The Dragon’s House
The afternoon sun had muted into the first smears of grey twilight. The house squatted in the middle of a good stretch of land, ugly but with good bones like a palsied supermodel. It was far from the nearest town which was a rough, rusted idea of a town thanks to the downturn. They couldn’t resist a chance to be cruel in person. All their expense and planning held no more import than a playground prank but it fitted their inward cultural perceptions of brash, righteous youth. They were bright and sharp with the need to be cruel, spending a cultural inheritance of arrogance without ever feeling they had wasted a single cent. It would make for good content, they told themselves as they cavorted across the field to the house with the rental car locked up on the side of the road.
Chris held up the phone as Maria stuck her tongue out and gave him the finger. Her eyes glittered with excitement before her face softened into a broad smile. They were as much enamoured of themselves as they were one another, tied into a perfect knot of narcissism.
‘So tell everyone where we’re going today.’ Chris said.
Paul looked towards the house and leaned back, raised his arms and hollered to the sky.
‘To THE DRAGON’S LAIR, HOO HA.’ he said.
Chris and Maria exchanged wearied glances before Chris lowered his phone and sneered.
‘If you’re going to say cool things for the video, maybe tell me next time?’ he said.
Paul snorted and pulled his greatcoat around his bloated stomach like a security blanket, glowering above the matted spade of beard which hung from his chin. His hair flew up around his face as he glared at Maria. Maria and Chris shared another knowing look. Chris focused his phone on the house.
‘Say it again.’ he said.
Paul wheeled around and belted out the phrase again. Chin up, chest out and fists to the sky in a roar of youthful defiance. It was authentic until he finished and gave Chris a desperate, quivering look before he put his hands into his pockets.
‘It’ll look good to cut to.’ Paul said.
Chris nodded. Paul was right, but he resented how intuitive he was with the technical side of things. They were complementary in their opposition. Chris was a realist pretending to be a romantic and Paul was the opposite. It was why Chris was the face of the channel, glib and charming with the willingness to be cruel in pursuit of his desires and Paul orbited, making everything look good and begging for a moment’s screen time with mewling, wet eyes.
Maria had pointed out a few things about Paul, late at night, with her small breasts crushed against Chris’ forearm, listing off her observations in a rattling whisper as they made ruined hills of his sheets. She was on their channel all the time, and Paul had pointed out the dip in views, but Chris enjoyed fucking her too much to see his concerns beyond a vague envious bleating. Paul was their audience, Chris knew, but it made sense to try new things. It was Paul’s job to make them work.
He thought of Paul, if at all, with a contempt it had grown harder to hide when they were together. Chris wanted to be needed, but not to need. Paul, with his soft, round body and pleading, wet eyes handled the technical side of their channel. A better man would have been grateful but Chris’ anima kept him resentful of Paul long past the point of being healthy for either of them.
Chris was sharp with everyone he spoke to, then whipped out tactile bursts of affection and apology whilst Paul spent hours grazing through an endless amount of food whilst sulking about the wifi connections and how much the trip was eating into his data. Maria whined to Chris, flirted in front of him and even teased Paul, but his eagerness bored her. Europe had been a ramshackle affair, but the videos had done well, all of them teasing the last stop before they flew home.
The Dragon’s House.
Ernst Winkler had started a video channel online. He would spit and enthuse about his love of heavy metal, brown hair blown out from his acromegalic face in corkscrew curls. His gap-toothed smile and childish earnestness drew him an audience. A manlet, with too much innocence to hide but too little adulthood to harness into charm. There was an amusing dissonance, in he titled himself Konig Drache, or King Dragon, referring to his German heritage. Despite the remote location and the clear disarray of his life, he made sure he paid for internet access He denied himself small pleasures, even essentials to ensure the world had access to the life he presented.
People asked questions. He answered everything without guile, saw it all as a glorious portal to a world of friends, people who didn’t dismiss him for his lack of personal hygiene, who saw his mood swings for their expressions of enthusiasm over anything approaching violence.
It was a world of people who didn’t have to live with him.
Ernst fell in love. His open surrender was a thing of warmth, expressed on his channel, as everything was. He composed doggerel for Julie and proposed to her in a live stream.
She rejected him in front of thousands and then revealed she was thirteen years old. Ernst ended the live stream with a click and sat there. A small, thin smile grew across his face like an ulcer.
No one had seen his smile and lived. Some parts of himself were private, controlled in a way which contradicted the amiable squalor he projected. He withdrew a tattered journal from where it sat by his feet and opened it up, ticked an item off his list and set it down again.
Create controversy and mockery before leaking home address.
He recorded a response video. Ernst chose anger over pain, but he made sure he wept at intervals, having practiced in the mirror and watching the impact of his actions on his mother and sister. They had fled the house six years ago after the death of his father. He volunteered the information, planted it like a landmine in the mulch of his public image. He had visitors within a week of the news, and at first, he chased them away, waddling along, face flushed with an indignation he didn’t feel but recalled from his father as he threw things in their direction.
He changed his approach when people expected it. At night, he would surf the other channels, studying his reaction and tweaking it for subsequent visitors. Many of them never entered the property, and those who did, were not strangers to him. People were so keen to give up their intimate details if they thought there was attention involved. The internet was a bucket of crabs, ceaseless rivalry and activity which as time went on, became an opportunity for him to indulge himself without attracting too much attention.
Much like the three visitors he saw coming up the path. Ernst knew the distance they had travelled and watched their videos of their pilgrimage. Judging by the amount of subscribers, he was one of the few watching, and when he walked down the stairs, he stopped by the garage and picked up a wrench, thick and cold but crusted with blood and oil, pushed it through his belt at the small of his back and pushed his t-shirt over it.
He loved his audience.
He was a foot taller than Paul but he stood with stiff shoulders as he shuffled his weight from one foot to another. His black Scorpions t-shirt was faded to the colour of ash with the band logo reduced to an outline. His jeans were stiff with dirt and old sweat, faded white at the thighs and knees and tucked into unlaced boots which had the colour and consistency of wet cardboard. Ernst grinned beneath the kinked corona of unwashed hair which framed his face. He gave the two men a perfunctory glance, but he stared at Maria. His interest in her was familiar, yet not without a growing loathing for how unguarded it was. Behind him, they heard the grunting snuffles of the pigs in their pens, and the dissonant buzz of flies in a duet which made their fillings ache.
Chris said hi to break the tension.
‘It is lovely to see you.’ Ernst said.
She caught the spicy, sour musk of his unwashed skin and wrinkled her nose with repugnance. His welcome was unwanted and courtesy made for tepid, forgettable footage which defeated the object of their visit. She spoke through gritted teeth, lips drawn back to approximate a smile and broke the connection between them as she whispered to Chris to keep filming.
Chris looked at the phone in his hand with disappointment before he tossed it to Paul.
‘Here, keep it on him.’
Chris raised his hand and smiled, said hi as Paul filmed the encounter.
‘I’m not great with people.’ Ernst said.
His grin raised his cheekbones until they were knuckles protruding through his sallow skin.
Paul and Chris exchanged a single, terse nod before they carried on.
‘Have you travelled far?’ Ernst said.
The three of them shrugged, keen to appear aloof and effortless to further enhance the perceived wealth of social currency they had over him.
‘You live a long way from anywhere, man.’ Chris said. His voice was a stoned drawl, approximating cool but communicating a veiled contempt.
‘You want to come in and see the house?’ he said.
They accepted and followed him inside.
Paul recalled the videos, all the extra rooms packed with refuse until Ernst lived in one room of the house. Yellowing stacks of newspapers and magazines littered the rooms, and each breath they took tasted of dust and excrement. Maria smelled the sour tang of spoiled food and milk as they walked past what used to be the kitchen. They followed him up the stairs, where the lights had stopped working, keeping the upstairs in a perpetual state of twilight. He turned and faced them then gestured to a mildewed rug a few feet ahead of the group.
‘Be careful, some boards are loose.’ he said.
Paul nodded as he continued filming. Chris and Maria walked ahead. Neither of them watched how Ernst moved, darting around the edges of the mildewed rug a few feet in front before they followed him.
There was enough time to cry out as the edges of the rug leapt up and they fell through the floor. Chris and Maria fell first. Paul slipped and fell forwards, plummeted after them but landed to the right, slamming into the ground with enough force to push the air from his lungs.
Paul wheezed and rolled onto his side. Maria wailed as she laid there, her right arm folded under her and her left leg bent in an impossible direction. Paul saw, from the corner of his eye, how she tried to lift her head. Her lips were red with blood and her eyes were unfocused as she looked at him.
‘Is Chris ok?’ she said.
Paul couldn’t make out the details, but there was a slow, expanding puddle of blood on the floor beneath him. He hung from the metal spears, pierced through his throat, stomach, groin and both thighs. As a final insult, one spear had pushed through the soft flesh under his chin and his head was pushed back, with his face twisted into a final expression of distended, awful shock. All the beauty had fled from him and left behind ripped, bleeding meat.Paul tried to stand up. A flare of sharp, unstable pain burst in his right hip and kept him on the floor.
‘Does he look ok, you stupid cunt.’ he said.
Maria tried to sit up, but collapsed forwards, shrieking and insensible like a fresh widow. Paul wrestled with his own bulk to get upright. Her screams stabbed him through the temples but he focused on getting himself upright, working on a blind, primal need to survive.
He looked up and saw the ceiling in the hallway, wondered how far they had fallen. Paul stared at Chris’ body. The air down here was close, thick with the stink of blood and voided bowels. Paul gagged as he took a deep breath. There was little to no light down here, and so he had to find his bearings by touch. A single door was set into the wall and he turned the handle to find it locked. Maria was weeping as she dragged herself away from Chris and shouted upwards.
‘Please let us go.’ she said.
Paul tried to force the door, but it took all his effort to stay upright, let alone use his bulk to help him get out. Maria’s calls degraded into sobs of self-pity and fear, which angered Paul.
‘Shut the fuck up.’ he said, between gritted teeth.
She stopped talking and looked at him with pleading, desperate eyes.
He shook the door in its frame but it did not move. Paul hurt all over, but a dire need to live kept him moving, trying, acting to avoid dying. They had laughed at him, seeing him as a clumsy, ugly clown they could provoke into fits of rage for their audience’s amusement. The world needed people like Ernst to make themselves feel better, but as Paul stared around him, he realised no one had ever asked what Ernst got out of it.
Now, he knew..
Ernst was in no hurry as he walked down the stairs. It pleased him he didn’t need the wrench tucked into his belt at the back. His favourite tools were in the kitchen. They had been his father’s tools, and he kept them polished and sharp, no matter how often he used them. He stripped off then tied on a leather and chain-mail apron, slipped on the leather gloves and flexed his fingers. Despite the filth, he knew where everything was, and he kept the important things clean and in good repair. It was a lesson which passed from father to son, but Ernst used his skills for entertainment over employment. His father’s intuition about his son seethed inside him until he walked out to the pigs with a shotgun and prescribed himself a cure for his paternal disappointment.
He retrieved the key from where it hung around his thick neck and sung to himself.
He walked to the door.
‘Would you like to come out?’ he said.
‘If you stand back, I can unlock the door. You could save your friend.’ he said.
He sang his words over speaking. He could not contain his excitement for too long, like a child at a birthday party where everything was perfect.
He slipped the key in the lock before the door rattled in its hinges again. Ernst laughed and knocked on the door with the handle of the butcher knife.
‘No, no, no. You need to stand back.’ he said.
The resigned silence seeped through the walls. Ernst expected a final, desperate push to escape the situation which was why the butcher knife stayed in his hand.
This would be fun.
‘Excellent.’ he said.
He unlocked the door and walked into the room.
Ernst held the knife in a good firm grip and held it upwards as he kept eye contact with the scared boy in front of him. He was fast for his size and the boy did not have time to scream before Ernst let him run onto the blade.
Blood ran down the boy’s chin as he coughed and gasped, spraying Ernst’s face. Ernst put his weight behind the blade and bent at the knees driving it up deep into the boy’s chest cavity. With a firm twist, he turned the blade and watched the light die in the boy’s eyes before he gave a final, pathetic shudder and collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. Ernst stared into his eyes, disappointed that the boy had died so soon. Ernst pushed him away and left the knife buried underneath his sternum. He made fists with his hands as he walked towards the girl. She was crippled, but there was still fear and hope present in her eyes.
He had reinforced the gloves with pockets of powdered lead at the knuckles and plates of Kevlar over the fingers. Maria dragged herself backwards as he walked towards her.
Ernst panted with delight as he threw himself down on her. He felt her collarbone snap beneath his fists. She gurgled with a galvanic shudder as he put his knees either side of her chest to straddle her.
His enormous thighs pinned her arms to her sides and he enjoyed how close her face was to his distended, sour crotch.
‘Please don’t kill me.’ she said.
He tilted his head to one side and smiled.
‘Then how will I have any fun?’ he said.
Ernst slapped her across the cheek, almost playful but the lead and the Kevlar smacked against her cheek and knocked out a tooth. She turned her head to one side and spat the incisor away. Maria burst into tears and Ernst realised she would be boring. He balled his hand into a fist and clubbed her left eye socket until it cracked before he eased his thick, gloved fingers around the eye and squeezed it like a grape, smearing the tissue between his fingers before he wiped it on the front of his apron. Maria’s bladder let go, but Ernst ignored the acrid stink of piss as he punched her face into pieces.
It took six careful blows to bring out the aesthetic he craved. Bone splinters and raw, exposed flesh. He adjusted his position, kicking her knees apart with haste as he heaved the apron over her stomach. His excitement hurried his release and he shuddered like a salted slug between her twitching thighs. As one appetite ebbed away, another returned to replace it like waves on a beach
The best cuts of meat would go in the massive chest freezer. The rest would go to the pigs, he decided as he dragged the girl by her heels. He used their phones, open like an unlocked house and removed all trace of his involvement with a suite of software tools he had built or appropriated over the years.
It was after midnight before he sat down at his computer when it pinged with a new subscriber alert. He grinned and breathed in the faint stink of blood and meat, then breathed it out like fire.