By Stephen Thom
I closed the door of my hotel room - 301 - and flipped the light on. The grey man lay slumped sideways against propped-up pillows, his eyes moist and waxy. I waggled the light switch on and off as a lame reality check. Sleek dark masked the glistening retinas. Then, to be double certain, I stepped outside and peered in both directions down the hall. Blue doors, indistinguishable but for small gold numbers, lined the white corridor. A trail of plush red carpet snaked round the corner to my left. Procrastinating, I stopped and ran my fingers down the bobbly cream wallpaper. I thought for a moment my nails sunk into the surface; the wallpaper curling round them like thick chicken soup. Then I closed my eyes and jerked back into the room, slamming the door shut. This had proved to be a common response to spending too much time with the grey man - solid mass can have a tendency to feel as it it is breaking down; buttery and oilish where it was once hard and reliable. But it wasn't only the physical manifestations - these days I always felt like I had just left the cinema after watching a long film. Cloudy headed, eyes adjusting to the light, still muddling about a big-screen alternate storyline. It's quiet in the night streets outside and dark figures are hurrying past.
I thought he wouldn't speak to me - I was having trouble remembering if he'd ever spoken - and anyway, in an unusual surge of paranoia I convinced myself he was going to kill me as I tip-toed past the bed. His head lolled around and he suddenly retched on the floor. Then he wiped his sludgey face on the duvet and reached, shaking, for a cigarette. He wasn't going to kill me. He was killing himself.
I unravelled the plastic wrap and sniffed the bud. Crumbling it into pre-rolled skins, I got impatient and slugged back a long draft from the nearest bottle. Too long. I choked and it spurted from my mouth, coating my chest, sleeves and embryonic joint in golden spittle-liquer. The grey man cackled through a cloud of smoke.
A queue of tiny cars amassed in the street far below, bulbous little eggs gestating out the ground. I watched them as I fiddled with the wet skins, trying to extract what I could. The light must have turned green, because they had disappeared when I next glanced down. A young couple bobbed along, clutching each other tightly, almost levitating with lurid happiness. I gave up on the sticky skin rescue mission and drank until I passed out in the chair. I think the grey man tried to stand up and shout a few things at me, but it was unintelligible havering. Still, it seemed he did speak, after all.
The moon cut a bright hole in the inky map outside as my head drooped onto my shoulder. I think the grey man sobered up and became a counsellor, or something. Or maybe that was a dream I had, I can't remember.
When I woke up two police officers were standing over me.
I was lucky to escape with a day and night in the cells and a small fine for possession. The grey man got off scot free, as apparently he wasn't there at all. I didn't think I was sick on the floor, but I was sick a lot, so it was certainly possible.
By the time I stumbled into my flat, red-eyed and stubbly, I had mentally primed myself for a long spell of sensory deprivation. Get metaphysical on this useless cycle; big cardboard box, maybe the one the stereo came in. Tape myself up in it in the utility cupboard, hunched inside, torch and book. Venture out occasionally for sandwiches and milk...biscuits. Scuttle back in, re-tape the lid. But in an unexpected twist, the blue man was waiting for me. A horrible turn-up. He claimed he was part sky; possibly all sky, or he was made of fragments of day, collated over the history of time. It was an impressive story whichever version he related, very profound. Certainly, he was radiant. It was hard to make out form - I could see snatches of his eyes, but billowing clouds drifted past, vast-winged birds from other centuries. And crucially, he was much more talkative than the grey man. In fact, he never stopped talking, and that's what annoyed me so much at that point in time. He spilled fantastical stories as floaty bits of cloud detached from his blue body, and I had to sit there and listen. He drinks a lot when he comes round, too. I think he may be abusing my hospitality.
By the time he left, late into evening, I felt like getting into the cardboard box in the cupboard and setting fire to it - a kind of cardboard wickerman sacrifice, but without the sacrificial element, just to be dead. The whole visit was rounded off with such an ostentatious leave-taking - he flung himself out of my top-floor window and simply melded back into the sky around him, like it was the most natural thing in the world, like that was also how I should depart from all my social visits.
Suitably riled, I fixed myself a boilermaker and sunk into the sofa cushions. Sparks flickered across the dead television set and I could see the red man had shuffled in to join me. This was fine, he was teetotal and just liked to sit and think. One night, full of it, I had pushed him on his story and he'd mumbled about how he'd been told to tell me that he was the product of all the spilled blood there had ever been, but really it was just heat, he had been born on the sun and they were all a vicious red colour. I told him I thought the real story was more interesting anyway, and that seemed to make him happy. I mentioned I thought the first story was a bit saccharine and he looked embarrassed whilst picking at his red corduroys. I think he's a jobsworth at heart: maintain a professional front, observe, only get involved if you have to.
On that note, at some point I must have started moaning about a cramped sensation in my lower back, because the red man leaned down, peeled open my side, reached in and tugged out my pulsing, sticky liver. He gave it a flap out, plumping it like a cushion. Then he stuffed it back in, his hands squishing and groping around my insides. Content, he zipped up my skin and wiped a smear of bloody slime off on a napkin. Cleaned off the excess muck. My back felt a whole heap better. A good guy, this red man.
They were a motley crew but they were mine, I guess. Someone is watching over all of us. We sat and watched the fuzz on the tv screen 'til I drifted off, my mind a muddle of stimulants and weaving colours. Below my flat and countless hotel rooms, tiny cars and even tinier people hurried about, pinned under a blanket of night.