'Where are you?' I say. 'I'm lying on a table,' she thinks, 'There's metal on my wrists and ankles. I'm bleeding. It burns. The room is very bright. I look but I can't see. I see metal. It's so bright in here, but... Metal. It's against my skin. There's a hard heavy feeling, my... belly... feels so full. Something's crushing down on my chest, like someone's sitting on me. I see a pair of eyes, dark eyes, so big... A tiny slit for a mouth... There's something bitter-tasting in my mouth, and then... After that I don't remember. A face trying to smile that doesn't look like it was designed to smile. The next thing I know, I'm lying in my bed again and it's dark, blacker than blindness, and...' 'What else?'

She's awake now. 'I always thought that as I got older, the red room would go away,' she says, 'But... Things kept happening. I told my parents but they just said I was probably imagining things, that all children imagine things, they told me that having an imagination was probably a good thing as long as I didn't let it get control of me, but... And then... One day when I got home from school there were two men in long black coats sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee. They asked me lots of questions. I told them I didn't know anything. They were strange. They didn't blink. Their movements were jerky. One had a drop of spit hanging from his lip which didn't fall the whole time. The other one had really long nails, flecked with grey, like the nails of a dead man. And when he took his hat off he was completely bald, even his eyebrows were shaven. They got into this shiny new car and drove off. Later, after they'd gone, my dad told me not to tell anybody about those people or about what was happening to me. He said he didn't trust them. I didn't trust them, but I didn't trust him, either. I decided I needed to get out as soon as I could. I left home when I was sixteen. As I got older I met other people, who said, "Don't worry, you're one of us. It's okay. We've all been through the same thing. In a way it makes you special." But that still didn't help. There's always another shadow.' 'What happened to your parents?' I ask. 'My mum left my dad while I was at college. She lives in Ireland now. My dad shot himself.'

I wake up from sleep without dreams. Laurie's skin smells of dead rooms and nicotine and static electricity. 'Come with me,' she says. 'I need to go back to the red room, but I can't do it on my own.'

Under a swollen sky, a house in a street like any street, repeating to the limits of the horizon. Boards nailed over doors and broken windows. Sounds of children playing, the buzz of cars, flies in sticky puddles. Scraps of paper flit through the air like giant moths. Power-lines bisect the sky. We prize a board from a window, the rust-heavy nails twisted against our strength but eventually they give. We climb through into a hallway. Globes of light lead us as we move from room to room. We find nothing but the motes of long-stilled years. Newspapers from the seventies, a single silver bracelet, bare boards and scratches in dust. We open a door to a flight of steps reaching up into darkness. Hear a sound like the speeded-up voices of children. Faint scent of vanilla. 'This way,' Laurie says, and we move upstairs, are greeted at each step by slight whispers of forms, shapes and contours too vague to delineate. They filter down the bent wooden steps, become scarce-visible vapours as they brush past our faces. I turn, caught in cold air, watch them disappear into the room from which we had just stepped. Hallway of shadows. Two doors to the left and two to the right. 'There,' Laurie says. The door is ajar. A shadeless bulb hangs lightless over a red-walled room. Peeling posters of seventies bands stuck with yellowed sellotape. Wooden frame of a single bed. Dismembered dolls scattered on the floor. A rotted half-eaten chocolate bar. Our eyes draining away the darkness. 'I can't go any further,' Laurie says. 'I feel sick. Sickness fills this place.' She curls on the floor outside, knees up to her face. I look at her then turn away, step into the inner skin of the room, stand at the end of the bed. See tiny rapid movements at the fringe of my sight; I turn, try to focus, see nothing there. I practice not focusing, not looking, letting the room reveal itself to me. The walls blur. Foundation shifts. The shadows are transparent. There's a ghost against the wall, a milky grey-skinned hologram of a little girl on grazed knees and a man standing over her. Her clothes on inside out and backwards. Her body curling out of him. He holds a finger to her lips. Snakes of blood wriggle between their bodies. Her skin flakes away under the scalpel of his fingers. Splinters of light shine inside her wounds. Coca Cola and semen seeping through her veins. Nothing inside his eyes can understand. White light flowing from his fingertips, swelling to a halo that surrounds them both. I turn and Laurie is beside me. The man stands tall, arms stretched at his sides. The girl falls to the floor, fades to a dull smear of calcium carbonate. Laurie's lips move before I hear any sounds; then twenty-five years pour from her, a deluge of half-shapen syllables. The light expanding over him, consuming him, growing to the torrent of her words, reclaiming her skin of stars. Then it is just a bedroom and Laurie and me, and the white stains of memory that seep through bare wooden boards.


Thank you for reading. If you like my writing, please don't forget to vote. You can hear me reading this story, set to music, here:- https://darrenfrancis.bandcamp.com/track/red-room

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