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By David Coyle
Lou sat in the dark, drinking wine straight from the bottle. Dirty plates were everywhere; coffee table; kitchen bench; floor. He hadn’t shaved in months. The curtains were pulled. The air was stale. Proof civilisation was ending played on the television, filling the room with a dismal, bluish light; every channel was awful; everywhere proof mankind had made itself redundant. Nothing meant anything anymore. It’s all just a matter of time. Lou stared vacantly into space as he sipped his cheap pinot noir.
There was suddenly a sharp knocking on the front door. Each knock ricocheted like a bullet. Like a wet piece of paper, Lou lifted himself off the couch and walked across the ‘living’ room to the door. He squinted as the daylight burned his face. When his eyes adjusted, he saw his friend standing there, holding a sweaty plastic bag of fried chicken.
"Lou, mate. Hope you don’t mind me dropping in like this. I was just passing by to get some Hometown Chicken, you know, and it felt a bit, ah, well, a bit grim eating it on my own. Can I come in?"
"Ah, sure, yeah, whatever," Lou said.
"Chicken bones might go well with this ambiance," Hamish tried to joke as he walked in, but Lou didn’t reply. The two men sat on the couch. Hamish opened his bag of chicken and offered Lou a piece. Lou shook his head. Hamish’s eyes then noticed the half-empty bottle of wine on the floor by Lou’s feet. Lou saw Hamish looking at it, so Hamish quickly looked away, changing the subject by glancing at the television.
"What are you watching?" he asked.
"Mind if I open a curtain?" Hamish asked, putting his drumstick on a nearby, somewhat clean plate.
"Whatever makes you happy," Lou said, shrugging his shoulders.
Hamish walked across the depressing mire to the window and ripped back a curtain, flooding the house with daylight, though not necessarily improving things. He pushed a window open and a gentle, much-needed draught of air was exchanged with the outside world. Placing the window latch on the widest possible notch, he sat back down on the couch before eating some chicken. An awkward silence crept in to join them with the grace and subtly of an elephant.
"No offense, mate—"
"Well, you haven’t heard what I’m about to say. You might be offended."
"Hamo, you’re licking chicken salt off your fingers, your ability to offend me is pretty minimal."
"Well, yeah, okay," Hamish conceded as he finished licking his fingers, "So, I guess you won’t me saying then that this place has a bit of a men’s hostel vibe. It’s like a teenage stoner lives here. It’s a bit rank, mate, a bit 'semen-y', if you know what I mean?"
"Well, I have been practicing for the charity wankathon," Lou quipped before taking a sip of his pinot noir. He tried to make it look cool, but it was such a cheap brand that it was a little difficult to swallow.
‘Seriously, man’, Hamish began.
"Oh, what?!" Lou shot back, much faster and meaner than Hamish had prepared himself for, no longer in the mood for stupid banter.
"Bro, I don’t mean—"
"No! Fucking what?!" Lou spat back, the effect of his wine becoming obvious, "You just said 'seriously, man.' Well, 'seriously' what? Is my life a bit depressing for you? Is this all a little bit fucking depressing? Well, shit, fuck me, sorry. I didn’t realize I was here to fucking impress you. Fucking dropping in at random to check up on me. Sorry I don’t have more books. Sorry I’m not sitting here reading fucking Shakespeare and Chaucer while you eat your goddamned chicken. Jesus fucking Christ."
"Whoa, Lou, dude, calm d—"
"No! Fuck off! Fuck off with your chicken and your fucking… bullshit! I don’t go around telling you how to live."
Hamish stopped. The awkward elephant collapsed on them like a clunky piece of Victorian furniture falling down wooden stairs--thunohklontedfrumpf.
Lou could tell that Hamish didn’t know what to do or say, so he helped him out, "Just go, man."
Hamish sighed before nodding to himself. He left the chicken on the coffee table and patted Lou on the shoulder as he made his way to the door.
"I just don’t want to lose two friends, man," Hamish said with a sad set of eyes, "She wouldn’t want you to live like this."
Lou just stared into space. Hamish sighed and closed the door.
After a moment or two of silence, Lou tilted his head back, sharply bending his neck, and downed the rest of his terrible tasting pinot noir. He tossed the bottle onto the other end of the couch when he was finished; it bounced onto the floor as he wiped his lips. He began breathing faster as he thought about what Hamish had just said. His lips slowly tightened, forming a little white line across his mouth. Suddenly, he stood up and flung the bag of fried chicken against the television screen. The bag fell to the floor and the television rocked a bit, but the idiots on the reality show kept doing whatever it was they were doing.
Lou took a deep breath before walking over to the kitchen sink. He violently turned the tap on and splashed some cold water on his face. It dripped off his face as he looked out the window. His backyard backed onto a patch of dense woodland and bush before coming to a small cliff that overlooked the sea. She loved walking along the beach. Lou shook his head and tightened his knuckles. Water fell in drops from his chin. He looked out the window and saw his axe embedded in his chopping block, bits of unsorted firewood scattered around the backyard.
Kicking open the back door and scooping up his axe, a heavy swoop soon saw a piece of wood split in two. He picked up one of the halves and reset it on the chopping block. After the axe fell again, however, one of the new halves shot up and hit him in the hand. He dropped the axe and danced around in a circle, wringing his hand in pain.
Biting down on his teeth, he picked up the axe and marched over to a tree branch that had always bothered him at the back of his yard. Several angry swings later and the branch creaked and cracked and fell to the ground. Lou breathed heavily, enjoying the sudden rush of adrenaline. It was probably the first time in months he had enjoyed anything other than the dark watery pools of alcohol.
It took ten swings, but the tree itself soon fell. Lou grabbed it by a branch and ripped it out of the way. He eyed another tree behind it. Sweat made flakes of bark stick to his brow. His chest lifted and fell sharply with each breath. His head swam with booze and a sudden rush of endorphins. Before long, he had cut down five trees. She always wanted a path from the backyard to the cliff, somewhere to put a bench and watch the sunset. Let’s see the miserable, bureaucratic pricks at the City Council stop me now.
Opening the tool shed, Lou put his gardening gloves on and picked up his machete. Marching back to the small path he had already forged, he continued to hack and clear the way. The afternoon sun burnt the back of his neck; his shirt stank in sweat; his shoes were covered in fine dirt. As the sun lowered itself into the evening, and the cloudless sky seamlessly turned to pale magenta, Lou ended his war on nature. He left his gloves, axe, and machete at the frontline. The wine had worn off and he was feeling a hungover, but it was a better hangover than usual, one that didn’t immediately beg for more wine. He had his first shower in days, washing out dirt from under his fingernails and small twigs and leaves from his hair, before getting an early night.
The next morning, after the most substantial breakfast he’d had in months—a black coffee—he set back out to finish his project. He was surprised by how far he had actually gotten the day before, drunk-Lou was seemingly pretty good at manual labor. Putting his gloves back on, he picked up his axe and tore into his next tree. He didn’t stop until lunchtime, a huge mound of butchered flora steadily piling up in his backyard. The midday sun began to bare down on him, however, so he decided to take a break, eat some food, and put on some sunblock. Again, he was surprised at how far he had carved his way into the bush. He figured there couldn’t be much further to go before he reached the sea. He hoped he would get there before sundown. He wanted to watch the sunset. But though he worked with a relentless, almost mad energy, another cloudless sky above him tinted purple before he reached the clifftop.
After showering for consecutive a day, something he hadn’t done in months, he sat up in bed and opened his laptop. Loading Google Maps, he zeroed in on his section and got a rough measurement of the distance from his backyard to the clifftop. It seemed to come to about fifty metres.
The next morning, Lou took his measuring tape with him and worked out how far he had come. The path he had made so far was coming to about sixty metres. With a frown of confusion, he flicked the switch on his measuring tape. It retracted along the ground, coiling up in his hand. I must be close.
However, after another day of continuous hacking at the bush, felling trees and yanking scrub out at the roots, the end was still nowhere in sight. Convinced he must be close, Lou kept working into the night. He kept looking behind him, and though it was dark, he could see the pale moonlight shining on the white paint of his home; a pale speck of white, two hundred metres away. The night sky was clear, filled with stars; an owl hooted; cooler the air became; midnight to the dead of night; endless trees.
"This doesn’t make any sense," Lou said to himself, speaking aloud for the first time since Hamish’s visit, "This can’t be happening."
Swapping his machete for his tape measure, he measured two-hundred and twenty metres. I should be deep underwater. Seeking a logical explanation, Lou reasoned he was simply tired; delirious; dehydrated; it was dark; the measurement on the computer was wrong. He walked back home down his path and headed inside. He had a third shower, the water browning around his feet. Staring at the grit swirling down the plughole between his toes, he was so distracted by the confounding matter at hand that he—if only for the passing fraction of a moment—forgot about how much he missed his wife.
Drying himself off, he opened his computer again. There was no doubt: the distance from the edge of his backyard to the cliff’s edge was fifty-some metres, a little more or a little less. I must have measured it wrong with the tape measure.
"There’s no other explanation," he mumbled to himself as he fell asleep.
The next day, however, when he measured the path again—this time with a clear head and after a full Irish breakfast of sausages, hash browns, eggs, beans, mushrooms, and two cups of jet-black coffee—it was two hundred and three metres long.
‘What the hell is going on?’ he asked himself. He reasoned that Google was out of date. The cliff hasn’t moved. He reasoned that he’d gone off course. There’s nowhere else to go. He gave up, something simply unreal was happening. No, it isn’t. It can’t be. Things like this don’t happen. It was happening, no matter how strongly Lou tried to deny it.
He decided to go for a walk along the beach—something he had forbidden himself from doing in recent months—to see if he could make sense of what was happening from the other side. The sound of the waves, the softness of the sand underfoot, the salty breeze, the faint flash of her smile—he almost turned back. However, when he came to the stretch of beach underneath the clifftop where his path should be, he saw nothing but a thick growth of trees and scrub; untouched.
Lou walked back home and stood at the entrance to his path; the mysterious green hole bore deep into the wood and plants, the scent of sap and freshly cut wood stifling in the morning sun. Gloved up and armed with his axe and machete, Lou stepped across the threshold from his backyard into the path, determined to find the answer.
Smoldering flames of anger rekindled themselves within him as he walked down the path. I’m not even allowed to do this for her?! By the time he reached the end of his path, he was enraged and wielded his blades like a warrior on some ancient battlefield. He felt like a conqueror; Mehmed II slaying his way into the streets of Constantinople; Alexander conquering the known world; Achilles seeking his eternal infamy, immortality; Germanicus on the frontier of Rome’s glorious banner; Aragorn at the Black Gate.
In his anger, everything began to change. No longer was he simply Lou, the poor bereaved, wearing plain shorts and a cotton t-shirt, carrying an axe and a machete from a hardware store. Now he was Lou the Inexhaustible, Lou the Savage, Lou the Victor, the Black Knight of Revenge en route to save Queen Emma, the Queen of Goodness. Lou’s cheap gardening clothes morphed into elaborate, Medieval chainmail, and his blades became legendary weapons, forged by the greatest craftsmen in the kingdom. Each branch became the neck of some hideous beast, some foul creature risen from the abyss. He slew them all. The Bard would compose epic poems of the exploits of Lou the Slayer of Death.
As his rage changed him into this colossal figure of myth and legend, so too did change the landscape. No longer was he hacking down trees in his backyard, for the branches soon gave way. To his surprise, the cliff was nowhere to be seen. Instead, he stood in the midst of the miserable black Fields of Wrath. The view all around was ill-set and ringed in perpetual darkness. From where he stood, he saw at his feet how his humble path connected to an ancient one made of stone that led across these vast plains, wrought in fury, stretching all the way to the sorrowful horizon. Turning back, Lou looked down his garden path to his home; faint; fragile; distant. This can’t be happening. I’m dreaming. This is just a nightmare. Soon I’m going to wake up. Then his home and garden path evaporated, closed over in flame and shadow. There was only one way for Lou to go now: through the seething Valleys of Acrimony.
As he walked along the Broken Road, he tried to wake himself up, but he couldn’t. This is real. Before he could really come to terms with what was happening, Lou saw something far in the distance, a mere grey shadow across the distant horizon of smoke and mud. The Path led to a crooked Stair that climbed the ridge of a terrible peak. The mountain was a shard of black rock that buttressed the enveloping black clouds; cascading molten rain on either side.
Lou decided to head for the Stair, however, with each step that he took, he felt an uncontrollable anger stir deeper within him. All I wanted was to make a path for her! Look what happened! I can’t do anything! He started to run, growing in his hatred. As he ran, desperate men, or what seemed like men, men made of grey sands, tried to plead for him to stop, but he slaughtered all of them. He slit their throats. Grieving women made of pale ash tried to slow him with their mourning, but he stabbed them all, along with their hungry children of shadow. Confused animals without skins writhed in pain—Lou let them live, to live out their cruel lives in agony. And he laughed. In his own name, he hated everything. The ground underneath his weighted footsteps cracked and seeped with the odor of sulfur. Crags and thistle lined the Path; broken; twisted; burnt. He ran by lakes of seeping acids and dry riverbeds, where skeletons drowned and drank stone.
After an age of regretful things, Lou finally made it to the Foot of the Stair.
At the Foot of the Stair, he saw a Thing, shrouded in black and standing on a pedestal made of bone. Though the Thing was draped in a cloak of shade, Lou could see that it was Hamish. Or, at least, It would have been Hamish but for the fact that It’s face was missing, replaced by a smooth, stretched piece of skin. Lou tossed down his weapons and approached It slowly. Although It had no eyes, It could seemingly ‘see’ Lou, for It’s head turned to face him as he approached. Having forgotten It’s own name, and from no mouth, in a shivering voice like a cold and howling wind, It spoke.
"Do you know where you are?" the Thing asked.
"Hamish, it’s me, Lou."
The faceless, mouthless Thing was silent.
"Do you know where you are?" the Thing repeated.
"You have journeyed far, down the Demur Passage and through the Ire. You come now to the Stair of Allay."
Lou looked up at the crooked stair as it bent upwards; twisted; perilous.
"Do you want to climb the Stair?"
"Where does it go?"
"The Stair of Allay leads to the Ache."
"The Ache? What’s the Ache?"
"Do you want to climb the Stair?"
"What will I find in the Ache?"
Lou became still. The world of the Ire went black and cold and silent, teased with Promise.
"What do you mean?"
"Do you want to climb the Stair?"
"Tell me what you mean!" Lou shouted, as he picked up his sword and pointed it towards the Thing.
"Wrath has no use here. You have already passed through Rancor."
"Hamish, what is happen—"
"The Stair of Allay has two ends: the beginning, the Ire, where you are now, and the Ache," the Thing said, pointing up the narrow, crooked Stair that led towards the brooding clouds far above. "I am at the beginning, she is at the Ache. Whoever lives depends on which end of the Stair you decide to finish your journey."
"Hamish… I know it’s you."
"Do you want to climb the Stair?"
Lou faltered. He looked around at the endless vales of nothing, then he looked resolutely at the Thing. It’s not Hamish.
As soon as Lou started walking towards the first step of the Stair, the Thing slowly reached to the skin of Its face and slowly peeled it back. Under the grotesque mask of hideous flesh was Hamish. He looked as though he had just come up for air after drowning for an eternity.
"Lou?! Lou! Lou! Don’t do it! Please, don’t do it!" he cried, no longer in some foul voice but his own.
"Lou! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I could’ve—I should’ve been a better friend, but I’ve been going through hell too. Not like you, I know, but … please, don’t do this! Turn around, man, go back, go home. Please don’t kill me!"
"I have to."
"No! You don’t! This is all a trick," the anguish on his face hid a secret that he then revealed, "It’s not really Emma up there, it’s not even a memory. But this is really me. I’m real. I’m here. This is really me, man."
"I’m not! I promise you, I’m not! I’m real! I brought chicken over to your place just the other day. Fried chicken. Remember? It’s not her up there! She’s dead."
"I have to see her."
As Lou said this, Hamish began to cry and beg. It wasn’t until Lou was several hundred steps up the Stair that the sounds of Hamish’s agony began to grow faint.
Each step was a battle and the war never seemed to be won. Broken step after broken step unfurled upwards into the black clouds. The clouds were never reached, the air just became thicker with the smell of smoke and tar. Lou took moments to rest and look down below at the landscape of the Ire. It began to sink into a void of oily seepage of murk. Nothing but darkness and distant flame could be seen, soon smothered in smoke and the wet heaviness of the Nothing. Upwards, all that was left was the notches of the Direful Stair. It bent upwards, forever.
Lou desperately sought some step that wasn’t slanted, one that he could try and sleep on. It occurred to him that he hadn’t slept in an age. He almost came to some strange definition of time, but he had not slept and couldn’t remember the feeling of anything but pain. His idea of time screamed, then faded. He yearned for sleep. Her. He kept climbing. There was no place to rest; each step was steeper than the last; each step was taller; narrower. There was no reprieve, no respite, only jagged steps made of stone. The sky never came closer, it was always full of cloud and thunder. Lou slowly realized that his armor grew heavy the higher he climbed. He threw it off. He was then naked, clinging to the very black Root of Anguish.
Inching his way upwards to the smoldering, ashen sky above, he finally saw an end to the Stair. He couldn’t see above it, but he hauled himself up the last mile of the terrible Step, one by one. His body was almost broken by the time he reached the soot-covered precipice of the top of the Stair. Collapsing on the top of the last step, Lou looked up to see her—Emma; she wasn’t there.
He looked around and saw he was in the middle of a road of an abandoned city that he didn’t recognize. This was the Ache. It was a nightmare of nighttime and pouring rain. The road, what he assumed was the continuation of his once-garden path, spanned out in both directions, lined with closed stores of faceless mannequins. There were no directions, only empty streets which trailed off in a maze of different avenues and alleys. Skyscrapers of blank steel and glass towered high above him into the sky, like rocks against the crashing waves of a storm. There was nobody in sight; the streets were empty; no cars; no lights; no people; Nothing; rain alone.
Realizing he had been tricked, Lou looked back to the Stair, but too late: it had already been sealed over by a manhole.
‘Hamish!’ he cried, as he tried to pull the manhole cover off with his fingertips. His fingernails broke and and his fingertips bled, but it was no use. The Stair of Allay was sealed to the Ache.
Water fell in such heavy amounts that Lou was soon wet through to his bones. He looked up and down the dark avenues. There was no one, no help from anywhere. All the high-rises were dark. There were no lights, nobody had stayed as late in this dreadful place as him. He was alone. He was alone. He shivered in the cold of the rain, his teeth clattering in an uncontrollable applause to his stupidity. He hugged himself in an effort to keep himself warm as he walked down the empty streets. Everything was black except for some dim blue street-lamps.
The sound of the rain was deafening.
Lou found an awning under which to shelter and considered his options. He didn’t know where he was. He was naked. He was about to die of hypothermia. He decided to give up; lie in the gutter and die. Cold water washed through him, eating his bones. He let himself die. He died a thousand times. And he cried. And he cried. And he sobbed. And he was pathetic. And he cried. How he cried and he saw blackness and he saw eternity and blackness as one. There was no path. He bit the concrete and he wept. And then he collapsed, poor forgotten man alone and naked and adrift in the currents of the gutters of the faceless cityscape. The Ache bathed in him.
But he didn’t die.
The rain stopped, suddenly, as if turned off by the twist of a faucet, so Lou lifted himself out of the gutter and looked down the avenues. Why aren’t I dead? All the street signs simply pointed to different districts in the Ache: Downtown; Old Morose; The Blue Mile; Low Mood; Crestfallen; Weeping Wood. A poster for a play caught his eye, glued to a wall, with a quote: “Dignity spites pain”. Walking down many lonely boulevards, walking like a lonely drunk man bobbling on his broken knees, Lou finally came to a crossroad above which was sign that pointed to someplace new: Home.
Lou staggered down the empty street towards Home. The further he walked, he started seeing strange street signs. They said things like ‘Yield’, ‘Permit’, ‘Receive’, ‘Enter’, ‘Accept’. As soon as Lou passed this last sign, he found himself no longer in the Phantom City of Hurt, but standing outside the front of his house. Before him was the gentle, uneven brick path that led from his gate to his front door. It was shouldered by tufts of grass. A bee hummed from one daisy to another. The garden needed work. A watering can had been overgrown by some weeds; weeds had sprung little yellow flowers; the letterbox was full. Lou realized he was wearing clothes again, the same clothes he had been wearing when he had become the Beast. In a bit of a daze, he pushed open the gate and walked down the path to his front door.
The plaque on the bench that overlooks the sea reads: Emma (1988-2020), who loved the sea and the sunset.