11. Fracture

Dawn seeps through the window, weak and grey.

Craig stirs and rolls over, blinking sleep from his eyes. He reaches out for the discarded pillow…

…and his fingers scuff over empty rumpled sheets. He goes still, a dull throbbing between his ears. He slowly kneads the rough linen blanket through his fingers, listless.

The mattress is less sunken, only his weight on the worn springs. His throat tightens as he scans the room, unmoving. He can feel the difference now, from where a warm scruffy body has curled up and twitched and growled and snuffled alongside him. Guarding him from night terrors. Nuzzling into his hand for head scratches.

Thump thump thump.

No longer.

The bed is too big.

He stares blankly towards the empty space. His bones feel hollow. A dull ache in his chest. A knot in his throat, cloying and heavy.

Silence. Stillness.

It’s morning and he is alone. Again.

Rusty is gone.

* *

‘‘I’m borrred,’’ slurs Rebecca.

It’s a slow Monday night inside. This is Rebecca’s third break in the hour. ‘‘You’re drunk,’’ he reminds her.

‘‘Drunk is boring,’’ she pouts, tottering away from the gunk-filled gutter. ‘‘Dancing is boring. Clients are boring. God, I’m just so fuckin’ bored. Hey,’’ her eyes light up, ‘‘wanna go screw around in the bathroom?’’

It’s tempting. ‘‘I can’t leave the door unwatched,’’ he grins ruefully. Because then the club might fill up with drunk, rowdy morons, and wouldn’t that be such a total disaster for Porky’s stellar reputation.

Rebecca heaves a loud mournful sigh. ‘‘You’re boring.’’

There are worse things in life than boredom. That’s what he’s been telling himself for days now, over and over again like a mantra. There are worse things in life than working a job where the only people who ever try to kill you are too drunk to count, and having a solid roof over your head (even if it leaks), and sharing afternoon tea and cake with a snarky old lady and her extremely demanding cat, and not even going hungry anymore. Because he’s fine, really. It’s fine.

There are worse things in life than being bored.

Huddled at the bottom of a shell crater, two feet away from a rat-gnawed corpse and a boy of twelve screaming for his mother, clutching his torn belly and bleeding out in the sucking mud.

There are worse things in life than being bored.

Sinking to his knees in the damp dewy grass, before two lopsided gravestones encrusted with moss.

SEAN HARPER                                       GRACIE HARPER
DEVOTED HUSBAND,                                CHERISHED WIFE,
              LOVING FATHER.                                BELOVED MOTHER OF CRAIG.

Arching his back to the stormy sky above, tears pouring down his face as he screams and screams and screams.

There are worse things in life than being bored.

A moaning mess of red blistering skin, bloody claws desperately pawing at him as the flames licked along the poor wretch’s arms and scorched his flesh raw.

There are worse things in life than being bored.

‘‘You okay?’’ Rebecca is gazing at him, concerned.‘‘You looked a bit…lost there.’’

Blink.

Blink.

‘‘ ‘S nothing,’’ he deflects. ‘‘What about you?’’

‘‘I’ve been thinking about my career options,’’ Rebecca flicks her hair back. ‘‘Dancing used to be fun, y’know? Maybe I’ve been doing it too long. I need to get out there, see more of the world. Explore my potential.’’ She smirks. ‘‘I’m thinking of becoming a cat burglar.’’

‘‘I’d love to see you try to climb fences in those shoes,’’ he forces a smile. ‘‘No, I’m serious. I’d love to see it. Let me come watch.’’

Rebecca swats at him playfully. He lets the slap connect. Grins back.

But her smile fades. He’s never seen her look serious about anything before, and it makes him uncomfortable. ‘‘I mean,’’ she chews her lip, ‘‘don’t you ever feel like life’s supposed to be…I dunno…better than this?’’

He shrugs. His mind tends to shut down on its own when faced with the threat of introspection and existential dread. A simple job, easy money, decent neighbours in a ramshackle flat. Could be worse. Way worse.

Rebecca studies him silently for a long moment. There’s something a little too intent in her gaze. He resists the urge to fidget. Then she brightens again, fake and deliberate and jarring. ‘‘Nah, forget cat burglary. Breaking into rich people’s houses, stealing their jewellery, nabbing their silver, where’s the fun in that? I’m gonna become a bounty hunter instead.’’

She’s still staring at him. He goes very, very still.

‘‘I’d wear a knife on each hip, like One-Eyed Jack in those penny pamphlets. And I’d keep these heels so I’d be taller than all my victims…’’

He can feel his blood freezing in his veins. It’s crazy, it’s stupid, she’s drunk and bored and just playing around and his stomach is twisting into knots and his heart is clawing at his ribs and all he can think is: She knows.

‘‘…and of course I’d have to keep a list of snappy one-liners in my head, to fire off at my targets before I kill ‘em.’’ Rebecca is smiling, prattling on and oblivious, completely at ease.

His head is pounding and blood hisses in his ears and his throat is parched dry and all he can think is: She knows.

IDENTITY COMPROMISED

He’s worked so damn hard to make amends, to wash the blood from his hands and keep a low profile and bury his past behind him and maybe do some good but she knows.

If she knows, she’s got no reason in the world to keep it quiet. The alley is dark, no one’s watching; he could shut her up now before she blows his cover, silence her for good, make a run for it, skip town, get away from this stupid shitty place where too many people know his face –

ELIMINATE THREAT

Boot to the kneecap. Lock forearm around throat. Cut off air. Tighter. Tighter. Tighter.

Grip back of neck. Bang skull into wall. Clamp hand over mouth. Pinch nose shut. Two minutes, tops.

Craig puts down the bag of peanuts he was munching. He pushes off the wall, wobbles to the end of the alley…and vomits into the corner.

‘‘…you okay?’’ Rebecca is murmuring when his hearing fades in again. His mind is blank. He wipes his mouth on his sleeve. He’s not going to shut her up, fuck. She’s Rebecca. She’s sweet and goofy and gentle and harmless and five seconds ago he was thinking of screwing around with her in a dingy back room. ‘‘Did you eat something bad? I always said you’d make yourself sick if you kept eating like a damn pig all the time.’’

‘‘ ‘M fine,’’ he mumbles. ‘‘Must have been that fry-up from earlier.’’ She doesn’t know. This is stupid, this is crazy. If she knew she wouldn’t be standing there, if she knew she wouldn’t be touching him, wouldn’t be rubbing his back, wouldn’t be leaning in close with wide, worried eyes.

‘‘You’ve gone all green. I can get some water if you – ’’

‘‘No,’’ he insists. ‘‘Don’t worry about it.’’

In. Out.

In. Out.

But if she knows

He shoves off the wall. ‘‘Sorry, I just. Need some air,’’ he grunts.

‘‘You take care, mister,’’ Becca calls after him.

*

He wanders through the quiet streets. Aimless. Alone. At some point the stupid pointless panic shrivels away, and he walks in a daze towards his home.

Curled up on the crunchy mattress as roaches scurry across the flaky wall. Fingers clenched into empty sheets. No warm wiry fur. No cold wet nose nuzzling into his ear. A dull ache deep in his bones.

He turns into the flat porch. Steps towards the door.

And stops cold.

The door is ajar. An inch or two. Ollie always shuts the door when he comes and goes. No exceptions.

Ice shivers through his bones. He eases the door open. It creaks loudly.

An empty hallway, gloomy and still.

A trail of muddy footprints trudging up the stairs. Heavy boots. Ollie always scrubs his shoes clean on the welcome mat.

Three floors above him, Suki screams.


© 2017 Tom Burton

10 thoughts on “11. Fracture

  1. I MISS RUSTY TOO CRAIG, I MISS HIM TOO *sobs*
    But, seriously, I like that Rusty isn’t just a background character. Emotional support animals are so important to their owners. Like, so seriously important.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. *sobs with you* I KNOWWW.
      I really wanted to convey that precious help he gave by emphasising his lonely absence and NOW I’VE MADE MYSELF SAD. 😅
      But they’ll reunite soon and it’ll be BEAUTIFUL.

      Liked by 1 person

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