Seven

Part Nine of Everyone a Winner

Victor stepped out of the pub, missing the two steps at the door and falling headlong into the street. Luckily there was no traffic at this time of night, and also somehow he’d managed to keep his feet, stumbling across the entire width of the road and grasping like a drowning man to a lamppost at the other side. He laughed out loud. What must that have looked like! Behind him, the pub door opened momentarily as the landlord checked he was still upright. Satisfied that his responsibility had been exercised to it’s fullest extent, he closed and bolted the door, before switching off the lights.

Victor was left standing in a pool of light from above. He looked at his feet, and gingerly let go of the lamppost, testing his balance. He was a little unstable, but otherwise roadworthy.

Roadworthy! HAhahahahahaha!

He checked his bearings and set off down the street, in the direction of home. 

His wife would kill him for coming in late again, in this state. But after all, it was his money; he worked all day to keep her in the lap of luxury. He was entitled to the occasional tiny tipple.

Tiny tipple… nipple! HAHAHAHAhahaha!

Victor stubbled over a discarded can and careened off the wall at his right. He brought himself to a complete stop, took a deep breath, and staggered on. After a about a hundred yards, he came to the underpass. The tunnel took him under a major roundabout, and even at this time on a main road, there was traffic. He would have to take the tunnel, there was no other way. But even in this state he was a little apprehensive. 

He set off down the slope towards the orange-lit opening (not daring the stairs) and at the end of the slope turned the corner into the tunnel. Four teenagers were in there, leaning against the walls, smoking and drinking something. All four looked up at the same time as Victor staggered into view. 

“Hell… evening!” he said, making to move on between them.

“Hold up grandad,” said one of the boys, pushing himself off the wall and throwing away his cigarette. 

“There’s a toll to pay, if you want to pass.”

“T…toll?” he said, swaying.

“Oh yes. A toll. You have to pay us all your cash, your cards and your phone!”

“Toll? Hahahaha…ha….it’s not tolls you get under b…bridges! It’s trolls!”

Victor started laughing, bending over with his hands on his knees, his body shaking. 

One of the boys smiled, looking at the others. They weren’t smiling. So he stopped.

The first boy walked over and pushed Victor hard in the shoulder. He fell to the ground immediately, rolling onto his side, still laughing. 

“Trolls…. !” he gasped. Then he began to choke. His expression turned immediately to panic, his hands clawing desperately and ineffectively at the fold of fat under his chin. 

“Hey – he’s choking!” said one of the boys. “What do we do?”

The first boy roughly batted Victor’s hand out of the way, as he went through first his coat and then his trouser pockets. He pulled out the phone – an iPhone so old the model was unrecognisable. That was thrown against the wall and smashed. The wallet only had £15 in it. He took that, throwing the wallet and cards away to follow the phone. Then he came up with a key ring – a cartoon character – a dwarf, with a stupid smile and big blue eyes wearing a felt robe that was too big for him… He pocketed it.

“Come on!” he said to the others, as Victor’s face turned blue at his feet. “Let’s get the fuck out of here!”

One of the boys went immediately into a lanky, loping run. The others retrieved the orange rent-a-bikes they’d stolen earlier in the day, and standing on the pedals, sped away as Victor gurgled his last.

Nathan cycled hard. He thought the man might be dead. So what? He would have died anyway. He didn’t die because Nate had touched him. He died because he was a stupid, drunken fat fuck. 

He realised that he hadn’t told the others where to meet, but when they’d been in trouble before the drill was to split up completely and not meet for a couple of days. The CCTV cameras seeing four separate people going in different directions wouldn’t be able to track them all or associate them with each other. It was a smart idea and it always worked. Nate had seen it on a police reality TV show. 

He’d been pedalling hard for a few minutes now and was satisfied that he’d made enough distance, so he sat back on the seat of the bike. He’d deliberately set the seat as low as possible to look cool. He didn’t mind this meant that now his bony knees were almost hitting his chest as he peddled. He was only 15 but looked older, just over six foot, with scrubby stubble. Now he had his hood up, the drawstring pulled tight, so only his eyes and nose were visible. This kept his face hidden, but also restricted his field of vision and hearing…

He thought about what he was going to do with the £15. Wasn’t much. Might get some more weed…

Flashing blue lights exploded all around him. He looked back over his shoulder – a police car was right there, the pig in the passenger seat unfastening his seat belt and about to jump out. 

Nate jumped back up on the pedals and started pumping like his life depended on it. He heard the car door slam and the engine rev, as the siren began to sound.

Nate weaved to avoid trash, grates, potholes and still had a couple of times where he nearly came off the bike. He took the first left down a side street, and left again between some bollards. “Ha ha, pigs, get past that!” he said to himself, cycling now down a foot path between backyards and gardens that faced each other between outward facing terraces. He could see lights in some of the windows  as he sped by – loud throbbing jungle music  came from an open window at the house on the corner. 

Nate took another left down a passageway between two end houses and was back onto a road. He looked left and right, no sign of the cops, no flashing lights or sirens anywhere near. Good, he thought, and sat back down on the seat, deciding to head for home, which was the latest foster family in a string of fosters and care homes –  care  being the running joke as far as that went.

Suddenly he was blinded as bright light seemed to be coming from everywhere. It was a police helicopter. He stood up again and fell off the bike, getting his feet tangled in the pedals as he fell. He momentarily went to pick up the bike, but as he could hear sirens approaching, he freed himself and ran, not really thinking which way he was going. There were no places he could conveniently hide near here and the sirens sounded close, so he ran away from the sound and the reflected blue strobing he could now see on the surrounding houses. 

He ran down a road, climbed over a fence. He took off his jacket and turned it inside out – putting it on again, and trying to come out again where the helicopter couldn’t see him – but there wasn’t enough cover, the helicopter seemed to be right over the top of him. 

He started running again, away from the sirens, up a grassy bank towards some lights – he was back on the main road, with traffic buzzing by. Across the carriageway was a wall, and then dark – no lights! If he could get over that wall… He ran across, dodging the traffic, and as soon as he got to the other side, grabbed the top of the low wall and vaulted straight over. 

It was a bridge. He hadn’t sen any lights on that side of the road because there was no side of the road. Nate fell, too shocked to realise what was happening. After about 30 feet, Nate hit the water in a weed and trash strewn culvert – it was only a foot deep. His legs and hips shattered, his neck snapped like a whip as his body jackknifed and then half-bounced into the water. Nate was still alive, though now face down in the oily, fetid stream. He began to drown – paralysed as he was, unable to even turn his head to breathe.

A small plush toy fell out the pocket of his jeans, and floated off down the culvert.

Malcolm was down the canal again this Saturday morning. The weather was bright and sunny, unseasonably warm for the time of year. He’d set out his gear, keep net, catch net, rods, and his camping chair. He’d brought his shelter as well today in case the weather turned, but the sky was a solid bright cobalt blue. 

 He hadn’t caught anything last week, and he didn’t know if he would get anything today. But that wasn’t the point really. Malcolm liked being out here on his own. He liked the whole business of fishing, collecting and maintaining his kit, being part of the so-called fishing community. Occasionally, especially in summer, he’d be off somewhere further afield, the banks lined with men and boys all joined in the same hobby. The occasional chat about kit, the weather and a shared thermos was all Malcolm really needed as far as social gatherings went. 

As he was just about to get out his sandwiches, something glittered on the surface of the water. It couldn’t be a fish, and it seemed as if the breeze was taking it along. On impulse, he grabbed his catch net to see if he could reach it. As he did so, the shiny thing seemed to stutter and change course towards him. He reached out and with practiced ease snagged the object and brought it to the bank. It took him longer to release it from the folds of green plastic netting that it did to catch in the first place. Finally he could see what it was. A keyring, with a small soggy plush toy on the end of a short silver chain. A dwarf? The toy had a fat face with red cheeks, blushing, as it batted its long-lashed big blue embroidered eyes. 

Malcolm squeezed it in his fist to get out of the water out. “First catch of the day!” he declared to himself, and put it into the pocket of his anorak. 

It turned out to be the only catch of the day. After lunch, the sky changed colour from blue to grey, and as it began to get colder, Malcom decided to pack up his kit and head for home. He enjoyed packing up as much as he enjoyed setting up, a place for everything and everything in its place,  as his mother was fond of saying. 

Once he was in the car in he remembered that he needed to go to the supermarket on the way home. He had to get some more bread and toilet rolls, and perhaps he would get some chocolate to keep his mother happy as she watched her talent shows. He hated those shows with a passion. That was the one thing he refused to watch with her. He usually went to his room to go online, read a book, or try making another exotic fly. Chocolate would definitely improve her mood, as she always saw this as a personal affront. “You and your university degree – that wasn’t cheap, mind – and you look down on me and your father God rest him don’t you? With your fancy council job and all. Middle class now, you are. Never go back to your roots, eh? Don’t forget your place, Malcolm, we all have our place in this world!”

Malcolm parked his silver Yaris in an empty space between two other cars and squeezed out of the car. He wasn’t the best parker in the world – or the slimmest – but this had been the only space he could see without driving around the entire car park. Saturday afternoon was always the worst time for the supermarket, but it was unavoidable. The corner shop didn’t have the brands his mother insisted on – especially toilet paper. She was very fussy about that.

Malcom got one of the shallow trolleys. He was only going to get a few things, but why carry a clumsy basket when you had one with wheels? As always, he ended up buying more things than he went in for anyway. He was in the foreign foods section, when he absently hit another trolley with his. A badly placed baguette tumbled out of the other trolley onto the floor. 

“Here! Watch where you’re going!” a young woman said, bending to pick up the bread. She was wearing skin tight light-blue denim jeans and white trainers, and a short white jacket with a fur-lined hood. She just bent at the waist, and Malcolm couldn’t help looking at her…

“Oy! Stop looking at my wife’s arse, you fucking perv!” said a voice behind him. Malcolm turned. The man behind him was of indeterminate age, having no hair on his head whatsoever, and the head just a ball of pink skin with two tiny eyes either side of a flattened nose. The owner of the head was actually shorter than Malcolm, wearing a bomber jacket and jeans equally as tight as his spouse’s. 

“I…I’m sorry,” Malcolm mumbled, quickly turning away and pushing his trolley away from trouble. 

Malcolm had just finished unloading his trolley into the boot of his car and was closing the lid when the couple appeared again, coming towards him. Their trolley, a full size one, was loaded to the brim with stuffed carriers. Malcolm just had his two bags for life side-by-side in the hatchback. 

“Look Andy! It’s that old pervert again!” the woman said, nudging the man with her elbow. Malcolm decided to pretend he hadn’t noticed them, and with his head down, wheeled his trolley off in the opposite direction to put it in the trolley park. When he came back, they were unloading their trolley into the car on the right of his – he would have to get past them to get in the car and away. 

“Here he comes again!” the woman said, her platinum hair shaking as she shook her head in mock opprobrium. “He can’t get enough, can he?”

“Can’t get enough? Never fucking had any I bet!” the man growled, laughing at his own joke. 

“S…sorry, can I get by?” Malcolm said, fumbling for his car keys – his hand feeling the damp toy in his pocket. 

“W…what …w…was …th….that?” the man mocked, as his wife cackled. 

“C…can I…?” Malcolm pointed towards the driver door of his car, with the keys he had now found. 

“You want to get in? Of course you can mate!” said the man, stepping to one side. 

The car seemed much closer than before with the boot open and them stood by it. Malcolm squeezed in sideways, the car lights flashing as he unlocked it. He opened the door, as carefully as possible…

“Oy! Watching the fucking paint! Any damage on their I fix with your fucking face, alright mate?”

The woman nudged her husband again and they stepped away from the car. Malcolm was trying to avoid eye contact as much as possible, and so just saw their legs and feet move away. He began to slowly squeeze himself into the driving seat. About half way he heard them laughing, and glanced up and back towards them.

The woman was filming him with her phone. 

“Wait ’til this goes up on Facebook!” the woman said, laughing. “Serves the dirty perv right!”

“N…no, p….please d… don’t…” Malcom said.

“Did you get that?” the man said. “He’s trying to talk again – so fucking funny!” 

“S…stop it!” Malcolm said, squeezing back out alongside the car.

“Look out Andy! Looks like he’s up for a fight!”the woman said, in a sing-song voice. 

“I’m scared Shaz. I’m wetting my pants. Look at the size of him!” the man laughed.

“I… I said, STOP!” Malcolm smacked the phone out of the woman’s hand – it hit the back of the car and then the ground, the screen crazed. 

“You fucking cunt!” the woman screamed.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” said Andy, straightening up. He punched Malcolm straight in the face with his right hand. The impact pushed the nasal bone up and back into Malcom’s brain, killing him instantly. He fell to the floor like a rag doll, his knees going, hitting the back of his silver Yaris and sliding to the ground, where his upper body slumped over. His eyes open; the merest dribble of blood from his smashed nose. He was unmistakably dead.

The woman’s smile turned to a gasp of horror. “Oh fuck Andy! Not again!”

Andy stared at the body of the man he has just killed. “I’m not going back inside, not over this piece of shit.”

“What are we going to do?” she said, closing the boot of their 4×4.

Andy looked for CCTV, and spotted a camera at the top of a pole. Despite the anti-climb paint and spikes at the top, someone had managed to smash the camera to the extent that it was hanging off its mounting by a couple of wires. He scanned for witnesses – and at that moment, could see none. 

“Get in the car – we’re out of here.”

The woman stepped over Malcolm’s legs holding her arms to her chest, as if in some way they could possibly touch the body, and opening the door, slid into the seat. 

Her attitude made Andy think of possible evidence, and so he looked at his hand – reddened but otherwise no cuts or scrapes, so no DNA. He never touched the man’s car – then he spotted something on the floor at the man’s feet – a key ring with a toy on the end. Just the sort of thing Shaz was always buying and attaching to bags and shit for no reason. He picked it up. The toy was a dwarf, wearing a yellow hat and a brown tunic. Its right hand held a handkerchief in its fist. The left index finger was held under its round nose, both eyes tightly shut.

He put the toy in his pocket and ran round to the driver’s door.

“Come ON!” she said as he got in and pushed the starter. “What were you doing out there?”

“Picking up your shit as usual… AAchi!” he sneezed violently, his head jerking forwards. He checked the mirrors and reversing cameras, reversed out and headed for the exit. 

He turned onto the dual carriageway and kept his speed down – nevertheless managed to cut up two other drivers as he joined the carriageway and changed lanes. 

“Do you think we’re OK?” the woman said, her legs drawn up, hugging her legs. 

“There was no… no… HACH! No CCTV. We’ll be fine,” he sniffed. 

“What’s up with you? You’re not allergic to nothing.”

“I don’t know. AATish! Are there any… HAPoosh!” The car wobbled slightly as he sneezed. 

The woman reached around into the back seat, and came back with a tissue box. The box was in a furry pink cover. She pulled out a tissue and held it for him to take. He took it and violently sneezed again, showering her hand and arm. She recoiled, and pulled out  another tissue to clean off the spit and mucus. 

Andy’s eyes were streaming now, feeling sore and red. Blinking repeatedly didn’t clear his vision. He was now having to breathe through his open mouth, his nose completely blocked. 

“I think HapCHOO! I’ll have to AHCHi! Pull… oh… ha …HArshi!!” He sneezed with such violence his bald forehead bounced off the top of the steering wheel, and the car veered to the right, the tyres bouncing off the kerb to send it back in the other direction. Horns sounded from all sides. The woman screamed. 

“Pull over Andy! You’re gonna fucking KILL US!”

He checked his mirror. All he could see were smears of lights. He indicated left and started to pull over. A car horn blasted so loud it was practically in the car with him; his proximity radar bleeped frantically.  He corrected back to the right and another 4×4 sped by on their left, horn still sounding, the driver clearly visible shaking his fist, his teeth bared. 

“Shaz… I can’t HISH!…. I can’t see… you’ll have to tell me… when HACHI!”

The woman half turned in the big seat, so she could see behind, looking for a gap in the traffic.

“Okay, go into the middle lane after this van… now!”

Andy steered left and the car moved into the lane. One more to go. 

He was sniffing wetly and starting to cough with all the phlegm now draining into the back of his throat. She looked back at him to see if he was OK. He was driving with his arms locked dead straight, both hands on the wheel, his head tilted back, his mouth agape. For a second the idea that would make a funny picture for Facebook actually passed through her mind – before he sneezed again, bouncing her around in her seat as it wobbled. She looked back again to check the traffic, and …

“Oh fuck…”

“What is it…her…ha… her….CHOO!”

At first all she could see was the flashing blue light, but then as it came closer, she could see a motorcycle cop coming up the hard shoulder.

“It’s the fucking pigs, Andy! They’re coming up behind us!”

He looked back in his mirrors. Through stinging tears, he should see the flashing blue. His right foot immediately stomped down on the accelerator pedal, and the big car lurched forward, throwing the woman painfully back in her seat – painfully as her body and neck were twisted around to look back.

“I’m not going back!” he said, leaning forward to peer through what was to the woman, an entirely clear windscreen. 

“No Andy!” she said, terror starting to manifest in her voice. “I don’t want to die! Please, pull over!”

A car horn sounded and brakes squealed as Andy swerved out at the last minute to overtake an articulated lorry. They were back in the fast lane again. The woman began to cry. Sirens sounded behind them. 

“If you don’t like it… Ach! You can … you get get OUT!” he shouted, banging on the steering wheel with his left hand. 

An urge to sneeze so intense it was painful filled his nose. But the sneeze wouldn’t come. He tipped his back and breathed in, and breathed in again, paused… and sneezed so suddenly and violently the already terrified woman jumped in her seat. His head powered forward and hit the steering wheel with a hollow thud, and then was thrown back into the head rest as the car hit the curb and became airborne momentarily, clearing the barriers in the central reservation to come down on its left side on the opposite carriageway. The windscreen and Andy’s door window shattered with the impact, and the car continued to slide along the road. Traffic on the other side wasn’t so heavy, and so as the 4×4 eventually came to rest, two cars managed to stop and effectively block two lanes. 

The woman never lost consciousness, the whole thing seemed for her to have taken place in slow motion, including the moment of impact when her pelvis had fractured and her left shoulder had dislocated. Her mouth was full of blood, as she had also bitten through her tongue. 

“Andy…?” she said, spitting blood. Andy had a red welt across his forehead from the impact with the steering wheel, but his head was twisted at an unnatural angle, his neck broken. 

“Help…. HELP!” she screamed, though she knew that help would be on the way. Unfortunately for her, too late, as the diesel tank exploded, and her screams became increasingly desperate and futile as she slowly roasted to death.

Francis heaved again, doubling at the waist, but nothing came up. He spat into the bushes and stood up, feeling a twinge from his lumbago as he did so, and perhaps he stood up too quickly – worms seemed to be crawling across his retina as his blood pressure tried to equalise. 

He walked back to the car. Jenny, Matt, Phil and were still ogling the explosion on the other side of the carriageway. As he stepped off the grass verge, he spotted something shiny. He picked it up. It was a keyring with a little soft toy on the end. A dwarf, one hand on his round belly, the other adjusting his square glasses. It felt a bit damp. Despite the possibility of infection of of some kind of toxic leak, Francis felt compelled to keep it. He slipped it into the pocket of his jeans. 

“You OK?” said Phil, as Francis slid into the back seat beside her. She pushed a strand of long blonde hair back behind her ear. 

“Yes, thanks, I’m fine. But I don’t know what the long term mental affects will be. I’ll have to start checking for signs of PTSD…”

“All aboard?” asked Matt? “Right, then, let’s get back to the holiday.” The stream of traffic had slowed almost to a standstill because of the rubberneckers. Matt decided to bend the rules slightly and drove along the hard shoulder until he could rejoin properly moving traffic. 

“Shall I put the music back on?” asked Jenny, picking up her phone.

“No, let’s leave it off for the time being – we’ll be coming off the motorway soon and we’ll need the satnav again,” Matt said, shifting gear. 

A long weekend away from the university to celebrate Matt’s 20th birthday. He was looking forward to it. A little old cottage next to a lake, surrounded by ancient forest. What wasn’t to like? Steaks for the barbie, brewskis, some single malt for later, mountain bikes in a rack on the back of the car and a canoe on top. And Jenny, with her long red hair, mess of freckles on perfect almost too-white skin… The only problem was her best friend. Phil, that is, Philomena. of all things. Yes Phil was smart, funny, cute in all the right ways and places, the way her glasses would sit on the end of her nose, or the way she would look at you when she was annoyed… actually she wasn’t the problem at all. It was her hypochondriac boyfriend, Francis. 

Francis was beyond a stereotype, he was the real deal. Most of his luggage for the trip was first aid kits, drugs, bandages, everything he could possibly get without a prescription, and some of those as well to control his anxiety. Matt found him completely infuriating.  He really couldn’t understand what Phil saw in him. Perhaps she needed a sick teddy bear to look after. But then Francis was no teddy bear. He was very fit, following his diet and exercise regime to the letter. Matt thought he must have been the fittest nerd in college. Perhaps that had something to do with it…

Francis stared at his fitbit, then opened his phone app to check his vitals. 

“How far is it now, Matt?” said Phil.

“About an hour and half after we leave the motorway,” said Jenny, looking at the sat nav. 

“About an hour and a half, Phil,” Matt repeated needlessly.

That sort of thing really got on Jenny’s nerves. Sometimes he’d ask her if it was raining, and after she’d told him, he’d get up and look out the window to check for himself. He never seemed to take anything at face value and seemed to regard anything she said as dubious at best. She often berated him for it.

“You’re such a sexist – a total dinosaur!” she had said. 

“Which one? A tyrannosaurus SEX!” he’d replied, roaring and tickling her under the ribs. 

Jenny smiled at the memory. 

“Why don’t you try and get some sleep, Frank?” said Phil, offering a shoulder. “Take a nap – you’ll feel much better when we get there.”

Francis looked up and smiled, a piece of his unkempt curly hair falling over his left eye. “Okay, Phil, yes, I think I’ll try. Thanks.” He moved across the seat and put his arms around her waist, his head in her neck.

“Easy, tiger!” said Matt looking in the mirror. Phil gave him the look through the mirror. He smiled to himself – that’s what he’d hoped she do. 

Francis woke up as the car was crunching to halt.  It was dusk, and all he could see from his position on Phil’s shoulder was up through the windows and sunroof, to a darkening grey-blue sky. He had a crick in his neck and his arms had gone to sleep. He also had that shivery feeling he always got after he’d been sleeping during the day. And he needed to pee like a racehorse. 

“Hello, sleepy head!” said Phil. “We’re here. C’mon!” she pushed him upright. His door opened, and cold damp air flooded in. He needed to pee even harder. 

“Uh, I need to…” he said, with a very dry mouth. Was that a headache starting? Was he dehydrated? 

Matt’s face appeared in the open car doorway. “You’ll have to join the queue! Jenny’s just gone in. There’s only one loo – though thankfully it is separate from the bathroom so you won’t have to go and piss in the lake!”

Francis got out of the car and slowly straightened up. They were parked in front of a large cottage – one floor, a thatched roof, painted white. The cottage seemed to be in the middle of a forest clearing, though Malcolm could detect something odd at the back side of the cottage. He walked around the corner of the building and saw a small lake, surrounded by pine trees. A short wooden jetty led out to a small dinghy, gently bobbing up and down on the water. The dinghy seemed to have a green tarpaulin or plastic cover stretched across it, to keep out the elements. The back of the cottage had a rough wooden verandah, something that looked oddly out of place.  Between that an the jetty was a stretch of unkempt grass and a rough path. It was overgrown but not ny much, this area had obviously been previously mown, just not in a long time. 

Francis jumped as a huge heavy hand clapped him on the shoulder.

“She’s out!” said Matt. “It’s all yours now!”

After a dinner of fresh salad and juicy steaks cooked on the gas hibachi on the verandah, all four collapsed in the lounge facing a magnificent log fire Francis had built and tended. There was an old but comfortable three piece suite, the chairs and large sofa covered in throws with celtic motifs on them. The property was just over the Welsh border after all and the owner had obviously decided to use this cultural background as a theme for the house, though some of the artefacts were anachronistic, if not just completely fake. 

There was no TV, internet or phone signal here – though not completely off the grid. An old telephone, made of blue plastic with a clear plastic rotary dial sat on a dining chair on a pile of dusty telephone directories. 

Francis sat on the floor in front of the fire, poking the glowing embers, sending sparks up the chimney. Phil sat opposite him, cross-legged, a large glass of red wine on the rug in front of her. Matt and Jenny were on the sofa, Jenny reading a book she’d found, her legs folded under her. Matt was manspreading across the entire remaining space, his arms along the back of the sofa. He’d opted to open the whiskey a day early and was occasionally sipping from a tumbler. 

“You know, traditionally they’d never drink a single malt neat. They’d always add a drop of water, at room temperature. Ice definitely not. Ice stops the vapours from forming and you don’t get the full flavour,” he said to no-one in particular. 

“What’s that book you found, Jenny?” asked Francis. He was wondering whether the steak had been properly cooked – and if it was possible to get an impacted bowel from eating too much meat.

“It was in the loo.” She looked up, expecting to find disgusted faces, but found none. “It’s an old paperback – it’s pretty good. I’ve never heard of the author though. It’s really old, from the 1970’s.”

“What’s it about?” said Phil, taking a sip of wine. 

“It’s a horror story, I think. It’s about a group of American teenagers who get stranded at a remote cabin…”

“Oh, just like the movie?” said Matt.

Evil Dead,” said Francis.

“No, Cabin in the Woods,” said Matt.

“Well you know that movie was based on the video nasty Evil Dead that Sam Raimi made with bunch of college friends and…”

“…and here we are!” said Phil, deliberately cutting him off. “Perhaps we should make a movie?”

Matt sat up. “Yeah. I’ll be the hunky pizza delivery man, Jenny can be the naughty librarian…”

Jenny punched him in the arm. “God, you really are straight out of this book! I don’t know what I go out with you sometimes…”

“Perhaps it’s mostly for the times we don’t go out, eh, boys and girls?” he said, winking at Phil. She turned away in disgust – but Francis could see she was smiling, and wasn’t sure whether that redness in cheeks was a blush, the wine, or her proximity to the fire. Or perhaps her blood pressure was higher than normal?

“I mean, I don’t really know what you’ve got planned for my birthday tomorrow,” Matt said, looking at his watch, “though it will be my birthday in just over an hour – in case you want to start early?” he finished with a leer.

“No chances of that – especially now!” said Jenny, unwinding her legs and standing up. “I’m knackered after the drive – I’m going to have an early night. And before you start,” she said, pointing at Matt, “I mean it. You be quiet when you come in and if you snore because of all that whiskey, you’ll be sleeping in here.” With that, she wished a pleasant good night to Phil and Francis and, book in hand, went through one of the old wooden doors leading off from the lounge. 

“Me? Snore? Honestly as if. You should hear her…” Matt focussed on Francis, “on second thoughts, maybe you shouldn’t. Anyway, it’s still early… anybody fancy some cards?” Phil nodded. Francis shrugged. He didn’t want to go to bed for another hour at least, otherwise he was in danger of acid reflux and death from aspirational pneumonia. 

Jenny went into her bedroom. This room had been picked by Matt for them as it had the best view of the lake, from an anachronously large picture window. Surely the property would be listed? How did the owners get away with knocking out the old stone mullion and replacing it with this? The frame was ‘antiqued’ wood rather than plastic, but still… 

With the light on all she could see in the window was a suggestion of the moon outside and her own reflection, like a large black mirror. But her reflection seemed distorted. Her face seemed to be lengthened somehow, her eyes becoming dark vertical ovals, her fingers lengthening impossibly into talons. It was so unnerving after reading the book, that she snapped off the light before going to the window to close the curtains. 

Once her eyes had adjusted to the dark, she could see the lake, and the line of mature pines that surrounded it. But the trees were just black shapes, creating a jagged black line framing the sky above. She began to see stars, perhaps more stars than she had ever seen before. A crescent moon that seemed impossibly bright rode above it all, reflected dimly in the disturbed water of the lake. 

Jenny drew the curtains. It seemed cold in the room, though it really shouldn’t be. The fire seemed to heat the whole house – or at least, it had seemed to before. She switched on the bedside lamp. The lampshade was angular, a pink floral patterned fabric stretched over a white wire frame, the base a shiny green bulbous ceramic, that felt smooth  but icy cold as she’d fumbled for the switch. She dropped  the paperback book onto her pillow and as she went to walk around the bed to go to their little adjoining shower room, she stepped on something soft. She bent down to pick it up. A toy key ring? Where had that come from? Without thinking she put it in her pocket. 

The rooms had been advertised online as ensuite but there was in fact only one toilet. Both bedrooms just had a sink and shower built into or onto them. This one had a small bath with the shower above. 

Jenny got her toothpaste and toothbrush out of her toiletry bag, wet the brush under the tap, squeezed a little paste onto it, and began scrubbing. Jenny was quite proud of her teeth, though perhaps more pride should be felt by the expensive private orthodontist and her parents who had paid for him. 

She looked at her reflection in the mirror, thinking back to the weird way her face had looked in the window. Her eyes did seem somehow… longer. She felt the skin under her eye with her left hand as she continued to brush. Some bags, she was tired after all, and perhaps some smudged make-up adding to the effect. The toothpaste seemed to be frothing more than normal, white foam lining her mouth and starting to cover her hand. Something felt gritty in her mouth. 

She spat into the sink. White foam, flecked with red. And three, shiny white teeth. 

She looked up in horror, feeling with her tongue. She wiped her mouth on the hand towel, and opened her mouth. As she did, two more teeth fell out. There was blood. But oddly, no pain.

Her heart pounding in her chest, her blood running cold from shock she probed her mouth with her fingers, as if there was some way she could find to push the teeth back into their bleeding sockets. The other teeth seemed to be solid – but all she had left now was molars. Shaking and crying, she moved her hands to look at the full damage. She had to spit again as her mouth was filling with the salty, metallic copper taste of blood. She held the towel tight to her mouth, and stumbling through tears and terror went back into the living room. 

She opened the door with a crash. The others were sitting on the floor in front of the fire, playing cards. As she burst into the room, they all looked up at the same time.

“Jenny? What’s the matter?” said Phil, the first to realise something was very wrong. 

“My… my teeth…” Jenny said into the towel. 

Francis got up and came towards her. “What’s the matter with your teeth? Let’s take a look, eh?”

Jenny, her shoulders shaking as she sobbed, took the towel away from her mouth. 

Francis looked puzzled. “Open your mouth… what’s wrong with your teeth? Do they hurt?”

“What…?” Jenny said – feeling her teeth with her tongue. All there. No blood. She looked at her hand and the towel. Traces of toothpaste, and nothing else. 

“I… I…” she looked at Francis, speechless. 

“Maybe it was just a bad dream?” suggested Phil, from her place by the fire. 

“No surprise, with that stupid book,” said Matt, taking a sip of whiskey. “You should try some of this to calm your nerves – you’d feel a lot better then. Come back and sit with us for a while – we’ll be going to bed soon anyway.”

“No… I… I’ll go to bed. I’m sorry… you’re right, I must have nodded off…” Jenny said quietly, now feeling acutely embarrassed. 

Francis  squeezed her upper arm, “Good night – and make sure it is one this time, eh?” He gave her that crinkly smile that she liked. He looked like someone, a film star… but she’d been unable to place it until now… He looked like Eddie Redmayne. 

She went back into the bedroom and closed the door. Her head hurt a little from crying, but now she felt like such a fool. She went back into the bathroom and washed her face, which made her feel a little better, and switching off the light went back into the bedroom. 

Expecting it to be cold or at least colder in the old house, she’d brought her favourite red tartan wincyette pajamas.  She’d had a pair like this when she was a girl and firmly believed they were the best thing ever, though it had been extremely difficult to find any in adult sizes for women. These were the smallest men’s size she could find and were still slightly too big for her. 

Still feeling a little chilled she stripped out of her clothes and into the pyjamas as fast as she could, then put  her clothes into her rucksack. The carpet felt rough and almost sharp under her bare feet. She jumped onto the bed and crawled up it, having to throw decorative scatter cushions (is that why they are called scatter?) in all directions before she could lift the pillows, find the top of the bedclothes and quilt, and slide between the crisp clean cotton sheets. They too felt ice cold at first, but thankfully not damp, and so quickly warmed up. 

She picked up the book again – but then thought better of it. Perhaps they were right, it had precipitated the nightmare vision she had seen. But she couldn’t remember falling asleep in the first place. She felt better now, despite being in a strange bed, it was comfortable and she was wearing her favourite pyjamas. She reached over and under the lampshade, and felt something touch her hand. She quickly pulled her hand back – and walking rapidly down her fingers onto the back of her hand was a large, brown-bodied, thin-limbed spider. She shook her hand from reflex to dislodge the spider but it stayed on her hand. She jumped out of bed and went to sweep it away with her other hand, and just as she did so it bit her hard. She squealed and finally knocked the spider onto the floor where it landed on its back, momentarily disorientated, its long legs flailing horribly as it vainly tried to right itself. It began flexing its body, moving the large abdomen, trying to get leverage. Jenny sucked her hand, and grabbed the book – the first thing that came to hand – and smashed it down on the spider. Fearing that because of the size of the thing that the initial strike would not kill it, she stomped down on the book with her foot. Satisfied that the thing was dead, she didn’t feel the need to lift the book back up again to check. It could stay there until daylight in her opinion. 

She took her hand away from her mouth. She could see two red dots, with the skin around them swelling, feeling a buning sensation, as the rest of her hand and arm started to feel numb. She wasn’t allergic to insect stings, but she couldn’t remember ever being bitten by a spider before, or seeing one that size in the UK. She rubbed the wound, and decided to give it a wash. As she washed it in the sink, the burning slowly faded and she decided to go back to bed. She feared that if she told the others about this now, after her earlier performance, they would think her all the more the fool, and no doubt Francis would want to suck out the poison and call for the air ambulance. 

As she went back into the bedroom, she could hear voices, but couldn’t tell what they were saying. It was her friends –  she could hear Matt’s voice, just outside the window – then she heard him singing something as he walked away. Where was he going? She opened the curtains a crack and peered out. 

The verandah lights were on, as were a couple of lights on the jetty. A thin dewy fog had started to form over the surface of the lake, and the stars had begun to disappear, as the moon gave the scene a grey glow. 

Matt was headed to the jetty, stripping off his clothes as he went. He can’t be thinking of going for a swim? He must be pissed! Why aren’t they stopping him?

Jenny pulled back the curtain and tried to open the the window but the catch wouldn’t work. It was locked. She looked around for the key but couldn’t see it anywhere. She was going to go back to the others when she saw Matt had already reached the end of the jetty. With a wave, he turned to the water and dived in. 

“No!” she called, banging on the glass. She could see some splashing – turned yellow by the lights on the jetty, and then suddenly, he reappeared, pulling himself back up onto the uneven planks. She breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Matt stood there, calling something – she could faintly hear his voice – shaking himself like a dog and wiping the water off himself with his hands – then looking at the ground, probably looking for the clothing he’d discarded. Jenny smiled – the idiot! He could have killed himself from the shock, or just drowned. She would have to have serious word with him when he…

As Jenny watched, another shape appeared at the end of the jetty. Someone else was climbing up out of the water. The shape was big, easily as big and as broad as Matt. Could it be Francis? But she hadn’t seen anyone else leave the cottage.

The shape was now fully out and stood up. It couldn’t be Francis. The shoulders were too broad, the arms… the arms were well-muscled, but with long, webbed fingers that reached all the way to its knees. It shuffled up the jetty behind Matt as he continued to search, dancing from one foot to the other. It was moving so slowly – why doesn’t he see it?

Suddenly its arms came up, reaching forward towards Matt. Jenny screamed and banged on the window so hard the glass bowed with each slap. Matt seemed to hear and see her in the window. He smiled and waved, then covered his groin in mock modesty.

“NO!” she screamed, emptying her lungs, before taking another deep breath. “BEHIND YOU!” 

He put one hand up and clipped his ear, shaking his head. The thing lunged suddenly, grabbing him underneath both arms and throwing him back onto the boards of the jetty. 

Jenny screamed again, jumping up and down. 

Matt kicked and punched for all he was worth as the thing jumped on top of him. All she could see now was one big moving shape, unable to tell what was happening. Then the thing got up. Grabbing Matt by one foot, it dragged him down the length of the jetty to the water. He wasn’t fighting any more. At the edge of the jetty, it picked him up, his limbs and head lolling like a rag doll, and flung him into the water before jumping in itself. 

Jenny had no voice left. She sank back onto the edge of the bed, sobbing, trying to make sense of what she had just seen. A loud knock on the bedroom door made her jump to her feet. It was Phil.

“Are you alright in there? Jenny? We thought we heard a scream…”

The door opened a crack, and then Phil came in. “Whatever is the matter?” she said, coming over to her and giving her a hug. “What’s happened? Another dream?”

“No…” Jenny sobbed, trying to catch her breath. “It’s… Matt. There’s some… someone out there. He was attacked…”

“What? Phil looked out the window, cupping her hands to cut out the reflections from the room. “I can’t see anyone there now.”

“It took him into the water… I think, I think he was hurt.”

“OK. You stay here, me and Frank will go check…”

“No…” said Jenny, grabbing the front of Phil’s hoodie. 

“Don’t worry, we’ll be fine. If you’re worried, you can bolt the door, or call the police. We’ll be right back.”

Phil kissed Jenny in the middle of her forehead, and went immediately out, closing the door behind her, calling instructions to Francis in the next room. 

After a couple of minutes, torch beams flashed across the back porch and out across the grass. Then she could see Phil and Francis. Jenny waved at her, trying to reassure her. Francis was carrying a crowbar. 

They hurried across the grass to the jetty, scanning the area with their torches, picking out items of Matt’s discarded clothing. Phil got to the land end of the jetty first, and bent to examine something she’d found with her torch. Francis stopped for a moment, and then ran to the end of the jetty, suddenly sliding and falling hard on his back. Phil looked up, called something. Francis waved – he was ok – and started to get to his feet when two impossibly long arms appeared over the edge of the jetty, grabbing him by the ankles, and one fast movement, swept him off the jetty and into the water with a splash. 

Jenny could hear Phil’s screams, as she stood, took a step back, off balance, and then ran to where Francis had just been taken.

“NOOO!” screamed Jenny! “Come BACK!”

She could see another disturbance in the water, on the opposite side of the jetty, behind Phil.

She banged on the window again and again, so hard her hands began to hurt. 

“Stop that,” said a voice behind her. 

Terrified, her eyes shifted focus to look at the reflection in the window glass. A man was behind her, coming up from the other side of the bed – from beneath it…?

She turned as the man stood up. It was Matt, wet and naked, except for dirt and pondweed. A gaping wound in his throat oozed watery blood. He walked around the end of the bed, leaving dirty wet footprints on the carpet. Jenny back pedalled furiously, but backed up against the wall and window she had no where to go. She screamed hoarsely. His hands grabbed her shoulders – the cold wetness seemed to drain all the heat and life from her body, the fingers seeming to dig all the way through her flesh to the bones. 

“Stop it. Wake up. WAKE UP!”

Matt was sitting on the bed beside her, his hands on her shoulders, shaking her gently. HIs face was too close. She screamed, loudly, piercingly, making him strand back and cover his ears on reflex. Phil and Francis were standing in the bedroom doorway. 

Jenny stood up unsteadily and leaned against the wall. She was fully clothed. The bed hadn’t been touched, the curtains were closed. 

“What… what… “ she said, shaking. 

“I came in to bed and you were collapsed on the bed there, completely out of it,” said Matt. “I went to brush my teeth and you started calling and crying out, and you wouldn’t wake up. I’m sorry if I… are you OK?” he said, approaching  her again. 

She backed away from him. “It’s OK, it was the dream…. It was so real… and you…. I’m sorry Matt, I can’t…”

Phil got the idea. “Fine, come in with me tonight, we can have our own little sleepover, OK? The boys can bunk together in here for tonight, and tomorrow we can go boating, bike riding, anything you want! That all right with you two?” 

Francis nodded his head. He didn’t look like Eddie Redmayne. 

Matt put his hands up, palms out. “Anything as long as you’re okay. I love you Jenny, I’d never hurt you.”

“Well, that’s a first!” said Phil. “You’ve said it now, can’t take that back!” Phil was trying to make light of things, seeing the both Matt and Jenny were hurt. Jenny stepped up to Matt, and holding his hands, kissed him on the cheek. “I know,” she said. “Just tonight – I”ll be back to normal tomorrow.”

Phil took Jenny by the hand and lead her out, followed by Francis. “I’ll have to get my stuff out of the room,” he said. 

Matt sat on the edge of the bed, wiping away a tear, glad that no-one had seen that. Something had fallen out of Jenny’s hand as he shook her, and it was now on the carpet under the window. He bent down to pick it up. It was small plush toy, a dwarf, on a key ring. The figure was wearing a red tunic and a brown pointed hat. His arms were straight by his sides, the hands balled into fists. Above the long white pointed beard and found pink nose, the eyes were slits under steeply angled eyebrows. 

“What is this shit, she leaves lying around, and why do I always cleaning up after her? My birthday night, and I end up sleeping with the fucking geek from hell?! Why does this shit always happen to me?”

He slipped the toy into his pocket.

Francis opened the door, almost tripping  over his rucksack as the shoulder straps and belt became tangled around his ankles. 

“Fuck me,” sighed Matt. “OK, this is the way it’s going to work. We are NOT sleeping in the same bed, or for that matter, in the same room. I’m going to sleep on the sofa, and you can have the entire room to yourself. Suit you?”

Francis put his bag down and nodded. “Okay, I’ll…”

“Right!” said Matt, grabbing a fistfull of the quilt and dragging it off the bed in one motion, cushions and pillows being dragged off in the process. He picked up a pillow, and with one glance at the wreckage of the bed he’d created, bundled the quilt into his arms.

“Good fucking night,” he said on his wait out the door. “At least you won’t be getting any either!”

Matt went back into the lounge. The fire was starting to die, but still threw a friendly glow into the room.

Matt pushed the sofa closer to the fire, put the pillow and quilt down on it, and vaulted over the back to land heavily on the seat cushions. The springs and straps seemed to groan in protest at the sudden impact and weight.  He put the pillow under his head, and kicked off his trainers. 

Some fucking birthday. Shouldn’t have brought those two losers. Why does it always happen to me? I never get a break!

He remembered the whiskey and went to retrieve it and his glass from the dining table, this time not vaulting onto the sofa, just collapsing heavily on it. He uncorked the bottle with his teeth and poured a generous measure into the tumbler. He was going to re-cork the bottle, but then on impulse spat the cork into the fire. It immediately flared from the alcohol, and then smouldered. 

No TV, no internet. Smack in the middle of buttcrack fucking nowhere. Yet another stupid idea. Could have been out with my mates. But instead, here I am, with fuck all to do. 

He put the bottle down on the floor with too much force and it fell sideways. There wasn’t a lot left in the bottle, but now some sloshed onto the carpet before he could stop it.

“Fuck!” he exclaimed, putting his glass on the mantelpiece before quickly trying to retrieve the spinning bottle. As he did so, he tripped over the rug and went headlong, falling to his hands and knees. 

“FUCK!” he stood the bottle upright. The knees of his jeans felt damp. Whiskey. 

He stood up – he should mop up the spill he thought, or there would be hell to pay tomorrow, so he went into the kitchen and snapped on the light. 

The kitchen was new and modern but with an antique feel. It had an old stone sink, which may or may not have been an original feature, and a black-enamelled aga stove – except this was fuelled not from a coal or wood fire, but by gas bottles that attached to rack on the outside wall. The floor was dark slate, and all the lighting, except that over the main workspace, was ‘up’. He went to the sink to get a cloth. The slate floor felt cold through his socks. There was no cloth by the taps, so he opened the cupboard beneath. There was an old grey dishcloth that had been placed onto of a spay bottle of surface cleaner. He picked it up – it was stiff. He stood, and ran it under the tap, the cold water splashing noisily in the deep square sink. Once wet, the cloth softened again, turning the water flowing over it and through it a foul-smelling grey-white. He wrung it out in order to try and wash the cloth, but as he did so, something painfully jabbed and then stuck into his right hand between his index and middle fingers. 

“Fucking FUCK!” he said, dropping the cloth into the sink. A rusty sewing needle remained impaled into the soft web between his fingers.

“Oh FUCK!” Matt grabbed the needle, and eventually finding purchase, pulled it out and threw it into the sink. It was immediately taken by the still flowing water and after one orbit, went down the plughole. 

The burning pain between his fingers was intense. All he could see was a small dark dot. It didn’t bleed. He wished that it had. He sucked at it, but it did nothing. 

He picked up the cloth again, and this time more gingerly wrung it out. Rinsing it again, he went back into the lounge. 

He went to the mantel shelf and took a generous pull on the whiskey. Then he had an idea. He poured a little onto his tiny wound. He was entirely unprepared for the searing pain that followed.

“FUCKING BASTARD FUCK!” he said, shaking his hand, as if that would do any good. He jammed it back into his mouth – at least he could suck the remaining whiskey off it. 

Kneeling down on the carpet once again, he had to feel around to find the damp spot, before scrubbing at it with the cloth. Satisfied he had removed any evidence, he took the cloth back into the kitchen. 

His hand felt like it was on fire. Had he left a piece of the needle inside? As it had gone down the sink it was impossible to check. Standing by the workspace that was lit by overhead spotlights, he looked again at the wound, then steeling himself for the pain, squeezed it between his thumb and forefinger. 

“AAAhh, fuck!” he said, as the pain shot like fire from his fingers to his elbow. 

What was that disease you got from rusty metal? Lockjaw. Fucking fantastic.

“Um, Matt?” a voice said from the doorway. He turned – it was Phil, wearing a massive rowing team T-shirt, and apparently, nothing else. Her bare toes desperately tried to curl away from the cold slate floor. 

“Yes?” he growled, looking again at the way the T-shirt covered and yet revealed parts of her body…

“Can you keep it down? Jenny’s had a rough night already, and I’m trying to get her off…”

“Hehe. I bet you are!”

“Matt… don’t be like that. And… stop looking at me like that, OK?”

“Looking doesn’t cost anything… How much for the rest?”

She gave him a disgusted look. “I’m not talking to you now – you’re drunk. Go to bed.” She turned and went back to her bedroom. 

“I’ve no idea what you see in that little psycho freak!” he called after her. “Anytime you want a real man, it’s right here!” He grabbed his crotch – though there was no-one to see. 

“Begging for it. I bet.”

Matt went back to the sink and ran his hand under the tap. The water seemed to splash even louder into the bottom of the sink. 

“Hey.”

Another voice behind him. He turned. 

It was Frank the Freak. 

“What the fuck do you want?” he said, turning back to the sink. 

“You… you need to take it easy, okay? Save some for tomorrow. Sleep it off.”

“When did you become my FUCKING MOTHER?” he snarled. 

Francis came into the kitchen, quietly closing the door behind him. 

“I’ve never seen you like this before, mate, you need to calm…”

Matt turned off the tap with a squeak and turned round.

“Don’t you fucking DARE tell me to calm down.”

He saw something out of the corner of his eye and grabbed for it. The knife block. He pulled out a black-handled chopping knife. The wide blade gleamed dully in the spotlights. 

“Now… mate…” said Francis, his hands up, palms out, backing off slightly. 

“Oh, we’re mates now are we? When did that fucking happen? Did I miss a meeting?”

Matt held the knife in his fist, point down. “Tell me about that fucking movie again. Wasn’t there a guy in a mask with a knife?” He studied the blade, turning it one way, then the other. 

“N… no, that was… Halloween.”

“Right. Of course, you’re the expert.” Malcom took a step forward, holding the knife in front of him. “How many people did he kill in that movie?”

“Now….mate… I mean, a joke’s a joke, okay? Put the knife down…?” Francis backed towards the door. 

“You don’t know? Well, three’s a START anyway!” Matt suddenly lunged forward, at the same time Francis tried to open the door behind him, but was too late. Matt powered into him, pushing him hard into the door and slamming it shut. Before Francis could react, Matt brought the knife down with horrific force, stabbing Francis in the shoulder, snapping his collar bone. Francis screamed. Matt tried to pull the knife out for another strike, but the blade was jammed between bones. He tugged and pulled, but his hand was wet from the water and now with blood, and it couldn’t get purchase on the black plastic handle. 

“You lucky fuck!” he spat in Malcolm’s face, before reaching back to grab another knife. 

Somehow, through the pain and as his vision started to grey, Francis summoned the strength and will to kick Matt in the small of the back. Matt was sent crashing into the aga, his head connecting with the oven door handle with a thud. 

Francis’ legs were starting to go from underneath him, as he reached back, opened the door and fell into the lounge. Phil was already there, Jenny behind her, who now screamed at the top of her lungs. Phil picked Francis  up, and supporting him, they went back into the bedroom and bolted the door. 

Jenny was near hysterical as Phil sat Francis on the edge of the bed and pushed him flat. Blood was seeping into his fleece, but it didn’t seem to be too much. She went to pull the knife out but Matt put a pale hand on hers. 

“No… you mustn’t. It will seal around the blade. Stop the bleeding. I’m… going into shock. You need to… get my feet higher than my… head. Keep me warm… and awake…”

“Jenny… Jenny! You need to help now. Get my rucksack… there… and put it under his legs.”

Phil grabbed a pillow and put it under his head. His skin felt cool and clammy, his hair sticking to his forehead. Once his legs were raised, she grabbed one side of the bedclothes and covered him. The knife still stuck, jarringly, upward from his shoulder. 

“Frank,” said Phil, wiping his brow with a crumpled T-shirt. “What happened? Where’s Matt?”

“He… he went berserk. It’s not… not the drink. I’ve never seen him like this. It… it isn’t him.” 

Jenny gasped, her hands at her mouth. She began to pace back and forth on the carpet. 

“Where is he?” Phil said.

“I pushed him over. He hit his head I think… I don’t know. We need… we need… ambulance…”

“Is he… is he… dead?” gasped Jenny.

In answer, the door shook as something crashed heavily into it from the other side. Dust fell from  the old metal bolt housing on the wall. 

“Here’s Matty!” Matt shouted from the other side, hitting the door again. Jenny punctuated each impact with a short scream, and then retreated to the far side of the room, curling into a ball. 

“That’s a different movie…” said Francis, weakly. 

Phil saw that the bolt would probably give way, and started to push a chest of drawers that stood next to the door to barricade it.

Wham! 

“Come on, it’s my fucking birthday! But I’ve got a surprise for you!

Wham!

Her teeth gritted, her feet desperate to find purchase on the dusty carpet, Phil managed to push the chest all the way across the doorway. Now she pushed it from the front, so that it was right behind the door. 

Wham!

“Think that will stop me?”

Phil grabbed her jeans and jumped into them, grabbing up the shirt and tucking it in. She slipped her feet into her trainers, and pulled on her hoodie. 

“Where are you going?” said Jenny from her corner, wide-eyed.

Phil went over and pulled her upright. Keeping hold of her T-shirt, she put her head close, and looked her in the eyes. 

“He’s right, that won’t keep him out forever. And we need to get an ambulance for Francis. I need to go out… sshhh! You need to be strong now. Frank needs you, you need to sit with him and talk to him, keep him warm. Okay?”

Jenny started to shake her head. “I can’t….” she whimpered.

Phil leaned forward until their foreheads were touching. “You have to, Jen. No option. We need you to be strong now. You can do it.” 

“I’ll… I’ll try,” said Jenny. 

“Good.” Phil pulled back the curtains. This room had something approaching the original windows, two windows that opened outwards, separated by a vertical stone mullion. Phil pulled at the stiff handle until it moved, and then quietly pushed the window open as far as it would go. 

“I’ll be back – close this after me,” she said, clambering out of the window. Jenny nodded, closing the window again and jamming the lever down as hard as she could, before closing the curtains. 

It was only then that Jenny realised that the banging on the door had stopped.

Phil went kept low, walking along the wall to the kitchen. The kitchen light was on but the blind was down, so she couldn’t see inside. She moved on to the back door – a solid, black-painted wooden door – and tried the handle. It was locked or bolted from the inside. She would have to try the front door. Turning the corner of the building, she walked along the wall that contained the chimney – she could feel the heat through the wall on her face. There were no windows in this wall, nevertheless she stayed low and as close to the wall as she could. This side was only lit by the reflected light from the lights that were still on at the rear – and the front. A triangle of light extended across the gravel drive and the grass beyond, its apex at the front door – which must be open. 

Phil froze, the adrenaline that had been powering her and keeping her together until now seeming to drain out into the ground through her feet. 

She saw a shadow in the light. He was standing in, or near, the door. What was he doing? Did he know she was out?

Suddenly his head and shoulders appeared around the corner, peering into the dark. Phil held her breath. Could he see her? She saw his head shake, and a hand ran through his hair – and then the silhouette disappeared. 

He hadn’t seen her – he must have been dazzled from the light. She listened, still hardly breathing. She could hear his footsteps crunching across the gravel, receding. He was going the other way around the house – he was going to try the windows!

She moved forward, cautiously but as fast as she could. She peeked around the corner – he was no longer in sight and she couldn’t hear him – he must be round the corner of the building on the grass. But as soon as she stepped out, he would be able to hear her!

She would have to be quick. Taking only two steps she turned the corner and leapt into the lounge, slamming the door behind her and throwing the bolt. 

“Welcome home,” said Matt. 

Author, photographer and trade union activist. Lived in Japan for 5 years, now working at Cambridge University. Written for Big Finish/BBC Enterprises - Doctor Who and Robin Hood. Two books currently available on Amazon - see my non-fiction on Medium. All content ©Michael Abberton 2020

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