The streets of the city were never deserted. Eva may only have been at the university for a month but her newly found friends on the campus had already picked out their favourite eating and drinking spots and, in the interests of Anglo-Franco co-operation of course, had insisted she join them. She could hardly refuse and so each Friday night, she found herself sitting at their table in Coco Banane. Eating, drinking and looking intensely at each person, grim determination hidden in her smile, a façade and nothing more as she tried not to watch as the little creature, skin like tendons knitted into a misshapen form, wrapped its delicately boned arms around the performers neck. Copper-scented slick oozing from the gaps in its weave and sluicing onto the floor. Twisting its hands in a deliberate, flexing movement as it pulled the singers jaws apart and reached the spindle-like fingers towards their tongue.
Of course, that didn’t happen. Nor did the ancient dirt-clad woman who dragged herself upright from behind a log. Covered in a torn robe of hardened mud that was strewn with leaves and twigs, her face so wan that it glowed beneath her scowl, the woman’s eyes were of glittering coal and were fixed intently on a shadow in the trees. She lumbered forward toward it and her tattered robe hem dragged in the dirt. Her breathing was ragged, her steps slow and unsteady. As she passed in front of Eva she stopped suddenly, her robe faded and her skin collapsed to ground, a swirl of leaves. Her pale, etched face hung for a moment, her eyes viewing Eva with unconcealed contempt before falling to mix with the pebbles on the footpath.
The floating spheres of darkness that swarmed streetlamps like moths, red streaks of electricity playing across their surface, bobbed merrily and harmlessly alongside Eva as she walked to early classes. Tricks of the light, nothing more. Or tricks of an overstretched mind as Doctor Fumiere had so very often said. A pill or two will fix all of that, and after several years they mostly had.
A pill or two to calm the senses.
During Eva’s childhood her imaginary friends had been utterly mundane, an entirely typical parade of princesses, superheroes, cartoon characters and the strange, silly cabal of little girls she created to be her friends whilst lonely. Beautiful, powerful girls and women danced with her and held her hand. However, as she aged they did not and over time she outgrew and left them behind in favour of more ‘grown-up’ pastimes. Clothes, make-up, jewellery and painting became her new world and all the childish fancies of her past gradually were forced to disappear. Several years later, crying and screaming because there was a monster in the closet, a nightmare was blamed. Perhaps too much television, with all those horrid news stories? No surprise such a sensitive girl would be upset.
When morning came Eva went for the school bus but insisted to her parents that she could “hear them scampering in the walls, whispering to me”. Their concern lost out to the hope that she would relax with a normal day, that it may just be the nightmares effect on the child. Hopes that faded when they were called into the school in order to deal with their daughter. She had ran, shrieking, to the door of the classroom only to find it too heavy to pull open. Eva passed out, the thought of being trapped inside with some horrifying creature, its whispers becoming loud as screams as it made strange demands and promised sadness, was too much for her consciousness to handle.
It was decided that perhaps removal from school for a time as well as the aid of a doctor of some sort may be beneficial. Initial tests and scans showed no physical abnormality, no epilepsy, no tumours or cancer, much to the relief of her parents. From there, even more tests and sessions with a psychiatrist “just in case”. Her blood was clear of drugs and substances so even more relief was to be had. All that was left was the psychiatrist, Dr Fumiere, a highly qualified and low spoken man, his years of service reflected in his face and around his eyes. Could he pinpoint the cause of Eva’s behaviour? Was it perhaps just stress, all those school tests may have been the cause, surely a holiday would fix her?
Dr Fumiere hushed them both as politely as possible and took a scant moment to collect his thoughts. Eva was currently resting in a room down the hall and her parents knew this. A delicately handled situation may avoid any disruption to her current routine.
“I am sorry to say that, although Eva is in perfectly normal physical health for her age, her mental health is a different matter”.
He allowed that first piece of information to sink in, knowing that it would lead to further questions, hooking his patients’ family into staying rather than storming off to take Eva out of the hospital and disrupting the hospital wing in the process.
The typical questions followed. He answered as best he could. It was so very exhausting to explain in language that laymen would understand that a well-loved child suffered severely from aural and visual hallucinations, paranoid episodes and was showing the hallmarks of early stage psychotic development.
Eva sat on the edge of her bed and popped a pill, the first of five for the day, before getting cleaned at the small, make-up stained washstand and pulling on the last of her clean underclothes before getting dressed in a dark green jumper of chunky wool that smelled of yesterday’s autumn walk and a pair of brown skinny jeans with only two food stains on them. A quick and somewhat guilty look to the corner of her room resulted in a muttered “laundry day for me, then”. First thing is first though.
Popping the sleeve of tablets into her back jean pocket, Eva headed across to the plastic wall mirror bolted to the wall, locking gaze with her own reflection. Olive eyes set in a pale, almost wan face looked back at her, tired yet with a smile to match the mirror, and they both repeated the mantra that had been her grip on reality for three years. “They aren’t real. They can’t see me”. Light struggled to gain traction in the room and Eva was momentarily blinded as she pulled back the brown stained net covering it.
It took a full five minutes to cram all of the dirty clothes into two canvas bags and ten more to struggle down to campus’ laundromat. A couple of noises almost at the edge of her hearing made Eva’s hand freeze on the door handle until she noticed a couple walking their way back to their dorm as loudly as possible. With a deep sigh and closed eyes, she wrapped her fingers around the metal and berated herself under her breath as she pushed the door open and stepped into the room.
As she opened her eyes her vision was met with a sea of tiny white stars, swimming and undulating in an ocean of blackness. The small creatures coated every surface, every patch of floor, and clung together so tightly that if not for the twinkling white eyes they would be almost indistinguishable from one another. An involuntary gasp and every head turned to face her, the whisper stopping in an instant. Eva held her breath in spite of herself, and gingerly moved forward, carefully working her way around the corner towards the line of washing machines fitted to the wall.
It didn’t matter how many times she told herself, or was told by others, that all the many and varied oddities belonged to her, or to her imagination or to her psychosis. Or that she was ‘mad’ courtesy of her peers. The terrors seemed very real NOW. As they hobbled away from her incoming footsteps, noiselessly moving small and twisting limbs as they fled. Finally reaching the bench Eva set down her bags, sending the little beings scampering sideways, crab-like, out of the way. Eva tried to wring some life back into her hands whilst staring at the ceiling, focusing until she felt ready to face them. “Like the brave warrior-woman I am! Ha, right, whilst I tremble at shadows”. The internal berating complete, she turned, eyes shut and ready to face the little mob. When she opened them all of the creatures were gone and she was met with only an empty laundry room, the maw of a washing machine gaping wide in silent admonishment.
Eva laughed and the tense muscles in her neck and shoulders released some pressure. Finally loading the accumulated clothes into the nearest washer and setting it away. Leaving the room with some relief she couldn’t fail to notice the faint sound of hundreds of little legs clambering over the back of the door.
The rest of the day consisted of listening to music on her laptop, attempting and failing to draft an assignment plan and going to retrieve her washing and dry it. This was done without incident but not without a little panic, not helped by pulling her whites out of the machine to find them grey due to someone’s grey sock stuck to the roof of the cylinder. The third tablet of the day had been consumed prior to the laundromat visit and Eva felt more relaxed on her return, able to cope with the conjurings of her mind. Nothing happened.
She headed back to her room with full bags of badly folded warm clothes and, once inside, unceremoniously plonked the bags back in the corner. Later seemed like a good idea as she relaxed on the bed with the laptop rested on her knees. It had proved to be a useful method for catching up on French language programmes she would have normally watched at home, albeit a slow one.
The grinning mouth took up the whole screen and for a moment, Eva thought it was an overly enthusiastic zoom by a cameraman, until it panned back and she saw a small red creature, viscous matter dripping from its head and sliding down it’s raw, skinless body, long arms bent in tortuous positions as it gestured toward the camera from its lectern. The same one from Saturday night? No, perhaps not. Whereas that one was small and aggressive, smiling as it tried to kill, this one was twice the size and quite jovial. It’s oversized, human teeth stretched and the flesh of its face, making it contort into a rictus grin as it waved at an unseeing studio audience.
Eva took another pill and her fingers moved across the touch pad, ready to turn the laptop off, but the sound of whispering made her hesitate for just a moment. “They aren’t real, they can’t see me…” the words slurring from her increasingly frantic repetition as the whispering grew louder and started to drown out her words. The whispering only became louder as small blots of dark squeezed under the door to Eva’s room by the hundred, pushed their way through the window and tumbled like water droplets from the taps on the sink. They ran, stumbling across each other as they crossed the carpet until there was no more space on the floor and so they surged, dragging themselves over each others bodies as they covered the walls and ceiling, coating the solitary window, blocking out all light until Eva sat in the near midnight blackness, the only illumination was the glow from the laptop upon which the grinning thing was beaming into the camera. Eva closed her eyes so tightly an aurora of colours swam beneath her lids. Attempting to calm her breathing she opened her eyes and mumbled the only thing that came to mind.
As a thousand small eyes stared on the grin opened.
“We can see you”.