The city’s dreich rainbow of concrete, granite, and cloud looms over me as I sit waiting on a steel bench, it’s cold metal tang absorbed long ago by the heat of my thighs. I’m outside a discount fashion outlet, studying those who come in and out. Assessing them for selection against some unconscious criteria, some algebra of intuition I have no access to. Even though the idea formed like a rash, its attention-stealing urgency gave no clue as to what lay beyond acting upon it. That someone must be a chosen is the only thing I am certain of.
But this urge to select a stranger was not the first surprise compulsion of the day. A dark, powerful impulse came over me this morning; a strange sensation imploring me to escape my apartment immediately. It was not unlike finding yourself in a nightmare, overwhelmed by the need to wake up. Hardly something you expect to visit while happily pottering in the kitchen on a regular Saturday morning. I didn’t even grab my jacket, let alone open the mail, in my terrified rush to get outside.
For several hours, as I wandered aimlessly through the city’s dreary streets, the impression that the haunted atmosphere of my flat would still be there to greet me when I got home had control of me. Anxiety slithered across every thought. But as time passed, and distance grew between myself and the flat, the strange and unsettling coercion that gripped me in the morning faded. Again, much like a dream. But when the last knots of control this feeling held me with unraveled, looking up from my steel bench in front of the discount fashion outlet, I understood it had left only to make room for the directive that now consumes me.
The compulsion to choose someone throbs insistently. Yet I’m struggling to pick anyone out of this stream of comers-and-goers. Even though I don’t know what I’m looking for, no one seems quite right. And with the passing hours, I struggle more and more to differentiate between people. Each person who leaves and enters the shop is now just an average of all those I have seen before. An amalgam. But despite the disruption my perceived conformity of those who walk before me brings to the act of singling someone out, I’m glad that no one is as unique as they imagine they are. A certain degree of anonymity in my selectee would be a comfort given I’ve no idea what is in store for the two of us. Will I be detective or killer in this curious game of cat and mouse I’m about to play? Who is who, it seems, has yet to be decided.
Why picking a stranger to stalk has become my compulsion is beyond me. Urges are urges, I guess. Or, rather, hope. There’s not much you can do about them. The desire I feel to choose someone seems predetermined, part of the natural order, the next step to be stepped. Or perhaps, it’s just a bit of fun. Perhaps it’s just because I can stalk someone. Perhaps it’s something to fill the empty days, something to stave off boredom. Or, perhaps, I want to prove that there can still be mystery by finding it in another person’s life. Then their mystery can become my mystery. To uncover a stranger’s ways, to know the real reasons why they do this or that, to explore their hidden relationships, to undress the dirty skeletons in their cupboards, to find out more about them than they even know themselves – how tantalizing it is to churn the mud of another’s secrets and wallow in the reasons why they, like everyone, live as inventions, untruthful even to themselves; their lying faces but a mirror to a lying world. Maybe solace can be found in a stranger’s deceit. The wrongdoings of another becoming a mitigator for our vice-ridden souls. But I know in my heart that any explanation rooted in the simplicity of human psychology for my new stalking predilection is merely a distraction. That the stalker’s urge might not have come from within my own being is not something I wish to dwell on.
I’m picking someone.
I can’t make explicit the reasons, but I know he’s the right choice. Musicians don’t always need to learn the rules to know that sometimes only one note will fit. And this note in my mysterious melody is thankfully just another face in the crowd. About forty, white, medium-build, medium height, receding hair, a greying beard covering teenage acne scars. His Denim jacket, white t-shirt and black jeans are neither new nor old. He is as anonymous as they come in this northern city.
He takes a left out of the clothes shop. I wait a moment before leaving my bench to follow him. And with this motion I am swiftly overwhelmed by the surreal notion that I’m inhabiting a forthcoming episode of a true crime series, a tale of infatuation gone wrong. Yet, I feel like the star of the re-enactment rather than the perpetrator. I can almost hear the narrator’s voice coming from the future to point out the moment my mind unhinged and I lost myself to the madness of obsession.
I keep a distance of about twenty feet. Not too close. I don’t want him to see me; I don’t want to plant the seed of recognition by becoming that stranger you see more than once in a day. I tail him for about two-hundred yards along High Street before he takes a right into St Perpetua’s Way. The short, cobbled cul-de-sac, covered by a roof of fairy lights, is home to a series of antiquarian and second-hand stores. He opens the door to Magonia Books and a bell chimes inside. I watch him through the window as he scans a few of the cramped displays at the front before he fades into the darker recesses of the shop’s rear. I go in, wincing at the sound of the bell. The air is dense, musty. Worn books fill the wooden shelves that reach from floor to ceiling. The shop extends in a long, corridor-like manner away from the entrance. At the windowless back of the shop, the space widens to complete a T-shape. A grey-haired, bespectacled woman, who I assume is the shopkeeper, sits at the desk in the corner beside the door I’ve just come through. Accompanied by the thin strings of a symphony struggling out of the tinny radio beside her, she is working her way through a crossword.
I nod at the shopkeeper, who doesn’t look up, and make my way to the back, pausing occasionally to blindly inspect a shelf, until I see my man at the far-left corner. Fortunately, he’s facing away from me, so I manage to get into the other corner without him acknowledging me. From there I watch him, side-on, perusing the Esoteric & Occult section. He doesn’t look the type, but he seems to know what he’s looking for, his pointed finger strumming the spines with purpose. He stops, taps once on a book, and takes it from the shelf. It’s old. Probably nineteenth century. His hand obscures the title, but I see on the cover a series of curious symbols marked in red.
I wait until he is at the cash register before eyeing the gap on the shelf to see if I can figure out the author of his purchase. But when I get there, most of the books are upside down or back-to-front, and in no discernible order. How, then, had he perused with such authority? He scanned the texts as if they were placed alphabetically. A hollow sensation descends, and the echoes of fear reverberate inside me as I consider whether he might have done this. Had he cast some spell, wove some arcane magic to confuse me? Or is this strangeness simply an eccentric joke perpetrated by the owner? A jape befitting the subject matter of this section.
I grab a book, something small. I’ve no idea what it is. The words mean nothing to me. Liber something. Latin maybe. I go to the counter and stand behind him. The man’s book is already in the bright yellow bag being passed to him, but I’m in time to catch the name on his bankcard as he holds it over the payment machine. Dr K. L. Vaughn. Doctor? Doctor of what?
As Dr Vaughn puts his bankcard away, he turns towards me, smiles and nods. It’s innocent – an acknowledgement between strangers of nothing other than a shared space. I smile back, but I’m furious inside. He might recognise me in the future now! I’m upset because my fun might be already over. What a terrible spy I would make. I place my book on the counter and try to pay for it, but panic surges as Dr Vaughn leaves to the chime of the bell, and I spill loose change from my pocket. I fumble with the scattered coins. I can’t pick them up. They resist my efforts to prise them from the floor as if they are glued down. As I struggle, my relationship to the coins shifts. Their resolution diminishes. Their reality lessens. They become simple expressions of numerical values with no real worth. Not even toy-money from child’s game. Complete abstractions.
I return my attention to Dr Vaughn, fearing I might lose him, and give up on the money. I apologise to the shopkeeper, telling her I don’t want the book after all, but she doesn’t acknowledge me. With her gaze fixed upon the doorway, she doesn’t even look at me. I’m not sure she has ever looked at me.
On the streets I stumble through an impervious and uncaring crowd with a growing sense of loss. A terrified parent searching for their lost child. But then I see him. I see Dr Vaughn and his bright yellow bag from the bookstore. He’s not got far. I breathe deeply to regain my composure before heading in his direction. I need to find out where he lives. I can’t lose him forever.
An hour of careful and eventless stalking later, and I’m watching him from the end of a quiet suburban street of pebble-dashed semi-detached houses. I do not think he caught sight of me since we left the bookshop. He turns right into a driveway and lets himself in to what I can only assume is his house. Number eleven Fenville Avenue.
Now I can go home and begin again tomorrow. I cannot lose him anymore.
I go up the three flights of stairs to my flat, open the door and pause for a moment before going in. I’m a little trepidatious after this morning’s panic. That strange haunted impulse to escape my own home as quickly as possible. But instead of fear, I’m greeted by the sensation of emptiness. Stepping inside and walking from room to room, I feel there are things missing. Did I really have this little furniture? Did I never hang any pictures on the walls? I don’t believe I have been burgled for I have no specific memory of the things I believe might be absent, only a sense of them. So, I can only assume I’m mistaken; my thoughts having been tainted by my fixation on Dr Vaughn. Perhaps it’s his absence I perceive now?
I sit on the hardbacked pale couch, wishing I had managed to buy that book. I could do with something to read. There doesn’t appear to be anything here. No sign of a life that might be mine. Why is this? And why am I not more disturbed? It seems the flat’s emptiness is a mirror to my emptiness.
As I settle into the silence, there being nothing else to do, I notice a white envelope on the coffee table. I pick it up. It’s not labelled with a name or address, but there is something in it. I thumb it open and take out the single black-and-white drawing it contains. My heart quickens at the impossibility in front of me. In fine pencil and ink is a detailed depiction of myself and Dr Vaughn at the bookstore. The moment we smiled at each other in polite acknowledgement. The image is bordered with an array of sacred symbols – a syntax of intersecting lines, triangles and circles I do not understand. How did they know my address? How did someone – the bookseller? – get into my flat and leave this picture? The answer is: they didn’t. They can’t have. It was not possible to produce this artwork and transport it here in the ninety minutes it has been since I left Magonia books. Unless time has somehow changed, altered like space has been in my flat. How would I know?
No, this cannot be some complicated, twisted prank. The envelope containing the drawing was delivered this morning, not placed in my flat after I left the bookshop. Although I am unable to remember anything else my flat might have contained earlier, I am certain this envelope was the sole constituent of the unopened post I abandoned on the coffee table during my rush to get out this morning. The time when I was overtaken by the urgency of inexplicable terror.
The picture was drawn before the event it depicts. At a time when I lived in a flat full of life and colour, surely filled with paintings, books and photographs of my family. And furniture that went beyond the most basic functionality. A flat adorned with the power of imagination.
I check my windows are shut and draw my curtains. Were they always grey like the sky they shield? At the front door, also grey, I rummage through my keys. Why so many? And all of them blank, waiting for the locksmith’s key clipper. I search this alien door for a latch I can use, but there is nothing there anymore. No means to fasten it shut at all. I need a chair to push against it. A wardrobe would be better. But when I return to the living room everything is gone. Everything except the impossible drawing lying on the floor.
I have no choice but to go to him. Go to Dr Vaughn and see if he can explain these unbelievable events. I would have phoned someone. A friend. A sibling. A parent. But I can’t remember ever having any. I have only the memory of memory.
I leave my apartment and instead of stepping into the building’s stairwell I step out onto a familiar suburban street of pebble-dashed semi-detached houses. I step out onto Fenville Avenue, opposite Dr Vaughn’s home.
As I approach, passing through his garden gate, the front door to Dr Vaughn’s house opens. I’m inside. Here there are signs of life. Here, in Dr Vaughn’s house, there is colour. Decoration imagined and crafted by someone’s will. The hallway is covered with large paintings that depict depraved menageries of hybrid creatures, spliced to the whim of a curiosity that cared not a bit about the suffering of its creations. Further along hang dark woodcuts of hopelessness: torturous hells and visions of comic abandonment. Graphic photographs of ritualistic orgies sit on display in the living room as innocently as pictures of family outings. Sculptures crafted to a stark geometry swarm every wall like insects summoned from a hallucinogenic realm. Insects that crave the psychic horrors that provide them their sole sustenance – that special darkness this world guarantees to all those who are victims of its existence.
Stumbling under the gaze of these maddening artworks I gain a fondness to them. An attraction to the reality they represent grows within me. I feel homesick.
A pull comes to me from upstairs. A summoning. It’s the hunter’s urge. I take each stair one at a time. Slowly. Deliberately. Savouring every moment. I have never existed more than I do now. I am focused purpose. Everything else has faded to grey. Nothing worthwhile exists other than Dr Vaughn: the immeasurable core of my reality.
I reach the door, behind which lies the source of my desire. As I turn the handle, the sound of the latch explodes into the nervous hush, and my skin is shocked cold with electric charge. It is night in the room beyond. The windows are boarded-up and the walls are painted gloss black. A feint scrawl covers them – diagrams exploring the architecture of the unseen. As my eyes adjust to the light and these formulae come into focus, I grasp moments of comprehension as the gestalt switch of understanding flickers between interpretations. Inside a circle drawn upon the floor in white chalk lies Dr Vaughn. He is naked. Six candles, the only sources of light, lie equidistant around the circle’s circumference. A small wooden table sits in the corner. I go in and close the door behind me.
Dr Vaughn’s legs and arms are splayed like the Vitruvian Man and rest inside loose-fitting restraining loops bolted to the floor. It is clear I am to tighten them. Am I no more than a tool in these proceedings? Perhaps I did not choose Dr Vaughn this rainy afternoon, perhaps Dr Vaughn chose me. No longer is it apparent that I existed before this day, or whether, when I am done with him, or he is done with me, I will remain to exist.
His eyes stay closed as I walk over to him. I inhale his bitter sweat. After tightening the straps around his wrists and ankles, one notch more than necessary, I go to the table in the corner. On it is an old leather-bound book: The Gateways of Azamagorix – The Theurgic Arts Volume IV – Anatomy Manipulation for Practical Summoning. Underneath the title is written: Translated and illustrated by Dr K. L. Vaughn. It has been bookmarked. I open it to a double paged drawing. I recognise the style immediately. Dr Vaughn is the artist responsible for the drawing sent to me this morning. The premonition of when our eyes met for the first time.
The illustration in the book details an extreme form of acupuncture. A body, lying splayed like Dr Vaughn’s, is depicted in black ink upon the murky pages. But this body is screaming and riddled with thick pins protruding from every part of its flesh. I count over twenty of these pins sticking out of each foot alone.
Beside the open book is a shoebox filled with the specialised pins depicted in the diagram. There is a variety of lengths, each tapered to the sharp point of a thick needle, fattening quickly towards the flat-headed end, similar to that found on any large masonry nail. Upon the head of each pin is inscribed a symbol of intersecting lines and curves. I feel this curious sigil depicts a name. A familiar name. The final item on the table is a claw hammer.
I take the items from the table and kneel beside Dr Vaughn. He remains silent except for his quickening breath. There is no need for words. Everything is perfectly clear now. I look at his skin and see the marks. The scars from when this was done before. From when I did this before? I run my finger down the purple-tinged traumas on his ribs. His flesh prickles. As does mine.
Where to begin? A shoulder? A shin? His pelvis? Over two hundred bones in total. It’s going to take a long, long time to drive a pin through them all.
I take the longest nail I can find from the box and watch him delicately arch his back. He wets his lips in anticipation. I think he might be enjoying this. I place the tip of the needle on his thigh, six inches above the knee and press it gently down, enjoying the moments of resistance before I feel his flesh give. He gasps as a drip of blood spills out and trickles down his leg. I take the hammer in my right hand and wonder whether to be fast or slow. Hit hard or soft. I’m feeling merciful, for now, so I strike hard. His body convulses as he wretches a stifled scream, holding it as far back in his throat as he can. But I know I’ve only gone as far as muscle; the pin but a dull knife struggling through rare steak. I hit again, and this time I feel the shift in resistance as nail enters bone. He cries again but this time into clenched teeth. I continue to hold the pin, fearing to let it go as his leg muscle pulses around it. Dr Vaughn emits a gargled sigh as the initial eruption of pain diminishes and a smile spreads across his face. The symbol at the end of the nail glows red and I let go.
Something is happening inside me. The same area of my own thigh is getting hot. A scalding sensation spreads across my right quadricep. God, it burns. I push off my shoes. Quickly unbutton my trousers and remove them. My thigh is glistening, bubbling, transforming. I scream with the shock, the panicked agony. Knots and ridges, bars and domes push out against my skin. They emerge, blending with the surface to form structures with forms that share no common ground with human anatomy. Demon red tendrils snake out from my flesh and wrap my new limb tenderly. The newborn must be nursed.
I hear laughter. Dr Vaughn is giggling as blood still leaks from his thigh. His joy grows and his chest bucks. He laughs the laugh of a man possessed. I lean over him as he opens his feral eyes, and I cannot help but join in with his glee, his infectious fever. For his rapture is my rapture now. Two maniacs, two mirrors, we scream our hysterical ecstasy at each other.
Something touches my hand. An impatient tendril from my transformed leg is passing me a nail. Another reaches forward offering me the hammer it has coiled itself around. Shaking with anticipation I take them both and without hesitation strike the nail into the ulna bone of Dr Vaughn’s left forearm. I have been too vigorous. The nail has gone through and pinned him to the ground. But by the sounds of his unbroken laughter he does not care. And neither do I. For I know his pain and joy are one now.
The same scalding feeling that came to my thigh comes to my arm. I look down and see my skin boiling. The agony is unholy, but I am not scared anymore. There is nothing to fear in this pain. There is nothing to fear in the pain of finding your true self. It no longer matters who I was, or even if I was. All that matters is what I will become.
Row upon row of three-inch-high pyramid spikes coalesce from the morphing skin on the inside of my forearm. They glisten crimson with moisture, freshly delivered, raw to their new world. The tendrils from my leg extend their way towards these new barbs of mine, they wish to greet them. As they caress my new forearm, I feel my thigh and arm become one. The pain of my restructuring transcends to the purest pleasure. And this, with just two nails into simple limbs. I look with anticipation at Dr Vaughn’s skull. What wonderous fractures will I bring to my mind? As Dr Vaughn continues to writhe with pain and delight, I smile, reach down, and take another nail.
About the Author
Peter Burton lives in Glasgow, where he worked for many years as a research scientist. His writing has appeared in several magazines, from which his story Priority was nominated for a Pushcart prize. He is currently preparing his first collection of weird fiction for release in 2020.
Pete also makes curious, dusty sounds under the moniker, TimeDog, and has released a number of albums on indie labels such as Diametric and Shimmering Moods.
Links to all Pete’s stuff can be found on his blog: