me of that. Often. Sometimes growing up I thought I could see the bloodstained patch on the bedroom carpet.

I thought everyone lived up in the sky when I was a little girl. It was the best thing ever. I could see everything up here on the 24th floor, a little girl who lived in the clouds. At night I’d dream I was soaring through those skies, swooping like the little blackbirds that came to my balcony to eat the crumbs of bread I left out. I was a princess in a concrete castle, and the lift was a magical carriage that could take me anywhere.

That all changed when I went to school. You see, there weren’t many kids the same age as me in the tower block then. I wasn’t a princess anymore. I was the kid the other girls laughed about and ran away from. The kid that smelt a bit different, that didn’t have nice new shoes with the sparkles like the other girls. The names changed as we got older. Council scum. White trash. The teachers didn’t even bother with me. I learnt to read and write just to spite them.

My only friends growing up ended up being the younger kids in the block. We played hide and seek, and across 24 floors it was a game that could take all night. It was on one of those nights that I met her for the first time. She was in the flat that no-one wanted to live in. This flat, that’s now mine.

“I dare you, Livvy, to go in the bad flat,” said Sam, who was short and round back then. He always seemed to be eating something, and I wondered how his tummy could fit it all in, as mine always felt small and tight.

“Yeah, you’re really brave, Livvy. You can do it,” the others shouted. I was the biggest and I guess they all looked up to me. I wasn’t the bravest, but I didn’t want them to know that. So I made my way up to the top floor, and they followed, keeping a safe way behind me. Suddenly I was as scary to them as that flat.

The corridor was just like any other floor. Grey walls, the smell of cooking that didn’t mix together, sweat and piss that I came to recognise as the scent of home. The door was at the end, in the corner. There was a sign on the floor that I couldn’t read and yellow tape over the door that would never keep anyone out. The door was already open a little. I could see where it had been bashed in. Everyone knew the bad people went in there, the people that looked like the zombies in Sam’s comics. They stuck needles in their arms and they looked at you like they couldn’t see you. Even Mum said they were bad.

I put my hand on the door and pushed it – a little. It creaked. I heard a gasp and I jumped around. It was just Sam and the others. They were half-way down the corridor crouched down together. Maybe I was braver than them. Opening a door wasn’t going to hurt anyone.

I pushed the door again. It was stiff but it opened enough for me to squeeze in and I stood there feeling the door against my back. I couldn’t see much as it was dark and cold. I reached out with my hand to the wall, feeling for the light switch, but when I pressed it nothing happened. I thought I could stay there for a bit and then leave, the others would never know.

I closed my eyes, and even though it was just as dark it was less scary that way. It’s supposed to be dark when you close your eyes. I started to count in my head. I’d count to 100 and then leave.

One.

Two.

Three.

Four.

Five.

Click.

What was that?

TAP.

There it was again. Louder.

Six.

Seven. No, it was nothing.

Eight.

Nine.

Ten. Except maybe one of those zombie men with the needles in their arms.

Eleven.

Twelve.

Thirteen. I felt warm air against my cheek. Soft like breath. I squeezed my eyes tighter and whispered the words aloud.

Fourteen.

Fifteen.

Sixteen.

Seventeen.

Silence. It’s okay. I was alone.

I opened my eyes. There was a light somewhere because I started to see the flat.

Hallway, window, doorway.

Hallway, window, doorway.

Hallway. Window. Woman.I was imagining things. I had to be. But I wasn’t.

I could see something.

Something blacker than the rest of the room.

Something with two red eyes.I took a step closer. And another step. The red eyes blinked once, twice and stayed looking at me. It hurt my eyes to look at them. When I blinked, red flashes repeated everywhere.

She started to move toward me. Her body reminded me of smoke and ash, coal-black, a moving shadow. It blocked everything, sucking up all the light and the rest of the world away.

And then I smelt her. I wanted to stop breathing so that I couldn’t smell anything, but the stench was everywhere. Like when my mum didn’t empty the bins, or something went bad in the fridge. I coughed because it was getting up my nose and down my throat. It burnt, stinging and tasting sour like the cigarette I tried but so much stronger.

I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. I didn’t have the breath. When she got closer, I saw that she was glowing a little under her skin. Orange, red, yellow. Her skin was black, crumbly and peeling. Burnt. The burnt woman. She grabbed me, burning my wrists with her hands. I still have the scars. But when she touched me, I was no longer afraid.

I never told anyone about what I saw in this flat that day. Not even Sam when he asked.
I was lying naked wrapped up in Sam’s arms in my bed. We’d had sex and it was my first time, the first time I’d let anyone get close to me since meeting her.

“I’ve wanted to do that since I was old enough to know what sex was,” he murmured. I laughed. “You were like an annoying kid brother back then. Chubby and always stuffing your face,” I said, screeching as tickled me until his lips found mine.

“I love hearing you laugh. I don’t hear it enough,” he said in between gentle kisses on my neck.

“What happened that day, Livvy? In this flat? You weren’t the same after that. Something about you changed.”

And I could have told him, but he never would have believed me. Or worse. He’d have me believing in a happy ending. Sam the eternal optimist who was going to be rich, to escape this place, the prince in the tower that survived. That’s when I knew I couldn’t let him get close to me.

My mum got the closest to the truth. She lay in bed near the end; the vodka had progressed to meth. She looked at me and her face changed. Her face screwed up, and she wouldn’t let me touch her. “That smell,” she croaked. The nurse patted my hand and told me people can have all sorts of delusions as the time comes. But this was the one and only time when my mum had seen with clarity.

I didn’t want my mum’s flat, and Flat 60 was still empty. No-one wanted to live there. One family said the flat was cold, and the power kept going out. Neighbours said there was a funny smell outside of the flat and accused each other of being dirty and that caused a few fights. Then there was Pete. He strung himself up by the light shade. No-one believed him when he said that was a burnt woman in there, not while he was on the meth.

Now not many people remember the stories. Once I moved in there were no more power problems, no bad smells, no cold spots. Just my home.

Because you see, I knew this night would come. I’d been waiting all this time. When I looked into the burnt woman’s eyes all those years ago, I recognised who she was. Who I was. All it took was one match.

Now the wind blows through our coffin in the sky, stirring the ash into different shapes as we lift into the air, swooping and soaring with the birds, our whispers in the clouds.

 

***

 

Melissa Elborn is a writer of dark fiction and her work has previously appeared in Siren’s Call and Spelk Fiction. She has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing specialising in horror and works in communications for a university. She haunts deepest Bedfordshire, England, with her husband, daughter and two cats.