an excerpt from
by Andrew J. Morgan
The windscreen wipers flashed back and forth, fighting to clear a view of the dark road ahead. Each raindrop tore down from a sky so black it seemed invisible, the light pollution of the city long gone as Alex Latham tore his way deep into the countryside. All he could see was a small strip of shimmering wet tarmac as the headlamps felt their way along its surface.
Glossy paintwork and metal shone as a layer of brick dust was stripped away by the rain, the fine powder having been laid over the car only a few hours ago, and all in an instant. The tyres worked hard to carve a track through the streams rushing across the road, throwing up rooster-tails behind him that glowed red as they cut the beam of the rear lights.
The rain eased, as did the night, and the first shimmer of morning spilled over the horizon. The hiss of the rain subsided, leaving only the rumble of the tyres and the crackle of the car radio, which continued obliviously searching for a signal.
Alex squinted at the new morning, his dust-covered pyjamas blooming with warmth. A sharp divide between dark and light crept down his blue and white striped torso, revealing a jagged tear, fraying material, grimy skin and a rough, dry patch of red-black that stained the cloth around it.
The soft crackle of the radio strangled into a cacophony as it grasped a signal, before settling down to play a muffled voice. It sounded like a conversation heard through a wall, the voice muted and unintelligible, until the radio screeched again and locked down on a crisp, clear broadcast.
‘– the early hours of the morning –’ said the radio for a brief second, before losing the signal again. Something inside of Alex quivered at the six words that had made it into his car, a subconscious thought that rang alarm bells. He rearranged his grip on the wheel, swatting the involuntary thought away,. The speakers fizzed.
‘– and a half million people are reported dead, and a further million injured –’
It seemed like another world, another time. Alex bit down on his own teeth as the voice from the radio retreated into a muted haze again before disappearing completely, leaving behind nothing but the faint, ambient hiss.
Alex slowed the car, pulling over into a sloppy, mud-streaked layby that looked to have been a grassy bank before the storm, and killed the engine. A weight pressed down upon his entire being, and he leaned back into the creaking seat and shut his eyes. The insides of his eyelids flashed softly red with an impending migraine, but everything that had just happened pulled him down into a pit of unconsciousness.
A blurred, stiflingly hot dream jarred him awake and he opened his eyes slowly, the skin of his eyelids sticky with sweat and grime. Sunshine radiated from high above, making the car thick with dripping heat, the air slow and difficult to breath.
Leaning his aching body forwards he opened the window enough to let a fresh current of air probe the car and drive the intense microclimate away. With it came the warble of a songbird, calling and waiting, calling and waiting, and a dusty scent of pollen and grass that tickled at his nostrils.
It was all unnervingly pleasant; nature did not know or care what had happened.
Where next? Alex’s head – usually so capable of rational, logical, empirical thought – had no answers or emotions. He couldn’t think forward and he struggled to think back; all he could do was sit and feel the tenderness of the summer air that penetrated the open window and ran lightly across his face. All he could do was keep on driving. Where? It didn’t matter.
He turned the key but nothing happened. The tell-tale glow of the headlight symbol awkwardly flickering on the dash made him realise that the battery was drained, but all he could muster was a feeble moan.
And then it came back. He had run. He could remember that. They had all run but only he had made it out alive. The sky, so blue, so rich now, had shone a deep, blood red, streaked with fiery orange. He had run. Even when they had died, he had run. He had barely even looked back. And now he could remember.
The mist of dust and debris had choked his lungs and blinded his sight, the shaking ground that ripped and cracked beneath him tearing down buildings as though they were only sand castles. He ran, leaving them behind, trapped by rubble. He should have stopped, stayed with them – even died with them – but he hadn’t. He ran on, alone.
Its sudden end was just as unexpected as its violent start; he had been asleep with his wife and his baby barely minutes before, and now he found himself deserted on an alien planet, a dying, flickering glow of red fringing the piles of brick and concrete through the thick, powdery air around him, the crashing and thunder now only hollow, echoing screams that reverberated about the towering pillars of debris.
His hand felt wet; he looked down, watching the thick, red liquid. It had come from his side, a gash that he didn’t even know he had received, but it did not seem life threatening. As the red glow receded into the night, he wandered through the moonlit streets alone, grinding his feet into the scratching fragments of civilisation until he found a miracle – a car, whole, abandoned and with the keys in the ignition, waiting for him with its door open invitingly. His eyes blank and his face long, he had climbed into the car and carried on running.
* * *
‘Are you ok?’ a voice tore Alex from his thoughts. A knock of knuckle on glass followed it, and shielding his eyes Alex looked out. A man, portly and short, stood back from the door, silhouetted by the early afternoon sun. He repeated his question, concern tainting his voice.
‘Are you ok? Did you just come from the city? How did you get out alive?’
Alex reached for the door handle, fumbling for it like a drunk trying to enter his home. With a great heave he pulled it and the door unlatched. He leaned in to swing it open, but his bodyweight caught him by surprise and he tipped out after it, cascading onto the ground below.
The portly man rushed forward, bending down awkwardly to help Alex.
‘Are you ok?’ he said for the third time, although his meaning was more immediate. Threading his arm underneath Alex’s, he pressed his spare palm up against the searing hot metal of the car and yelped, letting Alex slip down to the floor in a whimpering heap.
‘I’m so sorry!’ he exclaimed, shaking his scorched hand. He squatted down in front of Alex to heave him up in a clumsy bear hug. Alex tentatively felt for the floor with his feet, as bruised and blistered as they were, and together they moved across the hot-plate tarmac one step at a time. Alex could feel the molten heat separating skin from flesh, but the pain reached a numbing block around his brain that made it tolerable, if not invisible.
The portly man sweated and struggled under Alex’s weight; halfway across the road he stumbled, dropping himself and his burden onto the solid black bitumen. Alex met the floor, connecting and stopping in one blow that shuddered though his skeleton. In between a hollow, ringing echo and a blur of colour and confusion, he felt himself being dragged, then heard the sound of a car’s engine ticking over and catching, the squeal of fast accelerating tyres propelling him forwards.
* * *
Pale, glowing lines scored across his vision, left to right and up and down, separating the grey fuzz in front of him. Alex could feel gravity pulling him backwards – or perhaps he was lying down and it was pulling him downwards – and its grasp was unnaturally strong. A thumping nausea swelled in his temples, draining down through his throat and into his stomach with an absorbent spread that soaked his organs. He stared, maybe for minutes or hours, and the more he stared, the more the glowing lines swirled. They churned gradually faster, bending light and space and time towards him in a conical tunnel, and it felt familiar.
* * *
‘You need the toilet,’ his brain said, and he woke.
Alex climbed slowly, silently out of bed, each tip-toe across the room sinking into the soft piles of the carpet. The night air was fresh and his body cool, the perfect combination for a good night’s sleep, and he cursed his bladder inwardly for disturbing him as his nonsensical dream withered.
Once in the bathroom, he relieved his protesting bladder as quietly as he could and instinctively thumbed the flush button. He bit his lip as the cascading water rushed from the cistern and drew the contents of the bowl away, listening as the rushing ceased, his tuned ears searching the night air for the sound he didn’t want to hear – crying. The sound did not come, and, thankful for the silence, he washed his hands under a deliberately slow-running tap.
He studied his impression in the mirror, stopping for a moment to pull at the faint creases in his skin and comb through his black hair, searching for the inevitable strands of grey. His mind thought of him as a boy still – playing in the grass in high summer, smooth, pink skin flushing red under the sun, awkwardly-spaced teeth protruding from laughing gums – but his eyes saw a man; a man exhibiting the tell-tale signs of age, and old was what he felt. Sighing, he retreated from the bathroom, clambered back into bed and – without thinking for even a moment about the fast-fading wisp of memory that was his last connection between now and the devastation of the night before – drew himself close to his wife, who lay whole, alive and well under the duvet next to him.
‘You must understand, Michael, that I am here to help you.’
The psychologist’s voice echoed off the cold, hard walls. He moved to catch his patient’s sea-green eyes across the metal table, but his gaze was purposely avoided. Leaning backwards in his chair, he smoothed down his long, white jacket, his face expressionless, his own eyes searching.
‘What you have done is a very serious thing, Michael, but I am not here to judge you. For us to have any hope of you recovering, we need to make some good, positive steps forwards. Until then, I’m afraid you are just too much of a risk to be anywhere other than here.’ He gestured to the hard, cramped, windowless room around them. ‘And I know you don’t want that.’
Still looking down, his patient spoke.
‘You already know what I think.’
The psychologist’s expressionless face twitched.
‘Michael, you gave a man serious brain haemorrhaging with your violent and uncontrollable behaviour. He died because of it – you know that.’
Michael looked up at the psychologist, manoeuvring his lean frame in his chair.
‘We’ve been through this a hundred times,’ he said, ‘I woke up in the office – I don’t know how I got there – and my head felt like it was going to explode. It wasn’t real, I’m telling you – I can’t explain how or why I know, but I know. It wasn’t real, he wasn’t real …’
The psychologist exasperatedly rearranged the papers on the table in front of him.
‘I want to help you get to the bottom of this Michael, I really do, but I can’t help you if you won’t help me,’ he said, ‘and you aren’t helping me the whole while you convince yourself that what is real isn’t, and what isn’t, is.’
He stood, waving his hand to the open slat in the thick, metal door. It clanked open and several uniformed guards entered to remove the chairs, leaving the slender metal table in the middle of the room fixed to the floor. Michael stood up begrudgingly as one of the tall guards secured his arms, making his own stature feel even shorter. The doctor was walking out through the open door. He stopped, looked at Michael and sighed.
‘We’re going round in circles; I know it, you know it. If you want to spend the rest of your life in here, that’s your choice, but I know you don’t really want that. There is a better life for you outside these walls if you would just co-operate and let us help you.’
Michael shrugged dismissively, the guard’s grip preventing him from doing much else.
‘I’m not going to lie for your benefit,’ he scowled, ‘I know what I saw and I know what I did. You can’t keep me in here forever – it’s not legal and it’s immoral. Anyway, you don’t want my answers, you want my silence, because you know what happened to me and you don’t want anyone else getting wind of what you’ve been doing to people.’
The psychologist retraced his steps to Michael, his previously expressionless face showing the tiniest hint of remorse.
‘Please don’t do this, Michael. You must realise the damage you are causing by not co-operating with us.’
‘Having a nervous breakdown is quite common, and delusions are a sad but very real side-effect, especially for a man of a certain disposition –’
Michael lurched forwards towards the psychologist, who flinched. The guard doubled his grip and hauled him back again.
‘I am not of a certain disposition,’ he snarled, ‘I am just a man who has been locked up and forgotten about without fair trial, and you know it. I can’t trust you, and I’m certainly not going to help you. If this is what I get when you need me, coming in here day in, day out to question me, think what you’ll do to me when you’ve got what you want!’
The psychologist looked into Michael’s eyes, as if confirming to himself what he already knew, and smiled sadly. Without another word, he retreated, walking out of the cell without looking back. Once he had gone, the guard holding Michael threw him hard onto the floor and left as well, backing out of the room with a beady eye fixed on Michael’s huddled body. The door creaked shut after him, the bolt sliding into place with a muted clang.
Michael stood up, and rubbing his bruised elbow, walked over to a corner of the cell where he slumped against the wall and slid down it to the floor. He folded his arms and mentally kicked himself for losing his temper. He had been doing that quite frequently of late, and he knew he wasn’t doing himself any favours by behaving in that way. He chalked it down – as he had yesterday and the day before that, and many others before even that – to the amount of time he had spent on his own without proper human interaction, and to the silence that nibbled away at his soul a bit more each day.
Time had become an odd beast to. Whenever he tried to pin it down, catch it, understand it, it slipped off without a trace, as if it had never even existed. He knew it did, because he saw it in his periphery, but he could never see it clearly and head-on as he remembered being able to do. It felt to him as if time had stopped in mid-January, the cold, dry air and off-white walls of the cell drab and devoid of hope like a bleak winter’s scene.
It’s supposed to be like that, he thought to himself, that’s how they want me to feel.
He was angry and frustrated with them and with himself because he knew that they knew they were winning, that they were slowly cracking his hard shell open and getting at his soft, unprotected innards. The longer he spent waiting, festering in this living hell, the more vague, the more distant his memories of a time before it became. Sometimes he could not tell what he had dreamt and what he had experienced for real, and he was having trouble marking down each day as a separate entity. That gaping hole in his recollection made him scared, and when he got scared, rage soon followed. He felt it more and more frequently, the hot toil in his blood foaming and writhing more passionately than he had ever known. They knew – and he knew – they were winning.
Since his arrest, he had spent – well, he didn’t really know how long he’d been there. It felt like years. As if the who, the what, the how and the why were not clouded enough, he also had no idea where he was, and sometimes he even considered backing down to the psychologist and telling him what he wanted to hear just to see what would happen. But when he thought about that, the rage boiled up and scared him into silence. He didn’t know he’d had such hatred hidden away inside his small, flimsy frame.
His earliest memories of this place were vague and distant. He had been a wreck, his mind a jumble of cables and wires that sparked and fried his thoughts, and it had been that way for a long time since the incident. Slowly but surely the connections healed and rewired, and understandable thought became possible once again – an idea here and a recognition there – and eventually he felt almost normal, whatever that was supposed to be, here.
There was a lingering sensation that didn’t seem to fade with time however; a feeling of hollow emptiness that nagged at him. When he let his mind wander, it came over him like a state of mortal uncertainty, halfway between being alive and being dead, and it was slowly filling with this unquenchable anger that spilled from him when he least expected it. It came mostly when he thought about the incident, a day that, through the instability of his mind, rang clear and true as though it were still happening.
He had once been a businessman, a middle-manager for a company called APC Limited, selling paper to well-to-do organisations in qualities and quantities that were rivalled by none. He did well at his job and enjoyed it, managing several accounts and the banter that came with them, even if the office director Jason Stevens, a man for whom there was very much an ‘I’ in team, did not see eye-to-eye with his forward-looking and sometimes unorthodox ways of getting things done. But he did get things done, and so the uneasy relationship remained a backwater issue so long as the healthy profits, long, hot holidays and expensive dinners kept flowing. When the incident happened, however, things had been different, very different.
* * *
‘Michael! What are you doing? You’ve been staring at that screen like an idiot for fifteen minutes now!’ Jason barked, dropping a pile of folders onto Michael’s desk with a whump that blew Post-It notes everywhere.
Michael shuddered, the disjointed words that entered his head grinding sharply against a sudden realisation that he wasn’t where he thought he was.
‘These are for the Smith account,’ Jason continued, oblivious to – or just ignoring – Michael’s vacant expression, ‘I want you to read up on them and compile a report explaining why we aren’t pushing more than fifteen per cent on these fools!’
Michael didn’t move an inch, and with a disgusted tut Jason turned and stomped back to his office. Michael swivelled in his chair, eyes semi-focused, tracing the skyline outside the tinted window of their countryside office. As his eyes traced, the view became swollen, contorting the buildings and the cars and the skinny trees, morphing their shapes into new patterns and arrangements, changing from countryside to city skyline and back again. His eyelids twitched, and as he continued to swivel slowly, the horizon left his view and office entered it, the chairs and desks and the computers on them twisting then stretching, the colours switching through kaleidoscopic patterns, and even the people sitting in the chairs flickered and distorted. One by one they turned to look at him, their faces unrecognisable blurs that slid down their skulls with sickening repetition.
‘Are you all right?’ a young girl named Stephanie asked, concerned. Her blonde hair fell forwards from her shoulder as she leaned down towards him.
‘Yes, I’m – I – I’m ok,’ Michael gasped, gripping the armrests of his chair as though they were the only things stopping him sinking into a pool of sticky quicksand, ‘I just need – a few moments.’
He looked at Stephanie and her smeared skin dripped around her, sliding down the blue turtleneck – the red sweater – the black blouse, her arm reaching out like the probing limb of a hungry insect, horrid and barbed, to catch her prey and secrete her poison into it until its last gasping breath.
‘What’s going on here?’ Jason asked, eyebrows upturned in a display of annoyance.
‘Michael’s not feeling very well,’ Stephanie told him.
Jason tutted again.
‘That doesn’t require all of you to stop your work now, does it?’ he barked, his demanding glare not breaking from his workers until they begrudgingly retreated from the interesting spectacle.
‘Stephanie, you should have informed the first aider,’ said Jason disapprovingly, ‘it is not your job to cater to the medical needs of other employees.’
‘I was just checking –’
‘Never you mind. Get back to work.’
Stephanie glared at Jason, then smiled serenely at Michael, whose forehead had begun to shimmer under a blanket of sweat.
‘You look terrible, Michael,’ he said, leaning in closer to study Michael’s ashen face, ‘I hope you haven’t brought something contagious into the office.’
The words erupted from the jagged hole torn into his head, and Michael’s eyes widened in horror as the black hole grew and grew, ready to envelop him. He backed up, shielding himself, but his chair hit his desk almost straight away and he could move no further. The figure towered over him, long, jointed pincers swooping left and right, ready to wrap him up and crush him like a brittle china doll.
As one of Michael’s hands shielded him, the other slammed onto the desk, fingers grasping and hunting for something to defend himself with. They clasped a leather-bound handle, and with he heaved it round, feeling the weight swing out in front of him and hearing the flat leather sides slide up and off the desk, until all at once the crunch of briefcase against bone smashed the entire picture straight down the middle.
The shrivelled figure collapsed, the swirling features on its moulded, stump-like head swimming round and round in a whirlwind of muddy colour, and Michael took his chance to tower over it, raising the briefcase above his head and bringing it down. He did it again and again, until the whirling features slid off the head and onto the floor, the walls and himself.
Finally he put the briefcase carefully down on the floor, straightened his tie, and fainted.
* * *
His thoughts were broken by the screech of metal against metal as the shutter at the bottom of the door slid open and a metal bowl and a cup were pushed through, both filled so low that from his perspective they looked like they had nothing in them at all. Knowing otherwise, he ran over, dropping to his knees, and ate from the bowl where it lay without even picking it up. The food looked and tasted like ash, but it had so far kept him alive, and his hunger stopped him from doing anything other than eating it. Bowl clean and stomach temporarily satiated, he picked up the cup, took a sip of the acidic, bitter water – it looked like water anyway – and carried it back to the spot he had been sitting at before.
He so desperately wanted to give up, say everything they wanted to hear, but he couldn’t. Every night his dreams would be tormented by the long pincers of the towering man, and he knew they would continue until he had his answers – he also knew he wouldn’t get any answers by pretending that nothing had happened. What tormented him even more, he thought as he drained his cup and threw it clattering across the hard floor, was the dream he had before the towering man appeared; it was a dream about burning red skies, thunderous crashing and screams that echoed in his mind long after he had woken up.
The last trace of the night of those burning red skies, collapsing buildings and his unaccompanied escape vanished from Alex’s mind, and he slept soundly. He slept soundly the night afterwards too, having returned home from work to Mary, his wonderful wife, and Jack his beautiful baby son. Life was as close as is possible to bliss; his shoulders were light and his steps barely touched the floor.
Six years passed.
He got up, had his breakfast – a toasted bacon sandwich, prepared by Mary for him and for Jack as a Monday morning treat – and went to work as usual. The sun was hot but the air conditioning in his car fought it away expertly, leaving him comfortable and able to enjoy his favourite band on the radio. Traffic was clear, and he threaded his way along the grey network from the suburbs and into the city, parking in his usual spot, picking up a coffee on the way into the building, and riding the lift up to the twelfth floor as he blew cool air into his cup.
The office was sizzling, the building’s air conditioning struggling where his car’s had triumphed, and he could feel a sticky patch of perspiration growing on his back as he worked. Leaning forward in his chair, he moved the small fan on his desk so it was aimed at the wet patch, and the cooling sensation of sweat evaporating from skin sent a pleasing chill up his back. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the moment, before returning to his computer to finish his message.
This could well seal the deal and start a relationship that would be financially beneficial to the company for many years to come. He would be taking home a handsome bonus for this one if it all worked out. Scanning what he had already written, he thought a moment before giving the last few keys a sturdy poke. He negotiated the cursor to the send button and clicked. The email had gone. He was very pleased with himself.
Alex rose from his chair, and glancing at the clock on the wall, decided it was about time to head out for a lunchtime walk and a sandwich. The city was a good place to get lunch, particularly in the summer, and there was one place a few streets down that did especially good sandwiches – well-filled, delicious ingredients and generously priced. His stomach gurgled at the thought, and after checking his pocket for his wallet, he made his way down through the building and out onto the street below.
If he’d thought it was hot inside, it was scorching outside. Dry, smouldering heat hit the concrete and bounced back up at him. The pavements were bustling with people, and he weaved through them, keeping his speed and focus as he homed in on his lunch. He could tell just by looking who was a tourist and who worked here in the city and even for how long, based on the speed and agility they demonstrated on the pavement, from the fastest cat-like pedestrian dodgers to the stationary, camera-wielding neck-craners. The latter annoyed him beyond belief.
Today was a slick day for walking along the pavement; the gaps appeared exactly when he needed them and the bumbling tourists moved in all the ways he expected them to, and so he was able to draw his route as an imaginary line all the way through without stopping once. He turned a corner two roads down from his destination into a narrow, empty street, away from the usual flurry of foot traffic. It gave him a break, as well as shaving a minute or two off his journey.
As he darted in and out of the shadows striped across the pavement, his ears pricked up as the click-clack of one – no, two – other pairs of feet turned the corner after him. Normally he would not have noticed as there were many pairs of feet marching around the city, but these sounded fast but muted, gaining on him with an intention not to be noticed. Alex picked up his already speedy pace, and almost immediately the steps behind did the same, the gentle footfalls becoming a jog, and then a run. With an almost uncontrollable reflexive action, Alex started running himself, but he had barely taken a few long strides before the heavy footfalls caught up and a rubbery hand came down upon his shoulder, slowing him to a stop. He struggled, craning his head round to see who his captors were, but another rubbery hand on the other shoulder kept him facing forwards. A second later and his face was covered, a warm, chemical smell invading his eyes, nose and mouth, and two sets of black, glassy eyes stared down at him as his legs gave way and he faded in a deep, dreamless sleep.
* * *
He was awake, but his senses were dulled, a dizzying feeling of nausea swimming back and forth like the rocking of a boat slowed through a looking glass that warped time itself, leaving long, streaky trails of colour dragging out on the inside of his eyelids.
‘Where am I …?’ Alex croaked, his mouth so dry it hurt to speak. He opened his eyes cautiously, letting the world around him in a little at a time. They felt heavy, dragged backwards through his skull by the same force that kept him pinned down where he lay.
‘Hello?’ he gasped, trying to yell, as the vision of blur and shapelessness came to one of sharp edges and definition. Dim, grey lines, drawn across in front of him in rows and columns, pulsed in tune with the rhythmic throb in his neck. They surrounded glowing white squares that filled their intersections.
Over a deep hum that seemed to emanate from every direction at once, he could hear footsteps; they didn’t sound much further than a few metres away. With them came voices, low whispers that gelled with the hum but made no discernible words or sounds.
‘What’s going on?’ Alex demanded. His voice bleated, cracking. The footsteps stopped, then started again, getting louder and heading towards him. They grew seemed to go on for hours, and the more Alex focussed on them the more he was sure that the owner of the footsteps was about to spring into view. But they didn’t, so Alex continued to lay there, heart beating and glowing squares throbbing, waiting and wondering what was happening and what was about to happen. Whatever it was, it felt strangely familiar. He knew he should be scared, but he was merely nervous.
The muffled voices rose and dropped in tone and pitch and Alex could tell that they were not in agreement. After a long, long time, a conclusion was made, one voice backing down to the other with indignant resignation. The pulsing lines began to pulse faster, raising Alex’s heart rate with it, and the still, straight geometry of the shapes began to bend and warp with random abandon. Twist, flex, straighten, the lines moved in all planes, slowly straining to break free from their rigid two-dimensional restrictions. First this happened to one line, and then another, and within minutes of the first complete separation, the whole view ahead of him was swirling like a whirlpool, slowly turning on its central axis at no more than a few inches per second.
He watched the whirlpool, its orbit gradually increasing speed, and felt the deep, resonant hum rise inside it. The core of the vortex ballooned slightly, stretching out a little towards him. It turned and it swelled, a slow-motion hurricane of bending light and torrential force, burrowing through the air towards his face. As it got closer, his heart beat faster, and he could not even move a hair’s width under the invisible restrictions, let alone contemplate struggling free. All he could do was watch, breathing in slow, deep breaths, staring as the blunt point of the grinding cone came down upon him. It stopped inches above his face, its swirling power bending his sight, his hearing and what felt like his soul.
A swollen drop grew at the point of the cone, until it could no longer be freely suspended, and it broke away, falling as slowly as the whirlpool of light twisted. He took a breath and held it, as if expecting to be submerged under some great tidal wave.
When the drop hit, it felt like a colossal weight compacted against his forehead, rippling his skin until the perfectly circular droplet came to rest. It then melted down into many smaller droplets, which rolled under their own power down into his pores, disappearing one by one with a cold prickle.
Almost at once, he remembered something in disjointed fragments. He looked up at a red sky, burning brightly below a moon that was scorched a fiery orange. He surveyed monolithic platforms of brick and block. He felt his inner being tear in half as if something very special and important had been taken abruptly away from him. He saw the sky fade, the colours melt away and the landscape diminish as he ran, cowardly and ashamed, as far away as he could. His eyes welled. He was a coward; he didn’t know why, but he knew he had done something reprehensible. The burden of shame was draped over his shoulders as he stared into pure darkness, weighing him down.
* * *
A muffled warbling came from Alex’s jacket pocket. He fished out his phone. Keeping his eyes on the road, Alex instinctively felt for the call answer button, pressed it and held the phone to his ear.
‘Alex Latham,’ he said flatly.
A strangled sob, compressed with digital static, came through the speaker. Alex frowned, glancing at the caller display. Mary.
‘Mary, are you there?’ he said, the cold weight of concern materialising in his chest, ‘are you all right?’
The sob came louder and more distinct and he recognised it to be his wife.
‘What’s the matter?’ he said, pulling off the main road and into a layby.
‘Why,’ she sobbed, ‘haven’t you answered your phone? We’ve been looking for you everywhere!’
Alex, mouth slightly open. He didn’t know what to think or say. Removing the phone from his ear, he accessed the menu to look at the call history. Sure enough, there were one hundred and thirteen missed calls, twelve voicemail messages and sixteen emails. Putting the phone back to his ear, he said, ‘I – I don’t know what’s going on. I’m just on my way back home from work …’
Bubbling panic foamed in his stomach.
‘You’ve been gone for three days,’ Mary gasped between sobs, ‘where have you been?’
Alex had no answer.
‘I don’t know … ‘ he whispered.
He thought hard – the last thing he could remember was leaving work to get lunch. No, there was more; glowing squares flashed like lightning on his retinas and the heavy, restrictive weight that had pushed him down suddenly ached in his bones. He swallowed hard, his throat running dry as the picture became clear. Mary was talking, sobbing, but he did not hear her as he checked the date on his phone – three days had indeed passed.
Suddenly, vividly, he remembered the red, midnight sky burning above him, like blood running in a river from the heavens, drenching everything it touched in torrid, sticky demise. Everything but him. He had run away. He had left her to die.
The sound of a heavy fist colliding with a thick metal door shook Michael awake, and he sat up and wiped the sticky drool from his face, squinting as the fluorescent lights above ignited. He didn’t know what time it was. He never did. He got up when he was told, went to sleep when he was told, did his business when he was told. For all he knew it could be four in the afternoon, and he would be none the wiser. Never seeing the sun had played havoc with his body clock.
A slat in the door slid open. An aggressive voice shot through the gap and assaulted Michael’s eardrums.
Michael stood like clockwork – this was all part of the drill. It was like second nature to him and he found it easier to go along with it, given the penchant for aggression the guards seemed to developing. Again, the thunderous voice bellowed through the gap in the door.
‘Remove your clothes!’
Michael had already begun – he knew what to do. The guards knew that he knew what to do, too – they just liked shouting.
Once Michael’s clothes had all been removed and folded neatly in a pile on his bed, he stood in the middle of the room and the door burst open. The guard’s tall, thickset frame filled the doorway, his stark uniform neatly pressed, his face wearing an angry frown. He clomped into the room with all the grace of a bulldozer.
Michael knew he looked like a shrivelled weed standing next to him, naked and skinny.
The guard’s chest swelled. Michael, being now a few feet away from him winced, preparing himself for the inevitable.
‘Bring in the hose!’
Spit showered his face. The thought of being washed with an industrial hose almost seemed welcoming.
Two smaller, younger, but equally as cantankerous guards collectively marched through the doorway, one holding the wet end of the hose and the other bringing in the slack.
Despite clear authority, the guard’s uniforms were identical; smart, but devoid of any identifiable markings, barring one small, odd symbol on the lapels.
Michael shivered. No amount of time spent doing this could ever get him used to it. Preparing his body for the assault, he scrunched up his eyes and tensed his small, yet toned muscles, waiting for the barrage of ice-cold water to hit him like a glacial wall. The wait seemed like a decade.
He carefully opened one eye to see what was going on. His eye met those of the mountain of a man in front of him. It was quite obvious that the guard was enjoying watching him squirm. He had one arm raised, which was being watched intently by the younger guard in charge of the hose.
The thick, tree trunk arm dropped. The hose ignited. A torrent of cold, wet force shot towards Michael’s unprepared body. It knocked him tumbling, his head cracking against the unforgiving floor.
A crooked grin split the head guard’s boulder-like face.
‘Get up!’ he bellowed.
Michael, dazed from the fall, felt sure that the power of the guard’s voice was so strong it was just pushing him down further. He rolled onto his front and clambered up, constantly fighting the surge of water.
The guard holding the slack reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked like a lump of lard dotted with patches of fluff. He tossed it over to Michael, who, holding up his hand to try and protect himself from the water, picked it up off the floor. It stunk.
Lathering himself all over with it, he shivered uncontrollably. The force of the rushing water was becoming difficult to fight, and he was struggling to stay standing. He swayed.
‘If you even think about falling over again I will personally see to it that you spend the rest of your life in this miserable, desolate facility!’
The guard who had tossed him the soap had gone over to the bed and picked up Michael’s old clothes, left the room and returned with a clean set.
The head guard signalled and the hose was turned off. Water dripped from Michael’s pale, naked body.
With the new set of clothes under one arm, the young guard walked over to Michael and took the soap, thrusting it back into his pocket. He held out the clothes for Michael to take, but as Michael reached out for them, he let go, purposely dropping them onto the sopping wet floor. He snickered before turning round and helping the other young guard take out the hose.
Michael was alone with the head guard, who leaned towards him and chuckled.
‘Have a nice day,’ he smirked. He turned on his heel and left, slamming the heavy door behind him.
The day wore on slowly, as ever. The florescent tubes above screamed a constant, deafening white noise that, even though it was barely audible, he couldn’t get out of his head. Day was night and night was day – and both were neither. As far as his body was concerned, there had only been one long day since he got here.
The one thing he could find time for was thinking. Thought was his friend, and his enemy. He thought whether he wanted to or not, and most of the time it was the same thought going round his head over and over and over. Sometimes he wanted to shut it all down, to pull the plug, but the same thoughts that drove him to despair also intrigued him enough to hang on until the end, whenever that might be.
It concerned him that he was teetering on the fine edge of sanity; he wasn’t sure how close he was from losing his balance and falling. He supposed that as long as that was a concern to him, he couldn’t possibly be mad. Not that mad, anyway. That was one of the thoughts he had that comforted him.
He often thought of his past, and although he could not remember much of his early days here, he could remember the trial – if you could call it that – that had taken place shortly after he’d arrived.
He could remember being in the centre of a drab, off-white room facing a small row of tables, behind which three uniformed men sat talking quietly with each other. Besides an insignia on the lapel, their uniforms were quite plain, and were not anything he had seen before. There were no official logos or words on the walls, and nothing to identify the men on the tables; in fact it all seemed rather hastily put together.
He blinked a few times, his head thumping slowly and sickeningly. He must have been sedated for the journey because he could only remember being in his cell before waking up here.
Starting with a tingling sensation, the feeling gradually crept back to his extremities, and eventually his head began to clear. He realised that – although he was standing – he was restrained from top to bottom. The tight grip of his restraints meant that he wasn’t going anywhere, no matter how hard he struggled, and doing so only made his head thump harder. A door behind him clicked open and he stopped moving, listening intently. Two white-coated men walked past him in silence, the second one keeping his distance and eyeing him nervously. The first white-coated man put a file down on the table in front of the uniformed men, and took a seat with his colleague next to them. They both looked as though they weren’t comfortable being here with these people.
The eldest and most senior looking of the three uniformed men opened the folder and flicked through slowly, running his finger down the sheets as he mouthed the words silently. He conferred with his own colleagues in a low voice, and unable to hear him, the two white-coated men exchanged worried looks.
The eldest man finished the document and closed it, leaning back in his chair and clasping his hands together. For the first time, he looked at Michael. Suspicion flashed in his eyes.
‘So …’ he drawled, ‘you are Michael Beecham, correct?’
Michael tried to nod, and couldn’t.
‘Yes,’ he said, ‘don’t I get some kind of legal –’
The uniformed man cut him short with a raised finger, looking unimpressed with Michael’s impertinence. He opened the document again, to the first page.
‘There is no need to stray from the question, Mr. Beecham. Now, it says here that you committed a violent crime – a crime that resulted in the death of a man. Is that right?’
‘Yes, but – ‘
‘Thank you, Michael, that will do.’
An immediate sense of claustrophobia set down upon him, his frustration making his heart rate quicken and churn hot blood around his body. The uniformed man tapped the open file.
‘Can you tell me why you did this?’
Michael’s throat tightened as he spoke, panic constricting his muscles and drying his tongue.
‘I don’t know. I didn’t want to do it, or even mean to do it. It just – happened.’
The uniformed man looked at him reproachfully, staying silent, waiting for more. Michael could feel sweat prickling at his brow.
‘Honestly, I didn’t intend for this to happen – I didn’t feel right and everything was messed up – ‘
The uniformed man raised his hand, cutting Michael short once more.
‘Thank you, Michael.’
He turned to his colleagues and they whispered together. Michael’s head pulsed with thick, aching waves, shifting his vision in and out of focus. One of the white-coated men opened his mouth as if to say something, but just shut it again. The uniformed men, not even noticing, stopped talking. The eldest man nodded and they all turned to Michael.
‘It seems as if the motives behind your actions are sinister, if not completely incomprehensible. It is my opinion that you be kept under constant supervision and your progress monitored and reported back to me.’
The first white-coated man looked severely put out by this.
‘That’s not fair!’ he protested, ‘we can’t be certain of any repercussions –’
The eldest uniformed man looked at him sternly and he fell silent.
‘He isn’t going anywhere until we can be certain that there aren’t any repercussions,’ he said with quiet authority. He slapped the file shut, picked it up and slotted it under one arm. The white-coated man that had confronted him shifted in his seat uncomfortably, whilst the other tried not to draw attention to himself.
‘Since it seems that we are not all clear on the proper precautions,’ the uniformed man said, addressing the whole room, ‘I see no other option than for us to appoint one of our own staff to monitor this man.’
‘But –’ the white-coated man blurted, standing up sharply.
‘Sit down. You’ve proven once again to not have the capacity to do what is necessary, and this is the result. You’re lucky that we aren’t in a position to remove you entirely from the project, but believe me, you would be gone as fast as I was able to make it happen if we were.’
The white-coated man sat down, flushing red. His colleague looked at the floor. The senior uniformed man stood up.
‘Take him away,’ he said gruffly, waving his hand dismissively in Michael’s direction. His colleagues stood, and they both rounded the table, one reaching into his pocket whilst the other grabbed Michael’s arm, pinning it down hard against even the slightest twitch. He tried to struggle, but the combination of the restraints and the man’s grip was just too strong. A sudden, sharp pain pierced his shoulder, followed by the cold, creeping sensation of liquid spreading through his arm. Darkness crept into the corners of his vision and began to engulf it, until everything went black.
‘I really think you should see someone. I – I’m worried about you.’
‘I don’t need to see someone. I’m fine. Just leave me alone and stop telling me what to do,’ Alex snapped, before he rolled over and flicked his bedside lamp off. Mary did the same. He lay in silence, wide-awake, clenching the duvet tight around his body. Shutting his eyes, he tried to force sleep to come to him. A wave of sickening anxiety gurgled in his stomach as the unforgettable image of the cross-hatched ceiling played on repeat in his mind, as it had done since his disappearance, filling a hollow that had been left by those three missing days. He hugged the duvet closer, the feeling of being watched making his skin cling tight and cold on his bones.
Saying he was fine was one thing, but believing it was another. The images that haunted the dark spaces of his mind were consuming him in a neurological fire that wrapped his awareness into a bubble no bigger than his own body. He could barely think about anything else but himself, constantly drawn into a daze that left him with an expression that made Mary visibly uncomfortable.
Mary sighed quietly, still wide awake as well, and clicked her lamp back on again.
‘I think there’s something you’re not telling me,’ she said softly, ‘I know you’re not well; you haven’t been since you had the blackout.’
Her voice trembled for the last few words. Alex didn’t move, pretending to be asleep, but he knew that she knew he wasn’t. He could hear her fighting back emotion, her sniffs thick with tears, and it was a long while before she had composed herself enough to speak again.
‘I want you to know that I love you, Alex,’ she said in a broken, quiet sob before turning away and switching the light off. It wasn’t hard to hear the sound of her tears falling onto the pillow in the silence as they both endured the night apart from each other. Alex didn’t remember falling asleep, but he did remember the many hours that passed trying. His sleep was shallow, dogged by fragments of incomplete dreams. The visions consumed him like a disease, leaving very little of his concentration left for the wife and son he once cared so deeply for.
Since his belated return home, it felt as if he had gone rotten. He got upset very easily, often felt perturbed as if he was being watched, and he grew irrationally aggressive, like a cornered animal. Sometimes he lashed out, his tongue spearing Mary with bitter, wicked words, and although he immediately regretted it, he could still see the fear in her eyes. It made him feel sick with worry that next time he would attack with his fists instead of his tongue.
More often he felt empty, like someone had pulled the plug on his soul and left him to drain, and he would sit for hours on his own without moving whilst Mary was at work and Jack at school. Because of all this, his relationship with Mary had become distant, and now they barely spoke at all. Sometimes he didn’t even realise she was there. Those three missing days had taken more than time – they had taken a piece of him that had left him unbalanced and broken. They had done something to him that left him in a state that seemed to have no end. More than once he had found himself looking at the knife block in the kitchen without even knowing how he got there.
Cocooned by his own paranoia, he was trapped in his home, having not left it since his return over two months ago. He rarely ate. He had lost his job and hadn’t even noticed. Anxiety was the watchman of his existence, always there, never for a moment leaving him be. It was an obsession, and the more he dwelled upon it, the more it preyed on him. It was a dark, looming shadow that crept around after him, always fluttering away into a corner when he turned to look it in the eye.
The next morning Alex awoke to a dull ache squeezing the back of his eyes. He was better in the mornings, particularly for that brief moment where his mind had not caught up with him, and he savoured it. The curtains were shut, the room still dark, but Mary was not in bed. The sheet was cool to the touch on her side; she had been up a while. He listened hard for the sound of her moving around the house, but nothing disturbed the peace. Sitting up, he listened harder, waiting for some familiar noise to reach him and reassure him that she was about. Minutes passed with no such relief. Pulling on a pair of trousers he wandered out of the bedroom, wondering if Mary would be waiting for him downstairs.
Jack’s bedroom was empty. Some of his drawers were open and cleared of clothes. A small pile of toy cars lay in the middle of the carpet, still arranged in whatever game he had been playing. Alex’s heart dropped as the reality sank in. Afraid of what he might find, he went downstairs and into the dining room. A hastily scribbled note lay on the table; he picked it up, swallowing hard as he read.
I have gone and I have taken Jack with me. I cannot continue living with you whilst you make me feel so afraid. I want to love you, but I struggle when all you do is scare me. I hope that the Alex I love can return and that we can be a family again, but until then, for Jack’s safety and for my safety, we have to leave.
Alex put the note down slowly, his hand quivering as he realised what was happening to him. How had he been so blind to have not seen this coming? The blood drained from his face and his throat went dry; pulling out a chair from under the table, he sat down, his knees weak under the weight of his world crashing down on him. It was just too much to bear. Nausea filled his stomach and mouth, and he stared at the table, holding his head in his hands, thinking over and over about what had just happened to him. The admonishing voice in his head grew louder and louder, stupid man, spiteful man, hateful man, where were you for those three days when you should have been at home looking after your family –
‘Shut up!’ he screamed, standing so violently that the chair he was sitting on toppled abruptly to the floor. He cupped a shaking hand over his mouth, unable to believe that the strained, screeching sound he had just heard was his own voice, and stood on that same spot for almost an hour.
A warm breeze trickled through the kitchen window and into the room, breaking him from his trance and carrying with it the sound of cars trundling up and down the street, and children playing in the morning sunshine. He shuffled slowly into the kitchen, unshaven jaw drooping open a fraction, a sticky plume of spittle that had escaped during his outburst still resting on his chin. He stopped next to the fridge. It hummed softly, and he stroked the cool, plastic handle with his fingertips before grasping hold. Pulling open the door, he extracted a tall, glass bottle full of clear liquid. He caressed the ornate relief on the bottle’s surface tenderly, as though he were greeting a long-lost lover. Putting the bottle down on the worktop and closing the fridge door, he got himself a glass from the cupboard. He filled it with the clear liquid, took a deep sniff of the alcoholic scent, drank it in one go and poured himself another.
The metal slat in the door slid open, making Michael jump. He never got used to it interrupting his silent, distant thoughts, the kind he usually had whilst laying on his bed and staring at the ceiling as he was now.
‘Room inspection in ten minutes,’ a voice barked through the gap, before the slat banged home again.
Before his appointments with the psychologist, Michael and his cell were thoroughly inspected to ensure that no danger was present, but it hardly seemed necessary. It gave the guards something to do, a game to while away the hours of their boring, pitiful jobs. Sometimes he got the impression that the guards were almost as trapped as he was – trapped by their occupation and thus venting their frustration in his direction. Their cruelty escalated as time rolled on and it had come to a point where Michael realised that his complaints were getting him nowhere, and so he had stopped complaining altogether.
Gritting his teeth, he bore his day-to-day interaction with the guards without fuss, merely because it seemed that the less he provoked them the more lightly he would get off. Riling the guards would only land him in deeper trouble and he would often end up paying for his defiance for many days afterwards. He generally managed to remain calm, keeping a sensible head on when they pushed his buttons, although the strain of ignoring the blatant torment was beginning to build up. Lying on his bed, his thoughts would often drift into horrifying and violent realms, so much so that they shocked and repulsed him. The simmering rage burned deep inside his body and venting it was impossible. It rose like bile in his throat and soon it would need to be released – hot vomit-like hatred that he knew would leave a bitter taste in his mouth. He despised himself for thinking these thoughts, but there was only so much punishment he could take before his usually reserved and gentle demeanour disappeared.
He watched a cobweb flutter in the downdraft of a cooling vent in the ceiling, its long, ghostly tendrils swaying back and forth like seaweed in a warm current. Sometimes he saw the spider that had created it scuttling in and out of the vent; how he longed to be that spider, to come and go as he pleased, to be gone from this wretched place.
Sitting up in his bed, he stretched, twisting his head to unravel the knot that pulled his neck muscles tight. His whole body felt taut, like he had just sprinted a mile without warming up, each sinew stiff and short and eagerly complaining.
His head swam, and he shut his eyes to calm the kaleidoscope of colours twinkling in front of them. Maybe he was catching something; perhaps there was a ‘flu bug being carried through the ventilation system and he was experiencing the initial symptoms. He felt run down – well, he felt different – and ‘flu would certainly explain it. He’d been having trouble shutting his brain off recently too, and although he liked to think to help pass the hours, he struggled to pause his incessant thoughts for long enough to give him time to sleep. For some reason his brain was on overdrive, his mind reeling with thoughts and memories and ideas at a pace that made him dizzy. It seemed like borderline delirium, but he didn’t have a fever. He touched his hand to his forehead, feeling the heat burn into his skin. Maybe he did have a fever.
No matter how often he went through the room inspection ritual, it didn’t stop an anxious bubble swelling up inside his gut every time. The unpredictability of the guards’ behaviour made him nervous, and despite trying to mitigate the circumstances with his own conduct, a bad mood was all that stood between him and a beating.
They didn’t beat him too hard – he had never needed to visit the hospital – but it wasn’t just a light knock-about either. The guards carried expandable steel batons and didn’t require many excuses to show them off. A swift blow to the shins or stomach would have him in agony for days, especially since he had nothing to do in his cell to distract him from the nauseating pain. He rubbed his stomach tenderly at the premonition, praying that today they would go easy on him. Desperation, he thought, was the only thing that could lead a man to pray to a God that had long since deserted him.
The lock clanked and the door swung open. The head guard entered, flanked by his two assistants, who shut the door behind them. He had a mean look in his eyes that made Michael’s stomach drop to the floor, the chances of a quick and simple inspection falling from slim to none.
‘Stand in the centre of the room, feet apart, hands on the back of your head,’ the chief guard spat. Michael got up and did as he was told, his legs trembling underneath him. Feet apart and hands on head, he closed his eyes and took a breath, waiting for the inevitable. The two flanking guards hurried around the room, pulling out the bed sheets, turning the mattress, inspecting it and generally making a mess of what little furniture there was.
Eyes pinched shut, Michael realised that his whole body was quivering, but not with fear – with anger. He clenched his jaw hard, his teeth audibly creaking as they were forced together. Rage flowed through him, and he sucked in air through his nostrils as slowly as he could to calm the intense thumping of his heart. The heavy, slow footsteps of the head guard moved closer and he opened his eyes to stare into those of the ignorant man before him.
‘Have you got anything you shouldn’t have?’ the guard asked him, slowly and menacingly, reciting the same line he always did with twisted glee.
Michael could hear hot blood rushing through his head like white water pounding through a gorge.
The guard stepped closer, bending down so their eyes were level.
Michael’s chest rose and fell slowly as he fought to restrain the demon that wanted to burst out from inside him.
Hot, vile breath washed over his face, permeating his mouth and nostrils. It smelt like coffee and bacteria.
‘Do you think you are better than me, Michael?’ said the guard sardonically.
The other two guards watched intently, finished with their inspection.
Categories free kindle nation shorts