22. Cooldown

Craig trudges through the silent streets, towards the warm glow of the evening market ahead. The rich smell of fried onions makes his stomach growl. The growing chatter of voices. Rusty trots beside him, snuffling into his hand.

Thump thump thump.

He ducks into the bustling market, approaches the stalls of sizzling meat (still serving at nine o’clock, hooray). A ham sandwich for himself. A sheep’s trotter on the bone, for Rusty. Looks gross.

Rusty actually starts bouncing when he sees, yipping with happiness.

THUMP THUMP THUMP.

The White Lion is quiet when he walks in, Rusty tethered to the lamppost outside gnawing his bone. Susan is glumly gathering up dirty glasses, Jamie cleaning the floor with a wet mop. Behind the counter, the two waitresses are huddled together. Ellie’s arm wrapped around the brunette’s shaking shoulders as she murmurs gently. ‘‘Shhh, Jane. It’s okay, love.’’

They all stop and look up as he knocks on the doorframe. Ellie gives him a brief flickering smile. It doesn’t reach her eyes.

Then her expression deepens with concern. ‘‘You okay?’’

She is worried. After everything awful that happened tonight, she is worried. About him.

More kindness.

‘‘What happened out there, mister?’’

‘‘It’s been dealt with.’’ He steps up, reaches into his inside pocket. ‘‘They had a change of heart.’’ He slides the brown envelope across the countertop, packed tight with the wad of cash. Their eyes widen.

‘‘I’m just around the corner. Stainsby Road. That rickety old flat on the left, three doors up. Any more problems, you come to me, alright? And I’ll deal with it.’’ He places Pigface’s severed thumb next to the stuffed envelope. ‘‘In my way.’’

Ellie gasps. Jane turns pale. Jamie and Susan eye the bloody digit nervously.

”Why?” Jamie finally asks. ”I mean…what did they do it all for? Money? Power? For kicks? Why?”

Craig sighs. ”Some people’ll do any bad thing just ’cause they can. Or for fame. Or because they’re bored. Or exactly because they shouldn’t.”

He slides Pigface’s five gold sovereigns across the table. ”For your trouble, miss. I’m so sorry you had to endure that.” Jane’s eyes widen, glistening with gratitude.

He nods to them all. ‘‘G’night.’’ Then turns towards the door.

A faint gulp. A hand on his arm. ‘‘Wait.’’

Ellie. She hesitates, then twists one of the silver rings off her finger and presses it into his palm. A blooming flower. Curling petals.

It’s beautiful.

‘‘Keep it,’’ Ellie insists. ‘‘Please.’’

‘‘Why?’’

‘‘A keepsake. A reminder.’’ She smiles. ‘‘That the world ain’t all bad.’’

Nah, he agrees quietly. Just some of it.

‘‘Listen, I, um…’’ She trails off. Chews her lip. ‘‘Sorry, I just. I gotta ask…’’ She blushes, ducks her head, then looks up. ‘‘…Why?’’

Craig can’t say: Because nobody looked out for me, and I didn’t know how to let them if they’d tried. Because you helped me be human again, to relearn kindness and give help freely, and I can’t even begin to pay that back, not ever, but…

In the end, he shrugs. ‘‘Paying it forwards.’’

She stretches up on her toes, gently kisses his cheek. ‘‘Thank you.’’

She’s smiling again. At the bar counter, Jane gives him a watery grin.

Then Ellie giggles. ‘‘Sorry, I just, um. I never asked. What’s your name?’’

CALLUM HARRIS

Hang on, mission.

CALLUM HARRIS

No.

CALLUM HARR-

Sorry, mission. Not this time.

He holds out his hand. Smiles.

‘‘Craig Harper.’’

He should add another thing.

‘‘Pleased to meet you.’’

That’s better.

Her hand is warm and soft. There’s the sunrise smile again.

GOOD JOB.

– Crisis averted.

– Threats eliminated.

– Civilians avenged.

– Enemies deterred.

– Safe space achieved.

MISSION SUCCESSFUL

*

The night is cold and clear. Craig wearily climbs the stairs to his flat, each step seeming 4 feet taller than the last. Rusty a warm comforting presence at his side. Three flights, plus landings. Fifty-six steps. Ugh. Seems to take forever. The adrenaline is fast leaching out of him.

There’s a plate of cookies in front of his door, with a note scribbled on top.

‘‘Dear Craig – Come and see us any time tomorrow if you feel up to it. In the meantime, please accept this gift of thanks. For everything. Esther, Ollie, Amy and Suki.’’

Esther even drew a little scratchy paw print on the card next to her own signature. Ollie has sketched a slice of cake beneath his own name. Amy scrawled a smiley face.

It’s a gift from all of them. His first real gift. He presses the note to his chest. Warmth spreads through him, settling deep into his heart like glowing coals. A wave of fondness washes over him.

‘‘Thanks,’’ he whispers.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

After thirty seconds of rust-coloured trickle, the pipes in the bathroom groan, then release a fresh gush of hot water. The plate is piled high with cookies, studded with chunks of diced plums. He eats one while he slowly fills the grubby tub. Chewy and soft at the same time. It’s delicious. Then another. It crunches between his teeth. Walnuts, cinnamon, cherry.

WOW

Confirm. It’s damn good.

Rusty snuffles into his hand, whining softly and licking his fingers until he holds out a piece. Rusty’s eyes track the waving morsel.

‘‘Sit.’’

Rusty’s hindquarters flump on the floor.

‘‘Good boy.’’

Rusty snaps up the cookie.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Craig scratches lazily behind his ears as he chews. Then he sits still on the floor for two minutes to regain his equilibrium.

In. Out.

In.      Out.

Three breaths. Then three more.

In.              Out.

The cookies are delicious. They taste like mission complete and reward for a job well done. He undresses, eases into the bath and munches another, listening to the cockroaches scratching in the flaky walls. Steam coils around him; his aching muscles melt a little in relief under the soothing warmth.

He’s surrounded by cool white porcelain with his bones turning to rubber as Rusty licks his hand. Rough-warm-damp rasps over his fingertips.

Calm. Quiet. Safe.

In.          Out.

In.                        Out.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

It feels…really nice.

Afterwards, he stands before the cracked mirror and twists and turns, checking himself over. A pinkish scrape on his brow, raw and tender. A vivid yellow bruise under his ribcage, slightly larger than a clenched fist. Definitely a cracked rib or two. But he isn’t pissing blood, and the dull ache is fading, and the stiffness is easing. A moderate headache, a gentle throbbing behind his eyelids. But no dizziness. No nausea. He hasn’t thrown up. He stands on one leg with eyes closed, and doesn’t sway. Walks a straight line of tiles from the tub to the toilet, eyes closed, and doesn’t wobble. He rubs his stomach while patting his head. No coordination problems, beyond his innate and usual clumsiness. He’s no ballet dancer or tightrope walker. Neat and deft and dexterous and light-footed are words that had never applied to him.

Rusty stares at him, head tilted, looking baffled.

Craig smiles. ‘‘Sorry, boy. Be with you in a minute.’’

Thump. Thump. Thump.

The skull pendant goes on the shelf above the mantelpiece, next to Kate’s green bracelet. Gary’s packet of Navy Cut joins it. The stack of Rob’s gold coins. Ellie’s flower ring.

Doing good deeds. Stopping bad guys. Mementos. Reminders.

He slumps down on the mattress, exhausted. Rusty crawls in beside him to nuzzle into his chest. His arms curl around warm wiry fur. A steady heartbeat beneath his hands. The cracked clock on the mantelpiece reads: ten-thirty.

Bad guys deterred. Threats eliminated.

Neighbours safe.

MISSION SUCCESSFUL

‘‘Goodnight, Rusty.’’

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Sleep folds him into its gentle embrace. He breathes in deep. Closes his eyes.

And doesn’t dream at all.


© 2017 Tom Burton

22 thoughts on “22. Cooldown

  1. This chapter is just right. A pause for breath in the action and something upbeat for Craig (and Rusty). Something tells me it’s not going to last…
    Loving the story, Tom, I’ve been looking forward to reading this next chapter all afternoon 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for such fantastic encouraging feedback, Chris! 😀 So thrilled you’ve enjoyed it so far. And yes, I was definitely aiming for that quiet peaceful respite as the calm before the oncoming storm. The action picks up again in Part II, so stay tuned for more!

      Like

    1. Thanks ever so much for always being a supportive reader, Sadje! 🙂 It’s really encouraging when other writers enjoy my stories & look forward to more. So glad you’ve found it such an enjoyable story so far!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, I’m getting a bit of a soft spot for Craig here…. wonderfully distinctive character voice maintained throughout the piece. Good dialogue as well as the internal dialogue. And the dog. Love the dog. Good ol’ Rusty ❤ 🙂
    P.S. my favourite part was of course the part about the blooming ring 🌸💍;) 💕

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay! So thrilled you enjoyed it, Nadine. 😀 Hope this was a worthwhile payoff for Part I. Glad the flower ring was such a lovely image that stayed with you – often it’s the little things that make the greatest impact 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You probably saw from my comments, but I just read the whole thing from the start. I’d begun a little late and hadn’t had time to read the backlog until now. It really hangs together well!
    One thing that’s you might consider looking into, it took me a bit of puzzling to figure out that this story is set around 1900. I’m ashamed to say, I don’t know my history well enough to know the timeframe of the Boer war. Maybe throw in some more environmental and vocabulary cues for the reader?
    The things you seem most concerned about are the things you don’t have to worry about so much. You’ve got very engaging characters, a gripping plot, and you put the reader through all the emotions. I’m always excited to see what comes next.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for always leaving such supportive comments, Sarah! I’m so thrilled that it’s continuing to be an engaging story for you with this serialised way. Glad the plot’s kept your interest so far & hopefully the characters keep drawing you in! 🙂
      So about the Boer War: this is set in 1903, the year after the Boer War ended in South Africa (British Army’s Vietnam) – the only real cues for the readers are going to be flashbacks scattered throughout the story & some mentions of cornerstone battles by veteran characters. It’s more a general atmosphere I’m trying to convey to the reader rather than getting bogged down in battle minutiae. Does that make sense?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I see what you are saying. I don’t think that’d be a fun read, either.
        I just meant, you can just have him dodge a hansom cab while crossing the street. Or have him pass some new row houses, or see a steamship, or hear a train whistle… little details here and there can be worked in to flesh out the environment without weighing it down.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Oh right! 😀 😀 😀 Yeah, I totally see what you mean – just little visual snippets scattered through the scenery that tell the reader: hey, we’re back in Ye Olden Times now. Really like how you’ve explained it! I’ll definitely see about working them into previous chapters to give his journeys more detail, rather than just the places he’s heading to.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. If you want, you can always just not worry about it, then go back and add some world building in the next draft. That’s what I do. I find that backtracking and editing too much when I’m on a roll can really screw with my creative process.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Great advice! Yes, I definitely found that was a problem with my first rough draft – I kept trying to make it absolutely perfect without getting into the flow of the story first.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I am really impressed that you’re airing your drafts like this for criticism. How sturdy and disciplined you are! It’d break my brain to do that before it was as complete as I could make it.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Glad you’ve enjoyed the story so far! This is the main part of the book I’m hoping to polish up on WP before I send it to potential publishers – I’ve already sent off a synopsis and first chapters to a publishing competition, so hopefully I’ll hear back from them in September! *crosses fingers*

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Aww! What a sweet read. I’ve been looking for little short stories like this for a while so now I’ll probably end up reading all the other chapters, haha. Tom, were you ever in the army/military/cadets?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. So thrilled you enjoyed it, Imani! 😀 Looking forward to hearing what you think of the others, hopefully it’s a decent story buildup. I haven’t, no, but I know plenty of friends & some decent authors who have, so I had a lot of second-hand experience to draw upon. 🙂 Looking forward to hearing what you think of the previous chapters!

      Liked by 1 person

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