The memories of that night faded like a dream, images twisting in to one another and joining together, chronology falling by the wayside as concepts overtook detail and the memories were dominated by other senses. Henry found it strange how he could remember some things so clearly yet huge details, important details, seemed to slip through his fingers like sand. What he could remember never answered any of his questions; rather they would just create more, leave him frozen in the middle of whatever task he was attempting, staring into nothing and trying to cling to whatever small memory had reached him – the small of damp earth, the sensation of skin prickling from extreme heat, dirt under his fingernails, honey on his tongue.
He remembered some things; images burned into his memory that had somehow survived whatever his mind had been through that night, in the same way that while the rest of a dream or a nightmare could be completely forgotten, snapshots would remain, playing over and over again like a video on loop. He remembered the trees burning around him, flames licking up into the sky, red embers falling around him and somehow continuing to glow even when they had touched the ground. He remembered soft green grass and streams springing from them, clear water and red wine and honey, the sweetness mixing with the blood on his lips. He remembered laughter and another person, a dark figure ever present, sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes something that was neither. He remembered the whole world spinning, faster and faster, colours and shapes blurring into long streaked lines until he thought he might throw up, and he remembered this never more clearly than when it happened, briefly, as he awoke with a start and noise and feeling faded as the room continued to spin around him.
“Do you have any dreams about it?”
Camilla asked the question suddenly one early afternoon, when the four of them were in various stages of tentative relaxation around Henry’s living room, the overcast day making the lighting dull and pleasantly soft and the mood perhaps a little confessional. They all looked at her, and then tentatively at one another, as though wondering if anyone was going to speak first, if anyone was going to admit it, or if they really were each the only other person who had been experiencing it, that it had been a trick question after all.
“I never remember them,” Henry eventually said, because despite the fact it was evident they were all experiencing similar things it was clear nobody else was going to say so first. “They fade too quickly. They’re fading before I wake up properly.”
“That’s the problem I’m having,” Camilla sighed. “I try to hold on to them long enough to scribble them down, but as soon as my pen touches the paper I’m left completely blank.”
“Do you want to remember it?” Francis asked. He was curled up as small as possible in an armchair, holding a pillow to his chest and staring first at Henry and then Camilla from over the top of it. “Do you not think it might be a bit much?”
Three pairs of eyes regarded him with various levels of confusion.
“Why would it be too much?” Charles eventually asked. “We already lived it.”
“Yes, but…” Francis chewed at the side of his thumbnail for a moment, trying to find the words. “It wasn’t exactly us, was it?”
“Clearly some part of us remembers what happened,” Henry said. “Unless I’m the only one with any memories whatsoever.”
Henry didn’t miss the looks of relief at his words, though he couldn’t understand why they had all thought it had to be kept a secret. Really they should be comparing notes, because Henry was certain that they wouldn’t all remember the same parts – in fact he was certain that they hadn’t all been together for the entirety of the experience, because he was certain he had memories where he was on his own, or perhaps with only one other person. He looked at them each in turn, keeping his face impassive.
“Why do I get the impression everybody was assuming we each kept our own secrets?” he asked, and didn’t miss the way everyone avoided his gaze and, in Francis’s case, looked decidedly uncomfortable. “Is this about the nature of certain events, or is this about the man I killed?”
The words created an almost indiscernible ripple of shock, the kind that always came from the sudden addressing of the elephant in the room. Henry found himself mildly amused, though he couldn’t quite place why.
“So you do remember that, than,” Charles eventually said, now sounding dizzy with relief. “That’s good, I suppose.”
“Of course I remember,” Henry replied, giving a small smile. “I think it would be impossible to forget. Is that what this is about? I do hope the three of you haven’t been wasting your time attempting to work out how to inform me I’m a murderer.”
“Well, not exactly,” Francis said weakly.
“Mostly we were just wondering if we were remembering it right,” Camilla added, much more matter-of-fact, “and the etiquette of asking somebody if such a thing is true.”
“As far as I know, that part is definitely true. I do wish I remembered more details, though. It’s all rather blurred after the initial event.”
“You hit him,” Francis said, looking a little pale, “but I can’t explain how we ended up covered in so much blood.”
They lapsed into silence again. It was a question that had been bothering Henry, too. He was certain that Francis wouldn’t have looked for the report in any of the local papers, and he was reasonable sure that Charles wouldn’t think to keep looking after there had been nothing for a few days. Camilla, he thought, might reasonably keep an eye on things, so perhaps she was aware of the terminology used, but Henry had been turning the word over and over in his head since he had seen the small column. The corpse had been mutilated, it had said, and while it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume wild animals may have gotten to the corpse before it had been discovered, something had to account for the blood they had been absolutely drenched in. It was clear to see that not even Bunny could be fooled by the deer story, and Henry knew that not one of them could in good conscience even pretend to delude themselves that that was the case, even if they wanted to. Something had happened that had covered them in that much blood, and for the first time Henry wondered if Francis had been on to something when he had asked if they wanted to remember it.
Henry was sure part of him remembered, somewhere deep down, just what had covered them in that much blood and probably a lot more detail besides. Sometimes he woke up with a start, feeling warm blood on his face and hands and in his mouth and under his fingernails; he would be able to smell it, that deep, sickening metallic smell that clung to his nostrils and gave him a headache. Within a few minutes it would clear, leaving his heart thudding and the room still moving, lazily now, back and forth around him as he tried to centre himself again; somehow he knew that he had dreamt about it, that he had seen it again, and more and more he felt like a ticking time bomb, waiting for the moment where the memories would come back to him full force and he would have to look upon whatever it was his brain was so desperately trying to protect him from.
He discovered the trick purely by accident. Tightly wound one evening, he had had a few glasses of wine – red, though the colour of it on his lips set his heart racing again – and it had made him pleasantly drowsy. He had managed to catch a few hours’ sleep on the couch in his living room and when he woke, suddenly and with a gasp and a crick in his neck, the memories of the dream remained. They were vague, distant, like most dreams, but they didn’t fade away and they remained in place as he focused on them, grappling around in the dark for a scrap sheet of paper and anything to write with. When he transcribed it into his journal later, making sense of the mismatch of Greek and Latin words his sleep-addled brain had thrown down, he found he was able to understand the key phrases and fill in the gaps; the images were still there. Somehow, he had remembered.
“Have you tried wine?” he asked one evening, at Francis’s apartment this time, when the exhausted faces of his friends told him they were fed up with the questions. “It helps me sleep.”
They took the hint, knowing full well that nothing helped Henry sleep if his body decided it wasn’t going to. It was true – sometimes Henry would have to weather the long night half-drunk and sleepless, alone with his questions and finding himself in the frustrating place where he couldn’t rest but he couldn’t work either; he would wander the rooms like a ghost, telling himself that some discomfort was the price to pay for answers. He had to show he was eager. He had to show he could face it. His patience was always rewarded just in time – on the nights where he was convinced he would simply give up, call it a lost cause through no fault of his own and get some work done instead, he would always find the pleasant haze of sleepiness come over him and even though it would always end the same way – with his heart in his throat and nausea flipping his stomach over itself – he allowed himself to enjoy it.
He knew when they had all found out. He knew because they seemed to have come to the same conclusion he himself had come to when he had awoken, a strange mixture of elated and disgusted and confused, feeling drying blood under his fingernails and tasting metal at the back of his throat. He knew because none of them mentioned it.
“I don’t think I was even human,” Camilla eventually said, when the silence had become too damning. “Sometimes I’m sure I was something else. I ran on all fours.”
“When I drank from a stream,” Francis said, in a rare moment of confession, “I remember I could lap it up easily with my tongue, and it didn’t even occur to me to use my hands.”
“I remember something biting my arm,” Charles added, “sinking its teeth in, the sharpest things I’d ever felt. It felt like cutting through warm butter. It didn’t hurt, or at least not as much as I thought it would.”
“Did you see what it was?” Henry asked.
Charles shook his head. “When I tried to focus on it, I couldn’t. And I don’t mean I just couldn’t focus my eyes, I mean whatever it was just kept shifting. I couldn’t focus properly on it, because each time I did it would change. It gave me an awful headache. Even dreaming about it, I get the headache.”
I know what we did, Henry thought, suddenly, urgently, even as he nodded and sympathised. I know what we did to that man and I know every one of you knows, too. I know, and you know, and we can never, ever, say it out loud.
“Drink?” Charles suddenly asked, getting to his feet as though he knew the answer already – which he did, because three nods answered him, as though glad he had been the one to finally bring up the fact they were all in desperate need of a drink.
“If you don’t mind,” Francis added weakly, “I think I’ll stay away from wine tonight.”
“What a relief,” Henry replied neutrally. “Because now that I think about it, I really don’t think I have any left.”