By Stephen Thom
Gillis clipped his phone into the charger and lay back on the bed. His skin felt tingly. The rush of the brief physical exchange had not left him. He was wired and irritated. The decor rubbed, the sharp greys and whites.
He realised he had not touched his propananol packet today.
He fingered the foil slip in his pocket. Wondered if it was a good thing or a bad thing. He knew he'd let himself down.
Two sides of a black hole.
Salter's yellow teeth stained his mind's eye.
Children of children.
He saw Kerry Leask. Felt his fingers unbinding the wooden mask strapped to her head. Felt her screaming against his shoulder as the torch blinked off.
A black hole.
The words separated and washed through his consciousness and he felt alongside them feelers, spindly appendages: Theories. Possibilities. Awful possibilities.
His hands clutched folds of duvet and he caught himself. Sweats. Jangles. Short breath. He caught the panic rising. He lurched up and seized the remote, stabbing the TV on. Noise. Any other noise. He saw a flash of his tired features in the black screen before the news flickered over it. Sunken eyes. Scraggly, unkempt beard. Unironed shirt. He turned away from the TV. His eyes settled on the minibar and he felt that familiar twitch.
Eighteen years on the wagon.
Eighteen years of nothingness. No friends. No family. No ties, no way of being, no place in the world.
He bent down. The small fridge was set into a wooden cabinet. He saw Mina, flushed with anger, avoiding his eyes. Salter's red eyes, tiny pupils. His smirk.
He pulled the fridge door open and grabbed a miniature whisky bottle. He cracked the lid. His phone rang.
Gillis looked at the little bottle in his palm. His head spun. He placed it on the desk beneath the TV and walked over to the bedside table, leaning over to examine the phone. Caller ID: Mina. He slid the green icon across the screen and held it to his ear. He heard noise. Sirens.
'Something's happened,' Mina said. Her voice was loud, strained, and it wavered over the final syllable. It struck him abruptly that he very rarely heard pitch shifts in her voice. The volume spike was grating. He felt her fear through the line.
The patrol car sped through the Pleasance, siren wailing. Gillis pressed a palm against his forehead. Squeezed his eyes shut and open. They shot past university buildings, Victorian tenements and chapel blocks. Everything was doused in a membranous mist.
'Fucking unbelievable,' the officer driving mumbled. 'I can't get my head around it... fucking unbelievable.'
Gillis breathed. Swallowed. The Pleasance Festival Theatre rose ahead on their left.
He looked out the window. There was a small strip of park just prior to the theatre building, beside a curving pathway that descended down to Viewcraig Gardens, Dumbiedykes. It looked a poor spot. He saw a single bench. A row of dead flowers. A man in a wooden deer mask. Standing. Watching the passing vehicle.
The man stepped forward. Twin antlers broke through webs of mist. Gillis saw black eye-holes. Breath escaping as vapour through the mouth-hole.
'Stop,' he hissed, clutching at the driver's left arm.
Mina crunched by the park bench. Weeds snaked around its legs. She was wearing a long beige coat. Her dark hair was scraped back into a ponytail. Her face was pale and her eyes were cold, hard, furious.
The patrol car driver remained near the theatre above them, pacing the pavements and talking into a radio. Gillis sprayed torchlight over the park; over the pathway and darkness beyond. Grey tower blocks squatted in the gloom beneath. They looked like they were sinking into the mist. A dead, sinking city.
Gillis tripped over to the bench. He spat and smacked the torch against the wooden seat. The light winked epileptically and died.
'Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! He was fucking here! I saw... I saw... '
He groaned and raised the torch again. Mina strode forward and seized it from him.
'What do you mean, 'he'?' She snapped. 'There is no 'he'. You're projecting. You're reaching into the past and tying this all up in a nice little bow to suit yourself. This was a group of men. There's two survivors up the road. Eyewitnesses. They saw everything. That's nine dead. Nine. Resources are already stretched. We've had sightings all over the Pleasance, we're struggling to set up traffic cordons and we are here, we are here and I am severely doubting your reliability at present... '
She fiddled with the torch and threw it onto the grass, exasperated. Gillis found himself lingering on her voice again. It seemed to contradict her actions; high, monotonic, flatline. Even now, even when she was clearly riding on high emotions. The accents fell in strange places but she was precise, formal.
He slumped onto the bench and dragged his hands down his face, feeling like a broken, histrionic wretch alongside her. He lifted his head and watched Mina. She was pacing erratically and clicking her fingers. He frowned. Listened to the rhythmic clicks. It was odd. He hadn't seen it before.
'We had this Salter fuck,' he said, 'he fucking knows, he knows what's going on and we've fucking fucked it up, useless, useless fuckwits, I fucking - '
Mina turned and grabbed him by the shoulder, shaking him, digging her nails into his suit jacket.
'People are dead! Officers are dead! My colleagues!'
Her voice sounded like it was cracking with the sudden change in pitch. Gillis' head twisted. He looked around. Desperate. Searching. His shoulders dropped and he scratched furiously at his trouser leg.
'I'm sorry,' he croaked. Breath left his mouth in a nebulous string, as if his ghost-riddled soul was spilling out. Mina watched him. His hands were shaking. Not the cold. A soft tremolo, a rattle. The weight of all things before and to come. She rubbed her eyes and sat down beside him.
'I'm sorry for your colleagues,' he said. 'I truly am. I'm just... I didn't realise how much I... '
'You've invested a lot in this,' Mina said, shifting and pulling the collar of her jacket close. 'It's been a big part of your life. These are big events. You have to keep your head. You have to be careful to separate the personal.'
She glanced at his hands. Jittery shakes. His eyes were manic, popping.
'DI Gillis,' she whispered. 'You don't look right. Your tablets. The tablets you take... have you been? - '
'You know how I think?' Gillis puffed, his bottom lip wobbling. 'How I see myself? I do fuck all. I do fuck all and at nights, when I'm lying in my fucking living room, I fucking indulge my delusions. And I see myself as this good person, you know? I meet good people, real bright lights. I see how they are and part of me loves it, but even then... even then, I don't want to spend any more time with them than I absolutely have to. It's fucking hypocrisy. I see these things happening, these terrible things, I've lived them, and I think, there it is. This is part of the world.'
He wiped tears away. The cold bit. Mina looked down at the sprawl of Dumbiedykes. She closed her eyes. Gillis lifted his head.
'We're living in a world,' he said, 'we're living in a world where you can buy a hitman online for a few grand. You see these things every day, on the TV, the news, you're fucking overwhelmed with these awful things and I think that's it, they're there, they're there, so it's our duty to be the peaceful ones. All of us. We have to be the peaceful ones. And it feels so fucking decisive, such a core thing, but I don't actually apply any of it, you know? I loathe easily. I resent. I do fuck all for anybody. I barely function myself. I should have this, you know?'
He flapped around.
'You think like that, you commit to an idea... you should be able to commit to it, adore it, and this, this fucking horror... you're the peaceful ones, you should see it through, bear it, you should be able to say there's never a moment that you thought this was too long, or too hard, but all of it is. Every moment is too long, every moment is too hard.'
Mina breathed. She opened her eyes. Gillis shivered beside her.
'You should be scared by the scale of what's in front of you,' she said. 'You should feel like that. In part that's the right way to be. At least you can feel that.'
They sat in silence. Gillis was aware his selfishness was leeching out. He was too tired. Too consumed to filter it. The siren stroked blue pulses through the night from the road above. Mina's radio crackled. Her phone buzzed. She lifted both devices from her coat pockets and placed them on the bench. She sat still. She didn't leave him.
The shaking had subsided. His voice was raw and weak when he spoke again.
'I never see anyone outside of work. I actively avoid it. I sleep with the light on. I've been sleeping with the light on for years. I sleep on my sofa and move my lamp around to fucking... chase it away. Try and... keep the dark away. I'm always scared. I'm always fucking fending it off.'
Mina gazed vacantly across the park. The index finger and thumb of her left hand clicked together softly.
'You can't keep it away, though,' she breathed.
Gillis followed her line of sight. He listened to her finger-clicking. It was strangely calming.
'I guess I know that now,' he said.
'I don't mean it like that,' Mina said. She turned in his direction, but shirked eye-contact. 'I mean that everything goes hand in hand. You can't avoid it. You want to be one of the peaceful ones, one of the bright lights, you can't get to that... you can't find these things by avoiding the other things. You can't find the light by avoiding the darkness.'
Gillis' head dipped. Sirens pealed behind them. Traffic screeched. Mina stood and turned. Blue and amber lights flourished in the night sky, a blinking phantasmagoria.