Hmmm. Well, I've thought about it, and there are some valid points here. But I've finally decided to follow MuscularTeeth's example with his own work, say 'screw it', as it were, and put the first chapter up. Out there and vulnerable, I guess. So here's chapter one, with prefaces. Still needs some work, but it should give at least an idea of style.
The Last Gospel
By Jonathan M. Maloney.
The last enemy shall be hidden
for it has the power to deceive even itself.
…Evil is associated with darkness, because it, like darkness, is feared. As we as children and as our ancient descendants first learned to fear the dark, we have put all that we have feared within it, to keep it from our sight. With the creation of fire, that demarcation became all the more obvious, as even our most primitive ancestors associated it with safety, and faced with the prospect of light or darkness, we always turned towards the former. As a result, we never grew past our dread of darkness, we have failed to realise it is merely the opposite of light, and that by themselves, neither light nor darkness have any moral association whatsoever.
In putting all we fear into the darkness, we blind ourselves to it. And as we no longer see it, we close the door of our mind to it. We do not question it, and we fail to attempt to understand it further. We thus shall never realise that perhaps we are wrong – how can we have a revelation of that which we cannot or refuse to even see?
But eventually, we may learn through the most awful of means that we were wrong to put our fear in such a place, with all the rest that we hold in dread. For there, in that place which exists but we refuse to contemplate, it feeds upon itself, and upon others, and grows, and swells, into something vast and terrible. And it will resent this unwanted majesty, and it will not forget those who forced it upon them…
It was a Tuesday.
The bedroom was quiet, like so many are when the sun is just beginning its slow ascent into the great blue sky. Drawn curtains kept the worst of the bright, helpful blaze from disturbing the inhabitants, and muffled the outdoor sounds along with it – single cars cruising along the street, the rise and fall of their engine marking their coming and going. Birds greeting the burning sun, proclaiming in loud voices that they once again survived the pitch black night. A barking dog down the street, greeting the postman and sending them fleeing. But the sound from the room itself, the focus of the occasion, was muted. There were but two people, breathing quietly, soft, gentle sounds of air passing in and out, slowly and peacefully. It somehow added to the stillness, a moment before other moments, a clarity that could only be achieved by the knowledge that there was, in fact, something there, that this was a happening thing, rather than a single frame taken, a snapshot of a life rather than the actuality of one existing. Two people, sprawled and yet close, asleep and comfortable, that peculiar peacefulness brought about by sleeping next to the one you love.
Naturally, such things could not last forever.
The clock set beside the bed hovered on 6:29 AM, as though waiting, building itself up to the crescendo that awaited it. It lurked, loaded with electric mischief, holding its breath until, at the very instant that it flicked its digital display to 6.30 AM, it began to shriek, a cacophonic gleeful cry that shattered the murmuring peace, replacing it with those few brief, terrible moments where the mind, disjointed and caught still between the world of dreams and the real world, struggles to align itself to the correct reality. Under the screaming din, it was made all the more difficult. Subconscious questions swam through the still waking mind – ‘where am I?’ ‘Where is here?’ Or even more simply, just the singular syllable of ‘why?’ which was usually expressed in a puzzled snort or grunt.
A hand reached out and slapped aimlessly at the bedside table, searching blindly for the creator of the terrible discordancy, finally pressing the button that set its wail to silence, a stillness that lacked the peace of before, but instead seemed to ring with the after echo of the electronic wail.
A man sighed. It was his hand that had hit the alarm, and he spoke quietly now, one hand covering his eyes which had not yet adjusted to the light, as though to himself. ‘We’ve got to find a way to turn that thing down.’
There was a murmur of a chuckle beside him, a woman’s voice, sounding amused and muffled with sleep. ‘If you did that, then she wouldn’t hear it... and you know how sad that would make her. As it is,’ and at this she started to yawn, her words coming out stretched and slow in the midst of it, ‘I think I hear a certain princess storming the hallway towards us...’
The man quirked a smile at that, still covering half his face with his forearm, as the door to the room flew open, and a small figure, blonde hair flying behind her, blue eyes sparkling, hurled herself across the room with the speed of a cat and leaped full onto the bed, scrambling up with the clumsy, boundless enthusiasm as only a child can to reach her parents, landing on her father in such a way that he let out an ‘oomph’ sound as the air escaped his lungs. The forearm came away from his face, and he half sat up, propping himself up on his elbow, to look down to the grinning face before him that was, in his eyes, his best reason for existing.
‘Hey there, muffin.’ He reached out with one hand, ruffling up her slightly sleep curled hair as the little girl giggled in appreciation. ‘You’re up early.’
In her excitement, she chewed on a lock of golden hair, and blurted out, her voice high with her enthusiasm, ‘can we have pancakes for breakfast?’
Beside the man, the woman shifted herself slightly, smiling up at her daughter, her expression one of slight amusement combined with serenity, as she took note of her child's lack of preamble. ‘Ah-ah honey, what do we say?’
There was only the briefest moment of pause, before the girl looked back to her father and bringing her hands together in a tense supplication, her eyes big and artfully attuned to the most desperate expression to get her father’s attention and assent. ‘Pleeeeaaase?’
He pretended to consider it, his expression becoming amusingly mysterious for a few brief moments, the girl biting her lip at the terrible, unbearable tension, before he laughed, unable to help himself, and ruffled her hair again. ‘Course we can sweetheart. Run along to the kitchen, I’ll be there in a few moments. Grab the mix from the cupboard, and some milk.’
She was already scrambling clear as she bolted for the door, calling out over her shoulder as she did so. ‘Love you mummy, love you daddy!’ And then she was gone.
The man sighed, and slumped back onto the bed, chuckling to himself. His wife nudged him with an elbow at the sigh. ‘Don’t you start.’ He turned to face her at that, and affected an air of wounded innocence. ‘Hey, I didn’t say anything.’ The look in her eyes spoke that she was just teasing, a game they often played with one another, each one knowing the other well enough to be able to read the other with just a glance. He chuckled, and shook his head, and then, eased himself up out of bed, stretching his tall, lean frame as he did so. There was a faint rasping sound as he rubbed at one cheek, feeling the stubble there, as he made his way to the bathroom. As he relieved himself, he saw his wife roll over in the bed behind him, saw her sit up, calling out over her shoulder. ‘You know, when she gets older, and starts breaking hearts and falling in love, you are going to wish you could do this again.’ He grinned at that, shaking his head, and started washing his hands, speaking through his reflection to her as he did so. ‘Hun, I got to warn you here and now. When that day comes, I’m locking up every teenage boy in the state. It’s the only way I can be sure.’
She replied with a sound of disbelief, shaking her long hair out as she did so. Behind her, the man looked again at his reflection, noting the few gray hairs poking through the dark hair on his head, rubbing his cheek and feeling the harsh, grating stubble beneath his hand. He felt arms slip around behind him, and then, lips press against his shoulder. She was shorter than he was, so it wasn’t a mystery how she had stayed out of his line of sight, but he was still surprised that she could still be so stealthy, but of course, he was practiced enough to not let it show.
He reached up and squeezed her hand. ‘I will say though, again – thank goodness she takes after you, and not me.’ He felt her chuckle, felt it vibrate through him. ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ Her voice was lightly teasing. ‘You aren’t so bad...’ she kissed his shoulder again.
He chuckled, as she let him go. ‘Thanks. I’m overwhelmed.’ She smirked, that small knowing smile she had, then smacked him once playfully on the behind. ‘Good,’ she said, pulling her hair back out of her face, her expression becoming a touch more serious. ‘Now get out of here so you can make our daughter breakfast, and I can get ready for work. The longer that you leave her alone out there, the more chance she’ll try and do it herself – and you already know how that will work out.’
Thoroughly chastised, he shrugged, and turned, to stroll nonchalantly out of the bathroom – but not before returning her smack from a moment ago with a touch more enthusiasm, his hand lingering for an instant, before he darted away, closing the door even as she turned with the light of vengeance in her eyes.
He partly stumbled as he trod down the corridor, pausing a moment to rub his eyes. He grimaced a touch, a reflexive response as a memory shivered down his spine for a moment, one he had been trying to ignore without success for over a week now. He paused, looking out the window to the backyard while he did so, noting that the lawn needed cutting again, focusing on other, little things, until the nagging memory slid aside, replaced by more immediate, pressing things which demanded his attention here and now. And then there came a clatter from the kitchen, just ahead but as of yet out of sight, that dragged him forcibly from his reverie and pushed him forward.
He entered just in time to see a very guilty, very ashamed little figure standing over a plastic bowl and some scattered cutlery, all of which was spread upon the tiles, evidently a result of the difficulty of trying to juggle too much with arms that were too small. She looked scared in that moment as he lumbered into the room, as though she had done something singularly dreadful, that he felt a flash of shame himself, hot and burning in his chest, and he stepped forward, kneeling down in front of her, putting a smile onto his face. ‘Hey, muffin. You all right? You didn’t hurt yourself?’ She shook her head, cheeks red, looking up at him from lowered eyes, not yet trusting herself to speak, her hands fidgeting at her back. He ruffled her hair again with a soft chuckle, that familiar gesture letting her know it was all right, that she hadn’t done anything bad. ‘Then let’s get these put away before Mommy sees... and then we’ll make you those pancakes, okay?’
By the time that his wife was out of the shower, dried off and dressed, the father daughter duo had already prepared a small stack of pancakes. Admittedly, the pair had cheated, using a premix shaker purchased from a supermarket, but despite the fact all they had done was add water and milk to the mixture, the little girl beamed with pride as her father sang her praises. Pretty soon, the girl was bundled off towards the television for the early morning cartoons, doing her best to deal with the slightly overlarge pancake on her plate, complete with syrup and cream. She set it down, turning the television on with the remote control, looking to the buttons. It came up on the morning news, which the little girl ignored, instead looking to change the channel to the brightly coloured entertainment she preferred, but it was enough for the news reporter to speak ever so briefly, his young face looking intently and seriously towards the viewer as an animation of space, complete with swirling galaxies and stars, played over his shoulder.
‘...NASA is saying that the unexpected atmospheric phenomena might in fact be a solar event such as a flare, and that it should in fact be visible in our atmosphere sometime tonight...’ And then, the child found the button she was after, and the news report vanished in a blur of technicolour frenzy that was whatever children found so fascinating that it shut down their mind entirely to all other stimuli.
He was so busy between this jarring moment and cleaning up the dishes, that he didn’t hear his wife saying his name, so she had to repeat herself.
‘David. Earth to David?’
He did a double take, then turned off the water at the sink, where he was soaking the pan, and looked over his shoulder to her. Her expression, framed by her hair, tightly held back in a business like manner, was serious. He already knew what she was going to speak about.
‘When are you going to go back to work? It’s been over a week now, you know that.’
He sighed, shook his head, and looked back to make sure his daughter still not very far away, was at least out of earshot. He turned around, folding both arms over his broad chest, and shrugged once, his expression relaxed, but with a pinched, troubled look at the corners that he knew she would recognise, but he could not hide.
‘I’ll call Cooper today, see what's happening with the investigation. He told me that it could take a lot longer though – they've got to do this thing properly, after all. No mistakes when it's one of your own – you know that.'
She was picking up her handbag, but she was watching him intently as she did so, her expression sympathetic. ‘The sooner you go back, the sooner you can start moving on from it. And you know Jim will put you down for desk work if you ask for it, let you take it easy for a while.’ She paused, then spoke hesitantly. 'Maybe even look for a different job entirely. You know, like we talked about?'
He nodded, looking down as he did so, as though to answer, but she could see he didn’t want to talk about it. Before he could get lost in remembering, she crossed the kitchen floor to reach him, and slid one hand around his neck and into the hair on the back of his head, her fingers smooth and cool, and gently pulled him down, her forehead resting against his.
‘You’ll be all right. You know that. I know you said it doesn’t feel like it, but you did the right thing. They'll figure it out, and you'll be fine.’
He shrugged, his mouth working into a sour grimace. She thought he was upset by the memory of the event that had caused all the trouble. She knew she had to head that off. ‘David. David, look at me.’
She waited until he raised his eyes to meet hers, and she took a moment to speak again, her eyes holding his, as she spoke quietly and firmly.
‘Everyone knows you didn’t want to do it. But if you didn’t, then either you or Terry wouldn’t be here, and someone would have had to tell me or Suzy why her husband wasn’t coming home again.’
He let out a breath at that, looking down at the ground again, and she pulled away, her hand resting now on his cheek as she did so. ‘What would we have told Caitlyn? What would I have had to tell our daughter?’
He shook his head, but the worst of the sour expression was at least gone now, his eyes a little clearer. ‘You know I’d never want that. It’s just... well, it just didn’t feel right. It still doesn’t feel right. And I know you, and everyone else, says I did the right thing, that I didn’t have a choice, but...’
She cut him off, putting a finger to his lips. ‘You’re a good man, David. That’s all. A good man, and a good cop. It’s why I married you, and it’s why I love you.’ She took away her finger to give him a brief, light kiss. ‘I could never love you any less, especially not now.’
He quirked a slight, half smile. ‘Why are you so good to me?’
She grinned, her face made all the more youthful by it. ‘Because I’m a good woman for a good man.’ She scooted on past, got a pancake, and rolled it up into a tube shape, easier to eat on the run, but taking care not to get the light smattering of syrup on her business suit. ‘Now, I’ve got to get running, or I’m going to be late for work. You’re going to see your mom and dad, right?’
He nodded, and turned back to the dishes, working to get the burnt bits off the bottom of the pan as he did so. ‘Mom asked me to come round, help him with the gutters. Dad was going to do it himself – you know how he is – so Mom “suggested” that I came around to head him off.’
The look on her face showed that she understood his father all too well, as did her mother in law. Despite his years, David’s father thought nothing of working a difficult job at the best of times, even with his issues with blood pressure and the occasional chest pains. Despite the best efforts to remind the old man of his limitations, he seemed determined to hear none of it. So, instead, his family worked around them, and made sure that while he stayed active, he didn’t over exert himself too much.
‘Take Caitlyn with, you all right? She doesn’t need to go back to daycare yet.’ He nodded, but he had beaten her to this conclusion a while back, and needed no encouragement. He knew his parents wanted to see her again in any case, a trait of grandparents everywhere, or so it seemed – parenthood, with its highs and lows, could be a trial at times, but being a grandparent had none of the disadvantages. And besides, Caitlyn had already skilfully wrapped both around her little finger, and was sure to get a treat of some kind for the journey. David knew it would take no persuading to get her to come along.
She was almost out the door before he realised she was going. Shaking away his thoughts, he dashed down the main hallway, slid on the smooth tiles before the front door, and caught it just before it closed.
She paused, just as she reached her car, and looked back to him. He leaned on the doorframe, a sly smile coming to his face. ‘Forgetting something?’
She rolled her eyes behind her glasses, and took some quick steps over to him, a smile finding its way onto her face as she did so, and gave him a light kiss on the lips. ‘Goofball.’ Her tone was teasing, and gentle, and he flashed a quick grin. ‘Stay safe, okay?’ His voice was soft, but firm, and she nodded, giving him an odd look, but smiling despite herself, as though she could not tell how serious he was. ‘I’ll be home before you get back from work.’
She nodded, waved goodbye, and hurried off to the car again, the little red hatchback waiting patiently, glinting in places where the morning dew had not yet been banished by the rising morning sun. He watched her leave, waving her off as the car slipped out of sight down the road.
He paused there, for a second, looking from his front yard out over the street. It was quiet here, a quiet neighbourhood. It had, and still was, costing him and Lucy a fortune, their modest home costing twice as much here as it would in some of the other suburbs, and the drive to the city was longer here. It was all but impossible to avoid the worst of the traffic. And yet, when Caitlyn had come into the world, there really had been no question of being anywhere else. David knew, from close experience, just how bad some parts of town could be. He and Lucy would work their fingers to the bone for the next twenty years paying for this house. And if it meant their daughter could grow up safe, it was worth all that and more.
And now, everything was thrown into uncertainty. David was suspended from his job, pending investigation. It was an open and shut case they said, and things should work out just fine, according to those helping him with his brief, but there was still that echo of doubt that it would not. And a part of David wasn't sure if he could go back to work, regardless of what the decision was. Too many nights he'd woken up in a cold sweat. He was grateful that he'd finally managed to get a decent sleep this time.
The sun was well up now, and blindingly bright. Looking up and down the street, he was struck, for a moment, just how quiet it was. It raised the hairs on the back of his neck, as he realised he was the only thing in sight. A cat flashed into view momentarily across the roar, sprinting for a tall oak tree that all but obscured the house it grew in front of, a blur of ginger fur that vanished out of sight, and then, all was still again. Almost like it was waiting for something. The world was quiet, uncannily silent, a breath of wind blowing, even the sound of distant vehicles muted out, and for just a brief moment, David felt like he was the only person in the world. It was not a comforting feeling.
The spell was broken, as down the street, a horn beeped out a farewell. Jack Brinkley, going to work, tooting his kid’s farewell, as he pulled out of the driveway of his own home. He waved to David as he passed by, big, friendly face lit up with a smile as always, and David returned it, driving off a shiver as he did so, without knowing why.
The television inside blared, some sort of cartoon, loud and obnoxious. He turned back inside to find his daughter.
The drive was a short distance away, but the road traffic had a habit of stretching it out further than David would have liked. Caitlyn was in the back seat, and for her part, was keeping quiet, listening to the songs on the radio – listening, but hopefully, failing to catch the double meaning behind a lot of the words in the songs. She was too young for that, thank goodness – but personally, David felt that the pop singers that dominated the air waves were too young for it at times as well, singing with the help of an autotune device to spew out innuendo that they recognised, but did not entirely understand – particularly when it came to how it made them look, as well. But then again, music these days was less about the sound and more about the image, which, he privately felt, was just as well – if it was the other way around, most of them didn't have a chance.
It wasn’t that hard to mask a lot of the radio signals today, however. The radio, despite his best efforts, was scratchy, and indistinct, no matter what channel he changed it to. The SUV he was driving had no fault with the antenna, he knew that, but despite that, it seemed that the radio was on the blink. He hoped it was covered under warranty.
He drove on, glancing back to Caitlyn from time to time, making sure she was secure in the back seat, keeping the pace of the vehicle steady, the gear changes smooth and unhurried. He let his mind drift even as he drove, a trick he had learned from years of habit - the eyes and instincts remained, level, sharp and alert. The mind, however, worked elsewhere. Thought of other things, even as he changed lanes in preparation for the turn up ahead, dropping down a gear as he started to slow. The SUV was a big car – while the turn was some distance away, leaving it to the last moment would result in cutting someone off, and David was a thoughtful enough driver to take a little longer getting where he needed to go rather than cause someone else irritation. Besides, he was in civilian wheels today. Patrol cars had better luck getting away with it, but they had to be careful to avoid getting a report.
He thought of work, of how it would be good to get back to it – or at least, that was what he tried to tell himself. On the other hand, he dreaded it. Dreaded what it would mean and what would come of it, what people would say and remind him of. He tried to push the thoughts back, thought of the people instead. Terry, his partner, Jim Cooper, his boss, the other guys in the locker room. He’d called Jim, like he’d promised, and the man had been understanding.
‘We need you back, Dave, of course I’ll put you back on. Things haven’t been good on the streets the last few days. I need a good man out there making sure folks are safe – but you and I know that these things take time. You've got to follow procedure for this sort of thing. I'll find out where the investigation is at, and get back to you with an answer as soon as I can.’ He hadn’t mentioned the incident in detail. He didn’t need to. Not at all. But he wish he’d had the chance to ask for a desk job, if only for a little while. But he had to go where he was needed.
He turned right, having to give way to an impatient jerk in a sedan, who had failed to indicate. For a moment, his temper flared up a touch, thinking of what he would have done if he was in a patrol car – but at the same time, he knew the likelihood of the guy doing it with a cop car right behind him was pretty low. It constantly made him chuckle how cars would behave completely differently depending on what he was driving. Drive a patrol, and everyone but the greatest of idiots or the unobservant drives sensibly, carefully, and politely. Drive civilian, and the rate of idiocy usually increased tenfold with seeming miraculous speed.
It also made him uncomfortably aware of where his passions lay. He wanted to be go back to work. He just wasn't sure he was ready to do so, or ever would be again. That was something Lucy didn't understand, and something David could not talk to her about. He gave her platitudes when she suggested he find another job, but in truth, there was nothing else that David wanted to do. Which is why he was filled with utter dread at the notion that, when it came to it, he wouldn't be able to.
He glanced to his right as the radio crackled again, a garbled news report flowing out in fractured segments, mostly unintelligible, as he passed a dark alley. It flashed, momentarily, into an entirely different image. A dark hallway, lit by a flickering light that hummed, close to burning out, the only sound that of dripping water in the distance. And then a glint of steel, a blur of movement, and the muzzle flash...
The radio snapped him back, a particularly sharp static crackle followed by more words. SHHHK unsure wha-CRRSSSHH –ausing the distu-...SSSHHHKKK ...will keep yo-...SZZZZSSSK of any develop-.... he flicked it off.
‘Think we’ll do without the radio for a little while... that okay Caitlyn?’ He called it over his shoulder, glancing in the rearview. The little girl looked a little put out, strapped into the middle seat via a seatbelt, but he hoped it was mostly because the radio was being so unco-operative.
‘Almost there honey. Should only be a few more minutes.’
The road had taken him to the edges of one of the worse parts of town. He knew it, he didn’t like it, but it was the only way to get to his folks place. Other people didn’t think much of just driving through this part of town. David knew all too well exactly what could happen there, had seen some of the results first hand. Thankfully it was still early in the day, but the overcast sky did not hide the worst of it.
The first sign was the trash. It tended to pile up here more, for no other reason than people didn’t care enough to either get rid of it or put it in the right place for the garbage trucks – when they came down here at all. And then there were the prowlers, the most obvious sign, growing in number. Men who walked with slouched shoulders, rolling steps, and wide, glaring eyes, hiding the fear within with aggressiveness without. They had loose fitting clothing, to conceal whatever it was they carried, gang colours showing here and there. They made brief contacts with one another, then broke off, both pretending they never saw the other one. The women walked alone, wore clothing that was too tight, too small, and did nothing to hide their desperation, their expressions hardened by wear, their eyes lost, but hopelessly defiant for no reason worth such a show.
Worst of all were the truly lost. The ones who wore foul, unwashed clothing, who stumbled, twitched, their faces marked by sores, their hair uncut and bedraggled. The homeless, the lost, the addicted, the altogether forgotten. They wandered here and there, at this hour the most common sight, going aimlessly from one moment to the next until they died. David knew them well, had seen them, or ones just like them, for far too long, and knew he could do nothing about any of them.
David looked away. This was not his part of town, and right now, it was not his responsibility. He had other, far more important things to worry about, most of all the little person in the back seat who did not look out at that which surrounded her and her father, and thus remained perfectly oblivious of the darker sides of humanity that waited for them.
But David knew then, as he looked upon the rows and rows of hopelessness and despair, of people living a life that they could not escape or did not wish to, that he was not going to go back to work and ask for a desk job. He knew, already, even after this brief exposure, that he needed to be on the street, cleaning things up, doing something, making a difference.
Scrub it away. Clean up the whole world.
The words came back, burned into his memories and dreams, and he shivered, as sweat broke out on his neck and forehead, the dark, terrible smell of memory rising in his brain and nostrils both.
The lights had changed. He pushed away his memories and stopped, the SUV rolling gently to a halt, as David scrubbed the words away, let his mind drift away from the things around him, and refocused on the here and now once again, shaking his head at himself. The dream of changing the world was one he knew was just that – a dream, the same dream a naïve young man had once had when he had put on the uniform for the first time, before the harsh reality of life presented itself, before he had realised that money and time were the most powerful weapons of cleaning the world, and that there simply wasn’t enough of either. Especially not for a beat cop. And most of all, it was before he realised, amidst the blood, the terror and tears, that the only differences he could make were small ones, personal ones – lives could be made better, but only on an individual basis. The grand picture was one he had learned long ago to leave to other people, who had the means to see it – and hoped they would get it right.
The light stayed stubbornly red, vehicles crossing in intersecting patterns before eyes that saw but barely comprehended. Restless now, David felt his eye flicker around, here and there, seeing and vaguely remembering licence plate numbers, car makes. And then something, off the road, caught his attention, and he slowly cast his eyes to the right.
The street sidewalk was mostly empty at this point. The buildings were grey, industrial, rotting concrete, warehouses and shopfronts that had long since been abandoned and forgotten, beginning a long, slow decay, until some enterprising individual came along with a wrecking ball and visions of a shopping mall. But here and now, it was an empty sight, a washed out memory of what had once been, and somehow deeply depressing, if one looked at it for too long. But the row of dying buildings was not what had caught David’s eye.
Four figures stood, in a row, leaning against a rusting steel fence. It was not just their stance that made them so unusual, but rather, what they were wearing, and how they were behaving, that caught his attention and held it. Time seemed to stand still, as the four stood out in his eye, arresting his attention entirely and completely unexpectedly.
The first was wearing ragged army fatigue pants, in green, black and grey camouflage pattern, and heavy boots with broken laces. A load bearing vest was worn over a skinny, wiry torso, which had no shirt on otherwise, the skin pale and somewhat dirty in places, the dirt rubbed into the skin. The face was covered, however – a gas mask, the eyeplate reflective and impossible to see through. Dark, messy hair stuck up through the straps binding it to the individuals head, sticking out at different angles. A picture of an addict, but the steady, still stance, without trace of tremor or unsteadiness, the lack of sores, made David think it was either that or some sort of weird fancy dress. The people with him reinforced the latter considerably.
The second one, also male, was grossly fat, bulges of swollen tissue causing their ill fitting clothes to stretch almost obscenely. Their face was one of abject misery, the nose and eyes red with what looked like a dreadful cold, eyes staring off into nothing, jowls a-quiver as though trying to hold back tears. Looking at him made David feel uncomfortable, the figure looking like something only a hairs’ breadth from bursting, from spraying unspeakable foulness in every direction. He shuddered, his eye shifting away, to the next figure quickly – there was something morbid about the overweight man, who did not appear that old.
The third figure was, dressed , even more than the first, most unusually. A cowboy outfit, complete with a wide brimmed hat, high, dusty leather boots, and a worn black leather duster, all the clothes marked with long wear, one hand resting on an empty gun belt, the other slowly pulling a smoking cigarette upwards. It was a such a perfect picture, but it was so perfectly out of place, something out of an old western film – one of the darker ones, not the shiny, overbright ones where the line between hero and villain was cut and dried. But it didn’t belong. This was the Midwest, on the coast. No one dressed like that here – at least, never before that David had ever seen, and he’d seen a great many things on the street. Oddly enough, the wide, lowered brim of the hat kept the face well out of view, even as the cigarette disappeared beneath it, to be followed by a slow expulsion of smoke a few moments later. There was something discordant about the man, a person out of time and place, and when the coat rustled as though from a wind that was not there, David shuddered and pulled his eyes to the last of the four.
This one was looking right at him. He was completely out of place as well, not because his clothes were completely mismatched like the others, but because it was so well tailored. A suit of impeccable quality and refinement, complete with oily, well combed hair – and a liquid, knowing sort of smirk. He looked like a salesman, but whatever it is he sold you could not afford – and when you had it, you would regret listening to whatever words sold it to you. The well trimmed, stylish goatee and moustache reinforced the image, and the face itself was sharp, with smooth, knife-edged features. It was hard to make out the eyes set above the razor bladed cheekbones, but they were dark, and shadowed, and it was hard to make out the whites, as though the pupil and iris were overlarge.
He had between his hands, a square card. With a complex, smooth rolling motion of the fingers on both his hands, he was rotating the card swiftly between his fingers, holding it by each corner to form a diamond shape in the air that flickered as he spun it around so fast it could not made out. David could not read it, but the man’s dark, knowing gaze seemed to hold him there regardless, unfocused, watching his face as he tried to become aware of what the card said. He became acutely, terrifyingly aware – the sound of his heart, beating in his chest. The dull, subtle whir of the air conditioner. The muted, controlled roar of the engine, the slightest movement of his foot upon the accelerator making it rumble louder, like a caged animal. And his breathing, getting faster and shallower.
The card suddenly stopped, as the well dressed man froze it in place, and David tore his eyes away to refocus and finally see what it said.
He blinked, and looked back up to the smiling man, who winked at him. And then a car moved between them, sliding up through the lanes, and the eye contact was broken, bringing back the world – a horn beeping behind him, demanding movement, his daughter calling out to him, the green glow of the changed light, and blinking back his surprise, he slid the SUV into first and jolted forward.
‘Daddy! That man was honking his horn at you!’ His daughter’s tone was scolding, and truth be told, David was glad that Lucy had not been there to hear it. He had drifted there – something about the four figures had confused him, and for a moment, the world had felt slightly, strangely unreal. A moment where it was out of sync with everything else, and he wasn’t sure of where he was, or what he was supposed to be doing. The call of his daughter, thankfully, had brought him out of that.
‘Sorry about that sweetheart.’ He apologised. ‘Daddy wasn’t paying attention.’ He gave her a friendly smile through the rearview mirror. ‘You keep an eye on Daddy, okay? The moment it looks like Daddy’s not driving like he should be, you keep count – and for each time, I’ll get you a sweet from the store afterwards, deal?’
She grinned at that, giggling, and nodded enthusiastically. David chuckled, and settled back into his driving, the memory of the four forgotten, as he wondered just how big a number his daughter was going to make up, once he’d reached his parent’s house.