Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Night Before

The most embarrassing, most horrible, most brutally awkward night I’ve spent with a girl was with Marie Stahlman at the end of the first semester of university, on Christmas Eve. If I’m being honest, that night was just a sequence of truly awful events that I’d like to take back.

Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. Leaving feelings and when not to express them aside, I suppose the moral of this story, or the start of the story at least, is: Never approach a man with a dead cat, even if you’re drunk and it’s Christmas. Probably a given, I know, but maybe it bears repeating.

Marie Stahlman, to my knowledge, had never owned a cat. However, my knowledge of Marie Stahlman was limited owing to the fact that, before the night in question, I’d spoken to her once and it was limited to a garbled “Hello.” She was studying Medicine, I was studying English, and I’m not even sure if she realised that we lived in the same halls of residence or if she just assumed that I was following her everywhere like some terrible stalker.

I certainly wanted to talk to her. She was…well, she was stunning. With her long dark red hair and a consistently amazing not-quite-vintage wardrobe, she looked like she should be the mysterious bassist in the kind of band that I would pretend to have heard of. Of course, given that she lived two floors up from me, we had some friends in common who informed me that she was generally a brilliant person. I was encouraged to just talk to her and stop being a lurking menace but after three months I still hadn’t really introduced myself beyond a shy smile and an awkward jock nod when we passed each other at the front door. I told my friends and myself that I hadn’t found the right time to talk to her properly but I didn’t know who I was fooling. Almost certainly no one.

Anyway, this terrible night happened at the very start of our first Christmas holiday. I still don’t get on with Christmas now, but I used to hate Christmas for a much more obvious reason: Everyone goes home. If you’ve got a family to go home to, that’s great, but I didn’t have that luxury. So after we’d had the exams, the very drunken Christmas parties and the only slightly less drunken Christmas dinner, I watched my friends pack up their bags and head back to wherever they’d sprung from for the holidays.

The people who ran the flats had agreed to let me stay over the holidays. They’d stressed the loneliness that I would feel, especially given that we were a campus university half an hour from civilisation. I don’t know if it helped that I assured them that I wouldn’t kill myself. Probably not. Anyway, by the time Christmas Eve rolled around I had one friend left and I’d gone with him into town to have a farewell drink at the pub before he caught his train. One farewell drink had turned into many farewell drinks and as he finished the plate of chips that I’d ordered, Andy looked up at me and gave me a sleepy wink.

“You know that Marie is staying in the flat tonight, don’t you?” he asked. “Lucy told me that she’s leaving tomorrow morning. You should go and talk to her when you get back.”

“It’s late,” I countered. “She’s not going to want to talk to me when it’s late and drunk.”

“Always excuses with you, isn’t it?” he muttered and stood up. “Confidence, Rob. Confidence.” 

After Andy had caught his train I’d stayed for a few more self-pitying Buddha-shaped bottles of beer than I should have done while thinking about how miserable the holiday season was and how I would never be the kind of person to have the nerve to go and see if Marie Stahlman fancied a nightcap. It was a miracle that I caught the last bus back to campus but my night would have been less horrifying if I’d just passed out in the toilet.

As the University bus steered its way out of town and into the night I struggled to stay awake. After my head had nodded nearly to my chin a couple of times more than was safe I looked around for any fellow passengers. I couldn’t be the only lonely idiot spending Christmas Eve alone. I turned to look behind me and sure enough there was someone else, but he didn’t look like a student. He sat slumped forward, long white tufts of what could have been hair or a beard tumbling out from the hood of his red coat. Gnarled, yellow-tinged fingers gripped the handles of a blue plastic bag between his feet. Every time the bus slowed he almost fell forward. I was wondering where he could be going when he reached out his hand and gripped the railing, pulling himself to his feet. He lurched forward, slid his hand down the pole to press the bell and continued lurching. It wasn’t until he got to the door that I noticed he’d left his bag.

“’scuse me…” I slurred, trying to both get his attention and gesture to the bag he’d left. He looked down at me. What little of his face I could see past the hair and the hood was bearded, but it seemed expressionless. His bloodshot eyes seemed to look through me before he moved on past me and stepped through the doors and off the bus. What I did next was very stupid. As the bus started moving again I got up and walked over to where he had sat, where the bag still sat on the floor. Why did I? What did I think would be in there? Was I hoping for another drink? I honestly don’t know. I did look, though. I looked in the bag.

It took me a moment or two to make sense of what I was looking at. It was a mass of something, a shape. At first I couldn’t identify any one particular element that would define what it was. In my drunken state, I picked it up to bring it closer to my face in an attempt at clarity. As it swam into focus so did the deep cuts in its side, the claws on its feet and the whiskers springing from its scratched nose. It was a cat. A most definitely dead cat.

I let out a gargled cry and dropped the bag on the floor. As it landed with a thud the bus took a turn, sharper than I expected, and my balance was lost. I threw my hands out to steady myself as I tumbled to the floor but rather than finding a railing, they found the cat.

I knew they'd connected with something because of the sudden sharp pain in my left hand. I looked over to see what could be causing it and saw that the matted, bloodied ball of fur had somehow grown teeth and that they had latched onto the patch of flesh between my thumb and forefinger. I cried out and waved my hand furiously around in an attempt to shake the creature off. Predictably, this only seemed to make it more determined to cling on. The driver hadn’t seemed to notice anything and the bus kept moving despite my yelling. Finally, in an act of desperation, I slammed my hand, cat first, into the side of the bus. There was a loud crunch and the cat stopped moving.

Cautiously at first, in case it was somehow still alive, I grabbed the animal with my free hand and forced its mouth open, pulling the teeth free. It offered a little resistance but I decided to put this down to rigor mortis that was either early or delayed, I had no idea. The bite marks on my hand were jagged and angry but they didn’t seem to be bleeding too badly. I thought if I could just get back to my room, I could put some antiseptic on it; maybe a plaster or two, and it would be alright. I was wrong.

We finally arrived at the campus bus station and I hobbled off, mumbling insults and waving my bloody hand at the driver, who either didn’t notice or didn’t care. It was a ten minute walk back to my halls of residence and the cold air, combined with the pain, did a decent job of sobering me up. As I walked past the dark Arts Centre and the shuttered Student Union, I began muttering about what had happened to me. What the chances of my being attacked by a dead cat were. Why this would never happen to any of my friends. Why it would only ever be me. As I hustled along the pavement, I slipped on a patch of ice by the library, the patch that everyone knew to avoid, and fell. Without thinking, I put my hands out to steady myself. This was another mistake. I landed on my mangled hand first and a jolt of pain shot from my fingertips, along my arm and emerged from my mouth as a full-blooded scream.

The pain was so intense that I was sure I had broken something. Once again, I cautiously lifted my hand to my face. Under the yellow glow of the streetlight I saw that the wound had not stopped bleeding. The bites were oozing a combination of a clear fluid that I hoped was pus and a thick sludge that looked too black, too heavy to be blood. The skin around the tears in my hand had gone horribly dark, a vivid purple that looked very, very wrong. For a moment I forgot about the pain and focused on the fear. This wasn’t normal. This wasn’t good. TCP would not fix this.

I was panicking as the names for various animal-carried diseases that I didn’t fully understand whirred through my brain. I clambered to my feet and began hurrying as fast as I could back to my building. With my good hand I dug in my pocket for my mobile and let out another anguished yell when I realised that it wasn’t there. It could have fallen anywhere in between the pub and here. As I reached my flat I realised that I only had one option.

Rather than opening the front door, I hit the button for the third floor. I pushed it over and over again and held it down until I heard the sound of the phone being lifted from the cradle and a sleepy, angry voice asked me “Who is it?”

“Marie?” I burbled. “It’s Robert. Robert Campbell from downstairs. I’m really, really sorry but I need your help!”

“Did you forget your keys?” she asked. I let out a little cry of pain as my hand convulsed, somehow tightening. I didn’t want to know what it was doing.

“No!” I shouted. “I…I need your help! I need your doctor help! My hand is…I need your help!”

The front door buzzer sounded and I hurried inside, stepping on a festive balloon that burst as I crashed into the stairwell. I looked up and saw Marie in her glasses and green dressing gown, peering down at me from the third floor through the carefully-arrange pound-shop Christmas decorations. “What happened?” she called down. I began climbing the stairs while trying to order some kind of explanation. I didn’t want to start with the pub in case she jumped to conclusions about my story about the man on the bus and the dead cat, but when I reached the top of the stairs I saw a revolted expression on her face that made me apologise profusely for waking her up.

“What is that smell?” she asked, looking me up and down. I started to tell her that I’d had a few beers but she shook her head. “Not that, no, that smell, it’s something like…it’s rotten. Like something’s rotten. Never mind, did you say it’s your hand?”

I had been cradling my hand in my coat and gingerly withdrew it to show her. She leaned in close before taking a step back. “Fuck me, Robert, what the fuck is that?”

Whatever had been oozing out of my hand hadn’t stopped. It dripped onto the weathered red carpet and she wasn’t wrong. It smelled vile, like chicken left at the back of the fridge for too long. The bite marks weren’t as livid as before but they had shrunk, tightened with the rest of my skin as my hand seemed to have grown smaller. It seemed as though it, whatever it was, was consuming the soft parts and pushing them out through the opening the cat’s teeth had made. The word 'excreting' rang through my head like an alarm bell. “I don’t know!” I stammered. “I…I was bitten by a cat, I thought it was dead but it bit me, and now…this! Please help me.”

Marie opened the door to the flat and ushered me in, along the tinsel-lined corridor to the kitchen. “Sit down,” she said, and cleared wrapping paper and bottles from the table. “Set it down there.” She leaned over me and took a closer look at my hand, pushing her glasses up her nose. “It’s spreading,” she said quietly. The dark purple patch had reached my wrist and when I rolled up my sleeve I saw raised black lines like branches reaching up my arm. “Are those…Are those my veins? Is it in my fucking veins?” I jabbered.

“Fuck this,” she said firmly. “I’m calling an ambulance.” She ran out and into her room, returning a moment later with her mobile phone but as she began dialling she stopped and looked at me. “The campus medical centre is closed, isn’t it?” I nodded furiously. “And the nearest hospital is fifteen minutes away.” I nodded again. “It’s taken, what, five minutes to get from your thumb to…Jesus; it’s nearly at your elbow.”

“What do you suggest then?” I asked, trying not to sound too impatient. Another convulsion pushed down my arm and a fresh spurt of stinking black sludge squirted onto the table. “Sorry!” I moaned. “Jesus, that’s disgusting, I’m so sorry.”

She took a seat next to me and looked straight at me. I tried not to think about the fact that she had never done that before and to listen to what she was saying. “Robert, I honestly don’t know what this is but that…gunge that’s coming out of you stinks like death. It’s like some kind of hyperactive fucking gangrene or something and all I know is that you don’t want that reaching your chest.”

First year medical student she might have been, but she was making a lot of sense to me. “So what do we do?” I asked.

She got up, walked over to the sink and pulled a pair of Marigolds from the drying rack. “We need to cut your arm off.”

I took surprisingly little convincing. At this point I didn’t think that the pain could get any worse and I was terrified by what was happening to my arm getting any further. I could see ripples in my skin as whatever was in there seemed to be pushing, working its way up and pumping that sludge back out through the open wound in my hand. I was more worried about the mess that I was making in her kitchen than how much losing a limb would hurt. Somehow, beneath all the pain and terror, there was a part of me that was just hugely embarrassed my all of this.

Marie got the preparations going quickly. She found an unopened box of wine in one of the cupboards and gave it to me. “Drink as much of this as you can,” she said. “Sorry, all the whisky and stuff went at the Christmas party.” I made an unhappy noise and got to work on it while trying to ignore the rattling sounds as she hunted through drawers. She tied leggings around my arm just below the shoulder. “It’s moving quickly and I don’t want to do this more than once,” she explained. “Now finish that wine and close your eyes.”

I did as she told me but not before I saw what she was holding. “What kind of knife is that?” I asked.

“Kitchen knife,” she said. “We used it to carve the turkey.”

It turned out that the pain could get worse, and it did. The sensation of a kitchen knife cutting through your skin, then into the meat of your arm, is agony, to put it simply. To make it worse, whatever was in my arm seemed to realise what was going on. The convulsions got more powerful and I could feel it twisting and worming around, trying to find a way through, trying to move faster. I screamed. I screamed with my whole body. I said some words that I was raised not to say in front of a girl, especially one that you like. As Marie’s kitchen knife hit bone, I vomited. A spray of box wine and Buddha beer sick hit the kitchen table with a wet smack and I sobbed an apology.

“This is no good,” shouted Marie. “You’re moving around too much.” As I began trying to get another apology out I saw her lift a frying pan from the washing up rack. “I’m really sorry,” I ranted. “I’m really sorry about all of this. I really like you and I meant to tell you before but…”

The rest is blackness. She hit me hard on the head with the frying pan and I don’t know what happened next. I came to briefly when she cauterised my stump with the same frying pan she’d knocked me out with and I quickly passed out again.

When I woke up it, sunshine was streaming though the decorations that covered the window. I could still smell cooking meat and vomit, although the most dominant odour was air freshener. The kitchen had been tidied and there was no trace of the various fluids I’d left. My shoulder was wrapped in bandages and a couple of tea towels, and there was an incomprehensible space where my left arm should have been. 

I got up carefully and stuck my head under the tap, gulping down cold water for as long as I could stand to. When I turned around I saw that a note had been left for me on the table and that a black bin bag sat ominously in the doorway. I realised that she had gone and that I wouldn’t have to face her like this. The relief was enormous.

The note told me to go to the hospital as soon as I woke up. It told me that I had been given a huge quantity of painkillers that she had found during the night, and it apologised for the fact that she hadn’t found them sooner. It told me to take the bin bag out and make sure I put some other bags on top of it to stop any animals getting at it. It told me in no uncertain terms not to tell anyone that she had been involved. It told me not to worry about thanking her, and that in fact, she would prefer it if we just pretended that this had never happened. It made no mention of the awkward revelation about my feelings, which seemed fair. It ended by telling me not to open the bag, and finally by wishing me a merry Christmas.

I picked up the bag with my one remaining hand and walked slowly downstairs, and I heard the door to her flat close and lock as I left. The bright sunshine made me squint as I stepped out into the cold Christmas morning. I would put my arm in the bins, I would have a cup of tea, and then I would find a way to get to the hospital that wouldn’t involve an embarrassing ambulance ride. I would try to live down the terrible events of the night before. I would hope that she could somehow forgive the disgusting, revolting things that I had put her through. I really hoped that we could just move past it. As I lifted the lid of the non-recycling bin and dropped my withered, rotten arm inside, I wondered if it would be inappropriate to post a Merry Christmas message on her Facebook page.

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Hello there. So, this is the first story I've posted in ages. I have been working on something longer that is moving ahead very slowly but when it comes to the short stories, the short version is that it's been a long time since I've written anything I felt happy enough with to finish. An awkward combination of being busy and not being very happy with anything I was writing led to not really writing very much, which led to general frustration and not much productivity,
I've been feeling better about writing lately, however, and this was fun to get down. It started with the idea of how embarrassing it would be to have to ask someone to cut your arm off and went from there. 
I'm hoping to have more stories up on here in the New Year and the longer thing is moving ahead since I approached it from a  different angle, so fingers crossed. Thanks for reading.

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