Pressure pushed inside his ears as the lift accelerated past the sixteenth floor. Two women, secretaries by appearance (hell, he despised secretaries), huddled together in a corner, eyeing him fearfully. He had shocked them by not allowing them to press their floor numbers lest theirs be lower than his. The blonde had had sass but he’d soon stripped her of it. She had cursed him (such filthy words from such a pretty tongue) and attempted her floor again. A punch had smeared her make-up and stopped her nonsense. Her crying was irritating him. “SHUT-UP!” She reigned herself to a whimper.
22, 23, 24. Deceleration. 25, 26. The doors leapt open.
A well used carpet veered left and then left again, leading him past a travel agency, a personnel placement office and stopping before the innocuously labeled door. S.T.A.P.L.E. was all that it stated in small block letters.
He hesitated. A deep breath collected him. He entered.
It was as he remembered. The reception area was small, windowless, painted a pale white and decorated with too many flowers. It reminded him of a funeral parlour. It was a fidgeting thought that made him curse himself for thinking it. Don’t let the bastards psyche you out, he cautioned himself. Look at the time. You made it. Fuck them all.
And it was true. A clock hung behind the reception desk, the big hand pointing deceivingly at one but the smaller hand showing that there was still two minutes to go.
A familiar anger began to drain his fear but stopped as the male receptionist spoke. The receptionist was the anomaly. A young woman had previously worked here. His heart jolted. The voice. The radio. The telephone. And suddenly he wanted to laugh. He never tried to cork it. It flowed out loud and hysterical.
The receptionist was thin and feeble looking, and, if he’d stood up, probably one foot lower than Ted. Ted could have easily smashed his gaunt, impersonal face and snapped each of his spindly limbs. He wanted to. You were scared of this!, he castrated.
“Mr Galbraith,” the receptionist interrupted. “You are expected.”
“Damn right I am. And after this is sorted, you and I have a score to settle.”
He was disappointed because, “Down the corridor. Last door on your right,” was the only response emitted from an impassive face.
An ajar door presented him a boardroom centered by a stout, wooden table encircled by high-backed chairs. To his left, a wall of tinted glass gave a view of the harbour at low tide.
“Please take a seat, Teddy.” The back of a chair at the table’s far end failed to reveal the female speaker. Ted sat before he realized what he was doing. Inwardly, he berated himself, realizing that compliance had become a character trait this day. It wasn’t that he never desired to sit. Stress and unaccustomed physical activity had exhausted him. It was the principle!
“I’ve got your goddamn money. Give me a receipt and I’m out of here.”
“Patience and politeness were always lacking in you, Teddy. Besides, you’re late.”
“Look at the clock, dear boy.” A hand appeared and gestured upwards. Ted’s face contorted with dismayed horror. High on the wall opposite him, a clock stared. Its two hands trembled and began to move. Faster and faster. Anti-clockwise. Midday. Ten. Eight. “Noooo!” he stammered.
As calm as before, the woman responded. “You can see that time is a meaningless concept … and never was an issue. You are the issue … as you have always been.”
“But … we’ve just met.”
“No. I’ve known you for a long time. From the beginning, in fact.”
The chair swiveled.
Ted’s gasp triggered an explosion in his head that sparked denial from his lips. “No! No, it can’t be. It can’t…”
The woman’s face was pale and crinkled, especially beneath blue eyes that stabbed him with familiarity. Her white hair added testimony to their age and was brushed backwards into a neat and dignified bob. He knew that she was short without her needing to stand. She wore a white, v-necked blouse, purpled with flowers. It was her favourite top.
His mother spoke.
“You’ve been a naughty boy, Teddy. I’m going to have to punish you … although this time I won’t say that it will hurt me more than you.”
“It can’t be you,” Ted’s voice shivered.
“Oh, do stop your nonsense. You’ve got eyes in your head, boy. Use them now,” she said with some annoyance. “We have got business to attend to.”
“But your voice?”
“A little throaty, I agree. Bringing us dead back to life has its inconveniences … you, embarrassingly, being one of them.” She leaned forward, crossing her arms on the tabletop. It was as if she had wanted to smile and then decided not to.
Ted was shocked into stillness and silence.
“Do you know what happens when someone experiences extreme emotion?” she asked. “Of course you don’t. My, my … what was I ever thinking? Do you know what I believe?” Even if it hadn’t have been rhetorical, Ted would have been unable to answer. However, his trapped ears listened incredulously. “Even if you did know, it would not have made a difference to you. Now that is disgusting. If we had not been sent to stop you, you would have left a sad wake until our Lord God claimed you … but I will tell you anyway – not because you deserve an explanation but it is just what mothers do.”
“Those intense emotions live between the life and the afterlife. I know that it sounds weird but it is true. Call them atoms or limbs if you like because individually they have no consciousness, no direction and cannot, most importantly, initiate change. However, if they have a common trait, they unerringly seek each other to bond and grow. This happened to a load of misery particles who all had your name stamped into their birth.
“If it had stayed that way, nobody but your victims would have minded, Teddy. That was not the case! When these beings grow too strong, they undergo restlessness, disrupting the energy flow that is creation. It is then that these negative beings pose problems … here on earth, ghosts and such. You can understand that in the afterlife a ghost would not give us much of a fright … but they can be damn irritating and yours makes everyone complain about ME! I deserve my rest and not, ‘It’s your boy … you raised him wrong.’
“Now it is time to make amends. I want my retirement.”
Greater fear overrode fear. Ted spoke. “What do you mean? What you gonna do? I’ll clean up my act. I promise. You’ll see.”
“If only I could believe you, Teddy Boy. But you were never one to listen. For that reason you must meet what you created.” She lifted an arm and pointed a finger at a place behind him. “Meet your Pain Fairy. I never did get around to giving it a proper name although its species is called Yuldai.”
Ted stood, spun, took a step backwards in horror, entangled his feet with the legs of the chair, and toppled backwards to a heavy landing.
The receptionist in black walked slowly forward and leant over him, filling his vision. Now, Ted recognized him. Them, would be more precise. They were in the eyes, mirrors of dozens of screaming mouths. He could hear them too. His name was upon their lips amidst words like Hate, Sadness and Fear. They wanted release. They wanted to go home…and home was Teddy Bear.
His mind rushed for ways to escape his terror and locked on his knife. With a roar of desperation, he ripped it free and slashed upwards at the face that threatened him.
“YEAH!” Ted yelled triumphantly as the blade sliced easily from left ear, through the bridge of the nose, to the right cheek. The face hung with its second mouth … and then the blood flowed, black as oil and slow like tar. Where it splattered on Ted, his clothing burned without flames, singeing his skin. He scrambled to his feet and went to work on the eyes.
“Take that … fuck you … and that.” In a flurry of stabs, the eyes popped and the Yuldai’s face gained the character of a blob of unrecognizable flesh. Ted, enraptured by the vortex of his own violence, continued unabated. Repeated slashes to the neck left the head dangling backwards. Still, it stood. “Damn you. I AM YOUR GOD! Die!” Enraged deeper, Ted flung the knife backwards, hoping that it would pierce his mother but too absorbed to check. He grabbed the nearest chair, hefting its heavy weight easily, and brought it crashing down. The Yuldai never toppled but for the first time it swayed. Ted, sensing its weakness, gained a maniacal glee, took a few steps backwards and charged.
“Hee-JAAAA!” Ted had dropped out of school two years before he would have matriculated. At that stage, he was already playing First Team rugby. Now, he put that training into pounding effect. He launched; feet clear of the carpet so as to gain optimum momentum. He connected with the creature’s midriff and heard something break.
They both fell.
The contact was searing and likened to hardened jelly. In revulsion, he screamed and made to spring to his feet but hands clamped on his back and legs entwined his own. He collapsed, his face plunging into the Yuldai’s warm, misshapen head. Through great effort born of desperation, Ted tilted backwards but could not stop the vomit that ejected from his mouth to fill the gaps in the creature’s face.
Ted attempted screaming again but all that he managed was a groan. His strength was sapping quickly. Was being sapped. First his face, and then the wave of weakness tided through the rest of his body. He lay helpless, unable to even twitch a finger.
Cruelly, his mind was left alert and his vision still functioning so that he could be witness to his vomit bubbling and shapes moving within. Eyeballs. With insect like legs. Dripping yellow, they clambered out and in each iris he recognized someone that he had abused. They squirmed between his lips and pushed up his nostrils.
He knew where they were heading. When they reached there, their misery engulfed him and became his. Given back some control, he began to screech.
* * *
Handguns drawn, the police entered the empty room to discover a man lying in a fetal position, calling for his mother.
* * *
“Dinner time,” the young nurse announced cheerfully as she entered one of the many rooms of Town Hill, the mental hospital in Pietermaritzburg to which all nurses are sent to as part of their training.
She received no reply. Nor had she expected one. Her patient’s eyes stared at the tousled blanket. He was a strange one with his aversion for eye contact and, in the mornings, shaving without a mirror, no matter how many times he did a poor job of it.
She placed the plastic tray on the bed trolley and was almost out the door when his voice stopped her.
“I don’t owe you anything, do I?”
“No,” she replied. “All of your debts are paid.”
She’d been on duty in this word for over three months. That was the fifth time that he’d spoken to her. Each time the same question and nothing else. The response was not her own. His psychiatrist had advised all the staff.
When her twelve-hour shift ended that evening, she was still wondering why.