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