Propped against the bathroom door, clutching an old guitar, Hanna sings Charlie another lullaby.
Go to sleep, Charlie.
He’s awake in there, still. The black beetles that come from under the bathroom door are his messengers. They walk ponderous circuits, antennae trembling, moving jerkily like windup toys.
Sleep, Charlie, sleep.
The guitar is held together by duct-tape and willpower. It belongs to Mercy, who can coax delicate music from the four remaining strings. Hanna strums nonsense-chords and sings old pop songs, though she is not much good at either of these things. Charlie doesn’t seem to mind.
The flickering of the lights is slow now, the blinking of a single sleepy eye. It’s a good sign. An agitated Charlie is quite a thing to behold; every light in the squat flashes wildly, though the power was cut years ago. Stella says Charlie creates his own energy. As she sits in the hall, breathing white in the dark, Hanna wishes he’d channel a little of it into the central heating.
Even more than that, she wishes he’d go to fucking sleep.
So Hanna sings. And when the song finishes, after what feels like hours, Hanna holds her breath, and her heart sinks when she hears Charlie’s insectile nonsense-chatter emanating from the keyhole. She knows, by now, what this means: Another.
She starts anew. The back of her skull beats a steady rhythm against the door and outside, as the sun struggles over the horizon, London stirs.
The previous night—the night Mercy brought her to the squat—Hanna woke with a violent start. She sat up, heart hammering, tongue thick in her dry mouth. She searched in the dark but Steve wasn’t there, his space in the bed was cold as bone, and Hanna wanted to scream but then she remembered. She wasn’t at home anymore. There was no home, at least not one she could go back to. No doubt there’d be another woman in their bed tonight. Stupid girl, Hanna thought, fingers trailing up her forearms, tracing old bruises in the shape of Steve’s fingers. Her swollen nose throbbed in the dark.
She needed the toilet. She got up, wrapping the sleeping bag around her. She wore only the old t-shirt Mercy had lent her, several sizes too large. The bathroom was next door. When Mercy first showed her around, she’d mentioned in passing that the upstairs bathroom was off-limits; something about rotten floorboards, dodgy plumbing. But Hanna was disorientated and rattled and by the time she remembered, the door was already open and the black expanse of the bathroom was revealed. For a moment Hanna thought she’d opened the wrong door, that this was no room but a void, and then something had risen above the rim of the bath, slowly, eyes glowing like embers in the dark.
It wasn’t as if Hanna woke Charlie on purpose. She hadn’t even known he was there. She tells Mercy this over and over until Mercy is sick with it, threatening to lock her in with Charlie and throw away the key. Subdued, Hanna stares at Mercy; how, she wants to ask, could she have let her sleep next door to a monster?
Stella comes down the stairs, finger pressed to her lips. She has accomplished what Hanna could not. It stands to reason; she has had prior experience with Charlie, has spent long, sleepless nights reading him stories and coaxing him to sleep. She and Mercy, working shifts.
Neither of them seems outwardly angry at her, although Hanna thinks they’d have a right to be. She is an accidental guest, after all. She’s here only out of kindness. The squat is theirs. Actually, it’s his. An Edwardian townhouse in the heart of Lambeth, imposing even in its neglect. The windows are scabbed over with sun-bleached newspaper. The front garden is a snarl of bindweed. The neighbours don’t notice them. Nobody knocks at the door. Hanna suspects that this is not a coincidence.
“He’s napping. He’ll be awake again soon,” Mercy says. She’s a stout Filipina, an ex-nurse; she’d found Hanna dazed and bleeding in a Southwark underpass, clinging desperately to a tattered rucksack as though her entire life were within it and begging to be taken home to the man who’d relieved her of several teeth. Mercy had brought Hanna back to the squat instead. Just for one night, supposedly.
“You’ll have to change his water when he wakes up again,” Stella tells Hanna. She doesn’t bother to hide how put-out she is by it all. She piles her thick hair beneath a bandana in lieu of washing it, rubs her tired eyes with the back of her hand. “You woke him up. You do your bit.”
Nobody shows Hanna what to do, but it seems like common sense. She takes the bucket into the back garden and, hidden by snarls of overgrown foliage, quietly siphons water from the neighbour’s hosepipe. Like changing a litter tray, or cleaning a fish tank, except Charlie is no pet. Hanna pushes the back door open with one foot, clutching the full bucket to her chest. Who’d want a pet like Charlie?
It’s hot in the bathroom, thick and tropical like the inside of a vivarium. Hanna closes the door behind her with a click. Across the room is a cast-iron bathtub, the enamel stained yellow like old bones. The tiles are furry with black mildew, the windows obscured by newspaper. She breathes deep, easing her nerves, and heaves the bucket onto the counter.
“Hello Charlie,” she says.
The tinkle of displaced water indicates his acknowledgement. She sees him as she approaches, a dark smudge beneath the surface. His form is distorted but recognisable. Red eyes stare up at her, unblinking. She doesn’t know if he’s holding his breath under there; Charlie, neither man nor frog but something else, something other. It wouldn’t surprise Hanna if he didn’t breathe at all.
Hanna sits on the lip of the bath and Charlie rises with slow grace; his skin is the glossy grey of a wet paving slab. He smells like an underpass, the ammoniac stench of week-old piss and gutter mulch. Clubbed fingers splay towards her, grasping. She leaps to her feet, backing quickly away. He is ugly, and alien, and although she senses nothing but benign curiosity, she keeps her distance.
“I’ve come to change your water,” she says, trying to hide the quiver in her voice. Charlie regards her with what she interprets as disappointment. His features are primitive: dull, Neanderthal jaw, black slit-mouth, heavy brow. Clicks and whirrs emanate from the depths of his pulsating throat. The glut of mucus obstructing the plug-hole comes away with a thick sucking sound. Clots of stinking matter streak the bathtub as the water drains. He stares up at her, awaiting her approach.
Hanna fetches the bucket from the counter. Her sweat-damp hair sticks to the back of her neck.
“Ready?” she asks. If he understands, he doesn’t care to answer. As the water spatters against his skin the clogged-sewer stink of him rolls up into the air. Hanna presses her sleeve to her mouth until the water settles, already stained a pale sepia. Charlie chitters in what might be joy. It’s so unexpected, such an innocent sound that Hanna almost smiles. Almost forgets he’s a monster.
The water is barely enough to cover his feet. She’ll have to make several more trips. Charlie reclines in his puddle, heavy skull resting against the slope of the bath. The fleshy rope of his umbilical cord floats in the shallow water. Hanna follows its trajectory. One end joins seamlessly with the concavity of his abdomen, coiling up and around and sinking once again, pallid as a cave fish, into the open black mouth of the plughole. Down into the sewers, the guts of the city off which Charlie feeds.
When she returns, Mercy and Stella sit Hanna down and explain, as well as they can, what Charlie is.
“Stella was the one who named it,” Mercy says. “It’s been here longer than we have. Possibly even longer than this house has stood here. We think it’s taken several forms over its lifetime. It keeps us off the radar here, which gives us a safe place to stay. I suppose we’re meant to be his caretakers, but we mostly try to keep him asleep. It’s safer when he is.”
“What happens when he’s awake?” Hanna asks.
Stella indicates the squat with a sweep of her arm. The water has calmed Charlie temporarily, but it’s not enough; the lights still flicker like a faulty flashbulb. The taps in the downstairs bathroom gush brown water in sudden bursts. Hanna sits, cross-legged, sleeping bag wrapped around her shoulders. It is imperative, Mercy explains, that they return Charlie to a state of hibernation, because the longer he stays awake the greater his agitation will grow, and the more extreme the manifestations will become.
“There was a time a couple of years ago when we couldn’t get him back to sleep for over two weeks,” Stella says. “By the time we wore him down, almost the entire borough was in a blackout. A massive sinkhole opened up just off the high street. Nothing but black all the way down. The Imperial War Museum was infested with rats. There was an outbreak of leptospirosis. They shut it down for months.”
“Maybe it was a coincidence?” Hanna suggests.
Mercy shoots Stella a wry look and it occurs to Hanna that they must have had this conversation many times over. And the more Hanna thinks about it, the more ridiculous it seems; how can she even try to apply an idea as quaint as coincidence to a sexless monster living in a bathtub in an abandoned London townhouse?
“It’s a parasite,” Mercy says, like they’re discussing someone’s problematic cousin. “A malignancy. It feeds off the city. You saw the plughole, right? That’s how it communicates with London. It’s a two-way thing: if Charlie’s unhappy, the city suffers. The worse its temper, the worse things get. It’s only when Charlie’s asleep that London becomes autonomous again. When he’s awake, it’s chaos. And that’s why Stella and I try to keep him asleep.” Implicit in her glance is an accusation: you fucked this up. I never should’ve brought you here. She’s too polite to say it out loud.
“How do you know all this?” Hanna asks.
“She doesn’t,” Stella says, blunt. “We don’t know a bloody thing. What Mercy’s telling you, she learned from the people before us. The rest is educated guesswork.” She pauses, rifling through a pile of mouldering books to find Charlie a bedtime story. “This goes back longer than you can imagine. We won’t be the last of his keepers.”
It’s nonsense, the stuff of feverish fantasy. And yet, as Hanna looks from Mercy to Stella, at the grim lines of their mouths, a cold sensation creeps into the pit of her stomach and coils there, tight; maybe it is nonsense, but it’s happening all the same.
The next day, a swarm of beetles pour from the rotten space inside the walls and take up residence in the dark spaces. Hanna has spent her second night acting parent to their communal monster-child, and she is heavy-limbed with exhaustion. She comes into the living room, sinks into the futon. Already, this is too much. She hadn’t wanted to be a part of this. She didn’t choose to come here. When she tells Stella this the other woman just smiles, a mirthless flash of teeth.
“Nobody wants to be here,” Stella says. “But someone has to take care of him. Mercy and I have no family, no life to go back to. We might as well do what we can.”
“You could kill him,” Hanna says.
Stella regards her silently for a while.
“Charlie didn’t choose to be the way he is,” Stella says. Mercy calls Charlie ‘it’, but with Stella, it’s always ‘he’. “I don’t know much about him, but I know he was here before London was even a twinkle in man’s eye. By accident or design, the city was built around him, and now he’s a part of it, and it’s part of him. You say we could kill him.” She shakes her head. “Charlie’s bond with this city is strong. In a sense, Charlie is London. If Mercy’s right about him transmitting his moods—if there is some weird psychic bond—what kind of chaos would killing him create?”
“You’ve thought about it, though,” Hanna says.
“Mercy has.” A beetle crawls up her thigh, coming to rest in the crook of her knee. She doesn’t seem bothered. It’s probably not the first time. “We’ve always managed to calm him down. But yes, she’s talked about it more than once, when things get bad.”
Stella plucks the beetle from her leg and holds it between her thumb and forefinger. Black eyelash legs skitter frantically in mid-air. She lifts the struggling insect slowly up until it is level with her mouth.
“You have to understand,” she says. “When Charlie sleeps, his dreams stay in his head. But he never stops dreaming. And when he’s awake, the visions leak out. That’s what you see here. All of it. This is what’s in Charlie’s head.”
Hanna’s stomach twists into a knot as Stella’s lips part, a slow, thoughtful motion, and Hanna desperately tries not to retch, but Stella purses her lips and blows, gently, as if extinguishing a birthday candle. The beetle disintegrates, scattering gently outwards in a shower of black dust.
“He didn’t choose to be this way,” she says, brushing the dust from her hands. “He doesn’t mean any harm. I know you think he’s a monster, and you’re probably right. But he can’t help but be what he is.”
Hanna thinks of Steve, of the choices he had made. She thinks of the rage bright in his eyes, the scrape of his knuckles against her cheek. She hadn’t been able to change him, or even warn the next girl. She can’t change Charlie either, but maybe she can make things better. Maybe she can stop him doing any harm.
She talks to Charlie a little more after that. Not much. Day to day things, the kind she’d usually talk to Steve about. Things she can’t tell the others, because they don’t seem to want to know anything about her. And although Charlie doesn’t seem to understand, she swears he’s listening.
It seems fitting to Hanna that when Mercy finally cracks, it’s during Stella’s shift.
The back door slams; every other door in the squat rattles on its hinges. Hanna is pulled violently from sleep, legs tangled in her sleeping bag. The thunder of boots as someone storms upstairs. It’s Steve, she thinks, huddling beneath the blanket. It’s Steve and he’s angry about something and he’s coming up the stairs, towards her. It’s only when Stella starts screaming that she remembers where she is.
Hanna rolls over. Someone is in the bathroom, stomping hard on the rotting floorboards. She scrambles to her feet, shedding the sleeping bag as she goes. Stella stands at the bathroom door, blocking the way with arms outstretched. Her book lies forgotten at her feet, her torch a black shape on the periphery. Mercy stands before her, wielding a mud-caked pickaxe in both hands like a spear.
“There’ve been riots up in London,” she says. “It’s all over the papers. Buildings burnt to the ground. People cracking each other’s heads open. It’s fucking insane out there. Nobody knows what’s sparked it.” Her fingers tighten around the pickaxe. “But we know, don’t we Stella?”
“You can’t know that,” Stella says, but she’s shaking, and before she can react Mercy bulldozes through her, shoving her aside. Stella stumbles out onto the landing. She stares at Hanna for a moment, looking small and powerless.
Hanna dashes into the bathroom. Mercy stands over Charlie, the pickaxe raised. Charlie cries out, high and keening, and Hanna feels a sharp pain somewhere in the vicinity of her heart. She hadn’t been convinced he was capable of emotion, but his fear is unmistakeable.
“People are hurting one another,” Mercy says, indicating Charlie with a sharp jut of her chin. “Don’t tell me it’s coincidence. Don’t you dare insult my intelligence like that. This has gone as far as I’m going to let it.”
“Wait,” Hanna says, and Mercy turns for a moment; there is doubt in her eyes, and Hanna realises she has a choice. For the first time in a long time, she has a choice. “Calm down. Let’s talk about it. That’s how you get things done here, isn’t it?” She raises both hands, a placating gesture. “You’ve got him to sleep so many times before. You can do it again. We’ll work together.” She swallows hard. “This is my fault, Mercy. Not his. I should never have gone into the bathroom. I’m so sorry.”
Mercy looks uncertain, but she steels herself, raises the pickaxe high in both hands like a wooden stake.
“Mercy, please,” Hanna says.
The axe-head is clotted with old earth, but it glints in the guttering light, and Hanna barely has time to wonder what Charlie sees when Mercy brings it down hard. The blunt metal pierces Charlie’s skull like a knife through paper. Black spills out into the bathwater. Charlie chokes, gurgles. The axe descends again, faster this time, cracking brittle bones, and the stink rising from the bathtub is rich and thick and rotten. Mercy raises her weapon again, but looks up at the bathroom light, dead at last. Her t-shirt is spattered with black. Charlie floats in the dark water.
Hanna looks over her shoulder, away from Charlie’s ruined body. His fearful wailing still echoes in her ears. Charlie is dead, and she’s too stunned to feel anything. Stella sits against the bathroom door, knees drawn to her chest, staring numbly at her.
“There,” Mercy says, wiping sweat from her cheeks. “He’s gone. You fucking cowards.” The pickaxe clatters to the floor. For a long moment, the only sounds are Mercy’s ragged breathing and the slow drip of spilled water over the edge of the bath. “It’s over,” she says, at last.
“For both our sakes,” Stella replies, “I hope you’re right.”
Stella and Hanna wrap Charlie’s body in black bags and haul it into the boot of Stella’s old Ford Mondeo. The neighbours peer at them through a gap in the curtain as they leave the squat, narrow-eyed and suspicious. Charlie is gone; the dreamlike ignorance with which the neighbours had previously regarded them is gone too. They are exposed.
Hanna goes with Stella because it feels like the right thing to do. To see that Charlie’s death does not go unremarked. Helpless Charlie, the heart of a city, though he never had a say in the matter. Who asked for nothing but a safe place to dream.
Mercy had called Charlie a malignancy. As they wrestled his sad little body from the bathtub and onto the floor, severing the umbilical cord, Mercy told them she’d saved the city, cut it free from Charlie’s greedy, suckling influence. Neither of them had argued. Mercy wouldn’t have understood.
Mercy’s door was shut when they left the squat. “She got what she wanted,” Stella says bitterly, staring out of the window at the passing houses, the skyline still shrouded in early morning mist. Everything is calm. Debris from last night’s rioting lies in the gutter, undisturbed. Nothing is burning. Nothing is crumbling. “Give it time,” Stella tells her, adamant, although there is doubt in her eyes, and the frown lines around her mouth speak volumes. Whatever Stella had been afraid of should have happened by now. The idea that Mercy might have been right all along must stick in her throat.
They drive to the dump (“Recycling Centre”, the sign insists) and hide his body among a sea of broken furniture and wet, yellowing weeds. Hanna looks to Stella, and she shakes her head. There’s nothing to be said. Charlie is dead, and the city carries on without him, at least for now. Hanna wonders what they’ll make of his body, if anyone ever finds it; if they’ll think him a strange, awful sculpture abandoned by its creator. She knows nobody ever will.
They get back into the car. The lush, rotten smell of Charlie still lingers. There is a heaviness in Hanna’s chest. Without Charlie’s protection, the squat is no longer a safe haven. She will have to move on. Perhaps back to Birmingham, where her mother will undoubtedly greet this new failure with glee. If Stella is right—and Hanna is increasingly uncertain of this—then it’s probably best to leave London altogether, before the last of Charlie’s influence dissipates and the cracks start to show. If they start to show.
They pull up to the squat. The neighbours’ curtains are wide open, their windows empty. Perhaps they’ve given up watching for now. Stella pushes the door open. A scattering of tiny black beetles emerge, pouring out into the sunlight where they disintegrate. Hanna looks sharply at Stella, who shakes her head. “Remnants of a dream,” she says. “I don’t know. This is new to me, too.”
“Maybe.” They haven’t spoken much since Charlie was killed. Neither of them quite knows what to make of it. There’s a sense that an injustice has been done. Stella still won’t accept Charlie’s part in the rioting, although the streets are ominously quiet this morning. Still, though, Hanna can’t help but blame herself. If only she’d never woken him. If only she’d calmed him in time . . .
Inside, everything is as they left it. The squat has not yet fallen apart without Charlie’s protection. The smell of damp plaster and lemongrass incense still presides. They mill at the bottom of the stairs, uneasy, none of them willing to be the first to ascend into the black hallway above. What lurks there now Charlie is gone? Finally, Hanna takes the lead, hoping her nerves don’t show. Stella brings up the rear. Hanna suspects she might have gone first if she hadn’t been trying to make a point. Better the devil you know, even when that devil is a bathtub-dwelling parasite.
Stella strides past Mercy’s open door and is about to ascend the stairs to her attic room when there is a sudden pulse of light from the overhead bulb. A momentary flicker, gone almost as soon as it appears. Hanna looks at Stella, waiting for her to comment, but she says nothing. Hanna wonders if she saw anything at all.
She waits for Stella to disappear into the attic and veers sharply towards the bathroom. It takes everything in her power to stop her from running, and yet as she approaches the bathtub in the centre of the room, she’s filled with equal parts joy and trepidation; what if there’s nothing? Remnants of a dream, Stella said; traces of Charlie lingering like old blood at a crime scene. As she leans over the rim of the bath, she hears her own sharp intake of breath, her wide eyes reflected in the shallow pool at the bottom of the bath.
The bathroom light buzzes.
There he is. Charlie in miniature, a grey bud bursting from the remains of the discarded umbilical cord. They should have destroyed it, but in their haste, they simply severed it and left the remainder to rot. He is tiny, this new Charlie, the size of a child’s fist, a glistening grey maquette wallowing in a stagnant puddle still stained with his predecessor’s black blood. His eyes are tiny rubies. She slips her hand into the water, cups the newborn Charlie in her palm. He stares up at her, unblinking, chittering faintly like a faraway insect. Talking to her in whatever primitive language he speaks. Like he’s telling her it’ll be different this time. And maybe it will.
“I’m sorry about what happened.” she says. “But we’re going to do it properly this time. No more bad dreams. No more riots. I’ll keep you safe.” His skin is leathery, and not unpleasant. “Go back to sleep, Charlie.”
His eyes slip shut. And as he rests there in the warm concavity of her hand, Hanna swears she sees the black slit of his mouth contort into a smile.
Originally published in Black Static, Issue 37, November 2013.