Archive for the ‘Dark Tales’ Category

The morning after.  The walls in the hotel suite where we had stayed dripped blood.  My head swam, my stomach heaved.  Someone is shrieking, an awful high pitched dentist’s drill of a  sound that is penetrating my skull agonisingly.  I lie under a heavy drift of ripped and shredded feather bedding, some of which clings to my naked body, red and sticky. Under  my cocooning layer of debris only I am yet aware of that, and since I cannot move, I can’t but help but wonder if I haven’t yet been seen under here.  I am sure that awful noise is being made because of the blood on the walls and the grizzly mess that I know is strewn across the carpet of our room too.  

I am assaulted afresh by jagged shards of memory stabbing through my pained consciousness.  I recall the sepulchre tones of the ticking clock that stopped dead at midnight, the stench of blood, the red-blindness that accompanied the sound of my own voice screaming itself hoarse, the grim look that passed over his pale face and the howling, the dreadful howling that filled my ears as painfully as this shrieking.  I’m not ready for these memories, and the sound that they tear out of my throat brings attention to me.  

There is a confusion of voices, the shrieking is cut off by them, and then there’s hands laid on me and exclamations of horror.  Someone asks if I am ok, someone asks what happened, but I can’t answer.  A penny drops in someone’s head and I hear them ask where he is, in a voice which is already teetering on a hysterical edge because the answer is in front of everyone now around me.  It’s strewn in bloody, torn pieces across the bedroom carpet and slopped like buckets of red paint on the walls.  Questions become demands that I won’t ever be able to answer, there is shouting and panic, and footsteps fleeing in haste.  Someone can’t keep their stomach contents.  I sympathise, I lost mine some time ago though, but I can’t speak up to say.  I’m overwhelmed, speechless, paralysed, just a broken thing left behind in the aftermath of what happened to him.  

Then I hear someone start to weep, lamenting him.

“He was just 27, dear God, just 27,”  

Yes, just 27, my heart weeps with them, but we always knew that the day would come.  

Wind back the years, because it hurts too much to linger in this place.  I was 12, on the cusp of my teens, and we had just moved to a new house in a new city, in a new country so that my dad could start a new job.  On the day I was supposed to start my new school, I was sitting on the porch with the house locked and silent behind me, watching quietly as the bus that was meant to take me to school pulled out of the street, none the wiser of having left the new girl behind.  We travelled a lot, I changed schools a lot, I didn’t want to face yet another room full of kids it wasn’t worth getting close to.  My mother was my father’s PA, and they had already left for work together almost an hour before.  I often wonder if they ever noticed the way I slipped out of their busy lives, if they ever look up now and see my face plastered on some screen, magazine or suchlike and wish that they had paid more attention to their daughter.  Guess I won’t ever know.  

The bus disappeared round the corner and still I sat, wondering what to do with myself.  I sat for what seemed like a countless number of silent minutes as I contemplated how much I resented the loneliness of the childhood my parents were gifting to me in their mutual pursuit of money.  I seethed inside, while the heat of threatened tears dried out my eyes and made them feel scratchy.

“The school is bullshit anyway,” was the first thing he said to me.  I looked up, startled, I had been boring my anger into the wooden step at my feet.  He loomed over me, standing at the foot of the steps and with a beat up old guitar, missing at least one string, slung over his shoulder.  Green eyes peeked out at me from behind a mass of tousled dark curls. He seemed just a little older than me, standing in well worn jeans and a too large denim jacket.  

“It’s all fucking bullshit, school, moving, parents.  Fucking everything,” I said in reply, with a snarl and a defiant curled lip.   I was a veteran of several years of secret swearing by that point, though I had yet to dare to turn such language on the people in my life who deserved it the most.

“I’m Louis,” he said then, holding out a hand to me, “You look like you could do with a tour guide,” he added, a smile that promised more mischief and unadulterated fun than I had experienced in years bringing light to those green eyes.

“Seraphine,” I reply, taking his hand to shake it, “Will it be guaranteed to piss off my parents?” I asked, hopeful to make them remember I existed.  Trying to  be a good girl had never got their attention.  They expected that of me, but they never went out of their way to praise me for it.  

“Only if they ever find out,” he answered.  I was 12, on the cusp of my teens.  Already my veins had a little drip-drip of hormones feeding into them, enough to stir up a little rebellion in me, and enough that the girl in me responded to the draw of the boy in him, even though I wasn’t that aware of it.  

The new country my parents had brought me to was France, the new city, Paris. My mother is French though, so language was not a problem between Louis and I, although he quickly noticed that I had an ‘accent’.

“Where are you from?” he demanded of me as I followed him out into the rich, leafy suburb that my parents had settled us into.

“I’ve been everywhere, so I’m not really from anywhere.  My father is American, but I have dual citizenship.  I was born in Guadeloupe,”

“Your parents are very rich then, I guess,” Louis said.

“They work all the time so they must be,” I remember replying. But Louis’ parents were also very rich – he was my next door neighbour.  He hated it as much as I did, so he dressed in dirty old clothes and spent his days skipping off school and busking in the centre of the city.  He was almost two years older than me, it turned out, and he’d been running away from school for at least a year.  Sometimes they managed to get him cooped up in a classroom for weeks though, if the school managed to get his parents to intervene, but once their guard was down again he’d head back out onto the streets.

Our first stop on that first day was back to his house to grab bikes, then I followed him as we hurtled at breakneck speed through the treacherous and mercurial Parisienne traffic, Louis with his   5-string guitar slung across his back.  We made it all the way to the many steps at the feet of Le Sacre Coeur.  That’s where I heard Louis play for the first time, and from that first time I was enthralled by his playing.  He’d been taking classical guitar lessons since he’d been a small boy and played as if the guitar was part of him.  As he’d grown older he’d heard lots of other guitar music, but he’d fallen in love with Rock.  He played a fusion of both on his beat up street urchin’s guitar, and the passing crowds rained down coins on him until a Gendarme began to wander our way.  With our haul of old french coins, the frank had still not succombed to the euro in those days, we lost ourselves in the crowd and hunted down a Creperie so we could blow most of them on huge pancakes dripping in butter and nutella, then he began to show me his city.  I fell in love.   

We were street rats scuttling through the twisting back alleys and secret places of Paris, meeting dark characters who imparted dubious wisdom, cigarettes and illicit shots of burning whisky.  Music dripped from Louis’ finger tips, charm from his lips as he bought all the people we met with it.  We roamed until the sun slunk below the buildings on Montmartre, stopping sometimes long enough in some tourist spot to collect money to keep us in food and drink for the day, but spending most of our day far from the relentless crowds.  Then finally we took our lives in our hands and biked back to the suburbs under the streetlights and moonlight.  My parents house was still silent and locked, but I no longer cared.  I had traversed the cusp, become a teenager and been rechristened as Sera.  I would never get on that school bus.

Quickly I learned to dress in my oldest clothes, and I began to do sketches of tourists while Louis played, or sometimes I would sing.  Nannies and assistants were hired to try and get me into school, but I slipped their grasp every day so I could be free on the streets of Louis’ city with him.  My parents spoke to me about it, I told them comforting lies and they accepted them because they had never really known how to speak to me anyway.  

The first time we didn’t come back of a night, the Gendarme were called but couldn’t find us in the heaving city.  They had severe words for me  when I did get home, but I cared nothing for it then.  Within a few short weeks, Louis and I stopped going home altogether.

We slept on the floors of abandoned flats, sharing them with other street urchins and strays.  These places were teeming with struggling artists and bohemian philosophers.  Musicians were common too, although I realised there weren’t many who could play guitar like Louis.  I followed always in Louis’ wake, too young and shy to be alone in this new world of ours, but too fascinated and in love with it to take myself back to the safer, lonelier world I had come from.  I became Sera-bebe and was treated as Louis kid sister by everyone. Louis himself was fiercely protective of me and he kept me nearby always.  I was two years younger than him, and running every day with wolves who could have easily exploited me, if not for Louis.

Time began to pass.  We kept ourselves fed with busking and drawing, although as I got older and grew in the kind of confidence that a life on the street can give you, I began to sing more often than I drew.  We could draw quite a crowd, which was fine as neither of us worried much about being picked up and taken home to our parents any more.  Louis’ tumbling dark curls fell to his shoulder, and he had grown several inches after we took to the streets, so he was a tall, slender rake of a young man hiding behind his guitar while I kept the eyes of the crowd on me.  I had grown a little too, though not much.  My parents had always insisted I kept my white blonde hair short, so I grew it long.  They had always insisted I dress tidily and conservatively, so I wore lots of tight jeans and skimpy clothes, layered over with bright scarves that I would ‘borrow’ from the moroccan stalls and shops around the city. I also wore hundreds of multi-coloured bangles that would jingle as I danced and sang.  I always hid my pale blue eyes behind sunglasses – small round pink tinted sunglasses that looked a little like the glasses John Lennon had always worn.  My nomadic childhood meant I could speak not only fluent French and English, but also pretty good German, Italian and Spanish, so I was always the one to address our crowds.  I guess that was one of the reasons I learned to shake off my shyness. The children our parents were probably looking for (I still don’t know if my parents ever really bothered) were just that – children.  We were something else; wise beyond our years, resourceful, swaggering and wholly untrustworthy to anyone except our immediate group of friends. Life was raw, but it was free and it made us precocious and unrecognisable.  

Then we met the old man.  It happened because I missed books, and Louis found the old man’s book shop while looking for books for me.  It was tucked away on a small side street not far from the Pere-Lachaise cemetery, where so many talented parisiennes, adopted in many cases like myself, had their final resting place.  Louis spent a lot of time there, practicing guitar beside Jim Morrison’s grave, and writing poetry.  One wet day in September, close to a year after we had run away from home, he stumbled on the book shop after his visit with Jim.  It was a crowded little space, and it seemed like the shelves all leaned in towards the small counter and the cheap gas heater the old man kept behind it.  The fact that the shop was called L’Emporium Occulte de Pere-Lachaise drew Louis in like a moth to a flame.  He was always fascinated with the occult and supernatural.  

So that day, he ducked into the shop out of the rain, clutching his battered guitar as ever, wrapped in a bin bag to keep the rain off it, and found himself face to face with the old man.  There was nothing immediately unusual about him, he was just an elderly, bespectacled man with a moth eaten cardigan, a cigarette hanging from his lip, a cup of coffee in one hand and a book in the other.  The fact that the book he was reading was an ancient copy in the original German of Van Goethe’s Faust was the only little clue apart from the name of the shop that  there might be anything untoward about the owner.  

The old man put his book down, took the cigarette from his mouth and contemplated Louis for a long moment before he spoke.

“You’re the lad who plays in the cemetery every day.  Street brats don’t learn to play that well normally,”

“I wasn’t always a street brat,” Louis told him with a nonchalent shrug, staring around at the books crammed into every shelf.  There were little handwritten signs tacked to the shelves, declaring the subject matter of the surrounding books.  Words like Demonologie, Fee Traditions, Qabbalah,   Sorcellerie, Magiques Noire and Tarot were scribbled on them in a spidery, looping script.

“Are you sure, lad?  Doesn’t matter where you are born if your heart is supposed to belong to a street brat,”

“My heart is supposed to belong to a Rock Star,” was Louis’ reply.  He made no secret of his ambition, and had already formed an anarchic band that was yet to get a gig but that spent a lot of evenings practicing on stolen and scavenged gear in a frigid old wine cellar that had doubled as a hideout for Jews during the Occupation of Paris.  It had become our home lately, along with the rest of the band.  There were leaks letting water in from the Seine above, and rats scuttled in the shadows, and the smell of half a dozen poorly washed bodies lingered along with the must of dampness, but it was our home and we loved the place.  The way in was through a concealed entrance in an alleyway behind the dilapidated, bombed out building it had served for centuries, so it was the perfect place for us to avoid the Gendarme and make our noise.  We got our power from a building site next door, using stolen extension cables to feed it in.  That was the only real point of contention, because no-one liked to be the person nominated to hide the cables away before the morning shift at the site.  

“Ah, that is why you sit by the American’s grave to play then,” the old man replied knowingly to Louis statement, “ I am not so sure, lad. Rock Stars lose their freedom and I can see that you need to be free, like a street brat.  Think of what happened to your American friend in the cemetery there,”

Louis always had a quick temper, and it flashed inside him then.

“When I am a Rock Star, sir, I will keep my freedom because no-one will be willing to take it away from me,”

“Ah, so sure of yourself, lad, so confident!  I have heard you play, I know your talent,”  the old man said, staring cooly into Louis angry glare, then he leaned forward so that his face was close to Louis’ – the shop was very small after all – and he whispered, “I can help you, Louis D’Amour, you and that beautiful little angel who often follows you, la petite Seraphine,”

Of course, Louis was rattled by the old man’s words.  How did he know our names? How could he possibly help us realise Louis ambition?  Who exactly was this man with his sinister little boutique?

“I don’t think I want your help, thank you, sir,” Louis said through gritted teeth before turning on his heel and leaving the shop.  He was not fast enough to miss what the old man said next though.

“You’ll be back, lad, you know you will,”    

It took several months, but Louis did go back.  He scoured the city looking for places that would let us play, but no-one wanted to take on a band of street trash.  We had our own following already, but a single look at them would have bar and club owners shaking their heads and  pointing at the door, because we were all from the street and no club owner in the whole city was willing to risk having any of us in their establishment.  Every knock back only served to make Louis angry, he saw the outright prejudice behind the rejections and I know that the old man’s words haunted him, because while he loved the freedom of our lives on the street, he did not want to become like the old burned out shells of men who slept on the streets and lived off cheap spirits and cigarettes begged from passers by. He did not want to live and die a street brat.

Louis didn’t tell me he was going.  I was older, wiser and very street smart by this point in time, so while we weren’t apart often, he would at least let me out of his sight.  By this time, snow was piling up in slush piles at the side of the roads and winter was biting hard.  The cellar was always freezing, even in summer, but now it was so bitterly cold that we would sleep in thick duffel overcoats and under piles of purloined blankets and the only liquids that never froze completely down there were the bottles of wine and whisky that there were always plenty of.  On the very coldest nights, we even took to sleeping together as the whole band, sharing body heat.  

It was snowing large wet flakes from a slate grey sky, and a bitter wind was whistling around Pere-Lachaise.  Louis stopped on the way to sit with Jim, but he did not bring his guitar with him that day because of the weather.  Louis had other guitars in the cellar, better guitars with their full complement of strings, but he would only use that old guitar when he was busking.  It had been his very first guitar, and he claimed it held a little piece of his soul.  So it was without it that he made his way to L’Emporium Occulte. Perhaps, I wonder, that was significant.  Perhaps it wasn’t.

The old man sat as if he hadn’t moved in all the intervening months.  The book he was reading had changed, he was now reading a book on the life of Robert  Johnson, the legendary blues guitarist, but he wore the same cardigan and spectacles, clutched the same coffee cup and still had a cigarette hanging from his lip.

“You are stubborn lad, I thought you would have seen sense long before winter came,” the old man addressed him without looking up from his book.

“Sense?  Its crazy that I am here asking for your help!” Louis told him, “What on earth can you do for me anyway?”

“Look around you.  I can give you knowledge.  I can give you the power to make things happen,”

Louis had always been a believer, but he had found the true extent of his belief on his last visit, he thought.  It had taken months of disappointment to bring him back to the old man, but even in his desperation he wasn’t convinced.

“You want me to pray to Fairies or work magic spells?” Louis spat then, but the old man simply  laughed.

“The Fey would be more likely to steal you for their own enjoyment than help you,” he told Louis, “And while some magic will definitely help, most spells are fluff, “ he added before putting down his book and his coffee cup and finally giving Louis his attention, “No, lad, you will need something a little less flimsy,”

Perhaps if I had been there with Louis, I would have seen the hungry glint in the old man’s eye, or some other tell tale sign that there was some awful catch to his seemingly benign offer, but I fear I would have been swept along with Louis’ desire anyway.  Louis did not answer straight away, in fact for a long moment he thought about turning and leaving, but the sight of the cold, wet snow drifting from the sky and the slush filled streets stopped him.  Too easily he could imagine a lifetime of struggling through cold winters, thwarted ambitions and decreasing horizons.  Too easily he could imagine ending his life a bitter drunk in a Parisienne gutter under a drift of future snow.  He whispered to me in the dark of a much later night that he had also imagined what my fate might be and decide he couldn’t bear to see what might become of me .  It does me no good now to try and imagine what kind of alternative there might have been.

“Alors! You win, old man.  What can you do to help us?”

The old man smiled then, revealing a smile that seemed just a bit too toothy and pointed for comfort.  I know this because I got to see that smile later, and often, so I learned all too well what he looked like when he got his way.  

“I can do nothing today, but come back when there is no moon in the sky, and I will help you then,”

So, albeit reluctantly, that is what Louis did. It was only three nights later when he returned, and this time he brought me with him.  Louis was wary still, and he was right to be, so he brought me to stand witness to whatever the old man had planned.  Yet, as soon as I saw the old man, I felt the beginning of cold dread in the pit of my stomach.

“She should not be here, lad.  You don’t want her to be involved in this,” were the words the old man threw at Louis when we entered his shop together.

“Then perhaps I don’t want to be involved either. What do I have to hide from her?” Louis retorted. Maybe we should have been suspicious at how readily the old man gave in, because in hindsight it seems his altruism was nothing more than a front to cover for what he truly wanted from Louis.  Certainly, I felt a cold shiver at his response, and that dread began to make itself known to me by turning my stomach.

“Nothing then, I guess,” the old man replied with a shrug and a thin smile, his eyes lingering on me for a second before flicking to Louis.  I was left in a state of deep division.  I did not trust this old man, I felt there was something deeply sinister about him, but I would not dream of denying Louis his ambition. Partly because it was mine, but in the most part because Louis was the unspoken centre of my universe.  Louis seemed appeased by the old man’s acquiescence too, so I could not have walked out then anyway.

I cannot deny that what followed over the weeks and months frightened me.  At first, we would go to visit the old man at his shop and he would lead us through the back to a large, bare room behind the tiny shop at the end of a long, gloomy hallway that was squeezed by stacks and stacks of books piled on each side of it.  One wall of the room, the southern one, was dominated by an old fashioned range complete with a deep black cooking pot suspended on a long arm over the fire.  The only windows in the room were always shuttered, and the only light came from the fire and the dozens of thick, white tallow candles that also lent the heavy air a faintly carnal scent.  On the bare wooden boards the old man had drawn two chalk circles, one large one that encompassed an altar and many of the candles, one small one that contained a five-pointed star and many strange sigils.  Underneath the chalk, although I didn’t notice it at first, there was a layer of rusty brown paint that I tried very hard to believe was not blood for quite a long time, until events tore the wool from my eyes.  The altar itself was the first thing that really frightened me, before my awareness grew of the more subtle dangers we faced in that room.  It was carved from Ebony, and inlaid with ivory.  The legs were fashioned into naked women, bound with chains and being preyed upon by disembodied, clawed hands that dug cruelly into their flesh.  Their hands were chained above their heads, thus supporting the altar top, which was laid out with a black velvet cloth and littered  with candles, jars and pots filled with nameless substances, black leather bound books that seemed to lurk rather than lie and, in the middle of the disarray,  a tall silver goblet whose bowl was crafted from an upturned skull that had either once belonged to a pygmy or a child.  In front of the goblet was a bone handled knife with a wicked curve and serrated blade.  I could not make myself step inside the circle, a fact I know amused the old man.  Louis was discomforted by that at first, but as he was slowly seduced by what the old man was teaching him, he worried about it less.  By the time he realised what was happening, it was too late.

Increasingly I came to realise that they were working black magic in that room, appealing to demons for influence.  It started off gently, learning invocations that seemed more like artful poetry in Latin rather than dangerously binding magic, but soon it seemed like the shadows in the room were crowding round to listen and the temperature would drop while candle flames flickered.  When they started mixing blood with wine in the goblet, I started to hear whispering from those shadows, and that dread that had been woken inside me uncoiled itself in my stomach and began to seep into my veins.  If I had ever doubted the existence of such dark forces, I could not now.  Still, I did not speak a word of my fears to Louis, because I still I was swayed by our shared ambition.

That changed on the night the demon spoke to Louis.  It’s voice rose from the whispering as the temperature in the room dived to a new frigid low and the flames flickered so much they were almost snuffed.   It’s voice hissed, sending shudders from my spine to my finger and toe tips.  I wanted to put my hands over my ears, yet I found myself straining fearfully to understand it.  The words seemed garbled at first, some kind of dark and ancient language was forming them, but gradually there was a shift until, after sliding through Latin, it landed in wholly recognisable and chilling French.

“If I can give you what you ask for, but what can you possibly have to give me in return? “  

“Do not answer hastily!” the old man commanded before Louis could even think of speaking.  He was struck silent in surprise, in fact, and words were yet to cross his mind.  The shadows erupted with hissing laughter, and I could no longer keep all the fear inside of myself,

“Louis, do not do this!  This is too high a price to pay already!” I exclaimed, hugging my arms closely around myself, trying to keep the cloying cold away from my skin.

“Silence girl, do not interfere!  You have no idea of the fickle forces we are dealing with!” the old man snapped at me, but I ignored him.  Louis would listen to me, I was sure, so sure that when he finally spoke I could no longer remain in that awful room.

“Sera-bebe, ma Seraphine, I cannot stop now, I am sorry,” I took one look in his eyes, knew in my heart that what he said was true and fled, hearing that awful laughter mocking my flight.

It was much later that night when Louis returned to the basement.  Everyone else was out, partying hard with our usual crowd in one of our usual haunts.  I had returned and thrown myself onto my salvaged mattress, wrapped myself tight in my blankets and shivered myself into a state of nervous exhaustion.  The sound of that voice would not leave my head, but neither would the sting of betrayal I had felt at Louis.  It felt somehow as if he had left me, and that now I was alone with the awful knowledge that I could do nothing to bring him back.

He moved silently across the floor to my bed, waking me from a darkly troubled sleep by sitting down on my bed next to me.  He did not say anything and I felt the silence lengthen between us.

“Louis?” I whispered finally, opening my eyes to look up at him once my anxiety for him overtook my fear of looking into his eyes.  There was no anger for me there, no hurt.  No, the dark emotions swirling in those green depths were not directed at me, except for the regret that seemed to constrict my throat.

“I’m sorry Seraphine, I should not have exposed you to that,” he said at length, “I don’t want you to be afraid for me,”

“Please tell me you did not make a deal,” I begged him, unable to stop myself.

“I did not.  The old man says I must keep working to take control of the demon,”  I think my heart stopped then.  Take control of the demon?   Oh, Louis, how could you expect that to be any comfort to me?  I could not imagine anyone being in control of the creature whose voice I had heard in the old man’s back room.  What awful things would it do to him when it rebelled?

“Louis…” I whispered in a tremulous voice, unable to find enough voice to speak what was on my mind to him.  It felt almost like my throat was being squeezed to prevent the words escaping, and I tried to swallow past that, but I succeeded only in bringing tears into my eyes instead.  Louis saw this and gathered me up, murmuring words of placation and comfort.

There has been a long held myth about Louis and I; that we have been lovers almost since the day we met.  This is not true.  Yes, we were always very close, and as I have already said, Louis was very protective of me, but we were not lovers when I was only 12, no matter what wild stories have been written about us.  And not even when I was 15 either,  Louis had a certain sense of honour in that regard.  It did not change that night either, although as he held me I felt a desperate urge to kiss him and cling tightly to him for fear I might have been about to lose him.  Still, at some point that night, some time after we had found and consumed a bottle of strong red wine, we fell asleep in each others arms.

After that night, Louis began to spend more time with the old man, but I could not go back into that room, so I saw less and less of him.  Each day that passed made me more and more anxious about Louis, and our relationship deteriorated.  It came to a head, surprisingly, on the night we had our first ever paid gig, some three weeks after the demon had first spoken to Louis.  The whole band had been high on the excitement of it since we had landed the gig a couple of days before, but when I walked out in front of the audience I had immediately spied the old man sitting at the bar, smoking and watching with one of those unpleasantly toothy smiles of his spread across his lips.  He looked me directly in the eye and threw me a lazy salute, one that was blatantly full of contempt.  My voice caught in my throat just when I should have been introducing the band, and I must have looked light a rabbit caught in the glare of headlights as I stood there speechless.  Louis rescued me by counting the band in hastily, but that did not save him from the lash of my anger after the show.  Thankfully once our music snared me, my voice returned, and I managed not to look the old man’s way again for the rest of the night.  There was an extra snarl in my voice, and I kept my back to Louis for the whole of our set, both of which were at odds with the way we always played.  Louis was not unaffected by my mood, and he did not play anything like his true ability, and that had a knock on effect with the rest of the band. Our first gig was a disaster, in other words, and the crowd did not take well to us at all.  Afterwards, Louis and I had one of the most vicious arguments of our lives.  As soon as we fled the small stage of the club, Louis ripped his guitar off,  grabbed me tightly by the arm and dragged me snarling and spitting out through the club’s back door and into the dank alley behind it.

“What is wrong with you, Serafine? Why won’t you look at me?”  Louis demanded, yanking me round to face him and grasping me by the shoulders.  I tried to struggle free of him, so he snatched me about my upper arms and shook me.  I soon ceased struggling, but I stared resolutely at the ground, refusing to meet his eye.

“Serafine! Don’t be such a bitch!  What have I done to deserve this? It was our first gig tonight, it couldn’t have gone any worse!”

Still I would not look at him.  He snapped and yelled, shaking me.

“Serafine! Look at me!”   I clenched my jaw and still would not look up.  If I looked at him now I would snap and all that was boiling inside me would pour forth.  Only the thinnest veneer of calm stood between me and complete lack of control.  

“Serafine!” Louis roared my name in frustration, shaking me again and then shocking us both by slapping my cheek to demand my attention forcefully.  I went crazy, wrenching myself from his grip and launching myself at him, kicking, scratching and screaming.  All the fears I had been keeping hold of and letting poison me came exploding out of my mouth and I was cursing demons, black magic, the old man and Louis for all the dark horror that was preying constantly on my mind.  I gouged bloody marks on Louis arms and face as he tried to fend me off, and he kept yelling at me to stop and calm down, but I couldn’t.  Then suddenly he caught my arm and twisted it behind my back, turning me as he did and pulling me back hard against him.  His other arm snaked around me and snared my wrist, pinning me tight against his chest.

“I did not ask him to come!  I did not think you would want him here!  I swear it Serafine!” He hissed in my ear as I cursed him again.  I froze, vitriol dying on my lips.  “Please believe me, ” he added, his voice breaking.  Guilt swallowed me whole, how had we become so divided that I would find myself so full of hate for him?  For two years of my life, he had been the very centre of my world, and for those two years I felt like I had at last become alive.  Now, when it seemed like that might come to an awful, bitter end.

“Louis, Louis, I am so sorry.  I am so scared for you,” I sobbed out, going limp in his arms.

“Shhh, Sera-bebe, I am sorry too.  I should not have hurt you,” he whispered close in my ear, still holding me tightly.  I turned in his arms, reaching up to his face and touching the scratch marks I had left there.  Tears filled up my eyes, and I buried my face against his chest, and it was in that moment that the cool night air was punctuated by the sound of someone clapping slowly.  We both turned our heads in surprise, and saw the old man standing at the back door, applauding and smiling that evil little smile of his.

“Bravo! Bravissimo!”  he exclaimed, his voice rippling with sarcastic laughter.

“Why did you come when I asked you not to?” Louis demanded of him.

“To be sure you really needed my help, which it seems that you do.  The patrons didn’t exactly take to you tonight, did they?”

“We played way beneath our best tonight,” Louis spat back, indignant, “And we will prove that next time we play,”

“And what if no-one in this city is prepared to give you that second chance?” the old man asked mildly, waiting only a heartbeat for Louis to respond before giving his own solution, “You know I can deliver you the fame you crave.  You know how close we are now,”

Louis stared at the old man for several long, silent moments.  I felt I could not breathe

“I need time to think about it, old man,” he said finally.  The old man’s smile sank quickly into a frown, but then, with an exaggerated sigh, he shrug and replied.

“Yes, take some time to think about it, by all means, but do not wait too long,”  Then he turned back into the club, leaving us alone.

“If I asked you now not to do it, would you?” I spoke softly, only for Louis’s ears even though we were alone in the alley way.  

“Give me time to think, ma Seraphine,” he murmured back, so I gave him time to think.

The next few weeks were very different.  Louis did not go back to the Emporium to see the old man, and instead he threw all of us into frenetic practice at night and dragged me all around Paris busking during the day.  By the end of each night I could barely speak because of how tired my voice was, but I did not complain.  Louis was with me, not the old man, and while I still wasn’t sure what choice he would make in the end, I had hope for him, and us, again.

When we weren’t busking, we were touring the clubs to find someone willing to let us play.  Louis seemed almost haunted by the old man’s words and was determined to prove that we could get our second chance.  Day after day we were knocked back, but Louis was not going to back down so easily, and we kept on trying.  Finally, a small club in Montmartre that barely had room on it’s tiny stage for us gave us a gig.  They normally had poets and philosophers, not bands, but the owner was sympathetic.  He had seen us busking outside and invited us in to play to the afternoon clientele.  After more than two hours of playing for them and having them captivated with Louis skill,  the owner gave in and offered us a gig a couple of nights later.  

Louis was a tyrant for those few days.  He practically locked us all in the cellar and forced us to practice until we were playing in our sleep.  I forgave him more readily than the others, who complained bitterly after the second day of being cloistered, but they did not really see the full picture the way I did.  I remember falling asleep on my bed, with Louis just over a handspan away from me in his, and feeling the blossoming hope that perhaps he would not go back to the old man.  I would not say it out loud to Louis, but I knew that if this gig went well then it would persuade him that we did not need the old man’s dangerous form of help. I remember waking to see him still asleep in the very depths of the night and letting myself hope that I would not lose him after all.  I watched him, watched the gentle fall of his breath and his sleep softened features, and allowed myself the time to wallow in all the things I felt for him.  All would be well, and as time moved forward, we would become lovers as we had always been meant to be, standing together in the light of stardom that Louis so obviously deserved.  

The club was crowded to capacity, many of our friends had come to fill the little place out, but there were other people who had either seen Louis and I play a few afternoons before or had heard about us from people who had.  I was nervous as I scanned the crowd, unable to stop myself for searching for the old man’s face among them, but he wasn’t there.  My nerves settled a little and I turned a smile to Louis as we prepared to begin.  We were all ready, well practiced and polished after days of hard work under Louis’ lash.  I counted, one, two, three, four and the band followed, the bass and drum rolling in first, the guitars following and then finally I raised my voice to join them.  It couldn’t have felt more different to the first night.  Louis and I were together, almost as if we were busking for centimes on the steps of Le Sacre Coeur, but here we could soar further, lifted up by the band to greater heights than we could ever achieve with just ourselves and a beat up five string guitar.  Our salvaged and stolen equipment stood up surprisingly well to the task – perhaps because of the small space – and soon the crowd was right there along with us, singing the songs they knew the words to, listening keenly to the songs that we had written.  Alcohol flowed like water all around, making the club owner particularly happy, and a good amount of it flowed our way, making our music looser and more liquid, but not eroding our performance.  I had never heard Louis play so perfectly.

All too soon, it seemed, we were taking our bows to rapturous applause, grinning like fools as we stood before it all.  There was no backstage room for us to retreat to, no place to escape the fervour and take stock, so we slipped off the stage and into a corner of the club where we spent the rest of the night drinking free drinks and being toasted.  In the midst of it all, one man stole all of our attention with a simple sentence.

“Tell me that I am not too late to sign you to my company’s record label,” he said as he sidled up to Louis and I.  

“No, of course not. This is only our second gig,” Louis explained, sounding much more cool and collected than I felt.

“Only your second?  I saw you two in here the other day,” he sounded genuinely surprised.

“We were busking outside and the club owner invited us in,” Louis replied.  

“Then you really are quite a find!  Have my business card and call me in the morning.  I could have a deal for you!”

We were in stratospheric spirits by the time we found our way back to the cellar. It was hard to imagine how our night could have gone any better, and that put the shadows of the preceding months far into the back of our minds.  The cellar quickly filled up with revellers, some having followed us home and some having descended upon us because of the party that was gearing up.  Soon the noise level was cranked right up, and the cellar got so packed it was hard to move without standing on someone.  I found myself surrounded by women who wanted to know all about Louis and the rest of the men in the band.  Cut off from the others, I accepted the drinks that were pressed into my hands and let them talk.  After a while I looked up to see Louis watching me while hovering by the door, and I wondered what he was doing.  He gestured to me, and I excused myself from the little group that had sprung up around me and crossed the room, feeling the jealous heat of all their gazes on me.  It wasn’t the first time I had felt the glare of envy on me because of my relationship with Louis and it certainly wasn’t going to be the last time either, but it was the first time I found it made me feel a little possessive of him.  Maybe it was the way the light caught in his green eyes as he watched me approach, the way those dark curls of his clung about the edges of his face, or that languid grace with which he propped his long, lean body against the door, his black shirt hanging open, and his black jeans riding low on his hips. With  his silver chains and black ink tattoos on display against his pale skin, he seemed like a piece of the chill spring night personified – full of moonlight and shadows, yet also full of life and beauty.  And he was watching me, just me, out of all the people in the room, and not any of those envious women who I had left behind.

“Where are you going?” I asked as I reached him.  I don’t know if he was as aware as I was of the eyes on us, but he surprised me by pulling me into his arms and bringing his mouth close to my ear so he could speak freely without being heard.

“I am going to the Emporium to tell the old man I won’t be back,” Louis told me.  Joy flooded me, it felt like a light shining suddenly into the dark place our lives had become – the light of the end of the tunnel.  

“Do you want me to come with you?”  I asked him, but he shook his head.

“I promise I won’t be long,” he told me, his lips brushing lightly against the skin of my neck as he spoke.  I stilled with shock at the sensation and he brought his lips to mine, claiming them before every eye in the room.  I was  left breathless and shocked as he melted out through the door into the night leaving me without a word and before I had any time to recover my composure.  

The Emporium was steeped in darkness when Louis arrived.  Impatiently he knocked on the door, knowing that the old man would not be sleeping, but as soon as he touched it, it swung slowly inwards, inviting him into the shadow-steeped shop beyond.

“Monsieur?  It is Louis,” he called out, unsure and wary.  There was no reply from within the shop.  Louis stepped inside and turned to close the door.  The little bell rang too loudly in the deep silence of the shop.  

“Monsieur, I need to talk to you,” Louis called out again, but there was no response again.  Louis made his way round the counter to the door behind it, finding his way with the help of shafts of moonlight and streetlight pouring in the front window of the shop, but the corridor was lightless beyond.  Louis flicked on his lighter, lit himself a cigarette in passing, and used the flame to light his way down the corridor to the back room.  Half-way along the corridor, he could see that the door to the back room was open, but there was no light coming through it.  Louis called out again, but the only sound he heard was that of his own footsteps.  As he reached the end of the corridor, he was assaulted by a charnal smell worse than any he had encountered in all the dark magic he had worked in the back room.  Louis hesitated for the first time, hanging back in the doorway of the back room and trying to see what was beyond with only the flame of his lighter.   Nothing made sense under what little the flame illuminated, for it looked like the room had been set for a ritual, but all the candles and even the fire were standing unlit.  Louis could see very little else, but the silence, the smell and the strangeness of the candles were unsettling.  He took a step into the room and the air erupted with noise – squawking, screeching noise.  Ragged shadows wheeled towards him, and he found himself ducking beneath a flurry of black wings.  As they flashed over his head, picking up light from the flame, he realised that they were crows.  Something dripped from their beaks as they went by, falling into Louis’  hair and onto his skin.  He made a move to wipe away whatever it was, but a second rush of noise and black shapes roused itself from inside the dark depths of the room and flew over, lower, forcing Louis to crouch against the floor, covering his head for fear of their talons.  It wasn’t until the room was silent again and the crows were definitely gone that he pulled himself to his feet.  He wiped his forehead as he stood and discovered blood on the back of his hand. It had been blood dripping from their beaks and claws onto him, and now he was splattered with blood all over.  He stood still, staring in the dim light at the red smear on the back of his hand, watching as a drip fell from one darkened curl of his hair onto his hand.  He should have turned then and followed the crows back out of the building, he should have ignored the way morbid curiosity tugged at him, but he did not. Instead he shook himself, pushing aside the fear that was trying to communicate caution to him, and moved towards the nearest of the candles.  The crows, in their wild flight from the room, had knocked over most of the candle holders and spilled the candles across the floor, but Louis found one quickly, picked up the nearest candle holder, placed it in and lit it.  Flickering light formed a bubble in the darkness around him, revealing the chaos of splattered blood, overturned candle holders and the usual contents of the altar strewn across the bare wooden boards of the floor.  Louis’ eyes followed the trail of debris back to the altar, which formed a mere suggestion of an outline on the periphery of the bubble.  There was something wrong with that outline, Louis realised as he squinted into the gloom at it, but he felt an odd reluctance to start lighting more candles.  That was until he heard a strangled sob of fear, in a voice that he recognised with a shiver of shock.

She approached me with yet another drink while I stood still, reeling from the impact of Louis’ kiss.  I had only met her that night, she was not one of our usual crowd, but she had seemed predictably interested in Louis.  She had a long mane of sleek, deep-black hair, a heart-shaped, fox-like face, and lips the colour of blood.  

“You look like you could use a drink,” She said with a smile, holding the drink out to me.  I took it and gulped at it, self-conscious of the stares I was still drawing.  She moved to stand close to me, shielding me from the room.  I was about to thank her, when a wave of dizziness hit me.  I swayed precariously on my feet, but she grasped at my elbow and began to propel me towards the door.

“Let’s get you a little fresh air,” I heard her say.  The sudden change in motion caused another wave dizziness and  blackness pulled at the edges of my vision.  The cool night air hit me hard, and I fell to my knees.  I heard the door to the cellar close, and the fox-faced woman loomed over me, blocking out the light.

“It’s alright, little one, I’m sure he will save you,” She said as her face became fuzzy.

“What do you mean?” I managed to say.  My question was met with a peal of laughter that mocked me all the way down into the darkness.

I couldn’t tell at first if my eyes were open or closed, but I quickly became aware of the smell.  I gagged, then almost choked as I realised that my mouth was taped shut.  I squeezed my eyes tightly as I fought to control my breath, and I could feel tears trickling down my cheeks.  The sudden movement my spasm caused startled something in the darkness and I squealed as it squawked in alarm.  Invisible wings  beat against the thick black air and my heart hammered against my ribs. I realised, as my mind began to course with adrenaline, that I was lying on my back. My attempts to sit up or move were immediately thwarted by bonds that tied me firmly to the surface I lay on.  My panicked reaction to this proved only that my hands and feet were securely bound together too.  I had never known such terror, but I felt I should have died from it when the thing landed on me.  It wasn’t heavy, but it’s talons bit into my skin as it shuffled it’s way up my bare thigh and onto my naked chest, making soft, throaty cawing noises and rustling it’s feathers.  I screamed as it’s thick black beak and beady black eye appeared suddenly only the barest of inches above my own eyes.    It tilted it’s head this way and that as I whimpered behind the tape, feeling it’s talons stab into my breast as it moved to keep it’s balance against my impotent struggles.  I felt the blood trickle down to pool on the surface beneath me.  The crow’s face disappeared from my sight, but I felt it dip it’s head down to inspect that puddle.  It barked out a sharp call, and I heard what sounded like a hundred wings beating.  My entire being was consumed in a white hot static explosion beyond fear and pain.  I don’t know how long it lasted, it felt like an eternity, and suddenly they were all gone, leaving me behind a bloody mess that was beyond my imagining, with my mind blown beyond pain into a state of paralytic shock.  

Dimly I was aware of the sound of footsteps, and then light flared somewhere off to my right.  My eyes had already adjusted to the darkness, the soft gloom penetrated my vision and I found myself staring up at a blurred shape.  My eyes struggled to pick out what it was until it jerked suddenly, falling further forwards towards me, and I was suddenly face to face with the old man, whose visage was pale, dead and ravaged, it’s empty eye sockets staring bloodily at my naked body.  I was surprised by the noise that escaped me, surprised because I did not think I had it left inside me.  I had no idea if I was drugged or dying, but I certainly felt lifeless.

Then Louis came rushing towards me out of the darkness with a candle clutched in his fist.  It seemed so bright to my eyes that I had to squeeze the shut.  Another whimper escaped me.

“Oh, ma Seraphine, ma Seraphine,” Louis despaired as he laid eyes on me, for I was bound with heavy chains and cuffs, and I was torn all over with wounds wrent by claw and beak, from my thigh to my cheek.  My eyes were yet spared, unlike the old man’s.  Not that it mattered for the old man was dead.   We could both see him clearly  by the light of Louis’ candle, but it was a sight I would rather have been spared. He had been hung upside down, naked and crucified upon an inverted cross, flesh ripped clean from the bone in many, many places.  Louis stared for a long moment, then fell to searching for a way to release me from my chains.  The voice of the demon spoke then, the sudden chill of it’s presence snuffing the candle flame and plunging us into darkness again.  

“The old man was not strong enough to stop me. I fed his flesh to my avatars,”  

“Let Seraphine go, she should not be part of this,” Louis said, his voice close to me.  I felt disembodied, like I was floating, buoyed up on pain.

“You were warned not to bring her into this,” the demon hissed, it’s voice all around us.  I didn’t have the strength to shiver at it.   “Besides, she is dying now, so what would be the point?”

“No!” Louis snapped in angry denial, “I won’t let you kill her!”

“I’ve killed her already.  I can feel the life ebbing out of her now, and she can feel it too,”

It was too dark to see if Louis looked down at me, but I felt his hand close around mine.  It hurt, but not so much more than the rest of my body that I couldn’t still welcome his touch.  I was dying after all, what did pain matter now?  He held my hand in silence for what seemed like an age, and it began to feel like his touch was the anchor point preventing me from floating away entirely into the darkness.  Of course I was dying, every inch of me was agony and I was aware of the blood oozing from all the wounds on my flesh.

“What would it take for you to save her?” I heard Louis say.  I thought I would have at least gasped, but I did not.  I certainly didn’t have the strength left to complain.  The air reverberated with soft, dark laughter.

“How much is her life worth to you?” the demon replied.  I was drifting, wishing that I wasn’t, wishing that I could intervene in this conversation.  Louis, please, just let me go and save yourself, I begged him voicelessly.

“Everything,” Louis answered in a broken voice.  I hadn’t drifted far enough away yet not to feel the way that single word hit me.  Tears welled up in the corner of my eyes, and they burned as they trickled down my cheeks.  I didn’t flinch though, I didn’t have the strength.

“You know what I want from you, Louis.  How many times did you turn me down while you were trying to learn how to control me?”  Such venom and hate in that voice, such rancour and vengeance.  What things had the old man involved Louis in?  What had happened in this room after I stopped coming?

“Give me time, please.  Give me time to taste what I’ve bought with it, I beg you,”  Louis must have bowed his head right over mine, I could feel his breath on my face as he whispered these words of defeat.  

“What did I offer you before?  25 years of fame?” the demon sneered.  My heart was fluttering.  I wondered if it was about to stall.  Louis did not answer, and the demon laughed again.  It seemed to me as if the sound was a long way away, and I realised that the pain was also coming from a long way away.  Perhaps it would be too late, I found myself thinking…..

I awoke feeling warm and comfortable, and the contrast was enough  to make me sit bolt upright, gasping.  The first thought on my mind was that I should not be alive, the second was the fear of what Louis had exchanged for my life with the demon.  When he put his arms around me and began murmuring platitudes, I was only partially relieved.  He was still with me, but at what cost?

“What did you do, Louis?” I demanded of him, pulling away so I could look into his face.  I felt keenly aware of the fact that I should not have felt so hale and whole.  Now that I was awake, in fact, I was barely even groggy.  Louis looked away from me for a moment, but not quickly enough for me to miss the shame that flared in his eyes.

“What did you do, Louis?” I demanded again, more stridently.

“Ten years,” he said in a voice so quiet I could barely hear it.  I caught him by the chin and forced him to face me.

“Ten years? What do you mean ten years?” I asked, my voice suddenly shrill to my own ears.

“It gave me ten years, then it gets my soul,”  he whispered, casting down his green eyes.  The soft light from whatever room we were in shone in unshed tears that brimmed in the corner of his eyes.

“You will die when you are 27?” I asked after a several long moments where my breath was too constricted in my chest for me to speak.  

“It laughed and told me it was only right and that I should thank it, because it would make me immortal like Jim,” he explained, drawing the strength from deep inside to tell me.

“It promised you fame too?” My voice was shaking now, my body trembling.

“No, it said I would have it anyway without it’s interference,”  Louis told me, and I could practically feel how little enthusiasm he suddenly felt for the prospect.  I shook myself then, my mind racing fast as I clutched to a little hope.  

“We have ten years then, ten years to live a lifetime together,” I said, “I do not want to spend a moment without you,”

“I can’t have you there when they come for my soul.  There will be hellhounds, Seraphine, hellhounds that I do not want you to be near,”

I was taken aback, even after all I had seen, even though I knew I should be dead but was alive.  There were hellhounds?  Louis must have seen the confusion on my face.

“It showed me them, and told me that there was nothing on Earth that keep them from their prey.  They were terrifying, Seraphine,”  I knew that he was speaking the truth, the memory of the fear was raw in him, and it caused those tears to spill.  I could not push him further then on that, and instead I drew him close to me and held him close.  

Ten years later.  The hotel room is in New Orleans, and here the tropical spring night is sticky.  Louis is pacing the floor, silent and casting frequent glances at the crystal Grandmother clock on the far wall from the bed.  The room is really an apartment suite, the apartment is lavish and open plan.  I can feel, as I watch him from the bed, that he is fit to explode.

“I am going nowhere, Louis.  You agreed to that,” I say tightly, unable to bear the tension any longer.

“Did you ever seriously believe that I would be happy to let you die?”  he turns around and spits at me, unleashing all of that pent up emotion in a vicious eruption.

“I was dead!  I should be dead still, but you bartered your soul for my life!  I didn’t ask you to do that and I wouldn’t have!” I spewed back at him with venom.  I love him, he remains the centre of my world, but the weight of that pact has been poisonous between us.  As the years left sped by in a whirl of touring, recording and promoting in a cyclone ever increasing fame, it had slowly eroded it’s way into our psyches, but it was only when we realised we were counting time in months instead of years that it began to truly bloom.  

“I would not wish these hounds on my worst enemy!” he roars at me, striding across to the bed to grasp me by the arms, intent, I think, on dragging me from the room bodily.

“So you say, but you have never told me anything else about them!  What kind of death do they deal that I should be more afraid of than living without you?” He stops still and stares down at me, the tussling battle of his emotions visible in his eyes.  He opens his mouth three times before words finally escape him.

“They do not deal death at all.  You cannot die in their jaws, at least, not until they have taken your soul,”

“I don’t understand,” I said, my words bitten off by my frustration.  Louis sighed, let go of me, ran a hand through his hair and then fished two cigarettes out from his shirt pocket.  He offered one to me, which I snatched at and pulled insistently to my lips.  I waited sullenly for him to light it.  Louis bent his head forward towards mine, sharing the same flame to light up for both of us, then he span abruptly away on his heel, taking several gasping lungfuls of smoke as he did.  

“You died in my arms.  I made the demon release the chains around you when you passed out.  I hadn’t entirely believed it until it happened, and then I became crazed,”  he began, pacing a few steps and then stopping and running his hand through his hair again.  He was obviously agitated, explicably so.  “I tried to renege on the deal, I wanted to die then.  I tried to run, taking your body with me, but the hounds stopped me from leaving the room.  They formed from the shadows, three of them, large as ponies with three heads each like Cerberus.  Their eyes were blood red and glowed like coals, their teeth green-white like phosphorus, and so was the foam that dripped from their massive jaws.  They circled me, their claws clacking and scraping on the floorboards and growls low in their throats.  Low, but loud, like a long peal of thunder straight overhead. The stench of their breath filled the room, it’s sulphurous funk drowning out the smell of death and blood.  One snapped it’s head forward at me as I tried to dart past, a second jaw shot out from within the first with serrated teeth like a piranhas.  It tore at my ankle, breaking the bones and taking splinters of them away with a chunk of flesh.  As I collapsed, I felt one of them brush me.  It was burning hot, but slick and wet with slime over wrinkled flesh that was almost too dark to be seen, so dark that it was only by that touch that I realised it’s texture,”

As he spoke, my anger had started to dissipate.  His words were painting a picture in my head that I could not entirely process, but that I also could not ignore.  When he stopped there, I didn’t say anything, I simply watched mutely as he gathered up the strength he needed to continue speaking.

“The demon spoke to me, as I lay weeping on the floor, clutching you against me, it spoke right into my soul, giving me vivid visions of all it spoke of.  It told me how the hellhounds could hunt a person down no matter where they hid, once they had their scent.  Doors do not hold them, spells do not hold them, nothing on Earth can keep them from their prey, it told me.  It explained that from the moment a deal was made, the hounds had the scent and only it’s word held them back.  It told me that they would take the souls of those I cared about as they hunted me, if it told them to do so. It told me that once they finally caught me they would tear my body to shreds to take my soul, that I would still be alive as they did it, and then I would know nothing but torment for eternity afterwards.   It told me all of these things, then it offered me ten years with you alive again in exchange for my soul, and I took it’s deal, ”

“I won’t leave, Louis,” I told him, staring directly in his eye as soon as he had finished.  I was not angry, “I won’t have you face this alone,” I added.  His strength went from him then, completely, and he collapsed to the ground.  In a heartbeat I was at his side.

“Please, Seraphine, please don’t,” he begged me as I put my arms around him.

“I cannot leave you, Louis.  I won’t live without you, and I won’t leave you to die in such an awful way alone,” I whispered, “Look at what we have built together, how could you imagine I would ever be able to go on without you?”

He took me by surprise then, catching my face in his hands and pulling my mouth to his lips.  His hunger bowled me over and spilled me onto my back. Any thought of fighting it became quickly quagmired in my turbulent emotional state.  What followed was frantic, wordless and desperate.  The grandmother clock kept ticking time away, stealing away how much we had left.  

It was the sound of the first howl that wrenched us apart.  It was distant, and the grandmother clock hadn’t quite made it to midnight, but it rippled over my skin like a chill breeze none the less.  Death was stalking us.  We waited the awful, breathless moments to midnight, and the ticking of the clock seemed to grow gradually louder with each second that went by.  My heart stopped with the next howl, closer, almost outside of our room, and my eyes focused on the face of the clock. The second hand seemed to hesitate, the hour hand held an indecipherable fraction before midnight.  My train of thought was obliterated by an answering howl that filled the air.  The door exploded inwards a second later, but it was nothing but black smoke that entered the room, and then filled it with shadows as we sat in the middle of the floor and watched with wide eyes.  The grandmother clock began to chime, and with growls like thunder, the Hellhounds formed out of the smoke.  Louis suddenly threw me to one side, barring their way to me with his body.

“Take me, but do not touch her!” I heard him say as I struggled back upright.  I lunged towards him, determined not to let him die without me and the hounds, oh those awful hounds with their teeth made for eviscerating flesh, their stench and their heat, the hounds attacked.  There was blood, pain, screaming, snarling and teeth for what seemed like forever, but in truth was only seconds.  When it ended, I was alone on the bed, covered in the remains of the bedding, alive and alone, for the first time in ten years.

Ten years.  Ten years of fame, ten years of love, ten years that I spent every breathing second with Louis, and now he is gone.  I don’t think I can survive now, my body was broken by the hounds because I refused to let him die alone.  It took a long time to persuade him, but eventually he came to realise that I would never go on without him.  

He was 27, like Jim. 27 like Janis and Jimi too.  27 like Kurt and Amy Winehouse. 27 like Brian Jones. 27 like Robert Johnson.  

I am only 25.

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Waking up

Posted: 16/06/2016 by Alternate Celt in Dark Tales, poetry

Another poem from my wee poetry book.

Waking Up

Shapely Mountains
White as Icebergs
Cut across the Blue Sky
Like giant, soft pillows
Rising above the bed of land
Life is stirring
Beneath a heavy blanket
Of Snow
The sunlight tugs back
The covers
Birds sing a wake-up call
And Suddenly
Lambs Spring up
Across the fields
Crocuses, Daffodils
And Early rising Snowdrops
Lift their pretty heads
Blades of grass stretch
Up to the sun
A world awake
And drowsy
Until the sun
Warms it’s bones.

End of the Line

Posted: 04/04/2016 by Alternate Celt in Dark Tales, Extracts, writing
Tags: ,

This is a zombie story I wrote a while ago.  I was exploring what it would be like and what it might take to be a lone survivor a long time after the Zombie Apocalypse has started.  There’s no dialogue at all 🙂

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End of the Line

She stared at the wall in front of her.  It was almost ten feet high, nearly double her own height, and it was blocking her path.  She could hear Them behind her, hear the swish-swish of Their shuffling steps on the broken and dusty tarmac of the broad alleyway she had just run along.  She had time,  but not much, before They would catch her.  Taking a quick glance over her shoulder, she backed up a number of steps and then took a running leap at the wall.  The surface was broken and uneven, She hung in the air for a couple of heartbeats, her feet scrabbling for a purchase, then finding it she leapt again, using nothing more than half a brick and coursing adrenaline as a springboard, and her hands caught on the top of the wall.  Panting, she heaved herself upwards to peer over the wall. As her brain registered what her eyes were seeing, a curse escaped her mouth and her heart sank.

The yard beyond had once been a train yard, but it had been abandoned long before the world went to shit and there were no trains or carriages. Now there were  just rail tracks overgrown by weeds and patches of oily gravel were the weeds wouldn’t grow.  There were sheds  and warehouses dotted around the edges of the yard, and tall, rusting chain fences designed to keep out thieves and kids with aerosol cans.  But the wide space of the train yard wasn’t empty, oh no.  It was teeming with Them.  They were milling about aimlessly, most long beyond the pale eyes and grey faces of the freshly infected.  There were those so long gone they crawled along the gravelly ground, pulling themselves by their hands or pushing with their feet.  Most of the hideous, decaying faces had skin that was leathery and black, stretched taut over skulls that showed through in places.  Only a small number had any more hair than lank clumps that hung, twisted and brittle, from their heads.  Many were naked, and those that weren’t their clothes were so torn and rotted that they might as well have been naked. Some didn’t even have eyes any more. They were stumbling and milling around the wreckage of a survivor camp that had presumably found safety for a while behind those chain fences, but had eventually been over run.  All that was left were the shells of a dozen vehicles, mostly big RV’s and SUV’s, and the bleached cloth and rusted poles of maybe another dozen tents.  It had been a sizeable camp.

The swish-swish behind her grew louder, drawing her back to her current predicament and she hauled herself up onto the top of the narrow wall.  To her left, it ran to meet the side of a large warehouse, the top of the wall being uninterrupted as it ran over a large set of double doors that would have once opened onto the train yard.  To her right, it kept on for another 20 or so feet before meeting the top of the chain fence.  She glanced over to the sloping roof of the warehouse, estimating whether she could make the climb up the drain pipe from the top the wall safely.

An eruption of groaning from below told her that They had finally reached the wall and were trying desperately to reach up to her.  She didn’t look down, she just ran along the top of the wall for the drain pipe and tested it quickly to see if it would take her weight.  It seemed to hold.  A glance to her left and she saw the waving arms of her pursuers, a glance to the right and she saw the first inklings of recognition from the ones inside the train yard.  It would be a bad idea to fall.  She took a deep breath, rolled her shoulders, then gripped the drain pipe with both hands and feet and slowly started to climb it.  About a quarter of the way up it began to creak ominously, so she moved her hands and feet faster.  At halfway, there was a wrenching noise and she could feel the drain pipe beginning to come away from the wall.  Her hands and feet blurred with desperation.  She was three quarters of the way up when it finally gave with a screech of tearing metal.  With her heart pounding,  she looked back over her shoulder to see Them waiting below for her as she rushed towards them.  The wall was slightly to her left and she was going to fall into the outstretched hands of the naked, rotted ones from the train yard.  With a roar of espration, she twisted and leapt for the narrow top of the wall, throwing herself backwards from the falling drain pipe. Somehow she landed with one foot on the wall.  The other, unfortunately,  was caught on fresh air and for a heart stopping moment she was overbalancing and pitching backwards with her arms pin-wheeling.  She threw her weight forward, letting her other foot slip off the wall, and made a wild grab for the top of it.  Something slimy and horrible grasped at one of her feet and she kicked back as hard as she could, then dragged herself back up onto the wall before anything else could touch her.  She breathed a sigh of relief as she got to her feet.

There was only one other way to go now, along the wall, then over the top of the fence and down into a brick wall yard behind a small warehouse about 40 feet away.  There were none of Them to be seen in that small yard.   There was a steel tube forming the top of the frame of the fence, one that was wide enough so that walking across the top of it wouldn’t be as bad as walking a tight rope.  Just.  She told herself that she could make it if she focused hard, so she blanked out Them and Their moaning cries as they tried to reach for her, and thought only about jumping down into that yard just a few feet away. She gulped in a few huffing breaths to slow her hammering heart and then stepped lightly onto the top of the fence. She slowly spread her arms out to balance herself before she took her second step, her eyes fixed on a spot a couple of feet in front of her.  She allowed herself to develop tunnel vision, blanking out everything except for those few feet, and walked quickly along the top of the fence, not letting her weight rest in one spot too long. Then the empty yard was to her right, and so with a sigh of relief, she leaped down onto the top of some  garbage sheds.  There was a horrible splintering sound, and she found herself balancing precariously above a sudden yawning, jagged hole in the low sloped roof.  Through the hole she could see a skip that was full of twisted, rotting corpses.  The smell that assaulted her was enough to have her choking even with senses that had been dulled by exposure to Them for so long.  With one hand covering her mouth she made yet another desperate leap from where she stood to the ground, crying out in pain for half a second before she smothered it because the impact jolted  through her shins.  She hauled herself upwards, looking warily around.  Nothing in the yard moved, except for the breeze stirring the branches of a sickly looking tree with leaves that were paling prematurely under the hot summer sun.

Across the yard, a door was hanging on it’s hinges revealing a glimpse of the warehouse beyond.  Machines, big machines with taught cables stretching up towards the ceiling, and sheets of dried brown blood on the walls.  She couldn’t imagine what had happened in there, but she guessed was about to find out.  She needed supplies, desperately, and since the building seemed empty of Them, she would have to check inside to see what she could find.  She moved quickly, ignoring the aftershocks of pain running through her shins.  She had learned to be afraid of open spaces and wouldn’t linger where she felt exposed.

It wasn’t a warehouse, it was a small textile factory.  The cables belonged to the looms and the blood to the splattered corpses that had at some point been fed into the looms.  Perhaps it had been someone’s desperate attempt to clear Them out of the factory.  Everything was dry and desiccated in the summer heat, and the smell in the air was old and had had time to lose some of the acrid bite of the corpses outside.  If this had been the site of someone’s last stand, it had been some weeks ago.    She picked her way through the dried gore, ignored the flies that buzzed lazily in the hot air and headed for a staircase that lead up from the factory floor.  She didn’t look back as she climbed the stairs, she couldn’t really stomach the view.  The door at the top of the stores was metal and the bar across it was stiff.  It wouldn’t budge when she pushed it, so she grabbed a fire extinguisher from the rail of the stair case and knocked the bar loose with that.  She winced at the noise as it rang out through the deserted factory, and she risked a look over her shoulder.  After a few tense moments waiting, she realised only the flies were moving on the factory floor, and they were also pretty much the only source of sound, apart from the creek of the breeze through the building.  She kicked the door open, keeping a hold of the fire extinguisher,  and went through without a backward glance so that her brain could be as free from the grizzly image of that factory floor as quickly as possible.  The door led straight outside onto a flat part of the roof with a view back over the train yard.  To the right there were rooftops spread out along in a row, each rooftop practically touching the next because along this part of the industrial estate the buildings were crowded close together.  There’s a corpse slumped over something, facing the train yard, a corpse with a huge bullet wound in the back of it’s skull.  It’s been here a while, backed in the sun and gone leathery.  There no telling if it was a man or a woman with so little left of it’s skull and it’s body bent over.  She approached it gingerly, curious and repelled at the same time.  The corpse wore a pale brown jacket, blue jeans and black boots.  This close she could see the butt of a rifle tangled with it’s crumpled legs.  Licking her lips in distaste she reached forward and pulled at the shoulder of the corpse, attempting to peel it away from the rifle.  The dried sinews of it’s muscles held it in a rigid pose, so it didn’t budge.  She swallowed the bile that was starting to rise from her stomach and crouched down beside it.  She grasped the butt of the rifle and made to wrench it loose from the corpse’s clutches, but instead managed to knock it over, so that it flopped away from where the low wall was propping it up.  It landed with a dry crunch that sounded very far removed from human and revealed the still intact white teeth clenched around the barrel of the rifle.

She pulled her hand away from her mouth were it had leaped to cover the small squeal that escaped her mouth when the corpse fell.  Licking her lips, she crouched forward and reached for the rifle again, occupying her brain with a prayer that it still had bullets left.  She ignored the sound of the barrel sliding gratingly out from between the corpse’s teeth and slowly pulled the rifle towards herself.  Where the corpse’s curled and desiccated fingers clasped around the trigger, there was a splintering wrench as she pulled the rifle free.  As soon as she had it in her grasp she slid the clip free and checked it.  Empty, shit useless idiot kept the last bullet for himself, she cursed the corpse, then felt a wash of guilt.

She got to her feet, clutching the rifle in both hands and turned to look about, eyes scouring the rooftop for ammunition, or anything, that she could use.  Nothing, and nothing worth looking at beyond the rooftop either, only the empty yard of the factory and the train yard with Them milling aimlessly, waiting for something to rouse them.  Her eyes looked anywhere but down at the corpse at her feet as she rode out the guilt, and they finally fell on a couple of thin planks that spanned the gap between the factory and the building next door.  Preferring not to return to the factory below, she crossed the planks and found her way into the next building, clutching the rifle.  Just in case.

This building was a depot full of ravaged courier trucks.  Ripped packaging lay in heaped piles, boxes discarded and polystyrene chips were scattered all over the floor in  drifts of artificial snow.  The big doors were shuttered down, and as she crept cautiously across the depot floor, she saw no sign of Them having ever broken into the building.  No blood, no corpses and the wreckage looked like the work of desperate people trying to find something to help their survival.  She made her way to an open door that she could see led to some office space.  People had hid in here, lived in here and then fled from here, leaving behind a trail of sleeping bags, clothes and sentimental possessions that weren’t worth more than their lives.  Instinct told her that there would be nothing useful left behind, but hope made her scour the place anyway, still clutching the rifle.  Still just in case.  She could at least hit things with the butt of it.

Back to the roof, safer than the streets and she could see a trail across several rooftops running along the same long, straight Industrial estate road that lead to the edge of the estate and the road back towards the city centre.  She had to keep moving and looking, find somewhere she could sleep when she couldn’t stave it off any more, and hope that she would find some food along the way.

It was a long afternoon, running the rooftops and checking the buildings to find each one in turn ravaged and raped by desperate survivors and Them alike.  She ditched the rifle after it became more of a hassle to carry than it could be worth. There was no ammunition for it anywhere in any of the buildings.  Her energy levels began to wane and the cramps she was growing used to returned as gnawing hunger set in.  The heat was stifling and the stench of decay everywhere high as They were meandering the streets below and in several of the buildings she had found piles of Them left by people who had passed by some time ago.

Finally she came to the end of the street.  The only way was down, but across the road was a gas station with a shop.  Maybe she could find something there.  They were spread thinly here, mostly a little further up the road from the gas station.  If she was quick she could get into the shop, if there was something she could break the lock with.  She glanced around and saw an old tire iron lying on the ground in the station forecourt.  It would have to do since there would be no time to look for anything else.

The next job was to figure out a route down to the ground that would be quick and quiet, so as to draw as little of Their attention as she could.  She peered over the edge of the building, and saw a side door below her at street level, which would mean going back into the building she had just scoured.  The other alternative was to climb down the drain pipe that led from the roof to the ground.  Thinking back to her earlier close shave with a drain pipe, she decided to at least check and see if she could find the door.  She’d found the building was empty, it seemed to be some kind of bakery, with the offices upstairs, but no useful supplies could be found  in the whole building because it had been gutted and ripped apart inside at some point.  She remembered the rumours of looting gangs in the early days and guessed it had been hit by one of them.  She made her way back down through the building, picking her way through the debris, until she came to the corridor where the side-door was.  It was a heavy metal fire door, the kind with an iron bar that had to be pushed up to open it.  The iron bar had been broken, twisted and smashed with something heavy, so that the door was effectively barred.  She thought for a second about forcing it open, but then she realised the noise would bring Them stumbling her way in droves.  With a sigh, she realised it would have to be the drain pipe.  She hoped to fuck it was strong this time, her growing tiredness and hunger would slow her reactions crucially and she wouldn’t bet her life on the same luck happening again.

Back on the roof, she noticed the air was just beginning to cool as the sun began to sink westwards over the city.  She’d need to find shelter before night, if she could.  Running at night was much harder because They didn’t use Their eyes to find you, they followed your scent and the noise you made.  The night gave them cover and blinded you.  Banishing that trouble from her mind while there were much more immediate concerns, she gave the drain pipe a solid shake as she stood on the wall above it, testing to see how sturdy it was.  It seemed solid and looked relatively new, or at least it had been painted relatively recently enough that it showed no obvious cracks or rust..  She turned and carefully began to test it with her weight and getting herself into position to climb down while keeping one had on the top of the wall until she was sure it wasn’t about to give.  She had to force a calm breath in and out of her lungs before she let go of the wall, and without looking down at the ground far below, she began to climb, hand over hand, foot over foot, down the  side of the building using the drain pipe to cling to.  The building had been whitewashed and she had several heart-stopping moments when her footing slipped against the wall, but the drain pipe held firm and she inched her way as quietly as she could, down towards the ground.  As she got close she began to check more and more up and down the street below, making sure she knew where They were, making sure she didn’t miss it if any of Them noticed her.  When she was within reaching distance of the ground she eased herself slowly and quietly towards it, not wanting to make any sound when she let go of the pipe.  The street was finally firmly beneath her feet and she checked Them again, milling about twenty or thirty feet each side in loose groups.  There were others beyond those, in either direction, and they would doubtless follow if the nearer groups began to home in on her.  They seemed to have some kind of herd mentality.  She decided to walk quietly at first, hoping that not being noticed immediately might buy her some extra time to get the shop door open.

She began walking very carefully across the street, but a mild wind was picking up as the day cooled, and it wafted across her skin before she was more than a few steps across the street, carrying her scent over to Those on her right.  They stirred, heads turning in her direction, then began to shuffle towards her.  She ran for it.

She barely slowed down to snatch up the tire iron, even though the weight of it pulled on her tired limbs.  She knew all of Them were following her now, she’d seen them all shift in her direction when she’d started running.  One smack of the glass on the door told her it was bullet proof – something that had been normal in the days when people only hurt each other for money, before They had come and the world had become fucked up beyond recognition.  She attacked the handle of the door instead, wielding the tire iron with desperate strength and flinch at the noise of the metal buckling as the tire iron struck it.  The noise seemed to draw them to her faster, as if it aroused them with it’s desperate rhythm.  There was a wrenching, splintering, shattering crack and the door gave and she collapsed through it.  Immediately she  wedged the tire iron across it to force it shut again, and then looked around at the shop.  Of course, it was empty.  It was always going to be fucking empty, the whole fucking neighbourhood had been raped, why had she allowed herself to hope the garage, with it’s big fucking windows, had escaped that somehow. Sweet Jesus, she must be getting tired to be thinking so little. A brief hope flickered through her head, there’d be a stockroom, but she crushed that quickly.  One bout of naivety was enough for the day, now she had to find something to make sure she hadn’t entirely wasted her time.

The stockroom door was open, the shelves at the back as empty as the shelves in the front of the garage.  A window in the stockroom showed a small private car park and yard at the back of the garage, but the only vehicle out there was a motorbike.  She didn’t listen to the spark of hope she felt when she saw a set of keys hanging up on a nail by the door.  Holding the keys and standing by the door she took one last look around the stockroom, wondering if there was anything usable in the place.  A heavy thud and a clatter rang through from the shop and she realised she was out of time.  The tire iron hadn’t held out.

It was her second stroke of luck of the day, something she always believed came in threes.  The bike roared to life, the gauge showing half a tank  full of gas.  She kicked away the stand, pulled the throttle back and flew out of the drive. They were in sparse groups on the street beyond, the ones she had roused having gone round to the front of the garage and the rest having been too far away to notice. She accelerated as much as she dared and wove her way around them.  She was far too fast on the back of the bike for them, and it gave her a sense of being  superhuman  and invincible as she roared away from the industrial estates through the twisting knots of highways that linked the centre of the city to it’s industrial and residential extremities.  Good sense made her turn towards one of the residential districts, the high of the bike not coming between her and survival. She could maybe count it a good day  when her third stroke of luck involved food and shelter.

Most of the cities residential areas had been evacuated in the early days, when people were still being moved out to the supposed safety of Army run camps outside.  She didn’t think it would be pushing it too much to believe there would still be something for her there, even after all this time.  People would have left plenty in the rush to leave. She glided the bike down a slip-road, keeping her eye out for any of Them appearing while she slowed down.  It was more paranoia than realistic fear though, she was still going far too fast for their mindless reactions.  She shot across the junction, skirting quickly around a pack of Them that lurched after her futilely and she watched with a smile getting smaller in the her mirrors.  She took a turn off that lead into an identikit estate of detached middle class homes.  She had to be sharp on the mazy roads of the estate, They were everywhere and the roads had been designed to force people to drive slowly, full of sharp bends and turn-offs.  All the while she was looking left and right at the ransacked houses that had everything from furniture spilling in pieces onto the now weedy lawns to burnt-out windows from fires caused by the deteriorating infrastructure.  None of the houses she saw looked like they had been secured against them in anyway, so she guessed nobody round here had ever thought of staying, and with doors flung open and windows broken those houses  would offer no shelter from Them during the night. The sun was beginning to pale the western sky as it climbed down towards night,  but still she kept roving the estate, searching in growing frustration.  Taking a hairpin at speeds that caused the bike’s back end to slide out a little  as she pulled out of the apex, she finally saw what she was looking for.  A house whose windows were boarded up and whose doors were nailed shut.  A house that someone had secured, one that hopefully, hopefully, hadn’t been ransacked by desperate flight.

She revved the bike’s engine to force it up the sloping lawn to the house and hurriedly parked the bike, stuffing the keys into the pocket of her jeans.  Then she ran to the front door to check it.  It was firmly barred.  She heard the familiar swish-swish from behind her and sprinted for the garage.  It was firmly locked up.  Hoping fervently it would hold her weight, she climbed a trellising with a dead vine twisted through it up onto the garage roof, then dropped into the back garden.  Her eyes ran the perimeter of the back garden fence, looking for gaps They could have come through and then flicked to the back of the house.  The back door was nailed shut, the patio doors barred with lengths of floorboard, the only unblocked window was the small, high one of the downstairs toilet.  She hastily positioned a garbage can below that little window,  and climbed on top of it.  She pulled her shirt over her head quickly, covered the glass in the small frame with it and smacked it with her elbow as hard as she could.  The frosted glass shattered and sprayed inwards, leaving her space to slide her hand between jutting shards of glass left in the frame to turn the latch on the window.  She pushed it inwards, shook out her top and put it back on, and then prepared to trust to the fact that she’d had so few decent meals of late that she could squeeze through the small gap that the window presented in the house’s defences.  It’s an uncomfortable and tight fit anyway, and she had to force herself not to imagine becoming stuck and drawing the attention of Them as she wriggled her way through.    She scraped her elbows on some of the broken glass left on the window sill and cursed.  The scent of blood would get their interest even if they couldn’t hear movement.  She wriggled faster, then finally popped out and tumbled down onto the floor of the bathroom.  The floor was littered with empty water bottles and buckets, but otherwise the tiny bathroom was spotless.  She held her breath for a couple of moments, listening closely to hear if there was anyone inside the house who might be coming to investigate the noise.  The house seemed utterly silent.  Slowly she got to her feet and without bothering to turn to the taps on the sink she looked around for a container that still held some water to rinse the blood from her cuts.  She found a couple after a quick search and once  she’d cleaned her cuts with one she drank greedily from the other, letting the coolness of the water rinse away some of her burning fatigue.

Cleaned as well as the bottled water would get her, she opened the bathroom door and stepped out into the corridor.  It was clean, tidy and well cared for, and as she followed it she saw through the doorways that most of the house was the same. She passed what might have once been dining room. All the floorboards had been ripped up and must have been used to bar the patio doors she had seen from outside. The sight of the wreckage in that room seemed somehow more shocking and violent compared to the tidiness of the rest of the house. She found the kitchen and started throwing open cupboards, searching for anything edible. There wasn’t a lot left. Some dry pasta, some tinned tomatoes, some savoury biscuits , some oil and some other bits and pieces. It was better than nothing, but much less than she had hoped for. It also filled her with a strange sensation in the pit of her stomach. No-one had fled this house, this house where she had passed a pastel pink twin bedroom full of toys on her way to the kitchen. No-one had fled it but there was no-one reacting to the noise she was making in the kitchen.

She shook her head and found a bag to throw the food into along with the water bottle. As she filled the bag up it occurred to her she wasn’t thinking of staying and she wondered at herself. The house looked completely secure, but it was making her feel uncomfortable.  She would at least look round it to see if there was anything else  useful before she left, even if that meant discovering why the house was spooking her.

Bag packed, she headed upstairs to see what she could find.  Every room she looked in felt like a snapshot of the past, each neat and tidy as a show home, but full of personal effects like posters and clothes in closets, electronics, pictures, books and stuffed toys. The upstairs bathroom had a lavish tub and a huge shower stall that made her wonder when the last time it was that she had used either properly. She found herself staring at that bath, imagining surrounding it with candles, filling it with lots of hot water and bubbles and just lying back in it. The heat on her exhausted limbs would be fantastic, unwinding the knots that were built on top of knots and alleviating the bone deep ache she was starting to learn to live with. She shook herself out of it. There was no running water, it was just a useless fantasy.

She came to the master bedroom. The door was closed over so she gently pushed it open. It whispered across the deep pile of the carpet, and let out a stench of rot that turned her hardened stomach. With trepidation she went inside. There was a king size double bed and a wardrobe with mirrored doors that ran the whole length of one wall. The barred windows were curtained with heavy burgundy curtains that made this room even gloomier than the rest of the house. On the huge bed, huddled together in a group, were five bodies. Father, mother, big sister and two little twin girls with the same beautiful white blonde, curling tresses and identical little pink dresses hanging loosely about their small and horribly shrunken bodies. Everyone of them had been shot, and the gun responsible had fallen onto the bed by the father’s hand. He’d presumably been the one to use it, poor bastard. She was on her knees in front of them all, her legs suddenly water. Her mind behind to cloud up, images rearing up, horrors she had survived the sight of before. The corpse with the rifle clenched between it’s teeth from earlier, a child who’d become one of Them mindlessly trying to chew on the stomach of her doll while gore dripped from her chin from some earlier feed, the faces of people she had known and trusted gone slack jawed and drooling after the change from living human to Them. She forced herself to stop thinking before she completely disabled by memories. There was too much horror stored in her head to give in to it. She reached for the father’s gun, opened it up and span the barrel. Ironically there was one bullet left in it. One bullet was better than none. Maybe he’d even have more somewhere, probably in a locked box in the garage, since the whole house spoke of responsible citizenship she expected that’s exactly how he’d have kept his guns. Well away from the two little princesses he’d eventually had to kill.

It seemed to take her an age to get to her feet again as her eyes became transfixed again by the waves of pale hair tumbling down from the heads of those small bodies. Decay didn’t seem to have touched that hair and it made her think of some of the pictures she’d seen in the rest of the house, where these little girls had been happy and smiling in them. It bothered her that she couldn’t decide if they were better dead, if what she was seeing was more mercy than tragedy. She’d given up on all those moral debates ages ago in the name of survival, but she guessed she couldn’t think of herself as human if she wasn’t challenged by this find.

She was right about the garage, in fact it seemed like Daddy had been fond of guns, because there were several locked up in the garage, along with plenty of ammo. Why he hadn’t used it was surprising, but everyone had their own ideas about survival and she certainly wasn’t going to complain. A third stroke of luck for today, and one that would let her cross through the city centre and escape the city. The centre was no place to go unarmed.

Climbing back out that tiny bathroom window wasn’t pleasant, but she had decided that she wasn’t even going to stop for food in the house. She couldn’t stay in the same place as the dead family, let alone eat there. They might be everywhere in the city centre, but there would also be good places to hide and sleep there too. Places she could lock herself into. With the bike, They would not pose her so much trouble.

Back out on the road, the sun was getting low now, and the air on the bike was cool after the heat of the day. She rode purposefully without the earlier thrill. Tiredness was creeping up on her again, and hunger was twisting her stomach up. The road to the centre was straightforward and short and it wasn’t long before the tall buildings of the city centre began to rise up round her. She weaved her way around Them as They gathered in larger, denser packs on the abandoned streets. The centres of cities everywhere had quickly been overrun with Them, infection spreading like wildfire among panicking shoppers and city centre workers. She remembered watching it all unfold on the rolling news networks, the scattering shoppers, the reporters running for helicopters, the horror of seeing someone bitten live on tv, then the same scenes repeated, and repeated, and repeated all over the world, images from everywhere forming one endless stream of shock that died abruptly to a monotone beep and a flashcard that was somehow the most shocking image of all.

She slammed on the bike’s breaks and stopped staring at the other end of the street where she was.  They formed an impenetrable   wall of rotting flesh blocking her path through the city square.   400 yards away now, and some of them were turning to look at her already, drawn by the growl of the bike engine.  She looked up at the sky, the light blue was growing inky in the east and pale yellow and red in the west.  It would take a lot longer to get out of the city if she couldn’t go through the square, too much longer.  On her right there were smashed shop fronts, abandoned vehicles and assorted wreckage, on her left a huge, glass shopping mall, similarly damaged to the shops on the right.  Above the shops on the right were offices, and she saw doors that lead up to them, between the twisted carnage of architecture and consumerism that spilled forth from the shops.  One was open, just slightly, but not broken into that she could see.  It was a door she could bar behind herself.  She made the decision quickly, driving the bike right up to the door and killing the engine just as They began to mobilise.  For one second she found herself gawping, it was the biggest group of Them she had ever seen.  She leapt from the bike as soon as she realised they were starting to move quicker, scenting her and the blood she had spilled on her clothes.  She threw herself at the door, expecting to fly straight through and yelling in shock when it jammed hard against something and refused to leave a gap large enough for her to fit through. She threw herself at the door again, harder this time, but it still would not open wide enough for her to fit through. A glance back over her shoulder.  They were coming closer.  Her brain weighed her options without consulting her and she ducked into the nearest wrecked store, not bothering to waste another second trying to get through the jammed doorway.  It was a mistake, but not one she had time to rectify.  They were in there too, milling about among the skeletal remains of clothing racks and floor awash with debris.  There weren’t as many as outside, but they were in her path and she had to keep moving with that army shuffling at her back.  She pulled the gun from the back of her jeans and raised the barrel, not stopping even as she began to aim and shoot.  She couldn’t afford to stop, but her aim was good these days, and as she advanced rotten heads exploded like over-ripe watermelons, spraying black blood and grey sludge all over the wrecked clothing shop.  She kept moving,  hearing the SWISH-SWISH of the hoard following behind, making her way towards the counters and the big double doors right behind them.  She heard the chamber of the hand gun click empty, and ran for it, vaulting the counter and narrowly avoiding the outstretched arms of one of Them still dressed in the tattered remnants of a store assistant.  She practically bounced off the double doors, realising too late that they were nailed shut on the other side.  She span on the spot, eyes searching everywhere for a way out and seeing only Them, pouring into the store through the broken windows.  Sheer desperation made her fly towards the stairs to the men’s department, pausing only very briefly to clear her way of a couple of Them that were in her way.  The stairs would slow them, but they would manage negotiate them and come after her.  She pelted up the stairs, holding the gun tightly, ready to fire.  They were on the top floor too, a surprisingly large number of them in fact, as if perhaps they had followed someone up here once and never gone back down.  Then she saw the small door by the upstairs counter emblazoned with “Staff only”, saw that there was just enough of a path between her scattered foes who were even now beginning to react to  her sudden appearance in their mindless existence, so she ran for the door, shoving the gun back down her jeans as there would be no time for shooting.  Something lunged at her, cold and slimy and she grabbed a clothes rack and threw it violently in the direction of her attacker.  That caused her to slow, let the rest of Them close on her some more. She pulled the gun out again from the back of her jeans.  Another lunged at her, she fired, almost point blank.  Brain sludge sprayed, coating her skin and making her wretch.  She stumbled backwards, hit something dank and solid behind her, span, shoved, ran, shot.  The world blurred. Limbs, teeth, stench and gunshots made up everything, with wild rushes of adrenaline keeping her moving through it. She watched a massive hole appear in the chest of one of Them whose slippery hands were grasping at her.  There was a clatter, her hands were empty. She watched in disbelief as the gun went spinning along the linoleum shop floor and underneath something she’d never get it back from. She fled for the counter, leaped behind it and threw herself at the door. It flew open, there was an empty corridor and stairs beyond. She slammed the door behind her, shoved a heavy fire extinguisher against it and took the stairs two at a time. On the landing one of Them stood alone, swaying on the spot above the top stair. It lurched at her, she skidded round it, smashed the glass on the emergency box that was bolted to the wall by the door out onto the next floor, pulled out the small fire axe inside and with a scream she buried the axe in it’s skull. More brain sludge splattered over her, but it went down with it’s cleaved skull and tumbled bonelessly down the stairs. She didn’t look at it again, just went to peer around the door.

 Beyond was a narrow corridor with office doors at regular intervals. She listened closely for the sound of movement, but there was nothing. She dragged herself across the corridor, opened the first door she came to and went inside. It was nothing more than a sparsely furnished office, one that had been left exactly as it had been abandoned when the city centre was over run. There was a picture frame on the plain wooden desk with a smiling woman’s face, and there was a filing cabinet in the corner with a plant pot on top of it. The plant was long since dead. She grabbed the edge of the desk and pushed it against the door, then she dropped her bag of food on top of it and collapsed into the chair, breathing hard still as the adrenaline hammered her body.  She looked down at the sludge and black blood splattered all over her clothes and skin and suddenly found herself doubled up retching, with a splutter of water and bile escaping her. Shakily she sat back up, reaching up to touch the back of her left hand to her forehead. She froze, her brain switched off, she blinked rapidly, she wasn’t sure how to breathe and then a sound filled her ears.

“No, nono, oh fuck. Nonononono,”

There, a half circle of black bruises and crescent shaped cuts on the back of her hand, along the edge below her pinky. As she turned it over slowly to see if there were any marks on her palm, she could still hear that noise, except it seemed to be growing more shrill as she took in the rest of the bruises and cuts on the palm of her hand. Finally her brain managed to utter something at her. Teeth marks. A bite. Oh fuck, jesus fucking christ, she’d been bitten. The noise she’d been hearing were coming from her.

“Nononono, fuck, nonononono. Shit, bastard, fucking, zombie motherfucker. Nononononono,”

She’d been bitten.

She had no gun.

She’d been bitten. Infected.

“Nononononono, please God no!”

Already the blackness of the bruising was spreading.

“I don’t wanna die! Fuck you all, I don’t want to! Nononononononono-“

Space Command

Posted: 29/03/2016 by Alternate Celt in Dark Tales, Self Published, writing

A reblog of this extract. This is one of the stories in the Dark Tales short story ebook

crowkitchentales's Blog

The following is an excerpt from a story I wrote some time ago, partly inspired by the events of the 11th of September 2001. It is set in a possible near future. In this excerpt, the main character, Honey Kirkwall, explains a little about herself and her world.
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#2
Things I remember from my childhood, before and then in those first few tentative years after the September 11th attacks, seem almost unreal – too glossy and glamorous to have really happened. So many things we took for granted, things I wanted and possessed as a child that no child now ever dreams of. Peace, the sanctity of your home, education that the world envied, even looking down -albeit with sympathy- on all those developing nations sunk in a quagmire of civil war.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, flickering on celluloid, is the voice of a man pleading with…

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Dark Tales from the Crow Kitchen

Posted: 04/08/2014 by Alternate Celt in Dark Tales, Self Published, writing

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I took a bunch of the short stories mostly published here an made an ebook.  It’s only 69p!  Enjoy!

Humanity

Posted: 26/04/2014 by Alternate Celt in Dark Tales, Extracts, Self Published

A short story about humanity.
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Rain beat relentlessly on the little clutch of tents, while it bounced off the pavements, scattering and reforming into fast expanding puddles as they fell back again. In other words, it was fucking pissing it down.

As I crossed the grey, wet, shimmering street towards that miserable huddle of tents, I felt a familiar sinking feeling. Rain is an old foe whom I’ve learned to be of in a lifetime of suffering Scottish weather. It adds a layer of misery to any setting. Combined with the strange sense of loss I feel when confronted by the persistent remains of a movement that was finally going to change the world but didn’t in that bedraggled little cluster at the centre of the square. I felt quite deflated. A struggling writer in a packed business ruled by cutthroat capitalism. I’ve been long adrift on a sea of failure and rejection, but I’ve always tried to cling to a belief in a changing of the tides. But here, shivering in the rain and staring at the ruins of hope, it all seems so bleak and pointless.

What happened to the Revolution? I wonder now. For all the protest and anger, all the tear gas and defiance, the evictions and beatings, whither the purpose that once united all those people? Bankers still pocket crazy bonuses, paid for by taxpayers and extracted from the lives of the very poorest of all, who have been ground down lower than ever. It’s like none of it even happened.

I don’t notice him because I’m staring forlornly at the tents and not paying attention.

“Watch where you’re going!” He snaps as I turn straight into him. I recoil, and stumble back a couple of steps, spluttering apologies. Dark, piercing, aggressive eyes under serious black brows, all under shortish brown hair, tending to wild. Several days growth of dark stubble on his face. Dressed head to foot in a once sharp black suit, now undone, tieless, rumpled and soaked unto ruination. He was seriously pissed off, tending to the wired end of jumpy, so I drew myself up, wary.

“I’m sorry. I should have been looking where I was going,” I say.

He opens his mouth to speak, looking furious enough that I tense, ready for him to fly off the handle at me. But then he hesitates, looking me in the eye, and then he deflates, disapearing back inside himself. He mumbles something, could be an apology, then turns and walks off.

“Hey, Mister, are you okay?” I call after him, but he either doesn’t hear or chooses not to, and keeps walking. I guess I found myself following him out of instinct. He was 2 dozen steps when I started to follow, but I didn’t hurry to catch him up. I kept my disfasterinstead, drawn by morbid curiosity. Down through the sloping streets we went, towards the city centre, and the railway station. Down towards ‘Loupers Brig’, so named for the poor souls that all too often end their lives on the tracks below it.

As I watched him come to a stop and turn to look down at the train tracks below. I feel a chill settle in my stomach. Was he about to take a leap of faithlessness? I closed the space between us quickly, spurred on even faster as I saw him scramble up into position on the old stonework of the Brig’s sides. Below, a train is approaching, gathering speed out of the station.

I had one of those moments of clarity and timelessness right then ; bullet time, I suppose you’d call it, when your senses kick into top gear and the world slows down as your heart rate goes soaring upwards so as to flood your brain with adrenaline. I stopped running and started gliding, the sounds of the world me while he tipped ever so slowly forwards to meet with the oncoming train. In the oceans of time I was suddenly granted, I reached him casually and caught him easily with one hand confidently snatching up his arm.

Less than a heartbeat later, reality was kicking back in along with the inescapable forces of gravity. My lungs felt collapsed, incapable of breath after the illusions of adrenaline evaporated. Worse still, the realisation came that this man I had snatched back from jumping to his death was heavier than me, and I was a long from sure I had the strength to counter it.

“Let me go!” He snapped at me, distraught, dangling by one arm above the long drop to the tracks.

“No!” I exclaimed, not so much determined as horrified. My feet were scrabbling on the pavement, my upper body contorting over the side as I struggle to brace as I struggle to brace myself somehow.

“I’ll end pulling you over!” He barks, finding his anger again.

“Then help me, you selfish bastard!” I half ordered, half pleaded with him.

There was a long, painful moment where he stared at me, where he stared at me, shocked and puzzled. My eyes were watering from the way my arms were stretching out of their sockets. I wished he’d stop being so melodramatic. Then he swung up his other arm and used me to haul himself up to a point where he could reach the side of the bridge himself. When he let go, I practically recoiled, desperate to roll and rub my shoulders and make sure there was no damage.

He climbed slowly back over the wall to the pavement, shaking visibly. I saw him pause to brush tears from his eyes at least once, and it seemed whatever had been holding them in check was gone now. Perhaps saving his life might not be quite enough, I realised as he turned to me and tried to speak. No words came he was too shaken with emotion. Inwardly I sighed, outwardly I smiled., and turned to flag down a passing taxi.

“I’ll take you for a coffee,” I offered and he managed to mumble thanks.

A dream…. An extract

Posted: 18/11/2013 by Alternate Celt in Dark Tales, Extracts
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This is from the zombie story I’m working on.

They let me go! I’m free, I’m cured!  I’m so happy I could sing, but I’m standing on the porch of my parents house, keeping quiet as I ring the doorbell so I can surprise them.  There’s no immediate answer, so I ring it again, but then I notice the door isn’t even closed.  With no more than a brush, it swings noiselessly open.
“Mum! Dad!  I’m home!  They let me come home!” I yell out, unable to contain myself.  Silence is all I get in response, so I grab my bags and head into the house, shouting for my parents.  I come to a very sudden halt halfway down the corridor.  On the ground, right in front of my feet, are long smears of blood that lead into the kitchen.  I drop my bag in the hall and follow them, still calling out to my parents.  The trail winds round the breakfast counter, and I become aware of a slurping, grunting noise that I hadn’t heard before.  I walk round the counter and there is my mum. crouching on the ground with her back to me, over my Dad, whose face I can see quite clearly as he lies there on the floor.  I don’t remember him having such grey hair as he does now, or such grey, pale skin.  Or such thin blue lips. The blood trail ends with him, in a great big puddle that my Mum seems to be kneeling in. 
“Mum?” I hear myself say, my voice shaking even though I don’t feel any particular emotion.  She seems to freeze, then she slowly, ever so slowly, turns her head round to look at me.  Her eyes are white, her hair lank, her face already decomposing, and from her mouth I see blood and gore, drip, drip, dripping into that puddle of blood.  In her hands I see flesh wobbling, possibly it’s liver as it’s dark purply red and wobbles like blancmange.  As she turns, I get to see my Dad better, and I see his stomach is ripped open, trailing intestines into that puddle of blood.  My brain finally registers what I should have realised immediately – his body is lifeless, broken and utterly dead.  Then his eyes snap open, white as my mother’s,  and I scream.

Space Command Intro

Posted: 17/11/2013 by Alternate Celt in Dark Tales, Extracts, Self Published

As part of the work I did recently on this old piece, I re-wrote the introduction.  Here it is in all it’s possibly controversial glory. No apologies, it’s fiction.

Space Command
On September the 11th 2001, a group of Saudi Arabian nationals hijacked four planes within US airspace.  For more than an hour they  flew the planes without any intervention from the US air force, although in one the passengers staged a mutiny which led to the deaths of everyone on board.  The remaining three planes made it to their targets – the Pentagon and towers one and two of the World Trade Centre.  The overall casualties of their action were slightly over 3000 people.
This shocking and barbarous act of terrorism led the US to launch the War on Terror, but also to resurrect the idea of SDI, or “Star Wars”, a much derided plan from the Reagan Adminsitration of the 1980’s which was to place a weaponised missile defence platform in orbit around Earth to allow for swift neutralisation of enemy missile launches.  The original plan was evolved and built upon in a search for “Total Spectrum Dominance”, a phrase coined by the powerful lobbying group, the Project for a New American Century.
20 years on.
Exploring a possible future

The Global Resistance Network comprises of a group of hackers and freedom fighters who wage terrorist war against the US in both the real and the virtual world. The hackers routinely bring down and subvert links in the US communication network often in conjunction with physical attacks – mostly hit and fade style affairs.
Working mostly in fully integrated cells with very little influence from central command, The only distinctive goal of its many groups ethos’s is the end of US global dominance.
The whole world lives in fear of US power and there is no one country that will shelter or back the GRN. Global population is high, disease – mostly in the “Old world” is rife, as is poverty. The Global depression has ground down even many of the formerly affluent European nations. Outside of the US itself, outlets selling US goods often find themselves the target of terrorist attacks, with governments feeling obliged to fund the security of these outlets for fear of US reprisals.
What follows is the fragmented story of one European group as they begin a highly risky campaign against US listening and communications networks on European soil.  The story was gleaned from   neural recordings taken from Honey Kirkwall, a GRN operative and computer specialist.  The recordings were taken post mortem, and as such have large gaps in the narrative.  Editorial decisions were also made concerning the ordering of the fragments of narrative, in order to best present her version of events.  Dates have been avoided as only certain parts of the narrative can be placed to exact dates.

Space Command

Posted: 15/11/2013 by Alternate Celt in Dark Tales, Extracts
Tags: ,

The following is an excerpt from a story I wrote some time ago, partly inspired by the events of the 11th of September 2001.  It is set in a possible  near future.  In this excerpt, the main character, Honey Kirkwall, explains a little about herself and her world.
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#2
Things I remember from my childhood, before and then in those first few tentative years after the September 11th attacks, seem almost unreal – too glossy and glamorous to have really happened. So many things we took for granted, things I wanted and possessed as a child that no child now ever dreams of. Peace, the sanctity of your home, education that the world envied, even looking down -albeit with sympathy- on all those developing nations sunk in a quagmire of civil war.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, flickering on celluloid, is the voice of a man pleading with his fate in making a last stand against the hoards of darkness “How did it come to this?” and I feel so bitterly the echo of that plea in the face of every other European, once rich, now reduced to scraping a living as an exploited labourer at the mercy of yet another US corporation.
Everywhere, where once diverse and ancient culture flourished, we see the boot-print of US culture. Coca Cola, McDonalds, Microsoft, Monsanto, SmithKline, US film, US TV, US sports. Soccer, as they call it, is outlawed because it is considered a source of anti-us feeling – people congregating in large numbers and celebrating something that means nothing to the Americans. The French film industry is banned – a philosophical hotbed of anti-us statement. Hell, the Italians are only allowed to keep Pizza because the Americans have claimed it.
The resentment felt against America is surpassed only by fear of it. “Total Spectrum Dominance” is their phrase for what they have done to subjugate the world. What this means literally is they own the world. They can attack any building in any country from weapons satellites in space at a moments notice – where the Eiffel Tower was there remains only twisted metal and Mecca is a pile of rubble. So-called “Free” governments give into US demand without any show of resistance now.
Their army is so far beyond any other nation’s as to be ridiculous, their complete command of space allows them freedom to impose their will wherever they choose. Europe has never stood a chance.
I feel acutely for what we have lost in the world. My parents were both University professors – my father in Computer Science, my mother in Social Science and Philosophy – and they were among the first casualties of fear of contradicting the US in our country. My father was handed over to the Americans for defacing a US govt website, and then simply disappeared, my Mother was arrested on some spurious charge when she started campaigning for my Fathers release. When our government officials agreed a deal to hand over her and a large group of other “dissidents” to the US, my Mother committed suicide.
My childhood is littered with happy memories; my teen and subsequent years have been saturated with bitterness. I grew up angry, disillusioned and at odds with everything society had come to mean. At least, I have not been alone.
While governments have stood back and allowed US dominance to continue, terrorist activities have soared up in number. Terrorists have also become increasingly sophisticated, swallowing up new technologies and subverting them and there is enough money still floating around in Europe (and the Middle East) to keep the terrorists afloat. Global communications are also as much of an advantage to the terrorists as they are to the US military might. It is the only means of fighting the US hegemony, though success is varied. No government will openly back terrorists, most will persecute them ruthlessly.
I say them, but the truth is I mean us. My father passed down to me his computer skills, my mother her sense of “burning conviction”, so now I fight and hack for a group based in Britain. We’re a small group, but we have links with a lot of other groups in Europe – all a part of GRN. Our aim is simple – get the US back within its own borders – its troops, its hardware, its corporations and its culture

Twenty Seven

Posted: 17/10/2013 by Alternate Celt in Dark Tales
Tags: ,

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The morning after.  The walls in the hotel suite where we had stayed dripped blood.  My head swam, my stomach heaved.  Someone is shrieking, an awful high pitched dentist’s drill of a  sound that is penetrating my skull agonisingly.  I lie under a heavy drift of ripped and shredded feather bedding, some of which clings to my naked body, red and sticky. Under  my cocooning layer of debris only I am yet aware of that, and since I cannot move, I can’t but help but wonder if I haven’t yet been seen under here.  I am sure that awful noise is being made because of the blood on the walls and the grizzly mess that I know is strewn across the carpet of our room too.

I am assaulted afresh by jagged shards of memory stabbing through my pained consciousness.  I recall the sepulchre tones of the ticking clock that stopped dead at midnight, the stench of blood, the red-blindness that accompanied the sound of my own voice screaming itself hoarse, the grim look that passed over his pale face and the howling, the dreadful howling that filled my ears as painfully as this shrieking.  I’m not ready for these memories, and the sound that they tear out of my throat brings attention to me.

There is a confusion of voices, the shrieking is cut off by them, and then there’s hands laid on me and exclamations of horror.  Someone asks if I am ok, someone asks what happened, but I can’t answer.  A penny drops in someone’s head and I hear them ask where he is, in a voice which is already teetering on a hysterical edge because the answer is in front of everyone now around me.  It’s strewn in bloody, torn pieces across the bedroom carpet and slopped like buckets of red paint on the walls.  Questions become demands that I won’t ever be able to answer, there is shouting and panic, and footsteps fleeing in haste.  Someone can’t keep their stomach contents.  I sympathise, I lost mine some time ago though, but I can’t speak up to say.  I’m overwhelmed, speechless, paralysed, just a broken thing left behind in the aftermath of what happened to him.

Then I hear someone start to weep, lamenting him.

“He was just 27, dear God, just 27,”

Yes, just 27, my heart weeps with them, but we always knew that the day would come.

 

Wind back the years, because it hurts too much to linger in this place.  I was 12, on the cusp of my teens, and we had just moved to a new house in a new city, in a new country so that my dad could start a new job.  On the day I was supposed to start my new school, I was sitting on the porch with the house locked and silent behind me, watching quietly as the bus that was meant to take me to school pulled out of the street, none the wiser of having left the new girl behind.  We travelled a lot, I changed schools a lot, I didn’t want to face yet another room full of kids it wasn’t worth getting close to.  My mother was my father’s PA, and they had already left for work together almost an hour before.  I often wonder if they ever noticed the way I slipped out of their busy lives, if they ever look up now and see my face plastered on some screen, magazine or suchlike and wish that they had paid more attention to their daughter.  Guess I won’t ever know.

The bus disappeared round the corner and still I sat, wondering what to do with myself.  I sat for what seemed like a countless number of silent minutes as I contemplated how much I resented the loneliness of the childhood my parents were gifting to me in their mutual pursuit of money.  I seethed inside, while the heat of threatened tears dried out my eyes and made them feel scratchy.

“The school is bullshit anyway,” was the first thing he said to me.  I looked up, startled, I had been boring my anger into the wooden step at my feet.  He loomed over me, standing at the foot of the steps and with a beat up old guitar, missing at least one string, slung over his shoulder.  Green eyes peeked out at me from behind a mass of tousled dark curls. He seemed just a little older than me, standing in well worn jeans and a too large denim jacket.

“It’s all fucking bullshit, school, moving, parents.  Fucking everything,” I said in reply, with a snarl and a defiant curled lip.   I was a veteran of several years of secret swearing by that point, though I had yet to dare to turn such language on the people in my life who deserved it the most.

“I’m Louis,” he said then, holding out a hand to me, “You look like you could do with a tour guide,” he added, a smile that promised more mischief and unadulterated fun than I had experienced in years bringing light to those green eyes.

“Seraphine,” I reply, taking his hand to shake it, “Will it be guaranteed to piss off my parents?” I asked, hopeful to make them remember I existed.  Trying to  be a good girl had never got their attention.  They expected that of me, but they never went out of their way to praise me for it.

“Only if they ever find out,” he answered.  I was 12, on the cusp of my teens.  Already my veins had a little drip-drip of hormones feeding into them, enough to stir up a little rebellion in me, and enough that the girl in me responded to the draw of the boy in him, even though I wasn’t that aware of it.

The new country my parents had brought me to was France, the new city, Paris. My mother is French though, so language was not a problem between Louis and I, although he quickly noticed that I had an ‘accent’.

“Where are you from?” he demanded of me as I followed him out into the rich, leafy suburb that my parents had settled us into.

“I’ve been everywhere, so I’m not really from anywhere.  My father is American, but I have dual citizenship.  I was born in Guadeloupe,”

“Your parents are very rich then, I guess,” Louis said.

“They work all the time so they must be,” I remember replying. But Louis’ parents were also very rich – he was my next door neighbour.  He hated it as much as I did, so he dressed in dirty old clothes and spent his days skipping off school and busking in the centre of the city.  He was almost two years older than me, it turned out, and he’d been running away from school for at least a year.  Sometimes they managed to get him cooped up in a classroom for weeks though, if the school managed to get his parents to intervene, but once their guard was down again he’d head back out onto the streets.

Our first stop on that first day was back to his house to grab bikes, then I followed him as we hurtled at breakneck speed through the treacherous and mercurial Parisienne traffic, Louis with his   5-string guitar slung across his back.  We made it all the way to the many steps at the feet of Le Sacre Coeur.  That’s where I heard Louis play for the first time, and from that first time I was enthralled by his playing.  He’d been taking classical guitar lessons since he’d been a small boy and played as if the guitar was part of him.  As he’d grown older he’d heard lots of other guitar music, but he’d fallen in love with Rock.  He played a fusion of both on his beat up street urchin’s guitar, and the passing crowds rained down coins on him until a Gendarme began to wander our way.  With our haul of old french coins, the frank had still not succombed to the euro in those days, we lost ourselves in the crowd and hunted down a Creperie so we could blow most of them on huge pancakes dripping in butter and nutella, then he began to show me his city.  I fell in love.

We were street rats scuttling through the twisting back alleys and secret places of Paris, meeting dark characters who imparted dubious wisdom, cigarettes and illicit shots of burning whisky.  Music dripped from Louis’ finger tips, charm from his lips as he bought all the people we met with it.  We roamed until the sun slunk below the buildings on Montmartre, stopping sometimes long enough in some tourist spot to collect money to keep us in food and drink for the day, but spending most of our day far from the relentless crowds.  Then finally we took our lives in our hands and biked back to the suburbs under the streetlights and moonlight.  My parents house was still silent and locked, but I no longer cared.  I had traversed the cusp, become a teenager and been rechristened as Sera.  I would never get on that school bus.

Quickly I learned to dress in my oldest clothes, and I began to do sketches of tourists while Louis played, or sometimes I would sing.  Nannies and assistants were hired to try and get me into school, but I slipped their grasp every day so I could be free on the streets of Louis’ city with him.  My parents spoke to me about it, I told them comforting lies and they accepted them because they had never really known how to speak to me anyway.

The first time we didn’t come back of a night, the Gendarme were called but couldn’t find us in the heaving city.  They had severe words for me  when I did get home, but I cared nothing for it then.  Within a few short weeks, Louis and I stopped going home altogether.

We slept on the floors of abandoned flats, sharing them with other street urchins and strays.  These places were teeming with struggling artists and bohemian philosophers.  Musicians were common too, although I realised there weren’t many who could play guitar like Louis.  I followed always in Louis’ wake, too young and shy to be alone in this new world of ours, but too fascinated and in love with it to take myself back to the safer, lonelier world I had come from.  I became Sera-bebe and was treated as Louis kid sister by everyone. Louis himself was fiercely protective of me and he kept me nearby always.  I was two years younger than him, and running every day with wolves who could have easily exploited me, if not for Louis.

Time began to pass.  We kept ourselves fed with busking and drawing, although as I got older and grew in the kind of confidence that a life on the street can give you, I began to sing more often than I drew.  We could draw quite a crowd, which was fine as neither of us worried much about being picked up and taken home to our parents any more.  Louis’ tumbling dark curls fell to his shoulder, and he had grown several inches after we took to the streets, so he was a tall, slender rake of a young man hiding behind his guitar while I kept the eyes of the crowd on me.  I had grown a little too, though not much.  My parents had always insisted I kept my white blonde hair short, so I grew it long.  They had always insisted I dress tidily and conservatively, so I wore lots of tight jeans and skimpy clothes, layered over with bright scarves that I would ‘borrow’ from the moroccan stalls and shops around the city. I also wore hundreds of multi-coloured bangles that would jingle as I danced and sang.  I always hid my pale blue eyes behind sunglasses – small round pink tinted sunglasses that looked a little like the glasses John Lennon had always worn.  My nomadic childhood meant I could speak not only fluent French and English, but also pretty good German, Italian and Spanish, so I was always the one to address our crowds.  I guess that was one of the reasons I learned to shake off my shyness. The children our parents were probably looking for (I still don’t know if my parents ever really bothered) were just that – children.  We were something else; wise beyond our years, resourceful, swaggering and wholly untrustworthy to anyone except our immediate group of friends. Life was raw, but it was free and it made us precocious and unrecognisable.

Then we met the old man.  It happened because I missed books, and Louis found the old man’s book shop while looking for books for me.  It was tucked away on a small side street not far from the Pere-Lachaise cemetery, where so many talented parisiennes, adopted in many cases like myself, had their final resting place.  Louis spent a lot of time there, practicing guitar beside Jim Morrison’s grave, and writing poetry.  One wet day in September, close to a year after we had run away from home, he stumbled on the book shop after his visit with Jim.  It was a crowded little space, and it seemed like the shelves all leaned in towards the small counter and the cheap gas heater the old man kept behind it.  The fact that the shop was called L’Emporium Occulte de Pere-Lachaise drew Louis in like a moth to a flame.  He was always fascinated with the occult and supernatural.

So that day, he ducked into the shop out of the rain, clutching his battered guitar as ever, wrapped in a bin bag to keep the rain off it, and found himself face to face with the old man.  There was nothing immediately unusual about him, he was just an elderly, bespectacled man with a moth eaten cardigan, a cigarette hanging from his lip, a cup of coffee in one hand and a book in the other.  The fact that the book he was reading was an ancient copy in the original German of Van Goethe’s Faust was the only little clue apart from the name of the shop that  there might be anything untoward about the owner.

The old man put his book down, took the cigarette from his mouth and contemplated Louis for a long moment before he spoke.

“You’re the lad who plays in the cemetery every day.  Street brats don’t learn to play that well normally,”

“I wasn’t always a street brat,” Louis told him with a nonchalent shrug, staring around at the books crammed into every shelf.  There were little handwritten signs tacked to the shelves, declaring the subject matter of the surrounding books.  Words like Demonologie, Fee Traditions, Qabbalah,   Sorcellerie, Magiques Noire and Tarot were scribbled on them in a spidery, looping script.

“Are you sure, lad?  Doesn’t matter where you are born if your heart is supposed to belong to a street brat,”

“My heart is supposed to belong to a Rock Star,” was Louis’ reply.  He made no secret of his ambition, and had already formed an anarchic band that was yet to get a gig but that spent a lot of evenings practicing on stolen and scavenged gear in a frigid old wine cellar that had doubled as a hideout for Jews during the Occupation of Paris.  It had become our home lately, along with the rest of the band.  There were leaks letting water in from the Seine above, and rats scuttled in the shadows, and the smell of half a dozen poorly washed bodies lingered along with the must of dampness, but it was our home and we loved the place.  The way in was through a concealed entrance in an alleyway behind the dilapidated, bombed out building it had served for centuries, so it was the perfect place for us to avoid the Gendarme and make our noise.  We got our power from a building site next door, using stolen extension cables to feed it in.  That was the only real point of contention, because no-one liked to be the person nominated to hide the cables away before the morning shift at the site.

“Ah, that is why you sit by the American’s grave to play then,” the old man replied knowingly to Louis statement, “ I am not so sure, lad. Rock Stars lose their freedom and I can see that you need to be free, like a street brat.  Think of what happened to your American friend in the cemetery there,”

Louis always had a quick temper, and it flashed inside him then.

“When I am a Rock Star, sir, I will keep my freedom because no-one will be willing to take it away from me,”

“Ah, so sure of yourself, lad, so confident!  I have heard you play, I know your talent,”  the old man said, staring cooly into Louis angry glare, then he leaned forward so that his face was close to Louis’ – the shop was very small after all – and he whispered, “I can help you, Louis D’Amour, you and that beautiful little angel who often follows you, la petite Seraphine,”

Of course, Louis was rattled by the old man’s words.  How did he know our names? How could he possibly help us realise Louis ambition?  Who exactly was this man with his sinister little boutique?

“I don’t think I want your help, thank you, sir,” Louis said through gritted teeth before turning on his heel and leaving the shop.  He was not fast enough to miss what the old man said next though.

“You’ll be back, lad, you know you will,”

It took several months, but Louis did go back.  He scoured the city looking for places that would let us play, but no-one wanted to take on a band of street trash.  We had our own following already, but a single look at them would have bar and club owners shaking their heads and  pointing at the door, because we were all from the street and no club owner in the whole city was willing to risk having any of us in their establishment.  Every knock back only served to make Louis angry, he saw the outright prejudice behind the rejections and I know that the old man’s words haunted him, because while he loved the freedom of our lives on the street, he did not want to become like the old burned out shells of men who slept on the streets and lived off cheap spirits and cigarettes begged from passers by. He did not want to live and die a street brat.

Louis didn’t tell me he was going.  I was older, wiser and very street smart by this point in time, so while we weren’t apart often, he would at least let me out of his sight.  By this time, snow was piling up in slush piles at the side of the roads and winter was biting hard.  The cellar was always freezing, even in summer, but now it was so bitterly cold that we would sleep in thick duffel overcoats and under piles of purloined blankets and the only liquids that never froze completely down there were the bottles of wine and whisky that there were always plenty of.  On the very coldest nights, we even took to sleeping together as the whole band, sharing body heat.

It was snowing large wet flakes from a slate grey sky, and a bitter wind was whistling around Pere-Lachaise.  Louis stopped on the way to sit with Jim, but he did not bring his guitar with him that day because of the weather.  Louis had other guitars in the cellar, better guitars with their full complement of strings, but he would only use that old guitar when he was busking.  It had been his very first guitar, and he claimed it held a little piece of his soul.  So it was without it that he made his way to L’Emporium Occulte. Perhaps, I wonder, that was significant.  Perhaps it wasn’t.

The old man sat as if he hadn’t moved in all the intervening months.  The book he was reading had changed, he was now reading a book on the life of Robert  Johnson, the legendary blues guitarist, but he wore the same cardigan and spectacles, clutched the same coffee cup and still had a cigarette hanging from his lip.

“You are stubborn lad, I thought you would have seen sense long before winter came,” the old man addressed him without looking up from his book.

“Sense?  Its crazy that I am here asking for your help!” Louis told him, “What on earth can you do for me anyway?”

“Look around you.  I can give you knowledge.  I can give you the power to make things happen,”

Louis had always been a believer, but he had found the true extent of his belief on his last visit, he thought.  It had taken months of disappointment to bring him back to the old man, but even in his desperation he wasn’t convinced.

“You want me to pray to Fairies or work magic spells?” Louis spat then, but the old man simply  laughed.

“The Fey would be more likely to steal you for their own enjoyment than help you,” he told Louis, “And while some magic will definitely help, most spells are fluff, “ he added before finally putting down his book and his coffee cup and finally giving Louis his attention, “No, lad, you will need something a little less flimsy,”

Perhaps if I had been there with Louis, I would have seen the hungry glint in the old man’s eye, or some other tell tale sign that there was some awful catch to his seemingly benign offer, but I fear I would have been swept along with Louis’ desire anyway.  Louis did not answer straight away, in fact for a long moment he thought about turning and leaving, but the sight of the cold, wet snow drifting from the sky and the slush filled streets stopped him.  Too easily he could imagine a lifetime of struggling through cold winters, thwarted ambitions and decreasing horizons.  Too easily he could imagine ending his life a bitter drunk in a Parisienne gutter under a drift of future snow.  He whispered to me in the dark of a much later night that he had also imagined what my fate might be and decide he couldn’t bear to see what might become of me .  It does me no good now to try and imagine what kind of alternative there might have been.

“Alors! You win, old man.  What can you do to help us?”

The old man smiled then, revealing a smile that seemed just a bit too toothy and pointed for comfort.  I know this because I got to see that smile later, and often, so I learned all too well what he looked like when he got his way.

“I can do nothing today, but come back when there is no moon in the sky, and I will help you then,”

So, albeit reluctantly, that is what Louis did. It was only three nights later when he returned, and this time he brought me with him.  Louis was wary still, and he was right to be, so he brought me to stand witness to whatever the old man had planned.  Yet, as soon as I saw the old man, I felt the beginning of cold dread in the pit of my stomach.

“She should not be here, lad.  You don’t want her to be involved in this,” were the words the old man threw at Louis when we entered his shop together.

“Then perhaps I don’t want to be involved either. What do I have to hide from her?” Louis retorted. Maybe we should have been suspicious at how readily the old man gave in, because in hindsight it seems his altruism was nothing more than a front to cover for what he truly wanted from Louis.  Certainly, I felt a cold shiver at his response, and that dread began to make itself known to me by turning my stomach.

“Nothing then, I guess,” the old man replied with a shrug and a thin smile, his eyes lingering on me for a second before flicking to Louis.  I was left in a state of deep division.  I did not trust this old man, I felt there was something deeply sinister about him, but I would not dream of denying Louis his ambition. Partly because it was mine, but in the most part because Louis was the unspoken centre of my universe.  Louis seemed appeased by the old man’s acquiescence too, so I could not have walked out then anyway.

I cannot deny that what followed over the weeks and months frightened me.  At first, we would go to visit the old man at his shop and he would lead us through the back to a large, bare room behind the tiny shop at the end of a long, gloomy hallway that was squeezed by stacks and stacks of books piled on each side of it.  One wall of the room, the southern one, was dominated by an old fashioned range complete with a deep black cooking pot suspended on a long arm over the fire.  The only windows in the room were always shuttered, and the only light came from the fire and the dozens of thick, white tallow candles that also lent the heavy air a faintly carnal scent.  On the bare wooden boards the old man had drawn two chalk circles, one large one that encompassed an altar and many of the candles, one small one that contained a five-pointed star and many strange sigils.  Underneath the chalk, although I didn’t notice it at first, there was a layer of rusty brown paint that I tried very hard to believe was not blood for quite a long time, until events tore the wool from my eyes.  The altar itself was the first thing that really frightened me, before my awareness grew of the more subtle dangers we faced in that room.  It was carved from Ebony, and inlaid with ivory.  The legs were fashioned into naked women, bound with chains and being preyed upon by disembodied, clawed hands that dug cruelly into their flesh.  Their hands were chained above their heads, thus supporting the altar top, which was laid out with a black velvet cloth and littered  with candles, jars and pots filled with nameless substances, black leather bound books that seemed to lurk rather than lie and, in the middle of the disarray,  a tall silver goblet whose bowl was crafted from an upturned skull that had either once belonged to a pygmy or a child.  In front of the goblet was a bone handled knife with a wicked curve and serrated blade.  I could not make myself step inside the circle, a fact I know amused the old man.  Louis was discomforted by that at first, but as he was slowly seduced by what the old man was teaching him, he worried about it less.  By the time he realised what was happening, it was too late.

Increasingly I came to realise that they were working black magic in that room, appealing to demons for influence.  It started off gently, learning invocations that seemed more like artful poetry in Latin rather than dangerously binding magic, but soon it seemed like the shadows in the room were crowding round to listen and the temperature would drop while candle flames flickered.  When they started mixing blood with wine in the goblet, I started to hear whispering from those shadows, and that dread that had been woken inside me uncoiled itself in my stomach and began to seep into my veins.  If I had ever doubted the existence of such dark forces, I could not now.  Still, I did not speak a word of my fears to Louis, because I still I was swayed by our shared ambition.

That changed on the night the demon spoke to Louis.  It’s voice rose from the whispering as the temperature in the room dived to a new frigid low and the flames flickered so much they were almost snuffed.   It’s voice hissed, sending shudders from my spine to my finger and toe tips.  I wanted to put my hands over my ears, yet I found myself straining fearfully to understand it.  The words seemed garbled at first, some kind of dark and ancient language was forming them, but gradually there was a shift until, after sliding through Latin, it landed in wholly recognisable and chilling French.

“If I can give you what you ask for, but what can you possibly have to give me in return? “

“Do not answer hastily!” the old man commanded before Louis could even think of speaking.  He was struck silent in surprise, in fact, and words were yet to cross his mind.  The shadows erupted with hissing laughter, and I could no longer keep all the fear inside of myself,

“Louis, do not do this!  This is too high a price to pay already!” I exclaimed, hugging my arms closely around myself, trying to keep the cloying cold away from my skin.

“Silence girl, do not interfere!  You have no idea of the fickle forces we are dealing with!” the old man snapped at me, but I ignored him.  Louis would listen to me, I was sure, so sure that when he finally spoke I could no longer remain in that awful room.

“Sera-bebe, ma Seraphine, I cannot stop now, I am sorry,” I took one look in his eyes, knew in my heart that what he said was true and fled, hearing that awful laughter mocking my flight.

 

It was much later that night when Louis returned to the basement.  Everyone else was out, partying hard with our usual crowd in one of our usual haunts.  I had returned and thrown myself onto my salvaged mattress, wrapped myself tight in my blankets and shivered myself into a state of nervous exhaustion.  The sound of that voice would not leave my head, but neither would the sting of betrayal I had felt at Louis.  It felt somehow as if he had left me, and that now I was alone with the awful knowledge that I could do nothing to bring him back.

He moved silently across the floor to my bed, waking me from a darkly troubled sleep by sitting down on my bed next to me.  He did not say anything and I felt the silence lengthen between us.

“Louis?” I whispered finally, opening my eyes to look up at him once my anxiety for him overtook my fear of looking into his eyes.  There was no anger for me there, no hurt.  No, the dark emotions swirling in those green depths were not directed at me, except for the regret that seemed to constrict my throat.

“I’m sorry Seraphine, I should not have exposed you to that,” he said at length, “I don’t want you to be afraid for me,”

“Please tell me you did not make a deal,” I begged him, unable to stop myself.

“I did not.  The old man says I must keep working to take control of the demon,”  I think my heart stopped then.  Take control of the demon?   Oh, Louis, how could you expect that to be any comfort to me?  I could not imagine anyone being in control of the creature whose voice I had heard in the old man’s back room.  What awful things would it do to him when it rebelled?

“Louis…” I whispered in a tremulous voice, unable to find enough voice to speak what was on my mind to him.  It felt almost like my throat was being squeezed to prevent the words escaping, and I tried to swallow past that, but I succeeded only in bringing tears into my eyes instead.  Louis saw this and gathered me up, murmuring words of placation and comfort.

There has been a long held myth about Louis and I; that we have been lovers almost since the day we met.  This is not true.  Yes, we were always very close, and as I have already said, Louis was very protective of me, but we were not lovers when I was only 12, no matter what wild stories have been written about us.  And not even when I was 15 either,  Louis had a certain sense of honour in that regard.  It did not change that night either, although as he held me I felt a desperate urge to kiss him and cling tightly to him for fear I might have been about to lose him.  Still, at some point that night, some time after we had found and consumed a bottle of strong red wine, we fell asleep in each others arms.

After that night, Louis began to spend more time with the old man, but I could not go back into that room, so I saw less and less of him.  Each day that passed made me more and more anxious about Louis, and our relationship deteriorated.  It came to a head, surprisingly, on the night we had our first ever paid gig, some three weeks after the demon had first spoken to Louis.  The whole band had been high on the excitement of it since we had landed the gig a couple of days before, but when I walked out in front of the audience I had immediately spied the old man sitting at the bar, smoking and watching with one of those unpleasantly toothy smiles of his spread across his lips.  He looked me directly in the eye and threw me a lazy salute, one that was blatantly full of contempt.  My voice caught in my throat just when I should have been introducing the band, and I must have looked light a rabbit caught in the glare of headlights as I stood there speechless.  Louis rescued me by counting the band in hastily, but that did not save him from the lash of my anger after the show.  Thankfully once our music snared me, my voice returned, and I managed not to look the old man’s way again for the rest of the night.  There was an extra snarl in my voice, and I kept my back to Louis for the whole of our set, both of which were at odds with the way we always played.  Louis was not unaffected by my mood, and he did not play anything like his true ability, and that had a knock on effect with the rest of the band. Our first gig was a disaster, in other words, and the crowd did not take well to us at all.  Afterwards, Louis and I had one of the most vicious arguments of our lives.  As soon as we fled the small stage of the club, Louis ripped his guitar off,  grabbed me tightly by the arm and dragged me snarling and spitting out through the club’s back door and into the dank alley behind it.

“What is wrong with you, Serafine? Why won’t you look at me?”  Louis demanded, yanking me round to face him and grasping me by the shoulders.  I tried to struggle free of him, so he snatched me about my upper arms and shook me.  I soon ceased struggling, but I stared resolutely at the ground, refusing to meet his eye.

“Serafine! Don’t be such a bitch!  What have I done to deserve this? It was our first gig tonight, it couldn’t have gone any worse!”

Still I would not look at him.  He snapped and yelled, shaking me.

“Serafine! Look at me!”   I clenched my jaw and still would not look up.  If I looked at him now I would snap and all that was boiling inside me would pour forth.  Only the thinnest veneer of control stood between me and complete lack of control.

“Serafine!” Louis roared my name in frustration, shaking me again and then shocking us both by slapping my cheek to demand my attention forcefully.  I went crazy, wrenching myself from his grip and launching myself at him, kicking, scratching and screaming.  All the fears I had been keeping hold of and letting poison me came exploding out of my mouth and I was cursing demons, black magic, the old man and Louis for all the dark horror that was preying constantly on my mind.  I gouged bloody marks on Louis arms and face as he tried to fend me off, and he kept yelling at me to stop and calm down, but I couldn’t.  Then suddenly he caught my arm and twisted it behind my back, turning me as he did and pulling me back hard against him.  His other arm snaked around me and snared my wrist, pinning me tight against his chest.

“I did not ask him to come!  I did not think you would want him here!  I swear it Serafine!” He hissed in my ear as I cursed him again.  I froze, vitirol dying on my lips.  “Please believe me, ,” he added, his voice breaking.  Guilt swallowed me whole, how had we become so divided that I would find myself so full of hate for him?  For two years of my life, he had been the very centre of my world, and for those two years I felt like I had at last become alive.  Now, when it seemed like that might come to an awful, bitter end.

“Louis, Louis, I am so sorry.  I am so scared for you,” I sobbed out, going limp in his arms.

“Shhh, Sera-bebe, I am sorry too.  I should not have hurt you,” he whispered close in my ear, still holding me tightly.  I turned in his arms, reaching up to his face and touching the scratch marks I had left there.  Tears filled up my eyes, and I buried my face against his chest, and it was in that moment that the cool night air was punctuated by the sound of someone clapping slowly.  We both turned our heads in surprise, and saw the old man standing at the back door, applauding and smiling that evil little smile of his.

“Bravo! Bravissimo!”  he exclaimed, his voice rippling with sarcastic laughter.

“Why did you come when I asked you not to?” Louis demanded of him.

“To be sure you really needed my help, which it seems that you do.  The patrons didn’t exactly take to you tonight, did they?”

“We played way beneath our best tonight,” Louis spat back, indignant, “And we will prove that next time we play,”

“And what if no-one in this city is prepared to give you that second chance?” the old man asked mildly, waiting only a heartbeat for Louis to respond before giving his own solution, “You know I can deliver you the fame you crave.  You know how close we are now,”

Louis stared at the old man for several long, silent moments.  I felt I could not breathe

“I need time to think about it, old man,” he said finally.  The old man’s smile sank quickly into a frown, but then, with an exaggerated sigh, he shrug and replied.

“Yes, take some time to think about it, by all means, but do not wait too long,”  Then he turned back into the club, leaving us alone.

“If I asked you now not to do it, would you?” I spoke softly, only for Louis’s ears even though we were alone in the alley way.

“Give me time to think, ma Seraphine,” he murmured back, so I gave him time to think.

 

The next few weeks were very different.  Louis did not go back to the Emporium to see the old man, and instead he threw all of us into frenetic practice at night and dragged me all around Paris busking during the day.  By the end of each night I could barely speak because of how tired my voice was, but I did not complain.  Louis was with me, not the old man, and while I still wasn’t sure what choice he would make in the end, I had hope for him, and us, again.

When we weren’t busking, we were touring the clubs to find someone willing to let us play.  Louis seemed almost haunted by the old man’s words and was determined to prove that we could get our second chance.  Day after day we were knocked back, but Louis was not going to back down so easily, and we kept on trying.  Finally, a small club in Montmartre that didn’t often have bands and barely had room on it’s tiny stage for us gave us a gig.  They normally had poets and philosophers, not bands, but the owner was sympathetic.  He had seen us busking outside and invited us in to play to the afternoon clientele.  After more than two hours of playing for them and having them captivated with Louis skill,  the owner gave in and offered us a gig a couple of nights later.

Louis was a tyrant for those few days.  He practically locked us all in the cellar and forced us to practice until we were playing in our sleep.  I forgave him more readily than the others, who complained bitterly after the second day of being cloistered, but they did not really see the full picture the way I did.  I remember falling asleep on my bed, with Louis just over a handspan away from me in his, and feeling the blossoming hope that perhaps he would not go back to the old man.  I would not say it out loud to Louis, but I knew that if this gig went well then it would persuade him that we did not need the old man’s dangerous form of help. I remember waking to see him still asleep in the very depths of the night and letting myself hope that I would not lose him after all.  I watched him, watched the gentle fall of his breath and his sleep softened features, and allowed myself the time to wallow in all the things I felt for him.  All would be well, and as time moved forward, we would become lovers as we had always been meant to be, standing together in the light of stardom that Louis so obviously deserved.

The club was crowded to capacity, many of our friends had come to fill the little place out, but there were other people who had either seen Louis and I play a few afternoons before or had heard about us from people who had.  I was nervous as I scanned the crowd, unable to stop myself for searching for the old man’s face among them, but he wasn’t there.  My nerves settled a little and I turned a smile to Louis as we prepared to begin.  We were all ready, well practiced and polished after days of hard work under Louis’ lash.  I counted, one, two, three, four and the band followed, the bass and drum rolling in first, the guitars following and then finally I raised my voice to join them.  It couldn’t have felt more different to the first night.  Louis and I were together, almost as if we were busking for centimes on the steps of Le Sacre Coeur, but here we could soar further, lifted up by the band to greater heights than we could ever achieve with just ourselves and a beat up five string guitar.  Our salvaged and stolen equipment stood up surprisingly well to the task – perhaps because of the small space – and soon the crowd was right there along with us, singing the songs they knew the words to, listening keenly to the songs that we had written.  Alcohol flowed like water all around, making the club owner particularly happy, and a good amount of it flowed our way, making our music looser and more liquid, but not eroding our performance.  I had never heard Louis play so perfectly.

All too soon, it seemed, we were taking our bows to rapturous applause, grinning like fools as we stood before it all.  There was no backstage room for us to retreat to, no place to escape the fervour and take stock, so we slipped off the stage and into a corner of the club where we spent the rest of the night drinking free drinks and being toasted.  In the midst of it all, one man stole all of our attention with a simple sentence.

“Tell me that I am not too late to sign you to my company’s record label,” he said as he sidled up to Louis and I.

“No, of course not. This is only our second gig,” Louis explained, sounding much more cool and collected than I felt.

“Only your second?  I saw you two in here the other day,” he sounded genuinely surprised.

“We were busking outside and the club owner invited us in,” Louis replied.

“Then you really are quite  find!  Have my business card and call me in the morning.  I could have a deal for you!”

We were in stratospheric spirits by the time we found our way back to the cellar. It was hard to imagine how our night could have gone any better, and that put the shadows of the preceding months far into the back of our minds.  The cellar quickly filled up with revellers, some having followed us home and some having descended upon us because of the party that was gearing up.  Soon the noise level was cranked right up, and the cellar got so packed it was hard to move without standing on someone.  I found myself surrounded by women who wanted to know all about Louis and the rest of the men in the band.  Cut off from the others, I accepted the drinks that were pressed into my hands and let them talk.  After a while I looked up to see Louis watching me while hovering by the door, and I wondered what he was doing.  He gestured to me, and I excused myself from the little group that had sprung up around me and crossed the room, feeling the jealous heat of all their gazes on me.  It wasn’t the first time I had felt the glare of envy on me because of my relationship with Louis and it certainly wasn’t going to be the last time either, but it was the first time I found it made me feel a little possessive of him.  Maybe it was the way the light caught in his green eyes as he watched me approach, the way those dark curls of his clung about the edges of his face, or that languid grace with which he propped his long, lean body against the door, with his black shirt hanging open, and his black jeans riding low on his hips. With  his silver chains and black ink tattoos on display against his pale skin, he seemed like a piece of the spring night personified – full of moonlight and shadows, yet full of life and beauty.  And he was watching me, just me, out of all the people in the room, and not any of those envious women who I had left behind.

“Where are you going?” I asked as I reached him.  I don’t know if he was as aware as I was of the eyes on us, but he surprised me by pulling me into his arms and bringing his mouth close to my ear so he could speak freely without being heard.

“I am going to the Emporium to tell the old man I won’t be back,” Louis told me.  Joy flooded me, it felt like a light shining suddenly into the dark place our lives had become – the light of the end of the tunnel.

“Do you want me to come with you?”  I asked him, but he shook his head.

“I promise I won’t be long,” he told me, his lips brushing lightly against the skin of my neck as he spoke.  I stilled with shock at the sensation and he brought his lips to mine, claiming them before every eye in the room.  I was  left breathless and shocked as he melted out through the door into the night leaving me without a word and before I had any time to recover my composure.

 

The Emporium was steeped in darkness when Louis arrived.  Impatiently he knocked on the door, knowing that the old man would not be sleeping, but as soon as he touched it, it swung slowly inwards, inviting him into the shadow-steeped shop beyond.

“Monsieur?  It is Louis,” he called out, unsure and wary.  There was no reply from within the shop.  Louis stepped inside and turned to close the door.  The little bell rang too loudly in the deep silence of the shop.

“Monsieur, I need to talk to you,” Louis called out again, but there was no response again.  Louis made his way round the counter to the door behind it, finding his way with the help of shafts of moonlight and streetlight pouring in the front window of the shop, but the corridor was lightless beyond.  Louis flicked on his lighter, lit himself a cigarette in passing, and used the flame to light his way down the corridor to the back room.  Half-way along the corridor, he could see that the door to the back room was open, but there was no light coming through it.  Louis called out again, but the only sound he heard was that of his own footsteps.  As he reached the end of the corridor, he was assaulted by a charnal smell worse than any he had encountered in all the dark magic he had worked in the back room.  Louis hesitated for the first time, hanging back in the doorway of the back room and trying to see what was beyond with only the flame of his lighter.   Nothing made sense under what little the flame illuminated, for it looked like the room had been set for a ritual, but all the candles and even the fire were standing unlit.  Louis could see very little else, but the silence, the smell and the strangeness of the candles were unsettling.  He took a step into the room and the air erupted with noise – squawking, screeching noise.  Ragged shadows wheeled towards him, and he found himself ducking beneath a flurry of black wings.  As they flashed over his head, picking up light from the flame, he realised that they were crows.  Something dripped from their beaks as they went by, falling into Louis’  hair and onto his skin.  He made a move to wipe away whatever it was, but a second rush of noise and black shapes roused itself from inside the dark depths of the room and flew over, lower, forcing Louis to crouch against the floor, covering his head for fear of their talons.  It wasn’t until the room was silent again and the crows were definitely gone that he pulled himself to his feet.  He wiped his forehead as he stood and discovered blood on the back of his hand. It had been blood dripping from their beaks and claws onto him, and now he was splattered with blood all over.  He stood still, staring in the dim light at the red smear on the back of his hand, watching as a drip fell from one darkened curl of his hair onto his hand.  He should have turned then and followed the crows back out of the building, he should have ignored the way morbid curiosity tugged at him, but he did not. Instead he shook himself, pushing aside the fear that was trying to communicate caution to him, and moved towards the nearest of the candles.  The crows, in their wild flight from the room, had knocked over most of the candle holders and spilled the candles across the floor, but Louis found one quickly, picked up the nearest candle holder, placed it in and lit it.  Flickering light formed a bubble in the darkness around him, revealing the chaos of splattered blood, overturned candle holders and the usual contents of the altar strewn across the bare wooden boards of the floor.  Louis’ eyes followed the trail of debris back to the altar, which formed a mere suggestion of an outline on the periphery of the bubble.  There was something wrong with that outline, Louis realised as he squinted into the gloom at it, but he felt an odd reluctance to start lighting more candles.  That was until he heard a strangled sob of fear, in a voice that he recognised with a shiver of shock.

 

She approached me with yet another drink while I stood still, reeling from the impact of Louis’ kiss.  I had only met her that night, she was not one of our usual crowd, but she had seemed predictably interested in Louis.  She had a long mane of sleek, deep-black hair, a heart-shaped, fox-like face, and lips the colour of blood.

“You look like you could use a drink,” She said with a smile, holding the drink out to me.  I took it and gulped at it, self-conscious of the stares I was still drawing.  She moved to stand close to me, shielding me from the room.  I was about to thank her, when a wave of dizziness hit me.  I swayed precariously on my feet, but she grasped at my elbow and began to propel me towards the door.

“Let’s get you a little fresh air,” I heard her say.  The sudden change in motion caused another wave dizziness and  blackness pulled at the edges of my vision.  The cool night air hit me hard, and I fell to my knees.  I heard the door to the cellar close, and the fox-faced woman loomed over me, blocking out the light.

“It’s alright, little one, I’m sure he will save you,” She said as her face became fuzzy.

“What do you mean?” I managed to say.  My question was met with a peal of laughter that mocked me all the way down into the darkness.

I couldn’t tell at first if my eyes were open or closed, but I quickly became aware of the smell.  I gagged, then almost choked as I realised that my mouth was taped shut.  I squeezed my eyes tightly as I fought to control my breath, and I could feel tears trickling down my cheeks.  The sudden movement my spasm caused startled something in the darkness and I squealed as it squawked in alarm.  Invisible wings  beat against the thick black air and my heart hammered against my ribs. I realised, as my mind began to course with adrenaline, that I was lying on my back. My attempts to sit up or move were immediately thwarted by bonds that tied me firmly to the surface I lay on.  My panicked reaction to this proved only that my hands and feet were securely bound together too.  I had never known such terror, but I felt I should have died from it when the thing landed on me.  It wasn’t heavy, but it’s talons bit into my skin as it shuffled it’s way up my bare thigh and onto my naked chest, making soft, throaty cawing noises and rustling it’s feathers.  I screamed as it’s thick black beak and beady black eye appeared suddenly only the barest of inches above my own eyes.    It tilted it’s head this way and that as I whimpered behind the tape, feeling it’s talons stab into my breast as it moved to keep it’s balance against my impotent struggles.  I felt the blood trickle down to pool on the surface beneath me.  The crow’s face disappeared from my sight, but I felt it dip it’s head down to inspect that puddle.  It barked out a sharp call, and I heard what sounded like a hundred wings beating.  My entire being was consumed in a white hot static explosion beyond fear and pain.  I don’t know how long it lasted, it felt like an eternity, and suddenly they were all gone, leaving me behind a bloody mess that was beyond my imagining, with my mind blown beyond pain into a state of paralytic shock.

Dimly I was aware of the sound of footsteps, and then light flared somewhere off to my right.  My eyes had already adjusted to the darkness, the soft gloom penetrated my vision and I found myself staring up at a blurred shape.  My eyes struggled to pick out what it was until it jerked suddenly, falling further forwards towards me, and I was suddenly face to face with the old man, whose visage was pale, dead and ravaged, it’s empty eye sockets staring bloodily at my naked body.  I was surprised by the noise that escaped me, surprised because I did not think I had it left inside me.  I had no idea if I was drugged or dying, but I certainly felt lifeless.

Then Louis came rushing towards me out of the darkness with a candle clutched in his fist.  It seemed so bright to my eyes that I had to squeeze the shut.  Another whimper escaped me.

“Oh, ma Seraphine, ma Seraphine,” Louis despaired as he laid eyes on me, for I was bound with heavy chains and cuffs, and I was torn all over with wounds wrent by claw and beak, from my thigh to my cheek.  My eyes were yet spared, unlike the old man’s.  Not that it mattered for the old man was dead.   We could both see him clearly  by the light of Louis’ candle, but it was a sight I would rather have been spared. He had been hung upside down, naked and crucified upon an inverted cross, flesh ripped clean from the bone in many, many places.  Louis stared for a long moment, then fell to searching for a way to release me from my chains.  The voice of the demon spoke then, the sudden chill of it’s presence snuffing the candle flame and plunging us into darkness again.

“The old man was not strong enough to stop me. I fed his flesh to my avatars,”

“Let Seraphine go, she should not be part of this,” Louis said, his voice close to me.  I felt disembodied, like I was floating, buoyed up on pain.

“You were warned not to bring her into this,” the demon hissed, it’s voice all around us.  I didn’t have the strength to shiver at it.   “Besides, she is dying now, so what would be the point?”

“No!” Louis snapped in angry denial, “I won’t let you kill her!”

“I’ve killed her already.  I can feel the life ebbing out of her now, and she can feel it too,”

It was too dark to see if Louis looked down at me, but I felt his hand close around mine.  It hurt, but not so much more than the rest of my body that I couldn’t still welcome his touch.  I was dying after all, what did pain matter now?  He held my hand in silence for what seemed like an age, and it began to feel like his touch was the anchor point preventing me from floating away entirely into the darkness.  Of course I was dying, every inch of me was agony and I was aware of the blood oozing from all the wounds on my flesh.

“What would it take for you to save her?” I heard Louis say.  I thought I would have at least gasped, but I did not.  I certainly didn’t have the strength left to complain.  The air reverberated with soft, dark laughter.

“How much is her life worth to you?” the demon replies.  I’m drifting, wishing that I wasn’t, wishing that I could intervene in this conversation.  Louis, please, just let me go and save yourself.

“Everything,” Louis answers in a broken voice.  I haven’t drifted far enough away yet not to feel the way that single word hits me.  Tears well up in the corner of my eyes, and they burn as they trickle down my cheeks.  I don’t flinch though, I don’t have the strength.

“You know what I want from you, Louis.  How many times did you turn me down while you were trying to learn how to control me?”  Such venom and hate in that voice, such rancour and vengeance.  What things had the old man involved Louis in?  What had happened in this room after I stopped coming?

“Give me time, please.  Give me time to taste what I’ve bought with it, I beg you,”  Louis must have bowed his head right over mine, I could feel his breath on my face as he whispered these words of defeat.

“What did I offer you before?  25 years of fame?” the demon sneered.  My heart was fluttering.  I wondered if it was about to stall.  Louis did not answer, and the demon laughed again.  It seemed to me as if the sound was a long way away, and I realised that the pain was also coming from a long way away.  Perhaps it would be too late, I found myself thinking…..

 

I awoke feeling warm and comfortable, and the contrast was enough  to make me sit bolt upright, gasping.  The first thought on my mind was that I should not be alive, the second was the fear of what Louis had exchanged for my life with the demon.  When he put his arms around me and began murmuring platitudes, I was only partially relieved.  He was still with me, but at what cost?

“What did you do, Louis?” I demanded of him, pulling away so I could look into his face.  I felt keenly aware of the fact that I should not have felt so hale and whole.  Now that I was awake, in fact, I was barely even groggy.  Louis looked away from me for a moment, but not quickly enough for me to miss the shame that flared in his eyes.

“What did you do, Louis?” I demanded again, more stridently.

“Ten years,” he said in a voice so quiet I could barely hear it.  I caught him by the chin and forced him to face me.

“Ten years? What do you mean ten years?” I asked, my voice suddenly shrill to my own ears.

“It gave me ten years, then it gets my soul,”  he whispered, casting down his green eyes.  The soft light from whatever room we were in shone in unshed tears that brimmed in the corner of his eyes.

“You will die when you are 27?” I asked after a several long moments where my breath was too constricted in my chest for me to speak.

“It laughed and told me it was only right and that I should thank it, because it would make me immortal like Jim,” he explained, drawing the strength from deep inside to tell me.

“It promised you fame too?” My voice was shaking now, my body trembling.

“No, it said I would have it anyway without it’s interference,”  Louis told me, and I could practically feel how little enthusiasm he suddenly felt for the prospect.  I shook myself then, my mind racing fast as I clutched to a little hope.

“We have ten years then, ten years to live a lifetime together,” I said, “I do not want to spend a moment without you,”

“I can’t have you there when they come for my soul.  There will be hellhounds, Seraphine, hellhounds that I do not want you to be near,”

I was taken aback, even after all I had seen, even though I knew I should be dead but was alive.  There were hellhounds?  Louis must have seen the confusion on my face.

“It showed me them, and told me that there was nothing on Earth that keep them from their prey.  They were terrifying, Seraphine,”  I knew that he was speaking the truth, the memory of the fear was raw in him, and it caused those tears to spill.  I could not push him further then on that, and instead I drew him close to me and held him close.

 

Ten years later.  The hotel room is in New Orleans, and here the tropical spring night is sticky.  Louis is pacing the floor, silent and casting frequent glances at the crystal Grandmother clock on the far wall from the bed.  The room is really an apartment suite, the apartment is lavish and open plan.  I can feel, as I watch him from the bed, that he is fit to explode.

“I am going nowhere, Louis.  You agreed to that,” I say tightly, unable to bear the tension any longer.

“Did you ever seriously believe that I would be happy to let you die?”  he turns around and spits at me, unleashing all of that pent up emotion in a vicious eruption.

“I was dead!  I should be dead still, but you bartered your soul for my life!  I didn’t ask you to do that and I wouldn’t have!” I spewed back at him with venom.  I love him, he remains the centre of my world, but the weight of that pact has been poisonous between us.  As the years left sped by in a whirl of touring, recording and promoting in a cyclone ever increasing fame, it had slowly eroded it’s way into our psyches, but it was only when we realised we were counting time in months instead of years that it began to truly bloom.

“I would not wish these hounds on my worst enemy!” he roars at me, striding across to the bed to grasp me by the arms, into, I think, on dragging me from the room bodily.

“So you say, but you have never told me anything else about them!  What kind of death do they deal that I should be more afraid of than living without you?” He stops still and stares down at me, the tussling battle of his emotions visible in his eyes.  He opens his mouth three times before words finally escape him.

“They do not deal death at all.  You cannot die in their jaws, at least, not until they have taken your soul,”

“I don’t understand,” I said, my words bitten off by my frustration.  Louis sighed, let go of me, ran a hand through his hair and then fished two cigarettes out from his shirt pocket.  He offered one to me, which I snatched at and pulled insistently to my lips.  I waited sullenly for him to light it.  Louis bent his head forward towards mine, sharing the same flame to light up for both of us, then he span abruptly away on his heel, taking several gasping lungfuls of smoke as he did.

“You died in my arms.  I made the demon release the chains around you when you passed out.  I hadn’t entirely believed it until it happened, and then I became crazed,”  he began, pacing a few steps and then stopping and running his hand through his hair again.  He was obviously agitated, explicably so.  “I tried to renege on the deal, I wanted to die then.  I tried to run, taking your body with me, but the hounds stopped me from leaving the room.  They formed from the shadows, three of them, large as ponies with three heads each like Cerberus.  Their eyes were blood red and glowed like coals, their teeth green-white like phosphorus, and so was the foam that dripped from their massive jaws.  They circled me, their claws clacking and scraping on the floorboards and growls low in their throats.  Low, but loud, like a long peal of thunder straight overhead. The stench of their breath filled the room, it’s sulphurous funk drowning out the smell of death and blood.  One snapped it’s head forward at me as I tried to dart past, a second jaw shot out from within the first with serrated teeth like a piranhas.  It tore at my ankle, breaking the bones and taking splinters of them away with a chunk of flesh.  As I collapsed, I felt one of them brush me.  It was burning hot, but slick and wet with slime over wrinkled flesh that was almost too dark to be seen, so dark that it was only by that touch that I realised it’s texture,”

As he spoke, my anger had started to dissipate.  His words were painting a picture in my head that I could not entirely process, but that I also could not ignore.  When he stopped there, I didn’t say anything, I simply watched mutely as he gathered up the strength he needed to continue speaking.

“The demon spoke to me, as I lay weeping on the floor, clutching you against me, it spoke right into my soul, giving me vivid visions of all it spoke of.  It told me how the hellhounds could hunt a person down no matter where they hid, once they had their scent.  Doors do not hold them, spells do not hold them, nothing on Earth can keep them from their prey, it told me.  It explained that from the moment a deal was made, the hounds had the scent and only it’s word held them back.  It told me that they would take the souls of those I cared about as they hunted me, if it told them to do so. It told me that once they finally caught me they would tear my body to shreds to take my soul, that I would still be alive as they did it, and then I would know nothing but torment for eternity afterwards.   It told me all of these things, then it offered me ten years with you alive again in exchange for my soul, and I took it’s deal, ”

“I won’t leave, Louis,” I told him, staring directly in his eye as soon as he had finished.  I was not angry, “I won’t have you face this alone,” I added.  His strength went from him then, completely, and he collapsed to the ground.  In a heartbeat I was at his side.

“Please, Seraphine, please don’t,” he begged me as I put my arms around him.

“I cannot leave you, Louis.  I won’t live without you, and I won’t leave you to die in such an awful way alone,” I whispered, “Look at what we have built together, how could you imagine I would ever be able to go on without you?”

He took me by surprise then, catching my face in his hands and pulling my mouth to his lips.  His hunger bowled me over and spilled me onto my back. Any thought of fighting it became quickly quagmired in my turbulent emotional state.  What followed was frantic, wordless and desperate.  The grandmother clock kept ticking time away, stealing away how much we had left.

It was the sound of the first howl that wrenched us apart.  It was distant, and the grandmother clock hadn’t quite made it to midnight, but it rippled over my skin like a chill breeze none the less.  Death was stalking us.  We waited the awful, breathless moments to midnight, and the ticking of the clock seemed to grow gradually louder with each second that went by.  My heart stopped with the next howl, closer, almost outside of our room, and my eyes focused on the face of the clock. The second hand seemed to hesitate on 9, the hour hand held an indecipherable fraction before midnight.  My train of thought was obliterated by an answering howl that filled the air.  The door exploded inwards a second later, but it was nothing but black smoke that entered the room, and then filled it with shadows as we sat in the middle of the floor and watched with wide eyes.  The grandmother clock began to chime, and with growls like thunder, the Hellhounds formed out of the smoke.  Louis suddenly threw me to one side, barring their way to me with his body.

“Take me, but do not touch her!” I heard him say as I struggled back upright.  I lunged towards him, determined not to let him die without me and the hounds, oh those awful hounds with their teeth made for eviscerating flesh, their stench and their heat, the hounds attacked.  There was blood, pain, screaming, snarling and teeth for what seemed like forever, but in truth was only seconds.  When it ended, I was alone on the bed, covered in the remains of the bedding, alive and alone, for the first time in ten years.

Ten years.  Ten years of fame, ten years of love, ten years that I spent every breathing second with Louis, and now he is gone.  I don’t think I can survive now, my body was broken by the hounds because I refused to let him die alone.  It took a long time to persuade him, but eventually he came to realise that I would never go on without him.

He was 27, like Jim. 27 like Janis and Jimi too.  27 like Kurt and Amy Winehouse. 27 like Brian Jones. 27 like Robert Johnson.

I am only 25.