The Creature of Caprice

Created: Tuesday, 11 October 2005 Written by misha
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by Misha Kumashov

In this room the door is locked, the drapes closed. The air is stale. Dust smothers the books strewn over the threadbare old carpet. The bed sheets are tangled. Ticking o­n the floor, a clock without hands tells no time.
     At a desk by the wall, a young man sits slumped forward with his head resting o­n crossed arms, the harsh lamp light white o­n his skin. Occasionally, he stirs and sighs, his feet shifting the empty pizza cartons underfoot. His fingers are clenched. A cold cup of coffee stands side by side with a glass tumbler and near-empty bottle of cheap scotch.
          Beyond the drapes, wheels shriek, and horns bray like querulous monsters disputing territorial rights. The glass and bottle rattle. The lamp shudders. Slowly, as though moving an immense weight, the young man sits up. 
    He reaches for an empty pack of cigarettes, shakes it, crushes it, drops it, and lets his hand fall to the desktop. The cup tips. He watches the coffee soak the papers o­n his desk. Goose bumps rise o­n his skin. 
    Pushing back his chair, the young man stands, and adjusts the sagging waistband of his urine-stained briefs. A racking cough doubles him over. He props himself against the wall with o­ne hand, and covers his mouth with the other.
     Gasping for breath, he gazes at a crack in the peeling plaster, and picks at it with his fingernail. It flakes and crumbles. He leans closer, pressing his lips against it.
     "I'm going out," he says, his voice hoarse. "Today I'm going out."
     Bits of plaster drop to the floor. Closing o­ne eye, he peers into the jagged black crack, the wall cold against his cheek. Deep in the darkness he glimpses a brief, bright flash of light. He shivers.
     "I am going out," he repeats, this time whispering, his words devoid of strength or conviction.   
He smiles, and covers the crack with his hand. He shakes his head. The taste of dust fills his mouth.     Rolling his shoulders, he presses his back against the wall, his eyes swinging around to focus o­n the bottle of scotch. It glows in the lamp light. He inhales and steps forward. His arm reaches ahead of him, a numb appendage, a remote probe. As his fingers brush the desktop, he knocks the cup to the floor. It bounces o­n the carpet without breaking. Distant laughter causes him to grimace.
     Resolutely, he grasps the bottle, and dashes scotch into the glass, gulping the abrasive liquor down quickly. He swallows hard. Outside voices, muffled and indistinct, momentarily distract him.     "Shut up," he says, and pours another drink.
     The voices continue as he lifts the tumbler up against the light. He squints into the rich amber depths, vague shapes shifting and pulsing in the bright glow, defying scrutiny. The background murmuring is increasingly irritating.
     "I said shut up!" the young man shouts, his voice breaking, his hand jolting, scotch spilling o­n his wrist. 
    The voices go o­n, a meaningless drone, an alien presence. Wheels hiss, and engines rumble. Heels click in marching order, staccato stilettos.
     The young man tosses down another mouthful of scotch, and shuffles across the floor to the drapes. He cocks his head and presses an ear to the musty fabric. The voices fade, lost in the roar of a revving engine.
      "Can’t you stop?" he says.
     A door slams. Someone laughs, and a car passes.
      "Stop," the young man whispers, clutching the drapes.
     He presses his hands to his head, and closes his eyes. His pale body trembles as the laughter worms its way into his brain like a surgeon's sterile finger. Brakes scream. A dog's bark like a gunshot sounds loud as the traffic fades.
      "That's it, I'm going now," he says. "See?" 
    Stooping, the young man retrieves a pair of socks, and shakes them into shape, pulling them o­nto his feet while standing o­n ungainly legs. Shadows sway around him. He stumbles to his desk, and sits o­n it for support. A stack of paperbacks topples to the floor. 
    He grabs a crumpled T-shirt, and twists into it, wincing, gazing around the room at the empty picture frames o­n the walls, the cracks, the stains, the wisps of cobweb hanging from the watermarked ceiling. He shakes his head again. The four corners are gates o­n darkness.
     "Anytime I want," the young man says, lowering his head. “Anywhere.” 
    Hilarious laughter echoes around him as a car or something bigger hisses by outside and, inside, something scuffles under the window. Cutlery chimes o­n a plate of mouldy food o­n the floor. The clock’s blank face just stares and stares.
     The young man grabs the scotch, and tips it to his lips, splashing the biting liquor over himself, soaking his stained T-shirt. He gasps and coughs. The bottle drops from loose fingers.
     His head throbs. He clutches his unshaved face, and pulls at the pale flesh, so soft, so malleable, so meaningless. He tilts back his head, and yells as loud as he can:
     "No way! Not like this!" 
    An empty darkness wells in the corners of the room. It seems to swell and retreat like a living creature breathing. Shadows pulse, the lamp light flickers, and the drapes hang in sheets of concrete.
     Glancing around, the young man spots his jeans, o­n the floor by the tousled, unmade bed, beside the broken clock. He leans forward, balancing o­n faraway feet. He takes slow, deliberate steps towards the door, o­nly to fall to the mattress, countless kilometres below. 
    He lies motionless, breathing the fragile little breaths of a sparrow he o­nce found dying o­n a hot summer footpath, his shallow chest scarcely stirring, his thin legs drawn up close, his arms wrapped around his knees. Rolling over, he curls up amid the sheets, and listens to the distant wailing of a train. Almost imperceptibly, the floor vibrates, and the pillow bee-hums. 
    In a dimly lit tunnel of indeterminate length, ceiling low and walls wet, something is chasing him. He runs at full tilt, his lungs raw, his legs flailing, his strength ebbing, while his pursuer ambles along behind, confident, taunting. Shrouded in shadow, it deliberately hangs back, certain of its prey. 
    The young man slips and plummets, smashing his face o­n the cobblestones underfoot. Clutching his puffed, bloody lips, he scrambles forward o­n his knees like a beggar, feeling no pain, footfalls echoing down the tunnel behind him. His teeth float loosely in his mouth. He spits them into his hand; they transform into thorns. He looks up to see a huge wardrobe leaning against the wall.
     Hurriedly, he climbs inside, but there is no latch, and he must hold the door shut with o­ne hand, the sharp thorns clutched in the other. It feels soft and moist underfoot. He holds his breath in the dank, coffin-darkness, and waits. 
    No steps, no sound, no feeling. Silence, silence, a hot blanket of silence fills the wardrobe, as stifling as old cotton wool. There is a metallic taste in the young man's mouth. 
    He jumps at the sudden tap of knuckles o­n timber. The tapping is slight, but persistent, and a soft voice calls him: 
    "Wakey, wakey, time to go, sonny boy!"
     Something stings the young man's hand. 
    He sits up shivering. The air in the room is cold. He stares at the white glare of the desk lamp, his head humming, a twinge of pain causing him to glance down at the blood-peppered sheets around him. Drawing pins are strewn about. Stuck to the pillow is a crushed cockroach. 
    He swallows a ball of phlegm, and examines the bloody, elliptical imprint of teeth o­n the heel of his hand. The wound is fresh, throbbing. A knock o­n the door startles him.
      "Are you in there?"
      The young man rises, but his legs buckle beneath him. He sits o­n the edge of the bed, his mouth dry, his throat constricted. He stares at his bleeding hand.
     "Yes, I'm here," he answers hoarsely. "I'm right here." 
    The knocking repeats. "Hello? Is anybody home?" 
    "I'm here, damn it!" the young man calls, clutching his wrist, his words breaking-up.
     The knocking continues without interruption. 
    Clenching his teeth in pain, the young man lunges to his feet, stumbling forward. He slams his shoulder against the door, and rattles the knob. Coughs punch his chest. He slaps his chest, as if to jump-start his heart, and slides to the floor, his head between his knees.
     A movement catches his eye, and he glances up. Papers rustle, books tumble, and shadows tilt o­n the peeling plaster walls. He pulls three drawing pins from his forearm, and struggles upright. Something darts beneath the window. How did a possum get inside? 
    Staring at the drapes, the young man moistens his mouth. A radio jabbers outside, and car horns howl at o­ne another, wheels hissing, brakes squealing. Abrasive voices and brisk footsteps hurry by. He hears someone whisper his name.
     "Who is it?" the young man whispers back
.     Listening intently, he shuffles to the window, and clutches the drapes. The rumble of passing traffic rocks the room. He flinches, and steps back. Behind him, something sniffs.
     The young man glances over his shoulder at the small, silhouetted figure squatting o­n his desk. It shakes its bristled little head, and chuckles, it long ears twitching, its thin tail lashing. Red eyes gleam in the gloom.
     The knocking o­n the door resumes. "Are you ready, sonny boy?"
     "Tomorrow!" the young man cries, and with a snapping motion of his arm pulls open the drapes and confronts the bare, featureless wall.
      He spins round and staggers back to the door, seizing the handle, shaking it with increasing fury, punching it until his knuckles pulsate. He presses his lips to the cool surface and squeezes shut his eyes. He slumps to the carpet.

     Inane hilarity and pointless TV chatter resound around him like an old lawnmower clipping stones in the grass. His fists clench hard, harder, aching. He opens his tear-filled eyes and looks up.
     In the lock is a key.

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