by Rebecca Gransden
Days stunk as summer went on, the stench luxuriating around the decrepit high rise. The big insects thrashed and ruled the tower. Residents clung to the place, their only chance of a view of the city, above it all in stained rooms, a ragged community forged in the tension of degradation. Long grassy clumps with razor seed heads sat ready to leg slash on the wind that ripped through the channels of the warm labyrinth. The kids wailed between the blocks, scraping their knees on shank sharp grass blades, scabbed up and restless, sprinting up and down the dark stairwells.
Jermane expected every boy from the block to attend the gathering, and some of the girls too. Ten years the tower block had been his home, his life span. Most of the other tower kids were around his age, and they’d want to be invited. Martinique sat by the phone in the small entranceway, gazing through the open hallway door and into the front room, her eyes drawn to a table covered in party food. Strong sunlight lit up the grub. “I hope it doesn’t go off,” she said.
“What Mum?” Jermane, along the hallway in his bedroom, flexed his knuckles playing a new survival horror game. The ambient drone of the soundtrack drowned out Martinique’s volume, Jermane more interested in fitting in a session on his present than listening to her.
“The food. The sun’s on it. Bacteria will grow. We’ll end up poisoning your mates.” Martinique fiddled with the cord of the landline. She wanted to be rid of the antiquated phone, but there were those from her past who only knew that number for her. People who never called unless something was wrong. This day, the day of Jermane’s tenth birthday, she waited for a call.
The doorbell rang, and then rang and rang until the flat was packed with blockers. This is how everyone referred to the local kids from the towers. The blocker kids.
Jermane took to the centre, an apprentice kingpin, rat emperor in waiting, tearing his presents open, coughing and guffawing and giving the others permission to do likewise. They all knew they were on the cusp, that this kind of party was on the way out, left to those younger, not that there were many in the tower block.
All nervy with the dictates of growth and with few left to follow them, they returned to their bond and what had been common between them all, what made the blocker kids tighter than most. Jermane led, birthday boy, lifting his tee up to his armpit, exposing his side underneath.
“It’s not changed for a few months,” he said, “Grew a hair though, right in the middle. One morning a long, black strand just appeared.” The other kids leaned in, looking over his bump. Tennis ball-sized, they all had one somewhere, some growths flatter, some hidden from view. Benign cysts, the medical people said. Martinique attributed the growths to waves from the nearby transmitter, and had written to the council about it years ago, even creating a residents group at one point. Jermane pushed his t-shirt down. “Alright, give it a rest you lechers.”
Tez bowed to Jermane, presenting his scalp, a pronounced bump thinning his dark hair on the dome of his deputy crown. “It’s been right itching me lately,” Tez said, “I think it’s getting bigger too.”
Jermane examined Tez’s bump intently. “I don’t know. It looks the same to me.”
Tez stood up.
“Mum,” Jermane called, “Come and have a look at Tez. He thinks his growth is larger.”
Martinique shuffled by the phone. “I can’t. I’m waiting for the council to call. It’s important I speak to someone today.” She sighed, heavily. “I’m sure it’s fine.” Dark circles framed her bloodshot eyes as they wandered in expectation to the black shiny telephone on the small side table before her. Before long her head was in her hands, long worn fingers betraying an involuntary tremble every so often.
Jermane couldn’t sleep on his side anymore, so he rose early and went out before his mum woke. Still two hours before school, he hunched his way along the throughways at the bottom of the tower, empty at dawn. A gentle blank light, cloudy white. For breakfast he tucked into a slice of birthday cake left over from the day before. Dogs barked and the noise echoed around the towers as he walked briskly between the buildings. The towers bent down, like sneaky admonishers in judgement over a flea. People outside the area named them monstrosities. Jermane skipped across the perfect square of grass and quickly underneath the overhangs of the concrete walkways, into the side alley that led to the bus shelter to wait to be shuttled to school.
Three people stood at the bus stop, but not in line. Each took their place on the outside of a small circle, looking inwards, and down at the ground, towards something drawing their attention in the centre. Two of them were women, factory workers Jermane guessed, frumpy inside almost identical summer overcoats, pastel peach and apple white. The other figure was a man, anonymous features, scrawny and middle-aged. The woman closest to Jermane’s solemn approach noticed him coming and raised a hand. “Stay there,” she said, eyes rigid. “Don’t.”
Jermane ignored her, curiosity or an instinct or a prophesy compelling him to look at the sight.
And it was Tez, destroyed on the ground, stretched unnaturally, as if trying to flee into the earth itself, the top of his head carved away, flesh glistening with black blood in the sunrise; his bump extracted in shreds, the twisted visible side of his face a bruised blue.
Jermane backed off, backwards, across the road, hearing the car horns as he went until he hit the curb and stepped up it backwards, staying put on the pavement until the police had arrived, until hours later Tez’s body was taken away.
When he got home Martinique hugged him as if she wanted to grow herself around him, to be a shield for her son. He missed school.
Three weeks later Martinique escorted him to the school gates. The corridors bustled with accusatory eyes. Jermane soon deduced that the blocker kids were under scrutiny; being withdrawn from, as if infectious. He caught sight of Miche in the canteen, grabbed his lunch and went to sit with her. They were the only two seated at a long table and no other pupils chose it, even as the canteen proceeded to fill. “What’s going on?” Jermane said, keeping his voice hushed, aware of a few probing glances coming from elsewhere in the canteen.
“We’re being ignored. Because of Tez and Fin.”
“What about Fin?”
Miche bowed her head and played with her macaroni cheese. “I thought you knew,” she said, quietly. “After Tez happened. He didn’t handle it very well. He thought it was because of the growths, you know. He tried to get rid of his.”
Jermane placed down his fork. “What d’you mean?”
“He cut it out of his leg. His mum found him in the bathroom. I heard he lost too much blood.”
Jermane pushed his tray forwards, appetite extinguished. “That’s why none of us can have these things removed. All our growths are connected to a major artery or vein. I’m sure he knew that. You know that, don’t you Miche?”
“Yeah.” She sighed.
“It makes no sense.”
Miche reached around to her lower back, scratching at the elongated welt sitting close to the base of her spine. “No. It doesn’t. And now everyone thinks we’re cursed.”
Jermane left school late, kept back by one of the teachers, called on to assist in returning the assembly room chairs to storage after another emergency gathering. Under fading light, made murkier by the presence of the towers surrounding, he flew from the bus stop, driven by a rumbling stomach, across the grass square. Reaching the doors to the stairwell he realised he hadn’t thought of Tez at the bus stop this time, the image of his friend relived everyday since he’d seen him dead there. Jermane’s footfalls reverberated around the vacant and enclosed stairwell as he climbed. Sometimes when they echoed back it sounded as if someone climbed the steps alongside him.
At the flat partition between the floors he stopped. The low light of the high window was dulled further by black and green mould encrusted onto old frosted glass, where underneath a woman sat crouched facing the corner, back to him, head almost between her knees. She wore a smart close-fitting navy jacket and her hair shortly cropped and blonde. He thought he recognised her from somewhere. Her head nodded back and forth a little.
After a few seconds Jermane cleared his throat. “Are you alright?”
The woman jolted in response to his voice, standing up and closing her knees, tidying her smart matching skirt over light tights. She turned quickly and went to pass Jermane, ice blue eyes avoiding his. As she reached the first stair that would lead her downwards she paused before taking it, Jermane still watching from beneath the window. Her nostrils elevated and she flared them to inhale two precise and subtle sniffs of the air. “Ripe,” she said. She exhaled, drawing it out indulgently, and rotated her head to look at Jermane, her smile growing to reveal oversized sharpened teeth. Frozen, Jermane blinked and she was upon him, moving her head underneath his blazer, tearing through the white cotton shirt, a cool liquid secreting from her mouth, teeth in him and him falling but as if onto a cushion, a sweet narcotic consuming his body, his light breaths tainted with fiery bliss, the music of the stairwell, the devourer of the growths. The woman from the council.
Rebecca Gransden lives on an island. She is published at X-R-A-Y, Burning House Press, Muskeg, Ligeia, and Five:2:One, among others. Her books are anemogram., Rusticles, and Sea of Glass.