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