There was a layer of waxy furniture polish on the heavy oak dining table, and his fingernails dug so deep as he gripped the edge that they creased and bunched it like curls of dead skin beneath his hands. Grease congealed to white lumps beneath the wrinkled clumps of egg on the untouched platters, and he could see his own face; colorless, nightmare distorted on the curve of his plate, the bowl of his spoon, the thin metal slat of his knife. Someone had tipped over their tea. It ran like black blood along the center of the table, splitting and reforming around the dishes. His eyes saw it, recorded it, were keenly aware of every detail, but Terry's mind was gone.
He couldn't bring himself to lift his eyes from the table, because he could hear the screams, incoherent and raw, the clatter of teeth that sometimes squished on the flesh of a tongue, the rattle of chains like icicles in a bitter gale, the whirring of the thing and the voice that muttered in Polish things that all his languages were unneeded to know were calculating and incapable of seeing humanity where they spilled their curses. He didn't need to see it, because he knew that would be the line where his own sanity split off to spiral into the abyss, and he needed it.
It was all he could do, nothing at all, really, but he didn't need to look, didn't need to hear the sounds that battered in the dull pounding of a storm-tossed ocean's white noise against his ears. He was in his seat, but he was on the platform, his mind open, the fingers of his thoughts laced through those of his friend for every moment of their ordeal. Mike had tried to keep him out at first, but then the walls had been broken, and he had reached through the shards to catch and anchor.
The alphabet, backwards and forwards, alternating languages for each letter. Gamp's Laws of Elemental Transfiguration. The prelude to the Statute of Secrecy. Lists. Formulae, poetry, first prompted, now flagging, stuttering, pulled along one line at a time as the cords of thought stretched thinner and weaker between them, though the words still cried louder than the screams the others heard.
He would close his eyes, but like looking, that would be too much, especially now. Golden sequins of butter clotted on the fried apples, their plump flesh withering near the peels that shone like patent leather with cinnamon sugar syrup. Crystals of salt individually perfect cubes clinging around the holes of the shaker. He had to hang on.
Oh ! mes amis ! - Mon coeur, c'est sûr, ils sont des frères…come on, Mike, you know it, please…
Noirs inconnus, si nous allions ! allons…hurts hurts too much can't can't do it can't oh, Terry, hurts!
! O malheur ! je me sens frémir, la vieille terre…. A
touch, he jumped, almost screamed himself. Bronze hand, scrubbed and
ink-stained at the cuticles, resting over his. Stephen. Shoved away
and a look that was murder to a friend who was just a friend and
didn't know, couldn't hear what had never paused. Concentrating
again. A single drip of maple syrup on the edge of the jug,
suspended like primordial amber. …Sur
moi de plus en plus no more no more
…Sur moi de plus en plus no more no more
à vous ! la terre fond, Ce n'est rien ! j'y suis ! j'y suis toujours… The syrup drop fell, catching on the twisted end of a sausage. He was shaking. How long had it been? The table jolted, bench legs scraping the floor. A retching shriek. Jennifer was getting sick. They hadn't eaten anything yet. Sour bile over sage and salt, buttery fresh bread scents still rising where steam had stopped from leprously flaking rolls. Another poem. He knew hundreds by heart.
He could think of none. Just…just count, Mike, just count. Come on, counting's easy, just hang on. One, two…
Do something do something I'm going to die!
You're not going to die. Dum vita est spes est. It's just pain. It's like the Cruciatus. Just pain, Mike, just pain, en physio, you can do this, come on, count with me… Five, no ten trails in the wood. Six clear droplets of salt water convex on the empty plate. Where had they come from? Seven. Eight.
No more. No hope. No more, why can't I can't I can't I hurts hurts so bad Mummy I want my Mummy Terry oh please make it stop make it stop Neville Ernie somebody stop him stop him going mental make it stop
Thirteen now, and the reflection, even distorted, was too much like what he wouldn't look at, and he buried his face in his hands, fingernails not digging into wood, but skin where hair wasn't long enough to fist any more, soft-prickly and bristled under his touch. Hands on his back now, stroking tentative along the very edge of his shoulder through the robes. He felt them but didn't and didn't care. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I'd do anything, I would
Just make it stop make it stop please please if you're my friend oh please
I'm here, I'm still here, listen to my voice, just hang on, we can do this…
No no no nononononononono do something do something do something oh God just kill me please just kill me kill me make it stop
I can't, I can't, you know I can't
Not like this not screaming falling apart going to be mad going mad hurts so can't just need make please please don't want don't let mad please please just end oh please end please end still sane please let me please please friend let me let me make it let me make it stop let me go just let me go
Eyes open, blurred, blinking it back to find the droplets could not be counted because they'd united into pools that ran into each other, mating in amoebas of the most primitive blocks of life. The scrape of the bench repeated, his now, and he was shaking so hard his belt buckle clattered the table, but his hand was steady. He looked. It was everything he had been afraid of, but it was all right, because the brown eyes were still at least a little sane and they knew and they were grateful and the rictus became the smile of a saint lifted from the pyre into angel's arms.
I love you.