For Better, For Worse

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by Alexandra Foulkes

Narrated by Bob Eccles

The wedding is a fairy tale blur; a whirlwind of cake and camera-flash and an ocean of smiling faces. Everyone wants me today. Everyone wants to hold my hand and tell me how beautiful I am. I’m overwhelmed. I pull you to one side and try to tell you so, try to buy a few minutes to breathe, but an aunt I don’t remember invites calls for a picture of the happy couple. Confetti rains down, and the moment has passed.

She shows us the picture on the little screen of her camera. You look so happy you just might burst. I hold your hand, and bite my tongue.

One o’clock in the morning finds me in the car, watching as you lock the door and bring down the last suitcase. The building scowls at me; it knows it can’t stop us from running. I meet its damning stare from behind the protection of the smudged glass. Being out here makes me brave.

I hate the flat, and I know you do too; I hate the damp and the peeling wallpaper and the way the walls groan. It’s an old building – older than both our ages combined, probably – and the whole place creaks as if it’s struggling to hold in its guts. Maybe one day it will give out; we’ll fall through the floor to share a room with our neighbours downstairs, or the roof will cave in and we’ll find ourselves staring at the sky. It’s a wonder we haven’t moved out already, really, what with my doctor’s wage and your pay from the office. Hardly anything stopping us. We’ve been here for an age.

You climb into the passenger’s seat, and then your hand is on my cheek. “Good to go, m’lady?” you ask. It’s a silly question; neither of us can wait to leave. Your sister has a little place down on the south coast, and it’s ours for the weekend – if I’m honest, anywhere but here would be a dream. There’s a kind of evil in those walls, I’m sure.

I can feel the stare of the building as I lean in for a kiss. It will wait for us. It hates us too; it’s all mutual. I don’t turn to look as I start the engine, and we set off for our first week as husband and wife. There’s a feeling in my gut that tells me I should savour it.

It is the first of May.

*

Eighth of May. The mood is sombre as we sit at the kitchen table. Clean spring light streams in from the window to pool on the massacre that is our floor; plates, bowls and glasses smashed, cutlery strewn everywhere, and even worse, your mother’s best china, passed down to us only a week ago, now lies in shattered pieces. Whoever it was who caused the damage went to the painstaking lengths of unwrapping each piece of the set from its bubble-wrap shielding before dropping it carelessly to the floor with the rest of our junk.

I’m too shocked to even cry.

The police have just left, and the tea has long since run cold. I still clutch my mug between my fingers, trying to imagine its warmth. There was no sign of a break-in; no tampering with the alarm, no smashed windows, the door intact. Nothing appears to be missing, and the wreckage seems to be confined to the kitchen; the rest of the flat has gone untouched.

You are on the phone to your father. You haven’t the heart to call your mother yet. I can’t even look at you; I don’t really dare. You are so angry. Of course you have a right to be, but I feel like the criminal in my hopelessness.

“Just left, just like that,” you’re saying. There’s a tremor in your fingers and you’re gripping the receiver so fiercely that your knuckles are long since white. “Not even so much as an idea of what they’re going to do about it. I did tell him, Dad, I said to him, ‘you should bring out the forensic people,’ but they can’t even let us know . . . I mean, what are we supposed to do now? What are we supposed to do? Just clean up after them, and hope that they’ve developed a sense of decency and won’t come back to finish what they started? I don’t think so!”

I can’t listen to you anymore. You’re breaking like the china. I get up to leave, and you don’t even look at me; you’re hunched over, your head propped up on your free hand as if it’s too much of an effort to sit up on your own.

Our cases are still at the door, unopened, and I drag them to the bedroom to unpack. It does bother me, the thought of someone coming into our flat and doing such a thing, but even worse is the idea of what we haven’t found yet. I abandon the luggage at the foot of the bed and collapse onto the mattress, digging tired fingers through my hair. I can still hear you, back in the kitchen, but it’s like listening to you from underwater now. The house groans again.

I look up at the ceiling and, for a moment, will it to come down and crush me flat.

The noise stops. Your voice has stopped. In the narrow hallway, shadows coagulate just beyond the door, drawn to that dark corner like clotting blood in the heart of our home. I had never really thought of it as home before now. It’s funny, how such a violation can change you.

Footsteps, and you move first into that knot of blackness, and then into the room.

Your face is a mask of blank indifference, even as your mouth cracks open to say something ugly.

“You didn’t have anything to do with this, did you?”

There is a long pause. I can’t quite believe I’m hearing this, white noise buzzing about my ears to fill the space between them, and there’s nothing left to do but find my feet. We stare each other down for a moment, and your cool façade is cracking; you haven’t quite managed to quell the persistent trembling of your hands, even as you ball them into fists at your sides.

My words sound so inadequate when I finally force them past my dry lips.

“I’ve been with you this whole time,” I say, and now the shock is wearing off and I’m shaking too, hurt that you would accuse me of such a thing. “When could I possibly have done this? Why would I do this?”

“You tell me!” There’s no pretending now. Around us, the walls of the building moan like they’re dying, but you don’t seem to hear them, too busy crowding in close enough for me to feel your breath on my face. You’re vibrating with your anger now, and I feel my blood start to boil.

“There’s nothing to tell!” I cry, throwing up my hands. “Will you just stop and listen to yourself? You’re acting cr—”

“Crazy, Jen?” You catch me by the wrists. “That stuff was priceless! Mum is going to have a heart attack, and worse . . . you, if I find out you’ve done this . . .”

“I haven’t done anything!” I meet your gaze unflinchingly. “Go on then! Tell me! Tell me precisely how! You have all the answers apparently, come on then!”

“You have a key, I have a key,” you say. “I haven’t ruined everything.”

I gape, pushed so far past disbelief that I’m not sure if I’m having some sort of horrid nightmare; perhaps I’ll wake up back at the holiday cottage any second now. When I finally shut my mouth, it’s with a snap of teeth.

“I can’t believe you’d even think of accusing me. I’m your wife, Jack.”

“Yeah, well, maybe we should have waited a little while longer.”

Cold rushes over me like I’ve been submerged in freezing water.

Behind us, the wall comes to life.

There is a wet sound and a rip of tearing wallpaper, and then a writhing lump of something unfurls from the wall and slips to the carpet with a thud. You’re on me in less than a second; my feet leave the floor and you leap onto the bed, dragging me with you. My scream catches in my throat.

“What the fuck is that?” you gasp, sounding like all the breath has been knocked from your body, and I know the feeling. Our eyes are glued to where the whatever-it-is is squirming clumsily against the skirting board, jutting out from where it split the wallpaper, still attached to the wall.

They’re tentacles, no mistaking it. Dark and shiny from the damp, like some huge sea-creature is somehow lodged behind the plaster. They wriggle uselessly for a moment, probing tentatively as if tasting the air, and then withdraw back up the wall, leaving a wet trail in their wake. The wallpaper bubbles behind them, warped. We stand there, both terrified and transfixed as they retreat back into the wall space, until the very tips of each limb are disappearing into the dark and it’s finally over.

The sides of the peeling wallpaper curl in on themselves, sealing the gap like the zip on my wedding dress, the fibres pulling together all the way up the tear until it’s like it never happened. The wet smear evaporates, and the wall is just as it was before – staring back at us in all its innocence, looking for all the world like it’s just another ordinary day in an ordinary flat.

I’m off the bed before your slackened hands can stop me.

“Jen!” I hear you cry, but I pay you no attention. I press my hands against the wall, testing for give. It feels solid. I put an ear to it, listening carefully, but all that remains is a retching sound as you are violently sick into the wastepaper bin.

I begin to feel ill as well. And just a little bit insane.

*

Eleventh of May. Three days since the Incident, as we have come to call it; that is, after two whole days of determinedly Not Talking About It. We’ve finally been forced to agree that, yes, it was an actual event that occurred – we’re not going crazy. Kind of explains the china, too. You still won’t talk about the china.

You cleaned up the debris in the kitchen yourself, once you were finished emptying the meagre contents of your stomach. I spent the evening in front of the television, sitting there like an automaton, my fingers burning around my hot drink and my eyes glued to the soaps. The mundane normality of it had soothed me.

I haven’t left the flat yet, not since the Incident. Somehow, I find that I can’t; I just can’t seem to muster up the energy. Called in work and told them I was sick. You answered the phone for me when they rang again this morning, and your expression was guilty when you left for the office and I was still here on my own.

The walls have not moved. That’s kind of important now.

It’s evening, and we’re sat together over dinner; take-away pizza and cola in front of the television, as if we’re still eighteen and don’t have to worry about the world. The screen throws adverts at us, but I’m not really paying attention; there’s a question weighing down my tongue, getting heavier and heavier the longer I leave it. It will choke me if I don’t say anything, crack my jaw open with its bulk and block my throat.

“Jack?” I touch your elbow, and you’re jerked from whatever daydream you’re lost in. “What do we do about the . . . you know. About the thing.”

You look genuinely surprised; like it hasn’t been three days of silence and you’d completely forgotten there was even an issue to begin with. “I… I don’t know.”

“We can’t stay here. We can’t not tell anyone.”

“Who do we tell?” The television casts a faint glow over your face, emphasising the dark smudges beneath your eyes, and you look a lot older than you actually are. You turn to me, and touch me for the first time since the fight, since the monster; your hands touch my shoulders, but I feel no warmth from them. “Jen,” you say, “I believe you. And you believe me. But who else will? People get shut away for this sort of thing – you’ll be ruined. You’ll never be allowed in surgery again. There’s no one to talk to about it, no one safe.”

“We have to keep this to ourselves,” I say. My gaze drifts to my knees, to the striped pattern of my pyjama trousers.

“I’ve been looking for somewhere else.” Your voice is strained, like you’re trying too hard to be optimistic. “For that house you talked about. As I said, just waiting to get the green light from work, and we can go wherever you want. I promise.”

A pause. And then, “I’m really sorry.”

I lift my gaze to you. I feel as tired as you look.

“For the break in,” you continue, “and . . . and what I said – I didn’t mean it. You know that, right?” I want to believe you. I really do. My mind is full of writhing darkness and your mother’s broken china.

“Okay,” I say, as if it’s not a big deal. I’m not certain what I’m agreeing to.

*

Twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth . . . twentieth of May.

I still don’t leave the flat. I feel like I’m waiting for something.

Sonia, nosy cow, drops by from the surgery, wanting to know why I’m not showing up, and are you okay, Jenny? People are starting to talk! I get you to turn her away at the door – you tell her that I’m sick, very sick, and we think it could be contagious.

It’s weird, but I kind of start to believe it. My skin crawls in the night, like there’s something under there trying to flay me open from the inside out. In every corner I see the monster again – over by the door, under the sink, in the dark space next to the kitchen cupboard . . . it’s everywhere. It’s everywhere and nowhere and I don’t know what to do.

Except wait. I don’t know what it is I’m waiting for, but I just have to bide my time.

My claustrophobic new world narrows down even further, until I can just barely make the dash across the hall to the bathroom. I spend my hours in bed, facing the wall that moved. I know you’re despairing, frantic in your hunt for a house – anywhere, anywhere that’s not here – but you’ll never call family. You’ll never call another doctor.

It’s not the way we’re dealing with this.

*

First of June. One month since the wedding. Even less since the Incident.

I am frozen. You left for work looking worse than ever this morning; pale and drawn, your eyes little pinpricks of colour on the canvas of your white, white face. Like a ghost. Like you weren’t really there to begin with. You picked up your briefcase and kissed me goodbye, leaving me a sandwich on the bedside table even though we both knew the bread would be hard by lunchtime. Better that than nothing. I still can’t venture into the kitchen.

I know I won’t eat it. My spine already stands out in high relief against my back, barely on the right side of cadaverous. You’ve definitely noticed; each day, you leave behind a little more hair on your pillow. It’s scary, how far we’ve sunk, and yet I don’t feel fear. Somehow, there’s only the walls, and today they’re louder than ever.

They’ve taken to singing to me when you’re not around, their voices raising to a cacophonous shout whenever you’ve been gone for too long. They know that I can hear them, and they also know that you can’t help me.

The clock on the wall counts out the hours, ticking mechanically through every individual second until, finally, it is six o’clock. You should be home by now – where are you? What’s taking you so long? My gut twists painfully, whatever it is that’s making me itch digging a clawed hand into my insides and squeezing.

A groan. I’m not sure if it’s me or the wall or both, but the wallpaper is bulging again from ceiling to floor, and a horrible shriek escapes me as it bursts to life in a flurry of black tendrils; an enormous, shifting mass, reaching from the door all the way to the far window. It pulses – eldritch, disgustingly organic – and seems to reach blindly for me, its slimy appendages slithering over the duvet to stretch towards my face—

It feels weirdly like relief. The itchy feeling is gone. I sit very still, calm as it comes just shy of touching me, and something seems to click.

It’s hungry. It’s hungry like I’m hungry. My eyes slide to the rejected sandwich, and I still don’t want it. I doubt the creature wants it either. I bite down on the inside of my cheek, and taste the blood that wells there.

It’s another two hours before you come home. You have a strange look of defeat in your eyes and I don’t ask you what you were doing. It’s been a long day. The wall is back to normal, completely innocuous – or it would be, at least, if we didn’t know what we do. The sandwich remains uneaten. The urine that has soaked the sheets beneath me has long since cooled, the smell of it thick and cloying as it sticks the thin cotton of my pyjamas to my skin.

I explain nothing. You don’t challenge me.

“I got you help, Jen,” you say, returning to the room with two armfuls of clean bed linen. “Just hang on another night for me.”

The vegetable soup you bring me tastes like ash in my mouth, but I force it down anyway. I’m asleep before I can finish the whole bowl.

*

For Better For WorseSecond of June. I’m ready to kill something.

“Oh my God – Jack!” Sonia admonishes you loudly, only one step away from wagging a finger in your face. “You should have called sooner – she looks really ill! Jen? Jenny, can you hear me?” She leans right in until I can smell the chewing gum on her breath.

I can hear her fine. I say nothing.

“It’s Son-ia,” she says, pronouncing each syllable with irritating slowness, the red pucker of her mouth exaggerating each letter. Never really liked her at work, always avoided her at the water cooler. Felt sorry for her patients – before, that is. Before I stopped going in. It feels like a lifetime ago.

“I thought she’d get over it,” you’re saying, “thought it was just a bug. Thought it was the room, you know, but she won’t leave the bed – I think there’s something really wrong with her. I just didn’t know who else to turn to . . .” You wring your hands, looking like you’re on the verge of a tearful breakdown. You’re hovering in the doorway, and I know you really just want to flee the scene, grab your keys and run until your legs are sore. You’re a fucking coward, Jack.

“Right . . .” Sonia says, her forehead furrowing as she stares into my face. I don’t blink. She’s even more infuriating from up close, the bitter taste of her perfume thick at the back of my throat. “Okay, Jack, I think you really do need to get her to hospital. This is beyond us – she needs emergency treatment, you understand? She looks kind of . . . grey . . .”

You pull my coat from its hanger, and the sheets are peeled back. It takes both of you to pull me up to stand – I weigh next to nothing now, but my limbs won’t work the way I want them to and getting to my feet on my own is a fruitless struggle. My head tips back like a ruined puppet as you hold me between you, my arms strewn across each of your shoulders. It’s almost comical how short Sonia is compared to your taller build, and my face is pressed to her neck as I slump sideways into her, boneless.

“We’ll get her to my car,” Sonia huffs, red-faced from the effort. “It’s only a short drive to the emergency unit . . . you can put the coat around her once she’s in . . . come on . . .” My bare toes drag on the rough carpet as, for the first time in what feels like an age, I come to the far end of the hall. It looks a little strange, like I don’t really live here anymore.

The smell of perfume is stronger now, against her skin like this. Beneath it, her pulse flutters frantically; a venomous part of me notes that this is probably the most strenuous thing she’s done in her life. Her life beats beneath her skin, red waiting to be split, the rubbery flesh of her guts all coiled up inside becoming a secret now, a treasure just waiting for me to unearth it . . .

Your hand goes for the door handle.

The inertia leaves my aching body as easy as shaking off water, and three seconds later there is a crack as Sonia’s head connects with the wall next to us, flailing uselessly as my blunt teeth pry her jugular open with a wet crunch.

Someone is screaming, and it’s with satisfaction that I realise it’s her, the sound rattling through her entire body as she flounders like a bug in a net, kicking and screeching and trying to throw me off. You’ve let go of me now, and when I look up, bloody-faced from my prize and wild-eyed from the hunt, you’re having to lean against the kitchen doorway just to keep yourself upright; you look whiter than ever and more than a little like you might really pass out.

Sonia’s body twitches spasmodically, her burst throat spraying crimson in a warm arc to stain the carpet. Only weak, clipped sounds escape her now, dying sounds, and her eyes roll in her skull. My opinion of her has improved drastically. I scramble to ruck up her jumper and get at the skin beneath; I literally have to tear her open to get at what I really want, my blunt nails next to useless.

I’m digging both hands into the sweet tangle of her intestines when you finally move.

“Jen . . .” you say, and then, “Jen . . .” as if it’s the only word you have left. You inch past me, your back plastered to the wall, and then you’re hurrying to the airing cupboard, pulling out an old tablecloth we haven’t used in forever. With drawing pins from the corkboard in the kitchen, you secure it over the panel of frosted glass set into the door, doubling it over so no light filters in and no red can escape. When you look at me again, it’s like you’ve made up your mind.

The smell is horrendous – like metal and raw sewage all at once – and I take my first bite. My victim is deathly still. The whole building is moaning, walls trembling like an earthquake, and I feel it too; it shakes me right to the core, rattling my bones beneath the paper of my skin until I feel I might just follow Sonia into her sleep.

I won’t. There’s a part of me that knows I won’t – I feel alive, even as I slump forwards into the gore where Sonia is still warm, and my eyes flutter closed on a long sigh. I’ve never felt quite so right as I do now.

You’re opening the door, just enough to allow you to slip out, blocking the view of anyone who might be out in the hallway.

“I’ll be back,” you promise, and we really have gone mad, haven’t we? “I’ll be back, Jen, don’t worry – you just . . . do your thing, and I’ll clean up when you’re done. Going to go for a cigarette – if the neighbours say anything about the noise, I’ll tell them we were messing around, yeah?” You nod, reassuring yourself that it’s a good plan.

I briefly wonder when you took up smoking again, and then the thought is gone.

You close the door behind you, and I continue my meal.

*

First of July. There are actual skeletons in our closet now, and another under the bed. Our marital bed, though you’ve taken to sleeping on the couch. I don’t really blame you. I don’t want you in here with me, either.

Every day you come home at six, exhausted and haggard and looking worse by the day, and it’s usually a good hour or so before you come through to see me. Sometimes you drag in an offering of some sort; a neighbourhood cat or dog, or the rats you catch scurrying around by the bins outside, and afterwards we put their remains to sit with Sonia at the back of the wardrobe. It isn’t enough. It’s not nearly enough.

There was the homeless man last week, whose empty eye sockets now stare up at me from beneath the mattress. That was one of the better days, but I’m already starving again. I don’t want a rat. I don’t want a well-loved pet from around the corner. They’re not what I need. They’re not what the flat needs. It’s selfish of you, really, not to help me. I’m your wife, Jack.

I tell you so, every now and again, just to watch you break a little more. It’s become a bit of a sport. Passes the time.

The key turns in the lock, and it’s five minutes past six. I hear your voice before I see you – you’re talking on your mobile. The sound of your conversation reaches me, just like it did all those weeks ago when everything first went sour.

“Yes . . . yes, she’s looking a lot better. No, you mustn’t come around, the doctor says she’ll need a bit of quiet time for her body to recover. Of course we’ll be there as soon as she’s well enough; they’re really pleased with her progress. Um, well . . . she’s asleep right now, but I’ll have her give you a call when she wakes up . . .”

The voice drifts closer, and I look up to see you standing in the doorway, scrubbing a tired hand over your tired face. Perhaps one day you’ll just fade into the background and there’ll be nothing left. You irritate me more every time I see you, and look at what happened to Sonia. Maybe if she had been a little less interfering, she would still be here. You should take it as a warning, really.

“Yeah,” you say, and cough to clear your throat. “Yeah, she’s asleep. But she really looks great. I don’t think it will be long. Just have to hang in there.”

I stare back at you from the bed, meeting your gaze as you feed my mother pretty lies. My eyes are deep black pools set above a maw with too many rows of teeth, and when I grin at you my grey skin stretches drum-tight over my cheekbones.

The flat isn’t the monster. I am.

“Alright then, Susan. Okay. I’ll let her know. Speak soon, all the best.” You hang up and come to sit next to me on the edge of the bed. You breathe out a sigh. For a moment, the silence is almost palpable.

“I don’t know how much longer I can do this, Jen.”

My tongue darts out to lick my lower lip, and I enjoy your flinch. “In sickness and in health,” I say, “‘til death do us part. I’m your wife, Jack.”

No response. I lift a bony hand, placing it on the back of your neck, my fingers curling to tap the curve of your throat. “Having second thoughts, sweetheart?”

Your Adam’s apple bobs as you swallow.

“N-no.” Your voice cracks. “No . . . of course not.”

I close my eyes, letting the rhythm of your panicking heart lull me into easy sleep.

 

AUTHOR BIO: Alexandra Foulkes is a full-time student and amateur writer from smoky Stoke-on-Trent in the United Kingdom. She is a fantasy and horror fan, chronic sleepwalker and speaker of eight years’ worth of broken German. When not studying the downright weird at the University of Derby, she can be found tapping away at her laptop behind closed curtains, where the natural light cannot burn her pasty geek skin.

PHOTOGRAPHER BIO: Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old internationally award winning artist. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph , The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. See more of her photography at www.eleanorleonnebennett.zenfolio.com