There was a substantial period of silence.
‘Mister? What happened to your ear?’
Max considered his options. He could close his eyes and make himself invisible, but the boy couldn’t see anyway, so that ruled that out. Which left either running away or responding. He hesitated; chose.
‘My ear got shot off a while back.’
The boy’s tongue flicked in and out: he seemed to taste the words rather than hear them. ‘Mister, why did your ear get shot off?’
‘Why? Because I annoyed a man who had a gun.’
‘Why did you annoy the man, mister?’
‘Because I told him what I thought of him, and he didn’t like it.’
‘Mister, why didn’t the man like it?’
‘Because I called him a drunk and a coward.’
‘Mister, what’s a drunk?’
A pause. ‘Boy, these questions tire me. I would ask some of you.’ Silence, then the boy inclined his head. Max noticed that his hand was no longer glued to the doorframe, the boy likely having determined that his ribs were, for the moment, safe. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Billy,’ said Billy. Then he bit his lip. Max wondered what the word ‘cute’ was doing lurking in his head.
‘Billy... I’m Max.’
‘Billy -’ He stopped. He didn’t do subtle. ‘Billy, what happened to your eyes?’
‘My eyes, mister? What’re they?’ Billy’s voice hinted at the amusement that his eyes couldn’t sparkle with.
‘Your eyes, Billy - the things people see out of.’
Billy exploded into riotous laughter, a sound so sudden Max wondered if the boy wasn’t ill; so genuine his own treacherous lips twitched with amusement. Then, equally suddenly, the sound stopped. Max’s head hurt. Billy spoke. ‘Oh, them silly things? They plopped out years ago, mister. Doesn’t bother me, I don’t needs em where I lives.’
‘And where’s that, Billy?’
Grinning, the boy exposed rows of glistening teeth, each sharpened to a vicious point. ‘Wanna see?’
Wary of his hurting head and those teeth, Max nodded, then felt stupid for doing so. Before he could speak, however, Billy had skipped over and grabbed his hand.
‘Come on, Max. I’ll show you. You’re gonna love it.’
Billy led Max back towards Buzz’s Beds confidently; he completely ignored the rocks when they shuddered then split open nearby. Once inside, he occasionally touched a hand to a wall or floor, but otherwise displayed few signs of blindness. Evidently more than adequate were his tongue and nose, and he sipped from the air with both as he tugged Max forwards. He seemed unaware of Buzz’s kinks - they passed the corpses in silence - which Max thought was probably a good thing.
An abrupt left, and they were in a bedroom, empty save for one of Buzz’s ex-beds. When Billy kicked it out of the way, it twanged angrily.
‘Down here, mister,’ he said, then dropped to the ground and started pulling at the floorboards.
A flurry of wood ensued.
Twenty seconds later, there was a hole in the floor.
With practised ease, Billy dropped down, then popped back up again like a seal breaking a lake’s surface. He cocked his head.
‘Here, you comin or what?’
It seemed that Max was, because a few seconds later he had lowered himself onto a rickety wooden ladder which felt suspended rather than supported.
And a few seconds after that, Billy shouted: ‘Stop!’
Max did so.
‘Mister, you got to pull the planks back.’
Max did so.
‘No no no, that’s no good. Here, I’ll do it.’
Something slithered over Max’s body then Billy appeared above him and pushed the planks about until they looked pretty much the same as they had thirty seconds ago. Another slithery sensation, then Billy said: ‘OK, let’s go.’
With every step, the world got darker.
After a while, it wasn’t really possible for the world to continue to do so.
Not that Max needed light to know that each time he gripped a rung there was a puff of rotten wood, and that each time he let go he took much of the rung with him. No, it surely wouldn’t be long before gravity compared his weight to the ladder’s age, and he hoped that he was near the bottom when it did so.
If, indeed, there was a bottom; thus far his senses had gone out of their way to indicate otherwise.
Still, Billy seemed happy enough. Max reached this conclusion because the boy had started to hum; this, of course, using a loose definition of the word. How someone could create a sound so devoid of melody he didn’t know. It went up when it should have gone down, stopped when it should have -
Max halted his critique; where he had expected rung, there was air.
The next five minutes were spent becoming one with the ladder.
Once Billy had detached them and outlined to Max the impracticalities of spending the night here, they continued downwards, albeit with Billy now interrupting his hum every now and then to say something like, ‘Watch out for this one, mister, or else you’ll be gone, gone, goooooooooone.’
Max appreciated the warnings, not so much the way they were said.
In another world, weeks surely slipped by.
He heard a crunch then the ladder ran out of rungs. While he clung, he felt a hand brush his leg and someone say, ‘It’s OK, mister... solid stone now.’ Feet were stamped to demonstrate, but Max wasn’t convinced.
In fact, it was only when Billy physically yanked his foot onto the alleged ground that he was prepared to concede the possibility of solidness.
Once his other foot had been similarly yanked, Billy clutched Max’s shirt and said, ‘Wait here,’ before he rushed off into the darkness. Max was unsure what else the boy thought he might do.
An indeterminate time later, Billy’s voice again: ‘Mister, take this.’
Into his hands Billy pushed something that couldn’t possibly be a tree. While Max grappled with it, he heard clicks as the boy fiddled furiously with something else.
‘Two seconds... just got to get it to... ’
A flash, then the world came at Max’s head like a migraine with an axe.
‘There!’ said Billy. ‘Now you can see almost as well as me!’ He found this far more amusing than Max did, who presently was wondering if he’d ever see again.
‘Monstrous’ was the word that leapt into his mind once his eyes had confirmed that they still worked. A monstrous, natural cavern, so big he couldn’t see the walls, but a cavern it had to be, someplace deep in the rocks.
What couldn’t possibly be a tree turned out to be a small dead tree, as well as the source of the light. The non-branch end of which wrapped in cloth and coated in some kind of yucky substance that burnt bright and white and sent their shadows skittering.
‘Made it special for you, had this tree down here for ages,’ Billy said proudly. ‘That’s green rat slime on the cloth, took it from my secret stash.’
While Max was curious about both the secret stash and, well, why Billy had had this tree down here for ages, this was cancelled out by the anti-curiosity he had in green rat slime. Billy didn’t seem bothered the silence.
Then he turned to the ladder and shuddered a little. It was far worse than touch had implied, covered in dark rot and held together by the ghosts of nails. The whole thing looked ready to collapse should he breathe or indeed stare too hard. Why it was there, Max didn’t know, and given the state of the thing, the ladder was confused about this as well. Some sort of evacuation plan perhaps? He filed the questions away with all the others.
Billy tugged at his shirt. ‘This way, mister. This way. Still got a ways to go.’
Then he adopted a half crawl, half skip that propelled him over the ground like some kind of crab forced to walk upright. Shortly afterwards, he burst into hum.
Despite his whimpering inner musician, Max followed.
After a while, he said, ‘What is this place, Billy?’
The hum and Billy stopped. ‘Here? This is the Cave.’
‘And you live down here?’
The boy snorted. ‘Not here. Hardly no one comes here no more, mister. Just me, when I wants to visit my house.’
‘Yeah. You saw it. All dust n deadies, lots of fun.’
‘Deadies?’ said Max. His head had started to ache again.
‘Don’t you see anything? Yeah, deadies. Bonies. Lots of em, all neated up by me.’
And then he did see. He saw Billy, dragging the four best chairs he could find into the lobby, one for him, three for his friends; Billy, spending hours arranging the corpses until they were just so; Billy, drinking imaginary tea from cracked cups while the sun set; Billy, discussing adventures, discussing dreams. He also saw Buzz, fuming at the slurs Max had earlier made on his name, but Max paid him less attention. No, it was the images of Billy that his thoughts lingered on, each tinted with a distant sadness that, after the images had departed, grew into a strange empathy. He felt as if he wanted to say something, but couldn’t think what it was.
They travelled without further conversation.
However, they did pause from time to time, or rather, Billy paused and Max copied him. Occasionally in these breaks the boy sniffed or tasted the air, but usually he spent the time humming a little louder and a little worse than he did when moving. Max was grateful for the breaks nonetheless; for one thing, they allowed him to stare at the ground instead of into the eternity of blackness that swirled around him. They allowed him to level his breathing. He didn’t quite understand why Billy required them though.
Then, abruptly: ‘Here we are, mister. Where we live.’
Max squinted. Unless Billy lived on a wall, he was indicating that Max squeeze through a stupidly tight-looking crack at the base of a stupidly unstable-looking rockface.
Which is basically what Billy himself did, before saying from either the other side or under a pile of rubble, ‘Come on, mister. There’s light through here, you can leave the tree.’
Max eyed the crack and wondered if he wasn’t about to make a terrible mistake. He placed Billy’s tree on the ground then, in the interests of conserving whatever green rat slime was left, stamped out the flame.
This was a terrible mistake.
Because the world got very dark, very quickly. Far darker than Max may have previously thought possible. Dark enough to inspire insanity, dark enough to hide murder.
Dark became darkness, but this darkness was old; this darkness had seen things.
Then it showed them to Max.
He saw galaxies form, collide, collapse. He saw planets and star systems, he saw dust motes and grass blades. He saw ecstasies, he saw agonies, he saw the writhing spectrum between them. He saw yellows and blues, and for some reason, birds, lots and lots of birds, and then one in particular, and then it -
In short, he panicked.
Then his face stung. Really stung. Max blinked, and he saw things.
Billy, to be precise, the boy’s breath hot on his cheek, hollow face glowing in the light of his relit tree.
‘Mister, you all right? You went all weird.’
‘My... my face hurts...’
‘Yeah. I reckon I might have hit you a couple of times.’ A pause. ‘Sorry.’
Billy shifted and Max pushed himself to his feet, forced air into his lungs.
‘Thank you, Billy.’
Billy stared, although this time Max detected no resultant splash of pink squiggly bits.
But he did look around and wonder whether everything from now on was part of a dream.
‘So, mister, you still comin?’
Max looked down. No, probably not a dream. He didn’t think his imagination was yet such that it would create a boy who had no eyes and spoke in a mangled Cockney accent.
‘Am I... ? Oh. I - Yes. You say there’s light on the other side?’
‘Yep, light, no problem. But - hey, you’re all shaky. Here, I’ll lead you.’
Which is how Max entered the caverns of the undead: led through a crack by a child whose hand he gripped like his life depended on it.