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