Walking the Line

There was a guy called Charlie. That wasn’t his real name, and frankly, he could have been a she for all you know. Suffice to say, not much was certain about Charlie except for two things. Charlie had an imaginary friend, and they didn’t trust each other.

When Charlie was younger he had been scared of the dark. A young lad with such a vivid imagination – is it any surprise that ghouls and beasties lurked in dark corners, out of sight and under the bed? Each night he would leap from the bedroom doorway onto the safe platform of the bed after lights out, just to avoid the grasping talons beneath. Walking home in the dark was an exercise in pure terror. Each step he took, each heartbeat, he could feel the pressure of his imagination. Lurking at the back of his mind, waiting to unleash utter mind-destroying horror if he simply thought about it for a moment.

THINK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE.

There was never anything else but the gradually increasing pace of his feet moving from nonchalant stroll through swift gait to a final, desperate and frantic dash. He would slam the door behind him, violently shuddering in a cold sweat and his pulse racing to keep up. Charlie could not carry on like this. His parents had little sympathy for the lad, telling him not to be so silly and that it was all in his head. They were quite right of course – it was. What they didn’t realise was quite HOW much was in his head, for Charlie was quite a bright lad. He read a lot, and this all served to unwittingly fuel the fire of his mind. His only recourse was to fight fire with fire. This is why Charlie dreamt up Walpurgis.

Walpurgis was a curious imaginary friend to have, sometimes more wolf than man, and sometimes more man than wolf. Walpurgis was powerful, as he embodied Charlie’s first willing unleashing of his subconscious fears but in a semi-controlled manner. As Charlie walked home, Walpurgis padded along close by with human hands and feet, the intermittent drip of saliva and hoarse panting drifting on the wind. Charlie did not trust Walpurgis, as he knew how terrible Walpurgis was, but he knew that Walpurgis needed him to exist and so they had a kind of deal. A contract. As long as Charlie was indispensible he had the upper hand. Or so he kept telling himself. As for what Walpurgis thought, well, he simply grinned and stared. Charlie was no longer afraid of the dark, with something as scary as Walpurgis by his side.

One thing about having a ‘friend’ like Walpurgis was dinner time. He was, in essence, a nightmare given substance by Charlie’s mind. To feed him, Charlie had to find other such ethereal entities. Luckily for both, Walpurgis had an excellent sense of smell. Unluckily though, this meant visiting a lot of quite unpleasant places. Nightmares, dreams and ghostly apparitions tended to gravitate towards areas of ‘psychic intensity’ where minds were particularly emotionally active. Violent events, traumatic incidents and even joyous moments had their place, but Charlie couldn’t stomach the thought of W eating good things. At least the nasty stuff was – well – nasty enough to go. Charlie justified it as being a kind of ghostbuster, hunting down and removing these awful taints. This was all well and good enough, until one fateful night.

Charlie had followed W’s unerring scent skills to an old boarded up hospital in the centre of town. It had been uninhabited for some time, and Charlies struggled over the poorly maintained razorwire fence with the aid of a stick. He hastened after W’s tail as it slipped through a broken door, drifting on tired hinges. Within, Charlie finally extinguished his torch, and the faintest hint of moonlight stole into the deserted corridor. It was pretty tidy, a couple of rocks and some broken glass from previous passing vandals were about all to show for the years of neglect. Charlie’s skin tingled with the cold, gloved hands thrust deep into his many-pocketed coat, hood sheltering his face. His breath misted the air, as his eyes sought out W. In the silence, shrouded in the dark, with only a hint of light to see by, Charlies felt his bond with W stengthen. He could feel W’s hunger and the deadly ferocity lurking deep within, and he could smell. No. He could hear it now. Something… crying. A boy?

As one, Charlie and W stalked down the corridor silently, then entered a room near the end. It was a large ward, windows all boarded up. In the gloom a figure sat on a bed, all alone and forgotten, crying to itself. It stopped, suddenly, and it stammered, ‘Who…who…who’s there?’

Charlie could not speak. The moment had him fully in its grasp, and all he could do was stare as W faded from sight, melting into shadow. The figure sat up on its knees, and began a high pitched wail.

‘Pl..pl…please. Don’t. Don’t….’

Have you ever seen a ghost being eaten? Let’s put it this way – when a person gets hurt, their body is a kind of buffer for the trauma their mind experiences, and there are limits to the tolerance of nerves. When it gets too much, the mind retreats into unconsciousness. For a ghost however, there is no such luxury. No moment of blissful oblivion to stop the horror. On top of that, dying once does absolutely nothing to make the process more bearable. The intimate pain of having your soul ripped apart and devoured is something that nothing should ever have to endure. What Charlie saw was… confused. Ghosts are rarely strong enough to exist except in twilight moments, on the edge of conscious perception, drifting at the threshold. Charlie and W walked that line, skirting the shadowlands, picking off the stragglers from life before they fade away completely into the darkness. A dying creature’s mind goes into overdrive, pumping out its raw emotive essence into the world in a fundamental and instinctive clinging to life. Similarly, a ghost on the edge of nothingness fights for existence, with no illusions of salvation, no intermediate corporeal buffer, and no restraint.

It gets very messy.

The ghost burst apart into light and shadow, shrieks of horror as Walpurgis reared out of the shadows, 8 feet tall now and claws outreached. A swarm of faces screamed and babbled in countless nonsensical languages, then the papers and sheets in the ward leapt into the air, animated by the primal desperation in the room into a swirling vortex of frightened sightless birds. W’s face distended horribly, his grin growing and jaw practically dislocating. His limbs lengthened and eyes glowed with a sickly green haze. The ghost flew back to a wall and scrabbled up to the ceiling on countless mistlike appendages. It was a sickening motion, part-frog, part-spider, and sounds of weeping and clawing echoed its frustrated escape. W moved slowly, swaying from side to side, preparing for the leap. The ghost slid sideways into the corner of the room, then extended sharp insectlike legs defensively. They swayed and lashed the air, sabre rattling. W tracked the motion with a predator’s grace, and followed, crouching below the corner, trapping the ghost.

For a long moment things appeared to be a standoff, howls and gibbering, wails and hisses filling the air, then faster than greed W extended a long limb deep into the heart of the ghost, tore it from the wall and, twisting, smashed it to the ground. Abruptly, the spell was broken. Silence reigned, and Charlie blinked. He ran towards W’s silhouette, through the settling aerial debris. When he was close enough he could see W bending a gaping maw to a clump of flickering shadow about the size of a child.

‘Stop this’

W appeared not to hear the soft and hesitant noise that had crept from Charlie’s voicebox.

‘I said STOP!’ he screamed. The sheer effort of those words left him gasping, practically being sick. W did indeed stop, and the dim green eyes turned in twilight to fix on Charlie. Charlie fell to his knees, and started to weep, trapped in that awful stare. Something gutteral, a frightful choking noise, filled the air with a brief staccato burst. W’s eyes flashed, and the smile grew wider if possible, fangs glinting. Its wolf head twisted to the side and beyond, the sound of phantasmal vertebrae cracking and popping. The ghost flickered and turned to glance at Charlie. Through the tears, Charlie could make out a face, so pale and drawn, eyes so forlorn and hopeless that he would forever associate that image with despair. It raised a feeble hand towards Charlie, and murmured, ‘Please’. So soft and quiet.

Then, systematically, and without taking its dreadful gaze from Charlie’s face, Walpurgis tore the ghost apart. And ate it. Piece by piece. The crunching and slobbering noises were gratuitous, deliberate conceits calculated to underwrite a simple message. That message would resonate in Charlie’s head as he walked home beside W, almost sleepwalking in silence. As he crept into bed, Walpurgis climbed in with him. No longer at the foot of the bed but in his rightful place behind Charlie, foetid breath on the back of his neck, Walpurgis whispered lovingly into his ear.

‘Mine.’