Falling – Chapter VI

By Jake Kale

Ben finished his mental inventory. He could’ve done with more supplies, but what he had would have to do. He was pretty sure he could make them last. Hell, he’d live on one crisp, one cold baked bean a day if he had to.

It had done the trick and he’d calmed down a little. However, while the throbbing in his neck was less intense, it hadn’t gone away. Ben doubted that it ever would. It had been a constant presence for the last few weeks, since the last time he’d looked out the window. Ben thought about that for a second. That had been . . . New Years Eve. Just five weeks ago—it had felt like months! He could still remember that night clearly—the people gathering in the park across the road, the sounds of laughter and the crashes of exploding fireworks. He’d gone into the living room because he’d wanted to watch the festivities even if he dare not take part. That had been a huge mistake, and in the end he’d had to close the curtains. Afterwards, he’d retreated to the cellar and sat alone in the dark, his hands working themselves into knots, listening to the sounds of merriment and constantly expecting them to turn into panic. He hadn’t dared to look out that window ever since, and that had made his self-enforced isolation all the more horrendous. His withdrawal from the above ground rooms must have made the place look abandoned. It couldn’t be helped, but it still concerned him, and it certainly contributed to the break in. Ben still broke into a cold sweat when he remembered that night. Listening to the intruders searching the living room and upstairs. Bracing against the cellar door for a good five minutes before they finally gave up and left. While he’d kept his mouth shut and was pretty sure they didn’t know he was there, Ben couldn’t shake the thought that they’d been sufficiently intrigued by the blocked doorway and the promise of what might await discovery beyond it that they might risk a return visit. And of course he couldn’t call the police.

Fortunately, an old friend of the family had been a locksmith, and Ben still had his number. He’d told the friend he was moving but still had some stuff left here that he wanted to keep secure, and bluffed his way around the railings by claiming he’d had an accident last year. The guy had been so damn nice, and had done the work for a very reasonable price. Ben had wanted badly to warn him about the impending disaster, but again he knew that he couldn’t risk it, and he still felt like shit because of that. In the end, the precautions had not been necessary—the burglars hadn’t returned. Nor had anyone else after Vicky’s last visit. Ben wondered if anyone bar the prick next door even knew he was still here. Well, him and Laura.

Laura. God, Ben missed his sister so badly. He’d tried desperately to save her, had begged her to stay with him. Even though he knew there would not be enough rations for both of them he’d pleaded for her not to leave, he couldn’t bear the thought of her dying that way. He couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing her again. But she was gone now, and she wasn’t coming back, not now. Not ever.

Not after what he’d done.

He’d seen Laura only a couple of times since his assessment. The last time had been the day after his birthday in November. They’d been in touch with infrequent calls and text messages after that, which was standard behaviour for them and had been since she’d moved out. Then, on a whim (another of his whims—would he ever learn?) he’d called her Saturday night, after he found the letter. The letter had brought everything home, the danger and the urgency ahead. He’d realized that, despite his planning and precautions, he’d avoided the truly important challenge, largely because he didn’t know how he was going to accomplish it. That night, sensing that it was near and he was running out of time, he’d quickly formulated a loose plan. Then he’d called his sister.

Half an hour or so later she was at his door, that old lopsided smile on her face. “Hello, stranger,” she’d said.

“Hi,” Ben had replied, and despite the circumstances he couldn’t help but smile back. It had been so good to see her. She’d looked different, though. She was either wearing extensions or she’d let her hair grow because it was longer than he remembered, past shoulder length. The change was subtle, yet significant—he’d never seen her with long hair before. She’d looked good, she’d looked healthy. Just different. Her demeanour had been different, too. The camaraderie they’d used to share, that they were both still trying to affect, no longer felt as relaxed or natural. He’d wondered if she’d spoken to the friendly locksmith.

Or to Vicky.

The awkwardness between them was emphasised by the way she had regarded the handrail. “So what’s with the railing? Or should I even ask?” she’d said, as usual trying to make light of it, but she hadn’t sounded very convincing. Ben had considered trying to keep up the act, and still wondered whether things might have turned out better if he had. But he hadn’t liked standing by the open door, so he’d gotten right to the point.

“I need money, Laura.”

Laura had shifted, her posture stiffening. “Why?”

“Because they’re stopping my Incapacity Benefit.” But he’d known that wasn’t what she’d meant.

“What do you need the money for?” Laura had amended.

Ben had thought about it, then told her a half-truth. “Food.”

“Oh, Ben,” Laura had said, and he had been thankful that she’d looked down, sparing him what was most likely a disappointed expression. He’d been getting pretty anxious by then, and had realized he needed to get back to safety.

“Laura, can we go inside? I don’t like standing out here.”

“OK,” she’d said after a beat, and her hesitation still pained him when he thought about it. Ben had turned and walked back through the hallway, relying on the rail to guide him through the gloom. Laura had followed, and as he’d anticipated, she’d immediately picked up on him not reaching for the light switch. “Why are the lights out? You haven’t been cut off?” Ben had not replied, even though he’d known from experience that she’d take that as an admission. He’d paused when he no longer felt her following him, and had looked back to find her staring into the living room. Her eyes had apparently adjusted to the dark. “Where’s all your furniture?”

“Everything I need’s in the cellar,” he’d told her. “Speaking of which, I have to get back down there.” Ben wondered what Laura would make of that same hallway now that he’d attached the bottles to the wall.

“You’re living in the cellar?”

“It’s safer than up here.” He hadn’t waited for her to reply. Instead he’d turned back round and made his way down the stairs, Laura eventually following at a distance. Ben had considered locking the door after them and claiming that this was due to his paranoia after the break-in, but he didn’t know if their mutual friend had told her about that. She still probably wouldn’t have gone for it, anyway. The cellar had been lit with candles—normally he wouldn’t have done this as it was a waste of valuable resources, but this situation had more than warranted an exception. He hadn’t gone to his chair but instead waited by the railing as Laura entered, preparing for her reaction.

As Ben had expected, it was not positive.

At first, she’d simply stood dumbfounded, as if she didn’t recognize the place, her nose wrinkling at the stale smell he barely noticed anymore. Then he’d seen realisation set in, and her hand had gone to her mouth. “Oh my God . . !” she’d said through her fingers, her gaze flicking from the bottles attached to the wall to the bed, then the railings and the chair, taking it all in. A tear had escaped from the corner of her left eye. Without looking at him, she’d said, “Ben, what’s wrong with you?”

“What do you think’s wrong with me?” Ben had said impatiently. Looking back, he knew that was a stupid thing to say, but that’s hindsight for you. It was a knee-jerk reaction. After all, how could she not have known?

“I thought you might be over this by now. Ben . . . you can’t keep living like this.”

“Not much choice.” It had amazed him that even then, after everything he’d told her, she still didn’t get it. She’d still thought he could just get over this, like it was a common fucking cold. That was what really pissed him off, that impatient “Aren’t you over this, yet?” mentality of hers. It had always set him off, but he knew he should’ve ignored it, should’ve risen above it.

Because Laura had looked at him then, the disbelief on her face so alien it had shocked him, and his mentally rehearsed script had evaporated in an instant. “Because of the dream? You lost your job, threw out all your stuff and moved down here because of a dream?”

She’d said that as if there were no possible way that it could make sense, and as much as he’d wanted to avoid just blurting it out, Ben had felt he had no other option—he had to tell her the truth. “They’re . . . not dreams, Laura. It’s going to happen. It’s really going to happen.”

Laura’s eyes had seemed to glaze over. “What?”

“It’s really going to happen. All of it. That scruffy little student was right—they’re not dreams. They’re premonitions.”

“You can’t be serious,” Laura had said, and Ben had not been able to tell if that was a question, a statement, or blind hope.

Either way, he’d answered honestly. “I am. And you were right about one thing, Laura—I should’ve thought about you, too. You need to stay here. It’s not safe outside, it could happen at any moment.”

There had been a long pause, the implications of what he’d said hanging in the air between them. Then, “Oh, my God . . .” had been all Laura had managed to say, and while she hadn’t backed away he’d seen her tense and realized he was losing her.

“Laura, just listen to me . . .” Ben had started to say.

But she hadn’t been listening. “I should never have left. I should’ve stayed here and helped you with Mum . . .”

“Laura, you have to believe me,” he’d begged her. “I can’t risk you being outside when it happens!”

“I’m not staying down here, Ben!” she’d told him vehemently. “God, I wish I’d never opened my mouth about that bloody barbeque!”

She still wouldn’t believe him, why couldn’t she have just trusted him? Ben had decided he needed to up his game, to try and blind her with science. He had started talking quickly, grasping at the fragmented portions of his mental script and trying to put them in some kind of cohesive order. “Yes, you should, and you were absolutely right. Because this is real. I think I know what’s gonna cause it, too. It’s the universe pulling itself apart. Everyone thought it’d slow down, but it hasn’t. It might destroy itself anyway, but there’s a chance, scientists thought it would contract again, and maybe it will, maybe it’ll reverse, and if there’s even a chance of that, then we have to try to survive. We have to be prepared. Listen to me, Laura, we have to. Because it—is—going—to—happen!”

Laura had said nothing at first, had just stood silently taking it all in, and for one horribly hopeful instant Ben had thought that maybe he’d gotten through to her. But then she’d stared at him dispassionately, no more fear, no more tears, nothing. He’d known then that he’d failed. “You don’t believe me,” he’d said, and that had been a statement, not that it needed stating—it had been pretty fucking obvious. Ben had begun to understand by then that the woman standing in front of him most definitely had not been the Laura he’d used to know—the cheerful Laura, the jokey Laura. She’d changed completely, and he had not liked this new, suspicious Laura. Not one bit.

And he definitely had not liked the way she’d looked at him.

“What?” he’d spat at her, and Laura had turned away, as if she no longer cared to engage him in conversation. Furious, he’d persisted. “No, come on, what is it? Afraid your little brother’s a nutcase, or something?”

She’d spun. “I’d say the shoe fits, Ben!” she’d snapped back, unable or unwilling to disguise her disappointment. She’d gestured at his meticulously plotted and constructed safety precautions in a sweeping, dismissive arc. “I mean, look at this place. Listen to yourself! This is insane!”

“It’s reality! I have to be ready, I have to be prepared—”

“Ben, your judgement is clouded! It can’t be trusted. I can’t believe you really don’t see that.”

Ben had exhaled angrily through bared, clenched teeth. Who the hell was she to talk about not seeing the truth? “You won’t stay?”

Laura shook her head slowly, her eyes fixed on him. “No, I won’t.”

That had been Ben’s cue to look away. He’d had to, he was so pissed off. How could she ignore his concerns, how could she put her own life in danger and be so fucking blasé about it? “Will you at least promise to stay inside for the next couple of days?” he’d tried.

He could almost visualize her exasperated expression. “Ben . . !”

That’s a “no”, then? that inner voice of his had quipped. “And I don’t suppose you’ll lend me the money?” he’d followed up pointlessly.

“Well, according to you, you’re not gonna need it, since everyone’s gonna fly away into space,” she’d replied, and her tone was every bit as sarcastic as his, but lacking the warmth that used to shine through. That tone was familiar, and Ben had not liked the memories it had stirred.

“If I could get a few more supplies, it’d be worth it,” he’d told her.

“I’ll consider it as long as you agree to see someone,” she’d replied noncommittally.

And again Ben had not been able help himself—he’d just seen red. He’d wheeled back to face her, irate. “Someone who’ll pump me full of drugs?”

“Oh, Ben!”

“Like they did to Mum?”

“Ben, stop!” she’d shouted, and her voice broke but as usual she’d fought back her emotions. “I’m not joking. You need help. You must know that!”

Ben had gotten so worked up he’d been trembling, and he’d realized he needed to compose himself. He’d known Laura probably wouldn’t understand, but he’d had to try and reason with her, to get her to at least entertain his concerns. But he’d known that she wouldn’t. And while he’d hoped for both their sake’s that it wouldn’t come to this, at that point she’d left him with no other choice.

Allowing his shoulders to slump and affecting a quiet, defeated voice, he’d said, “OK, fine.” Then he’d breathed in, steeling himself. “Look, I’ve got twenty-five quid in my wallet. Could you at least go to the shop and get me a few things?”

Laura had looked a little dubious, but the fight had seemingly left her. “Yeah, OK.”

Ben had rewarded her with a half-hearted smile. “Thanks,” he’d said, trying to look as weak and pathetic as he could, as he’d been doing since she’d arrived. “Give me a second . . .” He’d taken his wallet out of his pocket, and with his head down as he groped for the non-existent cash, he’d approached his sister. Then, when she extended her hand for the money he’d grabbed her wrist and pulled her towards him, spinning her around and moving behind her awkwardly because of the railing. He’d held her by the waist and throat and started to drag her towards the chair, and she had started screaming and struggling, while Ben had kept repeating over and over, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” as he’d dragged her towards his chair where the straps where undone ready, and God, he’d hated having to do this to her but he’d had no choice, she’d left him no choice! He was just a few feet from the chair when he’d caught a blur of movement followed by a jarring impact above his right eye. Laura had thrown her head back into his, and whether deliberate or not it had caught him unaware. His grip had loosened enough that he felt her struggling free and tried to tighten his hold again, only for her elbow to jerk back into his stomach just below his ribcage, forcing the air out of his lungs and causing him to lose his balance and fall backwards. Ben had felt a second stinging impact, this time in the back of his skull as it connected with the railing, right on his imaginary lump, hard enough to momentarily obliterate conscious thought and cause black spots to form in front of his eyes, and when his vision had cleared he’d seen the panicked form of his sister darting up the cellar stairs without so much as a glance back, and had heard her run sobbing from the house as he called uselessly after her, “Laura, stop! Please, it’s not safe out there! It’s not SAFE . . !”

But it had been too late.

She’d gone.

Afterwards, Ben had lay where he fell in the flickering yellow light, weeping in utter despair. Eventually he’d stopped and found the strength to walk upstairs to close and lock the front door. The whack to his head had brought on the mother of all headaches, one that still hadn’t fully left and had only faded a little with lethargy. He’d gotten no sleep whatsoever that night, had just sat there in the dark replaying events over and over, trying to work out where he’d gone wrong and what he should have done to save her. It was a totally futile exercise, but the only alternative was to think about what he’d lost, and if he’d done that he might just have run outside and lay in the street, waiting for the end to come.

He’d spent much of Sunday trying to distract himself by fitting the bottles to the walls upstairs and shouting abuse at his dickhead neighbour. He’d spent much of Sunday night reviewing his plans before eventually drifting into a brief, fitful sleep in the early hours of the morning. And he’d tried again to distract himself this morning with another useless endeavour, calling the Jobcentre when he knew it wouldn’t work because they didn’t give a shit, then toddling upstairs to look out the window. Whatever he tried to blot out the pain, not only did it not work but it actually ended up making him feel worse. And now, with no other distractions, no more exercises or memories to keep it at bay, Ben was left with nothing but reality.

He’d failed.

Ben had thought there couldn’t possibly be enough liquid left in his body to cry any more, but apparently he’d been wrong because the tears were flowing freely again now. Ben had never felt total emptiness like this in his entire life, not even when his Mum had fallen ill, not even when she’d died. Laura was gone, and there was nothing he could do! He couldn’t go after her, and he knew she wouldn’t come back. He’d lost her, and even if he survived, even if his survival ultimately benefited what remained of human race, he would never forgive himself because he’d lost the only person in the world who mattered. He’d failed to take care of his mother, and he’d failed to save Laura. Because of his carelessness, because of his cowardice, she was going to die.

Ben was crying so loudly he almost didn’t hear the knock at the door.

Chapter V Chapter VII

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Falling by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

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Falling – Chapter V

By Jake Kale

Though the thought only rarely occurred to him and he expended very little energy pursuing it when it did, Ben had no idea at what point his paranoia had ceased to be paranoia and become real. That comment, that singular moment of insight in a career that would end before it had the chance to truly begin might well have been the best candidate. But even so, the transition had been so smooth he hadn’t even noticed it. Nor did he ever question it. It was accepted. The thoughts and the vivid, terrible dreams were so real they had to be the portent of an actual event, he felt it instinctively. He just knew, the way you knew that the sun was going to rise tomorrow—only Ben knew that, instead of rising, it would fall. He sometimes thought that this awareness of his, and maybe all psychic phenomena, was simply another level of reality that human beings had only recently evolved the ability to detect, another random branch on the genetic tree, like intelligence and sentience before it. And he wondered if, had circumstances allowed for humanity to survive, future generations might have refined it to the point that it could serve a practical, reliable purpose. He thought that that was the tragic fault of human race—so much potential but unable to live up to it.

Ben still thought of Vicky and Gillian occasionally. Though he’d never seen the student again Vicky had visited several more times, at first with Laura and later on her own. Though she’d seemed nice enough to begin with, if a little pushy, Ben had gradually gotten sick of the sight of her. He did not care for the “solutions” to his “problems” that she had proposed. He’d already seen what tablets could do to a person, so the last time she visited—the previous Wednesday, her first visit for months—he had told her politely but frankly that he no longer wanted nor needed her “help” and would prefer that she left and did not come back. Because she had tried to help him he’d considered telling her to be prepared for the trouble ahead, but he’d decided he couldn’t take the chance. She’d been nosey enough as it was. He’d wondered if talking to her at all had been a mistake, but so far it hadn’t come back to haunt him. No, the only person Ben would worry about from now on was himself. He’d tried to warn people, all to no avail. He’d tried to warn Laura.

And look how that turned out…

Ignoring the voice in his head, Ben made his shambling way back to his chair, kicking a piece of his smashed phone out of the way, sat down and strapped himself in, the restraints acting to lessen the shaking in his legs. As usual his fingers began tangling themselves together, and in order to distract himself and bring down his stress levels Ben fell back on the tried and tested technique of mentally cataloguing his supplies and safeguards. While it sometimes seemed as though he didn’t have much, what he did have had cost a pretty penny. The handrails had been the most expensive items. He got them through a contact of his BEC advisor, and combined the rails here in the cellar, in the hallway upstairs and in the living room amounted to just short of twenty metres in length, and had cost almost £5,000. Then there were the water bottles—he’d calculated he’d need 150 of them to attach to the walls in the cellar, but he’d ended up with twenty left over, so he’d ordered thirty more and decided to fix them to the walls in the hallway upstairs. The final total reached 180 bottles, and over £1,000. Every spare penny he’d had left went on supplies and other essentials. All told, Ben had spent something in the region of £10,000. He just hoped it would be enough.

Ben had planned for his survival meticulously, carefully working out what supplies and equipment he’d need, both to prepare for the reversal of gravity and to survive afterwards. When it happened he would remove his restraints and use the bed frame-cum-ladder, which he always kept next to the chair or the bed depending on which one he was using, to climb down to the ceiling, which would at this point become the floor—he’d have to try not to think about what was below it. Then he’d remove the mattress so he’d have something to sleep on, but he’d leave the chair where it was, rather than risk it falling on him or damaging the roof/floor. He could either sit on the mattress or on the plastic chair he’d had Laura’s ex bring in from the garden. After that it was just a question of passing the time. That was what worried Ben the most—how he would keep himself occupied so that he didn’t lose his mind. He had amassed quite a book collection over the years, but they wouldn’t last forever, and they’d be no power for him to watch videos or listen to CDs. He had considered keeping a diary, and had bought pens and a good supply of paper, which he still had. But he had decided that, even though it would occupy his mind, it would be pointless. What would he write about? And who would he write for?

Sometimes, the scale of the impending catastrophe overwhelmed Ben. It was almost beyond human comprehension—six billion lives, snuffed out in an instant. Every artefact, all forms of technology, all trace of culture and civilisation past and present gone. It would result in a mass extinction dwarfing that of the dinosaurs. Three-and-a-half billion years from the first stirrings of primitive, single-celled life to the cusp of true independence from Mother Earth, all for nought. Nothing would survive—every insect, every animal, every bird, every fish, every ocean would be gone. Every body of water, every natural resource. The entire planet left devoid of life, except for those few who through luck, quick wits or, as in his case, foresight, had managed to find shelter. When Ben thought about it like this, when he actually considered the implications of his dreams becoming real, he wondered if there was any point even trying to survive.

Of course, that was assuming he did survive. There were so many variables involved. For instance, how would the reversal of gravity affect climate, and temperature? Would the lighter atmosphere survive, or would that, too, be cast out? Would the reversal be permanent, or would it reverse again at some point? And the question he’d hardly dared to entertain—how far would this antigravity go? Would the affect be confined to the Earth, or would it expand into the wider solar system, galaxy, universe, multiverse? Ben remembered a documentary he’d watched several years ago about the expansion of the universe and how, rather than slowing down as scientists anticipated, it was actually speeding up. Everyone had thought that eventually the after-effects of the Big Bang would eventually wear off and the universe would start to contract, but now scientists were suggesting it might just keep going until it reached breaking point. In his darker moments, Ben wondered if that was what was about to happen.

Had the universe reached its breaking point? Was reality about to tear itself apart?

Was this the fate that ultimately awaited Benjamin Barry—to experience every atom in his body expanding into nothingness along with the rest of the cosmos?

He was usually good at blocking out the more disturbing thoughts—he’d had to be. He tried to retain a modicum of hope. He told himself that maybe, just maybe, he was experiencing these visions because eventually the reversal would reverse again, and he needed to be prepared to wait it out. It was far from a convincing argument, but if there was even a chance that he could survive the Antigravity Apocalypse he had to take it. In his more hopeful moments Ben thought that maybe the human race as a whole would somehow survive, and perhaps even profit from the disaster. Maybe the good old men of science would discover what caused it, whether it would happen again and, if so, if they could they predict it. They could develop survival strategies for future occurrences. He knew he was being overly optimistic, and that his foresight was probably nothing more than highly evolved instinct, a survival mechanism like the fight or flight response, no deeper meaning than that. But he could hope, he could do that much.

Pretty soon, hope would be all he had.

Chapter IV Chapter VI

Creative Commons License
Falling by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Falling – Chapter IV

By Jake Kale

“Ben?”

Vicky had been watching him intently—they all had. He’d withdrawn and started playing with his fingers again. Laura had taken his right hand in both of hers and pulled, forcing his fingers apart and forcing him back into the room with them.

It had taken him another couple of seconds to remember Vicky’s question. And when he did he’d continued to stall, not wanting to say it out loud. He remembered closing his eyes and taking a shuddery breath, the moisture in his mouth drying up immediately. “Falling,” he finally managed. He’d exhaled. There. At last you said it.

But Vicky had looked disappointed, as if to say, That’s it? This is the great secret terror that keeps you from venturing out into the world? She’d looked down at her notes. “Do you have problems with your balance?”

The relief he’d felt at revealing his phobia vanished as quickly as his saliva had. He’d licked his parched lips and wondered why they were making this so hard. “Not . . . falling down.” God, he really hadn’t wanted to say this. “Falling up.”

“Falling up?”

“Yeah . . . into the sky.”

They all went silent for a second. Gillian even stopped jotting in her notepad. “Well, that’s certainly unique. Can’t say I’ve come across it before,” Vicky had eventually said. How about that, you managed to interest her after all, his inner voice had whispered facetiously. “How does this phobia manifest?”

“You mean, where did it come from?” Ben had still been trying to assess how he felt about revealing his secret and hadn’t really heard the question, mistaking “does” for “did”.

“Well, no. But we could talk about that if you’d like.”

Great, now she thinks you’re stupid again. But he’d answered her anyway. “To tell the truth, I’m not sure. I can remember as a kid, lying down in the back garden looking up at the sky and getting really dizzy. Sometimes I’d feel sick and have to go inside.” He’d glanced at Laura, and seen worried recognition in her eyes. She’d remembered that, too.

He had earlier memories, as well. One that had suddenly come to mind happened when he was very young, in primary school. His school hadn’t had a gym, so the assembly was appropriated for that purpose. Little Benny Barry had stood there with his friends, clad in his shorts, trainers and The Real Ghostbusters T-shirt, listening with some trepidation as their teacher explained how to execute a perfect forward roll. When the time came to actually perform the manoeuvre he was naturally nervous, but while Scott Philips got it completely wrong and banged his head on the floor, and Melanie Cole refused to do it outright and simply stood snivelling, Ben found that the movement came naturally. He’d dropped to his knees, ducked his head and kicked off, and in one fluid motion and just a brief loss of equilibrium he was back on his feet again, enjoying the applause of the teacher whose name and indeed sex he could no longer recall. And he’d quickly become possessed by a bravado that comes from thoroughly besting your peers, performing roll after roll. But on his fourth or fifth attempt he’d overbalanced and landed flat on his face on a sheer hardwood cliff while his consciousness continued to spin out of control, and he’d tried to dig his stubby little fingers into the floor, convinced that at any moment he would begin sliding away towards certain doom.

He was only dimly aware of what happened next. He knew his mother had been called and had to come and collect him because he’d been too distraught to stay in school. She’d taken him home and they’d sat together on the settee, her holding him tightly as the two of them shared a packet of Monster Munch and lost themselves in Tom’s relentless pursuit of Jerry, all documented on his favourite videotape. Though he’d recovered after short while, he’d come away with a powerful impression of the transience of gravity. Ben hadn’t thought about that in years. And, sitting in that living room, he had even wondered if that might have represented a breakthrough, if he’d just uncovered the origin of his phobia.

But now you know otherwise.

“So how does this phobia affect your day-to-day life?” Vicky had asked him.

She had simplified her language, he’d noticed. Maybe she really had thought he was stupid. If she’d spoken to him like that now he knew he’d be much less forgiving, but at the time he’d been inclined to agree with her assessment. “I think of it every time I go outside. I envision scenarios, how it might take place, and how I’d react. I’ll look out for potential shelters, and avoid open spaces. I run to the shop and back, and I only get essentials so I don’t have to carry much.” And he’d lost weight as a result. “If I have to go out anywhere else I’ll plan routes that I know will take me past houses and buildings. I walk everywhere, I won’t set foot in car or a bus. Just in case.”

“Is that why you sold your car?” Laura had asked from beside him.

“Yes,” he’d admitted.

“Oh, Ben . . .” she’d said softly, and squeezed his hand. To the best of his knowledge, that had been the first time he’d heard his sister express emotion without using humour to try and soften it, and it threw him a little, so much so that he could barely look at her.

“Aside from shopping, do you go outside regularly for any other reason? Do you socialize much?” Vicky had asked.

“Not really, no,” Ben had replied with a shrug. But in all honesty he’d never been the convivial type.

And Vicky had paused then, eyeing him with such genuine empathy that Ben had felt thoroughly chided. “Ben, when was the last time you went outside?”

Ben had swallowed nervously, his parched throat locking. “I’m not sure.” He’d trying to dodge the question, though he’d known from the patient yet expectant look on Vicky’s face that it was not going to work. He’d thought about it for a while, and had real difficulty remembering. “I suppose it must have been Mum’s funeral.”

Laura had inhaled sharply. “That was in February!”

“Yeah.” And it had been a thoroughly draining experience. He had not gone in the funeral cars with the rest of the mourners but had made his own way to the cemetery by bus. He’d been on edge as a result, and throughout the service the one horrible thought that had nagged at his mind, supplanting even his grief, was, What if it happens here? God, the last thing I need to see is my mother’s body ascending from her coffin . . .

“So . . . seven months?” Vicky calculated. Ben nodded. That had sounded about right.

“Oh, my God. So that’s why you wouldn’t come to my barbecue.” Ben had found himself unable to respond to that, and he’d realized it was easier to talk to Laura when she was being flip. Fortunately, she’d then given him that familiar satirical smile. “But you were quite happy for me to risk flying off into space?”

He’d smiled back sheepishly. “Sorry about that.” And just two days ago she told you she regretted ever saying that.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You had enough to worry about. I didn’t want to bother you with this.” That had been true, Laura had been going through a serious financial crisis—still, when wasn’t she? But of course that had been only half the story. “And as I said, I was embarrassed. I mean, for God’s sake, it sounds mad. I probably am mad.” And you really believed that.

“You’re not mad, Ben,” Vicky had reassured him.

“I can’t be far off.”

And at that point Vicky’s assistant, Gillian the shrink-in-training, had decided to open her mouth. Leaning slightly in front of her mentor so he could see her, her face full of an affected sympathy she had yet to perfect, she’d asked, “Do you think this is just a phobia, or some kind of precognition? That it’s actually going to happen?”

And at the time that had seemed like a pretty inane question. Ben had even chuckled and shook his head. “No, I don’t.” Of course not. Because he’s not actually mad, you know.

And, smiling back, she had agreed. “Then you’re probably not mad.”

Chapter III Chapter V

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Falling by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Falling – Chapter III

By Jake Kale

From the mythical Tower of Babel, to the Wright Brothers and right up to Armstrong’s “one small step”, the depthless curiosity of the human species, ingrained and hardwired by millions of years of natural selection, had compelled it to seek a way up. To touch the sky. The irony of its end was utterly crushing.

The way it began was always different. Sometimes, mainly back when he still drove, Ben would imagine being in his car and suddenly losing traction. Other times he would imagine—no, see himself walking along the street, watching people pass him by, hearing the lilting tones of their conversation, so faint it was almost drowned out by the regular volleys of traffic. He could almost taste the smoky diesel fumes, and that was the worst thing—it always felt so real. And gradually he would notice his footfalls becoming softer, his steps becoming easier. It would feel almost as if he were wading through water, only without the associated drag. And he’d look around and see that other people were noticing it as well. Suddenly they all felt lighter. And they would glance at each other and at Ben, and he would see surprise, puzzlement, disbelief and perhaps a healthy dose of alarm in their faces. Some might even begin to enjoy this new-found ethereality, to run and hop along like astronauts in old, grainy NASA stock footage, laughing and giggling, taking turns to see how high they could jump or how long they could hang in the air, all taking their own personal “one small step”. And Ben would watch, a part of him longing to join in even though he knew this was only the beginning, that it was going to get so much worse.

That gravity itself was about to invert.

So as the people around him continued to indulge their blissful, mindless revelry Ben would feel weightlessness in his stomach that was nothing to do with the impending repeal of Newton’s Laws. And he would begin to run, to look for shelter, anything secure with a roof over it, but with each step finding purchase enough to propel himself forward would become more and more difficult, and with each stride it would take him longer and longer to return to the pavement. Meanwhile, all around him the system would begin to break down and chaos would reign as the absence of friction caused vehicles to go out of control, to slam into each other and into the screaming pedestrians for whom the lack of traction had suddenly become a mortal handicap. The screeches and squeals of terror and rending metal, the sounds of explosions both distant and just metres away would assail his ears from all directions. And he would know at this stage that it was all over, that he should’ve stayed inside. That the best he could hope for was that he would find something to hang on to, a lamp post or a railing, anything, so that he would survive long enough to watch it all unfold.

The weightlessness would be the first symptom, gravity as everybody knew it shutting down. But at that point the second symptom would take effect, and as the attraction of mass to mass wore off and gave way to repulsion heavy objects, vehicles such as trucks, buses, vans and cars would rise up slowly, seeming to hover in the air. Rubbish and other surface debris would float lazily off the ground and out of dustbins, and loose paving tiles would tumble free. And perhaps even entire buildings, their foundations designed to rest within the soil instead of anchoring securely to it, would begin to slide up out of the earth. And finally the people in the street, and humanity as a whole would lose its fragile grip on the world and start to drift away, crying out in shock and terror, pleading and praying for help, and while some, like Ben, might find something to hold onto, or snag the branches of trees on their way up, the vast majority would not be so fortunate. And Ben would feel his own feet leave the pavement and rotate to face the sky, and he would look up, or rather down at the vast expanse of blue beneath him, down into the Aegean abyss, the effects of antigravity unfolding slowly at first but increasing rapidly until suddenly everything—vehicles, buildings, men, women, and children plummeted skyward screaming as their planet rejected them and cast them out into the Void.

And Ben would watch.

Helpless.

Hopeless.

In his dreams Ben would find the reserves to hang on to his home planet for a while, trying to delay the inevitable. But eventually either his strength or willpower or both would give and he too would fall into the sky, the ground that had once held him to the Earth so securely receding, his body spinning violently, vertiginous terror causing his bile to rise, his head to throb and his vision to blur, air rushing past or perhaps flowing away with him as it, too, was ejected. He would pass into the wispy whiteness of the clouds, feeling misty droplets of pre-precipitation on his face and arms, and back out again, the pallid rolling hills and valleys fading just as the surface they now obscured had done. And as he caught sight of the curvature of the Earth, the blackness of space standing out in stark contrast beneath it, he would lose all sensation of speed, his whipping hair and clothes becoming still, Einstein’s “happy idea” experienced first-hand, and the cold, fatigue and lack of oxygen would begin to dull the intense pressure that swelled his skin and coursed through his body as his blood boiled in his veins, and in his last few seconds of consciousness he would wonder whether his body would be incinerated or if it would escape into the vacuum of space only to expand and burst in an instantly freezing bouquet of blood, bone and gore . . .

Chapter II Chapter IV

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Falling by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Falling – Chapter II

By Jake Kale

Feeling utterly dejected and trembling with sorrow as well as fear, Ben went back out into the hallway, which seemed less empty than the living room. Hardly surprising considering that the walls were lined with big three gallon jugs of water from the floor to just short of the ceiling. He’d secured them to the wall with string and strips of torn clothing nailed to the wall, and this coming on the heels of the installation of the handrails had caused his neighbour to have a fit, hollering and banging on the wall for hours. Ben had debated whether it was worth putting any bottles up here at all, since there was a chance the floors above ground would not survive. He had decided it was worth the effort just in case. Moving past them, Ben entered the cellar stairwell, transferring the safety harness and locking the door behind him as usual, and started his short but humiliating trudge back down the steps. It dawned on him that the last year had been a steady downward progression for him, and his movement through the house reflected that. From his bedroom, to the living room (getting that bed frame down the stairs had been a pain in the arse) and finally to the cellar. It seemed he’d gone as low as he could go.

At the bottom of the stairs Ben surveyed his current home, the small room seeming to concentrate his desolation into a tangible if invisible form. As with the hallway the walls were lined with water bottles, the securing of which had also caught the attention of the fat prick next door. It didn’t matter—he’d soon shut the fuck up when it happened. Ben only hoped the fat bastard was outside when it did. He deserved to be. Him and that bitch on the phone, Ben hoped they were both outside when it happened. Ben’s single chair and mattress were, like the handrail, secured to the concrete floor with six inch nails and fitted with straps made from old belts, just in case, and between them and the bottles there was very little space left. A small alcove on the right held additional supplies—tinned and other assorted non-perishable food, fuel for his portable gas cooker, two lighters and numerous boxes of matches, the tin opener he’d forgotten until quite recently (he’d been living mainly on packets of crisps), rope, a make-shift ladder that had formally been his bed frame, clothes, books and other reading material, and other more obscure miscellanies. He’d been living down here for about three months now. It was dark, cramped, frequently cold and thoroughly miserable. And it had begun to smell quite unpleasant, too. But it would hopefully be safe. Of course, there was no way to know for sure if the cellar ceiling would hold up any better than the upper floors, but it wasn’t as if Ben had any option other than to wait here and hope for the best. Most of the money he’d had, which included his entire inheritance, was long gone. And now it looked like he wouldn’t be getting anymore.

Standing here, the image of that vacant living room fresh in his mind, Ben experienced a wave of grief for his old life. It had been so long since he had spent any period of time upstairs, and longer still since he’d seen it in daylight. He’d still been able to detect the lighter patch of carpet by the wall to the right of the window, where his mother’s old settee once sat. He felt a twinge of nostalgia for that settee, despite the horrible vague floral pattern and the abrasive fabric that irritated his skin whenever he tried to sleep on it. He thought of all the good times he’d had in that room and throughout the house, back before his mother had died, before his sister had moved out, all the memories going right back to his upper school days. Now it gave him the disagreeable impression of a building left to rot in Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. This house has seen it all, a good ten-plus years of Ben’s life. And it had seen his entire journey over the last year from madness to realization.

For a long time, Ben had honestly believed that he was losing his mind. What had started out as a random, bizarre idea had become a fully-fledged phobia, and one so intense it had inexorably taken over his life, dictating his every thought and action. He’d quit his job, and spent as little time outside as possible. He’d moved his bed down to the living room because he didn’t feel safe upstairs. There were times during those dark, horrible days when he’d wanted nothing more than to beat his head against the wall until he passed out. Well, that or be locked away in a padded cell. That thought had been incredible appealing—after all, he would at least be comfortable. His GP, Dr. Campbell, had behaved in a staggeringly indifferent manner, telling him “Pull yourself together,” as if he were some emotional incompetent. He’d contacted every counselling service he could find, and ended up on numerous waiting lists, but nothing ever came of it. No-one seemed able or even willing to help. So as the months slipped by, Ben had conceded defeat and given up on his life. Not in a suicidal sense, but in a simple not-giving-a-fuck-what-happened-to-himself sense.

It had been his sister, Laura, who had eventually convinced him to seek help again. Actually, “nagged” might be a more appropriate term. And if he didn’t get it himself she went out and got it for him. It was her that had found and contacted the Benefits Entitlement Counsel, and arranged for someone to come out to talk to him about applying for some kind of financial assistance while he was getting back on his feet. And it was Laura who’d arranged for him to switch to another GP, the cheerful and proficient Dr. Upton, who had contacted the Community Mental Health Team to try and get his appointment speeded up. Ben still remembered the day he’d received a letter from Cawdor House, informing him that a key worker had been assigned to him and would be coming out to visit. It had genuinely felt like a physical weight had been lifted from his shoulders, or from his head, anyway. He’d called Laura straight away, and had ended up crying down the phone as he thanked her repeatedly—she’d called him a big girl’s blouse, but was pleased for him. Finally he would be getting help. Finally he would be free.

Laura had made a point of being there on the day of the visit. Ben suspected she thought he would lose his nerve and not answer the door when the key worker came. If that had been the case, she had been right to worry. His pursuit of help had been indecisive and, if he were honest, pretty half-arsed all along, and that morning embarrassment had once again teamed up with anxiety to beat his common sense into submission. Ben realized he’d relied quite heavily on his older sister through the years, and he really wished she were here now. She’d always been the perfect foil to his introspective nature. She’d had a way of expressing herself, a soft and (mostly) well-intentioned sardonic humour that wove insults and criticisms in such a deft and delicate manner that she quickly won people over to her side. It was a trait he’d found by turns admirable and irritating, the level of each varying depending on the situation. It had always worked on Ben, though, so when the doorbell had rung that day he’d immediately gone to answer it without being prompted by one of her light-hearted putdowns.

Ben’s key worker, Vicky, had been a casually dressed and compassionate-looking woman in her late thirties, and she’d had that relaxed, friendly air about her that all good counsellors seem to project. She’d brought a trainee with her, an attractive redhead in her twenties whose name Ben couldn’t remember, but he’d guessed from her ratty attire that she was a student before Vicky had even introduced her. She’d looked kind of like Gillian Anderson in the earlier seasons of The X-Files. Vicky had asked him if he minded “Gillian” being there, and while he thought it odd that she’d waited until they were practically inside the house to ask that he’d said he didn’t mind.

They’d all gone into the living room, which back then had lived up to the name “living room”—brightly lit by the early Autumn sun, revealing the cabinet full of his mother’s trinkets on the wall opposite the settee, the cluttered coffee table in the middle of the room, the few paintings he’d had the tenacity to complete hanging alongside pictures of extended family and the dog they’d had to have put to sleep four years earlier. Laura and Ben sat on the old settee with the obscure greyish foliage, while Vicky and Gillian had taken their respective seats on the two chairs by the far wall, facing the window. Vicky had had a black leather briefcase from which she’d produced a clipboard with a form attached. The student, who’d barely said a word, had a small notepad that she’d scribbled in every so often. After asking Ben for a few details and jotting down his responses, Vicky had looked up from her lap and, with a relaxed tilt of the head and the barest hint of a smile tugging at the corner of her lips, had begun the interrogation. “So, Ben, have you always been afraid of going outside?”

This had thrown Ben off-guard from the get-go, as he’d hoped they might ease him into confronting his phobia gradually. No such luck. Vicky had obviously been a no-nonsense type, but she masked it well with a soothing, patient tone. “I’ve always preferred to stay indoors,” Ben had told her, though that had been the result of his lack of motivation more than anything else. “It was never this intense, though. I’d say it’s slowly gotten worse over the last year or so.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“I don’t know. Our mother’s death didn’t help.”

Vicky had made another note, and Gillian had parroted her mentor’s actions almost self-consciously. “I’ve spoken to Laura, and she told me you took that quite hard.”

Now there was the very definition of understatement. Look up “understatement” in the dictionary and you’ll find “ex: Benjamin Barry took his mother’s death quite hard.” The three of them had formed a unit for so much of his life, even after Laura moved out. Nothing quite as militant as an “us against the world” mentality, just a natural sense of cohesion. Their mother had been the centre of that unit, and when she died it had fallen apart. What hurt the most was that he couldn’t do the one thing she’d always asked of them both—to not grieve for her but get on with their lives. Ben couldn’t do that. Her death had been so sudden, a fucking heart attack of all things. It was such a painfully generic end for such an inspiring woman. Laura had handled it better, reacting with her trademark glibness that effectively marginalised her grief while acting as an emollient to his own. He’d always assumed that was exactly as she’d intended—to be strong for him.

Back in the present, or rather the past, Ben had said, “You could say that. I should point out I’ve been having these thoughts since long before Mum died, but they’ve definitely gotten worse since then.”

“How so?”

“It’s like a compulsion, it affects everything I do. I’ve had nightmares about it.”

A sympathetic nod. More scribbles from Gillian. “Sounds pretty bad.”

“It’s not a regular thing, just once in a blue moon I’ll have a nightmare. It’s not that bad.”

“Bad enough for you to resign from your job,” Vicky had observed.

“Yes,” he’d admitted. God, that had made him feel uncomfortable.

Vicky must have noticed, but of course it was her job to push him so she’d pressed on. “Ben, as I say, I’ve spoken to your sister about this, and she tells me you’ve never given a reason for your fear of going outside. Why is that?”

Then, as now, Ben had felt the pain radiating out from the apex of his neck so acutely he’d imagined you could probably see it, and had shifted awkwardly on the itch-inducing settee. They’d been there less than ten minutes, and it was already more than he could take. “Because I don’t like thinking about it. I don’t like thinking about the level of control it has over me. And because I’m worried someone like you is gonna lock me up and throw away the key.” That had been meant as a joke, but the look he’d gotten from Vicky had made him worry she’d taken it seriously. Ben had been left with no choice but to give the real answer. “And because I’m embarrassed by it.”

“Oh, you silly sod, don’t be ridiculous . . .” Laura had begun to say before Vicky delicately cut her off with the merest flick of her wrist, in case Ben decided to clam up again.

“Why are you embarrassed?”

“Because Laura’s right, in a way. It is ridiculous.”

“It’s obviously not ridiculous to you.”

“No, I know. But it would be to anyone else.”

“Why don’t you let us decide that for ourselves?”

At that point, fixed in the combined glare of the three women who were ostensibly there to help him, Ben had realised he was not going to escape this time—he would have to face his fear. And, like a predator scenting its prey, Vicky had prepared the final ambush. “Ben, I understand that this must be a pretty stressful experience for you. I appreciate that, I do. But you have to confront this head-on if you want to conquer it. You can’t keep hiding it away, I’m sure you realize that.”

He had nodded, which had done wonders for his throbbing neck. “I do. Laura tells me often enough.”

“I notice you play this fear of yours down a lot. My suggestion to you is to take it more seriously, accept it for the very real problem it obviously is.”

“You’re right, I know. It’s a defensive thing.”

“There’s no need to be defensive now, Ben. We’re here to help you. So . . . why don’t you want to go outside?”

He’d drawn a breath, and he remembered his lips had trembled. Here goes nothing, that inner voice had said. “I suppose it’s what you’d call a phobia.”

“OK.” She’d drawn those two syllables out in classic shrink fashion. “A phobia of what?”

Ben had gotten pretty good at blocking the visions out of his mind, at least while he was awake. But for some reason that question, that single, simple question had brought his most vivid fancies to the fore. And once it had, he’d found he couldn’t shut them out.

Just as he couldn’t shut them out now.

Chapter I Chapter III

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Falling by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

Falling – Chapter I

By Jake Kale

Ben felt the pressure building in the base of his skull, where spine met cranium. His right hand was clenching open and shut, as if pining for something to hold onto. He had only discovered the letter late Saturday night on one of his rare trips to the front door. It had been lying under a not inconsiderable pile, and just the sight of that dreaded brown envelope had been enough to trigger a bulging sensation in the back of his neck. It really shouldn’t have surprised him that he’d only discover the letter when there was absolutely no opportunity to do anything about it. That was the way it always was. Sod’s Law, his mortal enemy. Always three steps ahead, and taking those steps backwards so it could laugh in his face as he raced to catch up.

It was just after 9:30 Monday morning, and he had been on the phone off and on since before 9:00, hoping he had enough credit left to get this problem sorted out. After chancing upon a ringing tone and enduring a litany of instructions from the feminine equivalent of Stephen Hawking he’d at last got through to one the Jobcentre’s typically disobliging operatives, a woman of what he judged to be quite advanced years who already seemed ready to give and go home. Doing his best to keep his pounding head from affecting his telephone manner, but not aided by her taking forever to find his details on the computer, he had asked her why, despite his circumstances remaining exactly the same, they had suddenly decided to stop his Incapacity Benefit. Her answer was mind-boggling.

“Because, based on the answers you gave on you renewal form, it was decided that you do not meet the qualifications.”

Ben felt his fingers dig into his palm. “I don’t understand. I filled that claim form in exactly the same as when I made my original claim last year. It was accepted then, so why am I being turned down now?”

“I’m afraid I can’t answer that. All I can tell you is that your current claim does not meet our criteria.”

Ben’s headache intensified, and he snapped his response before he had time to think better of it. “Why not? Jesus Christ, did you even read it?”

There was a pause, then the tinny voice came back, colder than before. “Mr. Barry, if you continue to speak to me in this manner I will end this call. The problem is you haven’t given a valid reason why you can’t go outside.”

“Please don’t make me say it,” Ben pleaded, massaging the imaginary lump on his neck in a futile effort to make the pain go away.

“I’m sorry, but we need an explanation beyond, ‘I can’t go outside,’” she said oh so matter-of-fucking-factly. “Why can’t you go outside?”

“Because . . . it’s not safe.”

“Why is it not safe? Mr. Barry, lots of people are agoraphobic. Lots of people don’t like crowds. That doesn’t stop them working.”

Goddamn it, why was she asking this of him? He couldn’t possibly tell her, because if he did he knew she wouldn’t believe him. Worse, she would most likely think he was mad, a first class nutcase. Then he would be just one scribbled doctor’s signature away from a padded cell. Desperate, he tried another tack. “If you stop my money I won’t be able to pay my bills or buy food—I’ll either freeze or starve to death!” He cursed her silently for making him resort to this, partly because he hated having to beg, but also because he knew it wouldn’t work.

And it didn’t. “Mr. Barry, you’re exaggerating . . .”

“I’m not exaggerating, I’m stating a fact!” he started to shout again before catching himself mid-sentence. His head felt like it was about to explode. “Look. I’m sorry, OK? I’m sorry for losing my temper. Just . . . please, don’t do this.”

He could tell from her tone that she’d had enough of him. “I’m sorry, Mr. Barry, it’s not my decision. You can, of course, appeal . . .”

His face resting in his right palm, Ben gave in. “Would that help?”

“As long as you refuse to state your reasons for not wanting to go outside, probably not, no. Have you considered counselling . . ?”

Ben threw his mobile phone at the floor with enough force that the outer casing cracked. He sat fuming, his teeth grinding together so hard his jaw muscles ached. That bitch! That stupid, thoughtless, heartless fucking whore! How could she have listened to everything he’d just said and expect him to go outside? Didn’t it occur to her that if he thought it was safe to venture out the front door for even a moment he would have no need to claim benefits? Ben pressed his hands to his face, hard, his fingers poised as if about to dig into his eyeballs. His black eye ached, and he pressed harder to spite it. It doesn’t matter, his mind whispered to him. It doesn’t matter one bit. It’ll all be over soon. They’ll be dead, they’ll all be dead because they were too stupid, too self-involved to see it coming. Not you, though. You’ll survive it. They’ll all be dead but you’ll be alive.

Ben forced his hands away from his face and down to his lap, and now that there was no danger of blinding himself he allowed his fingers to contract, to interlock with each other the way they always did when he was stressed. The back of his neck still throbbed dully, and he forced himself to calm down. It was the anticipation, he knew. Knowing that it could happen at any instant, expecting it with every breath. It wore him down. He’d lived in fear for so long, for so many months, years if truth be told. Now, when it finally came, it would be a relief. The dreams were coming fast and furious now, on an almost nightly basis, and they were becoming increasingly lucid. Ben was fully aware throughout, he could see the events unfolding in real-time and actually hear the panic, the explosions, the screams. The final, total, endless silence. He knew this was a sign that it would happen soon. But, as in the dreams, he would be powerless to do anything about it. That was why he couldn’t go outside. Because it could, no, would happen at any instant. So he had to be prepared.

That wasn’t to say that Ben didn’t miss the outside world. In fact he missed it more than anything, and would happily give anything for just one more moment in the open air. To be able to walk out the front door without a second thought—imagine that! To walk outside and take a casual stroll, and feel the breeze in his hair, the warm sunlight on his skin. Or something less clichéd, like make a short trip over the road to the shop for some decent food, and maybe some alcohol. But he just couldn’t take the chance. He hadn’t even looked out of a window in he didn’t know how long, in case he was watching when it happened. In some ways the visual isolation was worse than the physical isolation. One of the main selling points of this house had been the view of the park. His mother had loved that view, particularly after four miserable years in a two-bedroom flat that was nowhere near adequate for an adult with two teenage children. He had loved it too, and he missed it. He missed being able to observe the world. For the first time in weeks, Ben felt that if he couldn’t actually go outside, he should at least be able to look outside. Moreover, he realized he wanted to. Giving in to impulsion, he decided that he would. He would go to the window and take one last look at the world. Before everything turned upside down.

Carefully, Ben unbuckled the belts around his legs and waist and reached for the stainless steel handrail next to his chair. Gripping it firmly, he stood and attached the safety harness, then tentatively made his way towards the stairs that led up from the cellar to the ground floor of his terraced house. When he reached the stairs he detached the harness from the handrail and secured it to the stair rail. He felt an almost orgasmic rush of adrenaline. He was doing it! He was actually doing it! At the top of the stairs he undid the four locks he’d had installed when he was burgled three weeks ago and stepped into the hallway with the aid of a second handrail. He again reattached the harness and then, moving slowly, his heart repeatedly hurling itself against his ribcage, he turned right and made his way to what had once been his living room, mindful to hold the rail tightly with at least one hand at all times just in case—

—the roof was torn away, exposing the empty sky above—

He stopped himself quickly, blocking out that train of thought just in time. He’d gotten this far, he couldn’t afford to start thinking about what he was doing now. If he did he’d probably end up going straight back down the stairs.

Following the handrail, Ben warily entered the living room that faced out into his small driveway and Kittinger Street beyond. The room itself was as empty as the unseen driveway—he’d gotten rid of the furniture he didn’t need or couldn’t drag down to the cellar months ago, all graciously picked up and carted off to the tip by his sister’s ex-boyfriend, and had sold his car for a pittance shortly after. The room was dark as a cave due the drawn curtains, though he could still tell that his formally beige carpet was now a dirty grey and several millimetres taller. The stale, powdery air made his sinuses itch. Ben had never been a clean freak, but he’d always tried to keep the place reasonably tidy. He dreaded to think what the second floor must’ve looked like, but there was no way he could risk venturing further upstairs to find out. It risky enough coming this far. With each step he expected—

—the house to shake violently and his feet to suddenly leave the floor—

“Stop it!” he ordered himself out loud. “Just stop it right fucking now!” This was proving more difficult than he’d expected.

Concentrating on the task at hand, Ben continued to follow the handrail all the way around to stand in front of the curtains he’d drawn and vowed never to open again just weeks before. Then, after several rapid breaths, he made a grab with his left hand for the pulley that opened them, yanking it quickly but without too much force so as to avoid tearing the curtains down, just as he’d practiced before he’d drawn them for good. The room was suddenly ablaze, and Ben turned away, squinting, unable to handle the light. As his eyes adjusted he saw dust particles whirling and dancing in the golden streams that had penetrated the room, the light seeming to revitalize it, as if a form of photosynthesis had stirred after a long hibernation. The light bounced off pale bare walls unobstructed, making them appear luminescent and highlighting just how barren the room was. Ben found that immensely depressing, and now that his eyesight had recovered he turned away from the empty room and, for the first time in weeks, looked out of the window.

Outside, Ben saw a sunny and surprisingly warm looking early February morning. Perhaps that was the result of global warming, a menace that would soon pale into insignificance. Kittinger Street was unchanged from when he’d last looked out at it, and in a way seeing it felt like meeting up with an old friend. It was mostly residential, three-up, two-down sort of thing. Directly opposite he saw the petrol station where old Mr. Khayum most likely still worked, and the small park where Ben and his ex had picnicked regularly during previous summers next to it. The scene was both tranquil and incongruously threatening. There were so many people out there! Kittinger Street was an offshoot from a main road and shopping area so it had always been fairly busy, but it still seemed unusually well-trafficked today. He saw men and woman in suits on their way to work, pensioners sequestered within layers of unnecessary clothing, glum-faced children in uniform who were obviously late for school. He could make out people walking dogs in the park, and saw mums and dads toddling along with their little pre-schoolers heading for the nursery a few streets away. Ben felt an overwhelming sadness at the thought of those young lives that would soon be snatched away. All of these lives that would soon come to an end. Ben could only hope that it would be quick.

He thought of the last time he himself had gone outside—he’d been foolish to leave the house to begin with, let alone leave it unprepared. What if it had happened while he was in the bus shelter? How would he have survived there? Or, worse, what if it had happened when he was on the bus? He would have been helpless, adrift, the whole bus spinning wildly, out of control, bodies flying around him, the screams of terrified passengers filling the air, and with nothing secure to hold on to he would join them, rattling around like dice in a cup until the oxygen was stolen from his lungs and darkness descended from above—

Ben turned away—he’d seen enough. This was much more difficult than he’d expected, just the thought of it was too much. He closed the curtains again, this time for good, and stood weeping in the dark. Why do you do this to yourself? the voice in his head demanded now that he no longer had the wherewithal to block it out. What the hell were you expecting to achieve by coming up here? To conquer your demons? They can’t be conquered, idiot! Not now, not ever. Ben took in a lungful of musty air to try and stifle the sobs, then another, and risked removing one hand from the railing to clear his watery eyes, rubbing gingerly around the sore right socket. Coming up here had been an impulse, and a stupid one. He couldn’t afford to go gambling his life on an whim, not now.

Not ever.

It was time to leave.

Chapter II

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Falling by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.