Billy Sees Red by H. D. Loughrey

Untidy ripples of movement across the pub signalled Nate’s arrival. Heads began to swivel and bob back and forth; whispers ebbed and flowed from the sofas to the bar. Billy lifted his chin from the damp, sticky table and followed the flickering of girls tossing back their hair and men turning out their pockets.

“There he is.” Billy nodded in Nate’s direction.

“Huh,” Petey grunted. “Doesn’t look like his brother, does he?”

The stares led to a baby-faced boy leaning across the bar, signaling to the barman. Unlike Rob, his incarcerated brother with a concrete jaw and needle-point stubble, Nate possessed the rouge-cheeked, round-faced bloom of one of heaven’s cherubs. His small frame leaned against a bar stool while the barman whispered into his ear. He surveyed the pub with wide, watery eyes. Billy watched, willing Nate to notice him.

“Bill.” Petey’s voice sounded far away.

Several girls tottered towards Nate. They held a brief conversation. Nate’s palm brushed over theirs in a graceful and well-practised manoeuvre. After a few more hushed words, the girls scurried away towards the toilets. Other loiterers took a few steps closer. Nate waved one of them over with a twitch of his chubby fingers.

“Not tonight, Bill.”

“What?” Billy attempted to feign surprise, but the word emerged like an accusation. He sat upright and allowed his skinny knees to knock against Petey’s. He considered speaking again, to take away the harsh tone of his voice, but before any words could be formed, his attention drifted back to the bar.

Nate’s blue eyes were on him.

Laughter echoed from far away, muffled by the thick air. Billy’s stomach churned and his mouth watered. The heat, falling off the skin of the revellers around him, pressed against his forehead. Only one forgiving breeze crossed the pub from Nate’s direction, landing like a kiss on Billy’s cheek.


“Petey.” Billy stood. “Just gonna pop over. Won’t be long.” He turned to avoid Petey’s eyes and his unsteady legs faltered. As he approached the bar, Nate’s cheeks reddened.

“Alright, mate.” Billy’s voice bloomed with false confidence.

Nate smiled. “Call me Nate.”

“Uh, yeah.” The confidence deflated. “I know.”

Nate raised an eyebrow and turned his head, making no attempt to disguise his amusement.

“I used to know your brother.” Billy’s voice rose as he spoke, the claim more like an apology. “Rob.”

Nate nodded. Auburn locks crossed his forehead as he did so, giving him a youthful look, but his eyes steeled.

Billy cleared his throat. “You serving?”

“I’m serving. What is it that you need, Billy?” Nate’s soft voice had an aloof air that made his words seem like dust, shaken from church bells.

“Any sniff?”

“Of course, only the best.”

Nate’s hand delved into his pocket, but his eyes remained locked with Billy’s. The velvet touch of Nate’s skin grazed his own rough fingers as the small plastic bag changed hands.

“Thanks.” Billy breathed the word and allowed his mouth to relax into a smile. Before he began to walk away, he glanced down at the bag in his hand.

“What the fuck’s this?”

Nate closed his fingers over Billy’s. “Try it. Just the same but with extra … punch.”

“I dunno, mate. Looks rough.” Billy turned and began to search the crowd for Petey’s face.

“It’s a freebie.” Nate squeezed his fingers tighter. “Let me know what you think.” He released Billy’s hand and waited for a moment before raising his forefinger again. Several men in denim stepped forward.

Taking his cue to leave, Billy stepped away from the bar. For a moment, he looked for Petey again. Still no sign. His heavy feet led him to the toilet door and his shaking hand slammed it behind him.

There were no locks in the cubicles. Billy bent over the toilet with one leg outstretched behind him, holding the door shut with his foot.

A disembodied voice from the toilet beside him shouted out, “This one’s mine!”

Eyes narrowed, Billy began a closer inspection. The drug was solid - a rock rather than powder - which meant that it was better. Purer. Its surface resembled the texture of chalk. Perfect. No visible intervention had occurred to lower its potency and value. Except for one, inescapable difference.

It should have been as white as snow, as frosted as an iceberg, as pure as the clouds in the sky. It wasn’t. Billy turned it over in his hands again. The rock he held was a blood-red ruby of cocaine.

“I said it’s mine!” The toilet door next to him banged.

Billy blinked, in case his eyes were the problem, not the drug. The red remained. He would have hesitated, he would have waited. But an itch led his hands to his wallet. He pulled out a card and hacked away at the drug until it crumbled. He beat it into obedient lines with increasing ferocity.

Snorting it was like breathing fire, as if jets of steam were curling up into his nostril, sending bubbles of heat into his brain. Glittering red dust remained on the toilet seat. Billy scooped up the remnants with a damp fingertip, rubbing them into his burning gums.

Billy closed his eyes and allowed the automatous reactions to take hold. The submission was like clockwork. The hairs on his forearms stood up. Tick. His heart beat quickened. Tock. Pressure built around his groin and bowels. Tick. Only one unfamiliar sensation interrupted the easy rhythm - a rushing behind the eyes.

Fighting it, he kept his eyes closed and balled his fists. The rushing became a flood, a flood of heat threatening to pour from his eyes, as if they might melt from his face. He clasped them shut as the heat intensified.

The voice next door erupted into giggles. The sound of footsteps tapped across the floor until a wave of noise signalled the occupant’s exit.

Billy turned and slipped through the toilet door, feeling his way to the sink with fumbling hands.

As the heat behind his eyes began to deaden and throb, he willed himself to open them. Only fear of blindness held him back. But the drug fuelled a fearlessness that fought his hesitation. He growled, squirmed, and they peeled open, forcing him to meet his own face in the mirror.

A devil stared back at him. A red-skinned, crimson-eyed devil. Billy raised his hands to his cheeks. His fingertips glowed red. Blood-red streaks traced pulsing veins under copper skin. The rushing, burning sensation settled under his eyes, like a wave waiting to crash.

“I said it’s mine!” The toilet door sprang open and a man dressed in red denim collided into Billy. He held a half-drunk pint of something maroon; drops of it spilt onto Billy’s lap.

“Mine!” The man repeated, dashing back into the cubicle.

Billy stared at the glowing door and laughed. The puckering of his skin burned. He turned on the tap to wash his hands but the water flowed as red as wine. The sight of it made him gag.

“Beer,” he muttered. “I need golden beer.”

“It’s mine!”

Billy reached for the door. He worried that it might burn him as he touched it but the flaming metal handle was cold under his skin.

The bulbs above him glowed like angry suns. Red-faced revellers darted back and forth, their ruby eyes glistening. Rosy glasses held drinks of magenta and cerise. The chestnut floorboards morphed and stretched in the heat. He almost tripped as he made his way back to the bar.

“Beer!” He waved to the barman, who flashed him a fleshy smile. He pulled back the pump with a flourish. Red hot magma poured into the glass. Billy’s head drooped as he watched it fill.

“Having fun?” Billy turned to see Nate leaning against the bar, his blue eyes replaced with two bloodshot orbs.

“What the hell is this shit?” Billy groaned, rubbing his eyes. The barman placed the pint glass in front of him and held out an expectant hand. Billy grabbed the glass and drank gratefully. “Tastes the same.”

Nate dropped a handful of rusty coins into the barman’s palm. “It’s all up here.” He pointed towards Billy’s eyes. “Quite a rush.”

As he spoke, Nate’s mouth widened into a glaring smile. His teeth shone like red crystals. Billy’s eyes burned and the rushing came again; the wave crashed against a shore of copper sand and the force sent Billy doubling over, clutching his closed eyes.

“Billy.” A hand touched his shoulder. Billy shook it off. “You were doing alright, Bill. Now look at you.”

“Fuck off,” Billy spat. He twisted his body and his legs collided with a stool. He reached round, his fingers searching for the beer. They touched something cold. Billy snatched up the glass but, with his eyes still clasped shut, missed and poured half the drink down his front.

The hand pressed against him again. “Come on, Bill. Let’s get you home.”

Billy pushed the hand away. “I need beer. Golden beer.”

“No you don’t, Bill. You don’t need anything here.”

Billy turned and waved in the direction he hoped the barman was in. His head twisted back and forth as he fought the urgent need to open his flaming eyes.

“Bill.” The voice grew more insistent.

“Back off.” Billy bit his lip as he spoke and the pain roared in his ears. “I said fucking back off!”

“Bill – “

The wave hit again and Billy’s eyes sprang open. Red poured into him from all angles. Ruby tongues of people laughing lashed around him, drops of liquid hot magma littered the cherry red floor where he stood; burning, orange lights pulsated their heat onto his bowed head.

Somewhere, someone roared. Billy’s fist swam into the thick air and towards the voice that had been hounding him, towards the hand that had touched him.

His skin cooled as it collided with Petey’s face. Blood flooded his cheeks, releasing the tension around his eyes and he rejoiced, swinging his arm back to punch Petey again. The heat lessened and he laughed. His arm swung again, lower this time, as Petey fell. He lost count of the punches, but each one eased the pain. Finally, he could open his eyes wide.

The laughter around him had stopped. No more lashing ruby tongues. Nate was gone. The room pulsed in lazy, rosy tones. His grateful eyes darted about and he grinned, the sense of panic deadening. His eyes fell to his feet, where Petey lay.

Trails of silvery liquid poured from Petey’s nose and mouth. His eyes ballooned into ashen, fleshy orbs. Melted ivory pearls were scattered down his front, and across Billy’s knuckles.

Billy stared down at the milky drops littered across his hand and wept crimson tears into his fingertips.

H. D. Loughrey is a writer of literary fiction, with splashes of magical realism. "Billy Sees Red" comes from a collection of short stories, Ink That Bleeds, connected by themes of physical and spiritual existence. She lives in Portsmouth, England with a cat and about a zillion books.