I need to switch the alarm clock off after five beeps but I’m all tangled up in my bedclothes and I don’t get there until seven. Damn it. Those two extra beeps are like the first couple of rocks in a landslide. In this house, if things go wrong, people might die.
My suits are dry cleaned daily. I’d rather not think about the things that come into contact with my clothes but I can’t help it. The disease-carrying insects that crawl where I’m not looking; the urine that trickles down the inside of my trouser leg after I’ve peed. Every surface has its own little microcosm of germs and parasites, just itching to relocate. After today’s false start I dress myself with an extra dose of paranoia. Just because I’m not showing any signs of infection, doesn’t mean I’m not ill — I might have asymptomatic bacteriuria or something equally insidious. My rule is if I can’t pronounce it, I don’t want it.
Ever since I was little, doctors have referred to my anxieties as ‘worry dragons’, as if giving them a cute name makes the slightest bit of difference.
When I leave the house, I go outside, close the door, open it again and stick my head back in to make sure everything is okay. On the way to work, I’m careful where I tread, keeping my feet in the middle of the paving slabs and worrying that if I tread on a crack, I might fall through into the hot, sulphuric —
I knew I’d forget something.
I run home as fast as I can, dancing like a man whose feet are on fire every time I step between two paving slabs. In the kitchen, I don’t have time to hook an apron over my head or pull on a pair of shoulder-length veterinary gloves. Instead I dive into the chest fridge, lift out a twelve-pound slab of raw beef and a couple of racks of pork ribs with my bare hands and drop them in a bucket. And I know it’s my imagination, but I’m sure I can feel Listeria monocytogenes crawling between my fingers and Escherichia coli nestling beneath my nails like little, tentacled tadpoles of death.
Just so you know, it’s my fault everyone in my neighbourhood suffers with panic attacks and nightmares. And it’s good they suffer because it means they’re still alive.
I stop at the cellar door. I’ve done this many times before but this is the first time I’ve been late. Inside the cellar, the rotten-eggs smell of hydrogen sulphide brings tears to my eyes but I can’t wipe them because my hands are still writhing with God knows what. Blinking furiously, I raise the bucket.
“Come on, girls,” I say.
“Come to Daddy.”
A slippery hiss. The rattling scales of an uncurling tail. My hands are shaking.
“I have food.”
And then they launch at me, one from each corner, eyes red, fangs exposed, roaring so ferociously it’s like standing too close to the edge of the platform when a train rushes through.
Forget what my doctor says, these are my real worry dragons. And even though they’re restrained, your average person would be in serious trouble at this point. I’ve seen salesman cry like babies and electricians reduced to quivering wrecks. I even had to arrange a PO Box after a postman died on my doorstep. Close proximity to a worry dragon puts a huge amount of stress on the heart but luckily for me I’m used to dealing with a little extra anxiety.
Which isn’t to say I’m safe. Or calm.
I try to tip the meat out of the bucket but it’s jammed and won’t come loose. Shaking it doesn’t help. The dragons pace back and forth, tugging at their chains and snorting. They’ve been in captivity since birth but these days their restraints are little more than a gesture. Like toddlers who’ve grown too big for their cots, the truth is they could leave anytime they want. This is why I have to feed them promptly — because nobody wants a pair of hungry, full-grown worry dragons on the loose.
Smoke whispers from their nostrils. They bare their teeth and I can just make out their fire ducts, flickering with hungry flames. I can’t imagine ever seeing daylight again, let alone taking my suits to the dry cleaners or telling my doctor to go fuck himself. As the dragons rise up on their hind legs, preparing to incinerate me, I can’t imagine anything but my swift and agonising death in this cellar.
Two-handed, I swing the plastic bucket so it smashes against the wall. When it doesn’t break I swing it again and again, trying to ignore the hisses and snorts behind me. On the fourth swing, the bucket splits and the raw, wet meat slaps against the concrete floor. As best I can, I toss it to the other side of the cellar.
While the dragons tear the meat to pieces, I hurry back upstairs, desperate to scrub my hands with bleach. I should have brought more food to apologise for being late. I shouldn’t have been late. I’m amazed they didn’t kill me.
In the hallway, I lean heavily against the reinforced, fire-resistant door until my breathing has slowed. Then I make my final mistake. Relaxing into my usual routine, I open the door again and stick my head back inside to make sure everything is okay.
Christopher Stanley lives in a madhouse on a hill with three sons who share the same birthday but aren’t triplets. He doesn’t have a cellar. Find out more about his writing in his blog whenonlywordsareleft.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter @allthosestrings