Authors: Taylor Leigh
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
1: The Randomness of Strangers
There’s the grinding squeal of tyres, echoing through the darkness in a howl of colour. The
bang, bang, bang
of rain against the windscreen which sounded like marbles, each drop magnified by my senses, heightened by fear. Everything was too silent, too damning. Breaths exhaled into horrified gasps which hung in the air around me. I wasn’t sure if they were mine. I wasn’t sure if I was breathing at all.
Outside, everything was a blur of red and yellow streaks.
Inside, my nerves were on fire, tightly bracing myself for what was about to happen. What always happened.
No, no, no, God no…
And then it hit: The bone-jarring jolt that blinded my vision with white pain; slammed my vertebrae towards my skull, punched my ribs inwards, snapped at my elbows like a rope tied round my body and pulled hard.
Glass floated from around me, gently drifting upwards like bubbles in the water. Past me, surrounding me.
And then I was tumbling. Flipping end over end, my head cracking against metal and pavement and all the while my breath was coming in panicked gasps as I heard the snapping of bone and the cries of pain that weren’t my own.
It finally Stopped. Dragging, screaming. I was panting. Blood slid in slick wet lines down my face and to the pavement beneath me. I was upside down. My head swam. I couldn’t move. Trapped in place.
I turned my head to the left, my neck screaming so loudly with the agony of the motion I didn’t think I could do it. But I could, even though I knew it will kill me.
She was all I saw. She stared at me with those beautiful blue eyes I’d always looked to.
‘It’s all right, Mark,’ she breathed. ‘It’s going to be all right…’
More squealing. My body was jerked again. More pain. I screamed as yellow light blinded me.
I jolted awake. My body ripped from unconsciousness as if water had been thrown across my face. I swallowed. And again. But my lungs refused to allow air into them.
Outside it was dark and raining, but it was a soft wet slur, not the drumming metallic crashing of my dream. I directed my gaze up to tiny window above my head, letting in the yellow light from the street, dotted into tiny orbs from water all over the glass.
I couldn’t move, still paralysed by the fog in my memory which wouldn’t dissipate fast enough.
An iron bar of misery clamped itself across my chest, pressing down with an inescapable force. It was old, familiar. I was used to it almost every morning. Like the first layer of clothing I had to put on.
My vision blurred. And once again the crushing loathing filled me; I curled to my side and sobbed. The tears, the damnable, familiar tears I’d not been able to stop since that night. How I wanted to hate them. God, more than anything, but all I could do was accept them because it was, in the end, what I deserved. I sobbed because there was nothing else I could do. It was either hate the tears or hate myself and I always settled on the latter. My body shook; my chest crumpled inward with my wretchedness. It wouldn’t stop. It wouldn’t bloody stop. It wasn’t allowed to.
Fuck depression. It fucked with my mind. It fucked with my body. It fucked with my very motivation for life
The clock on my bedside table read 4.15 when I finally glanced over at it, somewhat spent. How long I’d been there, locked inside my own familiar, stupid blackness, I didn’t know. I became aware of it only as I dug my nails into my skin hard enough to bring a distant sting to my attention, to shut me up.
The time dragged by in dozing wakefulness till I got up at six. If I slept I didn’t remember. It was always a daze. Most days were now. I couldn’t recall the time in between. Just long hours, dragging past. Sometimes I thought the pain would pass with time, but it hadn’t. How could it?
The noise from above my flat, on the street, slowly filtered into the silence I’d created for myself. People walking to work, tourists, traffic, sirens. That was the infuriating and comforting thing about London. It never slept. There was always life. Always people moving, going some place. At all times. It never stopped. It was easy to just get caught up in the flow of it. Lost in it. And in my tiny flat below the street, where my view was of nothing but dirty stairs, I was certainly forgotten. And that was fine with me. I couldn’t bear to be seen. Couldn’t bear to have the dark of my pathetic life come to light.
Mercifully, it had stopped raining by the time I left for the Sloane station. I let the crowds jostle against me. Perhaps a flaw of mine but I never recognised any of the faces. This early, I didn’t suppose many of them to be tourists, surely some of them were my neighbours, but I’d never really taken the time to notice. Yet we were a detached, disinterested bunch; much more interested in our books, our music, papers, thoughts. I was glad for that. Public transport was, in its own way, very private.
The journey underground always prickled the back of my neck. The weight of the pavement and buildings and vehicles above me was not the most comforting of notions. All of us voluntarily buried alive. I shuddered at the abstract thought.
I didn’t pay much mind as I moved forward. When something was so fixed day after day, one didn’t really notice what one did after a while. At least I didn’t. So when it was my turn at the gate, it took me too long to realise it would not open. I glanced down to my card. The red light over the panel glowered up angrily.
‘Oh, come on. Don’t do this to me now!’ I moaned, pressing my Oyster card to the sensor once more. Again the red light came on.
Behind me the queue was growing longer, and more impatient. I slapped my card to the sensor again in growing irritation, knowing full well it would do no good. Again the red light glowered up at me.
With a swear I finally dodged clear of the line. Out of money once again. Damn it. I pulled open my wallet and fished out several wrinkled bank notes and slid them across to the man behind the glass, along with my card. Those were the last few notes I’d had till the end of the week. And it was only Tuesday.
I was nearly late in catching my train and, not wanting to wait for the next, opted for standing, crushed, with all the other late arrivals. The train jerked into its quick movement; I swayed with it, mind ticking; three stops till mine. I glanced at my watch with the hand not steadying myself against the rail. Ten minutes to make it to work. I sighed. I wouldn’t arrive on time. Stupid since I’d been awake for so long.
Come on, Mark, wake up. You’ve got a long day ahead of you. No need to start it out on the wrong foot.
I nodded to myself mentally. Right.
Why did it sound so hard?
The train screeched to a haul at the next stop. People jostled past me, getting on and off. No eye contact. No words.
Some days were harder than others. Some days, simply putting my feet on the floor was a battle I didn’t think I could win. When the guilt and weariness settled just below my sternum, in a place I couldn’t reach. There was nothing I could do about that. Moving made it worse, made it grow. Thinking did too. But, to survive, I had to do both, so I pressed on.
It took its toll, of course. Isolation, silence, exhaustion. It all weighed in on me like an inescapable, yet oddly heavy fog; never growing easier to bear. As I looked to those round me I couldn’t help but jealously wonder if they knew what living with the burden was like.
I felt too old for my age.
That is what depression and guilt did to the soul. It was a deadly cocktail that I was forced to drink day after day and it never lost its sting. And I’d never grown accustomed to the taste.
The train was moving again. I hadn’t noticed and I looked up at the diagram above my head, counting the stops over, praying I hadn’t missed it as I was lost in my thoughts. Just as soon as I was lulled into the movement of the train it sharply slowed again. The voice announced the next stop. Not mine. I was next. I relaxed slightly. You’d think after all the years of this journey, I’d have it memorised by now.
I glanced down to the man sitting in the seat below me, reading a copy of
and couldn’t help but scan my eyes across the heading: INVIZON TOWER TO SOON REVEAL NEW MIRACLE TECHNOLOGY.
Miracle technology? I scowled at the words. How out of the news had I been lately? Curious, I tilted my head to try and read the fine print, but the train began to slow and I heard the automated female voice announce my stop.
With a deep breath, I shook myself awake, and then swayed with the train as I made my way to the front of the sliding doors. They beeped rapidly and then hissed open and I stepped down onto the platform with the pack of people, most of them my age, and headed towards the WAY OUT signs glowing yellow ahead of me.
After the long ride up the escalators, the queues through the gates and the climb up the stairs, I was finally up into the open-air of London. And with some mad dashing across traffic and pushing against crowds, I finished my daily pilgrimage to the Science Museum Library at Imperial College.
I gave my boss, Carol, head of research, a thin, fake smile as I clocked in. ‘I know I’m late.’
She raised her eyes, hidden behind heavy glasses, to meet mine. ‘Third time this month, Hurt.’
Her tone wasn’t exactly angry. Sometimes I liked to think she understood. But I didn’t know how much longer that could last. Sympathy for me should have dried up long ago. Still, perhaps Carol knew what it was like. I didn’t know her past. I couldn’t guess.
‘Tube trouble today,’ I explained ruefully. I was good at acting these days. ‘Damn card was out of money.’
‘Scatterbrain,’ she chided, turning back to her computer with a gentle smile.
Even if it did make me feel all the worst at times, one good side to my work was that it was unimportant enough to not warrant any harsh reprimand for my tardiness. It could be far worse.
And as much as I hated it, I did have to admit that working at a library had a type of peace to it, in some ways. Yes, it could be mad, and strange, but it had a way of lulling me into a thoughtless calm. I could cease to exist among the thousands of authors and their ideas.
I found working with books to be comforting. I liked the smell of them, the feel of the heavy tomes. Even if the majority of them were filled with scientific information that I’d never be able to understand, I liked having all of the knowledge around me. So many words, so many theories and solved problems, all just sitting there, just waiting to be open and read and discovered. The hushed, abandoned stacks were my favourite place to be—at work anyhow. It was like a silent little island in the heart of mad London. Even if it was work, even if I did complain to myself about it constantly, dread it, I did find myself actually relaxing when I was alone stowing books in their proper places.
Except when there are those random disasters.
Like the one that was directly before me.
I stopped and stared at the section.
‘Oh, in the name of—’ I huffed my breath. ‘Again?’
The entire mathematics section was in shambles. Books were on the floor, arbitrarily tossed on shelves where they did not belong, stacked in precarious piles and slumped over in their proper places. It was a total mess.
I turned round, hoping to perhaps see the perpetrator. Deserted, as it almost always was.
Shaking my head, I put down the books I had in hand and tread down the aisle till I reached the problem. There I struggled, rearranging, fighting and at last pushing up the heavy piles of books that had collapsed before I straightened them as best I could.
‘If I ever find out who keeps doing this…’ Muttering to myself, I knew, did little good.
The shelf wobbled and another pile of books I’d not noticed, dangerously piled above me, went toppling to the floor. I jumped to the side just in time before I could be knocked on the head by several large tomes on quantum physics.
A piece of paper fluttered down just after them. I scowled and swiped it up, thinking it to be someone’s book list. It wasn’t. It was three words, hastily, and almost indecipherably scrawled:
Not enough information!
I raised an eyebrow. Someone clearly wasn’t happy. And had taken it out on my straight book rows.
It took some extra muscle, and a good deal of grumbling, but I finally got things back to sorts. I picked up my previous stack of books and swung from the section, reminding myself to keep a sharp eye out. I was determined to catch whoever was responsible. This was the fourth bloody time in five bloody weeks.
I glanced down to the book in my hand. An old, beaten copy about unexplained events. Bigfoot, UFOs, brain control. Supernatural. I stared at the word for a long moment; hardly releasing it had frozen me.
The possibility of life after death. The chance to live again, despite the cards dealt to one in this ruddy life. I didn’t know if I believed it. I wanted to. I desperately wanted to. The cynicism in me told me no. You got one shot, and when that was it, that was it. You never got to see loved ones again. You never got another chance to make things right in some other life. The only way they existed was in increasingly dulling memories and bitter emotions.