Out of the Depths – Chapter I

By Jake Kale

It had started just after eight o’clock, after the last flicker of sunlight had faded beneath the distant hills opposite the lake. Greg Trent thought at first that they were exceptionally bright stars that had somehow penetrated the murky blanket of cloud cover. Then Monica noticed they were moving, streaking down towards the Earth, and the two of them had gone out onto the patio and watched as wave after wave of trailing lights appeared, raining down like interstellar gold dust into the valley below and disappearing into the pitch-black depths of the lake. “What do you think they are?” Monica asked from beside him, her voice hushed by awe, trepidation, or both.

“I don’t know. Meteors, I suppose,” Greg replied, his own voice subdued, not taking his eyes off the vision before him. There was a haunting, dreamlike quality to it, one that seemed to pervade the warm night air. The very composition of the scene—the framing of the lake within the valley, the deep shadows of the distant fells, the still, enigmatic waters and the otherworldly illuminata they claimed—was all so perfect as to seem unreal, yet it was. And neither Greg nor Monica could look away.

He sensed her drawing close. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Me neither,” he whispered back. “God, I wish I’d gotten some batteries for the camera.”

“There might be some in the cottage,” Monica said.

He still had the camera with him, but he doubted that it would work and he couldn’t be sure if there were any batteries spare. And he didn’t want to go inside to look and risk missing the display, because not only had he never seen or heard of anything like this happening before, Greg doubted anyone had. This was a unique meteorological event, something totally unprecedented. It was beautiful, yet at the same time Greg couldn’t shake off an instinctive foreboding. He knew that was only natural, but at the same time he hoped it wasn’t warranted.

“Wow,” he heard Monica whisper reverently as she took his left arm in both of hers, and Greg leaned into her, feeling her long hair brush against his neck, and smiled. Ever the pragmatist, she’d snapped him out of his reverie and summed up the appropriate emotional response better that his mannered prose ever could.

Wow, indeed.

She’s far too good for me, Greg thought.

He and Monica watched the spectacle for another five minutes, and Greg felt his excitement build exponentially as each passed. He wanted to go down to the lake, yet at the same time he wanted to stand here holding hands with his wife and watch forever. After a thoroughly debilitating day, this one special moment had brought them closer together than they’d been in weeks, and Greg didn’t want it to end. Yet he knew that it would, and sure enough after another minute or so the shower began to thin out until finally the last embers trickled down and were extinguished. The night sky their celestial visitors had arrived from was again obscured by dark clouds, the lake waters calmly guarding their secrets, the mild air quiet. “All good things,” Greg said softly. He cocked his head in Monica’s direction.

His wife gazed up at him, strands of dark hair drifting across her face. A suggestive smile tugged lightly at the corner of her mouth. “Feeling adventurous?”

Greg felt his own cheek rise in reciprocation. “A little.”

“Then stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen!” That was an old in-joke, one that had started off as crude seduction technique but had now become a generic call-to-arms. Neither of them had used in ages, and it felt good to hear it again. To feel adventurous again. Monica’s grin broadened.

The two off them dashed back into their small rented cottage. Imaginatively named The Lakeview Cottage, it was a simple, open-plan building, “sparsely but elegantly furnished, all mod-cons included”, to quote the brochure. Greg headed straight for the stairs opposite the patio and up to the galleried bedroom, ducking to accommodate the sloping ceiling as he retrieved his brother’s old camera from one of the bags in the wardrobe. The camera ate up batteries like there was no tomorrow, and he’d given up on using it because of this, but if he could find just two serviceable batteries he might get a few good snaps out of it. He made his way back down the stairs, calling to Monica, “You find any batteries?”

“Here, use the ones for the remote,” she yelled back, tossing the TV remote control over to him as he reached the foot of the stairs. He gratefully retrieved the two AA’s from inside and checked that they worked, then removed them and put them in his jeans pocket so as not to risk them running down. Monica grabbed her handbag and both their jackets, chucking his over to him, and the two of them stood silently at the threshold of the cottage for a moment as a subtle jolt of anticipation passed between them. “Ready?” Monica said.

“As I’ll ever be,” Greg replied. And with that she opened the door and the two of them stepped out into the unknown.

Chapter II

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Out of the Depths by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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Falling – Chapter VIII

By Jake Kale

Ben stood in front of the shopping centre, not quite believing he’d made it. He was battered, bruised and black-eyed, exhausted, could feel blood trickling down his right forearm, and his brain was just about ready to give up the ghost completely. But right now he felt better than he had in months. Above him the Grove stood like a mansion fashioned in steel and glass, a glorious monument to consumerism. It was huge, encompassing three floors and taking up a significant portion of the east side of Loughborough Road. The back entrance opened into Patterson Street, around the corner from his house, but there was no point going back there now. The clock above the entrance was approaching 11:50, and Ben sensed that time was running out. He needed to get inside.

Ben pushed through the revolving doors and into the Grove, and after spending so long cooped up in his dingy basement the cathedralesque space was disorientating. Diffused sunlight poured through the tall glass ceiling that loomed three floors above him, and not enamoured of the prospect of falling through said glass Ben headed for the wide central aisle, ignoring the stares his bedraggled appearance drew from the passing shoppers. When he reached the aisle he noticed it was much cleaner and brighter here than it had been during his last visit, or maybe it just seemed that way after weeks of staring at mouldy grey walls. Either way, just being here was enough to trigger a sense of nostalgia that was bitter-sweet but oh, so beautiful nonetheless. It brought back memories of happier times when he, his Mum and Laura had spent hours exploring this place after his Mum had got the promotion at the bank and they could suddenly afford things. Quite a few of the shops had changed, he saw, and he felt a twinge of disappointment on discovering that the old bookshop he used to frequent was gone, replaced by a generic boutique. But even that didn’t really matter. Seeing Kittinger Street that morning had been like meeting an old friend. Seeing this place was like reuniting with a former lover. He felt better, could think clearly. Here, at least he stood a chance. In fact, he might stand a better chance of survival here than he would have done in his house. He knew the basement carpark was wider than the rest of the building, providing a secure anchor to the ground. There would be plenty of supplies, more than in the police station or the hospital, and though he’d have to share them with other survivors, as long as they were rationed they would last for a while. And with other people to keep him company, actual human contact, he might be able to avoid going stir crazy long enough to survive the Antigravity Apocalypse.

It was an effort for Ben to pull himself out of his reverie, but once he did he started to assess the situation in earnest. He thought there was a pretty good chance Laura and the others might look for him in here, so he had to find somewhere he could stow away safely until it happened. The toilets were out for obvious reasons. That actually made Ben smile despite his circumstances—the poor bastards who’d gotten caught short were in for one hell of a surprise! No, the most obvious choice had to be one of the shops, but Ben had to choose carefully. It had to be somewhere that drew a crowd that he could hide amongst, but also had to be big enough to give him some room to manoeuvre just in case he was spotted. He immediately thought of INW Music—that place was always packed. And, fortunately enough, it was right in front of him.

Ben sauntered casually over to the store as if he was a regular shopper, and as he entered his first impression was that he’d made an excellent choice. In addition to housing quite a crowd INW was dimly lit with aisle after aisle of games, CDs and DVDs, nothing that would cause serious injury when it started flying around, and he’d surely be able to avoid detection in some corner at the back of the store. But as he explored the aisles he realized he wasn’t blending in quite so easily after all, and would in fact stick out like a sore thumb since everyone was giving him a wide berth. Ben could kind of understand that. He knew he looked like a tramp, and probably smelled quite ripe, too. The police would spot him here straight away, and while the lone man in the street had been too much of a coward to tackle him, here he was outnumbered and willing to bet that at last one have-a-go hero would be happy to oblige should the cry, “Arrest that man!” suddenly ring out. No, he had to find somewhere else.

Disappointed, Ben headed for the exit. Once outside his second choice was clear as day, and he was surprised he hadn’t thought of it first—Denhams, the clothes store. It was just a short distance to the right of INW, and it was large, popular, had more than one exit and spanned two floors. It was ideal. But as he reached the doors he spotted a pretty big obstacle in the form of a burly security guard who was already favouring Ben with a distasteful look before he’d had the chance to venture inside. Ben knew instinctively that the miserable-looking son of a bitch would give away his location without a second thought, and there was no way he would elude capture once he did. He turned away from Denhams, his anxiety levels slowly creeping up again. Shit! Those two stores were his best options, and both were out. Refusing to give up, Ben scanned the Grove for alternatives.

And felt his stomach drop like a lead weight as, just twenty feet from him Laura, Upton and their growing cadre of cops poured out of the revolving door.

Oh, Christ, you’ve gotta be kidding me . . !

But Ben acted quickly, ducking around the corner of Denhams as stealthily as he could, managing to avoid being seen. Damn you, Laura! God, he couldn’t take much more of this! Every damn time he thought he’d got everything worked out, that he was safe, something came along to screw it up! He felt like he was on an emotional rollercoaster, and Ben had always hated rollercoasters. He had to come up with another plan, the situation had just become urgent, but was still salvageable provided he got out of here ASAP. Looking around, Ben saw the escalators a short distance away, but they were far too exposed in addition to being directly beneath a second glass dome, its presence well attested by the almost heavenly glow that bathed the ascending shoppers. The only other options were the lifts and a second stairwell, both located on the wall to the left of the escalators. Of the three alternatives available, the stairs seemed the least suicidal. He knew that through the stairwell he had access to all three floors, plus the roof and basement, and Ben thought the basement carpark was now his best bet for a hiding place. It would be dangerous with cars flying about, but he was reasonably confident he could find some space or alcove to retreat into.

Ben started walking, and could feel his body shaking so violently he was certain the passing shoppers must have noticed, that it was only a matter of seconds before he was discovered. His hand longed for the safety, the familiarity of his railing at home, and Ben told himself that he’d be holding the stair rail soon and that would feel just as good. All he had to do was take a few more steps, he was almost there, just six feet away, five feet away, then he was reaching for the handle and pulling down, he’d made it, he was safe—

“Ben!”

He froze, hoping, and almost believing, that he’d imagined hearing Laura call his name—

—oh, no you don’t, not now—

—and then he was running through the door and into the stairwell, he had a good head start, but the basement was out now. He could probably still reach it in time, but he didn’t like the idea of hiding behind or underneath cars, that would be flat out dangerous. Instead, he went up, deciding to wait right at the top of the stairwell where it opened onto the roof, the ceiling was low enough that he could probably make his way back down, or up, or whatever, and they’d never think to look for him there. He could still make it, this was still workable, was still saveable—

Below, a door was flung open and he heard his sister’s voice again, followed by footsteps.

Coming up the stairs.

Ben physically winced, almost doubling over as his last remaining supplies of optimism were exhausted, the energy draining from his muscles and flowing out of his body, rendering movement impossible. There were no the other options left, no alternatives. No more plans, nothing. He was finished, because of them he really was going to die just like all the others. Goddamn you, Laura! Goddamn you, you’ve fucking KILLED ME! he thought so forcefully he thought she must’ve heard it. The anger, the righteous fury surged through his mind, submerging all his hope, all his fear, all his compassion, revitalising him, and Ben found that he no longer cared if his sister was outside when it happened now. In fact, he was going to make damn sure that she was! She’d killed him, her own brother. After everything they’d been through, after all he’d done to try and save her, she’d killed him.

It was only fair that he return the favour.

Ben started running again, and when he reached the door to the roof he threw it open and ran outside, not even registering relief when he didn’t immediately fly away. He ran out and into the centre of the roof, feeling the crunch of gravel underfoot, relishing the feel of a solid surface one last time. He could feel and hear his heart beating out a tattoo on his ribs, his lack of equilibrium threatening to tip him over, could sense the looming Abyss waiting to pluck him up into oblivion. Ben didn’t care, was consumed with the arrogance of a man who knows that he can no longer defy death, but he can still call it a piece of shit to its face. He stopped at the edge of the building, knowing full well the police wouldn’t go anywhere near him if they thought he was a suicide risk, he could keep them all out here as long as he wanted, and he turned in time to see his killers spill out onto the roof. It was perfect irony, perfect revenge. If they’d left him alone, if she’d left him alone, they might all have survived, but instead she had to interfere, she had to “help” him. She didn’t realize that Ben didn’t want or need her help, he was beyond hope. They all were.

“Stay back!” Ben warned his murderers/victims, hoping he wasn’t smiling as he did so. He certainly felt like smiling. The hatred was exhilarating. I got ya now!

The police did exactly as they were told, as did Upton. Behind them, Laura appeared at the door. “Oh, Ben, no!” she started, but Upton waved her back, and two PCs moved quickly to intercept her. The doctor, meanwhile, inched slowly forward, visibly shaking and with all pretence of authority gone. He looked terrified, and that pleased Ben inordinately. Now he knew how it felt to be Benjamin Barry.

Reaching out for him absurdly, Upton said, “Ben, please come back inside.”

“What’s the point?” Ben spat, fury incarnate. “I’m dead anyway, you’ve seen to that!”

“Ben, please . . .”

“Stop saying fucking ‘please’!” Ben screamed at nauseating, fat little turd. “‘Please, please, fucking pretty please, Ben!’ If you’d ‘please’ left me the fuck alone we wouldn’t all be up here right now! We wouldn’t all be about to die!”

“Ben, this is not the way to confront your phobia!”

Now Ben did smile. He hadn’t even thought of it that way, but if he did jump it truly would be the ultimate fuck-you to antigravity, wouldn’t it? “Oh, I beg to differ! It’s not like I’ve got anything to lose. I probably won’t even hit the ground.”

“Ben, come on . . .”

“Maybe I’ll wave to you as I fly back up!”

“Ben, please! I’ve lost Mum, I can’t lose you, too!”

Ben turned to face his sister, shaken to his core. Her voice was tinged with such honest, heart-broken anguish that it instantly extinguished his rage, leaving behind the scorched wasteland of a shattered soul.

Of all the things in the world, Ben found himself thinking about the clock he’d glanced at above the Grove’s main entrance. He calculated that it must be past 12 o’clock by now—in the last two and a half hours he’d experienced a greater fluctuation of emotions than many people do in a lifetime. Love and hate. Joy and loss. He’d wandered the wastes of desolation, and had treacherous hope snatched away from him time and time again. But nothing compared to the shame he felt now. You truly have failed. You failed yourself, you failed Laura, you failed your mother. You were ready to kill your sister, your own flesh and blood, the only person in the world who gives a damn about you, all because she was trying to save your worthless fucking life. Don’t you get it?

She doesn’t understand, you fucking idiot!

She can’t be expected to understand!

No-one could.

But I do now.

Seeing that Ben was wavering, Upton tried again. “Ben. Ben, listen to me. It’s not too late.” But that was just it—it was too late. That was why he’d tried to trap Laura in the cellar two days ago. That was why he needed to look out the window this morning. That was why fate, personified by his sister along with the good doctor and representatives of the Cranford constabulary, had conspired to drag him out of his shelter, away from his supplies and safeguards. Because it was here, and Ben knew it. And he knew now that he was destined not to survive it. The dreams weren’t meant to save him.

They were meant to save Laura.

In a moment of true clarity, Ben appreciated the ridiculousness of the situation—two opposing forces, both convinced they could save the other if only they’d listen to logic. One of them had to be wrong, though, and Ben couldn’t risk the consequences of his being right. “You can’t save me, doctor,” he tried to reason with the man. “You should take Laura and go back inside.”

Upton’s voice was candid but suffused with a hopefulness that belied the clichéd words. “Ben, we both know I can’t.” And Ben did know that. He could only hope that Upton and the police officers would realize the truth and react quickly enough to save themselves.

He looked past them at Laura, and saw the devastation in her face, tears streaming from red-raw eye sockets. He’d never seen his sister display such visceral emotion before. She had lost him, and she knew it. What was left of his humanity wept with her. I will save her, he decided. With my last words I’ll save my sister’s life. “Go back inside, Laura. Please, just go back inside. Go to the carpark in the basement, and stay by the wall. You’ll be safe there.”

She stared at him blankly for a couple of seconds. Then the policemen holding her started to move towards the door, and though Laura resisted briefly she finally gave in and was dragged away sobbing. Ben felt serenity flowing through his body like a gentle breeze. The human race would survive this. And more importantly, because of him, Laura would survive.

Ben turned to face the edge. He could hear the pleas of his pursuers, they sounded distant although they couldn’t have been more than ten feet behind him. But Ben no longer concerned himself with them—he had accepted his fate. He no longer needed their help because finally he was free. Ben finally looked up at the bright blue sky, and for the first time he found that he could appreciate its beauty. It was inviting, like a vast, cool ocean that would cleanse his troubled mind and purify his soul. And so he calmly took his own “one small step” onto the ledge—it felt like the highest step in the world. And as he stood on the precipice of those azure depths, silently, at peace, with his eyes closed and a smile on his face, Benjamin Barry bade farewell to gravity and allowed his feet to leave the ledge, never to return.

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.

Falling – Chapter VII

By Jake Kale

There was a pause, and Ben breathed, blinking his eyes and ignoring the pain in the right one. Then the knocking came again, followed by a voice, faint and muffled by two doorways, but still recognizable. “Ben? Ben, answer the door!”

Laura!

What was she doing back here?

Ben’s initial reaction was relief—after all, he thought he’d lost her for good. But as relieved as he was, something felt wrong here, wrong enough that he didn’t answer her straight away. She sounded nervous, and he realized that was the problem. He had lost her. He’d lost her trust, he’d lost her confidence, and as much as he might want to believe otherwise, the odds that she’d suddenly come round to his way of thinking were pretty damn slim. There was only one conceivable explanation for her coming back.

To quote-unquote “help” him.

And maybe she’s brought a couple of friends with her this time.

She knocked again, more vigorously this time. “Ben, please! It’s taken a lot for me to come back here after what you did. At least do me the courtesy of speaking to me.”

Ben weighed his options, but realized he had to say something just in case she wasn’t alone. “What do you want, Laura?”

There was another pause, and he thought she hadn’t heard him. Then, “I want to talk to you.”

Yeah, sure she does, the voice of Ben’s mind told him sullenly. Did she really think he’d be that stupid? Furious, he yelled, “I thought you’d summed things up pretty well. I’m a nutcase, right? I’m a nutcase and I can’t be trusted.”

“You’re still my brother. Please open the door.”

“Oh, yeah, sure. So the men in white coats can cart me off to the nuthouse.”

“Ben, I just want to talk to you. Please.”

“You and who else?”

“No-one else. Just me.”

Ben’s fingers were working overtime again, and his good friend Mr. Invisible-Lump-in-the-Neck was back, too. Ben wanted to trust his sister, he really, truly did. He wanted her to be safe, had hated the thought of her being outside when it happened. But could he trust her? She’d never lied to him before. She’d nagged, and she’d certainly interfered. But as much as she pissed him off sometimes, she’d never lied to him.

I just want to talk to you.

Just me.

He supposed he could at least check it out. Go to the top of the stairs and have a little look-see, and if he didn’t like what he saw he could hightail it back down here again. Laura deserved that much. “Alright. Give me a minute.”

Unbuckling his legs and waist, Ben stood and readied himself for a trip that only an hour ago he’d sworn he’d never take again. Once again attaching the safety harness—the one with the 93 percent performance rating, whatever that meant—Ben grabbed his front door keys and headed for the stairs. The trip was much more nerve-racking this time round, but that was hardly surprising given what was at stake. Laura had said she wanted to talk to him, but he hoped she’d also be willing to let him talk, too. Maybe he could convince her to stay with him for a couple of days, to entertain his “delusions” on the pretence of his getting psychiatric help when those two days were up. He wouldn’t need more than that, in fact he’d need much less. Just a few more hours, maybe less than that. Ben reached the top of the stairs, stepped out of the cellar and turned to face the front door. He only saw one figure behind the foggy glass.

Laura really was alone! Ben felt like laughing—she’d come back! He quickly transferred the harness back across to the hallway rail and practically ran for the door. This could actually work out! If he kept his cool and didn’t get himself all worked up he could save them both. He thrust the keys into the lock and yanked the door open, trying to mask his excitement, to sound nonchalant when all he really wanted to do was hold her in his arms and never let go. The door opened. “Alright, Laura, what do you . . ?”

He didn’t get the chance to finish the sentence. Laura stood before him with a shamed look on her face that sent a chill down his spine. Dr. Upton was behind her, greying, rotund and looking distinctly uncomfortable in his cheap off-the-peg suit. Flanking him were three uniformed police officers, the closest, a sergeant based on his stripes, regarding Ben with a set, stony expression that looked like it would shatter every bone in Ben’s hand were he to throw a punch. It took a couple of seconds for the implications to hit home.

She lied to you!

Ben spun to face her, livid. “What the fuck is this?”

Laura said, “I’m sorry, Ben.”

Stepping forward, the stone-faced sergeant said, “Benjamin Barry?”

Ben groped for something to say that might diffuse the situation, but failed. “. . . Yes.”

“Mr. Barry, I’m placing you under arrest for the attempted kidnapping of Laura Thomas. You do not have to say anything . . .” And that was as far as he got before Ben started to shake uncontrollably, so hard the handrail wobbled. They wanted to take him away! Now, when it just a matter of hours, if not minutes away, they wanted to take him out of the only safe place in the world!

Ben turned to his sister, his eyes starting to fill up again, wanting desperately to make her see what she was doing. “Don’t do this, Laura. You’ll kill both of us!”

But Laura shook her head, nearly in tears herself. “No, Ben. It’s over.”

Shock, fear and seething anger coalesced into a single unfathomable, debilitating force. She lied to me! Ben tried to back away, and two of the police officers lunged through the door at him, grabbing for his arm. Ben managed to slip free, but he couldn’t get away because he was attached to the fucking rail! He didn’t stand a chance, and in seconds they’d rallied and one got him in a bearhug while the other fumbled with the safety harness, and all the while Ben struggled uselessly to escape, screaming at Laura, at all of them, “Please, don’t, I can’t go outside, it’s not SAFE . . !”

Upton now waddled to the fore, elbowing his way past the PC fumbling with the harness so brusquely Ben thought for a moment they might arrest him, too. “Officers, give me a second,” he said, and though both favoured the doctor with a glare that said in no uncertain terms that they did not care to be ordered about by a civilian the two men stepped aside, releasing Ben. He stumbled but avoided losing his balance. Upton thanked the two PCs, then turned to face him. “Ben, please calm down.” He reached out for Ben’s shoulder but Ben flinched away. To his credit, Upton didn’t push his luck. “Look at me. Please, just listen. Ben, I’ve always been honest with you, and I’m going to be honest with you now. There’s no avoiding this. Your sister came to me, and we both agreed this is the right course of action. You must realize you need help.”

“You don’t understand—” Ben began before his balance finally did falter enough for him to have to grab onto the handrail with both hands. They weren’t listening to him, they weren’t even interested in listening to him! They didn’t care. They were going to take him away, away from all his supplies and safeguards, away from his home, they didn’t care, they were going to take him outside and he was going to die—

And then Upton was grabbing his shoulders, and Ben no longer had the strength to pull away, he could barely even see the man through the tears. “Ben, I do understand exactly what you’re afraid of . . .” he started to say, but how the hell could he, and Ben was about to ask him that but Upton kept talking. “And I also know that you’re a decent man, and that you had Laura’s best interests at heart. All I’m going to ask you to do is consider the possibility that you might be wrong.”

Ben stared at him, blinking watery eyes, a million responses to that filling his head. None of which would probably help. Upton continued. “I realize that must sound completely asinine to you”—it did—“but just humour me. You do need help. Everyone here has your best interests at heart, no-one is going to put you in harm’s way or persecute you. I know you realize that. And if it makes you feel any better, it’s just a short journey to the police station, and the station is well stocked with food and water. Please, just humour us.”

For the first time in months Ben honestly didn’t know what the hell he was going to do. They weren’t going to go away, he knew that much, and they were going to take him with them come hell or high water. Or antigravity. Ben swallowed. Just the thought of going outside made him feel physically sick. Hadn’t Laura, or Vicky, who doubtlessly played her part in this, told them anything about him? Didn’t they know what they were asking of him? After spending a year, an entire year cooped up in this house, did they honestly think he could just walk outside? Talking to him like he was some nutjob. Vicky, her moronic assistant, that bitch on the phone, Upton, the police. Hell, even Laura. Lack of insight had never been Ben’s problem. His problem was that he had entirely too much. Enough to see that he was fucked. Out of luck, and jolly-well fucked.

—God, I’m going to die—

As desperation set in, Ben wondered whether Upton was right. He seriously doubted it, but maybe there was a chance, just a slim chance they could make it to the police station in time. He knew Upton was telling the truth about the station being close; it was only a couple of streets away. Surely that wouldn’t take too long? Christ, Ben couldn’t believe he was even thinking of this. It was insane.

But it was hope. And that was all he had left.

Wiping his eyes, he looked up at the doctor. “You’ll guarantee me that the building’s secure?”

Upton visibly relaxed. So did the police. “Yes, I absolutely guarantee it,” Upton told him, and he sounded like he was being truthful. “You’ll be safe there.”

“And you’ll get me there quickly?”

“Yes.” He turned to the sergeant, who gave a curt nod.

“Yeah, but what if you decide to transfer me—”

“Then I’ll personally move Heaven and Earth to ensure that you’re taken to the secure unit at Cranford General.”

The General was even closer than the station, just off the main road. Ben thought about all the times he’d prayed to be put in a padded cell. “Are the ceilings high?”

The PCs exchanged a glance. Ignoring them, Upton said, “No, there are no high ceilings in either the station or Cranford General.”

“Please, Ben,” Laura said.

Ben stared at her, wondering why she still couldn’t just believe him but also knowing that she only wanted to help him. Like he wanted to help her on Saturday. God, what a screwed up situation. What a screwed up family. “If Laura stays with me, I’ll go.”

Standing in the doorway, the sergeant frowned. “I’m sorry, Mr. Barry, I can’t allow—”

“I’ll wait for you in the station, OK?” Laura interjected quickly. “I promise I won’t leave.”

Ben glanced at her, but couldn’t bring himself to hold her gaze, his despair at her betrayal still too fresh. Then, his lungs going into overdrive and the pain in his neck radiating outward—God, how the hell am I going to do this?—he surrendered. “OK. Just get me there quickly.”

Laura breathed out loudly, almost going limp, while Upton actually smiled. In a daze that threatened to dissolve into utter, mindless panic at any moment, Ben worked to remove the safety harness with shuddering fingers that wanted only the comfort of each-other. Once he was finished Upton came and stood beside him, his hand on Ben’s left shoulder, not gripping it but still pushing him firmly towards the door. Ben resisted for a couple of seconds before his finite supply of willpower dried up, and in disbelief he found himself standing on the threshold of safety and tentatively poking one foot outside. It came down slowly on the concrete doorstep like an explorer venturing into a new, dangerous land, and succumbing to Fate Ben actually walked out of his house and suddenly he couldn’t even fucking think, the terror was so great! He was outside! Ben felt the Void leering down at him like a conscious entity, full of malice and expectation, and kept his head down, there was no way he could look up. The waterworks came full-force yet again, and he felt like screaming. Every step was a monumental effort, but it was more of an effort to keep from pulling away and running back inside, but he wanted to, oh, he wanted to go back inside so bad! This was insane, this was worse than insane. It was suicidal. Why had he agreed to this? Why hadn’t he fought harder? Fuck the odds, he should’ve fought back, he should’ve at least tried!

Ben realized he had made a terrible mistake. Maybe the station was well stocked, but enough to last for months? Years? Enough to keep an entire station full of police officers, plus however many civilians and prisoners, as well as himself, Laura and Upton, alive? There was no way. They might survive when it happened, but with few resources to go round, they wouldn’t last for long.

They were taking him to certain death.

He had to escape.

Fighting his fear and doing his best to keep looking submissive, Ben surreptitiously assessed his situation. Laura was behind him and a little to his left, while Upton was stood next to him, just in front of Laura. The sergeant was off to his right, while the two plods were a short distance behind. There was a gap between the sergeant and the PCs.

If he timed it just right, he could probably make it through that gap.

That inner voice, the one that loved to taunt him with the truth, said, And what then? You won’t make it ten feet, they’ll catch you straight away. And even if they don’t, where will you go? But Ben was already devising another plan—he could head for the park, it was just over the road, maybe he could lose them in the park and run back to the house. To safety.

It’ll never work. You won’t make it.

Maybe.

But he could hope.

The sergeant bent to open the car door. Ben waited.

Then, at the last possible second Ben jerked to the right, feeling Upton’s unprepared fingers slip away from his shoulder, and seizing his chance he ran, through the gap and up the street, his heart skipping a beat every time his feet left the floor, terror taking liquid form and coursing through his veins like nitrogen at altitude. Darting between two parked cars he tore across the road with no consideration of his own safety, no thought process involved, just instinct, fight or flight, run or die, miraculously weaving through traffic and across to the other side, feeling something fast and unyielding brush his still-airborne right sole as the car sped past and—

—crashed into another and cartwheeled into the air, never to return—

—and now Ben was running past old Mr. Khayum’s shop and into the park, and the sights, the sounds, the sour smell of the grass was all so intoxicating, they overwhelmed a body grown weak from lack of exercise and proper sustenance, that was physically begging for more of the tepid air as he now weaved his way through people, all of them staring at him, the increasing, insectoid hum of their collective voice crowding his mind—

—becoming howls of terror as one by one they fell away, their own weight acting to hurl them into space—

—but they were screaming his name, over and over, and he knew he had to escape, to find somewhere safe, another plan forming in the space of a heartbeat, hide, hide somewhere, anywhere, QUICK! It was his only hope, to hide and wait for Upton and the others to pass, then make his way back to the safety of the house, it was a huge risk but what choice did he have? To his right Ben spotted the entrance to an alleyway that cut through two rows of houses and ducked into it, registering an abrasive shear of pain as his exposed left bicep grazed the tall wooden fence but ignoring it and continuing to the nexus of the narrow T-shaped passage. There he turned right again, knowing that this would lead him back out into Kittinger Street but also knowing he’d never make it in time, he could hear Upton and the police in the distance. Fortunately the fence to his left only reached chest height, and at the foot of someone’s back garden Ben saw his salvation in the unlikely form of a dilapidated shed. Ben stopped and flung himself onto the fence, blunt wooden spears digging into his chest and right thigh as he hauled himself over and landed with a soft thud on the thin, feathery padding of grass on the other side. Wincing, he willed himself to his feet and raced for the shed, variables crowding his mind, what if the house’s owners saw me, what if the police saw me, God, I hope the shed’s unlocked! And then he was at the door and yanking it open, and thank God it was unlocked, and then he was inside and closing the door as quickly and quietly as he could before his withered muscles gave out and he fell in a heap on the floor.

Outside, muted by the sound of his own heaving lungs, Ben heard voices coming from the alley. He thought he recognized Upton shouting, “Where is he?” and someone else crying, “Which way did he go?”—they didn’t see you! Then he heard his sister calling his name, and felt a fresh rush of anguish. Jesus Christ, Laura, it could happen any moment now, WHY WON’T YOU STAY INSIDE? But there was nothing he could do, not without giving away his location. He’d tried to warn her, he’d tried to save her, but she wouldn’t listen to him, wouldn’t believe him. He had no choice but to think about his own survival now. He closed his eyelids hard to try and cut off anymore tears before they had a chance to form. There was nothing he could do for her.

Ben waited, his lungs working overtime to draw in oxygen to replenish the depleted supplies in his bloodstream, so loud he was convinced the police would hear. But instead he heard their shouts growing faint, moving away from him. Finally he could hear nothing but his own breathing, and that was slowing as his body recovered. Christ, that had been close, far, far too close! Ben lay in the dim, sepia haze of his wooden refuge, his leg muscles twitching from overexertion, the wound on his arm tingling with hot irritation. He couldn’t believe he’d escaped! But he wasn’t safe yet, he knew that, and he certainly couldn’t stay in here. Quite aside from the lack of provisions, the shed was full of clutter that would become pretty lethal when it started flying around—forks, spades, plant pots, a lawnmower, hedge trimmer, a heavy toolbox. Sweet jars full of nuts and bolts on the shelf. Not to mention the fact that the shed was not securely rooted to the ground and would become an airborne death-trap when it happened. Ben had to try and make back to the house.

Slowly Ben stood, expecting his legs to buckle straight away. Thankfully they held firm, and he crossed the short distance to the shed’s entrance with no difficulty. Then he opened the door just enough for him to get a good view of the alley. It was empty, and Ben allowed the air trapped in his lungs to escape. It was time to go, though he didn’t want to. He remembered hearing a skydiver on TV describe how, even after countless hours in the air, his body still resisted every time he went to jump. An unfortunate analogy, but that was pretty much how he felt about going outside. The instinct for self-preservation was a powerful overriding force. But then it wasn’t like he had a choice.

Stepping into the open, Ben found the willpower to jog over to the fence. He found it easier to go outside this time, but that was hardly surprising given that he was no safer in the shed than he was out here. Still he kept his eyes down—if he even risked a glance at the Void waiting above he knew his fragile grip on sanity would be severed as surely as his grip on the Earth soon would. He decided to leave the shed door open—hopefully if the police passed this way again they would be observant enough to notice the change and investigate, and buy him more time in the process. He hopped back over the fence a little more awkwardly than before, but at least this time he managed to avoid landing on his arse. Then he started moving, treading lightly but quickly. The alley opened onto Kittinger Street just next to the shop, a few yards up the road from the house. Ben’s head was swimming. How in the hell had he ended up out-fucking-side? He’d never felt this exposed in his life! With each step he expected to see Laura, Upton and their hired goons turn the corner ahead of him, and Ben would have to run back the way he came but it would be too late, maybe a few of them would even close in behind in a pincer movement, boxing him in and moving in for the kill—

On the floor ahead of him, a discarded newspaper rustled.

Total panic suffused all thought, conscious or otherwise, and Ben was aware of nothing save the hairs on his neck rising skyward just as the rest of his body soon would—

—oh Jesus, I’m too late, it’s all over—

—but the sheet of paper only fluttered lazily forward a few inches.

And stopped.

It was just a breeze!

The stinging in his arm intensified with the movement of air, but he barely noticed above the pain in the base of his skull. He had to get inside, now. If he could just get inside the front door and make it to the cellar he would be safe. It would probably take the police a while to give up searching and try the house again. And even when they did the locks on the cellar door were strong, he’d made damn sure of that. Strong enough to last as long as he needed them to, anyway—it was coming soon, he could feel it. Ben started moving again, and soon he was running, running desperately for safety, and he had to remind himself to slow down as he neared the exit into Kittinger Street, he couldn’t just blunder out into the open, he had to make sure the coast was clear, but he was so close, he was almost home!

At the entrance to the alley, he stopped again.

A solitary PC was standing right next to his front gate.

No. No, no, no, this can’t be happening, this absolutely CANNOT BE FUCKING HAPPENING! This turn of events was so sudden, so unexpected, so breathtakingly cruel that Ben couldn’t accept it, actively resisted it. He was cut off! All the preparation, all the effort, the money spent, all of his supplies and safeguards, all of it out of his reach! Frosty beads of perspiration exuded from every pore on Ben’s body and turned to ice on the surface of his skin, freezing him in place. It didn’t seem possible, but even as he tried to think of a way to get around this—to go back to the shed and hide a little longer, to go down Patterson Street and cut through his neighbour’s back gardens, to just walk over and punch the constable in the face—he knew it was hopeless. It was all over. He’d failed and now he was going to die out here, just like all the others, I’m going to die!

And as if to compound matters Laura, Upton and the other two police officers chose that precise moment to emerge from the park. It didn’t take them long to spot him.

“Ben, wait!”

But Ben didn’t wait. Instead he turned and ran, and he knew running was pointless now, he really was shit outta luck and jolly-well fucked, but there was that old self-preservation reflex again—his mind classified Laura, Upton and co. as a threat, so his body acted to remove him from that threat. He passed Wright Street and the three remaining houses at this end of Kittinger Street, and his legs felt so heavy, running-in-a-dream heavy, even in its dying moments gravity was conspiring against him. Ahead he saw a man in a leather jacket blocking his path, and he heard his pursuers yelling at the stranger to stop him, but the man dithered and at the last second just dodged out of the way. Ben passed him and for a moment wondered if the poor sod would get where he was going before it happened, and then he ran out into Loughborough Road, the main road that bisected the town of Cranford, and came face to face with destiny.

On some level Ben had known the truth from the start, but to be confronted by it now shocked him into a stupor. He was here, he was in the street from his dreams, 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 taste the smoky diesel fumes, and he understood with mounting horror that this was not a dream—this was real. But he couldn’t react, the chaotic alternating current of pedestrians had sent his mind fishtailing, and before he was even aware of it Ben had been swept up in the humanoid sea, disappearing into the crowd more by accident than design. He wasn’t trying to escape anymore, memory and intent had been caste away by a consciousness trapped in a deadly tailspin and carried off by an onslaught of stimuli. Inevitably his balance lost its valiant fight to keep him upright and Ben felt a sharp, grating impact on his naked right elbow and found himself right back on that hardwood cliff, only now it felt cold and porous rather than cold and sheer, and Ben realized he was flat on his face on the concrete, being buzzed from all sides by a swarm of feet, completely exposed. Even now that self-preservation instinct was screaming at him to get up, to get to safety, but it was hopeless, his only refuge in the world had been lost, where else could he go, but even as he thought that what was left of his conscious mind cut through the white noise of reality with a single glorious sentence:

The Grove!

It was his only remaining hope, his only true hope. It was the place he was running to in his dreams, and that realisation alone was enough to stabilize his whirling mind so that he could get to his feet and run. He ignored the entreaties of the small crowd that had gathered to stare at him and left them behind, hoping they’d disperse quickly enough to avoid attracting the attention of Laura, Upton and the police, because he couldn’t afford to be caught now, not with shelter, something secure with a roof over it within reach. He didn’t need to worry about finding something to hang on to, not his time, because for once he’d made it! The one time it really mattered he’d actually made it to the entrance of the Grove Shopping Centre.

Chapter VI Chapter VIII

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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.