The hammer is hard under the pillow. I sacrifice the cushion at my chest for the comfort of my cheek. The wooden handle is reassuring somehow, the cold metal lump of the head more so. It wasn’t my idea. The waitress at the Eastern Promise, the new girl with dyed tresses and ribbons, talked about protecting herself from a Devil in Green Underpants. The Devil’s an urban folk-tale, a city-wide scandal about a hog-like beast clad in emerald knickers, ravishing women as they snore in their beds. Perfect for the scoffs of ex-pats pegged to polished teak bars. Not that I scoffed. I have my own demons, and a weapon seemed a good idea, for the rest it might bring.
I said that it was sensible, and she beamed and touched my arm, letting it linger. Long enough to let me know.
“Looks like your wallet is there for the taking,” said someone with a wink.
I sank my beer and left. I see too many forfeit liaisons during the day. My wife may have walked, but really, it was only a minor indiscretion, and I’ve begged her back. She needs to come home. I’m a ghost stuck in aimless repetition, lost and wandering in circles.
She hasn’t replied, but I act as if celibacy will be a talisman for forgiveness. I will decline temptation, for ever and ever. Amen.
03:45. 03:46. 03:46.
I don’t know who took the photo. I wish I hadn’t been wherever I was, hadn’t been so wrecked and easily compromised. Wish I’d kept my hands in my pockets. As regrets roll over belly-up for dissection, as what-for becomes what-if, my ears are tuned beyond the apartment. No storm, but a scratch in the wall like the nibble of teeth, gnaws the plaster and tramps the dido towards my bed.
Rats chewing cables? Termites dining? Surely, I can’t hear these things. But the scrape of a ravenous phantom, tapping his nails along brickwork, searching for whatever it is he eats? Dust and light are not enough for him. He needs sinew and marrow. He needs to shatter the barriers keeping us apart, so he can feast. His talons feel for the weakest point to prise open and snag the prey, to reach through the mortar and nip the meat beyond. And with a body snared, he will slip within to flush the juices of the host into his own slender frame.
I am the Grey Man’s larder. He will consume my fleshy being, swallow my essence as my skin contracts to a tighter fit and my muscles move to his command. He will leech on my fester, ignoring the pain of our bonding as my innards fill and become his gut. I am a bespoke coat, tailored to provide his relish. Inside me will live the Grey Man. A hermit crab. A parasitic maggot.
I will be sucked to parchment and brittle bone. A thin man haunting the night, seeking a fresh cadaver as my own host. This is the Grey Man’s torturous transformation of corruption and rebirth, on and on, a myriad of hosts trapped in a cycle of pain and perversion.
He is closer now, slurping on the cement, breaching the divide between us. His vile spit softens the masonry, decaying my sanctuary, crumbling all substance. I grab the hammer and smack the wall to warn the toothy worm that I am armed. Cement flakes into my mouth and nose like hard snow until I drop defeated, coughing and hacking. Orange shapes flit on my eyelids.
Fire-balls and snakes and flesh.
A girl licks my ear. I can’t see her face, but her left tit swings free, and my tongue hangs like a thirsty dog.
Sin captured in a camera flash.
David Kotok was inspired to write whilst living and working in Jakarta, Indonesia, a city affectionately known as the Big Durian, a fruit with a powerful odour yet sweet taste. His first published story was set in the metropolis, as was ‘Grey Man Walking Past’, his sixth selected for publication. Between these highs he has scribbled tales based on his experiences from Shanghai to Seoul and Lisbon to Madrid and back again, appearing in such outlets as Black Static magazine and a collection of short stories called ‘The Best of the Short Story’.
He currently lives in a converted Oast House in the English countryside, where hops were once gathered to turn into ale. Between writing he walks his dogs, feeds the birds, throws pots on a Wednesday and commutes into London. David’s personal observations reflect the worlds he occupies, close and distant, in the art of creation.