01 Feb One For the Road
I woke to my friend, Tom, climbing through my window. It was a summer’s night, around 2AM, and the heat had been unbearable for days. For that reason I had left my window open slightly to let what cool air there was filter into my bedroom while I slept. It was a scrambling, panicked noise which brought me to consciousness and immediately I thought someone was breaking into my home. In the darkness I couldn’t tell who it was, but as soon as I heard ‘help me’, I recognised my friend’s voice.
After turning on the light I pulled Tom into the room and sat him down on my old brown armchair, which had seen better days.
‘Close the window!’ he seethed, half shout half whisper, and completely occupied by the nighttime scene outside. ‘Switch the light off’.
‘Why?’, I asked, confused and still half dazed.
‘It might see us’.
That word ‘it’ sat in my mind, distilled and unerring. I would have laughed if Tom hadn’t had such an unsettling look on his face. I’d never known him to be spooked by anything, and to see him so visibly shaken took me by surprise and filled me with trepidation. I switched off the light and my eyes adapted once more to the dark. Tom sat there with his head in his hands, the room lit dimly by the street lights outside filtering through the blinds.
‘What’s going on?’, I said.
‘You won’t believe me’. He looked up at me and, even in the low light, I could see the sweat running down his temple.
‘Tom, whatever it is, it’s okay’.
‘No, you don’t understand’.
‘Try me,’ I said. And with that, he relayed his story in a hushed, wavering voice.
Tom had been out that night, no surprise really as he always enjoyed a drink. In fact he enjoyed it too much, and his behaviour of late had been erratic at best, self-destructive at worst. He’d been at the Windarm Lodge, a small old-man’s pub near the town main street. I knew why he’d been there before he even told me. His ex-girlfriend, Shelley, worked there behind the bar. A month earlier she had broken up with him; she just couldn’t take his drinking anymore.
That night, Tom had dragged a mutual friend of ours, Greg, to the lodge, under the guise of ‘a couple of games of pool and just one drink’. Come midnight, as the pub closed, Tom had to be dragged from the bar by the manager and thrown out into the street. He’d been pleading with Shelley to have a drink with him when she finished her shift. When his simple question turned into a bitter demand, he was quickly ejected.
I knew what Tom was like when he had a drink in him, which was one of the reasons I’d refused to go out with him that night. He’d been increasingly argumentative and unpleasant. The break-up with Shelley had made him even worse. We were all trying to help him as best we could. I’m not painting a great picture of him, but when he was sober he was a thoughtful and caring person, and a good friend.
After staggering down a couple of streets and lanes, Tom produced a hip flask filled with whisky which he carried in his pocket, and asked Greg to join him for a few more drinks on the way home. Greg refused, no doubt already having had his fill, and so it wasn’t long before an argument broke out. Greg was just trying to help Tom up the road, but instead received drunken insults; Tom throwing around words he’d regret in the morning. After a few minutes of a verbal bashing, Greg gave up and made his own way home.
Tom staggered along the road and cursed Shelley, Greg, and the rest of the world for refusing to have another drink with him. There was nothing else for it but for Tom to drink alone. As he wandered along an empty street not far from where I live, the rain came on, slight at first then torrential; so heavy was the downpour in fact, that he was forced to take shelter and wait for it to pass.
It just so happened that the street he was on, Serling street, had its fair share of abandoned buildings, having once housed the workers of a now defunct factory. One house in particular had an old porch which encased the front doorway on either side and had a pointed roof, which provided just enough shelter for one drunken twenty-something during a downpour.
Tom climbed a small fence and staggered across the weed filled garden to the front door.I say the front door, but in reality it had long since been broken in, no doubt rotting somewhere inside the house alongside unseen floorboards, roof beams, and memories. No matter how drunk my friend was he had no intention of exploring inside. He just wanted somewhere to stay dry, and the porch would provide enough protection for that. And so he sat on the front step, angry and embittered, the rain for the most part being rebuffed by the porch roof above.
He waited there a while, looking out across the overgrown garden to the street beyond, the rain dancing off the tarmac. It seemed clear to Tom that he was going to be there for a while longer, and so, if all else fails — drink. There he sat taking increasingly longer slugs from the hip flask: it filled with cheap whisky and Tom filled with anger at the world, at Shelley, Greg, and everyone else who ‘didn’t understand’.
Now, Tom had a habit common to heavy drinkers. When he would get to the precipice and intoxicate most of his sober mind, he started to talk to himself; and that night, after the pub and a good portion of the hip flask, he began a conversation. He cursed his friends and family, his situation. He called Shelley a ‘whore’, and, beyond all else, he hated those around him for being so perfect and lecturing him on how to live his life. At least the drink wouldn’t turn its back on him. That was something he always said he could rely on.
The rain hadn’t abated, falling with the same ferocity as it had from the start, Tom’s words swallowed up by the white noise which blanketed everything around him. Finally, after another slug of whisky, he slumped against the cold rotting porch frame, closed his eyes and began to drift off to a drunken sleep. As he did so he mumbled once more about Greg and Shelley’s refusal to join him; that it was ‘just one drink for the road’.
It was then that Tom felt a drip of rain make its way through a crack above onto his forehead, and at the same time the weight of something uncomfortable prodding into his shoulder. As he opened his eyes he felt a warm, humid breeze flutter across his face, arid and stale, far removed from the air around him which pulsated with each sheet of rain.
‘I’ll drink with you’ a gravelled voice breathed into Tom’s ear.
He turned, startled and horrified by those words, only to be confronted by an unnatural, aberrant face which rested its pointed chin on his shoulder, its body poking out from the darkened doorway behind. The face was covered in dirt and grime as if it had spent decades beneath the earth, and had the shrouded appearance of ivory cloth pulled tightly over a withered frame, implying skeletal features beneath and showing every movement of jaw and bone.
There are some sights which will sober even the most inebriated drunk, and this was one of them. Tom dived forward, falling onto a slabbed garden path thinly concealed by weeds and soil. He screamed at the top of his voice, only to be drowned out by the torrential rain, its million voices engulfing his forsaken one. Clawing at the ground he rushed to his feet and leapt over the garden fence into the street. Then, on; on into the rain, into the night, away from that house, from whatever thing had been disturbed there.
Blood coursed through his veins as he fled, and his head began to ache excruciatingly from a potent cocktail of fear and alcohol. Gasping for breath, he stopped for a moment, now far away from the house at the other end of the street. He turned to look back, but it was difficult to see, the rain hurling itself into his eyes with such force that the scenery was blurred and indistinct.
Slowly, he calmed and entered into a sober dialogue with himself about having ‘drank too much’ and ‘just seeing things’. It was then that through the bubbling wall of rain he saw something move. A figure, shrouded in darkness and cloth climbed over the fence in pursuit. Tom wiped his eyes in disbelief as it began to run towards him at speed.
Panic, absolute and controlling. Tom turned, screaming, no one able to hear his pleas for help. He kept running. He left Serling street behind, and yet at every turn the shrouded thing from the house followed. Finally, he made it to the street where I live, and clambered through the window hoping to be saved.
I stood there in silence. He seemed so upset, so certain, that he even had me believing his story for a moment. But then what I saw as the truth presented itself.
‘Tom’, I said gently. ‘You’re bone dry’.
‘What? No, I’m…’, he stopped as he ran his hands over his clothes and then his hair.
‘There hasn’t been a drop of rain in weeks, and tonight has been just as still as the others’.
‘But…’ He hesitated for moment, shaking his head and rubbing his mouth with his hand. ‘No, I’m telling you. This happened. That thing is real’.
‘Tom, you’ve been drinking too much, and you probably fell asleep, and in a daze you made it here’. I placed my hand on his shoulder to reassure him. ‘Please, let’s get you home. Give me a minute to change my clothes and I’ll walk you there’.
As I moved across the room Tom pulled out his whisky flask and took a big slug. ‘Maybe you’re right. Just need to sleep it off’.
I turned to put the light on, but before I had a chance to, Tom let out an almighty scream. I have genuinely never heard anything like it. Utter fear, complete and distraught. He leapt to his feet, opened my window in hysteria, and then fled into the night.
Two months passed, and myself, Greg, Shelley, and our other friends who cared about Tom were unable to contact him. Indeed, the only reason I knew he was alive, and not drowned in a river somewhere, was because his brother assured me he had spoken to him.
Finally, one day, Tom appeared at my front door looking in as good a shape as I had seen him in a long time. He claimed that he had in fact went through an alcohol rehabilitation program which, while he still struggled with an urge to drink, had kept him sober for several weeks. He said that the tipping point, his lowest ebb, had been that night, when he hallucinated that thing into being on Serling street. Indeed, he said that for weeks whenever he had a drink near him, the figure would appear from the darkness; following, chasing, never relenting. In the end, more than anything else, it was the fear of a mental illness taking hold and seeing that hallucination again which made him stop drinking.
I was, and am, so happy for Tom, and would hate to do anything to change his interpretation of the events. Doing so could perhaps undo his rehabilitation. I’m sure he’s right, about the whole thing being an hallucination. That seems like the reasonable and obvious conclusion to have. But I often lie in bed kept awake by an uneasy memory, unsure whether to trust my own senses. For when Tom jumped back out of the window into the night, I saw something follow him from the corner of the room.