This is what she knows:
Do not immediately repeat a word.
Do not immediately repeat a word spoken by someone else, and do not allow someone to repeat a word you’ve just said.
Do not allow yourself to hear your own echo.
These rules will keep you alive.
Words cannot be trusted. Give them a chance and they will kill you.
Like invisible bullets, Adrienne said, once. Waiting inside your mouth, sitting behind your teeth, tucked down just past the drop into your throat. Waiting to be fired.
Watching the man advance up the hill, Jenna reminds herself of these things.
When he stops a few feet in front of her, she closes her mouth and breathes through her nose. She bites slowly down on the inside of her cheek until the pressure is close to pain. She makes a mental note of a new rule: shut your mouth, bite down, let the discomfort keep you from forgetting yourself.
The man nods once. Hello.
Jenna nods back.
He raises a hand and gestures towards his chest, a question in his eyes. Jenna nods again. Her hand is in her coat pocket, and her fingers are wrapped around the handle of a lock-knife. She has never had to use it, but she’s felt more vulnerable since being without Adrienne.
The man tries to breathe through his nose as well, but he’s winded from his ascent up the hill. He finally gives up and his breath comes out of his mouth, pluming in the chilly air. He wears a rucksack, flimsy cheap raincoat, a woollen hat. There’s days-old stubble on his face.
“Tariq,” the man says quietly. “My name is Tariq.” He forms the words carefully, as though he hasn’t spoken for a while. Like he’s stepping around landmines.
She watches him. “Jenna,” she croaks.
Tariq smiles awkwardly. “Are you with anyone?”
She doesn’t reply.
“I haven’t seen anyone for a while,” he continues. “A week, I think. Last person I saw, well, it was a group, three guys,” and it’s like he can’t stop now that he’s opened the floodgates of his voice box, “they were going through this warehouse, stripping it down—” He catches himself, stops, shuts his mouth.
Jenna breathes out slowly through her nose.
A moment passes, and when Tariq speaks again he’s back to stepping around landmines. “Can I come with you?” he says quietly.
Jenna thinks about where she is going, where she needs to be. Whether he will help or only slow her down.
She looks away and shakes her head. Then she carries on past him and starts down the hill. There is the rustle of his coat as he turns around behind her.
“Please,” he calls. Then: “Why?”
She keeps walking. Listening for rapid footfalls. She plans how she will pull the knife while spinning to meet him.
“Why?” he shouts at the top of his voice.
Jenna stops. There’s only silence now, but it’s coming. It’s not your fault, she tells herself quickly.
“Why?” says Tariq again. His tone has dropped, there’s a flatness now. “Why . . . why . . . why . . . ” He doesn’t stop.
Not your fault.
She tells herself it was deliberate. That he would’ve done it, sooner or later, whether he had met her or not.
But he did it now, because you wouldn’t let him come with you.
Jenna turns around. Tariq stands where she left him, side-on to her, staring into space. His arms hang at his sides. There’s a limpness to his body, like a marionette with slack strings. Sometime tomorrow, or maybe the day after, his legs will give out and he’ll lie crumpled on the cold ground, and he’ll keep asking why until his voice fades to nothing and his cracked lips finally stop moving.
“Why . . . why . . . why . . . why . . . ”
For a moment she asks herself if she is really going to do what she is thinking about doing. Then she goes to him, stops just behind him. A brief hesitation before she unzips his rucksack and shoves her hand inside. Rummages. She finds a Mars bar. A plastic water bottle, half full. She shoves both of these into one of the deep front pockets of her jacket. There is a torch in the rucksack. She clicks the button but nothing happens. She unscrews the end. There’s rust all over the insides of it. She puts it back in before fishing out a small framed photograph of a younger-looking Tariq with an older man and woman. They are in a living room and they are all smiling. She puts the photo back in carefully, then zips the rucksack closed again. She checks the pockets of his jeans and his coat and finds nothing. Gingerly, she takes the woollen hat from Tariq’s head. His hair is black and greasy, shifting a little in the light breeze.
His lips purse and open as the word drips out of him. “Why . . . why . . . why . . . ”
Jenna steps away from him.
She puts the hat on. It’s still warm. She thinks about trying to herd him towards one of the empty storefronts, but decides against it; sheltering him would only prolong it, would only delay the inevitable, would only make two or three days into four or five.
She starts to walk away, but after a few steps she stops and turns around.
“Thank you,” she says quietly.
Then she continues down the hill, Tariq’s voice trailing after her. At the foot of the hill, the road curves away to the left. She doesn’t look back at him as she rounds the corner, and Tariq’s voice drops to little more than a suggestion of a word on the wind.
Not your fault.
She walks all through the afternoon, following the brown tourist signs for Oldgale beach. Town becomes suburbs. Pavements and squares give way to cracked driveways and overgrown gardens. When evening comes it starts to rain and she strays from the main road in search of shelter. She breaks into a silent bungalow set back from the road, then stands in the entrance hall, listening and hearing nothing. She checks very room. There are shapes—two large and one small—under the covers in the master bedroom, a brown bottle with scattered pills on the bedside table. Flies trace lazily through the dimness. She backs out and shuts the door, goes down the hall to the child’s bedroom. Cartoon characters painted on the wall, toy cars and figures all over the floor.
She clears the scattered toys aside and gets out her sleeping bag.
Night comes down.
On the floor, in the dark, she sleeps.
Adrienne’s beside the fire. She’s saying it’s like when you put two mirrors opposite each other. That illusion where it’s just endless mirrors. Like windows giving way to more windows, on and on, infinity. It’s like that. Only, you can’t look away, you’re trapped.
Jenna scoops cold beans from a tin into two plastic bowls. More beans in one than the other. She gives her sister the one with more. I wish you’d be more careful.
You need to talk slower, with more thought. You’ll trip up, otherwise.
Adrienne puts a spoonful of beans in her mouth. A tangle of dark hair falls over her face and she brushes it away. She looks up at the stars. It’s a clear night.
I wonder where it came from, Adrienne says. I wonder why. I wonder how. I wonder –
Don’t be a dick.
Okay. Adrienne’s smiling. Just winding you—
Jenna wakes in the dark, her sister’s name trailing out from between her lips. She doesn’t remember where she is and for a moment she sits, heart thundering, the knife held out in front of her. Light from the half moon comes in through the window, washing the bedroom in a glow the colour of bones. She remembers where she is. Through the window she sees the moon. One star, then more.
She lies back down and hugs the sleeping bag tighter around herself. Lets the trembling take over. The body’s way of keeping warm—Adrienne had kept saying that one night, as they’d huddled together in the husk of a burned-out van.
Adrienne also told her, once, that she talked in her sleep.
Jenna wonders. If you repeated a word in your sleep, would it get you? And if so, would you even know about it? Would you even wake up?
She forces herself to stop thinking. She twists around and looks out of the window. There’s no hint of light in the sky. Dawn is hours away.
There’s tape in the rucksack. Jenna takes it out and tears off a strip with her teeth.
She sticks it over her mouth and tries to get back to sleep.
In the cold, crisp late morning, she stops and sits on a bench at the roadside. Hedges and neglected farmland all around. In the distance, a derelict tractor squats in a field. The balls of her feet ache. She takes off her trainers and savours the cool air against her socks. There are blisters forming, but she decides not think about that; it makes no difference to what she needs to do.
She tips her head back. The sky is empty and blue and it hurts her eyes. It makes her feel small. There’s an urge to shout, to scream a word up into the nothingness, and fuck it, shout it again, and again, and again.
She has felt this way before. She’s felt it on the top level of a multi-storey. She’s felt it at the kerb as a bus came rumbling and gusting down the road. The mad urge to run, jump, to do the thing you absolutely must not do. There was a word for it, for that urge. Not suicidal, more a kind of impulsiveness. Adrienne would have known.
“Pomegranate,” Jenna whispers up into the blue.
She breathes in. Opens her mouth. She can feel the word inside her throat like something alive, scrabbling to get out.
She shuts her mouth and bites down hard on the inside of her lower lip. Swallow the word down. She does this until her eyes water. Swallow. Bite down. The taste of copper floods across her tongue. When the moment passes, she opens her mouth and breathes out unsteadily.
She rummages in her jacket and takes out the scrap of paper. She reads it again to try and ground herself. She reads it three times. Then she puts it away and bends forward to put her trainers back on.
Trudging on through the wet mist. Ethereal world. She has to be near the coast, now. The steady metronome beat . . . beat . . . beat of her footsteps on the tarmac. Rhythmic, something to let yourself fall into, a crevice between conscious and unconscious, where you can daydream and remember.
Adrienne finds the first note taped to a lamppost. It says:
WE’VE FOUND THE ANSWER
TO THE WORDPLAGUE.
OLDGALE BEACH. COME.
It’s written in chunky black marker pen. They don’t take it, but they find seven more that afternoon. Taped to post boxes, windows, cars. One skitters along the pavement on the wind. Adrienne chases after it before confirming it says the same thing as all the others.
They have a cure, says Adrienne.
It doesn’t say that. Look at the words. An answer could mean anything.
Adrienne holds the note. They stand side by side, silently rereading it.
We should go and see, says Adrienne. It’s only a few days away.
You don’t know what we’ll find.
Adrienne stuffs the note into her pocket. Neither do you, she says.
Jenna looks away, stares down the empty grey street lined with shops and houses, all with dark windows. The cars with their broken windscreens. The overturned bin. The ragged tomcat prowling along the pavement opposite. A crow taking flight.
Adrienne grabs her, hugs her, and then she’s striding off down the street. Come on, she’s calling, and Jenna jogs to catch up.
Jenna hears them before she sees them; a faint rhythmic chanting on the air.
She has an idea of what she will find, and she considers leaving the road to trudge through the fields instead. But the last sign had said Oldgale was only two miles away, and she can taste the salt on the air, and soon the sea will be there in the distance, a grey-blue haze where the land falls away.
So she sticks to the road, follows the downward curve before it opens up on to a long, straight stretch to reveal them. A small crowd, assembled tightly in the middle of the wide black tarmac. A dozen of them, formed in a circle, all facing inward towards the centre. The ones on the outside stand, but further in they kneel, then lie in a tangle of limbs, a strange, breathing, chanting patchwork.
“Jeffries,” their voices lilt.
She goes carefully towards them, feeling a kind of pull, like gravity, like how a planet can draw small things through the empty dark of space. There is something soothing in the voices, something calming, hypnotic. She finds herself breaching the outer layer of bodies, pushing her way through, in, towards the middle. She needs to know what’s at the centre. She steps over curled whispering forms. And then she sees the middle and understanding comes crashing.
In the centre are a man, a woman and two children. They’re huddled together, amongst bin bags, and a suitcase. The children are dead. The woman is nearly dead. Dried blood has crusted dark beneath her nose. Her mouth moves, but there is no sound. Beside her, the man’s head has lolled back and rainwater has formed little pools over his wide-open eyes.
“Jeffries,” he whispers hoarsely. “Jeffries . . . ”
“Jeffries,” the crowd echoes.
Jenna is crouching down beside the man. They did it together, they chose a final word, a word that made them all belong. The others were passers-by, wanderers who had seen this and understood and envied it. Like flies to sticky-sweet tape, lured by the idea that the last thing you ever did might not be done alone, that your final conscious act could be to join something. And so they had joined one by one and in time the circle had grown. Flies to a strip. Fungus in a petri dish.
All around her: the dissonant chant of a family surname.
There is nothing else. Only the chant. It ceases being a word and it takes a new power from that.
She stares at the drowning eyes of the man. A breath of wind disturbs the pools over his eyes, and drops run down his grimy face like tears.
“Jeffries . . . Jeffries . . . ”
She bites the inside of her cheek. Her knees click as she stands. She makes her way out, shoving past the immobile bodies until she’s out from them.
She carries on down the road, resisting the urge to run.
You’re not a fly, she tells herself. You’re not a fly. Pomegranate. Think about that. Pomegranate.
Later, at the roadside, a woman sits in a fold-out chair inside a small bus shelter half-swallowed by ivy. Jenna nods as she approaches, and the woman nods back. She is old, weathered. In the shelter with the woman is a collie, lying on the floor. The dog watches Jenna without raising its head.
“He keeps me company,” the woman says, cocking her head at the dog. “And he can’t repeat nothin’ I say. Best company to have.”
“What are you doing out here?” says Jenna.
“Resting. Heading to town, to scavenge.”
Jenna looks up the road, the way she came. “You shouldn’t go that way, there’s—”
“A group. I know.”
The collie rolls on to its side with a huff.
“It’s funny, isn’t it?” says the woman.
“How it makes you feel, hearing the group like that.”
“It felt weird.”
“Words can do things,” says the woman. “But you know that. The group isn’t bad. You get used to it, like building up resistance. Sometimes I sit a while with them, for company. I’ll be going there soon. Would you like to come?”
“No,” says Jenna.
“You’re going to Oldgale.”
The woman eyes her. “Hm.”
“Are they still there, the people who left the notes?”
Jenna flinches, but the woman smiles.
“It’s not sound, it’s meaning. They’re . . . there . . . their.” She says slowly, smiling. “Didn’t you know?”
Jenna shakes her head.
“Homonyms are fine. It’s not about sound. It’s about meaning. Where that leaves a word which holds different meanings for different people, I don’t know. Haven’t found anyone willing to experiment. God would be an obvious word choice.”
A pause. The woman keeps looking up the road as if anxious to return to the group. Her eyes flick back to Jenna, then up the road again. In the woman’s lap, her hands fidget, restless. She fixes her eyes on Jenna again. “We could try it.” She says. Something new has crept into her voice. “Would you like to be my guinea pig?”
And Jenna is walking quickly away.
“Suit yourself,” the woman calls after her. She begins to laugh. “Take care!”
In the late afternoon she reaches Oldgale. She finds the camp in a car park near to the beach. It’s mostly tents—small, domed, some with doors unzipped, fabric flapping in the wet sea breeze. There are cars towards the middle, parked at different angles, and in the centre there’s a camper van with a dirty white awning on the side of it. The ground has been trodden muddy and dark, the narrow paths between the tents choke with litter.
The wind gusts. A shiver ripples over the tents, an empty Coke can knocks against her foot.
There are no people.
Her hand creeps into her pocket and she takes hold of the knife. She walks between the tents, towards the cars, fighting down the growing dismay.
You don’t know yet.
Picking her way around taut guy-ropes and stepping carefully over discarded glass bottles. She imagines rolling her ankle. She would never get back in time then.
The smell of old rubbish in the air. Stale urine. Thick stench of sewage.
She reaches the first of the cars. An old Volvo, the bodywork filmed with a fine layer of wet sand. Like a piece of furniture in some long-abandoned house.
A child’s face blooms in the rear window of the car. She recoils. The boy peers out at her. She stares back, heart beating fast, high whine in her ears. Beyond the boy’s face, in the front seats, there are two shadowy forms—adults, heads lolling. Sleeping. She carries on towards the centre, towards the van.
As she nears the van, a noise comes from within it. Movement. Beneath the flapping awning, the van’s side door rolls loudly open. Seagulls explode up from between the tents, screaming. A man stoops inside the van, one hand on the inner handle of the door. He watches her. His face is flushed red behind a thin grey beard. Ratty clothes.
His blank face breaks into a wide smile that doesn’t part his lips.
The man gestures with a dirty hand. Come here.
Smiling, he opens his arms wide, like a parent welcoming home a lost child.
“Where is everyone?” she calls to him.
The man holds up a finger. Wait. He turns his back and hunches over something inside the van—she can’t see what, there’s no light in there.
The man turns back around. The smile is gone but there’s a kind expression on his face. He grips in his hand a piece of paper. He holds it up, and it says:
TENTS & CARS. KEEP SELF TO SELF IS SAFER.
“So why leave the notes?” she replies. “Why tell people to come if it’s safer to be alone?”
The man turns away again and scribbles. Spins back around. HAVE ANSWER. WANT TO HELP.
“What’s the answer?”
The man only watches her. He makes no move to write anything else.
“Tell me what the cure is,” she says.
The clunk of a car door opening behind her. She spins round. It’s only the child. He stands outside the car now, watching her with large, dark eyes. Behind him, in the front of the car, the two dim forms of the adults have not moved.
She returns her attention to the man. “Tell me,” she says. “Please, just tell me.”
He gestures again—come here—and lets go of the paper. The wind snatches it, sends it flying over the tops of the tents. He holds up his hands either side of his face, palms out. I am safe.
She takes the knife out of her pocket and holds it at waist height. The man doesn’t react.
“It’s only to protect myself,” she says. “Otherwise I won’t use it.” Then, “Please don’t make me have to use it.”
The man closes his eyes and bows his head. Okay. Then he beckons.
Slowly, she makes her way over the littered ground towards him. Closer to the van there is the smell of stale cigarettes mixed with body odour. Jenna stops a few feet from the van, enough for there to be time for her to raise the knife if he lunges out. His face shines with sweat, the whites of his eyes are tinged pink, bloodshot. There’s a feverishness to his face, a twitching tremble, as if the muscles beneath his skin can barely hold together.
The awning flaps above her head.
The man gestures. Closer.
She doesn’t move. There is a singing in her ears.
After a moment, the man leans slowly out, towards her. His fingers turn white as he grips the edges of the van to anchor himself. His long, knotted hair streams in the breeze. He leans until his face is only inches from her.
A bead of sweat runs down the middle of his forehead. The heat comes off him in waves.
He closes his eyes again, and opens his mouth.
His breath is pungent. At first, she thinks the maggots are misplaced teeth, but then they move. Blood, thin and watery with infection, spills over the tops of his teeth and over his red lips, down his chin and into his beard. In the reeking wet dark of his mouth, there is no tongue—only a red and purple-black stub, marbled with yellow-green mucus. Like a small toad, glistening, trembling a little, as the maggots squirm and probe.
His breath rolls over her face again.
The man closes his mouth, smiling again now, teeth showing, blood dribbling out, laughing and grimacing. He falls sideways, lands heavily on his backside, the van shuddering with the impact. Revealed now is a small workbench inside the van, and on it there’s a selection of knives. Above the bench, nailed to the wall: a dark and withered fleshy thing, dried blood running vertical beneath it. And above, almost touching the ceiling, written hastily in blood: silence is golden!
The man is laughing. A honking, pained noise. It turns to a wet coughing.
Jenna staggers back. She bumps into something small. She reels, knife raised, ready. It’s the boy.
The boy opens his mouth to show her.
In two days she’s back where she started. She has been gone for four, but it feels like longer, feels like too long, and now she is terrified of what might wait for her.
Jenna shoves the wheelie bin away from the café’s back door. It rolls noisily away along the pavement until it topples over the kerb and shudders on to the road. She leans against the door, pushing from her feet, but the door stands firm. The beginnings of panic. She throws herself against it, and the door scrapes inward. She shoves again and goes inside.
She stands breathing in the damp-smelling shadows. She listens.
There: a whispering.
Jenna goes through to the small back room and beneath the shelves of files and cardboard boxes she crouches down beside her sister. Adrienne’s voice is almost gone. Her lips are cracked, a crust has formed around her eyes.
“Hey, sis,” Jenna whispers.
“Pomegranate . . . pomegranate . . . ”
“There’s nothing for us at Oldgale. It’s just us. That’s all there is.”
She lies down facing her sister, shifts closer until her nose touches Adrienne’s. She looks into Adrienne’s half-shut eyes, trying to see what might be there, what might be left, what might be waiting for her. What if you’re not trapped? Adrienne had said one time. What if really, it sets you free?
And what if it doesn’t? Jenna had countered.
She thinks of the old woman. Homonyms are safe. How it’s not about sound, but meaning.
She imagines Adrienne hearing that. Imagines what Adrienne would say, where she would take that idea, with her endless optimism. Remembers her sister how she was before that final night, the sudden low mood, the waking up to find her staring, croaking their word.
What if that’s the cure? Adrienne would say. Change the meaning, interrupt the loop.
“Fuck,” Jenna mutters to herself, shifting closer to her sister.
She takes a deep, slow breath. Breathes out. In her mind she pictures a pomegranate. Red orb. Crimson seeds like bloodied, errant teeth.
“Pomegranate . . . ”
Pushes all memory down, submerges everything. Sees only the fruit. Remembers the sharp, sour taste. Forget how it was a silly word shared between two sisters, a word that caused eruptions of laughter no one else understood, a word neither of them knew how they’d come upon it. Forget how it could bring the hint of a smile through tears, a word they used in hopeless moments and fuck-it moments and which had taken on a meaning which, if asked, neither of them could really explain.
“I love you,” Jenna whispers, and puts her forehead against her sister’s.
“Pomegranate . . . ” Adrienne sighs flatly.
Jenna shuts her eyes, and holds her sister tight.
Originally published in Black Static, Issue 65, May/June 2019.