A single text had dragged him back to the city and the nightmare he had left behind:
I need u, bro. Im in bits here. It got me like ya said it wud. I shuda cum wit ya. U shuda made me
On the train to the city, Patrick wondered if the two weren’t one and the same: the city and the nightmare. He had to leave Caitriona with the car; it was a twenty mile drive from their farmhouse to nearest town, another five to the kids’ school. Growing up in the city, Patrick had never once considered becoming a farmer. But escaping the city at eighteen had left him with few options. It was the best decision he ever made, becoming a farm hand. He found a farmer with one daughter and no sons to help him as age began to take its toll. He was given room and board in addition to his meagre wages. Sharing a house together, miles from anywhere, he and the farmer’s daughter had fallen in love. Now, they owned the farm together and took care of Caitriona’s father in his retirement.
But that was only a small part of his past. Gazing at nothing out the window of the speeding train, a sharp pain sprung from his hand. He had been absent-mindedly scratching the back of his hand, where his eczema had returned. He thought that had been part of his past too. Eczema had plagued his youth, but it had disappeared soon after he left the city. He thought it had been the fresh country air and the ample sunlight he got working the fields every day. But as soon as he’d replied to his brother’s text, he had set his phone down and scratched an itch on the back of his hand. It was as if the moisture in his skin had been sucked into the radio waves, washing away into the myriad of cell towers, flowing back to the city along with his message:
The train pulled into the station. It was one of the buildings Patrick had admired as a child. A Victorian era construction of granite the colour of pure sand. Age had taught him that the Grecian arches and architraves, the pilasters and porticos were all merely facets of the façade; a memento of the great city that once was, that no longer was, perhaps never was.
Patrick left the station and marched steadily towards what was once his home. His feet fell heavily on the concrete, his sports-bag keeping time with his feet, bouncing against his hip. He kept his gaze no more than two yards ahead of his feet. He didn’t look at the buildings towering over him or the swarm of people around him. He didn’t want to. He didn’t have to. The city had fucked him long before and infected him like hepatitis. It was part of him, he’d never rid himself of it. That was why he left.
To the tourists who insisted on coming it looked like any classical European capital. Eighteenth century buildings carved out of granite and inlaid with marble, topped with turquoise copper domes. In his youth, Patrick had been enamoured with the architecture the British had left behind. To him, those copper domes were like turquoise crowns. Mixing the old with the new were the boom-time buildings of glass and brushed steel. Pigeon-holed here and there were the eye-sores that had survived from the seventies and eighties. The ones made of cast-concrete, and cheap metal and glass that looked like plastic; the ones everyone tried to pretend didn’t exist. The city is home to blind eyes. The decrepit, the degenerate, the festering elements of the city are so easily hidden behind the façade, when we choose to hide them with our own eyes. It’s so easy to lose yourself in the swarm when you choose to get lost. Patrick added his blind eyes to the swarm.
Tourists were only shown the façade. They got a warmer welcome than any local could hope to expect. People fell over each other to give them directions. Bar tenders and waiters fawned over them, grubbing for their money. The citizens never let them see what Patrick knew was there, what had gotten into Patrick’s bones. The city had killed his father, Patrick knew. It was killing his brother. That’s why he’d come back. Nothing else could’ve dragged him back.
Patrick stopped at the gate of his childhood home where his brother lived. The last time he’d come back, four years before, for his father’s funeral, it had been a different picture. Freshly power-washed, the brickwork had been the warm red of fresh clay. The front lawn had been tightly manicured. The flower beds sprouting with blue tulips and red azaleas. The frame of the four-pane casement window had been a bright white. The front door a glossy black. His father had never let the city contaminate their home. If only he could’ve done the same for himself. Patrick’s mother had smelled the rot and left before Patrick was old enough to remember her. His father had hit the bottle hard after she left, but he worked hard for his boys. He sold the IRA’s contraband cigarettes on Moore Street. He bought and sold the phones the junkies managed to pick-pocket. He’d do anything to make money for the family. Patrick never knew what else he did.
Patrick had planned to stay for a few days to help his brother, Andrew, through the grief. Andrew was only twenty when their father had died, and he was alone.
Patrick had knocked on the front door—it wasn’t his house anymore. When no one answered, he’d used his key. He’d found Andrew at the kitchen table staring at a glass of water. He didn’t look up when Patrick came in.
“Andrew,” Patrick said, but his brother’s gaze remained unbroken. Patrick sat beside him and turned his head with one hand. “Andrew, I’m here.”
Andrew’s eyes clenched shut and the tears he’d been holding back poured forth. A stench wafted off Andrew as Patrick held him. Patrick reached out and picked up Andrew’s glass. He sniffed it. It wasn’t water.
The following day, Patrick had gone to the funeral home to make the arrangements. Andrew couldn’t. He had stayed home. After the meeting with the funeral director, Patrick asked to see his father. The funeral director brought him to where his father was kept with the rest of the corpses. It looked like the back room of a butcher’s, sterile steel and white tile. But in place of the butcher’s block was what looked like a surgeon’s table. The funeral director pulled his father out of his cold, metal coffin and left them together.
His father was fifty-five when he died, but to Patrick he had looked eighty. His face was lank, wrinkled, and crusted with dead skin. Patrick had never seen a dead body before, and he put his father’s grey pallor down to that of death. His white hair had a shade of turquoise in it, as if he’d had his hair bleached on the cheap. Patrick put his hand on his father’s cold face and brushed his cheek with his thumb. The crusts of skin crumbled at his touch. They didn’t fall as flakes, but into dust. Patrick collected some dust between his fingertips and rubbed it between them. It was coarse like concrete dust.
He wiped his hands and quickly turned away. He went into the funeral director’s office and wrote him a cheque. When they shook hands, the funeral director held on as he said some more kind words. It took all of Patrick’s self-control not to wrench free of his grasp and run.
He left the funeral home, got into his car, and floored it. He had cried on the drive back to the country, thinking of Andrew. Halfway home, Andrew called. Patrick had wanted to answer. He wanted to apologize, wanted to explain. But Andrew would never understand. He didn’t see things the way Patrick did. Patrick had tried to take Andrew with him when he’d left, when he was eighteen and Andrew was sixteen, but Andrew wouldn’t come. The city had spread too far. Andrew had been in what he thought was a gang but was really just a bunch of little shits who liked to fuck shit up. But Patrick was afraid of what they might become. He wanted to save him from it, but Andrew refused.
Patrick had rejected the call.
In the four years since his father’s funeral, the house had deteriorated rapidly. The brickwork had sunk to a deep red, tinged with black like coagulated blood. One pane of the window had a crack transecting it. The one next to it was gone completely, covered by a black piece of bin bag. The flowers had died and rotted long ago. The grass was up past Patrick’s knee. It was pale green and straw yellow in places, dying under the weight of itself.
When Patrick walked up to the front door, he found a splintered cavity in it, and a few dents around it. He knocked on the door, and it creaked open. He checked the lock as he stepped in, it had been obliterated. Patrick didn’t panic, there were no splinters of wood or pieces of the lock on the hall floor. It had been like that for a while.
“Andrew!” he called from the hall. There was no reply.
He checked the front room. There was nothing in it but a smashed TV and a decrepit couch. The couch was stained and pock-marked with black-ringed cigarette burn holes. There were a few crushed beer cans on the floor along with cigarette packets and yellow-brown stained squares of foil. A bent spoon lay next to the couch.
The kitchen was deserted and similarly littered. The hood above the stove was melted and blackened. A flame-blackened pan sat on the stove.
Patrick went back into the hall and climbed the stairs. They creaked beneath his feet. The banister wobbled in his grip. This is what it does, he thought, this is what I left him in. This is what I left him to.
The stench surrounded him as he reached the top of the stairs. It stank of piss and… what was it? Sewage? Death? No, Patrick knew that smell, he’d grown up with it. It was the smell that crept out of the gutters as he walked the street. It was the smell that sneaked out across the bay when you walked the beach at night. It was the rot they tried to keep hidden beneath the concrete and tarmac, behind the granite and the marble. The decay they tried to pump far out at sea, but that always drifted home on the wind and the waves.
The rot was in the house, its miasma heavy in the air.
His father’s bedroom was locked with a padlock. Patrick went into Andrew’s room and found him there. For a moment, Patrick’s heart crumbled. Andrew was splayed out on his back, a belt hung limply round his bicep, and a syringe lay next to it on the bed. His skin was a light grey and seemed to be strangling the bones beneath. Patrick thought he was dead.
Andrew’s head was turned towards him against the mattress, and Patrick could see how the grey pallor grew to a coal-black around his eyes. His blonde hair held the same green stain as his father’s on his deathbed. A turquoise crown for a city Prince, Patrick thought. Around his mouth, soaking into the bare mattress, was a thick, grey vomit that looked like wet cement. But his chest moved, convulsed really, as it drew in short breaths. Patrick’s heart found its form once more.
“Andrew!” he cried as he rushed to his brother’s side. He cradled Andrew’s head in his arm and patted his cheek with his left hand. His skin was dry, so dry that it shed at Patrick’s touch. Patrick rubbed his fingers against his thumb and felt the coarse powder of his brother’s dead skin.
He glanced down at his brother’s hands. The nails were a dark purple, the lividity of death. But as Patrick took Andrew’s hand in his own, he felt the nails grate against his skin. They were the colour and texture of slate.
Patrick recoiled from Andrew’s hand.
“Wake up!” he shouted, patting his brother’s face harder. “Wake up!”
Andrew’s eyelids flickered for a moment. Then they edged open, grains of dust falling as they moved. Patrick tensed as his eyes opened. Andrew’s eyes looked dry and hard. The tiny veins running through them had turned grey. They looked like they were cut out of marble, his irises insets of topaz.
“What have you done to yourself?” he said.
Andrew edged his head one way, then the other. Patrick could hear the joints in Andrew’s neck grinding against each other. It sounded like the grinding of a mortar and pestle. “Not me,” he whispered, a gravelly whisper.
“Not you?!” Patrick barked, tears in his eyes. He picked up the syringe and shook it in front of Andrew’s face. “Then what the hell is this?!”
“No,” Andrew whispered. “That…was only…for the pain.”
Andrew winced in pain and he bore his teeth. They were square and beige as sandstone blocks.
“I’m calling an ambulance,” Patrick said, and rested his brother’s head against the mattress. He took out his phone.
“No!” Andrew managed to say through the pain. He raised a single finger, pointing at the twisted ball of foil by his right knee. It sat on his mother’s small, black Japanese tea tray. Patrick could barely make out the delicately painted pink orchids beneath the bottle of lemon juice, the bent dessert spoon, the bottle of water, and the torn cigarette filters.
He picked up the ball of foil. He knew it was all he could do for him now. Patrick untwisted the ball of foil and took a pinch of white powder and placed it in the spoon. Andrew curled his fingers towards himself, asking for more. Patrick placed another two thick pinches into the spoon, and Andrew nodded his assent.
Patrick picked up the bottle of lemon juice, and Andrew nodded. Patrick squirted a few drops into the spoon and the white mixture bubbled up. Patrick picked up the bottle of water, and Andrew nodded, but he held out his thumb and forefinger and pressed them together. Patrick picked up the syringe and drew a small amount of water from the bottle and dribbled it into the spoon.
Andrew’s nods and gestures guided him through the heating and filtering. Soon Patrick had a syringe that was full and ready for injection. He paused with the syringe poised at his brother’s arm. Surely, this couldn’t be all he could do for him. Was this all he could do for the brother he’d failed so badly over the years?
But this wasn’t his brother, not anymore. His face held the same familiar lines, but they were cracked like parched soil. His once thick, boxer’s muscles had withered to nothing, revealing bones as brittle as limestone threatening to spear out through his dry, powdery skin. It had infected him, it had become him.
The syringe in Patrick’s hand grew blurry through the tears. He could end his brother’s pain, he could do that much. He wiped his eyes and pulled the belt tight around Andrew’s biceps. He found a vein easily enough, they were the same dark purple as Andrew’s nails. The needle caught as it went in, and Andrew whimpered in pain.
“It’s going to be okay,” Patrick said, stroking his brother’s forehead. “No more pain now.”
Patrick depressed the plunger. He slid the needle out as gently as he could. The small drop of blood that oozed out looked as thick as syrup. It dried as soon as it touched the air and crumbled like brick dust. Patrick loosened the belt and held Andrew’s hand. He wouldn’t run away this time, he promised himself. He would stay until the end.
Andrew’s eyes closed and his body began to relax as the drug coursed through him. The cracked lines on his face remained but looked less harsh as the muscles in his face smoothed out. He looked almost serene. Patrick watched as his chest rose and fell. His breaths became shallower and shallower by the second and the time between each rise and fall became longer.
Then his chest fell and didn’t rise. Patrick sat there, still holding Andrew’s warm hand, taking in the reality of it all. His brother was dead, and he had killed him. No. He had helped his passing. That’s what Patrick told himself as the tears cane and he squeezed Andrew’s hand harder, holding on to what was left.
Andrew suddenly winced and the crow’s feet around his eyes cracked. Thick blood spread through the cracks and turned to dust. His ribcage convulsed and sprang up and down violently as he coughed a dry, wheezing cough. The coughs were short, forceful. They were bringing something up. Patrick looked upon his brother’s face as Andrew’s head sprang backwards as he gasped. His eyes opened, revealing cracks in the marble. The irises had crumbled in, leaving black sinkholes in his eyes.
The gasp fed on terrible final cough. A red cloud of dust spewed from his mouth. Patrick screamed as the cloud enveloped his head. It got in his eyes, his nose, his mouth. It tasted of iron and felt as solid.
Patrick jumped up from the bed, spitting and wiping his face. He ran for the door but stopped with one hand on the frame. He took one look back on his dead brother. Andrew’s body was trembling, the bones moving beneath the skin like branches caught in an eddy current. His chest and skull were buckling, like a building whose foundations have just been blown. Patrick didn’t want to see what would happen next.
He grabbed his bag from the hall and ran from the house. He felt no guilt leaving his brother this time. There wouldn’t be a body left to bury. Nothing but bad memories would come from staying. If he could just forget that day, maybe he could remember Andrew as he deserved to be remembered.
He ran, and the red brick terraces flanking him soon grew into the behemoths of granite and glass as he reached the city centre. He was still caked in his brother’s bloody dust as he ran along the quays of the river that sliced the city in two. Even its murky depths appealed to him, though they would soil as much as they would clean.
He didn’t stop running until he was outside the train station, where he rested, hands on knees. He gulped in some final breaths of the city’s miasma. When he’d caught his breath, he went inside.
In the toilets, he washed himself of the blood dust. He threw his t-shirt into the bin and took a fresh one from his gym bag. He checked himself in the mirror in case he had missed anything. The thought that his brother’s remains were on him made him feel sick. As he was checking himself, he felt the eczema on the backs of his hands calling out to be scratched. He scratched the back of his left hand and watched in the mirror as the dead skin fell in a fine dust. He froze for a moment. Reluctantly, he reached out and picked a pinch of skin off the sink and rubbed it between his fingers. It was coarse and bone dry.