Aphelion Issue 233, Volume 22
October 2018
 
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The Auguries of Corruption

by Agrippina Domanski




1



Richie hadn’t intended to go on a camping trip the day after he got demobbed and returned to Manchester. It felt absurd to be back to this – tents and tires and petrol stations – after Afghanistan. Camping. The word itself sounded funny, as if they were going to break up into camps. This was going to be no ordinary trip. In fact it was beginning to look like the weirdest shit he’d ever done. But each of them wanted to have some idea of what was coming, and this could only be done on a new moon. If they didn’t do it tonight, they’d have to wait for a month. That’s how Richie found himself in front of Steve’s renovated house, all white and posh and unfamiliar, after a painful night spent at home. He could barely recognize the smell of the place.

When the news had spread he’d become a sniper, people had started to say he’d picked a natural job for a bully – maybe because it involved no open combat (they assumed he couldn’t handle that, what a joke). Most people like Richie and his gang ended up working as hospital janitors, if not in some more obscure capacity – they couldn’t really come to terms with the civilized society. But Richie was one of the best in his field, which meant he was doing pretty well – though not as well as Steve. Steve was attracting money like a magnet with his mysterious intuition. No one gave a rat’s ass how Pete was doing. Now that Richie was back, the neighbours looked at him funny. Some of them were the parents of the kids whose lives he and his gang had made hell back at school, like Nasko, the Bulgarian guy whose full name was ‘Athanas’.

Everything in Manchester appeared hostile and alien, like Steve’s house. But Richie still wished he’d gone there straight from the airport. Then he wouldn’t have had to listen to his mother’s whining about his terrible, despicable occupation. The only recognizable thing was Steve himself, who sat on the porch, waiting for Richie with an air of sarcastic morbidity. It had been two months since his parents’ funeral.

‘Yo, long time, no see.’ Steve said.

Richie looked him over. ‘Jeez, you look like a maniac. Is that the insomnia thing?’

Steve shrugged. ‘Don’t believe everything your mother tells you.’

Richie pulled him into a bear hug. Steve smelt of cigarettes, as always. Richie imagined he still smelt of blood and sweat himself, someone else’s blood, like he did at school. Smell was the one thing about a person that never changed. He’d always have blood on his hands, and he’d always reek of it.

‘It’ll wash off.’ Steve said, once Richie let go of him. Richie was so used to his creepy perceptiveness he hardly noticed. He intended to say something about missing the funeral, but Steve gave him a sharp look, and the subject was never broached.

Richie said: ‘You’re really up for this?’

‘Why not? I think we all need a hint right now, especially you and I.’

‘You’ve done it before.’

Steve settled back down onto the porch. He radiated exhaustion.

‘Oh yes. Same place, a few times.’

‘And it worked.’

‘Oh yes.’

‘You’re not fucking with me.’

‘Nope.’ Steve said, unfazed. ‘Check out the house, think I could afford that as a regular beaver?’ Richie didn’t even need to hear it. Steve had told him how he’d make money like that at the age of sixteen. Stock market and strong hunches.

‘I don’t mean your… Intuition.’ Richie said. ‘But I mean, rituals, or whatever this is – a ceremony… You’d think City people are rational.’

Steve snorted. ‘That’s a myth, I think we’re completely irrational. The macroeconomics shit, you just can’t get it. Gets weirder the more you know. It’s like a Leviathan – alive, you know. We need to get a spare. We can’t afford to be sitting on the hard shoulder waiting for breakdown assistance. This must be done by the end of the new moon. You coming?’

They walked to the back of the house where Steve’s car stood. The Range Rover MKIII stared at Richie, enormous and powerful, as if it was some hibernating beast, waiting for him to stroke it. Richie gave an appreciative grunt.

‘I’m driving to Lake District, yes?’ He said. Whatever was going on with Steve, Richie didn’t like the idea of him driving.

‘Heritage or not, Lake District’s all artificial. It wouldn’t work.’ Steve said. ‘The place is about a mile before that. Used to be a petrol station, but it’s abandoned now. You can’t get the spirit anywhere else, I don’t think. And –’

‘Hi Richie.’ B’s voice said.

He turned around and saw her. She was sitting on a swing which was tied to the tree trunks, rocking it lazily with one foot. Her other foot lay on her knee. She was wearing a white lacy dress, not too short but short enough, and expensive suede high boots, grey like gravel. She possessed a disheveled chic of sorts, like some ravished bird of prey after a long fight – as if someone had run it over with a car like Steve’s. B was short for ‘Becca’, itself short for ‘Rebecca’. She liked to shorten her name so much Richie sometimes expected it to disappear. She hadn’t been in when he’d arrived home the night before. Maybe she was living in one of Manchester’s student accommodation pads.

‘Hi yourself.’ Richie said. It came out sounding awkward. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘I had a problem, Steve helped me out.’

Steve had disappeared behind the Rover to load the spare. Richie watched B push the swing. She now considered him crazy – tried to keep as far from him as possible, all because of his job. Before he could try talk to her and fail, they heard Pete’s voice:

‘Everyone dead or something? Is it off?’

‘We’re ‘round here!’ Steve yelled back, and threw the car keys to Richie. ‘If you wreck this baby I’ll kill you. I’m not kidding. You don’t wanna know what it cost me.’ Something sinister in the air told Richie this was more mystical shit – Steve must have used it to buy everything he owned. He had only been well-off for three years, but it stood out – everyone else had been pretty much destroyed by the credit crunch. He’d got the timing right, as always.

When B asked to go with them, they couldn’t come up with a reasonable objection, even though this was meant to be a guys-only thing. Richie had expected Steve to blow her off with his effortless eloquence, and he tried – but when she started to whine, he went inside abruptly. Pete’s place in their gang hierarchy was too far down to offer advice on things like that, so it in the end she came along.

They drove past the Manchester Airport in moody silence. They’d grown up here, near the airport, used to the constant buzzing noise, like in that David Fincher film. Plane-watching used to be their favourite childhood entertainment – it even came before Nasko-bashing. You needed a CAM book to do it properly. It had all the details of civil planes, so you could tell who owned the one that had just flown by. Cars were not allowed near the airport, but as kids they used to sneak in to watch the planes go off. When Richie reached E148, the country road leading to Ellington, an obscure village before Lake District where their spot lay, B asked if she could drive. To Richie’s amazement, Steve agreed.

‘Are you kidding?’ Richie snorted. ‘She’ll flip it over! You weren’t even gonna let me drive the damn thing.’

‘Indulge the child.’ Steve said.

They pulled over on the hard shoulder and changed places – then B quickly merged back onto the motorway. Richie watched her drive, a vague suspicion floating in and out of his mind before he could grab it. She seemed familiar with the gear box – knew fifth often got stuck. She even knew where the main beam switch was without looking, though Richie had had to hunt for it. Pete was talking to her, though she only said ‘hmm’ back.

‘…we were having some people over, and we got the wrong kind of wine, it was really cheap. We thought it was going to be fun, but it wasn’t. It was very awkward. It’d be worse with champagne, but–’

Richie lifted his eyebrows, and glanced at Steve. Steve mouthed: ‘One can tell the man’s deep in marriage. A wrong kind of wine, fuck me…’ Then he grinned scornfully, and said out loud: ‘You can tell we’ve suffered some losses while you were gone.’

‘What?’ Pete said. They said nothing.


2



The Ellington petrol station at the end of E148 used to stand next to a garage, though neither was in use anymore. The owner had moved the garage to the left side of the road around ten years ago for no particular reason, to the amusement of his competitors and the local authorities – taken it apart and reassembled it just a yard’s distance away from its former location. He’d even built new underground tanks. The spot on the left, he’d explained to the locals, was just the thing to attract the customers. It had a spirit – the one Richie and Steve were after.

The pumps were poking out of their neat row, glaring at them like snakeheads. They were now only inches away from the tall, unruly moss-coloured grass and the first row of trees. The forest was gradually closing in on these relics of human presence. The place made Richie think of the Borley Rectory, though it looked nothing like it. The enthusiasts of industrial tourism loved it. A rusty vintage car, a classic Mercedes-Benz Convertible, was poking from the half-lifted door of the garage. When B pulled up, she smeared the grass in oil, but most of it had tricked onto the road, like Steve had intended. She had been driving the last mile with the oil cap unscrewed – they hadn’t told her about it, knowing she’d freak out. They made her drive a little further to leave the oil spills clear.

‘Old Man Nicholas used to run this place still hangs ‘round.’ Steve said. ‘Hopefully we won’t come across him, but that’s his car.’

‘That’s his car? What is he, an expat prince–’ Richie began.

‘What if we do?’ Pete said.

‘Nothing.’ Steve said. ‘It’s a new moon, so we’re not doing anything dangerous. Sure, he’ll give me the shit about how we’re breaking down the fabric of reality. Then Richie might punch him, and we’ll get locked up, as usual. But that’s it.’

‘Ouch.’ Richie said in mock offence. ‘Do we need to talk?’

He’d intended it as a joke, but Steve shrugged, and looked down. He had an odd look, as if something had literally bitten him and it hurt like a bitch. Richie felt a kind of cold draft travel between them. He reached for Steve’s shoulder and felt him flinch away from his touch.

‘Man, what the fuck –’

‘Is anyone gonna help me unload, or am I the mule for tonight?’ Pete called from behind the Rover. Richie thought he could feel Steve exhale.

Pete and Richie started to put up the tents. The poles wouldn’t dig into the frozen ground. Steve collected the bottles of booze from the car. B leaned against the boot and watched them. Richie was about to shoo her away when he realized they didn’t need to open the boot. They’d been carrying the tent stuff in the back seat. Maybe Steve’s insomnia really was a thing.

‘What’s in the boot?’ Richie said.

‘Nothing useful.’ Steve said. ‘I’ll go get some wood for the fire.’

‘I’ll come with you.’ B said, and followed him.

‘Wood.’ Pete said. ‘I’ll be damned.’


3



Steve was holding the stack of branches in his arms when B pushed him against the trunk of a tree and kissed him so hard he hit his nape. The splinters were scratching his hands. He slowly kissed her back, chasing her tongue with his. She had come to his house in the early hours of the morning, more upset about the Bulgarian wanker than she’d let on at first. In a way, she always brought it on herself, so she had to pretend it didn’t bother her. But Steve had seen through her disguise.

She had begged him to let her live with him during term breaks before – he still felt like an arsehole for refusing, now that he had a huge house all to himself. When she’d said he’d sleep better if she was there, he’d felt even worse. A Pavlovian loyalty to Richie ran deep in his veins, though recently it had become diluted. She often spent the night at his house, and last night she’d repeated to him what Nasko the Wanker had said to her – ‘Do you know how much you say when you talk?’ Then she said he’d grabbed her the way she pretended she liked to be grabbed. Steve should have sent her home – Richie must have arrived by then. But she’d suddenly dropped her cover, broken down in his presence for the first time since she’d turned eight years old, and said she didn’t want to spend the night with her overbearing mother, and that Richie’s mood swings scared her. What a mess.

It was her sport to provoke those pitiful boys her age – she made them pay for her drinks and take her out to clubs – but in the end she always came back to Steve. She liked the age gap, though she never said so. She let her cashpoints put their hands on her to brag about it later, but it hardly ever went further. It was all part of her game, except last night had been different. Nasko the Wanker had no business touching B. He knew whose sister she was – in fact Steve suspected that’s how he intended to get back at their gang. The fucker sure had the nerve. He had to be taught his place – reminded of it.

‘Have you talked to Richie?’ B said now.

‘Haven’t had the chance.’ He said with the sarcasm she didn’t pick up on.

‘I want you to tell him.’ She saw the grim look on his face, and drew back. ‘After what happened last night I don’t want things to be sneaky. I’m not a whore.’ For some perverse reason it nearly got him off when she said that. ‘I know that’s what people think – but I’m not a whore.’

‘I didn’t say that, you did.’ Steve said. She had given him a hard-on. More shit to deal with. He was beginning to wish he could turn back on the worst part, if not on the augury. He had a bad premonition about it all, and his hunches were never wrong. The nervous pain in his diaphragm mixed with arousal in a way that was almost unpleasant.

‘Please tell him.’ B said. Her hand had moved to his stomach and crawled underneath his shirt. ‘Or don’t you have the balls?’

‘Never mind my balls.’ Steve said, and slapped her hand away. She had a point – Richie had to know. But the ritual had to come first, and then there was the mess to sort out. She was now his responsibility, and he didn’t shrink from it. But the last thing Richie and he needed was to fight over this, given what the night was about to turn into. ‘I’ll tell him, for fuck’s sake, if it’s such a big deal I’ll tell him. I realize you came on this trip to force this shit to a boiling point. But it’s gonna get ugly. You don’t know Richie.’

‘Of course I know Richie, he’s my brother.’ B said. She sounded indignantly amused.

Steve let out a bitter laugh. ‘You don’t know the Richie I know. That Richie’s gonna rip me apart and wrap my guts around a tree, trust Steve on that one.’ Richie had always had an explosive character – but now his violence had a contained, professional touch to it.

‘Don’t be morbid.’ B said, and kissed him again, licking his lower lip as if it was bleeding. Her hand continued to stroke his hipbone. He stared at the sky, wound-up beyond belief. ‘Come on. What’s up, you’re not in the mood?’

He chuckled at the absurdity of that question. ‘Sure I am, but he’ll smell it on us, and –’

‘Shh. Don’t make a sound.’

‘You don’t say…’ Steve began sarcastically, and faltered when she got down on her knees, unzipped his fly and went down on him without as much as sparing him another look. He could see the heels of the Saint Laurent boots he’d bought her digging into the ground, and her perfect blond head dipping down. Her breath was hot like vapor rising from a mug of coffee. ‘You bitch.’ He hissed. She slapped his mouth with her cold manicured hand and silenced him. Soon he was sucking on the tips of her fingers as she sucked on him.

He told himself this was better than being horny all the way through the ritual – distraction was dangerous, and... She had just sped up the rhythm, and his thought crashed into the tree. He’d have liked to think he was the only guy she’d ever done this for, but he knew better – she was far too good for a beginner. The others were only a yard’s distance away– adrenalin was flooding his veins. For a moment he wondered if Pete and Richie could see them from the petrol station – but that was unlikely. Richie would have been slicing his bared throat by now. His mind lingered on the image of the two of them from up high – a sort of airplane view – her ash-coloured hair and his jeans around his ankles – and he came.

B licked her lips and looked up at him, smiling with the corners of her mouth. He watched her swallow and flinched just from that. She zipped up his fly and pulled herself back up, tugging on his shirt as if it was a rope – then leaned against his chest as she reapplied her lipstick. He wordlessly handed her his branches (the part which hadn’t fallen), and looked around for more to pick. His nape would swell a little, but it was worth it.

‘I hope it goes well.’ B said, suddenly serious.

Steve nodded. He didn’t want to tell her it wasn’t something that could go well. It would either be bad, or even worse than that. He remained standing against the tree, breathing heavily, and watched her walk away. It felt like she’d just sucked his brains out.


4



They sat by the road, around the bonfire which illuminated the rainbow-coloured oil spills. It was getting dark, but they had to wait for the moon phase, or they would encounter the side effects of tapping into the invisible dimension of the world. Richie thought it was nonsense, but Steve didn’t want to risk it. They had eaten the meat. They only had proper booze – no beer. It was understood someone had to stay sober to drive back. It couldn’t be Pete – marriage was restrictive enough, and besides, Steve wouldn’t trust him with the car. Richie refused flat out. Steve himself thought the lack of sleep slowed down his reactions. Eventually they settled on B again, and she said that was fine – she’d had enough to drink recently.

Steve calmly sipped his whiskey – luckily, nothing like that could throw him off. Some part of him had intended to talk to Richie before they began. But he doubted they’d get back to the ritual after that one. And Steve did want a hint, whether or not the others did – mostly about the money, but also whether she’d ditch him when he turned thirty-five. He was a cynic.

They sent B off to walk around – the ceremony was definitely a guys’ thing – and prepared. They’d wrapped some blankets around their shoulders. They weren’t stupid teenagers anymore who had to pretend cool. In fact they had demonized themselves so much in the past they could afford to be painfully uncool now. Steve caught Richie watching him with a frown. He had to launch the ritual before Richie asked what the hell was wrong with him.

‘What if nothing happens?’ Pete said.

‘But it won’t.’ Steve said. ‘We’ll think about what we wanna know, and then we’ll know. Shit works like homeopathy, like to like. Equally unscientific.’

‘Then why do you do it?’ Pete said. He used to always go on about how Steve was ‘rational’ – maybe because he didn’t attack people with baseball bats like Richie, when they rubbed him the wrong way. Now he added: ‘Richie here doesn’t get the whole picture, how you’re completely unstable and how you don’t sleep and that’s why you get carried away by the occult shit–’

‘My mother was seventy-six when she died,’ Steve said acidly. He didn’t usually get wound up so easily. ‘She had a PhD in molecular biology, but she still took her homeopathy every day. You think she didn’t know it was unscientific?’

‘And did it help?’ Pete said. ‘She still –’

‘Watch your mouth.’ Richie said. ‘You feel like you’ll chicken out, you get your shit and leave before we start. Stevie and I are staying, so you can walk.’ He looked at his watch, then at the sky. ‘I think it’s time.’

‘We’ll have to see.’ Steve said.

They took hands – even Pete’s – and stared at the patterns of the oil spills in the firelight. The forest suddenly seemed improbably silent, as if something had blocked their ears. That’s how Steve knew the augury had begun. He thought he’d spotted the moment the ancient entity – the spirit, Old Man Nicholas called it – joined them. He wondered if he’d caught it, or if it had caught him. It was pulling him in, like an ocean wave, so maybe it was the latter. His aura, his energetics was propelling the ritual, so he had to keep cool. It seemed everything was in place – the oil spills began to shift. The spirit was shaping it into patterns. The patterns morphed into pictures, different from every angle, so none of them could interpret the others’. They rapidly replaced each other, like images in the kaleidoscope.

‘Don’t you just wish your interpretation onto the pattern?’ Richie said.

‘You kind of do. But that’s the point, it works.’

It wasn’t really about interpreting the signs of nature, though that’s what amateurs assumed. They were making contact with some living thing. Steve had intended to get a glimpse of the stock market – he only needed a hint, his intuition would do the rest – but his mind kept returning to B. He knew Richie was trying to see whether they’d send him to Afghanistan or Syria next – this fuckery was the last thing he needed to worry about. But if he didn’t bring it up, B would think he’d decided to ditch her – and then she’d ditch him herself. That’s what she was like.

The spirit was moving the oil faster and faster, as if it was mixing dough ready to bake. They could have thought they were imagining it, but there wasn’t a draft of wind for miles around. The only moving things were the oil and their eyes. Steve concentrated on his pattern – the harder he looked, the less he liked it. It wasn’t even open to interpretation – two figures standing over another. He couldn’t quite believe Richie would shoot him in cold blood… But maybe things would heat up by then.

‘Isn’t that the moon?’ Pete said suddenly. Steve was so taken aback by what he’d said he didn’t even rebuke him for interrupting the ceremony. It wasn’t at all stupid. In fact it made Steve feel like an idiot. ‘Surely we’re not meant to see it with the naked eye?’

The sky was jet-black, and for a moment all three of them just squinted. Then Steve said: ‘We’re fucked.’ He sounded incredibly calm. But he wasn’t. The crescent they hadn’t noticed was rising right above the forest. It was very faint, but it was there. It wasn’t a new moon.

‘A real moon phase with no moon only happens during the eclipse of the sun.’ Richie said. ‘There’s no such thing as a new moon, astronomically. There’s always a thin crescent.’

‘Yes, mister-fucking-Copernicus, but you’re not meant to see it. It means it’s at least a day or two to the day. We. Are. Fucked.’

Richie gave him the sort of older-brother look he supposed B hated.

‘Don’t look at me like that, you’re the one wanted to do this!’ Steve snapped, livid. ‘That’s why we did it – you wanted to know the moment you landed!’ And it was true – he wouldn’t have dared do this without Richie – any of this. Not in his state, constantly running the risk of passing out.

‘I never said it was your fault, so don’t go saying it’s mine.’ Richie said, and shook his head. ‘But that’s why you don’t lie to me about insomnia. What’s gonna happen now? Why are we fucked?’

‘I’m not sure.’ Steve said. ‘Someone gets possessed, that’s the idea. But you never know what part of it is nonsense.’

‘Possessed?!’ Pete exclaimed. ‘You expect me to buy this shit? You know what, Steven, you both need a bloody shrink–’

‘Shut it.’ Richie said. ‘Shut the fuck up.’


5



B must have heard their raised voices, and now she appeared from the woods. The whole thing was beginning to slip from Steve’s grasp.

‘It’s cold, I’ll just get a blanket–’ she saw they were standing around the bonfire, like wrestlers on the ring. ‘Did you tell him?’

Steve’s throat closed as if someone had poured cement into it. His heart leapt into his mouth and then crashed into his abdomen. Pete shot Steve a sympathetic look Steve wanted to kill him for. Richie turned to B.

‘This really isn’t the time, tell me what? What is it?’

B stared at Steve, colour draining from her face. He let out a shaky sardonic laugh which sounded like a bark of a dying dog. Richie stared at them both in turn.

The penny dropped.

‘Wait, did you – are you fucking my sister?’ Richie said. He sounded incredulous, as if he’d just learnt the Earth was flat.

Steve was a wordsmith most of the time, but there was nothing much he could say about this. Besides, for the first time since he’d first slept with her two years ago, he felt a kind of pang which wasn’t exactly guilt, but which was still unpleasant. This had gone all degrees of wrong.

‘I didn’t pop her cherry, if that’s what you think.’ Steve snapped. It was all his exhausted mind could come up with. It sounded crude, and it wasn’t what he’d meant at all – in fact, deep inside he’d always wished he had been her first.

Richie just stared at him in a way which made him wish he hadn’t said that. Then Richie turned to Pete. ‘Did you know about this? You did, didn’t you? And you didn’t tell me?’

Pete made a small whiny sound. ‘I thought you guys had sorted that–’

‘You only turned up yesterday, it’s not like you’ve been kept in the dark for long.’ Steve said, and thought: ‘Now he’s gonna break my nose.’ His incurable sarcasm never went down well with Richie.

‘B, get in the car.’ Richie said. It was the same tone he’d used to tell Nasko the Wanker to get down on his knees.

B hesitated – Steve’s intuition told him she’d start screaming it was none of Richie’s business – and Richie would go berserk. Steve could practically hear what he was thinking – ‘Shady motherfucker. Why would a knockout like B go for someone like him?’ And it was a good point – Steve had wondered too. He made a tiny gesture with his chin in the direction of the Rover, and she got in right away. Her uncharacteristic obedience didn’t escape Richie’s attention. He stared at her designer boots through the window.

‘So that’s how things are, eh?’ He said.

Steve felt the panic he’d been suppressing rise within him like an uncontrollable wave of vomit. ‘I’m sorry, I…’ But that was a lie. He’d have slept with her even if Richie had never left. ‘I didn’t want to fuck things up between us.’ He made himself look Richie in the eye, and then remembered you weren’t meant to do that with rabid dogs.

Richie nodded, as if it made perfect sense – then sort of leapt at him. Steve swung back – Richie didn’t even go after him, just kind of cracked his knuckles in a way which suggested he’d reach him from anywhere. Steve looked around for anything heavy, but before he could find it, the boot of the Rover gave a jump – then another. The Rover was illuminated by the fire, and when it shuddered, its long shadow shuddered with it. Richie glanced at the Rover – then shook his head dismissively, and pulled out a gun. B screamed, and tried to scramble out of the car like some ferret or mouse whose hole was being flooded. Pete pushed against the door to make sure she didn’t.

‘Don’t do anything stupid, Richie.’ Pete muttered. To Steve it sounded hilarious – if Richie shoved the gun up his throat and made him suck it, he knew Pete wouldn’t interfere. Even as a kid he’d never had the guts to stand between Steve and Richie – not since their first vicious kindergarten fight over Lego airplanes. He’d always been a doorman-like character.

Richie took the safety off and gave him the most disgusted look of his life. Steve had seen this coming in his pattern, but he still wasn’t prepared for it. B was a fucking child – he should have forced her to stay in Manchester and kept things quiet. In his books, sneaky always worked. He was no match for Richie in any kind of combat. Something in his mind collapsed.

‘Please don’t, don’t, I –’

Richie spat onto the ground, and lowered the gun. ‘For fuck’s sake, I’m not gonna shoot you in the woods for this – what’d you think I am, Serbian mafia?’ He turned away, and walked closer to the back of the Rover. ‘What’s in the boot?’ Steve said nothing. Shit would hit the fan anyway now. Richie still had his keys – besides, the Rover was unlocked. Richie lifted the lid, and fell silent for a moment. ‘Shit, is that…’

Steve and Pete looked over his shoulder at Nasko, tied up and wiggling. The boot reeked of piss. Richie let out a snort, as if he was testing his vocal chords, and then he started to laugh in earnest – a cackling, revolting sound. Then he stopped laughing. ‘Have you lost your mind? I thought we were done with this.’ He said, and glared at Steve. ‘What the fuck d’you expect me to do with this?’

‘The creep follows her around, I had to do something.’ Steve said. ‘He wants to get back at us. You weren’t there –’

‘She had a problem, did she, and this is how you helped her out.’ Richie said. ‘Oh boy.’

B had turned around in the back seat, and was watching them. She didn’t seem to react at all to seeing Nasko – she was used to their way of solving problems. But she gave Steve a shell-shocked look (she must have guessed it was his doing for once), and he shrugged. He didn’t even have the energy to be terrified any longer. Nasko had claimed Richie’s attention, which was no bad thing. He’d begun to struggle, and Richie punched him in the face. He grabbed Nasko’s hair, pulled him up and threw him onto the ground like a sack of potatoes. Then Richie looked at Steve with a sort of hidden mirth.

‘This isn’t some locker room shit. You have no idea how it’s done, do you? It’s not exactly up your alley. Let me do it.’ Richie said. Steve must have subconsciously intended it to go that way from the start – or known it would. But now he couldn’t believe his luck. ‘Alright, let’s see. Tie him to a tree.’

‘But Richie…’ Pete began.

‘I said tie him up!’ Richie yelled. ‘Are you fucking deaf?!’

‘I did try to drag you people through the ritual.’ Steve said coolly when Pete looked at him, and settled on the ground. He’d always been good at making people do the things he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do himself, though this had gone less elegantly than he’d have liked. ‘Let Pete do something for a change.’

‘You heard him, move it.’ Richie said.

Pete didn’t move. ‘What, you’re gonna torture him? I didn’t sign up for this.’ He looked at Steve. ‘Is that your idea of a camping trip?’

‘You got a problem with that?’ Steve said. ‘Wanna go home to your wifey?’

Pete looked back at Richie. ‘You can’t be serious –’

‘Steve’s got a point. I’m in.’ Richie said. He was almost beginning to look impressed. ‘You don’t like it, you walk.’

Steve knew Pete wouldn’t. He’d never done that before, and people just didn’t change. Pete and Steve himself had always enjoyed watching Richie commit violence. It was a disgusting, surrogate thing – but at least Steve had some sublimation in making money. He doubted Pete had any.

‘What if Old Nick turns up?’ Pete said after a long silence.

‘If you mean Old Man Nicholas, he won’t.’ Steve said. ‘Old Nick’s been here forever.’


6



In the end all three of them tied Nasko to a tree about a yard away from the road, in the first row. He’d passed out, so he wasn’t fighting it. Richie had heated the knife they’d used for cooking against the fire and given it to Steve. Steve had only had the time to scratch Nasko, when B finally got out of the car and screamed at him to stop, and that she was sorry she’d made him jealous. Richie turned around to face her:

‘I am so sick of this!’ He yelled. ‘You fuck one guy, you walk with another – as a result everyone goes nuts! And you had to bring Steve into this crap of yours! Now get to that car!’

She returned to the Rover. It brushed Steve’s mind she might think he was no better than Richie, but deep inside he knew people like her got aroused when such insanity was committed in their name. Then Richie took the knife from him and cut Nasko deeper, like a piece of beef steak – and that was when he woke up.

Steve could tell right away something was amiss – he didn’t behave the way tortured people were meant to behave, especially people like Nasko. Nasko opened his eyes and stared at Steve, who wasn’t even touching him at that moment. His mouth was securely tied with every kind of rope they’d found in the car, so at first when he spoke Steve thought it was his overstrained sleep-deprived imagination. But the voice was coming from somewhere around his temples, as if the spirit hadn’t integrated itself properly into his body. ‘You don’t like being in the spotlight, do you, Steve? Ever thought she might’ve gone for me instead – back when she wasn’t as fucked up as the rest of you?’

And that was it – it was true. He had always been jealous of every fucking thing that came near her, though he hid it well. Richie had brought some whiskey bottles from near the bonfire, as if they were back at high school, in for a new round of Nasko-bashing. Steve picked up one up from under his feet, smashed the edge of the neck off against a tree and shoved it in between Nasko’s collarbones. He heard Richie say ‘Holy shit’ as a fountain of blood sprayed all over his shirt and his face.

Then he felt the spirit stir in Nasko for the first time, like he’d felt it during the augury – felt he’d made in angry. It manifested just as he thought it might do. Nasko kind of floated up and down against the tree, though they’d tied him securely, and then separated from the tree altogether, leaving behind a part of his body, so that the thing floating at Steve looked like a plastic Halloween mask of a person. It still reeked of piss and blood, but it didn’t smell like a person could – there was also rotten fish and something like sulphur. It said: ‘You don’t have the guts to do anything without Richie around, no wonder you had to attach yourself to his sis. The sucker’s fate.’

The thing advanced towards him. He didn’t think this had anything to do with Nasko’s revenge – the spirit was just using him as an easy body to possess. He’d roused it himself, and now it was angry because he’d awoken it at the wrong time, when it would prefer to be sleeping, like a cantankerous old woman. He always did the wrong thing. Sleeping with B had been the wrong thing to do – barely legal at the time. He wasn’t just like Richie – he was worse. He stumbled back in leaps of sorts, and he finally seemed to be getting away from the possessor, so he sped up his hysterical pace and backed onto the road.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ Richie yelled. ‘Stop! Just stop!’

Steve took another step back, and Richie lunged after him, grabbed his shirt and pulled him back over. E148 was a road no one ever took and the time was nearing five a.m., but the moment Richie dragged him off it, a car shot past at full speed, slapping his back with a blast of cold air. When he looked up in a moment, the car wasn’t there.

‘Forget that shit, it’s not true.’ Richie said. ‘None of this is true.’

Except it was, to him. Steve went down onto the ground on all fours, grabbing at it as if it was alive – and it was. Shivers were wrecking him as if he was going through withdrawal from some drug. Richie’s warm, steadying hand landed on his shoulder and nearly crushed it, heavy like a piece of metal. He flinched away from it like he had before, but Richie held on this time. He hated it that B was watching this sequence of sheer humiliation. He wondered if that’s how Nasko always felt. The nastiest things in life always repeated themselves. He’d assumed the body on the ground in his pattern had been his, though it had been Nasko’s. Now he wasn’t sure it made much difference.

‘It’s after me because I got mixed up with the moon phase.’ Steve muttered. ‘It all went wrong, the whole thing went wrong and I wouldn’t even have the guts to do it alone –’ In fact he’d expected it to possess him, because he was the weakest – even more pathetic than Pete. Pete at least had the sense to keep out of this. He couldn’t feel it now, but he expected it to be back for him. It struck him it could be inside him already – it could have crawled in while he wasn’t looking.

‘Just listen to yourself, this is ridiculous! Fuck the moon phase.’ Richie said in exasperation. ‘You sound like a lunatic! We’re on top and we taught the bastard a lesson. S’all there is to it. He’ll always be at the bottom because that’s his nature. It’s his nature to get down and take it.’

Steve’s head snapped up. He said: ‘And mine too, according to your classification.’

‘You don’t get down for nobody. Slept with my sister, for fuck’s sake.’ Richie said, almost humorously. So now it’s a compliment, Steve thought.

‘Had to see that, did she?’ He said. B was still in the car, at which he wouldn’t look.

‘She doesn’t care. Been nuts about you since she was five.’

That hit the G-spot of Steve’s ego. ‘She has?’

‘Hell, yeah.’ Richie said. ‘Brad Pitt versus Stevie? No question. I still think you should have told me, but I guess I see why you didn’t. I had no idea you’d flip like this. Come on, get yourself together. We need to get rid of the body.’

Steve’s hunch told him this wasn’t going to be easy. They sulkily returned to the tree where the body was hanging, intact. He was afraid to wonder if it had even moved.

‘Just get out of here and take B with you.’ Richie said to Pete, who avoided looking at either of them. ‘This is between Steve and me.’ He handed Pete the keys from the Rover, but B reached out and grabbed them first.

‘You are not driving his car.’ She said to Pete a little hysterically. ‘He said you are not to drive his car so you’re not. Ain’t that right?’

Steve nodded, glad that she wasn’t into sentiments, and wouldn’t try to touch him right now. The blood which was covering him had started to dry.

‘We’ll walk.’ He said.


7



The ground was too hard to dig, and they had no shovel. The obvious choice was to burn the body, since they were at a petrol station. They set it on fire with Richie’s old lighter. But when the flames died out, it was still intact, except it had turned a little black. Richie hunted around the garage for a chainsaw and found one, but it wasn’t working. Steve was kind of glad about that – he didn’t have the nerve to watch Richie cut anyone up, let alone help him. They ate the rest of the meat they’d brought over and drank the last bottle of whiskey Pete had left them. By now they both reeked of blood and sweat.

‘You know we’re getting locked up for this.’ Steve said. ‘Kidnapping, torture. Rock solid fucking evidence.’

‘I’ll sort it out if it comes to that.’ Richie said. ‘No one ever comes ‘round here, and I doubt Old Man Nicholas will run to the cops if he finds it.’

They were right back at it by afternoon, but the body refused to bulge. Some part of Steve had expected Richie to ditch him there to deal with this alone. Steve was about to suggest they give up, take it as a sign, and call the police. But he figured Richie didn’t need his initiative. Eventually the darkness began to descend again. They collapsed, breathless, next to the body, and stared at the sky – the same spot where Pete had spotted the crescent which had ruined the ritual.

It wasn’t there.

‘Do you think –’ Richie said.

‘Yeah. I can’t believe I only missed it by one day.’ Steve said.

The oil spills they could barely glimpse in the dark began to move. They ran towards Nasko’s mutilated body like reactive snakes, and embraced it. The grass, which was now rainbow-coloured, began to look liquid – and the next moment it sucked in the body. They were left a sharp smell of motor oil and burning. The silence had dissipated, and they could now hear the dull hum of the highway, and the singing of some birds.

‘No one gets possessed on a new moon.’ Steve said. ‘At least we know the fucking thing is not in me.’

‘You thought it was?’ Richie said.

‘Well. I am the best candidate.’ Steve said. ‘What did you see?’

‘Hmm?’

‘During the ceremony, what did you see?’

‘Ah. Seems I’m not going back.’

Steve said: ‘Good.’



THE END


2018 Agrippina Domanski

Bio: Agrippina Domanski's work has been published in The Lampeter Review, Dumas de Demain (in French, twice: La Guerre en Bosnie, Rachelle), On Religion, and 34th Parallel. One of their short stories has won the Mearnes Award (The Truffle Box) and another has placed among the winners of the 2016 Audio Arcadia short story competition (Marshes). Their most recent publications have been in Luna Station Quarterly, Audio Arcadia (2018) and The BFS Horizons of the British Fantasy Society (Long Days).

Website: Claire Fitzpatrick

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