Black Toe

Thursday

It was a blissfully quiet walk for Barney Laird. The summer sun was at that perfect point in the sky where the shadows cast were just beginning to lengthen, the full brunt of the heat had waned and the majority of other people had only now gotten home from work and were busying themselves making dinner. Barney walked slowly, his face tilted to the light and his eyes half-closed under his glasses. There was not another soul as far as the eye could see apart from his close friend Enoch, the family dog. He inhaled deeply, ran a hand through his short brown hair – ignoring the intimate knowledge that some of it was turning white already – and whistled to Enoch to bring his latest prized stick back for another throw. Obedient as ever the mongrel raced back to his master, dropped the stick at his feet and hopped around as Barney crouched to pick it up.

Once thrown and Enoch charging through a thicket without a care in the world Barney continued his walk, but barely three steps in he felt his right foot connect with something. Pain shot through his foot and into his body like electricity, coursing a map of pain throughout him momentarily before receding back to his toe. With a grunt and a stream of cursing Barney hopped once, twice, then fell back on his bony rear with a thud.

Still muttering curses under his breath he pulled the tattered old work shoe off and began gingerly massaging his big toe all the while inspecting for any signs of blood. Thankfully there was none. He breathed in relief, thinking the last thing he needed was to be hobbling around during tomorrow’s golf game with Vickers and Forrestill. There was a shuffling noise to his side and moments later Enoch appeared over Barney’s shoulder and dropped his slobber covered stick. Barney smiled slightly, patting Enoch and saying “Sure thing boy,” before lobbing the stick as hard as he dared. He watched the mutt run fast enough to beat the stick to its landing spot and clapped his hands as Enoch caught his prize mid-air. The throb in his toe was already forgotten.

Barney closed his eyes and stretched his arms wide, feeling and hearing the cracks and pops. He turned his head to the right and found a mild delight in hearing two more cracks before opening his eyes. His attention was caught by a glint at the base of the tree he had found himself sitting under. His curiosity peaked, he shuffled butt first closer to the glint, leaned towards it and brushed off a few stuck blossoms. It was a rock, no larger than his fist, black in colour and with an otherworldly shine. The surface was covered in numerous small spikes uniform in length and one of them was dripping a strange viscous substance the same colour as the rock.

When he saw the fluid Barney pulled his hand back quickly. As he looked he noticed the dripping spike had a trail of black dots moving away from it to Barney. With an outburst of disgust he leapt to his feet only to be greeted with another shot of pain from his toe. Wincing, he managed to stay standing and moved back a couple of steps, staring at the dotted line with the realisation that the rock was what he kicked.

Numerous thoughts whisked their way through his head but in the end he brushed it off, convincing himself that there was nothing to worry over as he knew he had not been cut or stabbed by the thing. His gaze lingered on the rock for a moment but with a shrug he turned away. “Enoch, come here boy, lets get home.”

***

“Nice walk honey?” Wanda Laird said, not taking her eyes off the TV.

“Yeah not bad at all, quiet as ever,” Barney said as he kicked off his shoes, “stubbed my toe on a rock though, bloody hurt.”

“Yeah? Rub some salve on it, make sure it doesn’t get infected,” she said, absentmindedly flicking through a glossy magazine during an ad break. Barney looked down at his foot then to the back of his wife’s head.

“Not to worry, didn’t break the skin.”

“Just grumbling then are you.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yeah,” Barney said with a chuckle as he leaned over the back of the couch to kiss Wanda on the cheek, “I’m off for a shower.”

“Sure thing hon, look in on the twins would you? Make sure they’re doing their homework.”

“Got it,” he said.

He could hear the kids as he neared the top of the stairs. Mel seemed to be asking Newt’s opinion on something to which he responded with a monosyllabic grunt. When Barney reached their room he could see Mel’s long silky brown hair dangling over the back of her swivel chair, skinny legs propped on the desk and her freckled face turned to the ceiling with a look of sheer boredom. On the cheap plastic desk that had seen better days were a plethora of folders and work books, not one of them open. Newt was sat on the floor against his bed with the latest handheld console clasped close to his chest, the faint glow of its screen illuminating his face causing his freckles to be picked out in stark relief against his pale skin.

Barney knew he had to step in and get the homework train back on track but found himself lingering in the doorway. The dawning realisation that his kids would not be kids for long rushed over him like an avalanche. Newt’s chubby cheeks had started to thin, giving way to what would most likely become a close approximation to Barney’s own gaunt features; his legs were already sprouting at a fierce rate and the rest of his body would soon follow. Mel was already on her way to being a woman, both physically and mentally. She’d spoken for the both of them most of their lives, Newt being a very shy child had caused her to become their collective voice. It had definitely affected her over the years, allowing her to think from someone else’s point of view had formed her into a compassionate, mature young lady who on numerous occasions had caused Barney to stop in his tracks and marvel at her. But she had still been his little girl and Newt his little boy. Now though, with their exasperated and slightly glazed over expressions he could see the teenagers they were becoming. It didn’t scare him, he didn’t feel like he was going to lose his children. He simply wanted to cherish their childhood before it ended.

Enoch flew up the stairs in a thundering of heavy paws on carpet, barged past Barney and dove into the twins room to immediately lick Newt’s face. Mel looked up and finally saw her father. Her eyes went wide as she tried to get her feet off and under the desk while scrabbling for her maths book. Newt saw his dad too but was busy dealing with Enoch’s slobbering affection.

“How’s the homework going?” he said with a smile as he leaned against the door frame.

“Ah, hey, yeah it’s going good dad. We were just, er, taking a quick break y’know?” Mel said in a rush. Barney stayed silent for a second and kept his gaze on her.

“You got to the boss yet Newt?” he said without taking his eyes off Mel. He smiled inwardly as he watched his daughter wince, she knew what was about to happen.

“Yeah I did, got passed him after the fifth try!” Newt proclaimed with immense pride. Mel groaned, the gig was up.

“Oh?” Barney said with a pantomime expression of shock and surprise, “five tries, my, how long did that take?”

“’Bout half an -” Newt started. He clapped a hand over his mouth for a second as Mel shook her head.

“Half an hour you say?” Barney walked into the room and sat on Mel’s bed, the nearest to the desk. Leaning forward he placed his head on her shoulder. “You’ve been rumbled m’dear.”

“Sorry dad,” Mel said.

“It’s fine, just get on with it then it’ll be done in no time. What’s on the agenda?”

“Fractions. I hate fractions,” Newt piped up as he took his chair at the desk. Barney straightened himself up, patted Enoch on the head who had managed to worm his way in between the group and leant forward again.

“Then learn their ways and steal their power,” he said with a cheesy grin. Newt pulled a face of over-the-top confusion and Mel spun in her chair to look at her dad quizzically. “You hate fractions because they’re difficult right? So learn how to do them without even thinking and they wont be a cause of frustration anymore. Kids always make the mistake of hating and rebelling against work that’s difficult but we all know it’s got to be done so why not get ahead of it instead of dragging behind?”

Newt’s face had changed to one of contemplation as he rolled the logic around in his head. Mel shrugged but nodded, unable to argue.

“Great stuff, finish it before seven and we can watch a film if you fancy?” he said, rising from the bed. Mel nodded, already face down in her homework, Newt’s mouth opened to say something but thought better of it and joined his sister. Barney began walking out of the room with a slight hobble.

“You all right dad?” Mel said.

“Nothing to worry about kiddo, just stubbed my toe.”

“Ha,” Newt said with his back to Barney who smiled again and made his way to the master bedroom.

He barely paused on his way to the en suite, removing clothes as he went until he arrived at the shower door in naught but his glasses which he placed, as always, next to the sink. The moment the power-jet shower hit him he felt relief wash over. Face into the stream he managed to stop thinking about work for a brief moment, a slight relief from the tensions of being an accountant for Dexter, Lester & Brown, but that was all he needed. It was not hard work he did, nor was it taxing on his mental faculties, it was just constant. Even at the higher level he’d lately achieved it was still one of the most monotonous things Barney could imagine doing with one’s life.

He was brought out of his thoughts at the sight of a black smudge at his feet. Through his unaided vision he could not quite make it out and tried to rub at it with his foot only to realise it was on his toe. Reaching down he rubbed it with his thumb and felt a dull shock of pain run up his leg. A wave of anger hit him for but a moment, primal and ugly. It took some effort to suppress a vocal outburst, not wanting the kids, or Wanda, to hear him spout such things.

He let the annoyance pass, quickly scrubbed himself clean, jumped out of the shower and began towelling himself dry. He couldn’t take his mind off the black mark and kept gazing down at it. Once dry he threw on some old clothes he found comfy to lounge around in – not being one for pyjamas – and seated himself on the edge of the bed, pushed the thin-rimmed glasses back on his face and gave his toe a thorough inspection.

The worry that had settled into a far reach of his head was allayed instantly as he saw the bruising around the tip of his big toe. Must’ve kicked that rock harder than I thought. He gave it a tentative rub and received another nasty pulse of pain as if touching an electric fence. His vision clouded, his upper lip curled and he felt violent. There was no other word for it. Again the feeling and the clouding vanished before it was even fully acknowledged. Barney shook his head and elected to leave the toe alone to heal, gingerly pulled on a fresh pair of socks and made his way downstairs but not before poking his head back into the twins’ room to make sure they weren’t taking yet another break. They weren’t.

“Refreshed?” Wanda said as he walked into the living room, throwing himself down on the couch next to her. Barney smiled and gave her a peck on the lips.

“Fresh as a daisy love. What’s on the box?”

“The Loft.”

“Come again?”

“It’s meant to be a horror but I keep laughing,” she said with a giggle in the way that always made Barney feel warm inside.

“That good huh?”

“A classic, so sayeth the TV guide,” Wanda said as she held up the magazine in question with faux reverence. She paused with a strange look at Barney, put the magazine down and raised an eyebrow. “Toe giving you problems Barn?”

He blinked at her, not quite comprehending what she was saying. He looked down and saw that he’d been rubbing his foot absentmindedly. “Guess so.”

“Lets see it.”

“God no, it’s a bruised toe, not exactly a pleasant sight. It’s fine, it’ll calm down by tomorrow.”

“Oh stop being such a man and let me see,” she said with a touch of seriousness. Barney studied her, in the recesses of his head there was a voice, a vibration, that was trying to push him to keep it secret. Wait, secret? No, that’s not right. But it was and not knowing why he felt such a way pushed him to whip the sock off, if only to defy that strange vibration.

“Ew, shit Barn that looks nasty,” Wanda said with revulsion, not taking her eyes off the blackened toe-tip. Barney didn’t answer, mildly shocked as he always was when Wanda swore. “You sure you didn’t break something?”

The thought never occurred to him. He mulled it over but didn’t think it could be broken and said “I’d be screaming with each step if it was broken wouldn’t I?”

“I guess, still it’s better to be safe. You’re going to the Doc’s tomorrow morning.”

“Ah come on Wand really? There’s no need.”

“Yes there is.”

With that said there was no arguing. Barney spent the rest of the night on the couch rubbing his toe from time to time and bickering with the twins over some of the more egregious plot holes they came across in “Kursamma’s Revenge”.

Friday

“So, your better half tells me you broke your toe” Dr Eric Vickers said as he reclined his stout self in his chair and laced his stubby fingers together around his gut.

“No, I haven’t. Wanda’s just being a worrywart,” Barney said as cheerfully as he could manage.

“Is that so Barnaby?” the doctor said looking over the rim of his thick glasses.

“Knock it off Eric.”

Dr. Vickers put his hands up in surrender before leaning forward and resting on his elbows. “Very well, lets take a gander shall we?”

Barney shrugged, unlaced his boot and pulled the sock off with a magician’s flourish. Vickers immediately sucked in air through his teeth in a long drawn out hiss that set Barney’s nerves on edge. “Barn? There any chance it’s frostbite?”

“What? No, it’s the middle of summer for crying out loud, why would you think that?”

“Have you looked at it?”

“Of course I have, it’s the tip of my toe. I didn’t think there was any point coming here as you know but Wanda wanted to be on the safe side.”

“Yes, well, maybe she was right to do so.”

Barney stared in confusion at Vickers, trying to discern what he was getting at. Vickers looked up and motioned to Barney’s foot with a nod of the head. Barney pulled his leg up to inspect and was horrified by what he saw.

The previous night his toe had nothing more than a black mark covering the tip but now the black had spread. His entire big toe was as black as his boots. Where it stopped there were now thin wisps of black encroaching on his foot and on closer inspection he could make out the faint presence of smoky tendrils appearing on the rest of the toes.

“Jesus Eric what’s that? Last night it was a little mark.”

“What about this morning?”

“I..I don’t know, I put my socks on in the dark.”

“I gotta be honest with you Barn, I don’t know. Frostbite is the only thing I can think of but as you said, it’s summer so that shoots down that theory. The amount it’s spread overnight is slightly concerning so I think this warrants a hospital visit, just for some tests mind you, nothing serious,” Vickers said, weaving his fingers together again and giving his most comforting smile.

Arsehole. Pure, unadulterated arsehole. He knows nothing, what use is he, why bother with someone, some thing, so useless? Get out Barn, there may be answers but not in this quack’s office. Just look at the fat waste of space, sweating and gasping with every move. You’re going to listen to that? What does that festering mound of blubber know about health?

“Barn?”

Barney blinked once, twice, noticed he was staring at the floor and looked up at the doctor. He could see his old friend recoil slightly. But why?

“Lost you for a second there old boy, you all right?” Vickers said with genuine concern. Barney shook his head, not sure where he went and unable to remember the thoughts that crossed his mind. They weren’t pleasant.

“Yeah…sorry Eric, completely phased out for a second there.”

“Second? You were gone nearly two full minutes, any longer and I was tempted to slap you.”

Barney smiled at the remark and felt more in place, more in control again. Two minutes?

“You still up for golf?” Vickers said, back to his congenial self.

“Sure am, as long as you give me the green light. What about the hospital?”

“Well, like I said, I don’t think it’s serious and you don’t seem to be in any pain, so you’re good to play in my books. I’ll talk to Andy down at the Royal, see if he can fit you in tomorrow for a couple of tests if that’s good?”

“Sure,” Barney groaned, annoyed that two days of his long weekend were being interrupted but nodded anyway, knowing that if he didn’t Wanda would have his hide.

“Excellent, there is one stipulation mind. No using that toe as an excuse when you start losing later, got that?” Vickers said before letting out a loud bark of a laugh. Barney glared at the doctor, his mind in turmoil, furious with his friend for being so useless and making light of the situation. He could feel himself slipping into that strange fog again. No, he’s a good man trying to make his friend feel better. Let it go.

“Sure thing,” he said in short, clipped tones as he rose and walked out, “see you at two.”

Vickers said something but Barney was already out of the consultation room, seething with anger, fully aware of the ridiculousness of his rage which in turn infuriated him even more.

***

Barney stormed into his home after stabbing at the lock with his key futilely for what felt like an age. Once unlocked the door was thrown open and slammed against the wall causing Wanda to yelp involuntarily from the living room.

“Barney? What’s going on?”

“Argh, that useless piece of shit, he did nothing, he joked and laughed. He’s nothing but a washed up, worthless fuck!”

“Barnaby Laird how dare you speak like that in this house! You’re lucky the kids are out.” Barney turned his hateful gaze towards her. She recoiled from the look just as Vickers did. I disgust them, they’re all thinking about my toe. How dare they desert me in my time of need.

“No one can help me Wand, can you? No. Can that dried up turd of a doctor? No. Everyone’s fuckin’ useless,” he said, but rationality was already seeping back in and Barney found himself doubting his words before they even left his mouth. Wanda approached him slowly, hands out in what Barney thought must be an attempt at a calming gesture. Or she’s up to something. He shook the thought from his head, angry at thinking such of his wife and slightly scared that he believed it for but a moment.

“Please honey, can we sit down? How about a cuppa?” Wanda said with slightly – blatantly, it’s blatant! – artificial good cheer. Barney nodded, feeling somewhat numb to his surroundings all of a sudden, walking automatically to his spot on the sofa and throwing himself down. Wanda disappeared and soon after he could hear the kettle reaching boiling point. There was some part of him that wanted to rip off his footwear and inspect the toe but for now it was overruled by his old self coming to the fore and wresting control of his emotions. Breathing deeply he kept his focus on the family picture hanging above the fireplace but found his right eye beginning to twitch in aggravation thanks to the blinking light of the router in the corner. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply again.

“Here you go,” Wanda said standing in front of him. Barney’s eyes snapped open. He hadn’t heard her at all and the thought occurred that he’d lost time again. Keep it together now, don’t let her know.

Smiling wide he accepted the offered mug and took a tentative sip, found the tea to be just right and gulped down half. Gasping and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand he leaned back into the cushions of the couch. “Better?” she asked.

“Mmm hmm, perfect.”

“Good. You going to be all right on your own? My shift starts in half an hour.”

“Sure thing beaut, I’m just dandy,” Barney said. To Wanda his tone seemed sarcastic, caustic even. She studied his face in silence. Features that she usually saw as kind and caring had now taken on an air of malevolence, his eyebrows were twisted into a scowl and his cheekbones were stern angles.

“Hmm, OK. Don’t kill Eric later,” she said only half joking.

“Will do my best.”

His voice had regained some of the warmth that Wanda recognised as her husband but when he opened his eyes she found herself unable to smile at him, there was something there that she didn’t like. Unnerved, she kissed him and left.

***

The sun was still burning bright and hot by the time they reached the ninth hole. Mopping at his forehead whilst waiting for Vickers to come back from a bathroom break he stood next to Harmon Forrestill, a rising star at Dexter, Lester & Brown. Since his most recent promotion eighteen months ago Harmon and Barney had become friends, mainly over their shared love of golf, and it hadn’t been long before he joined in the monthly game.

“I forgot to ask Barn, are the twins still coming over tomorrow?” Harmon said.

“Far as I’m aware.”

“Great, Joey’ll be pleased. She’s been on a bit of a downer lately with the broken leg, some time with Mel and Newt’ll cheer her right up.”

Barney rolled his eyes but didn’t know why. “Hope so,” he said, “last thing you need is a mopy teenager pouting around the house.”

“Ha, damn right. At least I’ve only got one to deal with.”

“True,” Barney said, pausing to scratch his stubble, “but I doubt Newt will ever be a problem, kid’s too obsessed with those damn video games to get in any sort of trouble.”

“Maybe he’ll end up making ‘em one day eh?” Harmon said with a laugh and an energetic knee slap.

Barney tried to laugh but couldn’t manage it. Tosser, smug little tosser. “Wouldn’t that be a thing,” he said vacantly, his attention drawn to the golf cart trundling its way towards them helmed by the red-faced doctor. When he arrived and exited the cart his foot caught on the grass and he tipped over, rolling down the hill, quickly followed by a yell of surprise. Barney burst out laughing then silenced himself, eyes bugged out in shock.

As he ran down the hill to Vickers he said, “God I’m sorry Eric, are you all right?”

“Not to worry,” the doctor said as he picked himself up and tried to brush off a grass stain, “I’ll survive.”

“Well, good, thank God. I don’t know what came over me, it just slipped out,” Barney said, his stomach knotting with guilt.

“Honestly Barn, it’s fine. We all fall victim to a bit of schadenfreude now and then.”

Barney could not shake the awful feeling even when Vickers gave him a reassuring smile and a pat on the back. They walked back up the hill to Harmon and waited as the doctor took his shot.

“Very nice old man,” Harmon said, a hand to his face to block out the suns glare, “shall we?”

The three got into the cart and made their way along the fairway to Harmon’s ball. Once out and waiting for the youngest of the three to take his shot Vickers turned to Barney and said, “Guess you wont be needing to use your excuse at this rate eh Barn?”

With a resounding thwack Harmon’s ball sailed high and came down on the green followed by a muffled “Yes,” from Harmon before turning to the others, “What was that about an excuse?”

Anger began to cloud Barney’s vision. He’d managed to forget about the black mark during the game. But no, that goddamn Vickers had to open his stupid mouth, what happened to doctor-patient confidentiality?

“It’s nothing,” Barney said with a forced smile, “just stubbed my toe yesterday and it gave me a bit of grief but it’s all cleared up now.”

“I wouldn’t call it cleared up, that discolouration isn’t something to ignore,” Vickers said. Barney glared at him with contempt, barely able to contain himself at the doctor’s indiscretion. “I almost forgot, I spoke to Andy and he can fit you in at half eleven tomorrow.”

“Thanks. Can we get on with the game?”

“What’s going on? What did you do? How bad is it that you’ve gotta go to the hospital?” inquired Harmon.

“Nothing all right? Stubbed my toe, hurt like a bastard and left a mark. For Christ’s sake can we just play golf and not talk about my God damn foot!”

Harmon and Vickers stared at Barney who stood in the beating sun, breathing heavily and gripping his golf club in a way that made them step back in unison. Barney stared at the ground with eyes half closed, whispering to himself. Harmon looked to the doctor and mouthed “What the hell?” to which Vickers gently shook his head with a clear message of ‘let it go’. He approached Barney carefully.

“OK Barn, I’m sorry I overstepped my bounds. I’m used to being open when the three of us play and I didn’t realise this was such a touchy subject. Shall we get on with the game?”

Barney continued to stare vacantly at the ground, the knuckles of his right hand white as they gripped the club with ever more force as he continued to mumble unintelligibility to himself. “Barn? You in there?” Vickers said becoming increasingly worried.

Finally he snapped out of it in every sense of the word. Without warning he jerked his head up to stare at Vickers, then Harmon, then back to the ground. He blinked, blinked again and looked up with an expression of fear. “S-s-s-sorry,” he managed to say.

“It’s OK buddy, maybe we should call it quits today, you look absolutely knackered,” Harmon said, not sure if he should have.

“No,” Barney said though to the others it sounded more like he was talking to himself, “no I can carry on, it’s only golf right? Nothing too strenuous. No, no it’s not…I can have a nap when I get home too, be right as rain. Yes, right as rain, that’s what I’ll be.”

Harmon glanced sideways at Vickers but the old doctor seemed to be just as perplexed. For the remainder of their game both Harmon and Vickers kept the conversation light, taking great care not to say anything about Barney, even the gentle ribbing that was one of the cornerstones of their friendship was avoided. For his part Barney seemed to cool off, played well and chimed in on various topics but Vickers – more so than Harmon – could not shake the feeling that his old friend was not with him, instead replaced by a strange approximation that responded only when needed.

By the time they were done with all eighteen holes the sun was nearing the horizon. Harmon wanted to stop for a drink at the club and though Vickers was in agreement he was worried enough about Barney that he asked if he needed a ride home.

“No, no I’m good. Enjoy your drinks, I’m bushed and need my bed,” Barney said. Vickers studied him long and hard, his mind roiling with ideas, theories and worries. He went to say more, to perhaps advise Barney that he may not be in the best condition to drive but before he could Barney was already unlocking his car with not one look towards his friends.

***

When he arrived home at half eight in the evening Barney was met with silence. The house was empty with Wanda still at work and the twins camping out in Hafan Woods with the Tuttle family – a long awaited trip that Joey Forrestill was meant to be a part of until she broke her leg.

With a heavy sigh he trudged slowly upstairs to the bedroom, falling onto it and succumbing to sleep before he’d managed to remove any clothes but his shoes.

There was a thud that shook the walls, rattling the framed pictures of family holidays that climbed the stairs. Barney woke with a jolt. The fuck was that? Who the hell woke me up?

The soft thump-thump of someone ascending the stairs set his nerves on edge and several scenarios ran through his head, all of which centred around a burglar breaking in. Without another thought or any attempt at rationale Barney jumped from the bed, grabbed the baseball bat that Wanda kept nearby for peace of mind when her husband was working overnight, and stood by the bedroom door. He waited for the footfalls to come near the bedroom and leapt out with a rage-laced scream, brandishing the bat.

“Holy fuck!” Wanda screamed throwing her arms up in defence. Once he saw her face Barney backed down, dropped the bat and stepped back in surprise.

“Shit, I’m sorry hon.”

“Sorry? What the hell is wrong with you?” she shouted with a hand to her chest as her heart tried to beat its way out of her ribcage. Now that he knew his life was no longer in danger something darker took a hold of Barney’s psyche and turned its sights on Wanda.

“Me? What in the living shit is wrong with you barging in here at gone ten and waking me up?” He paused, turning his head from side to side slowly before locking his gaze on her eyes. “How dare you,” he whispered.

“I just got in from work, when are you ever asleep at this time? I’m sorry if I upset you but-”

“But nothing,” Barney yelled, throwing his hands to his sides in clenched fists. He took a step towards Wanda who backed away into the hall. “You’re staying out late on purpose aren’t you? Aren’t you! I sicken you don’t I, I thought we vowed to stay together in sickness and health. Well I’m sick Wanda, real sick and no one can tell me why. No one gives a shit do they? No one wants to go near the freak. Oh he’s so ugly, stay away from him, stay away.”

Wanda was close to tears, confused by her husbands erratic behaviour, and shocked at his language and insinuations. “I…I don’t know what to say Barn. What’s gotten into you? I was at work until half nine you know that. What, what do you think is happening?”

“Maybe you’re shacking up with someone less deformed, is that it? It is, I know it,” he said. With this accusation Wanda felt her own anger flare behind her eyes.

“You horrible man, how can you think that, how can you say such a thing? I love you and have for years. You get a mark on your foot and suddenly decide I’m so disgusted that I’m going to cheat on you? How dare you!” she bellowed back loud enough to scare herself, not that she was going to let Barney see. “You’re sleeping on the couch,” she said, back in control of her tone. Barney’s face reddened, his eyes turned colder than ever and his fists were clenched so tight that tiny rivulets of blood were seeping from between his fingers. Wanda was scared, more so than she could remember being in her life but there was still a glint of hope, of love for her sweet Barney that made it impossible for her to believe he would hurt her. He went to speak but she cut him off with an open palm and said, “Think very carefully Barney Laird. You think long and hard before you say another word.”

For an excruciatingly long minute Barney stared at his wife. He didn’t move a muscle, barely even breathed.

He began to walk stiffly towards her, his face slack, his eyes unfocused. Wanda backed further across the landing until she was stood next to the twins room. Barney no longer seemed to see her, he turned on his heel and slowly descended the stairs. Once at the bottom he turned his head slightly and spoke so lowly Wanda couldn’t hear before shuffling into the living room and quietly, almost delicately, shutting the door behind him.

Wanda inhaled hard, only then realising she’d been holding her breath. For a long time she stood on the landing not knowing what to do and unable to process the sudden and awful change in her husband. It was only when she heard him snoring that she felt safe enough to go to bed. Not that sleep would come easily.

Saturday

Barney could hear a voice or perhaps voices. The sound was muffled and foggy, it seemed to be directed at him at one moment then someone else. Dear God where am I?

Opening his eyes he saw his body laid out in front of him, his feet raised up in the air. There was a shape near his feet but the details were obscured by a bright light that shone from behind it. It moved and he felt a stab of pain shoot through his body followed by the increasingly familiar rage. He recoiled from the shape, readying himself for anything. His vision focused just as he went to shout at the intruder. It was Mel, she had been staring at his foot and poked it whilst saying “Urgh” in disgust. The anger was still there but seeing his daughter’s face mollified him enough to keep control of his tongue.

“Please don’t do that,” he said groggily, fumbling for his glasses.

“Sorry dad. Is your foot OK?” Mel said.

“Don’t worry about it kiddo, your old man’s tougher than he looks.”

As he pulled on his glasses he noticed the state of his foot and started to yell incoherently. From the ankle down the foot was now completely black, nails and all. From where it stopped at his ankle there were more smoke like wisps that were beginning to run up his leg. His mind raced, trying to make sense of everything but all he could do was scream as the fear gripped his heart.

“Dad?” Mel said with tears streaming down her cheeks.

He managed to stop screaming, falling into strained wheezes as he heard two pairs of feet thundering down the stairs. Wanda ran into the room followed by Newt, they both ran to Barney but Wanda pushed Newt away to stand by his sister who grabbed his hand tightly.

“Barn? Barn calm down, come on honey listen to my voice, it’s going to be fine,” Wanda said but Barney kept on wheezing and staring at his foot. Grabbing his face with both hands Wanda forced him to look at her, “It’s me Barn, breathe.”

His eyes focused as she spoke, his desperate wheezes abating into short hitches as he began to calm. He lunged forward without warning, scooping Wanda up in his arms and hugging her tight, burying his face in her chest as he began to weep.

“I’m sorry. About last night, about everything,” he said.

Barney pulled away, looking up at his wife then to his kids until his sight settled on his foot. Wanda followed his gaze and froze, fearing that he would revert back to hysteria.

“I’m freaking out about this guys,” he said still staring at his blackened foot. Wanda held his head against her body and stroked his hair.

“You two, you better get your stuff together. Tabby’s going to be here any minute to pick you up,” she said, pausing until the twins had left the room. “Barney. My poor sweet Barn what are we going to do with you?”

“Take me out back and shoot me,” he said into her clothes. Wanda surprised herself by laughing, happy at the return of her husband’s deadpan humour.

“You silly man. Come on, stiff upper lip and all that. Get dressed and I’ll take you to the hospital.”

Barney looked up at her with a look of abject terror and said, “You think it’s that bad?”

“Huh?” she said not sure what he meant. Then the penny dropped, “Oh! No, not at all. You’ve got an appointment remember?”

His mouth opened and his eyes darted around in their sockets as he searched his memory. “Of course, sorry,” he said, hanging his head in embarrassment.

“Stop apologising now hon, there’s no need,” she said running her fingers through Barney’s hair.

A knock at the door caused him to jolt and in turn made Wanda jump followed by a nervous titter of a laugh. “That’ll be Tabby for the kids. You go get changed and I’ll see the to this.”

***

“It was by that tree,” Barney said as he and Wanda walked along the route he had taken two days prior.

They had set out for the field not long after returning home from the hospital. Vickers’ friend Andy had run through numerous test that took up a good portion of the day and after telling them that it would be a week until the results were in he proceeded to ask the both of them some questions. In the end he admitted to being as flummoxed as Vickers but did offer a sliver of hope when he mentioned that if they could find the rock that Barney had kicked then it might help matters. It was this thought that Barney had held onto during their talk and the subsequent drive home, a ray of hope that allowed him to keep control of his temper. He even admitted to Wanda that it was a damn fine idea and he couldn’t believe it never occurred to him.

Now they found themselves at the tree where Barney had seen the dripping rock. Enoch was running around the field, ignorant to all the goings on and enjoying the thrill of chasing the stick that Wanda kept throwing for him.

“Be careful,” she said, lobbing the stick. From his back pocket Barney produced a pair of washing up gloves and waved them at Wanda with a smile.

“I have no intention of touching it,” he said. Tilting his head to one side he added, “Ever again,” and pulled on the gloves.

At the base of the tree he crouched down and gently picked at the fallen blossoms; removing one, peering at the ground and then removing another. It was slow going but he didn’t dare go any faster. A breeze picked up for a moment and blew a patch of blossoms away. From his crouched viewpoint Barney saw something glinting and after a few more gingerly removed petals he saw the rock.

“Found it,” he proclaimed and continued to remove the natural debris. Wanda appeared at his side and crouched down. They both studied the rock intensely as it rested in the shade. Barney rubbed a gloved hand over his mouth and chin, steeling himself for the next step. It took a few tries to successfully pick it up as Barney kept rotating his hand this way and that trying to figure out the best place to position his fingers to get a good grip and avoid the numerous spikes. Once his fingers were firmly in place he lifted the rock and quickly dropped it into the plastic container he had brought.

Picking up the container and walking out of the shade Barney’s mouth slackened at the sight of the rock. It was now transparent, looking more like a lump of crystal. Barney looked out of the corner of his eye at Wanda and saw a similar expression of confusion and surprise.

“Well would you look at that,” he said, breaking the silence.

“You said it was black on Thursday didn’t you?” Wanda said peering closely at the crystal that was once a rock.

“I sure did. It was dripping though, guess whatever was in it has seeped into the ground.”

“Let me check.”

“No!” Barney blurted, his mind a flurry of worst-case scenarios of what might happen if she touched whatever had oozed from the rock. Wanda looked at Barney, saw the fear on his face and smiled.

“OK Barn, lets just go home.”

***

When they arrived home Barney placed the container on a side table and picked up his phone. Wanda disappeared into the kitchen to make lunch and so was followed at every step by Enoch hoping to get some choice leftovers.

Pausing with his thumb hovering over the number pad Barney stared at the transparent rock. He knew he needed to tell the hospital about it and they would make an appointment for him next week and do whatever it was they thought they were going to do to find answers. Before he realised what he was doing the phone was ringing and quickly answered by Vickers.

“Hello?” said the doctor. Barney stared at the mouthpiece in confusion.

“Eric?”

“Barney, is that you? How did it all go at the Royal?”

“Uh, fine I guess. Nothing conclusive but they did ask to see the rock so me and the missus wandered out to the field for it,” Barney said still confused. His gaze had reverted back to the rock in its cheap plastic box.

“Any joy?”

Barney jumped at the voice but couldn’t take his eyes off the rock. “Well I found it if that’s what you mean.”

“Great stuff. So when will you be taking it to the Royal?”

“I uh. I was going to call them but I must’ve called you instead, running on automatic I guess.”

Barney’s brow knotted as he tried to figure out what he’d done but found the rock to be taking up the majority of his conscious. It’s all that damn rock’s fault. It did this to me, it ruined me. “Listen Eric, I can’t stand this thing being here, I don’t want it in my house, I don’t want it near my family. Damn it Eric I want the thing gone now before it gets Wanda or the kids.” The words fell from his mouth. Even as they were spoken Barney knew he sounded crazy, a part of him was rational enough to know an inanimate rock can’t get someone but he felt it nonetheless.

There was silence on the line for a moment. That waste of flesh is calling the loony bin, he wants me locked up. “Not to worry my friend, give me five minutes. I’ll come over, take it off your hands and make sure it gets to the Royal soon as,” Vickers said. Barney exhaled loudly as he hung up the phone, stretched his arms and cracked his neck. Maybe every thing’s going to be all right.

He turned around to see Wanda in the doorway looking at him worriedly. “What’s going on in that head of yours?” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“You talk like that rock is alive which is crazy, it’s just…”

She saw the change in her husbands face but before she could react he took the two steps to cross to her and in one swift motion placed a hand on her chest and slammed her against the wall in the hallway. Wanda cringed, tried to cry out but couldn’t breathe with Barney’s hand pushing so hard against her. She looked into his eyes and saw madness, fury, hatred. His face had taken on an ashen colour, his teeth were clenched tightly together and she could see the muscles of his jaw flexing. She felt tears sting her eyes, she wanted to strike him, to snap him out of whatever had taken hold but couldn’t find the strength or courage.

He blinked once, twice. He looked down at his hand, into her eyes then back to his hand. All of a sudden he doubled over and fell to the floor as if he had taken a hefty punch to the gut. He propped himself up against the wall, wrapped his arms around his knees and began rocking back and forth saying “I’m so sorry, I’m sorry, so sorry, please forgive me, I’m so sorry.”

Wanda, still pressed against the opposite wall, didn’t dare move. She stared at Barney with a mixture of fear and heartbreak. There was a part of her that wanted to embrace her husband and tell him it was going to be fine but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Instead she watched and watched as Barney cried into his arms and repeated his apologetic mantra.

There was a knock at the door that made Wanda jump out of her skin, but she still didn’t dare move, not knowing what might set Barney off again.

Another knock, louder and faster. “Barney? Wanda? It’s Eric, are you in there?”

Wanda let out a long whistle of a breath and inched her way along the wall to the door. Flinging it open, she slipped outside and closed it behind her. As soon as Vickers saw the look on her face and the trails of drying tears he said “My God Wanda what happened?”

“He’s getting worse Eric, oh Christ I don’t know what to do,” she said constantly glancing back at the door.

“Did he hurt you?” Wanda shook her head but didn’t speak. “Let me talk to him, we’ll get him into bed to rest and get that rock to the Royal.”

Without another word he opened the door. Barney had stopped rocking and was now staring at the opposite wall with half-closed eyes, still saying sorry under his breath.

Vickers crouched down next to him and carefully laid a hand on his shoulder. “You look dog tired, time for a lie down wouldn’t you say?” Barney nodded vacantly and with a guiding hand from Vickers rose to his feet and climbed the stairs.

Once at the bedroom Barney stumbled to the bed, falling into it and lying on his side. Vickers watched him for a moment and thought about asking his friend what was going through his head. After a second of hesitation he decided to let him rest.

Barney closed his eyes and concentrated on the sound of footsteps descending the stairs. He could hear muffled speech and strained to hear it but could barely make out a single syllable.

I know what they’re saying. They’re talking about locking me up, they want me out of the picture so they can…so they can what? She’s leaving me, she’s going to vanish into the night with that quivering mass of fat that pretends to be a doctor but can’t help anyone out ’cause he knows nothing! I can’t let her leave, I can’t let them lock me up. What to do, what to do.

His mind continued to whirl with the worst possible thoughts. He wanted to act, to get up and sort his life out. To sort that cheating whore out more like, force her to admit this was the plan all along. Yes she colluded with Vickers, they made the rock, they put it where I would kick it and now they’re celebrating that their plan worked. Get up Barn, get up!

But he couldn’t. Every time he tried he felt a fatigue like nothing he’d ever experienced before. Rest. Rest your bones for when you really need to act.

***

Waking late in the evening Barney felt like a new man. The aches were a muddied memory and he found himself in a state of calm he hadn’t known in years. He wondered why he had been so angry at everyone, why he had thought such awful things about Wanda and Vickers. It didn’t make any sense in the light of his new found serenity. With a joyful flourish he threw back the duvet and swung his legs over the edge of the bed.

His eye caught the blackened foot and he felt his spine stiffen. Slowly he pulled his trouser leg up, eyes widening by the second as he saw the black had made its way further still. With a final yank bringing the trouser leg up past his knee he could see that the black now covered his leg all the way up to the joint with several smoky tendrils making their way further up, disappearing under the trousers. There was nothing left to do but scream.

The sound that came from him was raw and coarse, tearing at his throat. He did not move, just sat and screamed. Newt ran into the room shouting, “Dad?”

Barney turned to the sound of his only son with a feeling of hope but once he saw the boy, saw the fear on his face – no, the disgust – he lost control of himself. “What? What is it you little shit? Come in here to poke fun at your fucked up old man? Get out of here I never want to see that freckled face of yours again. Go!”

“Dad…but…” Newt said. With a fearsome bellow Barney spun around on his rear, reached over to the bedside table and found his glasses case. Without pausing he pitched it with all his might towards Newt, narrowly missing him and breaking in half as it struck the wall. Bawling his eyes out Newt ran away, leaping down the stairs three at a time. Barney stayed knelt on the bed, his fists clenched. This is it Barney old boy, time to act.

He could hear more footfalls rapidly climbing the stairs and within moments Wanda was in the doorway screaming at him but he didn’t hear a word. Take your time, breathe, that’s it. He inhaled deeply and let out a feral roar. Leaping from the bed he picked up the lamp and swung it high above his head as he ran for Wanda. She screamed in terror and ran for the stairs, slamming the door behind her as hard as she could just as Barney reached it. The hardwood connected with his face with brutal force, knocking him into a daze and weakening his knees enough that he fell onto his back. Blood rushed from his nose, choking him as it poured into his throat. He coughed hard causing a red mist to erupt from his mouth that settled onto his face. Take your time I said.

Bloodied and dazed, he couldn’t find the strength to get up and instead laid where he fell and listened. He heard Wanda’s terrified staccato voice; the twins worried tones; Enoch barking in confusion. Get up or they’ll leave. He managed to roll onto his side but any further movement was halted by a violent cough expelling more blood onto the carpet.

“No dawdling just move it,” he heard Wanda say. She’s in the hall, she’s taking them away. Get. Up. Using all he had left he propped himself up against the bed but his strength failed him. Fuckin’ weak. Pathetic. He heard the front door slam shut soon followed by the sound of Wanda’s car tearing out of the drive. You lost.

Barney Laird sat in his room and wept. It was all he could do after the rage left him. Get a hold of yourself. Call her and beg for help, you know you’re sick and so does she. It wouldn’t take much effort to get her back here would it?

He knew there was something wrong with the thought but what it was eluded him. Picking up his phone he called Wanda. It rang and rang. Not sure what I was expecting. A sensation took hold as he waited, a peculiar discomfort in his stomach. Putting the phone down he lifted up his blood splattered vest. The tendrils from his leg were now past his waistline. Barney tried to stop from screaming but found himself beyond control as before his eyes the black was moving. Slowly, agonizingly so, but definitely moving.

“Oh God, oh God, oh God,” he said before delving into screams. He tore at his clothes, he tore at his flesh. Unknown to him Wanda finally answered the call but soon hung up when all she heard were the screeches of a madman that had once been her husband.

Sunday

Sleep never came to Barney. He stayed propped up against the bed all night staring into space after it became too painful to scream anymore. From time to time he picked up the phone and called Wanda only for it to go to voicemail. At just gone nine in the morning he tried once more but got the same result as before.

There was a knock at the door. Barney’s head snapped upwards at the sound. She came back. He jumped to his feet and raced downstairs, throwing the door open. Before him stood Harmon Forrestill who took a step back at the sight of the blood covered, wild haired accountant.

“Barney?”

“Harmon, what are you doing here?”

“Can I come in?”

“I guess,” Barney said, moving aside to allow Harmon in before closing the door.

“I wanted to come over and get some stuff for Wanda and the twins.”

“Why?”

“Because they don’t want to be here right now, they’re stayin’ at ours.”

That’s it, that’s what’s going on. How could I be so blind? It wasn’t Vickers she’s leaving me for, Christ how could I be so stupid. The whore is shacking up with this…this monster that pretended to be my friend. It’s what he wanted all along.

“Barn, you in there buddy?” Harmon said breaking Barney from his thoughts. “Did you hear what I said?” Barney shook his head, his rising fury robbing him of the ability to speak. “I said you need help, you need to admit yourself so they can figure out what’s happened to you.”

“Help?” Barney said incredulously. “All I’ve done is try to get help. I went to Vickers and the old coot knew nothing, I went to the Royal and they were just as useless. Please tell me oh wise Mr. Forrestill, who the fuck is going to help me? You? I don’t think so, you’ve got what you wanted all along.”

“Huh? What the hell are you talkin’ about?”

“You wanted my Wanda ever since you met her didn’t you? You wormed your way into my life to get close to her and now that superficial cow is done with me you’ve swooped in to take her for your own. Haven’t you!”

As he spoke Barney could feel the black making its way up the side of his chest but this time there were no screams, this time it felt good. Cracking his neck from side to side he let out of a breath that sounded to Harmon like a growl that no human should be able to produce. “Fuck you Barn,” he said, his own temper reaching it’s tipping point, “all I want is to help you. Why? Because you’re my friend, or so I thought. Do you really think that? Jesus, what’s wrong with you?”

Harmon’s confrontational tone was the final straw. The black infesting his body seemed to sing in Barney’s ears. Get him.

Without another word Barney lunged at Harmon, coming in hot with a right hook. He didn’t take into account the speed the younger man was capable of and missed his face by a hair’s breadth. Doesn’t matter, keep going. He placed a shoulder into Harmon’s chest crushing him against the wall. That’s it! Barney felt a pain in his spine and realised Harmon had brought both fists down onto his back. The kid’s stronger than me. Doesn’t matter.

“Barn! What the-” Harmon began but was silenced by Barney bringing his head up to connect with the young man’s chin. Dazed from the blow Harmon tried to shake his vision clear and Barney saw an opening. With a roar from the very depths of hell he grabbed a mug the twins had made in school two years ago – Newt made it, Mel finalised it, as they used to say – and in one swift swing brought it crashing into Harmon’s temple. He was dead before he hit the floor but Barney leapt on top of him and drove the broken mug into his neck. Once, twice, many more times. Each stab of the mug was accompanied by a spray of blood and mad laughter.

In the midst of this he caught his reflection in the mirror and stopped. A tendril of the black made it’s way slowly, torturously, up his right cheek. Barney breathed deeply, one final breath before he was taken. The tendril reached for his eye, touched it. The black exploded into his eye like dye in water.

Welcome.

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