I had hidden the whisky a few weeks earlier, during one of Hugo’s thrilling rages. He had been up for three days, finally disintegrating into an angry madness and unable to convey his fury through speech, unable to manage the movement of his body and limbs. He was ‘getting spiky,’ as Sandy put it, lurching around trying to smash whatever was left to smash, and so the whisky was hidden.
To appease the beast it was replaced with several blue pills which Sandy assured me would bring him down a notch. He chewed on them before swallowing, causing his tongue and lips to turn purple and giving his already mangled appearance an air of zombified danger. I had gone too far towards the edge myself and, though not as deranged as Hugo, I was beginning to hear things on top of the things I was seeing. This auditory assault was giving me the Fear and so Sandy, who seemed somehow to be sober and upright, as always, fed me some of the same blue pills; when I woke up I had forgotten about the whisky – and anything else that might have happened.
The house – what there was of it – was mine to start with. I found it by accident one night, empty and long abandoned, and decided to stay. It took a day to gut it of broken furniture, debris, animal skeletons and mice nests, and Sandy and Hugo arrived the following afternoon as if by some sort of supernatural intuition. Almost immediately someone had agreed that the three of us would live there for as long as it lasted. I had known them both for what passed back then as a long time, and I knew that Sandy in particular had the kind of connections essential to people like us.
The house was nothing more than a square concrete structure riddled with cracks, containing what must have once been a kitchen, a small living room, and another even smaller room that was too mouldy and stench-filled to even lay down in. We slept in the living room, if we slept, and at night we burned candles, giving an eerie yellow sheen to the place and filling it with dancing shadows.
No one else would have lived there.
It must have been condemned; clearly no one owned it anymore, but we never knew how long it would be before we were forced out, before a right-minded citizen saw one of us coming or going and called the authorities. We named it Subterranean after a book I knew. It was like a dungeon, but our own – familiar, uterine, safe.
Sandy wasn’t a pretty girl, but you could tell she had been once, before the weight of living beat her down. She told me she wanted to be an artist – during one of those rare drug-induced moments of truth and self-revelation that we shared – but you could see a dullness in her eyes, a resignation. Her blonde hair was always greasy and limp, her face worn from too much crying, screaming, seeing – from too much everything. She looked always like someone on the brink of giving up. Her smile was the one piece of her that still seemed to shine, but it was the smile of a martyr, one that knew its owner was destined for oblivion… A Jesus smile.
She was part-girlfriend, part-accomplice to Hugo, and had a strange ability to control him at his worst that eluded me and anyone else I ever saw come into contact with him. He wasn’t violent and was only dangerous in an abstract sense, but he had a tendency to instil fear into those who didn’t know him, and caution into those who did.
Up close he looked normal enough – up very close, when you took each facet of his appearance on its own. But taken as a whole he had the look of a fiend about him, perfectly disfigured in an indefinable way. His features seemed magnified or shrunken depending on whether he was smiling, laughing, moving, talking. He was short but had the gait of a tall man, lumbering and clumsy.
There was a menacing quality to his appearance.
He could ask strangers politely for a light or for the time, and the blood would drain from their faces when they saw him. He was an abnormality in almost every way. It was funny to watch and he played up to it at times, but he meant no harm. Really, he had the temperament of a baby on the teat, provided he wasn’t on a heavy drunk, in which case he was a different animal altogether.
I never understood their relationship, generally not feeling the desire or ability to understand anything much at all, but I could tell they loved each other. Or needed each other, at least. But there was always something lurking underneath it all that gave the two of them an air of doom, separately and together, like they were both marked and always would be.
I was happy enough on the sidelines, looking in from my own dysfunctional cage. It was a twisted version of a family unit; Sandy was both mother and lover to Hugo, and I was some sort of a brother to them both, a buffer between them at times.
We split everything three ways – that was the rule.
None of us had money and we didn’t excel at stealing, but there was a college campus not far away that became a regular windfall. Sandy had a friend who would give us a few ounces of weed on tab provided we returned with the money the same day, and the nervous and frightened college kids would pay two or even three times what it was worth, which could keep us going on what we needed for a few days.
Those times when there wasn’t even money for cheap wine, when cigarette butts were being retrieved from the buckets we used as ashtrays, when we couldn’t get what we really needed, Sandy always seemed to be the one to step up. She could get morphine pills from a doctor she knew. I suspected that Sandy paid with more than just cash, and it was clear that Hugo thought or knew the same. She would leave, and he would be silent and shifty until she returned, as if he was watching an imaginary clock, but there was always such a sense of relief in the house when she arrived back with a new bottle of the things that it didn’t seem to matter.
Not that it should have mattered to me, anyway – we were all making sacrifices to keep the illusion going. But I could tell it affected Hugo. There was a simmering resentment and anguish in him at what seemed to be going on, and yet he allowed it. Some things just took precedence over anything else, and what could he do? He didn’t own her, and we were all reaping the rewards. The morphine washed any bad feeling away soon enough, carrying us to artificial bliss and contentment for a few more days.
There was Sandy’s aunt, too. It felt wrong; none of us liked doing it, but this aunt – or great-aunt, I think – was ninety-something, and the money was coming to Sandy soon enough anyway, or so she said. Sandy would occupy the aunt with a rare surprise visit while Hugo boosted me in a back window. From there I would sneak barefoot into the aunt’s bedroom where she had a hiding place for her hoarded money. She didn’t trust banks, Sandy said, and she was so old she wouldn’t even notice the small amounts of cash we took – just enough to tide us over. The smell of the place always got to me. It had that old-age smell, a forewarning of death, and the décor was so antiquated that at times it seemed like I was sneaking around a museum display, not an old lady’s house. I felt like a small child sneaking around a parent’s bedroom, excited and scared and guilty.
I felt deficient of heart afterwards, each time. All three of us did. But only until we got our next hit.
It’s difficult to say how into it we all were. Sandy and Hugo had been taking up and quitting over and over for a few years, bowling helplessly along towards some unknown destination. They had recently quit their most recent attempt at quitting and were quickly sucked into the cycle all over again. I could go longer without feeling that horrific, base need for the stuff as badly, but they would start to crack if there wasn’t at least morphine to fill the gaps. Those were the times Sandy went to her Doctor friend, or I climbed barefoot through her aunt’s windows.
We liked to drink, too. Sometimes that was what we would concentrate on for a few days before returning to the warm cocoon of the opiates.
Sandy was as close to a good drunk as you could get. She always seemed sober, no matter how much she drank or how long she’d been drinking. She was a machine.
Hugo was different.
We would buy whatever we could afford – cheap whisky at best, cheap wine at worst – and stay in the house for a couple of days straight getting more and more drunk, usually taking some sort of uppers to stay awake if we had them, and there would come a time when the atmosphere would change from frenzied and harmonic elation to a high-charged, paranoia-filled edginess, usually with Hugo at the fore of it.
He liked to break things.
I don’t mean he liked to just smash them up, but he liked to take something, anything – a chair, table, box, radio, a wall – and methodically break it to bits, beginning at some point of his choosing and moving on from there until his task was complete. He always had that big zombified look to him, total concentration on his face, and he would laugh his horrible laugh as he went about it.
There was a strange air of happiness to his bouts of destruction, but it was a happiness tinged with something else, some seething inner rage. It was never directed towards Sandy or me, but somewhere else, directed at something bigger that no one but Hugo could see.
He was almost impossible to stop once he began. He was short but very strong, and the drink had a tendency to remove all reasoning from his addled mind. It was as if he was somewhere else, on his own, and when he was there we didn’t exist. As soon as he finished dismantling something you could see his eyes bulge a little and his gaze shift, searching for his next inanimate victim, and he would drink more and more as he went on. He would move towards it – whatever it was – in a straight line, sometimes knocking me or Sandy out of the way, as if he couldn’t see humans anymore, just objects to be destroyed. Booze put him in a strange zone of madness. It was stunning.
These strange furies could last for a few hours and usually I was too drunk myself to do anything other than watch the show, but Sandy would eventually manage to stop him, usually by tricking him into thinking there was no drink left to drink, or by feeding him downers and knocking him out.
I had taken a lot of morphine, I think, because I figured out later that I’d been asleep for a full day and night. When I opened my eyes I saw Hugo’s face looming over me. He was shaking me and saying something, but I couldn’t understand him. I felt like I was deaf. The sensation reminded me of those scenes in films where a shell-shocked soldier is ambling around aimlessly in the midst of a battle, seeing everything but not quite understanding any of it.
It took me a few moments to wake up a little and realise that something wasn’t right. There was something wrong with Hugo, for starters. He seemed sober but panicked. When I stood up I saw why.
The boy was young, about seventeen or eighteen. I knew him from somewhere but couldn’t place him.
‘What happened,’ I must have asked, because I saw Hugo’s shocked, twisted face staring into me, saying: ‘too much, too much,’ over and over, trying to explain something, almost pleading with me. He started saying more, but I couldn’t take it all in at once; Sandy was sitting in the corner crying, her face almost blue with fear, transfixed by the body on the floor.
The boy’s face was blue, too, but not like Sandy’s. It was a shade that meant only one thing, and he was just sprawled there, looking yellow and blue and dead. I went over to Sandy and took hold of her arms to make her stand up, as if that would fix something. The three of us stood there, Hugo looking at me with a fucked up look I’d never seen on his face before, Sandy still crying and making strange whimpering sounds.
I don’t know how long we stayed like that.
I had that feeling you sometimes get just at the moment of waking, when sleep has allowed your mind to forget some terrifying thing but consciousness suddenly brings it all back, hitting even harder. I realised I was entering into some grotesque realisation of what was happening, and I knew I didn’t want to. Part of my brain was beginning to see the situation for what it was, and another was battling with it to stay ignorant and asleep.
We had to leave, Hugo started saying, and slowly that part of my brain struggling to shield me from reality lost the battle. I tried not to look at the kid but his face seemed to follow me, his vacant Mona Lisa eyes tracking everything, accusing.
We had a rule about bringing people back to the house. Word spreads in circles like that, and we wanted to keep the house to ourselves for as long as possible. I had passed out but Sandy and Hugo must have been desperate and the boy must have been able to score for them, and then this had happened, all while I was in another world.
For once Sandy was the one falling to pieces and she just stood there sort of crying, sort of moaning, hands on her face, saying things but making no sense. Hugo started digging around the room, looking for things. We needed to go, he kept saying. I was still in a daze but I started throwing things into a bag at random. There wasn’t much to take. Sandy stayed standing motionless except for her hands grabbing at her head and face until we were ready to go, Hugo throwing her things into his bag and looking almost as demented as he did on one of his smashing sprees.
I think I said something stupid like we should close his eyes just before we left, the way they do on TV. Something felt wrong about him lying there with his eyes open, gone but still being forced to look at the world, at us.
His mouth was open, as if he were frozen in a silent scream, like the painting, and there was a crust of yellow around it.
Sandy stopped for a moment and went back in. I thought she was going to go and do it, close his eyes, but she went into the other room and came out a few seconds later with the bottle of whisky we had hidden a few weeks before. It seemed like a strange thing to do, but everything was so fucked up that it didn’t really register. I don’t know what made her remember it.
We ended up in a coffee shop a few miles away. Sandy had stopped crying and now we were all just staring at cups of coffee, trying to avoid each other’s eyes in total silence. There were questions running around inside my head but I couldn’t speak. Besides, I didn’t want to know the answers; I knew the end result, and that was enough.
I knew that I had just seen my first dead body, and that Sandy had fallen to pieces and that Hugo looked like he was about to crack. I knew that something terrible had happened and that we had our fingers in it. I knew they weren’t in it anymore, but at the same time they were, somehow. I knew all of this and at the same time I knew nothing other than everything had changed now, inside and out, and I didn’t want to be in my own skin any more but had nowhere else to go.
I don’t remember saying goodbye.
I went to the bus station with the vague idea that getting far away from that place would somehow fix things, might somehow absolve me…
I stopped at a phone booth to make the call, to clean my hands a little, to say that there was some junky kid dead in some abandoned house, but I didn’t have any coins. I got on the bus and curled into myself as the cramps and sweats and shaking came, pounding me from all angles, the sickness rising.
Later, much later, I would try to remember the boy, but his face blurred over time, the image of him lying there relegated to the back of my mind until – when I searched for it again – it was no longer there: at least, it wasn’t as clear as it had been; strange shadows clouded his neck now; bruising; an unnatural bulge in his eyes… Time being what it is, I couldn’t tell if what I remembered was real or not, but that look I saw on Hugo’s face – that pleading, begging, shamed look I hadn’t ever seen before – haunted me, seemed to say everything and nothing at the same time.
I didn’t see him again after that day in the coffee shop.
I ran into Sandy a few years later, but everything was different; we acted shy, withdrawn, as if weren’t happy to see each other – probably, we weren’t. The conversation was short, stiff, awkward. I didn’t ask about Hugo, and she didn’t mention him – or anything else.
We left like strangers; I haven’t seen her since.
The bus was empty.
I lay there, foetal, not admitting to myself until the bus pulled away that I knew I didn’t need change to dial an emergency.
I started to cry into my sleeve. My dirty, soiled, junky sleeve.
The bus took me away, all sorts of pain descending deep into me. I tried to understand it all, what had happened, what my part in it was, telling myself I’d make the call once I got where I was going, knowing that I wouldn’t.
And I didn’t.