Pain, as we know from Star Trek, is all in the mind. Spock, the emotionless alien who defined the sneering superior attitude of a billion nerds, would often resist torture with a steely gaze and a slightly trembling lower lip. But he was half-human, just like most nerds, and would end up screaming anyway.
My shoulder was burning. It hurt quite a lot.
The secret to handling a large amount of pain isn’t to pretend it doesn’t exist as you try to find your happy place (in my case, the commute would take far too long), the secret is to already be numb.
Which, to be fair, works a lot better when dealing with emotional pain rather than acid saliva burning through your flesh.
“Fuck me,” I yelled. There’s a Tinder profile that gets straight to the point.
“Hey, not in front of the baby,” said Mandy, like exposure to foul language was going to be what turned little Damian to the Dark Side.
She snatched the kid away from me like she was meting out some terrible punishment.
No more responsibility for the lives of others for you, see how you like that!
I pulled off my top and went into the kitchen where there was a sink. My left shoulder had little stinging volcanoes erupting across it, acrid steam rising from their tiny craters.
The water out of the tap was crystal clear, unlike the off-brown liquid we got in my part of town. I filled a glass with some and threw it on my shoulder.
Which was a mistake.
I fell to the kitchen floor which was covered in red tiles from Tuscany. I learned this from Mandy screaming, “Don’t get blood on my tiles, they were imported from Tuscany.”
You think vegans are pushy about wanting you to know about their life choices, you want to try visiting someone who thinks interior design is an art. Sure, flicking through an online catalogue and clicking on things you like totally puts you up there with Michelangelo.
Apparently, the acid that comes out of the mouth of babes does not mix well with H20. I lay on the hand-crafted, certified-organic Tuscan tiles shaking uncontrollably as my shoulder dissolved into mush.
“He skipped the second gate and went directly to the third,” said Cheng with what sounded like admiration in his voice — hard to tell when your ears are filled with the screams of nerve ending in their death throes. “He’s doing much better than I expected.”
Exceeding expectations was never my strong point, so it was nice to be ahead of schedule, even if my final destination was my actual final destination.
“Are you sure about this?” said Mandy. “If he gets his abilities back, he’s going to use them.”
“He is the only person I would trust with such uncounterable power in this world. He wouldn’t hold it over others, he wouldn’t force them to do his will. It’s a very unusual thing to have no interest in the obedience of the masses.”
“That’s because he’s an idiot,” said Mandy.
I was still rolling around on the floor, so it was hard to get in the right position to kick her in the shins.
“I think you underestimate him.”
“That’s because you have a good heart,” said Mandy, like she had the faintest idea what a good heart looked like. “He might be the least likely person to abuse his power, but that doesn’t mean he won’t. We have a saying here: Power corrupts, and absolute power totes corrupts really badly.”
Shins would have been too kind to her. If I could stop the shaking for just a second, I was sure I could have kicked her in the kneecaps.
“There is no need for concern,” said Cheng. He was talking in a calm, reassuring way, like you would to a child who was convinced there was a monster under the bed.
Personally, I would never try to convince a child they were safe and immune to danger. What kind of preparation for life is that?
Monster under your bed? Dude, the paedophiles are forming international networks with members in police forces and governmental departments. Under your bed with monsters is the safest place to be.
“But I am concerned,” whined Mandy. “If he’s that important to them, they’ll come for him again, and they’ll send their top people. The ones who don’t care about anything else but getting what they want, no matter what it costs, and we’ll be in their way.”
She made it sound like a consortium from some Arab state flush with oil money would make a takeover bid for me and force me to rename my stadium.
“We won’t be caught in the crossfire,” said Cheng. “If things get out of hand, we can always kill him ourselves.”
He said it so casually, even I thought it was a reasonable suggestion.
“Can we? Do you promise?”
That’s the great thing about being a couple, getting to do things together.
Meanwhile, I was locked into some sort of paralysing fever. My whole body was on fire and I think my shoulder may have been replaced by a series of steel drums playing a medley of modern country smash hits. Pain doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The thing about pain, though, is that it eventually becomes normal. You can stub your toe and feel like the end of days has arrived, but if you close your eyes tight, grit your teeth and hang on, you can live through it.
My eyes were watering and my throat was hoarse. I could take this. If it triggered some dormant part of my DNA into returning my powers to me, I’d be able to heal whatever was left of myself. Then again, this was apparently the third gate. Six more gates before I got awarded my overachievers medal. Posthumously, most likely.
A large white dome loomed into view over me. I blinked the tears out of my eyes to see Charlie’s giant head staring down at me, drool leaking from the corner of his mouth. Gate Four final boarding?
I decided I wasn’t in the mood for the full run in one go and rolled out of the way. Hands grabbed me and yanked me to my feet.
“You did well,” said Cheng. “You’ll have a scar there.”
I looked at my shoulder and nearly threw up. It was a mess of bubbling raw meat.
“Ah…” I said, followed by, “ah, ah…”
Cheng raised a bottle of green liquid and poured it over my open wound. Considering what had happened when I splashed a little water on myself, I expected to shit myself into unconsciousness.
The pain subsided as the liquid slid across my mangled flesh like gravy over a poorly roasted turkey. My legs went wobbly from the immense relief of not being ensconced in agony and I nearly returned to the floor.
“No, no, no,” yelled Mandy. “Don’t let him dribble over my floor.”
Cheng put an arm around me and propped me up. “This way. We can complete the process in my study.”
“What was in that bottle?” I mumbled. “Feels nice.”
“A little avocado, some cucumber, sprig of mint.”
“Minced frog spawn, freshly removed spleen, bile from a dead cat.”
Suddenly we were back in Fairyland. “No eye of newt?”
“No, none of that cheap filler. Quality ingredients, that’s the real secret to magic potions.”
He guided me down some stairs, into the basement. It was full of computers and screens showing various parts of the grounds, including out in the street where some suspicious vehicles with tinted windows seemed to be waiting for something.
“Mandy calls this my man cave.”
Man cave is, of course, both the name for the room and the mental state. You give up on the rest of the house and barricade yourself into one room with all your favourite toys, abandoning all hope.
He lowered me into a chair. My shoulder was still smarting a bit but not too badly. I avoided looking at it.
“Is this really going to give me my powers back?”
“We can only hope,” said Cheng, as he rooted around his desk for something. “Once you get to a place so awful your soul can no longer stand it, there will only be two choices. To allow magic to save you, or to let you die. Aha!” He held up a small key.
“So you’re relying on my brain liking me enough to change the laws of nature to save me? What if my brain doesn’t like me that much?” I was pretty sure my brain didn’t give a fuck about me.
“Of course your brain likes you. Stop being so hard on yourself. You’re just like Mandy.”
He was a cruel bastard when he wanted to be. You could take the boy out of Monsterland, but…
Cheng went to a large metal box under one of the tables and used the key to open it. What dangerous artefact was he keeping in there?
He pulled out a black bin bag and dropped it on the desk next to me with a wet squelch.
“Fortunately, the damage my son did to you he can also reverse… with this.” He stuck his hand in the bag and pulled out a fistful of brown mud. Maybe not mud.
“Is that shit?”
“It has healing properties.”
“It’s magic shit?”
“This is no time to be squeamish.”
“I’m not being squeeeee…” The noise was involuntary as Cheng slapped the gunk on my shoulder. He smeared it around. It didn’t smell too bad, considering.
My shoulder stopped smarting. Who knew a mud pack made from human excrement could feel so nice? I mean, apart from the Belgians.
Cheng put what looked like a small clock in front of me. “This is it.”
It had lots of cogs and interlocking brass parts you could see through the glass case. “What is it?”
“I call it my infernal machine. It can open doorways in your mind.”
“I’m not sure I want any more doors opened in my mind, it’s drafty enough in there as it is.”
“With this, you can reach the ninth gate of pain,” said Cheng.
“You say that like it’s a good thing.”
“Once you reach the final gate, if you still live, you can claim your heart’s desire.”
“I can already get my heart’s desire at any kebab shop. Palmer’s Green is full of them.”
“I warn you, the pain will be unbearable.”
“I take my kebabs with extra chilli sauce, I think I’ll be able to bear it. Are you sure we can’t skip straight to gate nine and get this over with?”
Cheng shook his head. “There is no need to be reckless. If we take our time we should be able to do this safely over three days.”
Great, three days of ever-increasing pain. “Have you used this?”
“Oh, yes. It was horrible. I could barely walk when I finished.”
“And you can do magic again?”
Cheng raised his hand a light appeared around it, which formed into a ball and floated into the air. “I learned that from watching you.”
A fan of my work.
“Okay then, let’s do it.”
Cheng lifted up the front part of the small contraption. “Put your finger in here.”
I place my finger in the opening. He pressed down and something pricked my finger.
“It doesn’t hurt that much,” I said.
“It will,” said Cheng.
I waited for the pain. It was taking its time.
Cheng sat down opposite me. “Thank you, by the way.”
“Mandy, my family, my happiness.”
“You’re welcome. Don’t blame me when it all goes horribly wrong.”
“You don’t think happiness can last?”
“Someone always fucks it up,” I said.
Cheng smiled at me. “How long do you think I have left?”
“What time is it now?”
He laughed, which showed how little he knew about the human condition.
“Mandy is also grateful?”
“Could have fooled me.”
“She knows without you she would have nothing.”
“That makes no difference,” I said, my finger itching a little. I yawned. “The thing about people like Mandy, like many of us, she doesn’t believe she’ll be allowed to stay happy. It’ll get taken away from her, a mistake in the celestial paperwork. So she’ll end up wasting her life waiting for the recall to be sent out, and when she thinks they finally figured out their mistake, she’ll overreact and do something stupid and ruin everything. That’s what you do when you’re desperately happy — desperate things.” I yawned again. “Are you sure this is a pain machine? Feels like I’m mainlining Horlicks.”
“It will start soon.”
“You have to bully her, never let her forget it’s her job to look after the kid, look after you, don’t give her time to remember how easily it could get taken away. She’ll just panic and throw it away. Not her fault, really. Bad parenting. The same for all of us. Because, you know, technology. Parents are designed to raise you based on their experience of growing up, but the world we’re born into is totally different to the one they were born into, so their knowledge is worthless. Not that it stops them from faking it.”
I was rambling and my head was all floaty. Still no pain but it was on the way. I would have been tense about it if I could still feel my body. It was pleasant, no pain at all.
I seemed to be floating outside of my body, up towards the ceiling, up into the kitchen. I could hear Mandy’s voice.
“Yes, he’s here. You can have him. Do what you want with him, I don’t care. Don’t worry, he won’t be any trouble, he’ll be unconscious.”
She was on the phone, I could see her. Kid in one arm, resting on her hip, bent over a little conspiratorially.
“As agreed, right? This will be the last time you bother us. Take him and leave us alone. When can you get here?”
The kid was looking at me, pointing. Could he see me? Was I really here, watching Mandy turning traitor?
There was a sense of inevitability about it all. Of course she would sell me out. Why not? She had everything to gain and it only cost one useless twat. That’s a pretty good exchange rate.
Falling, I opened my eyes in the basement, in the same chair, finger in the infernal machine. Had I just hallucinated what I saw and heard? A dream, perhaps? My fears realised in startling 4K?
I took my finger out with a snap and stood up. Cheng gave me a curious look.
“When will they get here?”
“Who?” said Cheng.
“The people you betrayed me to.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The acting was good. Really good. Me with no top on, him only in girls’ panties, we were a shoe in this awards season. The Academy loves this sort of homoerotic coming of age story. If one of us had been black, it’d be a clean sweep.
Maybe he didn’t know. She could be doing it behind his back, doing what was best for her family, in her mind at least.
It shouldn’t have surprised me anymore but it always seemed to be the ones I helped the most who turned on me the quickest. I would just cut out the middleman but it’s actually quite difficult to stab yourself in the back.
“What’s wrong?” Cheng looked baffled.
“Come with me.” I got up an stomped up the stairs with Cheng behind me.
Mandy was still on the phone, her back to me. “You can experiment on him all you want. He’s a bit scrawny but he should be able to survive surgery if you don’t cut off too many things at once. He’ll be tied up, my husband’s taking care of it. ”
They were in it together, then. Exhaustion swept over me. How many times was I going to have to face down the people closest to me? Obviously, as a card-carrying member of the Cynical Party, this was business as usual. The manifesto I helped author clearly spelled out the unrelenting disappointment we the members could look forward to. So why was I ready to lie down and never get up. Why did being jaded have to be so damn hard?
“Gimme that.” I snatched the phone from her. “Listen,” I said into it.
“...three and forty-five seconds.” It was the talking clock.
“Mad?” said Mandy, smiling maliciously.
“No. I just…” A trick? A prank? Why? She was looking at my hand. I looked down. It was on fire.
“For me it was pain,” said Cheng, “for you, I didn’t know. It would appear to be anger, despair, giving up all hope? The machine helps you find it. Each to their own.” Cheng shrugged amiably, a muscular giant with sympathetic eyes.
I waved my burning hand in front of my face.
“I would have made a good actress, I think,” said Mandy. “Then again, you were pretty easy to fool.” She gave the baby to Cheng who walked off with him.
She was right. I’d been so wrapped up in what I expected to happen, it never occurred to me to take a proper look. All those things I’d said about Mandy, they were true, but they were also true about me. Always ready to assume the worst and act accordingly. It wasn’t a particularly fun way to live.
“I heard what you said about me,” said Mandy, which is never what you want to hear from a woman, especially when she has inch-long nails. “You’re wrong. I’m not afraid of losing what I have, I’m afraid of being too distracted to enjoy it.” She kissed Charlie on the cheek, making him giggle. “You gave me this chance. I hope you learn to take some of your own advice.” She sauntered off, full of herself and her happiness.
We in the Cynical Party have never got on well with our opposite numbers in the Smug Coalition. Bunch of bloody show-offs.
There was just me in the kitchen.
I blew on my still burning hand. It kept burning. I shook it and then stuck it under the tap. I had my magic back, now I had to work out how to turn it off.
Mandy’s phone rang. I picked it up and answered it.
“Mrs Cheng?” The voice was low and menacing. “Have you had time to consider our offer? Your family’s safety is at stake, Mrs Cheng. Hand over the visitor and—”
“Shut up, will you.”
“Who is this?
“My name’s Colin. I understand you’ve been looking for me. When can we meet?”
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino