“I have cockroaches for teeth,” Bilal said to his date, on the phone. “Just … thought you should know sooner than later.”
On the other end, a loud nothing. Then Joana said, “Thanks for telling me. A lot of people don’t.”
Bilal didn’t know what to say. He looked around, as if he could find inspiration in his kingdom of loathing, a sixth-floor hovel in one of the city’s Grave Ghettos. It was all he could afford, after having lost his job, his boyfriend, and his teeth. A filthy haven cluttered with Thai takeout boxes and mould patches. If he sunk any lower they’d have to fish him out with a nuclear submarine.
“Yeah,” he said.
He heard rustle and chewing. Joana plumping down on some fluffy sofa and diving into a bowl of popcorn, safe and comfortable in some sanitised neighbourhood stolen from a northern European city and transplanted into Almagris. Bilal couldn’t even bear to be pissed off.
“How long?” she said.
“About four months,” Bilal said, trying to recover a hint of nonchalance, of how he’d used to be. Half-lying, too. He knew the exact date on which he’d woken up with cockroaches instead of teeth: four months, two weeks, three days, and about ten hours ago.
More chewing, otherwise nothing. Bilal said, “What are you eating?”
“Lupins,” Joana said, mouth full.
Bilal heard her spit. “You don’t eat the skin?”
“No.” Joana spat again. “You do?”
“Heard it’s where the vitamins are.” Truth was, Bilal ate everything now, skin or no skin. The cockroaches weren’t picky. In fact, judging from the amount of times he’d found himself making a midnight snack out of his own garbage bin, he suspected the bugs preferred that which was only theoretically edible. “Hey, I understand if you don’t want—”
“Did it hurt?”
“Did …” Bilal stumbled. “You mean the Hagging?”
“Yeah. Well, and losing your teeth.”
Bilal twirled a finger on the phone cord. “No, no … I mean, it was scary. But it didn’t—”
Bilal closed his mouth. As always, he felt the roaches jitter against each other, pitter-patting legs scratching at the inside of his lips, his tongue, tasting vaguely of rot. “No. Didn’t hurt at all. They were just there when I woke up, peeking out of my gums.”
“Like they were just teeth.”
The ever-present static in the landline grew harsher. A sound underlined by whispers, background noise to white noise. Wisps of crying, braying, begging. The post-Nightmare world was luddite. Information technology wasn’t safe for long. Bilal was surprised Joana had even risked talking to him on the phone for more than a couple of minutes. “Yeah,” he whispered. “Yeah, like that.”
Weirdly, one of the things that bothered him the most about having cockroaches for teeth was the lisping. Used to be his voice was clear as spring water. Not that he’d ever seen a spring. The government of Almagris hadn’t managed to rescue one yet.
“Okay. I’d better go,” Joana said. “Talking on the phone isn’t safe. I might get Hagged, too.”
Bilal closed his eyes and exhaled. “Yeah … Sure. I understand.”
“We still on for dinner?”
“I … You sure?”
“Yes, why not? Haven’t seen you in ages.”
Because I’ve got cockroaches for teeth, Bilal thought. “Okay. Yeah.”
“Great. Eight o’clock. Look sharp.”
Click. Static. Anguished whispers, as if desperate to be heard. Bilal put down the phone.
He laughed, once. Guffawed, then, choking on air. He saw his tearful face on the smooth surface of the rotary phone, cockroaches distorted like underwater, their legs up and out and doing a little jig.
Bilal dressed in a wool jacket, wool gloves, deck shoes, high-waisted pants, and round full-framed eyeglasses, a look that made his ex, quoting, “hot for teacher.” He added a cashmere scarf to cover the roaches, and went out under a sky bloated with clouds.
There was a sunset, today. Sunfishing must have gone well. The government only ever allowed for sunsets when there was a surplus of sunlight, and that had happened only a couple times in the thirty-three years of Bilal’s life.
That, or it was a way to calm down the people. Almagris was a city in turmoil, what with the recent high number of Haggings. The air reeked of pre-hysteria. Local news related a record number of cursist attacks. And cursism, in Bilal’s admittedly neophyte point of view, was the dumbest kind of bigotry. Not all Hag Curses were like his, very much disgusting but mostly harmless. Other Hagged could do things like spit battery acid, or their voices gave you (and themselves) crippling nightmares, or their bodies had been covered in regenerating, nigh-invulnerable dangling tumours. It often didn’t end well for the bigots.
Joana was waiting on a restaurant esplanade overlooking the Mondego river, which had long ago been recovered from the lost city of Coimbra. On the far bank rose a line of tall Manueline houses. The residents were on their balconies, leaning over the railings, watching the errant strings of sunset lay a film of embers along the water.
Bilal sat. Joana tapped her wristwatch. “8:10,” she said. “I see time hasn’t erased your famous Portuguese punctuality.”
“I resent that. I’m Angolan on my mother’s side,” Bilal said.
She smiled. A familiar thing, an earnest thing. Bilal felt a tinge of happiness, a tinge of anxiety. “You look good, Bilal.”
Until I lower my scarf, Bilal thought. “You look better.”
Joana was as pretty as he remembered. The last decade had fallen sweet on her features: magazine-smooth skin, cute nose, perked eyebrows over big hazel eyes. Not that pretty was a factor for Bilal, anymore, but she was. Even in her slob uniform of sweatpants and hooded bomber jacket halfway zipped down over a white tank top.
“Sorry,” she said, as if reading his mind. “Came straight from the gym. Didn’t wanna be late for this dramatic reunion.”
She sounded different, too. Loose as she seemed, there was a weariness to her, a sense of nights unslept and days spent dreaming.
The waiter passed by to hand them the menu and a small plate of olives seasoned with garlic and olive oil.
Joana flipped through the menu. “Hmm. I don’t see any garbage here.”
Bilal stared at her. She stared back, eyebrow cocked, as if in challenge. A joke? He thought so, and hoped his smile reached his eyes. “It’s okay. You can chew. Just spit a couple bites into my plate. Like a momma bird.”
“Kinky.” Joana winked, and Bilal’s heart froze. How hollowed he’d become, that some likely-not-even-serious flirting quickened his blood. “Scallops for two?”
Bit too rubbery for the roaches, Bilal thought. “How about cod? Heavy on the taters.”
“Sorry, I’m doing keto.”
“It’s fine. You get the fish, I get the carbs.” He hesitated, then added, “My teeth buds like it starchy.”
She waved a tad too energetically at the waiter—who ambled over with his hands clasped in front of him—and asked for the cod and a bottle of port wine. “My treat,” she said, touching Bilal’s hand, reading his apprehension as braille.
How could she be interested in him, even if ever so slightly? She’d never been, before, back when he had been normal. Back when they had fleeted in and out of each other’s lives in mundane coincidences: a mutual friend in Bilal’s ballet class; a coin given to the same street performer at the same time; standing side by side in the electric tram. They’d always been cordial. Maybe slightly teasing, at the best of times. Nothing more.
Was it a fetish? Some girls were like that, bragged about the outrageous deformities they’d let inside them. Was it ego, a saviour’s complex? Did she think it made her kinder, to go out with some guy whose only distinct feature was the unicity of his freakishness, among a sea of other unique freaks?
It put him in a sour mood. But, again, she caught that, and caught his hand as it slipped by. She raised the corner of her lips. Could be a smile, could be commiseration, and the ambiguity made it more honest, because Bilal didn’t believe in complete smiles anymore.
For a while, they people-watched. The souls of Almagris going in and out of their lives, aimless wanderers vanishing into the undecided architecture. On the ever-fogged-up horizon were the retrieved fragments of other European cities. Fractions of Heidelberg and Perpignan and Valladolid and other non-capitals.
They lived under the carcass of a dead god still dreaming, in a city manufactured for survival, not joy. And yet, for Bilal, that was the first comfortable silence in four months, two weeks, three days, and about fifteen hours.
The waiter served them. Joana barely waited for him to leave. She scooped up the cod and tore it apart with knife and fork. After a couple of violent bites, she waved her knife at Bilal and—cheeks hamster-full—mumbled something incomprehensible.
“What?” Bilal said.
Joana swallowed and briefly choked, eyes momentarily wide in regret. “The scarf.”
When in public, Bilal usually ate from under his scarf, yes. It was a dead giveaway that he had something to hide, that he was Hagged, but it beat having to show the not-yet-so-open-minded cosmos of Almagris the pretties in his mouth.
“Okay,” he huffed, and in what to him was a heroic gesture he pulled down the scarf and forked food into his mouth. The roaches pulled the potato apart, leaving only the aftertaste of good fats in his tongue.
He’d never get used to eating like this. He’d tried sustaining himself on a liquid diet before, but if the food didn’t pass through the roaches’ digestive systems first, it was rejected by his. It’d happened to him in public, once. And having dozens of roaches drowning in vomit, biting and scratching each other and peeling his gums open, was an experience he didn’t care to repeat.
Like it or not, they were family now.
Joana didn’t seem perturbed in the slightest. That, or she had the world’s best poker face.
Bilal allowed himself to believe in the former.
The waiter came to refill their glasses, whistling, and as he leaned over he looked deep into Bilal’s eyes and whispered, “You should go.”
Bilal wasn’t surprised, yet he was still disappointed. The waiter pointed discreetly with his thumb, at the sign over the entrance to the restaurant:
NO HAGGED in Courier New (recently retrieved font, all the rage).
“That’s illegal,” Bilal said, firm but polite.
The waiter pursed his lips and nodded in a tell me about it gesture. “Boss is an asshole,” he said, after a quick glance over his shoulder. “His daughter got Hagged recently. Not that it’s any excuse.”
“It’s not contagious,” Joana said, not even bothering to lower her voice.
The waiter nodded again. “I know. I’m sorry. Food is on me. I’ll say there was a …” the briefest glance at Bilal’s mouth, “… fly on your food.”
Bilal thanked the waiter and got ready to leave. Joana wasn’t as polite: she screeched her chair back and shoved a spiteful, oversized piece of cod in her mouth. She stomped away chewing angrily, attracting looks from the other clients, and Bilal followed her with an unearned sense of shame.
They went down a tight, winding street lined with crumbling limestone walls. Vines slithered in and out of the cracks, like worms in wounds. Joana slowed down, her anger giving way to curiosity. Had she always been this impulsive? Bilal remembered her differently. Big red flag.
Red is all that bleeding eyes see, he reminded himself.
There was a park bench nearby, just under a cork oak that seemed to sway ever so slightly with no wind or reason. Joana sat there, staring unblinking at the vines. Wisteria, Nightmare-hued, the blooms arranged as vague human bodies, like corpse chalk lines.
“You shouldn’t look,” Bilal muttered, with an odd sense of déjà vu.
Trying to placate his ex, that’s what this reminded him of. The sinking feeling of having done something wrong, breaking some discreet rule and being guaranteed a short period of violent arguing or a long period of numb awkwardness.
“Because I’ll get Hagged,” Joana said in a wispy voice, as if talking to herself, still staring.
Bilal stepped in front of her line of sight. His shadow fell over her. “Yes,” he said. “You don’t want that.”
She looked up, opened her mouth, left something unsaid, then said, “How did you get it?”
Like most people get it, he thought. There were many ways to get Hagged, but all were random and none were obvious. During the decades it had taken for the divinity from outer space to undo this world, It had stipulated many rules, each more nonsensical than the next. Some were specific to each city. In Almagris, it was dangerous to drink wine with your left hand, and no whistling on rainy days.
“The Internet, I think,” Bilal said. That was an intercity rule: no going on the internet for long. Particular care to avoid the social media graveyards. None of the new content was made by living people.
“What were you doing?”
Browsing ways to cope with post-breakup blues, he recalled. “Social media graveyard. I read a thread titled something like … ‘What are some hated bands that are actually good?’”
“And what were they?”
Bilal should have learned by now not to be surprised by her questions, but he was. “I … don’t think any were retrieved yet. There were these guys … Coldplay? Probably a metal band.”
“Russian Circles,” Joana said.
“It’s a band,” she said. “Instrumental. It’s heavy stuff, but kinda sounds like classical music.”
“Ah. Yeah.” A moment of silence, during which she kept staring at him, unblinking. “I like Madredeus.”
“Not a fan of the Portuguese guitar. And movies, what’d you like, aside from schlock horror?”
That’s where they’d seen each other last, in the rental store. The dead god, in Its magnanimous arbitrariness, had made it so VHS tapes were safe, easy to retrieve, and capable of reproducing up to 8k in resolution. Bilal and Joana had reached for the same tape: Maximum Overdrive, a movie about trucks springing to life to murder people.
They’d bonded over it, Joana saying she loved horror-comedy and Bilal silently thinking to himself that there was nothing funny about trucks. Six-ton behemoths coming at you a hundred kilometres an hour, and the only thing that protected you was a bit of white paint on the road. He couldn’t believe people had had to contend with that in the past.
Eventually, he’d broken the silence, shared the thought. And she’d laughed at his horror and asked for his landline.
And now here they were.
“Sci-fi. Movies about space,” he said.
Joana looked up at the sky. “Can’t believe there used to be people up there, sending messages back from space …”
“There still are,” Bilal said.
“What do you mean?”
This was privileged information. Dangerous information. Bilal already regretted mentioning it, but he always committed to his mistakes. “I’ve got a friend in Intercity Comms.” She narrowed her eyes at that, for some reason. “She says they’re still getting messages from the ISS.”
“How is that possible?”
“Because it’s not them,” Bilal said. “It’s like Washington. We’re still getting messages from the American president, but we know it’s not him. It’s something else. We’re—” he cleared his throat. “They’re told not to pick up, under any circumstances.”
“And London?” she whispered. Bilal frowned. They didn’t talk about London. No one did. She should know better.
Maybe she did, because she added, “Did you see the Hag?”
Bilal quietly considered if—on the unlikely chance they started dating—she would always ask this kind of question. He’d worked for Nightmare Management, sure, no use hiding that now, no matter how many NDAs they’d pelted him with, but it wasn’t something he was keen on reminiscing.
“I did,” he murmured.
“Does she still visit you?”
She took his hand. He looked at her. She wiped her eyes. Before he could ask what was going on, she said, “I live nearby. Do you want some tea?”
The cockroaches didn’t drink tea. By extension, Bilal didn’t, either.
But it’d been a while since he’d had something warm.
If it were a movie, they’d go at it with hunger, tearing clothes, smashing tongues, bumping against the walls, breaking vases. But Bilal hadn’t been with anyone since his Hagging, and he had no idea how foreplay worked without kissing. Joana stared him in the eye, sliding out of her clothes in a way both mechanical and languid, her body a conjunction of narrow lines and hard muscle, perfect in the half-glow of a half-open window.
She grabbed his cheeks, aggressive, admonishing, and kissed him deeply. Her eyes were closed. His were open, panicked, his mouth tingling with the countless roach legs scraping at her tongue.
When she pulled away, he stammered, “The roa—Are y—They bite, they …”
She let herself fall on the bed, still staring, still unblinking.
If it were a movie, they’d be smoking. But they just lay there, listening to each other’s breathing, him breathing the hardest. He was out of shape, but worrying about it felt good. A new inadequacy, in a life dominated by cockroaches.
He felt dizzy, drunk. The penumbra whirled like a carrousel. The roaches slept.
“Rich boy,” Joana said, smiling and sibilant, stirring with remnants of arousal, an arousal Bilal still couldn’t believe in. “Eating out twice in one night.”
He couldn’t quite tell if he slept. He dove in and out of consciousness like a tired man swimming in a dark sea. Every time he semi-opened his eyes, he saw Joana, staring, tense but unafraid, as if waiting for something to snap out of him. Once or twice, he tried to say something, but the words were eaten by the roaches.
He woke with a dull pain in his gums. The cockroaches were frenzied, fleshy stalagmites and stalactites in his gums, scratching and biting at each other. The smell of crêpes filled the room, mingled with the smell of sex. Bilal put on his pants and briefs and went into the kitchen, humming a calming lullaby for the roaches.
Joana was by the stove, flipping crêpes with too much confidence for how bad she was at it, wearing the same panties and sweaty tank top as yesterday. “They like carbs, innit?” she said.
Bilal’s mouth hurt too much to speak, like having nails stuck in his gums all the way to the bone and yanking them side to side. Joana served him. The cockroaches all but pulled Bilal’s jaw to the plate, little bungee-jumpers with ropes too short.
Rain pitted against the window.
“Wanna stay in, today?” Joana said.
“Don’t you have work?” Bilal said.
“I’m between jobs at the moment.”
They spent the day eating garbage (literally, at one point, in Bilal’s case) and watching the complete VHS set, in 8k, of a recently retrieved series, The Good Place. Joana made them chorizo sandwiches and a blueberry smoothie.
They talked about what their few mutual acquaintances were up to now.
“Pierre got married to a cop, of all people. She’s thirty years his senior,” Bilal said.
“Melanie had a botched boob job. Then she got Hagged. Two baby heads grew on her chest. How lucky can you be?” Joana said.
They reminisced on the odd jobs they’d done.
“I narrated retrieved books, for a while,” Bilal said. “That ship has sailed, though. No market for lisps.”
“I worked at an architectural firm, designing the transition zones where retrieved cities meet,” she said. “They called it Coherence Architecture, trying to find common ground between the different styles.”
There were things Bilal didn’t say, mostly about his job at Nightmare Management. And there were things she didn’t say, either. They fucked a couple times on the couch.
At a certain point, Bilal had the nonsense thought that she was making out with the roaches.
Another night, another state of suspended sleep. Every time he opened his eyes, Bilal saw that Joana was awake, hugging herself and frowning in a sad-angry way, murmuring soundless questions, as if expecting answers from the gloom.
The next morning, Bilal found her passed out on the couch. She still hadn’t showered, and her dirty face was streaked with tears. Bilal covered her with a grimy blanket and rummaged in her cabinets for milk and cereal. The sky was grey outside, as it always was.
As he poured the milk, Bilal’s hands began to shake. He was overcome with a deep sense of forewarning, terror filling his marrow. He looked back, at Joana unconscious on the couch.
There was something on the wall behind her. A contour, a darkness.
No, not darkness. Absence of light.
It grew, dimmed the grey-lit kitchen.
Bilal leaped towards Joana and tried to shake her awake. The lightless thing grew. It droned in his head. Loud white noise, like infinite voices screaming. Bilal shouted in Joana’s ear, shook her so violently her head bounced on the couch.
She opened her eyes.
“What is wrong with you?” Joana snapped. Her anger vanished when she saw how he was shaking, when she heard the cockroaches chirping in panic. “What happened? Are you okay?”
“The Hag,” Bilal said. “It came for you.”
There was a change in Joana’s face.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she whispered, unworried.
Annoyed, if anything.
One more day spent in filth. Joana’s pristine apartment had quickly soiled itself into looking like Bilal’s. The sheets on the unmade bed were stained, an outline of their bodies in yellow. Joana didn’t seem to care, nor did she let Bilal clean up. She said his cockroaches would likely calm down, knowing there was food everywhere in sight.
One more night. Bilal woke up to find her sleeping on the couch.
This time he came back into her room, and, like a paranoid lover, looked through her things. In her drawers he found a dry stick of lipstick, a pair of scissors, a certificate for Safe Internet Usage, packets of paracetamol, tramadol, amitriptyline, and quetiapine, the former all but empty. He found pictures, too, of her and a square-jawed man, a familiar man—Jean, from Nightmare Management. A colleague of Bilal’s. A good man, brave and diligent, one of the best Scroungers in the business. Bilal had worked with him a couple of times. They’d set out of Almagris, armed only with sunlit lanterns, to find books and movies and music. They’d ventured into the pitch black of forlorn cities, inhabited by the preserved, dead bodies who silently went on their routines, puppeteered by the dead god.
“He got Hagged.” Joana, standing on the doorway, holding the pillow in front of her, like a child with a stuffed bear. She stank of stale sweat, even at this distance.
“Husband?” Bilal said. She must have heard the wariness in his voice, seen the anxious cockroach legs peering out of his lips, but she simply walked over and sat on the bed.
“Ex,” she said, her hair a curtain on both sides of her face, heavy with oil.
“I don’t recall you mentioning him.”
“Never came up. You and I didn’t talk that much.”
“Break up, or …”
“Both.” It seemed like she was going to stop there, but then, “Bidirectional optical illusion. His head faced both front and sideways, no matter the angle you looked at him. Pretty benign Hagging, all things considered, but …”
But you couldn’t look at him, Bilal thought. He was this grotesque doppelganger of the one you loved, and you can’t love an imitation. It’s why rebounds fail. Nobody loves a pale comparison.
“Baker from across the street got it worse,” Joana continued, nodding at the window, at a night of mist and clouds amassed like congealed fat. “His nostrils kept growing until he was lobbing around these two dark flaps, bigger than him. Ended up asphyxiating. How ironic. Not being able to breathe because your nostrils are too big.”
“How did it happen?”
The roaches tittered at Bilal’s complete lack of surprise. He hadn’t stayed in touch with his colleagues at NM, but he doubted Jean’s suicide had registered as more than another scratch on the chalkboard. The thing above the sky had made sure there was nowhere to go but away.
“And you feel guilty,” he said.
“I wanted him gone,” she said, toneless. “I couldn’t look at him anymore.”
“You didn’t kill him, Joana.”
A pause. “He kept looking at the mirror. Turning his head, trying to find the right angle, to see his face as it was. He was so miserable.” She wrung her hands. “But then he got better. He started making jokes. Bite into a sandwich and say: ‘Look, there’s two. I’m Jesus, multiplying bread.” She scoffed, forced laughter. “I didn’t laugh once.”
Bilal knew how the story went, but he let her continue, “We didn’t fuck, I always had an excuse. Never told him the truth, but he knew. I was miserable, he felt responsible, I felt guilty, he felt helpless. He left, I made a show of trying to stop it, not strongly enough that he’d be able to fool himself. They found him a week later.”
“And you cried, and everyone thought you were sad, but you felt relieved,” Bilal murmured.
“And you think that if it wasn’t for you, he’d still be alive.”
“He would be.”
“And you’re trying to get Hagged, now. Self-punishment.” Bilal stopped there, but his thoughts carried on: and now you fuck random Hagged guys, trying to convince yourself you could have accepted it, given time, trying to give a relic of joy to the wretched many who can’t be looked at with less than disgust, much less lust, in honour of the man you let die because he wasn’t beautiful anymore.
Because beauty is all anyone loves. It might be subjective, it might be fetishized, it might be filtered through the finest sieve of desperation, of loneliness, but it’s always there. You only love the beautiful.
She looked up at him, as if saying yes.
“No,” she said. “That’s not why I want it.”
“I want to see the Hag.”
More nothing. Just two strangers only now knowing each other, staring at each other in low light, in the secluded filth of a pristine neighbourhood. Cockroaches, alone in a derelict house, feeding off the skin flakes in the carpet and the bindings on old paper covers.
“That’s not how it works,” Bilal said, only now realising he’d been holding his breath. “The Hag is not a person. She’s more of a … A force. A sense, from the …” The thing above the sky, he almost said. “A need. Like hunger or thirst.”
“She seemed real enough to you, yesterday.”
“You said it yourself: she still visits you, sometimes,” Joana said. “If I get Hagged, I’ll see her. At least once. I’ll be able to—”
“You won’t be able to do shit!” Bilal shouted. His voice reverberated on the walls, followed by cockroach chirping. His lips tingled. “She paralyses you, Joana. She sits on your chest, sucks all the air from your lungs, you can’t breathe, you see things, and when you wake up you’ve got cockroaches for teeth and everything is different.” He inhaled for a bit of self-control, failed, and, “That’s why you want me here, isn’t it? You know you can’t get it from fucking me, but you hope the Hag visits when I’m around. And the meds, what, what are they for? This shit.” He fumbled with the half-empty packet of quetiapine, extracting a pill and crushing it into powder between thumb and index finger. Dozens of roach legs reached out of his lips, flailing madly for the cloud of pill dust. “Anti-psychotic, what’re you doing with this?”
Joana opened her hand. Confused, breathing hard, Bilal gave her the empty packet of quetiapine. She waved it on his face, like a mother scolding her son. “Off-label medication for treatment-resistant insomnia,” she said, with a first, humane hint of hesitation. “If you take it, but force yourself to stay awake, you start hallucinating. Same as sleep paralysis, what the Hag does to you.” She stood perfectly still. Her tone darkened. “But the difference is: you can move.”
“And then what? You’ll bash the Hag over the head with a fucking lamp? What, what is it you think you’re gonna do, Joana?”
“I … I just want to see the Hag.” She blinked, seemed to become vaguely aware of her insomnia-matted logic, lowered her eyes. “Maybe the place she comes from is the same place he went to, my husband. Maybe I can follow her. Maybe I can see him.”
“He didn’t go anywhere, Joana. No one does.”
Silence, sudden and heavy. For a minute Bilal just stood there, too conscious of his own body.
“I can’t fucking stay here,” Bilal said. He left the room, grabbed at the front door. Locked. He went back into the bedroom. “Give me the keys, Joana.”
“Please,” she said, so softly he had to read it on her lips.
“You need help, and I’m not it.” Saying it gutted him. He heard in himself the same cold disdain his ex had given him near the end, the one that made you feel both guilty and helpless. But it was for the best. For her own good. “Give me the keys.”
A jingle, a slow hand, trembling. Bilal snatched the keys and stormed out. He clambered down the stairs and left to a city uncaring, a place that allows you to be, but nothing more.
There was no one around, but still he looked for a quiet place. And he found an alley, long and steep and pitching into the river far below, where rushes and avens flourished in the interstice between water and walkway. He sat on top, watching a riverman slide on the dark waters, bent over the side of his barge, likely looking for sunlight in the depths.
It wasn’t cold, but he trembled. He gasped for breath. He was overwhelmed, with panic or anger or both.
You can’t save the self-flagellant, he thought. Your attempts are just another whip.
And yet he stood.
When he got back inside, Joana was in bed, arms limp, eyes clear and cheeks sunken. Still awake.
Slowly, feeling removed, Bilal lay next to her.
She craned her head to look at him, and he had the distinct impression of looking at a fresh corpse. “In my nightmares,” she said, “I’m sleeping on an empty bed.”
He held her gaze. It felt invasive, staring at her eyes for so long, counting the green striations sinking into the brown centre. She was so slack she seemed to be melting into the stained sheets.
“Get up, come on,” he said. “You can’t fall asleep.”
“But I am asleep.”
A shiver down his spine.
Something was different.
The light flickered.
The roaches went mad, like dogs sensing an earthquake. Bilal squinted against the pain in his mouth, eyes flickering to the changes in light. He heard wheezing. Himself, hyperventilating. He trembled, moved as if tugged by countless invisible hands.
Empty light. The smell of sickness. Cold. He could see Joana’s breath. How her sternum sunk and ribs protruded, as if someone was sitting on her chest.
Bilal scrambled up, tackled the nothingness on top of Joana. He expected contact, but there was nothing tangible there. Just cold, clammy and stinging. He belly-flopped on top of her, who gasped in her sleep. He picked her up, numb fingers on cold skin, and carried her out into a hallway made labyrinthine by vertigo.
There was nothing on the front door. Nothingness. Collapsed light, encroaching in.
On the other side of the hallway was the Hag. An absence on the carpet.
Bilal took a deep breath, screamed, saliva spat by roach legs, and with Joana cradled hard against his chest he barrelled through the Hag. A wave of ice washed over him, sapped him of all energy, filled him with dread.
Miraculously on his feet, he stumbled into the kitchen. He couldn’t scream anymore. He hummed pathetic, guttural sounds over mad roach chirping and the dry scuffing of his shoes on the carpet.
With one trembling hand, he fumbled with the window to the fire escape.
The Hag inched closer.
Bilal gasped when the window clicked open. He squeezed himself outside, scraping his side on the lower edge of the window, trying not to bang Joana’s head on the frame.
He climbed down the fire escape in careful, stiff steps. The structure seemed to be swaying, as if pushed at all sides by an unfelt wind. Joana was limp, an impossibly heavy weight in his arms, and he was cold, so cold and tired, the endless night falling on him like a weighted blanket, and then his hands were empty, and there was something on his back, pushing him down, bending him over the railing, and the ground below was far and hard and tempting, and …
Roach bites, excruciating. Bilal pushed back against the railing, fell on his ass.
Joana was splayed at the foot of the stairs below.
“No …” Bilal croaked. He pushed himself down the stairs, kept awake by the roach bites, aware of a desolating, empty presence passing through him. “No!”
Bilal tumbled down the stairs, felt one of his roaches smash into pieces. The pain was like a hot needle into an exposed tooth nerve. He stayed conscious by pure, insect survival instinct, and managed to pick up Joana and climb down to street level.
The streets were deserted. He moaned for help, but no one came. Nothing good prowled at this hour. He kept walking, numbly considering how long this street was. How maybe he wasn’t seeing right.
When his legs gave out, he made sure to fall over Joana, blinking horrified at the bloody gash on her temple. How he hoped the white wasn’t bone.
And he knew he couldn’t sleep, not until the city released the first wisps of sunlight. So he stayed like that, convulsing in pain, staring at Joana’s eyelids, breathing her reek, while the Hag waited nearby, a nothingness horror with infinite patience.
Hands, patting, pushing, pulling. A sense of lightness, the taste of grit. Bilal murmured for them to stop moving him, that he was going to be sick. But he didn’t feel sick. He didn’t feel much at all, cradled in so many hands, cocooned like some parasite, not wanting to be born.
Flashes. A hospital, sick lights and scurrying late-night personnel. White scrubs passing him like ghosts. People sleeping in foetal positions on plastic chairs.
What were they dreaming of?
Bilal woke to the smell of antiseptic. He blinked against the sting in his eyes, waiting for the grey light of dawn to subside. When it did, he saw that he was in a hospital room, and that Joana was there.
“Hey there, sweet prince,” she said.
Bilal wiped a hand on his face. Cockroach legs scratched at his palm. There was a dull ache in his mouth. He searched the spot with his tongue, found a half-crushed, limp cockroach, pushed against it lightly like it was a loose tooth. Cockroaches ate their own, but his hadn’t. They’d left their sister there, made a grave of his gums.
He whimpered in unexpected, nonsensical anguish. Joana sat on the bed and hugged him to her chest.
“You’re okay …” she whispered.
Bilal pulled away softly. He dabbed his tongue at the dead cockroach again. “Why haven’t they taken her out?”
Joana caressed her own arms. She looked away, then back at him shyly. “The doctors aren’t sure how it’ll affect you. They said surgery is discouraged, with Haggings of this nature.”
“She’ll rot. That can’t be good either,” he said. “Are you okay?”
She stopped herself from touching the bandages on her head. “Yeah. Barely broke the skin. Scalps just bleed a lot, they said.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
She nodded, curtly. “I’m good.”
Laughter, coming from the hallway. Two doctors flirting, it seemed.
“That’s it?” Bilal said. “You’re good?”
“I’m sorry.” She held his hand. He let her, but didn’t squeeze back.
“Are you going to do it again?”
She shook her head. “I’m getting help.”
Shuddering, Bilal squeezed her hand.
“Good,” he said. “That’s good.”
Bilal stayed under observation for a week. Joana visited him every day for the next three, but the tension was bilateral now. Bilal didn’t joke, and her jokes felt forced. She brought him a recently retrieved paperback, a fantasy book from the eighties called Waylander. The thing above the sky had switched a couple sentences with nonsense written in some unknown, spiky script.
“The curators looked at those passages under the microscope,” she said. “Those are photorealistic drawings of human faces at an atomic scale. Billions of them.”
That was the only interesting thing that’d passed between them, but Bilal only managed a nod in response. The cockroaches had finally begun to munch on the husk of their sister.
He made her promise not to do it again, not try and get Hagged.
On the fourth day, Joana didn’t come.
On the fifth day, an exhausted, yet too-enthusiastic doctor came back with the X-ray and slapped a finger on a tiny white dot on Bilal’s upper jaw. “Good news. We believe this is an egg,” he said, grinning. “Well, technically an ootheca, which usually contain hundreds of eggs, but I wouldn’t worry. The Hag doesn’t exactly care for the conventions of biology.”
“Why is that good news?” Bilal said.
“Haggings follow a certain logic. If another cockroach is growing back, that means it should be safe to remove the carcass. What’s left of it, anyway.”
“What happens if I don’t?”
The doctor shrugged. “The new-born will push it out. It’ll be painful, though.” He clapped his hands. “Should I schedule the surgery? The stomatologist can do it tonight.” He winked. “We’re not American, so you don’t even need to go under.”
One of those jokes nobody understood, some stereotype lost in time.
“Okay,” Bilal said. “Okay. Take it out. Thank you.”
The next day he was back home. The smell was nauseous. Bilal didn’t know if something had gone rotten in the meanwhile or if he’d just gotten unused to the stink. He went shopping for cleaning supplies and, while snacking on insect food (the doctor’s suggestion, to calm the roaches), scrubbed his house from top to bottom.
It took him two full days, and by the end he was exhausted. Crashing on his clean bedding, he closed his eyes and, unexpectedly, found himself feeling not bad.
Second week out of the hospital. Bilal was preparing himself for a job interview: entry-level position for a local curatorship firm. His job would be to review retrieved technical books, highlighting any Nightmarish adulterations.
Bilal was midways through a clumsy Windsor knot when his phone rang. On his way to pick up, he almost tripped on Peevy, the kitty he’d recently adopted, who was again crying for food and coiling himself between Bilal’s legs.
“Calm down, fatso,” Bilal said. He picked up the phone. “Hello?”
It was Joana. Bilal hadn’t spoken to her in a week now, but it felt like it had been longer. “Hey,” he said, guarded. “How are you?”
“Don’t rightly know how to answer that …” she said, with a joking, forced tone. He heard her exhale. “I … I’ve got something to tell you.”
“When?” Bilal said.
“I know what you’re going to tell me,” Bilal said. “When?”
That hit her by surprise. The line fell silent, but for the usual, distant, white-noise screaming.
“Three nights ago,” she sobbed.
“You did it on purpose, you called the Hag,” he said. “I thought you were getting help.”
“I’m sorry …” she said. “I’m so fucking stupid …” For a while, she just cried. Sudden, full-ugly crying. Bilal felt his heart rend. Peevy meowed again.
Joana sniffed. “You got a cat?”
“This isn’t a good time, Joana. I’ve got a job interview.”
“Oh? Congrats.” She cleared her throat. “Don’t you want to know what it is? It’s kinda funny.” Before Bilal could say no, she went on. “Pinkies, all along my spine. I can even wiggle them.” Laughter, short and hysteric. “I look like a freaky stegosaurus.”
“I really have to go.”
“Wait! Do you … Do you wanna come over later?” She sniffed again. “I miss you.”
“I miss you too,” Bilal said, and it hurt how true it was. How they’d flashforwarded a couple of days into real connection, two needy people pawing at each other, and how they’d shattered it just as quickly. “But I can’t, I’m sorry. This isn’t right for me.”
“No, it’s okay. I understand …” She held her breath, blew it out slowly. “And if I get help?”
“I really have to go, Joana.”
“I’ll get help. I promise.”
“I’ll be here, if you do.”
Bilal went to get his coat. Peevy followed him, tail raised like an antenna. Bilal picked him up and scratched him behind the ear. The cat purred and pawed playfully at Bilal’s mouth, at the tiny black legs jutting in and out.
For the first time that day, Bilal remembered that he had cockroaches for teeth. The clock marked five in the afternoon. He’d been awake since seven in the morning.