Water curls over the lip of the cave like curtains. I shiver back into the curve of earth and damp soil patters around me. The shelter protects me from the elements a little, but I am already sodden. I am lost. I am ten. I am terrified. The last thing I am is protected.
Far below, the river sings a war cry, laughing and lapping at its embankments. The trees scream and creak under the brutal bend of the wind. Lightning veins across the sky and turns the clouds momentarily to purple slate. Thunder shakes the world.
Cacophonous – I learned that word in English class, and I cling to it now. I try to line up the letters like Scrabble tiles in my mind, but trembles keep shaking them from place. A crack lashes the night, and a thick branch slams down at the entrance. The noise only rises, rioting through the dark.
I cringe back further and pray someone will find me. Despite the din, I hear the faintest of whispers, for it comes right by my ear. Croooo-keeeer.
Rain and sunlight slant together against the windows of my apartment. There’d be a rainbow, if I got up to look. I don’t. The glare hits my laptop screen and bounces off the white of the page to stab my eyes. Something thuds against the inside of my skull, like a fly which has lost the open window.
I catch the dark form of my reflection clumped on the screen. A reflection – I’m making that slip more and more lately, conflating it and me. I adjust the angle of the screen and press a button on the keyboard. Static wends from the speakers, swallowing the first sentence of a conversation.
Strangers talk, and I listen. I snatch their words from the air and put them to page. I never join in. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. By the time they reach me the conversations are already over, recorded who knows when. Recently, most of them – they talk of viruses and hope for vaccinations. Occasionally, voices clamber from the past, blissfully ignorant. When asked what she’s done with her day, this respondent laments the busyness of a trip to the swimming pool. What luxurious, revolting problems to have.
I transcribe. This client doesn’t want word-for-word. Most don’t. All speech is disorder and chaos, but that’s only evident on the page, verbatim. Clients want sense, so I parse it for them. I slash through her ums and likes, her sentences which go nowhere. Invisible, I guide the narrative.
I sigh. Out of habit, I think. I’m not particularly bored or discontent. I’m not particularly anything, really, except mildly hungover and pushing aside the encroach of a migraine. Those things are easy to drown out. I focus on the doctor.
The rain flings against the window. My fingers on the keyboard match its patter. I’ve been doing this for years, and I can almost keep up with their words. The respondent rattles jargon. She speaks of ileostomies and eversions. I don’t know what these are, and I don’t care enough to look it up. Her story is for someone else, someone already in the know. I’m a conduit, nothing more.
Underwater, the world muffles. With my senses constricted, it is easier to sift through the irrelevant survivors – the heat of the bathwater; the swirling song of blood in my head – to the most important. The weight of his embrace on my chest.
No, not embrace. The implications of that word don’t fit; it’s too tender, too familiar. At this point, he and I, we are familiar, but there is nothing tender about our little game. We’re playing chicken, wrapped together beneath the surface: which of us will drown first?
I break the surface with gasps and splutters and sobs. As always, he rises with me. Stalemate.
Dribble froths from my thirsty mouth and I shudder to my feet, nearly slipping as I clamber from the tub. I catch myself against the sink and grip the porcelain tight. It is dewy from the steam, and the mirror is a fog. I step toward it and lift my hand. My fingers are red and water-wrinkled. I hover over the mirror, then swipe through the mist.
He stares back. Gnarled skin, greyish and green. Hair like lank strings of black moss. His face twists towards yawning eyeholes and he’s as naked and dripping as me. Almost two decades now, since that night in the storm. At first, he stood behind me. Nowadays, he stands in front. I’ve long since forgotten my own face. I only see him.
I must have heard the story, long ago. It’s from Cromford, where I grew up, where my family still live, where I dread returning each holiday. It makes sense that someone would have told it. For a long time, it was swallowed by the haze of childhood. But after that night, I researched the whispered word and the story clicked back into place, the way a suddenly remembered dream can fill the excavated void it left when you first woke.
It must have been there beforehand. I still try to convince myself of this, sometimes. In my weaker moments, when I want to pretend he is the trauma-induced figment I’ve been told. Lying doesn’t make him go away.
In the story, Crooker stalks a man across the hills but is cast aside with herbs and flowers. I bought little green bottles of St John’s Wort from Holland & Barrett and swallowed them daily, grey and foul-tasting. For a while, it held him back. If you overmedicate, the disease grows stronger. Eventually, I choked power into Crooker. The primroses and daises on my balcony died, and he found me. I gave up trying then. The wards were supposed to hold him back. The old story doesn’t say how to make him let go.
I towel off but am still clammy when I crawl into the tangled sheets of the bed I never made. Crooker lies on my chest and wraps his long fingers around my ribs. He drags them up then presses them down, and the familiar rhythm lulls me to sleep.
I’ve listened to more conversations than I’ve participated in this year. I live alone, far from my childhood home, in a city where I know nobody. If I open the window smog chokes in, even now, when there is hardly anybody on the roads. I keep it closed and let the air ripen with heat and stench and dead skin instead.
When my cupboards and fridge deplete, I subsist on plain cream crackers until I’ve sucked the last crumbs from the wrapper. Then I drag myself to the corner shop. I pick up tins and things that will last and stammer out conversation with the man at the checkout, aware of the thickness of my tongue. He gives me quizzical looks. I would hate to transcribe myself – I can’t even parse meaning from my own nonsense.
Mostly, I sit at my dining room table. It came with the apartment and rocks without half a notebook of paper beneath one leg. Crooker leaves me to it. He is not interested in my professional life, only the personal.
Until the two meet.
The interview is about mental health, how people are dealing with isolation. I am detached, listening to the respondent’s words only closely enough to copy them. He has not been badly affected by the lockdown. He is enjoying working from home, grateful for the time to reflect, to make art, to try his hand at baking. I roll my eyes – he’s one of those.
The moderator, perhaps beginning to panic because her script hinges on his misery, backpedals. She wants to hear about his childhood, past struggles. The respondent quiets, and behind him the flickering static peaks. Then he tells of black moods and fogged brains, of the long, dragging sensation of something following him, close enough to breathe down his neck. Something dark, something ancient, something hungry.
My fingers ceased typing sentences back. Familiarity grips my wrist in ice. The man’s accent is similar to my own, to my family’s. Earlier, he mentioned growing up in the countryside.
R But that was all a long time ago.
M And how did you get rid of him, this hungry man?
R I’m not sure I totally did get rid of him. Sometimes he comes back, even now. But now I know how to send him packing. It’s easy actually, I just…
Static explodes over his words, drowns them out. A sound rips up my throat, the first noise I would have made in days if it didn’t die on my tongue. A noise lifts from the static, or rather, it is the static, warped into a word that stabs like rain. Croooo-keeeer.
I leap up and my chair tips back, thudding against the carpet. The grip on my hand tightens and all I can do is clamp my eyes shut, screw up my face like a child and moan for it all to go away. Mildew and moss cut through the human stench, prise open my lips and crawl through the gaps in my teeth, to suffocate my throat like balls of cotton wool. It pokes at my eyes too, until I open them.
Crooker stands before me, dark and hunched. Black rot bubbles across his skin. Moisture drips from his lank hair and pricks the flesh of my forearm. My eyes follow the drip, curling down my arm, winding through the forest of hair standing on end, to the crook at my wrist. Here it pauses, taking in the curious merging of bark and flesh, melded together, forking like the branch of a tree. Crooker and I are conjoined.
Instinct makes me try to pull away, but I know the action is futile even as I do it. He doesn’t move at all, so neither can I. I grab the laptop, gone black with inactivity. No matter what way I tilt the screen, I cannot find any reflection at all.
Once I recover from my initial shock, I am reasonably calm, considering. I’ve always known he was there, after all. I’ve spent long enough staring into the mirror to dull some of the horror of his features.
More problematic are the hands. I still have both, but the left hangs beside a contorted third, beneath the knot that is our wrists. It is not very practical. I still have fifteen minutes of a transcript to finish typing up, for one, though that is rather low on my priority list.
Crooker stares at me. He drips onto the carpet. His stench makes me woozy. His expression is unreadable, but I sense he is as confused about this as I am. Eventually, I manage to move back to the table and Crooker takes a heavy step after me. The floor moans beneath his weight.
I return to the audio. By the time the static gives way to voices, the conversation has moved on. I listen anyway, standing before the table and tapping the chipped wood. Crooker hovers beside me. A flake of hardened skin falls onto the table and a maggot wriggles behind it.
The interview ends, and I replay from the start. I listen closer than before, desperate for clues. His name is Lewis. He grew up in the countryside, a small town he doesn’t name, but I know. His accent is mine. He too has met Crooker. And he knows how to get rid of him. Wasn’t there a Lewis in my school? I don’t remember well. That all seems so long ago.
I look over at Crooker. A beetle crawls from the hole of his eye. “I don’t know where he is.” My voice is creaky and unfamiliar. “But you do, don’t you?”
The grey chokehold of the city releases in a gasp of green fields. I sit in the window seat, Crooker beside me. We are an odd couple, out for a day trip. The train is only supposed to be for essential travel. Bound limb to limb with a demon, I am fairly certain this constitutes essential.
I spin the rectangle of my phone in my free hand, wrist resting on the plastic train table. It is faintly sticky and smells of lemons. Nobody but me seems to see Crooker, not even when we struggled through the turnstiles. I flip my phone onto its front and slide open the camera. It cuts right through me to the peeling beige vinyl of the headrest.
A sheet of rain lashes the window. I cringe back. Crooker creaks his head to look at me. I look back. His mouth fall opens, and a word rattles out like a draught. Hungry.
The houses string together like beads. They are cream stone, dark roofs, and white plastic windows. Old, but not that old. Nothing distinguishes the one opposite us from the others, except for the metal number 3 nailed on the door.
I’ve been to this house before. For a birthday party, maybe. Or perhaps it was next door, or three doors up.
I don’t remember getting off the train. I don’t remember walking here. Crooker led the way.
It’s still raining. The drops bounce off the waxy leaves of the bush we stand behind, just off the darkened pavement and across the street from the house.
The door opens. A figure steps out, swaddled in a hood. I squint to see his face, but an umbrella blooms like a black flower to obscure it. It cups his head as he hurries down the garden path, past the ivy-strangled cobble wall, and up the street.
The ground slopes down, speeding us. We weave through people milling around the streets with anoraks and plastic Bags for Life. I keep my eye on Lewis as he hurries through the village. Soon the houses turn their backs on us, and we are walking down a narrow path. Trees tip in from the side. Their roots crawl down the bank and onto the path like fingers, and rainwater sluices over them.
Crooker and I trudge through the puddles. Gooseflesh prickles through the water slickness of my arms.
Lewis glances over his shoulder. Crooker and I drop back, as though his eyes are the screaming buffer of the wind. He keeps walking, and so do we. The path narrows. We are pressed tight between the unforgiving stone of a building and the grasping branches of the wild. A moan crawls from Crooker. I can’t breathe. Lewis will tell me how to be rid of him, finally.
He speeds up, and so do we. Water sloshes over my trainers and eats into my socks. My feet feel rubbed and red, doused in ice and burning. None of that matters.
The path spits us out onto a road as forked as our arm. Cliffs and hills clamber in the distance, slashed with green and grey. It is here that I first met him, lost in a storm. It is here it will end. Lewis will tell me how. I want to grab him, beg him to tell me, shake him, slap him, scream. I am so hungry.
A car rumbles past and its tyres make a wave of a puddle. I don’t feel the cold hit. We lose sight of Lewis, and a noise bloats in my throat. Then we spot him. He’s stopped on the bridge, its stone dyed black by the rain. The river rips below, dark and tumbling. We almost run across the road, Crooker and I. We are so close.
Lewis turns and he reminds me of what my face looked like. Before Crooker blotted it out. Before Lewis pulled out his wards and his pills and sent us away.
Thunder like a book snapping shut. Crooker is no longer attached to my arm. He is on my chest, in my chest.
I step forward. Water squelches from my trainers where they meet the stone of the bridge. Lewis waits. He takes down his umbrella. Dark, wet fingers of hair glue to his forehead. Crooker clamps at my jaw, holds my chin. I force my mouth open, force words like bile up my throat. All that scrapes out is Croooo-keeeer.
Lewis lifts his hands to my chest and shoves. I fall to the knife of the river.
Water pours in rivulets. Heavy steps, feet like roots, we drag from the shallows. Onto the bank, sinking beneath the swell. Light cuts the air, fracturing the sky into a million tiny drops. Thunder drums. We crawl up the hill, towards the quaking warmth of flesh. Hollow, so hollow, insides sloshing with nothing but rain and rot. Hungry.
Huddled boy. We croon our ancient lullaby, and fear splits him in two.
Alex Bestwick is a Derbyshire writer who is heavily inspired by place and folklore. He is studying MA Creative Writing and Publishing at York St John and is an editor for Ergi Press and Ram Eye Press. Previous publications include Wild Hunt Magazine, Horror Tree and Secret Attic.