Authors: Steven William Hannah
Steven William Hannah
A burning object tears
through the vacuum of space, a single point of light hurtling amongst the stars
in silence. It begins to split like bacteria, until there are two, then four,
then eight tiny suns, all falling towards a blue marble that hangs alone in the
Something stirs in the
swarm of flames – a mind, expanding. It reaches out with unseen arms and feels
the planet, brimming with life and warmth: millions – billions – of minds
spread like a thin film across the surface.
It sees people, some
shining brighter than others. Clusters of them light up like matches struck in
They are glowing with
intent; with the capacity to build, to protect, to create, to nurture. The fire
veers towards these people, these chosen few, extending its will through the
void towards the planet. It picks out the brightest among them all, and
accelerates towards the planet Earth.
Jamie, come in. Sit down.”
The words greet Jamie
as he arrives home, and he freezes to the spot. Behind him, the door closes
with a soft click that echoes through his flat, leaving it as silent as a
waiting room. Before him stand two men in exquisite business suits and long
black coats, like funeral directors.
He considers running.
just stand there Jamie,” the first man urges him, motioning to the dark leather
couch in the corner of the room. “Take a seat.”
His voice is bursting
with forced cheer, his reddened face plastered with a grin full of clenched
teeth. Beside the couch stands the second man with a golf club resting on the
toe of his polished shoe like a cane. With all the grace of a stage dancer, the
second man twirls the club over-hand and rests it on his shoulder. This man
holds Jamie's gaze,, and he does not grin.
When Jamie's eyes fall
upon the third figure, his stomach drops into his bladder. Chloe's frail hands
are clasped in her lap, her eyes fixed on the ground. She fidgets like a
nervous candidate before an audition, her lips pursed.
Jamie says, his voice calm despite the fire in his chest. “Did they hurt -”
, Jamie,” he is cut off by the grinning man in the long coat,
sliding into his line of sight with his hands outstretched. “Not her. Me.”
Jamie forces himself to
take a breath.
King sent you?” he asks, though he already knows the answer.
The suited man nods,
wringing his sweaty hands. He steps forward and Jamie takes a step backwards,
discuss the terms of your employment.”
nothing to discuss,” says Jamie, trying to stop himself from trembling. “I
handed in my notice, I've met my quota for the month.”
well that's the problem right there,” the grinning undertaker laughs smooths
his thinning hair back like a nervous salesman. “The King doesn't have anybody
to take your place as of yet, and with the skills that you've brought to our
operation – well, you're going to be difficult to replace.”
thieves aren't hard to come by,” he says, his eyes flicking to the nervous
young woman on the couch; she refuses to meet his gaze.
are.” The undertaker's voice is layered
with forced flattery. “You're irreplaceable, I'm afraid.”
what? That's it? I can't quit?”
The undertaker speaks
to him as though he is a child.
you can quit Jamie; but the King needs a stop-gap whilst he finds, or trains, a
replacement. We need double your quota, to tide us over.”
You want another four cars?”
The man with the golf
club over his shoulder finally opens his mouth.
–” Jamie is lost for words. “Why tomorrow? That's impossible -”
for a man with your talent Jamie,” says the undertaker, winking.
Jamie looks past the
undertaker at Chloe, who is trembling just like him. He wants nothing more than
to reach out and reassure her.
I can do it – but I need more time.”
you –“ the undertaker begins, laughing and pointing at him, “are you making a
demands of the King?”
cars in one night is impossible -” he starts.
The second man casually
swings the golf club into a small pyramid of china teacups. They are filled
with wax and wicks to make candles – a hobby Chloe picked up years ago, filling
their flat with her home-made decorations.
Now, pieces of china
and shattered wax litter the floor. Chloe gasps and flinches.
is impossible if the King asks it, Jamie,” the undertaker lectures him, the
grin falling off of his face like dead skin.
Jamie lowers his voice.
“I'll get your cars for you. Just, give me the time I need. Two days, even -”
Another crash rings out
as the second man swings the golf club into a wooden book shelf, shattering
three glass jars filled with fairy lights. The glass showers the floor.
Chloe flinches again,
and Jamie bites his lip.
The undertaker puts a
sweaty palm on his chest. Jamie stares over his shoulder at the golf-enthusiast
in the corner.“
You aren't listening
Jamie. We don't want to keep breaking things.”
for yourself,” the second man barks out a dark laugh: his pallid skin is
flushed with joy.
Jamie agrees with a harsh sigh, looking down at the undertaker. “Twenty four
hours, four cars. The usual value? The usual garage?”
course,” says the undertaker, digging around in his oversized pockets to
produce a small business card. “Then, you come to the office on this card.
We'll only be there for twenty-four hours, so no funny business and don't be
Jamie takes the card
and reads the address: he knows the place.
I get my pension when I arrive then? The whole severance package?”
The undertaker nods,
false kindness brimming in his red eyes.
get all the money that you were promised, we'll take care of your affairs and
give you a new identity; you'll be allowed to leave the city.” He rhymes off
the deal like a tour guide. “We'll let you take away your...” he winks, “
Jamie's stomach lurches
again. He had forgotten about the insurance policy, promised so long ago that
it had decayed into a long-faded regret. The undertaker pulls a crumpled,
yellow piece of paper from his huge coat pocket, and puts on a pair of reading
the King took you off the streets, you were told that we needed assurance from
you in the event of -” he adjusts his glasses and squints, “- capture,
interrogation, so on and so forth. You had no money to your name and the only
thing of real value to you was...” the undertaker trails off and looks around
at the couch, where Chloe is looking back, horror plastered across her delicate
face. Curled blonde hair frames her red face – mascara runs from the edges of
her blue eyes, down porcelain-smooth cheeks.
she whispers, hurt and afraid. The man reads through the crumpled contract in
his hands like a town-crier.
terms are clear: you gave us your partner as your insurance. If you break the
terms of your contract, we take her as compensation,” the undertaker smiles in
pleasant surprise. “Well, Jamie,” he removes his glasses and looks at his
watch, “it looks like you've got twenty-four hours.”
-” Jamie begins, but she can't look at him.
three hours, fifty nine minutes.” The undertaker stuffs his hands in his
pockets. “We'll take Chloe to the office with us while you work, you can pick
her up when you've finished.”
He turns around and
winks at Chloe.
The second man steps
forward as Jamie's mind races, considering his options. There's the knife
duct-taped under his bed, a baseball bat in the kitchen...
to work, son,” says the second man, swaggering forward with the golf club.
take care of the lady for you,” says the undertaker.
Jamie looks at Chloe
one last time, his heart aching from the look of complete defeat that she is
giving him, and he forgets about their company for a moment to tell her:
fix this, Chlo. Don't wo -”
The undertaker sighs.
“Twenty three hours, fifty-eight minutes.”
Jamie turns and opens
the door and runs out into the stairwell at a sprint. As he thunders down the
stairs he checks the stolen watch on his wrist and notes the time.
Five thirty in the
Twenty three hours,
fifty-eight minutes, and counting.
Jamie bursts onto the
city streets and sprints into the fresh evening air, his mind racing.
He needs more time.
Mark lies like a
prisoner on the floor of his own dilapidated bedroom.
A sudden, loud banging
echoes throughout his flat; he jumps in fright, nearly dropping the phone in
his hand. Cringing, he holds his breath and presses the phone against his ear.
With his other hand he holds the sloshing bottle of stinking spirits.
are you there?”
His mother's voice,
fraught with worry, crackles with static through the phone. Mark winces and
pulls his head away from the grimy receiver.
mum, I can barely hear you – you're breaking up,” he says, focusing on
pronouncing his words to avoid slurring.
He hears men calling
his name like teasing children, asking to be let in.
what's that racket? Is that your neighbours again?”
mum, it's my noisy neighbours,” he lies.
should complain to your landlord.”
uh...” He tries to sound irate. “I'll have to have a word with them -”
He's cut off by the
same banging – more severe this time. The door at the other end of his flat
shakes with such force that he feels it like a bass drum in his chest.
Sitting on the hard
wooden floor of his bedroom, Mark curls in the corner where the house phone
meets the wall. Asides the phone, the only furniture is a single electric lamp
in a dusty corner and a worn old mattress lying bare on the floor, a thin
blanket draped over it.
some racket they're making,” his mother's reedy voice comes through the phone. “Anyway,
I'll let you get away. Everything still ok at work, aye? Paying you well -”
mum, work's great,” he tries to keep the shaking out of his voice – to help, he
takes a swig of the cheap vodka in his hand. It tastes like budget cough
medicine. “I'm getting paid
well, so the project's still going
His wide and fearful
eyes dart around the room like those of a frightened animal. In his mind he
mutters a silent plea to the door to hold the monsters out for just long enough
to let his mother remain ignorant.
son, goodnight then, love and kisses!”
and kisses, mum,” he whispers back, and hangs up the phone. He stares at the
handset for a few seconds before ripping the socket from the wall and sighing.
Leaning his head back against the hard plaster, he screws his eyes shut as the
vibrations run through the walls.
Mark waits, downing as
much of the unlabelled bottle as his burning throat can manage.
The door shudders on
its hinges once more: the blows are more patient this time, rhythmic banging
like a judge's gavel. Muffled through the wood, the voices of his unwelcome
visitors come from all around him.
know you're in there Mark. We'll wait here until morning if you want. You have
to leave the flat at some point.”
Staring at the wall in
defeat, Mark folds his arms across his chest and waits. He closes his eyes and
tries to take himself elsewhere, away from this mess. There he sits, rocking
back and forth, focusing on his breathing like his mother taught him to.
The tension stays no
matter how hard he inhales, like wire pulled tight across his muscles.
Sighing in frustration,
he leans across and pulls a small red journal from a gap in the floor boards.
It's the only thing with any colour in the room.
As though handling a
fragile antique, he unbinds the journal and takes the tiny pencil from its
hiding place inside the spine. He flicks through the pages to get to the
present day, skipping over the written shame of the past few years. No matter
how fast he turns the pages, his eyes catch the underlined phrases at the
bottom of every page:
bad decision, wrong turn, start again, back to square
blows strike the door again, and he spasms and drops the pencil in fear. It
nearly rolls into a crack between the floor boards, and he lunges and catches
it at the last minute. He tries to calm himself, settling back against the wall
and putting the pencil to the paper.
'The wolves are at the
he writes in his spiked cursive.
'I have brought
this upon myself. If only I had the strength to stand up to these people. This
will likely be my last entry. Had I another chance, I doubt I'd change a thing.
I'm sorry, mum.'