The Light Eater

 

It began with the Christmas tree lights. They were candy-bright, mouth-size. She wanted to feel the lightness of them on her tongue, the spark on her tastebuds. Without him life was so dark, and all the holiday debris only made it worse. She promised herself she wouldn’t bite down.

The bulb was sweet and sharp, and it slid down her throat with a feeling of relief: an itch finally scratched. She came to with a shock. At the realisation of what she’d done, she tangled the lights back into their box and pushed them onto the highest shelf. The next day she pulled down the box and ate the rest. The power cable was slippery as liquorice.

She got hungrier as the days passed. A lightbulb blew; she went to change it but ended up sucking it like a gobstopper. She had soon consumed the rest of the bulbs in the house. Lamps mushroomed up from every flat surface – and there’s no good in a darkened light. Each day she visited the hardware shop and walked home with bags full to clinking. Her eyes were always full of light; with each blink she caught gold on her eyelashes.

One night she opened her mouth to yawn, and saw that her path was lit. Up she jumped, pyjama-ed and barefoot, and followed the light across streets and playgrounds, fields and forests, all the way to the edge of the land.

She paused on the rocks, between the trees at her back and the black of the sea. This is where he left, and this is where she could find him again. She stretched her body to the sky in readiness, then opened her mouth to outshine the stars.

She spat out the bulbs – one, two; nineteen, twenty – in a runway from trees to shore. She spread herself out on the sand. A perfect starfish, a fallen body. An X, so he could find his way back.

 

 

Girl #18

 

Girls #1-17 were no good at all. They’d been coming to the door in the weeks after the accident, but never for anything in particular. There was nothing left to bring, nothing to say. The bouquets had withered days ago and the cards still perched on the mantelpiece, the same as our birthday cards had for the last eighteen years. I wondered if we were supposed to send thank-you notes to acknowledge them. A part of me wanted to enjoy it. When else was I going to have every girl from school knocking on my door? But the absence of Ishbel weighed on me, weighed in me, like I’d swallowed a handful of pebbles, and that made it hard to feel anything at all.

But now I’m shoeless on the beach and it’s spitting with rain and the wind is pushing screeches into my ears, and there’s Girl #18. She’s standing a few metres away along the shore. Right away I know she’s different from Girls #1-17. I open my mouth to say hello, but the words won’t come. I try for a polite cough, but it sounds like dropping gravel down the gutter. The girl looks up and I almost bite off my tongue.

All the other girls had had plenty to say. Ishbel’s room, they’d said. Just a wee look, to remember her. I made – At this they tugged something out of their handbags, like a piece of card busy with scissor-curved pictures of the two of them, faces flat and open. I used to know the girls’ names once – used to chase them around like a puppy after a stick. Now they were just a mass of shiny hair and shiny shoes and shiny handbags. Come in, I said, and moved out of the way.

I expect the same thing to happen with Girl #18. The forced words, the distance between us. But instead I can only stare at her. The scar splits from her right temple to the bridge of her nose, like her face is a badly-done sketch that the artist crossed out. The scar-crossed eye is sewn shut, but the other one peers at me flatly, blue as an enamelled dish.

With all the other girls, I had let them upstairs and gone back into the front room. Dad was watching the telly with his hands cupping his knees and Mum was polishing the little crystal animals again. I slid down on the couch so the leather farted and tried to hear what the girls were saying over the drone of the TV. They probably weren’t saying anything at all, because what do you say to an empty room? I wondered whether I should ask if the girl wanted tea or something, because although no one really likes tea we all make it for one another out of politeness, like shaking hands. I rubbed at my throat where it hurt. There was a fat line of scar and stitching and I avoided that, but there was also a shiny-soft bit, the size and shape of an acorn, where the stubble wouldn’t grow any more. I stroked that soft patch with my thumb until I couldn’t feel it.

After each of the other girls had left, I went into the kitchen and made four cups of tea, then threw one into the sink. Then I remembered that I hate bloody tea and threw another one in the sink too. Then I remembered that Dad would only let his go cold and Mum would try to polish hers like the crystal animals, so I chucked the whole sodding lot in the sink and sat in the back garden where the wind dragged the water from my eyes.

Girl #18 stands with her feet in the water and smiles at me, so wide that her scar crinkles and makes the tip of her nose flatten. Then she turns and walks forwards, into the sea.

She used to stand on the shore. Ishbel, I mean. She planted her feet on the sand with the waves sucking at the soles of her wellies and she told me about all the other shores she could see.

Reykjavik. Svalbard. Cape Farewell.

Once she said she could see Labrador and I said that sounded even more made-up than Cape Farewell but she insisted that it was real. She said it was in Canada and I still thought she was bullshitting me but I couldn’t say for sure because Ishbel read maps like storybooks. She was getting off the island, and no one was going to stop her. That was all just romance, just fairytales, because anyone can leave the island. Since they built the bridge, leaving should be as easy as sticking your keys in the car ignition. But leaving is never easy.

Girl #18 is in the water up to her knees, and I’m struggling towards her through the freezing shallows, the sand tugging at my soles. With every exhale, like a mantra, I say Ish. Ish. Ish.

I passed my driving test on the day after my 17th birthday – our 17th, it should have been, but Ishbel always liked to be difficult and had hung around until after midnight to be born. She had never managed to pass her test, though she’d tried five or six times. She couldn’t do all the things at once, like changing gear and pressing the pedals and looking in the rear-view mirror. She was too busy looking forward, trying to see over the next hill. She always lost her concentration and her foot slipped off the pedal, and the car grumbled to a crawl, and she could never understand why. So she made me drive her. She jangled the keys in front of me in a way that was supposed to be fun, to tempt me into adventure, but when I scrunched up my face her expression slipped.

Please, she said. My eyes ache. My feet itch.

And I still thought she was being melodramatic but I took her anyway because all my mates were chatting up girls round the bus shelter and I had a cold sore that I didn’t want anyone to see. We’d already made an excuse to our parents and clicked on our seatbelts before I thought to ask where she wanted to go.

I don’t care, Angus. Just keep going until we bump into something.

Like Labrador?

Like fucking Labrador.

I turned the key and headed away from the lights.

Girl #18 is in the water up to her chest now, but I’ve made it in deep as my waist. Her scarred side is turned away from me, and in the fading light I see that she is not beautiful. Maybe that’s when we see the truth of things, when all the beauty is stripped away.

Tourists laughed at the BEWARE OF SHEEP road-signs, like the sheep were in armed gangs or planting terrorist bombs or something, and we laughed at them too. So when I hairpinned the car round a corner and a curly-horned blob of wool was stood slap-bang in the middle of the road, my first instinct was to laugh. That can’t have lasted more than a second because then Ishbel’s hand was on the wheel and I felt it tug under my palms and my head thudded against the window and then the ground was the sky was the ground was the sky was nothing, nothing at all.

 

The sea is cold enough to push the breath from my lungs, but the girl’s head is still above water. When I drag her out I’m shivering so hard I think I might choke. She follows me back home, her feet soft on the sand, her hand held tight in mine. The whole way my heart throbs in my ears but she is quiet, so quiet. In my bedroom she stands in the middle of the floor and peels off her dripping clothes, letting them fall to the carpet. When she’s finished she doesn’t look naked. Not sexy or vulnerable. She looks like she is meant to look. She raises her head, gazing into me with that one blue eye, so close I can almost see myself reflected.

I go into Ishbel’s room. All the furniture was pushed to the edges when we had the viewing, because even big bedrooms don’t usually have enough space for a coffin. No one has been in to put stuff back so I have to wriggle in behind the bed to get to the wardrobe. The first items I can reach are the most recently washed things. Ishbel’s favourites. I let my knees bend until I’m sitting on the bed, and I hold the pile of folded cotton in my hands. It doesn’t smell of Ishbel. It smells of laundry detergent and that faint mustiness of unaired clothes.

I edge out of Ishbel’s room and go back into mine. The girl is standing as I left her, and I want to say that she looks exactly the same except that she doesn’t. It’s like I’ve been away for months, years even, and in that time she’s grown and matured way past anything I could ever be. She’s an adult. A woman. That’s the thing about girls: they’re never really girls at all. They’re always women really.

I dress the woman in Ishbel’s clothes, and we’re only inches away so I can see her scar as close as I see my own face in the mirror. It’s the same colours as Valentine’s Day flowers: pink and white and red, swollen and rounded like petals. I lean in, my hands in my pockets, and press a kiss to the scar.

It is cold, because she is cold.

Outside, I put my keys in the ignition. The woman stands outside my car door, her hand held palm-up like she’s waiting for me to hand her something.

Right, I say, of course. Sorry.

The words come out clear and strong, and as I swallow I can feel the gravel shifting in my throat. I climb out and go around to the passenger side. By the time I’ve climbed back in and fastened my seatbelt, the woman has started the engine. The car grumbles against the soles of my feet. From the passenger side the world seems to have tilted, like that game where you close one eye and then the other to watch the world leap.

Behind me is the silent house, polished crystal animals, cups of tea topped with tepid milk-scum. In front of me is the twisting grey road to the bridge. The car moves forward, and it’s too late for me to stop it. Maybe it’s always been too late.

A few metres from the start of the bridge, I start to cough. The woman pulls the car onto the hard shoulder, but doesn’t stop. She takes her foot off the accelerator so the car rolls forwards at walking pace, wheels chewing the loose ground.

I open the door and lean out, the seatbelt hugging my shoulder. I cough and choke and feel something scratch up my throat and clatter onto the road. Without thinking I close my mouth to catch the last of it then tuck it behind my bottom teeth. It feels hard and sweet.

On the road behind me, the things I’ve coughed up look like nothing, just a mass of grey that you’d kick over like pebbles. As I watch, it shrinks out of focus. I slam the door.

When I face forwards again, the car has crossed the bridge to the mainland. I am the only occupant.

I slide over the gear-stick to the driver’s seat and press my fingers to the acorn-sized scar on my throat. The whole of Scotland is blanketed out in front of me – and who cares that I’ll eventually just bump up against a different coast?

There are always other places.

There are always bridges.

I turn the key and head for fucking Labrador.

 

 

 

 

***

 

Kirsty Logan is the author of the novels The Gloaming and The Gracekeepers, short story collections A Portable Shelter and The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales, flash fiction chapbook The Psychology of Animals Swallowed Alive, and short memoir The Old Asylum in the Woods at the Edge of the Town Where I Grew Up. Her books won the Lambda Literary Award, Polari Prize, Saboteur Award, Scott Prize and Gavin Wallace Fellowship. Her work has been translated into Japanese and Spanish, recorded for radio and podcasts, exhibited in galleries and distributed from a vintage Wurlitzer cigarette machine. She lives in Glasgow with her wife.