Humanity – Chapter One
Double-glazing presented a few problems. Okay. More than a few.
Rows of modern houses. Identical. Double glazed windows. Three upstairs, two down and a tiny one in the downstairs loo. There were also double glazed, reinforced, extra thick, no-one’s-getting-in-here doors, front and back, both sides of the street. Situation: desperate to hopeless.
He moved along the road. Cautious. Keeping to the darkest shadows. Nothing coming from either direction. Middle of the night. Not a single light on in any of the houses.
He wiggled the fingers clutched to his side. It felt sticky. Very sticky. (Q: What’s brown and sticky, Uncle Neal? A: A stick! Nephews and nieces laughing. God, kids tell such corny jokes. Seems like some things never change. He’d told the same joke when he was their age.)
As he crossed a pool of lamplight, he didn’t need to look down at himself to know that he was still bleeding. The blood had soaked one side of his shirt and now it alternately flapped heavily or stuck to him, cold, and filled his whole body with a nauseating chill that had become frighteningly familiar. It felt like every heartbeat pumped more blood out of the tear in his body. The wound felt massive, like a huge rip in the side of an ocean liner, yet he knew it wasn’t as bad as that. But he needed to rest. Had to get himself inside somewhere. Anywhere would do. He no longer cared where, just as long as he could get inside and off the street. He couldn’t go on much further. Somewhere quiet and dark and dry and safe. Anywhere. Hell, at this moment even a dog kennel might be appealing. Sans dog, obviously.
He moved off again. Around a corner. Stepped back into the shadows of an overhanging tree when he heard the sound of an engine.
The car went past, fast, and as it faded from sight he allowed himself the luxury of relaxing for just a few more seconds, secure in the knowledge that the tree covered him.
The road was empty again and he moved away, but he still checked this way and that, still looked over his shoulder just to be sure.
His side ached. He couldn’t believe how much. The ache seemed to spread right through him, even setting up an ache in his brain, a pounding that sent the bile rushing up to his mouth—the only part of him that was warm. Too warm. His upper jaw ached like crazy, the tip of his tongue felt carefully along, probing each tooth experimentally until he snagged it on the sharp point. He reckoned he had at least one broken tooth, possibly two. His mouth hurt like hell.
Around the next corner. These houses were older and smaller, he realised, not part of the exclusive estate he’d already negotiated. Many of the houses had been modernised but surely there would be—had to be—one that hadn’t. He only needed one.
He found one. And ventured onto the edge of the driveway to the right of the property. Immediately he was dazzled by a wall-mounted security light. He stood perfectly still trying to decide what to do, where to go. But his thought processes were slowing and he couldn’t make his brain work.
Nowhere to hide. No cover. Concrete drive. Garage. House. Foot-high picket fence, flower border, nothing taller than knee-high. Crap. What to do? What to do?
The light was still on him. He guessed he’d been standing there for twenty seconds. Too long. Do something. Anything.
He took keys out of the pocket of his jeans, jangled them loudly and waved to an imaginary face at an upstairs window. In a loud theatrical whisper he said, ‘It’s okay. I’ve got my back-door key. No need to come down!’
Hopefully the charade would fool anyone that happened to be watching, although it seemed like everyone in the whole world except him was curled up in a nice warm bed.
Forcing himself to walk upright in spite of the pain he strolled with exaggerated care along the short driveway and to the gate beside the garage.
Please God, don’t let there be a dog, he prayed silently. Please God, don’t let there be a big fierce dog with teeth like eighteenth century ploughshares, he amended, and gave the gate a cautious push. It opened. Silently. He went in.
It was darker in the yard to the rear of the house, and when the security light went off thirty seconds later it became darker still.
Behind him as he faced the house, he could hear the gentle trickling of water. He turned. And waited. Soon he was able to discern a long lawn and at its furthest end, he saw the vague outline of tall, waving leaves in a raised circle. A landscaped pond, then. Nice.
To his left now as he faced away from the house, a long low box-shape, something rustling inside, rabbits or something of that sort. A house with kids presumably. But best of all, no dog. At least not yet.
House or garage? Garage. He moved towards the door he could now make out at the end of the long building on his right. Tried the handle. Locked. Obviously. Peered in through the glass. A small amount of ambient light glinted on the front wing of a car, right inside the door. Not much room in there. He could maybe break the window, haul himself through. But the noise… And besides he needed a drink. Water. Or maybe something stronger if he could find it. So not the garage after all.
He turned back towards the house. Now that his eyes were accustomed to the darkness he could see perfectly well.
A double-width door, leading from what appeared to be a dining room. Modern doors. Double glazed doors. Just what he didn’t want.
A little further along, a single wooden door, an anyone-with-a-bit-of-determination-can-get-in-here door. A Godsend. It had a lath of wood along the bottom to prevent rain seeping underneath and into the house, but one corner was badly rotted and its blue paint chipped. In fact the whole door looked less than truly solid. Not very secure. Not very secure at all.
He leaned his shoulder in and pushed hard against it. Didn’t want to hit it or kick it—too noisy, and besides, doors are people too. He pushed with as much strength as he had left and with a loud squeak the door flew open and he grabbed out and caught it by the handle to prevent it banging back against anything.
Nothing happened. No lights went on. No sound of running feet. No ‘Hey you!’ He stood there a moment until he was sure that no one had heard the sound and that no indoor-dog was going to rush out to get him.
Then he pushed the door wide. Warm deep-darkness oozed out to greet him, washing over him like a caress. Welcome. He went in. It was a rear hallway.
To his right, a door, half-open, and beyond it a small, relatively bright room. Probably a bathroom. To his left, another door. A kitchen? He headed that way, picking his way past coats and outdoor boots and shoes.
His foot caught against something and there was a soft chink. Looking down he saw a couple of saucers, one with brown lumpy animal food, one with nothing in it, as the water had run onto the vinyl flooring. A cat, then?
Stepping over the little puddle, he pushed the door carefully open and found himself in a warm, dark kitchen. Cabinets and worktops and appliances around the outside. Table and chairs in the centre. Cosy.
Across the room, two other doors both stood open, giving onto the dining room and hallway respectively. Beyond the doors all was silent. He crossed the kitchen and gently eased both doors shut.
He turned. Surveyed the room. Sink. Water. Opened a couple of cabinet doors until he found a glass.
Two glasses of cool water, swallowed hastily, caused him to cough. Damn. He was not being careful enough.
And now he recognised the need to pee. Back to the little bright room.
Stepping inside he saw the toilet, saw what looked like a washing machine and a tumble dryer, saw a folded ironing board leaning in the corner. A laundry room, then, with a toilet. Convenient for a family.
As he peed, he gave in to the urge to lean against the wall. He was utterly exhausted. His knees were weak. He’d finished, zipped up, then almost flushed the toilet. He just caught himself in time. He debated. To flush or not to flush? How much noise would it make? What were the chances of someone coming in there in the morning and assuming one of the kids had forgotten to flush, as kids do sometimes? Pretty good, he reckoned and stepped away.
He washed his hands and rinsed his face, savouring the cool water running down his cheeks, feeling more alert again. Flushed his gritty eyes. Then he dried himself on the old towel hanging on the back of the door and returned to the kitchen.
He’d forgotten to put down the toilet seat. An important point. He didn’t know it yet, but this was an all-female household. It wasn’t the kind of detail to go unnoticed. Bodily functions taken care of and thirst assuaged, he turned his attention to the bloody shirt. A gentle tug pulled the fabric away from the wound without too much resistance. He dumped the shirt on the counter top, and bending carefully, rummaged in the cupboard beneath the sink for a clean disposable dishcloth.
He held it under the tap for a few seconds, wrung it out and began to wipe at the skin surrounding the wound. His free hand was bloodied again as he carefully explored the wound. Five inches long. Deep, but not too deep. Without thinking he put the fingers to his mouth to lick off the blood, noticing with surprise the strong scent of the blood as he did so. He didn’t think he’d ever noticed that smell before. As soon as the stuff was there in his mouth his tastebuds sang with the pleasure of tasting and he was unable to stop himself from hungrily and meticulously licking each finger clean. God, it tasted good.
Then he stopped, frozen, suddenly realising how he must look, as if he had just now stepped outside himself to become an onlooker, and saw himself as if for the first time, standing there with his fingers still held to his tongue. Disgust and shame, fear even, made him drop his hand away and wipe the saliva from his fingers onto his jeans. This was what he had become? He saw the perversity of it so clearly, the degradation of his humanity, and he hated himself.
He forced himself to keep functioning, to concentrate on the clean-up of the wound. Now that he knew how deep it was he knew it wasn’t life threatening, so long as he could keep it clean and covered. It was very sore, but it only bled a little now. In conclusion, Neal thought he might pull through. Maybe.
But he needed to put some kind of dressing on it. He looked around the room again, rummaging in cupboards but not finding what he was looking for. A new idea. Back to the laundry room. Open the medicine locker above the basin. Bingo.
He took the first aid kit into the kitchen, sat down at the table and there in the darkness he riffled through the pack’s contents and took out antiseptic cream, sticking plaster, gauze, scissors. It only took him a few minutes to finish the cleaning up and get the dressing in place. What a nice, well-organised family, he thought, and gratefully set about tidying up the table, the white cast-off wrapper fluttering into the trash can under the sink, the red cross clearly visible on the white background.
It was still dark outside. Even darker inside. Finally now the truth was beginning to come to him. Neal sat down hard on the chair. Another change. Another difference. Improved—hugely improved, dramatically improved—night vision. He looked around him now and saw for the first time what his subconscious had been trying to show him for the last half hour. How clear, how bright everything looked. How he could easily distinguish colours even though the room was in darkness. It wasn’t natural. Not natural at all. Another side effect. Something else to add to his mental list.
The cooker clock’s glowing figures told him it was now almost three o’clock in the morning. He desperately wanted to sleep. But where? If he didn’t move now he’d fall asleep right where he was and probably still be there when the family came down for breakfast.
Closing the back door quietly behind him, he crept out into the backyard again, buttoning up his bloody shirt as he went. He made for the end of the plot, skirting the pond and heard a snail crunch under his feet, bringing the nausea and cold sensation flooding back. He pushed on to the bottom of the yard. But where to go? A quick glance showed him a small tool shed behind the garage. At least he should be safe in there for a few hours.
The door was padlocked. There was a small window. Smash? No. Too loud. Someone might hear. Besides he was too exhausted to hoist himself up and through it even if he did break the glass. Miserably he hunched down on the damp ground behind the shed, between it and the thick hedge that formed the boundary between this property and the neighbouring one. At least he was protected from the cold autumn wind.
He told himself that it would be a long night, that he wouldn’t be able to sleep. Then he heard a strange sound, and realised it was himself, softly snoring. He decided to go with the flow.
He was awakened by the banging of a door somewhere nearby. Numb with cold he dragged himself back to reality. Everything that wasn’t completely numb was aching and stiff. He sat still, listening, trying to figure out what the noises were. Was his position threatened? With relief he realised that the sounds he could hear were coming from beyond the hedge, from the house next door.
Looking about him, he knew he was safe from the notice of a casual observer, the only threat would be from anyone actually coming and looking behind the shed, and that seemed highly unlikely.
Now there were sounds from much closer to hand, he heard the car being driven out of the garage behind him. He waited ten minutes then went back into the house, getting in the same way as before—obviously no one in the house had noticed the back door was not its usual self.
The kitchen clock showed him it was now seven-thirty. The table bore a light sprinkling of Coco pops and toast crumbs. The draining board next to the sink bore two piles of neatly stacked crockery, waiting to be washed.
His stomach complained. He opened the fridge door, and stood drinking chilled milk from the plastic container, the excess spilling out of the corners of his mouth and onto his chin and shirt front as he gulped it down. He replaced the container and wiped his face and neck on his sleeve. Then he became aware that he felt unbearably cold and he shut the fridge door quickly. But the milk was sloshing inside him, chilling him from the inside.
He had to get warm and had to rest. He paused where he was to smile momentarily at the child’s drawings held in place on the fridge door by colourful animal-shaped magnets. It was symbolic of the kind of thing his life lacked. Clutter. Warmth. Family.
He went upstairs. The big bedroom at the front of the house was an adult’s room, a huge double bed, built-in cupboards, a neat pile of folded laundry waiting to be put away, everything neat and tidy. A delicate feminine scent. Peaceful. He stood in the doorway. He felt cold. His side throbbed. His head ached. He couldn’t think straight. The bed tempted him. Not good at resisting temptation at the best of times, he slipped off his shoes, his jeans, his shirt. He pulled back the flowered duvet. He grabbed a towel from the laundry pile and spread it out on the sheet and lay down on it, pulling the covers up around his ears. He was still shivering.
He was asleep almost immediately. He was still there when she came home.