“Does a maggot comprehend the laws of the universe – that such laws even exist?”
By the time Kane got home, the house was dark. He switched on the light and poked his head into the living room. The first thing he saw was a black lump in the corner.
“Jesus Christ!” he cried, a hand flying up to his chest. “You scared the crap outta me!”
Dylan was sitting with his knees pulled up to his chin, his hair hanging in front of his face like a curtain. It trembled as he breathed.
“What are you doing?”
“Walking the dog.”
“Don’t be an idiot.” Then, to fill the silence: “We don’t own a dog.”
Dylan pulled his knees in closer.
“You’re creeping me out, Dylan. Even more than usual.”
He didn’t move.
“You eaten yet?”
Entering the room, Kane went up and stood over him.
“You gotta eat, kid. You didn’t have much meat on your bones to begin with.”
Dylan seemed to be holding his breath. His hair had stopped trembling. It reminded Kane of the days before Oliver died, when one of their games at the leisure centre was to swim to the bottom of the pool and see who could hold his breath the longest. (Surprisingly, it was usually Dylan.)
“How about pizza?”
It was like he was talking to a rock.
“How about getting outta my face?”
“Come on, don’t be a baby!”
In a burst of violence, Dylan leapt to his feet. His eyes like bullets, he brushed past Kane and headed for the stairs.
“Where are you going?”
Kane stood frowning at his brother’s back, kept staring long after Dylan’s legs had disappeared up the stairs. What should I do? What should I do? What should I do? his brain kept demanding. It had been asking the same question all the way here. One minute the answer would be: Dylan’s almost eighteen; he’s old enough to look after himself; I should take off and start a new life. The next minute he would be thinking: I’m responsible for him; I’m responsible for the house; it’s what Dad would have expected.
Crossing to the bottom of the stairs, he leaned his elbow on the bannister. Kane had never even had to take care of himself, let alone a sullen, lazy adolescent. There was always his father behind him to push and pay: his BMX bike, the deposit for his truck, the decision to join the fire service, a warm house full of food – these were things that just happened. After Oliver died, when Dylan went to live with their grandparents, Mike had spoiled him rotten, giving in to every juvenile demand and tantrum. It was over-compensation for the loss of his brothers and the neglect by his sedated and unresponsive mother, and he took full advantage of it. When Lauren recovered enough to notice him, she spoiled him too. Thanks to their concern and generosity, he had no idea how to be a responsible adult. He only knew how to be a free agent, carried along by his desires and the tide of circumstance, doing whatever it was he felt like doing at the time.
He stared up the stairs. That was the old Kane, he reminded himself. I’ll soon be a fully-fledged firefighter, responsible and accountable for protecting life and property – saving people’s lives by putting my own life in danger. That needs focus and commitment. And whatever happens from here on in, I’m now the adult in this household, the sole breadwinner, the only one with a hope in hell of keeping the house going. I need to learn to control my temper and stop being so immature and self-centred – stop being a hothead. The thought terrified him.
Sighing under the weight of responsibility, he took the stairs slowly, two at a time. He pushed into Dylan’s room. It was dark and stuffy, like the sheets hadn’t been washed or the window opened in five years.
“Me again,” he announced. “What’s it gonna be? – chicken or supreme?”
Dylan was face down on the bed, one arm over his head, the other by his side.
“Pizza,” Kane explained. “Barbecue chicken or pepperoni with cheese and lotsa red and green shit on it, on some kinda dough. Round and flat like a Frisbee. Ring a bell? Or I could get fish and chips. Nothing beats the classics. What’s your poison?”
Dylan ignored him.
“Fish and chips then?”
Still no reply.
Dylan didn’t move.
“Christ almighty! As if I don’t have enough crap to deal with at work!”
He waited to see if the outburst had made any impression on his brother. It hadn’t. Now he lost his temper for real. “Fine. Starve to death, for all I care. Make it four out of five.”
Wincing at his insensitivity, he stood staring at the back of his brother’s head, debating with himself whether to leave him in peace or go and shake some sense into him – perhaps rub his back and reassure him everything would turn out fine? What would Mike do? Probably yell at him some more, then go get his mother.
In the end, Kane did what his stomach told him: he left to get pizza.
Dylan tugged at the iron gates, even though it was obvious they were locked. He rattled them in frustration, then, alarmed the clanging noise would invite attention, walked quickly away, his hands shoved into his pockets. Yellow lights threw a sulphurous sheen across the road. A storm last night had stripped the last of the leaves from the trees and they were blowing along the sidewalk like a tiny army. They were the only sign of life.
Turning a corner, Dylan made his way down the narrow side street that separated the graveyard from a factory that made cardboard boxes. It was as dark as a trench down here. Pulling his hands from his pockets, he blew warm air into them, then rubbed them together.
At a spot where an ancient oak tree spread its branches over the cemetery wall, he stopped and glanced to his left and right, then up at the warehouse windows. They were blank.
Dylan turned his eyes to the cemetery wall. It was built from huge blocks of stone that were mossy with age, and he could see it was not built to be breached. This was going to be tough.
Standing on his toes, he wrapped his fingers around an overhanging branch. The bark was rough on his soft hands and he could already feel the uncomfortable strain in his arms – and this was before he’d even transferred his weight to them. Dylan knew he was in no physical condition to scale this wall. He hadn’t exerted his muscles or lungs since phys ed classes at school (and even those he’d mostly managed to wriggle his way out of), but a masochistic urge pressed him to try. If he ripped his arms from their sockets or smashed his head open on the paving stones, at least that would be better than going home defeated, where his smug, interfering, useless brother waited to shove pizza down his throat.
Fighting against the pull of gravity, he walked his feet up the wall and hooked his legs over the top. He felt the blood rush to his head, felt his head throb, his face go hot. After a sudden panic he might be trapped in that position, he inched his hands along the branch to get his body closer to his feet, then, using a series of twisting and pulling motions, managed to get his whole body up on the wall.
Shaking his arms back into their sockets, Dylan coughed out a laugh. A shot of adrenaline sizzled through his loins and travelled up his spine. It felt like he’d achieved a superhuman feat, something last week he wouldn’t even have contemplated trying.
On the other side of the wall lay the land of the dead. As Dylan sat catching his breath, he contemplated the dark tombstones that rose from the ground like crooked teeth. It felt peaceful up there on the wall, looking down on all the people at rest below. There were so many of them. And none of them had any cares or impossible dreams or worries about what the future might bring. Wars, famine, loss, catastrophe: none of that mattered to them. The things that matter belong to the living. In that moment, it almost seemed to Dylan that life is the tragedy, death the natural state of being.
Earlier, after Kane left the house, Dylan got up and drove his father’s Honda Civic to the funeral parlour. He had no conscious plans; he just felt an urge to be close to his parents. The parlour was closed, of course. He had a passing thought of breaking in – it was unlikely there was much security – but then came a new idea: he would go and be with Oliver. Oliver had been in the ground for five long years and now his folks were on their way to join him. If Dylan didn’t think too carefully about it, he could almost feel relieved that his loss would be Oliver’s gain.
Recovered now from the climb, he slid his legs off the wall and dropped to the grass. How bizarre it felt to be standing in a locked cemetery after dark, with nothing but cracked and crumbling gravestones for company. If something were to happen – if, say, the dead were to begin clawing their way out of their graves – there would be no one to save him, no easy way out. He was walled in and helpless. A cold chill trickled down his neck. There might be ghouls, zombies and grave robbers hiding behind any of these trees and headstones, monsters that only crept out of mausoleums and hidden caves once the gates were locked, once the land had been returned to the dead. Dylan half wished there were. It would tear away the walls of this absurd, pointless world he was forced to be part of and open the way for something new and dangerous – a danger he could face head-on, not one that happened behind his back to the people he cared about.
He figured from the general state of neglect and decay that he was in one of the older parts of the cemetery. It came to him that this could be the place where the grave had been disturbed the other night. The stolen corpse still hadn’t been recovered, as far as he knew, which meant the grave robbers were probably still at large. He bent down and read the inscription on one of the headstones. In affectionate remembrance of Daniel Worthing, beloved husband of Abby. Died Mansfield Bridge, 8th March 1897. Aged 46 years. “In sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life”.
Straightening, he wondered if anyone remembered or still mourned for Daniel Worthing. Probably not. Unless you were famous, or your corpse stolen, you were quickly forgotten. Plots like this were nothing more than a waste of space, a tourist attraction at best. Oliver had been cremated, the final resting place of his ashes marked by a bronze plaque: the New Age, sustainable solution to death. Even so, eventually there would be so many plaques planted side by side, never visited, taking up valuable real estate, you may as well bulldoze the lot and start over again.
Wending his way between the gravestones, avoiding the pathways in case a night porter was about, Dylan headed up the hill towards his brother’s plot.
It took a while to find it. He’d only been here on a handful of occasions, the last time about two years ago when his grandfather brought him back to Quorn for a visit during one of his mother’s false recoveries. The visit had been a failure; she’d already relapsed before they arrived; but Bert did his best to turn the disaster into something memorable. He took Dylan to Jacob’s End to show him the blight on the land and the dead fish and birds in the bay and see if they could catch a glimpse of any sea monsters. (They didn’t.) They filled up on pub food, Bert let him take a few sips of Guinness, and then they went off to see Oliver, both happily dulled by drink. He remembered Oliver’s plaque was near one of the rose gardens, on the other side of a summer house. He remembered the summer house because it was where Bert had stopped to take a leak while Dylan waited on the path keeping lookout. And there it was, just as he remembered it (though without poor old Bert fumbling to pull up his fly as a funeral procession makes its way up the hill towards him).
Approaching Oliver’s grave, Dylan stared down at the bronze plate. In memory of our son and brother, Oliver Gates. Gone too soon. Aged 6 young years. Always loved, always remembered.
Crouching down, he brushed away the dirt and ripped out some grass. The plaque was cold, the metal tarnished. He knew there was nothing of Oliver beneath it. He’d at least been expecting to feel Oliver’s presence here, but all he felt was a slab of cold metal. A vast emptiness opened up inside him at the thought that all this had been a waste of time and effort.
“Who can resist the sweetness of its breath, the weight of its fist lodged deep in your belly?” came a voice behind him.
Dylan fell back, his lungs in his throat. The shock of a voice in this place of death had been like a sledgehammer to his stomach. And now the owner of the voice was upon him. It was the old man from the antiques store: Wilfred Waite.
Dylan got to his feet. Wilfred was dressed in a rust-coloured overcoat and red woollen scarf. A burgundy fedora, with matching ribbon and feather, sat on his head. On his feet were white running shoes. His haggard face wore a look of feverish excitement, his green eyes blazing at Dylan from their black sockets.
“What are you doing here?”
“Who can say no to its desperate allure …?”
“How did you get in?”
“… the promise of its intoxicating secrets?”
“What are you crapping on about?”
Wilfred showed his brown teeth. “The scent. Of a thousand graves.”
Dylan gaped at him.
“Didn’t your grown-ups ever tell you it’s rude to stare?”
“What. Are. You. Doing here?”
“I came to see you, Dylan Gates.”
“You came to … What? How did you know I’d be here?”
“There’s no time to waste.”
“Have you been stalking me?” Dylan glanced around, suddenly afraid he was locked in a graveyard with a lunatic.
“My assistant is waiting at the gate,” Wilfred continued. “It wouldn’t be wise for people to see us together. Too many prying eyes in this accursed town,” he muttered to himself. “I won’t let them ruin everything, not this time.”
“Get lost, creepo.”
Wilfred rubbed his hands together. “It’s time to go, boy. We have been charged with a momentous mission, you and I. A change for which the world is ill-prepared.”
“I don’t … What are you doing here?”
“The stars have moved into alignment, as the prophet Zubrasa foretold. The time is come.”
Deciding the small, bent, frail man was no threat, Dylan went back to his brother’s plaque.
“Don’t turn your back on me, rude little cur!”
When Dylan ignored him, Wilfred said in a more conciliatory tone, “Listen, boy. You, I have the great privilege to relay, are the chosen one. The most favoured of the gods. Do I need to say it any plainer? Does any of what I am saying penetrate your thick skull?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “The Great Old Ones, in their infinite wisdom, have deigned to honour Dylan Gates with the role of emissary. Isn’t that ludicrous? And ironic, you must admit. Just as your pathetic life was descending further and deeper into tedium – as if that were even possible – here entereth the sublime immortals to deliver you from your miserable, meaningless existence.”
Dylan sputtered an involuntary laugh. “Crazy old codger,” he murmured, half turning his head.
“You would do well to accept. The divine demand obedience. I have been charged with delivering you to them, to receive their blessings and throw open the doors for their glorious return. The very fate of existence rests in your unworthy hands.”
Dylan placed his hands on his brother’s plaque. The grass was wet and had seeped through his trousers. The tree above him rustled in the wind. He could hear the old man’s breath rattling in his lungs. Wilfred had fallen silent, having worn himself out with his monologue.
Unable to resist, Dylan turned to see what he was doing.
Wilfred was gazing down the hill at the lights of the town. “Turn your eyes to the slush of humanity,” he said, waving his hand at the view. “The crime, the selfishness, the cruelty, the … apathy. The best lack all conviction. The worst are gutless and afraid. Panic and emptiness, that’s all that remains.” He turned back to Dylan. “The time of man has ground to an ignominious halt. All this we shall now obliterate and remake as the Old Ones demand it. The hour has come, Master Gates. A new order is rising and we shall rise with it, to sit on the throne of the world for all eternity. Kings will worship us; nations will scramble to serve us; and we shall annihilate them or spare them to serve our needs as we see fit.”
“You are one crazy cat,” muttered Dylan, hardly believing what he was hearing.
“I am the Lion.”
“You’re a delusional sociopath.”
“I have the power of the ages in my grasp. Now come.”
Dylan rubbed his face. “Go away,” he said. Then, once more: “How did you know I’d be here?”
“You would do well not to cross me.”
“Were you following me? Are you some kind of pervert?”
Wilfred shook his head in frustration. “Do as I say, stupid boy! Stop wasting my time!”
Dylan leapt to his feet. “Do you understand what’s happened to me?”
Wilfred, alarmed by the threat of youthful violence, pressed his hands together. He pulled in a ragged breath. “I do,” he said, drawing out the word in an attempt to sound sympathetic. “Your wretched parents, cut down in the prime of their lives by person or persons unknown, now at rest.”
“That’s right. They’re dead.”
“And because of their sacrifice, you, young man, are on the threshold of the greatest moment of your life – of any life.”
Dylan pulled at his ears. “You’re a psycho! My parents were murdered, everything’s gone to shit, and you come here trying to – pick me up or something!”
“Gadzooks, boy, stop your pathetic whining. It does my head in.” Wilfred raised his hands to the sky. “Why do halfwits always presume death to be the end? They blubber and blather about it till the cows come home. It aggravates me no end. I have no tolerance for annoying halfwits.”
“I don’t … You –”
“Death is not the finish, you naïve, senseless simian. It’s an evolution, a transformation – a bend in the road.”
“What are you babbling about? Look around you. These people are dead. D–E–A–dead. They’re not going anywhere. Ever!”
“Are you certain about that? Does a maggot comprehend the laws of the universe – that such laws even exist? What if I told you I could show you a world where death is an illusion, a lie?”
“I’d say you’re wacko. Everybody dies. Even creepy old men like you.”
“I have no intentions of dying.”
Dylan threw up his arms.
“I haven’t lived all these years and studied the secrets of the ages only to have my efforts turn to dust.”
“What am I doing here? I’m arguing with a gargoyle.”
A shudder of anger passed through Wilfred’s body. “I would not normally abide such monumental rudeness,” he said, containing his anger with an obvious effort. “But I appreciate how your mind is somewhat unhinged at this time by certain inconvenient passings, so I will overlook your insolence. Just this once, mind you.” He took a card from his coat pocket. “After your period of mourning has ended, you must come and pay your respects at my farmhouse. There – if you will permit me,” he added with a touch of sarcasm, “I will show you a world where gods walk and the dead share their secrets. You will shuck the skin of a boy and emerge a man, I promise you that.”
Stepping closer, he slipped the card into Dylan’s pocket. Before Dylan could say anything, he shuffled away, muttering and shaking his head.
Dylan pulled out the card. Scribbled in blue ink was an address on Deep Ocean Road, the old road that winds through the Six Hills to the seaside village of Jacob’s End. He flipped it over. It was a business card for Quorn Fine Arts and Antiquities.
Tossing it on the grass, he stared at the bronze plaque, trying once again to feel some connection to his long-dead brother. But he couldn’t get Wilfred’s words out of his mind. He’d said something about the walking dead. And he raved about gods as if they were his best friends. Dylan shook his head. The old man was insane. Or a child molester. Or both. It occurred to him Wilfred Waite might be like one of those evil ex-Nazi serial killers who kidnapped young men and did vile experiments on them.
Yet something about the man’s words intrigued him. There was a crazy consistency in his ramblings, a logic that suggested he’d thought long and hard about these gods and their plan to take over the world. He seemed to really believe what he was saying. Just like back at the shop.
Dylan rubbed his eyes. Was he so pathetic he was ready to latch onto the first weirdo who came along and offered him a distraction from – what had the old man called it? – his miserable existence?
He picked up the card and placed it in his pocket. Then he took it out and tore it in two, and in two again. He threw the pieces over his shoulder. The wind picked them up and blew them back at him.