Hunched in his trenchcoat, the little man limped down the alleyway. A grey darkness and the smell of discarded burger wrappers surrounded him. He hated the city. The sky was too low and, in the alleyways, the windowless buildings pressed too close together. The little man was not the kind of person to ever wish for anything: he knew whatever he wanted, he did not deserve it. But in the alleyways he felt a yearning to be back on the road. He had been thrown out of the circus; he couldn’t go back there, not after what had happened. He’d have to start again. Start again with another show, other people who didn’t know him, another act. Something so amazing, so good, nobody would ask where he’d been before.
As he thought dark thoughts something darker than the darkness of the alleyway moved to his right. Something fluid. He stood still. It was like a pool of ink, the angry liquid cloud left by an invisible squid. Some sort of animal.
The little man kept very still. Something flowed nearer, from behind the bin. The thing’s eyes were almost as dark as the rest of its body, and they settled on the man. Who smiled.
The man wondered if he had made the right decision. The new circus was more miserable than the last one; the roof of his trailer leaked and the drops in the bucket counted time too rapidly. Him and the Thing had been accepted as a sideshow, something to see for free on the way to the bearded lady and to the man who was so tall he’d die and to the sorry white tent where tired horses hobbled beneath sallow feathered girls. Him and the thing in that leaky trailer. Every night staring at each other. The sallow girls, who in previous circuses had not been that old, with downward corners to their mouths, did not want the man.
The Thing did not like being tied up to the radiator, but the man left him there. The thing slid everywhere otherwise.
Money had not been as good as he hoped. So the Thing flowed and slid, and you were never quite sure where he started and where the air ended; but it did not really do anything. It just stood there with fathomless darkness where his eyes should be, looking at you. Shimmering and yet still. The little man felt his instinct had failed. His instinct – all he’d ever had in the world, with his body. Now both were busted.
The little man threw the bottle on the wall. The Thing flowed around the raining glass. The man threw himself against the Thing and held it against the radiator. First it was just a hiss and then an animal cry, what the man had wanted, signs of pain, and the man, baring his teeth, had smiled and pressed him closer against the hot metal. But then there had come these voices. Several voices, one crying, one howling in pain, one full of hatred. Three voices from the silent thing.
The man was more successful now. They had a proper billboard, and people paid a whole dollar. A dollar to hear the voices as often as people would pay, and more and more of them paid now, because the man had finally found out how to make the darkest voices come. There had been several instruments, but the cattle prod was the one that worked, and you could hide it under the seat in the cage, and connect it to the bars.
It was not just the voices people were coming for either. With the prod more things had started happening. The little man was glad he had thought of the prod. When you touched the Thing with it, first its consistency changed. It seemed to bubble like tar. That was when it started making the high-pitched noise. It would try to escape, try to flow around the ground, try to find refuge against the ceiling – but the ceiling was metal and electrified too. And that’s when the voices and the demons started talking. There seemed to be more, as time went by.
Here was how the Thing was billed: “Hear the Voices of the Dead! Hear the Spirits! A channel to the Demon World!”.
It had not yet been given a name.
The very first time the Thing remembered being awake, being conscious, was one afternoon when a very pale man was staring at him. It was a rainy afternoon and the pale man was the only member of the audience. The Thing was writhing in maddening pain against the ceiling and something inside it jolted awake, and it heard itself screaming in languages it did not understand.
Every week, except on days when the circus traveled, women fainted, and ice cream fell from the slack jaws of the men. Children were not allowed in.
The leak in the trailer still not had been fixed; but it would come, the man knew. It would come.
Now the Thing was not only awake in pain during the show; sometimes it awoke at night, in the trailer. It did not remember when this had started happening. Perhaps weeks. A long time.
On these nights the Thing knew it was conscious and tied up to the radiator, and it would slide back and forth in movements that soothed him, repetitive, endless. He would barely register the pain every time it touched the hot metal. The Thing could feel the man, who he knew had put him in the cage, breathe regularly somewhere in some other part of the trailer. It could also feel someone else, closer. Inside him. Whispering something very low; but the Thing knew all he had to do was wait. One day the voice would be clear.
Inky, the voice said. Your name is Inky.
The door to the cage was open; one of the farmers who had paid a dollar was face down in the sawdust, one of its legs twisted at an unnatural angle. The others were screaming. They sounded like what they had paid to listen to: a chorus of demons.
The little man was nowhere to be seen.
The voice inside Inky’s head had told it what to do. It had made him strong. The voice had kept talking and talking in Inky’s ear, while Inky had been staying there against the metal ceiling long enough for the worried little man to open the door. The voice had drowned out the bubbling of Inky’s skin and the other voices screaming from Inky and the knowledge that the top of Inky’s body was melting and burning and would have to be left there, on the ceiling, in the cage.
After the door had opened, the voice had said Push That Man, and then, Bite him, and then, Keep going, Keep going, Keep going until it hurts like when you touch the radiator.
Inky was far away when the human chorus died down.
The little man was hobbling down another city street, in another city. This city was greyer than the last one. The buildings seemed even closer.
Inky watched the little man turn down an alleyway.