Trigger warning: this story contains a description of sexual assault. If you would like to proceed to read the story, click here.
Cover image by Adèle d’Alleray
There are some situations that strike the soul deeply and time is the only cure.
“Mom, open this goddamn door!” Laura roared in between pounding fists on her mother’s bedroom door. “Mom! I’m not kidding! Open this fucking door!” Laura’s pummels grew more insistent the longer her mother remained silent on the other side. Each forceful pound sounding more muffled by the heavy barrier between them.
Karen sat quietly on the edge of her bed, fingers absently tracing the patterns on her quilt. Her daughter’s pleading voice seemed to barely penetrate the solid wood door separating the two of them.
She pulled a notebook out of her bedside drawer. She uncapped her pen and scrawled careful letters across the paper. She began to write: My dearest Laura….
“Shitbags,” Deputy Peterson mumbled under his breath while he watched his fellow deputy take down a witness report from the tiniest old woman he had ever seen. Her frail frame seemed to fold in itself as she hugged her elbows.
Deputy Peterson turned back to his witness. The owner, the very nice old lady- small enough to fit into his pocket, claimed her neighbor saw someone take her UPS package off her porch. The other deputy didn’t need him; but, he liked to help. He listened and took notes while the man swore he saw some unsavory ‘feller’ in her yard a few days ago. “I seen him snoopin’ around here just the other day” he drawled on. Of course he saw an unsavory character, Deputy Peterson thought to himself. He cast a glance at the neighborhood and shook his head slightly. They would never find who stole her package in this neighborhood. Dilapidated houses loomed over him- one swift wind and the jenga towers would come crashing down. Game over.
Deputy Peterson glanced at his watch to write down the time. 9:00 PM. It’s only 9 and he’s already dealt with two home visits for minors on house arrest, a dumbass who thought driving down the interstate at 130 MPH was a brilliant idea, and this theft report of someone robbing this nice lady. Yeah, it’s going to be a long night, he thought to himself as he finished the interview with the ‘witness’. A term he was going to use lightly.
Laura continued to bang on her mother’s door. She paused and pressed her ear to it. The door felt solid, stable. She traced the grain of the wood with her fingertips while she awaited an answer she knew she wouldn’t get. Tears blurred her vision and the pattern of the door began to drown.
“Mom, I don’t know what to do. Tell me what I can do. Please. Just open the door.” She waited a second- her ear pressed against the heavy door. Silence. She knew something wasn’t right.
Laura started thrusting her tiny frame into the solid wooden door but her size was no match. Regardless, she continued. She could feel bruises forming on her arms and shoulders as she continued to try to break down through the only stable thing within the house.
Her daughter’s pleas weren’t loud enough to sway Karen’s decision. She signed her note: I will always love you and set it down on her freshly made bed. She was sure she would find it there. She glanced at the ripped corner of the newspaper- a marriage announcement. She clutched the smiling couple in her hands until their faces folded in on themselves. She dropped it on the bed next to the note. She unfolded the old, withered towel she grabbed from the linen closet and laid it out of the floor. That won’t do, she thought. She dragged the towel away from the laminate flooring and readjusted it on the tile in her adjoining bathroom, smoothing out all the corners and wrinkles.
Deputy Peterson returned to his cruiser to type up the report. Protocol has them draft the report on paper and then upload it to their software system later. Although a little redundant, It’s pretty effective. They don’t always have time to immediately type the report and the longer they wait- the more information they may forget. He leaned back in the driver’s seat of his cruiser while he watched his colleague finish up the interview with the victim. He hated that the assurances his colleague was more than likely providing were in vain. He cranked the key. The motor in his cruiser roared to life and he began typing.
“Mom?” Laura pleaded through the door. She rammed her body into it one more time. Pain spread up her arm and into her neck. How much longer could she keep doing this? She pressed her ear to the door one more time. Silence. Fear and anger continued to radiate throughout Laura’s core. That’s it, she thought to herself. She grabbed her cellphone and made the call.
“911. What is your emergency?”
Laura didn’t know what to say. How could she formulate the situation without breaking down into hysterics? She felt like she was betraying her mom.
“Hello? 911. What is your emergency?”
Laura found a voice that didn’t sound like her. The voice she discovered was that of a little girl. Not a 17 year old about to graduate. “Yes, I need help.”
“Yes, how can we help you?”
“I think,” Laura struggled to find the words, “I think my mom is going to kill herself.” There. She finally admitted it. A new reign of fear caused her limbs to convulse and her voice to shake. A new round of tears raked the sides of her cheeks and her lips quivered as she struggled to make out what the dispatcher was saying.
“Ma’am, we need your address. Where are you?”
Laura regurgitated the address she’s had memorized since she was six. She currently didn’t recognize her childhood home.
“Okay, ma’am, we’re sending help your way. Please stay on the line with me until a deputy makes it to you. Where is your mom now?”
“Um… locked in her room. I can’t hear anything. She isn’t making any noise.”
“Ma’am do you have any guns or weapons in the house?”
Oh, god. Laura’s heart momentarily faltered within her chest. Did her mother have a gun? She shouldn’t. Dad took his guns with him. She honestly didn’t know the answer, “I don’t think so. I don’t know!” Laura fought the urge to vomit.
“Ok, just stay on the line, a deputy will be to you shortly. What’s your name?”
“Laura. My name is Laura”
Karen stood on the towel in her bathroom. She placed a hand over her chest and felt the steady beats of her heart, She closed her eyes and listened to the rhythm of her fleeting life. She knew what she wanted. Her daughter would eventually understand. Everyone would understand once they read the note.
She took a deep breath and reached for the steak knife she grabbed from the kitchen. She had the knife hidden in her vanity drawer for days now. Laura didn’t notice it was missing. If she had noticed, she would have suspected.
Her left hand stayed on her chest, pressing down on bones meant to protect her heart.
She held the knife by the handle and examined the sawed edge. Although dulled with use, it would still cut through their steaks without a problem. Pain was never an issue. Karen hadn’t felt anything is years. This was a long time coming.
Her fingers danced their way down her breastplate, feeling each climb and fall of bone and space. She placed two index fingers over the place right between her breasts. She took the knife and extended her arm out to the side of her body. In one fluid motion, she charged the knife right for her target.
“343, do you copy?”
Deputy Peterson grabbed his radio, “343 copy, over”. He released the tab on the side of his radio waiting for a response. Good. Anything to get him the hell away from this backwoods neighborhood and this sad old lady. The broken streetlights cascaded uneven light throughout the street. Even in the dark, Deputy Peterson could be the decay. The rot.
“We have a possible attempted suicide in progress, over.”
“343, copy. On my way”.
He signaled to his fellow deputy that he had to go as he turned on his lights and sirens and headed to another house deeper in the neighborhood. Red and blue flashing lights lit up the houses as he barreled his way down the streets.
“Laura? Are you still on the line?”
“Yes!” Laura began beating on her mother’s door again. “I can hear her screaming! You have to hurry!” Laura’s stomach rolled as she listened to her mother’s bursting screams continue.
“A deputy is on his way. Make sure you’re standing in the light and wave him down when you see him. Stay out of the road.”
“I can’t just leave her!”
“Laura, the deputy can get to your mother quicker if he knows where she is. EMS are on the way too.”
Laura hesitated while a new fit of wretchedness sounded from the crack underneath her mother’s door. Laura’s hesitation quickly gave way and she ran through the front door, the screen door flying off the hinges and left hanging in the wake of her exit.
She ran to the street light that sat in their front yard and she began to pace.
“I don’t see anyone!” She screamed into the phone.
“ I know you’re upset. But I need you to remain calm. They are on their way. A deputy should be there in approximately three minutes.” Three minutes? A lot could happen in three minutes. Laura’s mind raced with thoughts of her mother and what could happen in three minutes. She continued to pace.
The bone protecting her precious organ was proving to be a problem. Karen underestimated the power it would take to penetrate the bone and puncture her heart. Anger flourished in her as she yanked the serrated knife from her chest, blood pooling on her shirt and onto the floor. With a scream of pain, aggravation, and sheer adrenaline, she plunged the knife into her chest a second time. Hoping this time her strength could could get the job done.
“Where the fuck is this house?” Deputy Peterson breathed into the dashboard. His eyes raked both sides of the street. He turned a corner and found a homely girl with no shoes standing in the middle of her yard. Her frantic arm movements signaled for him. He slammed the cruiser into park and threw his body out of the car.
“He’s here!” Laura hung up the phone and dropped it in the grass by her feet. She hoped he wasn’t too late.
“My mom! Please hurry! She locked herself in her room! I tried to get in but-”
“Are there any other exits in her room besides her door?” He barked as Laura fumbled with her words. He started heading towards the house.
“What? Yes. Wait. No. Her windows still have shutters from the st-”
“Do you have any weapons in the house?” He yelled over his shoulder as he stormed up the steps on the front porch.
“What? No! I don’t know! I-” Choking sobs cut off her words as she ran after him. She made it onto the first step of the porch before he held up a big meaty hand, halting her immediately.
“Where’s her room?” He drew his gun from his belt.
“Oh my god! Why do you have a gun? You have to go help her!”
“You wait out here. Wait for the ambulance. When you see them, flag them down, yell for me.” He turned to face her for a moment.
“Ma’am? Did you hear me?” He stared into her dirty face but her eyes were wild with fear.
“Yes, I heard you. But-”
“Stay. Out. Here.” He commanded as he silently ushered his way through the front door. Laura was left outside by herself. Without the comfort of the dispatcher on the phone, she felt vulnerable in the dark. Her body shuddered uncontrollably as she continuously repeated her directions. “Wait for the ambulance. Flag them down. Yell for him. Wait for the ambulance. Flag them down. Yell for him.”
Karen faded back into consciousness. She was now on the floor. Blood pooled around her midsection and the knife was sticking out of her chest. Only a few inches of the blade concealed by her meaty flesh. Her strength failed her. She couldn’t break the bone.
The pounding on the door had stopped moments before she blacked out. She thought she heard a man’s voice but the ringing in her ears made it hard to tell. She must have hit her head. She couldn’t help but wonder how long she was out. Not long enough to bleed to death, she answered herself.
Realizing her method was failing, she grabbed hold of the knife once more. Her head was foggy and her vision was cloudy. The handle slippery with blood. She yanked it out of her chest, tearing flesh and shirt away with it. Karen cried out in pain but her cry was pitiful and weak. Shallow gasps of breath consumed her. She knew she had to act quickly.
The pounding on her bedroom door began again. This time harder, more forceful. Before she lost consciousness again, she thrusted the knife upward through her stomach, just below the breastbone. She hoped the upward angle would be enough. Blackness swirled around her and before she fell back into the black abyss she longed for, her bedroom door came crashing open.
Deputy Peterson gripped his gun, the barrel facing the floor. With situations like this, he could never tell how it would play out. Mentally unstable people were the most dangerous cases. Their actions unpredictable. If she had a gun, he needed to be prepared. He inched his way across the living room. The house was small, dark, dirty. His boots were sticking to the laminate floors with every step. When he got deeper into the living room, he could see the door to the master bedroom.
He rapped loudly on the bedroom door. “Ma’am? I’m Deputy Peterson with the Maycounty Sheriff’s Office. Can you hear me?” He waited for a response. He pressed his ear to the door frame and stilled his breathing. He listened. His trained ears told him it might be too late. He knocked again, this time more forcefully. He listened again. A strange gurgling sound hit his ears and that was all he needed. He backed up a few feet away from the door and used his booted foot and strength in his legs to force the solid wood door open. It took one, solid kick and the door crashed open hitting the wall with a loud thud. He surveyed the room, seeing nothing. It wasn’t until he turned to see the bathroom that he realized he may have been right about his timing.
“343, requesting backup, over.” He released the lever on the radio and cleared his mind. Training and experience started to take over.
“343, backup on the way, over.”
He hastily moved over to the lifeless body on the bathroom floor. He surveyed the scene before taking action. He had seen something like this before. A man pretended to be dead, only to try to steal his fellow officer’s gun when he reached down to check for a pulse. Deputy Peterson reached to the back of his gun belt and took out his rubber gloves. Deputies always have gloves, just in case. Once his hands were protected from the blood, he checked for any other weapons besides the knife protruding from the woman’s abdomen. When he was satisfied he didn’t see any, he checked for a pulse. Although faint, he could feel life hanging on in the arteries in her neck. Within seconds he had towels around the blade and he was applying pressure to the wound. He learned not to remove weapons until EMS arrived to ensure the weapon didn’t hit any vital organs. He didn’t need her bleeding out internally when a fair amount of blood covered the bathroom floor already. He applied pressure and he waited for backup. He thought back to the girl standing in the front yard, counting on him to save her mom. He looked down at the woman sprawled on the floor. This one was going to haunt his dreams for awhile. They always do.
“They’re here! Hey! They’re here!” Laura screamed through the front door. Laura was about to run into the house but remembered she was supposed to show them the way. Wait for the ambulance. Flag them down. Yell for him. She needed them to get there quickly so they could help her mom. Despite the swirling lights of Deputy Peterson’s patrol car, she ran back to her street light and waved her arms frantically, hoping they saw her. “Flag them down” she repeated to herself.
A young man jumped out of the passenger side before the ambulance came to a complete stop. A team of men routinely gathered gear and a stretcher. Laura watched in awe as the red lights repeatedly illuminated her face, momentarily blinding her with each pass.
A man was running up the driveway and headed for the steps. She retreated into the shadows of the lawn. He was met by Deputy Peterson and they briefly exchanged words before the EMT slipped into the house followed by the others and the stretcher. The gravity of the situation caused Laura to fall to her knees. She buried her face into her hands and released heavy sobs.
Deputy Peterson could hear the wailing of the sirens as they rounded the corner and pulled closer to the house. He waited. He counted to fifty before releasing the wound and running to the front door. His job was to secure the scene and he needed to explain that the only weapon was still lodged in the victim. He needed to time it just right so the pressure wasn’t off the wound very long. After fifty seconds, he released his hold on the woman and reluctantly went out onto the porch.
After briefing them, the men ran past him and into the house. Deputy Peterson carefully took off his gloves, careful to use the innards of one to remove the other. Although his uniform was soaked in her blood, he preferred his hands to stay sanitized.
He moved his way over to Laura and stood by her, blocking her view of the house. Careful to remain in the shadows so she wouldn’t notice the state of his uniform. He needed to keep her separated from her mother.
Laura peered up through her fingers to see Deputy Peterson standing by her. The pain that she had been ignoring now licked its way up her arm and throughout the top of her back. Her arm felt too thick in her shirt sleeve. The EMTs were still inside. It seemed like a long time to be in there. Too long. She cried out in pain from her arm, from her mom.
A light blinded her once more as Deputy Peterson shined his flashlight on her arm to inspect.
“We need to have your arm looked at too.” He said matter of factly.
“Where’s my mom?” She questioned. Her voice faded away as exhaustion and pain overcame her.
Her questions were soon answered as a man came out on the porch, towing the stretcher with him. Another man ushered the head of it out the door and down the steps. Deputy Peterson was holding Laura back by her good arm. She didn’t even know she had stood. She didn’t realize she was trying to run to her mother.
In less time than it took Deputy Peterson to tell her she needed to stay back, her mother was loaded in the ambulance and hauled away. Sirens blared down the road. Within moments, the only sound was Laura’s ragged breathing.
Deputy Peterson released the hold on Laura’s arm. He didn’t mean to grab her so hard but she didn’t need to see what he saw. The mangled abdomen of her mother looked like something out of a horror movie. The image of torn flesh running on a circuit in his mind.
“Laura, I’m going to take you to the hospital to have your arm looked at. I’ll be there with you so we can over your statement.”
“Is my mom…?”
“You did the right thing, Laura.” He guided her to his cruiser, careful not to touch her injured shoulder. His hand absently fingered the breast pocket of his unform. He could feel he crumpled up newspaper and letter he swiped off the bed on his way out. Protocol says this should be in evidence but he knew Laura would need this someday. He didn’t have the heart to tell her now that her mother’s note was in his pocket, or that the EMT shared a knowing glance his way when he exited the house, confirming his suspicions that he did- indeed- feel the life slip away from her right underneath his blood soaked hands. For now, she needed to focus on healing. Her wounds are ones that would take a while to heal.
There are many thieves in the train but I am not a thief.
There are always many trains coming and going, and many people, and much hustle and bustle, and they use this to their advantage, as a distraction. And though my clothes are dirty and my beard is long, though my eyes are weary and my cap is worn, I am simply a traveler and I would never cause another person pain just for my own gain. I am a decent man.
It is summer now, and so the stations are more hot and dusty and chaotic. The cafes, once something of a refuge from the crowds, have been overrun—the tables are all full and even the spaces on the floor are taken, and I’ve heard that by the afternoon there isn’t any tea left at all; although this is hard for me to verify as I don’t touch the stuff.
Summer is also the time when I begin my travels in earnest. In June I will leave Xi’an and take a train to the coast, to Guangzhou where I once had relatives; but I have not been for a long time. I will look them up, I think, but I should not torture myself with old family history as they will want me to. Perhaps I will not look them up.
Earnest was not your garden variety pessimist. Like his former idol, N., he was not satisfied just complaining. He had to destroy everything he found that was hopeful or good. Hope was an emotion and could not be trusted, and goodness was for the weak who needed directions on how to live. N. had also rejected all religions as variations on the same theme of creating purpose and the evidence to support it. And it wasn’t just the inflamed radicals with deadly political objectives. It was also the ordinary believers who observed Ramadan, Easter, Yom Kippur, Vesak, or Diwali but were otherwise unremarkable. Drawing from a common belief in hope and goodness, they were all misguided.
N.’s problem had been that he was so successful, in his mind, that he lost the fire and enthusiasm that first drove him to demolish these hollow belief systems. Once done, Earnest recalled, N. became bored and turned pessimism against itself. Ironically, N. was converted to his new quest. He constructed his own elaborate philosophy and became guardedly optimistic–hopeful and in tune with goodness. In Earnest’s view, N. had betrayed pessimism.
Earnest vowed to avoid the performative contradictions that had undermined N.’s later philosophy. For that to happen, he had to avoid N.’s mistake of challenging his own beliefs. He had to take as given that critique, destruction and pessimism were the essence of the eternally real. Because it was not belief but instead the very foundation upon which belief was built, it could not be logically removed without self-contradiction. To disconfirm is as much an affirmation as any belief, and pessimism is an attitude towards or belief about something. Yet something persists that is more fundamental than pessimism, and that is doubt. Unlike pessimism, doubt can be infinitely regressed. That was Earnest’s contribution which he felt completed N.’s work.
Theoretical skepticism and practical skepticism were two different things, Earnest discovered. He ended up believing in nothing, not even doubt. He couldn’t be sure that he trusted anything, and so he decided to accept that everything could be confirmed and denied, good and bad, right and wrong, believed and doubted. To live or to die, to love or not to love, to be successful or to fail were equally good and bad. Nothing was fixed. Even his bed might not be his bed, his apartment downtown might not be his apartment and might not even be downtown. Furthermore, nothing was his–not the bicycle, the book collection, the clock on the bedside table, the toothbrush on the bathroom sink. All of these things might not even belong to him. But what was most disturbing was the possibility that his very thoughts were unreal and were not about real things and that they only appeared to be the thoughts of a person who might not even exist.
Earnest felt but stopped thinking. He felt cold, lonely, depressed, and confused, and having no home to go to or identity to fall back on, he wandered the streets and slept where he fell. But this could not last indefinitely, and it didn’t. He was picked up by the police, interrogated, and placed in a psychiatric hospital where thanks to an aggressive chemical intervention regime he discovered a new side of himself–the gullible buffoon.
Cover image: Portrait of Pablo Picasso, by Juan Gris
A thousand and one stories is powered by writers from around the world. We review submissions and bring them to an audience of readers. If you love to write, submit a story!
We publish new and established writers in all genres. If you’ve never had your work published before, this could be a great way of getting your writing out there for the first time.
Whether we decide to put your work up on the site or not, we will give you free feedback on your writing!
Send your stories to email@example.com.
The morning came like any other autumnal morning in Ottawa, Canada. The trees outside of Frank Geron’s window offered a palette of dark reds, brilliant yellows, and burnt oranges interlaced with the blacks of limbs and some greens where the leaves of summer hadn’t yet changed to the colors that presaged their deaths.
Frank, a resident of The Valley, an assisted living facility for seniors, decided that day he’d decamp for home, back to New York where he belonged. This decision was not a “spur of the moment” thing. Frank realized The Valley wasn’t going to be the place for him the very first time he saw it from the roadway; even before Thomas, hi son, drove up the U shaped driveway and stopped in front of the door, already opened by a smiling man wearing a black suit, a white shirt and a green tie with small yellow circles on it. The building resembled a small hotel, or perhaps an exclusive country club. From that seminal moment, Frank began to plan his escape. It took him three months to think through all of the details, and convince the staff and the other residents that he was happy in his new surroundings and experienced hardly any trauma as a result of his move from New York to Canada and The Valley. But he was a consummate actor and they were willing to believe whatever he told them because he knew what they wanted to hear.
Frank’s going to live in Canada was an agreement between him and his son if Laura, his wife, predeceased him long before her actual death in late spring. Living close to Thomas provided him with some measure of security with regard to his father’s wellbeing. He would have his meals on time, medical care when he needed it and pleasant surroundings in which to live out the rest of his life. Frank was grateful for his son’s thought-fullness. He was all too aware that sons and daughters abandoned their aging parents to the mercy of strangers or badly managed old age homes that were nothing more than “holding pens” for the aged until death claimed them. But his son’s concern for him didn’t outweigh the reality of the situation in which he placed him. It was the daily routine of the place that finally got to him.
For most of his life, he had been a free-lance author. Time was something he dealt with in his own way. He seldom wore a watch. If he was into what he was writing, he would work at it until he was too exhausted to continue. That was his way and Laura accepted it. “Routine,” he would say, “was good for some people, but he wasn’t one of them.” Life, he maintained, should be full of surprises; so that on Wednesday you didn’t always have meatloaf for dinner. But institutions needed to regiment the lives of those who either worked in them or, like him, were committed to them for having lived long enough to become worrisome to their children.
Since there weren’t any fences or a security kiosk at the entrance to the driveway and the residents were free to walk around the grounds or even to the town, less the a half a mile from The Valley, no one would suspect he’d decamped until lunch when his place at the table he shared with three other residents two women: Sally and Tina, and one man, Gilbert, would be empty. But by that time, he would be on a train bound for Montreal and there he’d switch to the train that would take to the Grand Central Station in New York and cab back to his apartment. Actually, it once had been two apartments: a one bedroom deal and a two bedroom space. But he had the walls removed between them and used what had been the smaller one as his studio. In a rental building, he had been the only one who actually owned his apartment. And as far as he knew, he still owned it because Thomas, who managed his finances, never mentioned anything that remotely suggested selling it or it had been sold.
At breakfast, Frank was his usual smiling self, taking part in the tiresome conversation about the weather and the “gorgeous colors” of the various trees and other botanicals that surrounded The Valley’s building. He never told anyone that he was an author, not even the staff member who had interview him when first arrived… He determinedly hid who and what he had been from the staff and the residents alike. Whatever they knew about his life was a fabrication, even Thomas, who was present at the initial interviews was taken aback when Frank told the interviewer that he was salesman for a toy company for most of his adult life. And when it came to his service record, even though he didn’t serve in the Canadian Army, he never mentioned his service the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War, and the several awards that were given to him for outstanding bravery under enemy fire. None of it was any of their business; besides, when it came time for him to “make his getaway,” the less they knew about him the more difficult it would for them to track him before they became hysterical and phoned his son to notify him that his father had “skipped town,” so to speak.
After breakfast he announced that he intended to walk into town to buy a shaving cream and few other items he needed. Gilbert offered to accompany him. Frank assured that he wasn’t in need of company and that he’d only be away a short time. It was a narrow escape. He had to be at the train station by ten thirty. It was already nine-fifteen. Having walked the distance between The Valley and the train station many times at moderate pace, he knew that he would arrive at the station with fifteen minutes to spare before the train came, time enough to go to the locker where he’d previously secreted a small innocuous blue duffel bag with two changes of underwear, and pair of jeans, two pairs of socks, a sweater and a light jacket. Once he was settled in his old apartment, he would purchase what he needed for the winter. He had several credit cards and eight thousand dollars in cash which he had withdrawn from his own account before moving to Canada.
Because he was nervous, his pace was quicker than it had been during his dry runs to the station giving him more time to get his duffel bag out of the locker and then to sit on a wooden bench to wait for the train. The additional time increased his anxiety. Someone from The Valley might walk into the station, recognize him, and that would cause him to abort his escape and come up with the plausible reason for being there with a duffel bag filled with clothing. That possibility had occurred to him before because he gave himself a margin of only four minutes between getting his duffel bag out of the locker and boarding, buying the necessary ticket and the train. But because he’d quickened his pace, he already had purchased his ticket and was forced to wait. The situation caused his heart to race; and though it was cool in the waiting room, he could feel the beads of perspiration slid down his back.
This was his most adventurous undertaking in years. Ordinarily, he lived the quite life of a retiree; something, his son said he deserved. Deserved, he thought ought to be stricken from the language. No one deserved anything as far as he was concerned. Earned was far more to his liking, and even that word didn’t in any manner way or form explain the hours of boredom concealed within it.
He was one of the lucky few, a successful author and screenplay writer who wrote under the pseudonym of Ken White because he eschewed any sort of notoriety, even to avoiding attending the various functions that honored his work lest he betray his real identify. Only his agent, Steven Jarvis knew who he really was. The money he earned put him in the millionaire category. He’d had “a good run” as he told his son when he realized that his time was over, that what Hollywood and the Indies wanted were not in the well of his imagination, and the same condition existed in publishing. The only writing he presently did was to make entries in his journal; and those were, at best, desultory.
Frank looked at the large clock on the wall opposite from where he sat. There was still ten minutes to wait before the train arrived assuming it would be on time. Depending on how he defined they could feel excruciatingly longer or shorter. A jet flying at six hundred miles an hour would travel sixty miles, as distance that would be passed the border between Canada and the United States. Or, if he was making love to a woman, not that it was possible anymore and hadn’t been possible years before his wife had died, ten minutes could feel like an exquisite eternity or an ineffable momentary explosion pleasure.
Suddenly Frank smiled; not a big smile, as if his rictus muscles and not his brain remembered the previous time he ran away, made his escape from his family and became “a runaway.” Sixteen and on his own all the way to California. Hitchhiking, riding the rails, working as dishwasher when he ran out of money and sometimes taking a bus when he had the money to do it. So many adventures, being picked up by a woman and her daughter and sleeping with both of them at different times, almost having his head crushed by car. Never knowing or caring what the next day would bring. Returning home three months after he’d left to be ostracized by his sister Roslyn and be called a bum; and was told by his father that he was on his own, he would get nothing from him.
He heard the sound of the train’s horn as it neared the station and was ready to stand and walk to the gate. In a matter of minutes, he would be boarding it and on his way to – – He felt himself tightening up. Every muscle in his body seemed to constrict. Where was he going? Back to New York. What would he do there? What he was doing where he was. But he’d be totally alone. All of his former friends were either dead or living in Florida. He was caught in a sudden frisson of fear.
The train arrived and the gate to the platform was opened.
Frank looked to his right and left, though he didn’t know what he hoped to see. A friendly face maybe. He clutched his small duffel bag to his chest. And then it was over, his body sagged. He sat on the bench again. He felt the tears skid down his cheeks. He was too old, too frail and too frightened to run anywhere. He needed the security that Happy Valley gave him though he hated the place and now he had reason to hate himself and his timidity.
He looked up at the clock on the wall. If he walked quickly he would still be in time for lunch.
Mark’s morning commute was a pain in the arse, but he had no alternative. Sitting on the full train heading toward the bustling metropolis of London this morning, he rued his show off younger self. Sure, he thought, I have the city job but his bank balance was pitiful, and it would be until he really found his feet at Burke and Bailey. Maybe in a year he could move into the city and never have to take this fucking train again. The forty five minutes weren’t that bad, but when you’re herded into a hunk of moving steel like sheep, pressed up against some other poor schmuck in an expensive looking suit with a briefcase, day after miserable day, it can get pretty annoying. Today he faced a fat balding man who looked just as miserable as he did. Having to run for the train this morning meant he had to stand face to face with this guy all the way into the city. They didn’t even bother with the nicety of small talk, Mark pressed play on his iPod and went into his own world. The fat guy opposite was a little more positive with his morning, and clutched a bent and well-worn paperback in his hand, gripping onto the handrail with the other free hand. How Mark longed to be one of the people in first class, who chose to live outside of London because they could afford to, who commuted through choice rather than financial necessity, and who sat back and watched the world go by and didn’t have to wrinkle their nose against the faint odour of BO floating around one of the three carriages in the Eastern Trainlines 7.47am service into London Euston.
Twelve months max, Mark thought to himself. He’d trade his flat on the outskirts for a flat in the centre. A year of thrifty savings and he’d never had to get this fucking train again. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate on the music filling his ears, holding his breath against the stale smell of human sweat drifting into his nostrils.
Sophie had managed to find a seat and sat with her laptop balancing precariously on her knees, nervously looking over her presentation that she due to give that morning. Fenner Pharmaceuticals were on the verge of releasing a new drug into society. This drug would be one of a kind and was designed to help the taker tackle social anxiety. The release of endorphins into the brain as soon as the pill dissolved into the bloodstream created a sense of ease in the brain, a feeling of relaxation would soon overcome the recipient of the drug and all shades of nervousness would be counteracted. They’d tested it on a handful of subjects, and the results had been remarkable, even the shiest of their subjects had been placed in potentially unsettling social situations and excelled.
Sophie was due to pitch to the head of every major chemist in the UK. She was a little nervous but her preparation had been meticulous. She glanced up from her MacBook and noted that the train was crammed full, as it was every morning. She felt for the passengers looking uncomfortable standing but her sympathy only went so far, they should have gotten to the station earlier, and then maybe they would have got a seat, as it was she was backwards facing as the train crept towards Euston.
Malcolm was bloody miserable. He hated these horrible morning shifts when he would ferry the rich into the city, and then steer the empty train back to the outskirts, repeating until 2.30pm when he could go home for the evening. This service wasn’t bad, as people were mainly fine, heading into the city with time to kill. It was the one after this train that would be the pain in the arse, as he’d ferry the stragglers into the city. He hated dealing with those who’d slept through their alarms and would be panicking that they’d be late. There was always one rich cocksucker in a suit who would complain to him as they pulled into Euston just before 9am.
“I’m late now, fuck” they’d always complain. Like Malcolm gave a toss. He’d shrug and close the window to Mr Rolex and his briefcase. One nagging question prodded at Malcolm each and every morning that he was down on the rota for the morning stretch between Grafton and Euston, via the pleasant village of Frampley. How had he ended up here?
The radio crackled in front of him, he picked up the receiver and held it to his ear.
“Mal…Malc…Malcolm, are you there?” A female voiced came through the radio
“Loud and clear Sue, what’s up?”
Sue was at the control box at Euston, directing trains and controlling the flow of traffic in and out of the station. She was a frumpy woman with knockout tits. She and Malcom had gone out once for a date, which had ended back up at her Isleworth apartment. Relations had cooled somewhat between them as word got around of her promiscuity with other train drivers. She was what was known in the train driver’s circles as a smash and dash.
“I… I don’t know… there’s something wrong with the city. Malcom, park up half a mile away from the tunnel, will you?”
He sighed to himself “Ah, fuck, Sue. What am I supposed to tell them?”
“Signalling, until we know more…please”
He noticed the panic in her voice “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Nobody knows yet; just pull up will you… I’ll keep in touch”
The connection was ended with a short crackle of static. Malcolm sighed deeply and picked up the radio that let him communicate with the train. He paused a moment and he started to slow the train on the approach to Euston, the yellowish tint to the city that had first looked mesmerising now looked sinister to him.
“Ladies and Gentleman, this is your driver speaking, I am afraid…”
The vast crowds milling around London’s plush streets were all frozen to the spot and looking up at the sky. They stared stunned at the ever expanding spectre of darkness overcoming the translucent morning sky. Some were confused, some expressed fear in hushed tones as if talking to themselves and some conferred with others when normally they would walk straight on by.
For those already in the expansive offices that made up Canary Wharf, they all stood transfixed at the open windows, looking at the clouds as they rolled in. It was a mist drifting in off of the Thames that caught their attention. Only it seemed like it was engulfing everything in its path. Not only was in slow rolling in off of the water, it was approaching airborne from all directions, slowly but surely. The glass façade of Canary Wharf was slowly filled with blinking faces looking out over the metropolis.
Traffic was at a standstill. Only a handful of disconcerted people carried on with their daily routine and pushed through the crowds. Some even took advantage of the standstill traffic and navigated through the stationary cars. The lone cyclist going about his business was cycling frantically, as if he were outrunning something.
If you were unlucky enough to be on the tube that morning, you wouldn’t have known what was going on above ground. You would have been totally in the dark as to why the city above had come to a standstill. All the services were halted across the city, wherever they were, the darkness that engulfed morning commuters created an eerie sense of confusion in the steel tube trains. The electricity still hummed all around them, but nothing moved and nobody spoke. The tannoy announcement had spoken of signalling problems, and promised constant updates on the situation.
It had been a smokescreen of course; there were no updates to give, because nobody knew what was happening to the city.
London stood still, watching, waiting, and wondering.
The clouds that were rolling towards the city centre had enveloped Brentford and the outer districts of London when the Boeing 747 made its final approach towards Heathrow. The pilot saw the clouds from a far and radioed into air traffic control, but got no response. He radioed into the control centre again, and the same static crackling that had greeted him minutes ago met him again. It was time to put his training into action, and bring this bird down safely on the ground. The coordinates were locked. His co-pilot looked worried, he was new to the job and together so far they’d only flown in perfect conditions.
“Hey” Captain Rogers put his hand on Blake’s shoulder “It’s only a bit of cloud, buddy, don’t worry”
Those were the last words they ever spoke between them.
Mary Baggerly lived a stone’s throw from the major landing path for the new T5 terminal. She, along with other residents, protested vehemently against it, but eventually she got squashed like the insignificant little bug she felt up against the government. She heard the plane approaching from the north east, and craned her neck for a look out of her front window.
That morning she couldn’t the plane as it descended into the strange low hanging clouds. As soon as it hit the clouds, the noise dwindled down, and as the back end of the plane entered the cloud, the noise stopped all together. The plane disappeared into the cloud, but never came out, it… it… simply disappeared into the smog and never came back out. She cranked up her hearing aids in her ears, and instantly turned them back down, as she craned a well-tuned ear to the clouds, expecting engine roar, she heard screams, screams which pierced her to her very soul. She ran out of the house and out into the clouds.
She dropped dead on her front step.
“It’s been forty-five fucking minutes, what is going on?” An angry voiced called out over the hush of the carriage Sophie found herself sat in that Monday morning. A wall of silence met the voice, who, clearly annoyed that nobody had joined the chorus, continued. “I was meant to be in a fucking meeting ten minutes ago, fuuuuck. Let me through, I’m going to talk to the driver.” He started to push through the stationary crowd crammed inside the carriage that stood still on the tracks. People were content to let him through rather than point out that they were all late, that they were all stuck, and that they were all annoyed, they just weren’t being an obnoxious moron about it.
Sophie looked out of her window, staring into the concrete jungle that stood on the approach into London. Backwards facing, she couldn’t see the city, she could only make out its reflection in the guy’s glasses who sat in front of her, eyes fixed on the city. She was just as annoyed as the guy who was no doubt banging on the driver’s door and f’ing and blinding for no reason. She’d called her boss, who, in a confused state had told her that some kind of rolling fog was slowly engulfing the city, and that it had brought the usual bustling streets to a complete standstill. As it happened, the heads of the companies she would be presenting to were also stuck in traffic. So really, there was nothing to worry about. They were all up the same shit filled creek with the same paddle.
“What can you see?” She asked specs in the seat opposite
“I… I… don’t know” The sweat seeping through is shirt meant that he was either worried, or didn’t talk to women very often. He shuffled backwards into his seat, lifting his legs up into his chest “Have a look yourself”
Sophie did. She didn’t like what she saw.
The mist had fully enveloped London now. As it rolled in the people who were on the streets dove for open shop windows, they crowded down into subway stations, and generally took every single bit of evasive action that they possibly could to get out of the way. One pre-adolescent on his way to college decided to jump into the Thames to get away from the fog, but he never made it to the water. The mist spat out an arm and caught him. Anyone else who had the misfortune to be taken by the fog did so with their hands firmly clamped over their ears, trying to stifle the screaming sounds coming from the vapour.
Then it started to rain.
It instantly began to dissolve everything that it fell on, tops of buildings, cars, and the pavement below, and human flesh. The unwitting cyclist who had weaved through the traffic made it as far as Tower Bridge before the rain got him, ripping through his flesh. Until it reached his legs, he cycled on, his top half slowly dissolving, becoming a grinning spectacle of half man, half skeleton. As he splashed through a puddle the front tire gave out and he crashed down into the quickly forming puddles of rain, and he slowly dissolved away, bringing the nose wrinkling smell of rotting corpse to the air.
The rain ate through pavements, cars falling into the sewers below. The underground network was exposed like roots of a tooth after years of slow decay; cars fell onto the stationary trains, bringing with them splashes of acid that instantly tore through the roofs of the trains, rendering the people inside dead instantly, if not from the crush then from the rain soaking them. Buses ran over cars in a panic, pulverising those inside. Building were dissolving, crumbling and starting to decay.
The rain fell like an incessant monsoon for the next few minutes, eating through everything in its path. Then it stopped. Sophie had swapped seats with the guy in glasses and now sat looking into the dark nebula of the fog, imagining the rain reducing London to a slippery mess. She’d not brought her umbrella today.
Then the clouds exploded.
“What the…?” Sophie muttered to herself, she put her hand out of the window to catch some of the colourful rain that had just started to fall onto the train; she quickly withdrew hare hand back into the carriage, her eyes widened at the sight of the flesh disappearing rapidly, showing bone in seconds.
“CLOSE THE FUCKING WINDOWS” someone shouted, and clambered over her, knocking her unconscious as their knee connected with the side of her bowed head.
The rain fell on the train, and then quickly blew in through the open windows, dissolving flesh, creating widespread panic as people tried to flee. Some naively tried to shelter themselves with briefcases, newspapers. Some desperate people even grabbed fellow commuters and tried to use them as shields.
The screams reverberated around the train, as the engine started up and the train was quickly thrown into reverse.
The screams were now joined by the dull roar of the engine, the rain hadn’t reached the undercarriage just yet, but the screams had reached the driver, who stared transfixed at the spectre of doom befalling the city he called home.
And those screams, he could hear them in his soul.
Buildings collapsed on their foundations, shop windows blew out, taking the people inside with them, throwing out a shower of glass and bodies into the fog.
The Thames burst its barriers, creating a tsunami effect in all directions, the rapidly gushing water engulfing rubble, cars, bodies and absolutely everything else in its path.
The resulting mushroom cloud that stood over London was pulsing, like a beating heart working overtime to pump blood around the body.
It exploded again, shooting arms of vapours out in all directions; it was fast, and it spread rapidly outside of the city itself, shooting off into the countryside, out over the sea towards France and up the motorways towards the rest of the country.
The train was hurtling now, going in reverse as fast as it could.
Malcolm still clutched his one ear that hadn’t been dissolved off, trying to drown out the screams.
The fog was chasing the train
It was chasing him,
And it was screaming.
Malcolm crouched down underneath the control panel, the train growling uncontrollably into the countryside.
Malcolm prayed, but it was no use.
He knew the fog was faster.
One Christmas was so much like the other, in those years around the sea-town corner now, out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.
All the Christmases roll down towards the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged, fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.
Inside the Green Town saloon I stood four-foot-six. I wore a gray hat, purple shirt, dungarees, and boots etched in both gray and purple. My hair was long and brown and hung down into my eyes. I carried both a pistol and a whip.
I had arrived in town on a stagecoach which ought to have been robbed along its trail but instead wound unmolested through the cacti and sand of the region, bearing its currency to Green Town, where the murderers dwelled. I had no logical purpose in this world, shifting from town to town as a bootblack, sitting outside of general stores with my rags and kit to clean the dust off of shoes which belonged to better men than me.
I had heard tell of the murderers in Green Town, but that was actually more of an allure than a dissuasion. Didn’t murderers need their shoes cleaned as well? Perhaps I could even run amongst them; they might take me on as an apprentice, or a sideshow, or a mascot, depending upon their collective demeanor.
So, counter to this outlaw atmosphere, I toasted my new drifter friends inside the saloon with a glass of champagne (which was in itself suspicious). No one of any manhood drank such a concoction. The saloon wouldn’t have carried it chilled at all, except for the brothel upstairs and the occasional out-of-town lush on a spending spree of gold looking for just the right trigger to inebriate his whore-to-be.
I stood staring through my flute of champagne at the murderers who sweated behind the broken windows as they took their aim. Few of the citizens made to move outdoors because they knew the consequence. I didn’t care. I was young enough to still consider myself impervious to bullets. Besides, I was just a mellow bootblack and a dwarf, not to be considered a threat to their manhood.
So I stepped outside. The dust swirled serpentine around my ankles. I shouted “Shoeshine, shoeshine,” into the blazing sun.
The murderers trained their eyes on me but didn’t open fire because I spun around in circles like a lunatic, mimicking the vultures overhead. The murderers seemed to find this amusing; one of them even shouted at me, “Get back inside, you damned fool!”
But I yipped and yimmied like to make no consequence of his words. He then actually came outside. He was a gray man: gray hair, gray beard, bolo tie and white shirt, also dungarees and dirty black boots. Much taller than me, he had his pistol trained on my abdomen. I danced a little jig for him and this made him laugh and shoot his pistol into the dirt near my feet.
“Dance you cretin, dance,” he said.
And dance I did until at some point I clapped my hands together then clapped them on my hips. Soon he picked up the cadence. I could hear the laughter of the other murderers inside at such a spectacle until on one of the claps to my hip I removed the whip and let it unfurl with a lash to his wrist, snapping the gun to the ground. When I drew my own it was exquisite, the immediate pop of the bullet into his throat where his laughter ceased and he bunched up into a puddle of human waste.
The murderers stopped laughing, but by this time my vision had broken into that of a fly’s: a million different filaments and lenses, each capable of containing one murderer apiece and slowing their motions down to second-by-second speed. Quickly I ducked behind a rain barrel on the opposite side of the street. They opened fire and punctured the barrel, but the bullets slowed with the wall of rainwater inside and so nothing injured me, just a scratch here and there.
However, my bullets didn’t halt and I knew that one struck another murderer inside because I could hear the collective gasp, could hear the thud of the body to the ground. This emboldened me to run across the street to just beneath their window and then hurtle myself through it. It was beautiful to land among them and catch the fear in their eyes as they scattered rather than battled. All murderers are cowards at heart. They wish to eliminate other lives in lieu of their own. It is a projection of suicide.
So I gave them what they craved by unloading my weapon into them until the walls were decorated red and all the breathing in the room had stopped. From there it was simple enough to walk back out into the baking heat and conduct another jig along the street back into the saloon where the inmates sat gawking over their whiskies at what they had just witnessed. I drank the remainder of my champagne and then rolled upstairs for other pleasures due me for my conquest and my youthful invincibility and my stature which had suddenly grown elevated in Green Town.