By blood we live, p.17
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       By Blood We Live, p.17

           Glen Duncan

  Two hundred and fifty miles to Vegas. Eight hours till sunrise. Plenty of time. I’d just drive normally. I’d stick to the speed limit. Nothing would happen.

  But my hands felt empty, and the stirred-up swarm of flies around my heart wouldn’t settle.

  A McDonald’s M rose up on the left. A Subway. A KFC. Like flags waving from the old life. That book title. You Can’t Go Home Again.


  I REACHED NORTH Vegas just after three in the morning. The air was hot and damp and full of low clouds. Soft empty greyness. I sat there, hands on the wheel, engine off, feeling sick with aliveness.

  1388 Balzar Avenue. A one-storey shithole. Dirt front yard with a broken laundry spinner and a solitary trash barrel. Empty beer cans and a shattered box crate. A screen door with half the mesh gone. All the lights out. Looking at the house a phrase of Fluff’s came back to me. Objective correlative. What? I’d asked him. He’d said: It’s some object in the physical world that corresponds, symbolically, with something non-physical or inner. (He’d said: You see them all the time on The Lash. On The Lash, everything’s—Then he’d remembered it was me, and what I thought about all that.) Now I looked at the filthy, broken-down house and thought: That’s him. That house is Karl Leath’s objective correlative.

  Then I thought: No, it’s not.

  It’s mine.

  I knew he was inside. I would’ve known anyway, even without the new version of myself. This wasn’t the first time I’d been here. I had an apartment forty miles away in Boulder City. Rented a year ago under a false name. Nothing fancy, barely furnished. I didn’t need furniture, except for appearances. Everything was for appearances. The only thing not for appearances was the bathroom without a window and with a heavier than usual door. And locks. Lots of locks. Because I’d known that by the time I came here to do this, that’s what I’d need. I was supposed to go there now. Rest. Get it together. Come back tomorrow night at sunset. That was the plan. This was supposed to be scoping. I wasn’t supposed to do anything now.

  I hit the button that rolled the driver’s window down. The smell of warm asphalt and garbage came in. Leaked fuel somewhere. Stale Chinese take-out and hash. A big sudden whiff of piss-soaked concrete. A block away someone was playing rap with too much bass. An annoying thud through everything. Like a heartbeat. Like their heartbeats. I remembered the heat and heaviness and smell of burped whiskey and his heartbeat like something hitting me. It had made me think of the Tin Man, who didn’t have a heart. And the horrible disappointment when the Mighty Oz turned out to be that little old guy with white hair. Their heartbeats against me felt like the dirtiest thing.

  You won’t need to feed until Saturday, Fluff had told me. Saturday was tomorrow. He should know, I guess, but it was there in me already, right now, and had been since yesterday, a feeling like a million tiny teeth biting my blood.

  Scoping only. Nothing yet.

  But it was as if the space around me in the car wasn’t empty. It felt like soft arms and hands prompting me, little pressures at my elbows and wrists, the small of my back, behind my knees. Some part of my brain was grabbing at questions about what if someone sees the car and if he’s not alone and a neighbour or there’s not enough time and the car breaks down and the sun and you’re there in the middle of the highway—But my body, moved by the soft invisible hands and arms, felt like a calm smile. All the things around me—the car’s dials and smell of vinyl, the low-rise houses and the stink of waste and the asphalt’s slight curve and even the spilled trash from a torn garbage bag smiled with me, as if I’d found the one thing that they’d been waiting for to make them perfect and happy.

  I got out of the Jeep and closed the door behind me.


  SOMEONE HAD SCRAPED the “L” from his name on the mailbox and scribbled in a “D.” Leath had become Death. It was just random shit. The sort of thing you’d expect kids to do. Except on The Lash, nothing’s random. I could hear Fluff saying it, shrugging, apologising, half-laughing. It prickled my face. Not excitement. Irritation. As if someone had turned the heating on on an already too hot day. It could become like claustrophobia, if you let it, this beguilement.

  My nails and teeth throbbed. The darkness was like goodwill from the world. The darkness was on my side. I went around the house, silently, looking in the windows. There were things I could’ve accidentally kicked or tripped over, but I didn’t. I realised I’d probably never do anything like that again.

  Four rooms. Tiny bathroom. Dirty kitchen with unwashed dishes and a microwave with a dark brown burn on its door and a drop-leaf table covered in take-out cartons. A lounge with a too big fake leather couch and armchair and a bookcase with what looked like car engine parts on it instead of books. TV still on, muted.

  One bedroom at the front with a bare mattress on the floor.

  The other at the back, a double bed.

  With him on it.

  Lying uncovered on his back in boxer shorts, a stripe of streetlight across his white paunch. Breathing. The paunch went up and down. Something in his nose whistled.

  For a few seconds everything went black. Just nothingness. I thought I’d died.

  Then I came back, as if every tiny particle of myself started speaking at the same time. I thought: I’m dreaming. I’ll wake up. But moments passed and I knew I wasn’t dreaming. I was awake right into my fingerprints and eyelashes.

  I wasn’t aware of deciding anything. But I found myself moving, doing things.

  Getting into the house wasn’t difficult. I took hold of the kitchen door handle, twisted and just gently pushed until the lock snapped. Like a perforated join in a sheet of cardboard. Big heavy things were nothing. When I put my hands on them I could feel how easy it would be to break them. I stepped into the kitchen. I thought the house felt sorry for him, the way he lived. Now I was inside, his breathing was louder. He sounded older. He was older. It made me feel sick again for a few seconds, thinking of him alive all these years, walking around and talking and drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and watching TV. I had a clear image of him sitting on the toilet, staring at the floor—and suddenly felt so sure I was going to throw up I had to lean on the table. I focused on a Domino’s pizza box on the floor to stop the room heaving and spinning.

  But in a few moments everything around me went still and gathered again, the soft invisible arms holding me, moving me, gently, and the nausea passed.

  I checked my jacket pockets, even though I didn’t need to. Duct tape and Tuff Ties in the left, gun in the right. I walked down the hall to the bedroom. The door was open.

  A smell of socks and stale bedding and cigarette smoke and spilled beer. There was enough light to see his face. It looked small. Because in my head it was always huge. He’d lost a lot of hair. Still oiled what was left, back, off the tough greasy forehead. Open your eyes, they always said. Open your eyes. And when I did the faces were like giants, the smell of hair oil and whiskey breath and cigarette smoke and the pores with little worms of dirt and the eyeballs like planets. The laughter and the heartbeat against me the dirtiest thing. The bigness and heat of the heartbeat against me.

  I stood at the bottom of the bed, looking down at him, amazed at how small he seemed. His legs were thin. He had varicose veins.

  One of the things that could happen was that because of how small and insignificant he was now I could just turn and walk away and never go anywhere near him again. I’d seen this in movies. It was mixed up with the way people always said something like two wrongs don’t make a right or if you resort to violence they’ve won or you’re just as bad as they are and in Schindler’s List the way Liam Neeson said to Ralph Fiennes that the real way to exert power over someone was to forgive them. I was aware of this like a kind of glittery lightness somewhere near me.

  Then he opened his eyes.

  He saw me straight away. Started, with a small cry. Tried to get up.

  “Don’t move,” I said.

  I didn’t remember pul
ling out the gun or stepping into the light where he could see it. But I must have, because there I was. He was suddenly very alive, up on one elbow. His paunch quivered. His mouth was open. He was squinting to see me properly. Waking up like that his body had pushed out its stink of beer and pizza and coffee and sweat.

  “Don’t move,” I said again. I thought the floor was tilting. I put a hand out to steady myself. But it was an illusion.

  “Who the fu—”

  “Shut up. Shut the fuck up.”

  “What do—”

  “Shut up!”

  I hadn’t known the voice would be like that. The same voice. I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t stand it because it was like being hit with a fascination. Like someone pulling a soft dark bag over my head.

  The gun had gone big and heavy in my hand. In my mind was a mishmash of all the times I’d imagined this with me saying Don’t you know who I am and Do you remember telling me to open my eyes and You’re going to keep your eyes open and All you’ll want is to die quickly but you won’t you’re going to die very slowly and Look at me look at me open your fucking eyes. But it was hard to imagine saying any of those things now. Now that he was there saying those things would … It was as if those things weren’t big enough. Nothing I could say would be big enough.

  A feeling of tiredness and disgust came over me. I had this image of dragging him outside the house and a crowd of people all standing around staring, amazed, because by the time I got him out he’d be this tiny, shrivelled thing, not like a man at all but like a little piece of dried up meat like that thing biltong they sell in the delis now and it wouldn’t be enough, just like nothing I could say would be enough.

  Then he said “Jesus,” and I knew he’d figured out who I was.

  I remembered his hand, sour and hot and moist over my mouth and nose. I remembered him saying You keep that wriggling up you’re gonna make me come and the one called Pinch laughing and her face staring at me and not seeing me showing me she couldn’t see me.

  I had the gun pointed right at his face.

  And when he flung his arm out and knocked it from my hand, it seemed to happen in slow motion. It was as if I’d wanted him to do that. It was as if I’d asked him to.


  FOR A SPLIT-SECOND I knew everything up to now had been a dream and the reality was that I was the tiny one and that I had no power and that I’d come back to him willingly so it could all happen again. So he could do it all again. For a moment it was a relief to know I was nothing. Not even disgusting. Not even shit. Just nothing.

  Then all the soft invisible arms in the air that had been guiding me hardened and coiled and released—and suddenly in place of nothingness was something dark red and full of energy and laughter and lightness, and when I looked again at his face I saw that my fist had smashed through his mouth, smashed clean through. Most of his teeth were gone and his bottom jaw was hanging from where my nails had sliced the muscle on their way out. He was making a weird gah, gah sound in the back of his throat, trying to get his legs off the bed.

  I grabbed his loose jaw. You could pick that up with one hand. Punch through that. Pull that off like a button. When I yanked it came away from his head. I held it up for a moment, felt him not believing it, not believing what was happening—then dropped it on his chest. His tongue, left behind, looked huge hanging there, like an ox tongue on a meat counter.

  He rolled onto the floor at my feet with a soft thud. He was trying to work out where the gun had gone. He got up onto his hands and knees. I let him move a couple of feet because I was hypnotised by the sight of it.

  Then suddenly I was impatient and I reached down, took hold of his throat, lifted him to his feet—felt his hands on my wrist like nothing, like butterflies, like paper bracelets—and dumped him back onto the bed.

  I wasn’t thinking. This was something else. Time wasn’t passing. Instead it was just Now … Now … Now, like a flower opening wider and wider.

  He tried to speak again, but it was just soft sounds and dark blood. It made me feel peaceful that he couldn’t speak. Then he tried to grab me, and as soon as he did that the impatience and disgust rushed back up in me and I smacked him hard in the middle of his chest. The big bone there cracked. I felt it. Heard it. I pictured the bone like a white wall protecting his heart—but now with a huge crack in it. I imagined myself pulling the two broken halves apart and seeing his heart, like Jesus’s in the Sacred Heart painting our neighbour Mrs. Clemence had in her hallway. Bless Our Home. It always made me think of our home. Jesus watching everything that happened in the living room, with the big, uneven blue curtains drawn and the bare overhead bulb lighting everything too much, the hair on their shins, their thick toenails, my mother’s face shiny with sweat.

  Gasping and making a gargling sound, he struggled up again onto his left elbow. He reached for the nightstand. Missed. Tried again. It exhausted me even more, that he was still trying to come up with something, trying to help his situation. It made me angry because I knew he’d keep on trying to stay alive. It made me angry because a part of me was standing to one side saying it’s not enough it’s never going to be enough it’s too small it’s too ordinary ordinary bones and falling on the floor and his tongue hanging like that and how can it ever be enough?

  Without thinking about it, I slashed my fingernails across his throat.

  Blood sprayed my face.

  Touched my eyes, my lips.

  My tongue.

  Which changed everything.


  YOU WON’T NEED to feed till Saturday.

  Wrong. The flower that had been opening all this time turned into a black red hole that sucked me in, head-first, a long fall that ended when I felt the bump of my teeth in his throat and the first warm spurt of his blood going into my mouth.

  At first there was …

  I felt myself thinking: I’ve never had to use this word before …


  Joy. This is what joy is. Like those flying dreams the moment you first realise you can do it … At first it was simple. Three, four, five seconds the blood was just goodness. The goodness was immense and nothing to do with him. He was just a funnel for the blood that was coming from somewhere else, from the universe, and the blood went into me and forced delicious warmth through my shoulders and face and breasts and belly and legs and feet. It was as if the blood was in a mad rush to map every part of me, to get all of me. And from the first swallow I was in a mad rush to get it in me, all of me. We were like two animals, me and the blood, two animals who loved each other but had been kept apart for years.

  Then on the third or fourth or fifth swallow it turned into his blood—and I saw him, maybe eight years old, and a basketball hit him full in the face and broke his nose (I felt some tiny echo of the bone going in my own nose) and the kid who’d thrown it laughing and the force of the blow knocked him onto his ass and they laughed harder because he sat down in a shallow puddle on the uneven court and I could feel his face hot and big and his heart full of something like shame. I thought: You can’t stop. Once you start drinking you can’t stop. You don’t suck the blood, the blood sucks you. Video-game footage raced, trolls and marines and things that looked like they were made of mud and it gave him not peace but took his memory away for the hours days months years that the explosion graphics and death screams filled him though it was also a kind of boredom like too much food. There was a girl and the two of them in a bar that looked like a ski-lodge but it was hot and I could feel the air like soup because the air-conditioning had gone and he was feeling that it was going okay with her (I saw her moist, big face and heavy blonde bob like a helmet and her hands were a little cracked with eczema but with fat red fingernails) and she’s laughed a couple of times but then time speeds up and he’s holding her elbow and trying to force her away from the bar and people are looking and she yanks her arm free and knocks a pitcher of some red cocktail from the counter and it hits the floor and bursts. The familiarity of t
his is like more heat on him, as if someone’s holding an electric fire close to his face on top of how hot it is already in the bar. It’s so familiar to him, this moment when it goes from going well to them not wanting his hand on them and one minute they’re laughing the next it’s get your fucking hands off me and they’re all the fucking same fucking cunts and it’s like a bored relief for him to have this thought, fucking cunts, and it is a relief because the truth is he doesn’t want them and I wanted to stop but I didn’t want the blood to stop it was so good so good and then I knew what was coming, what was coming through the blur of surfed channels and image after image of children’s small half-undressed bodies and confused or terrified faces and each image brings the same claustrophobia, the space they’re trapped in and the big heat of unfamiliar bodies and someone shouting orders or silently positioning them with a focus and farawayness that’s more terrifying than the shouts and slaps. Oh please let me stop but I couldn’t. Every ounce given over to the rhythm of the sucking, the gulping, the swallowing in time with his heartbeat—which brought the other heartbeat, his beating into my back and I saw myself from his point of view and when I saw the back of my head and the yellow t-shirt and felt myself through him crying I tried to shut my eyes shut my eyes block it out but I couldn’t because the blood kept coming and it was in my head whether I shut my eyes or not and it broke my own chest like I’d broken his and I felt all the time I’d lived since then and was saying sorry, sorry, sorry to the little girl I was as if she was someone I’d abandoned and never gone back for and it wasn’t her fault it wasn’t her fault it was mine.

  Don’t let the heart stop, angel! If the heart stops you’ll go with it!

  From somewhere. Maybe I remembered him telling me or maybe he was in my head right then but I knew I had to stop and the hearts were close and only in the last moment before I pulled my mouth away did I see the final image of the little boy, four or five years old, and the man with his trousers down and his cock exposed and I felt Leath always trying to get away from it and it always dragged him back and I knew it had happened to him. It had happened to him, too.

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