A tubby and vaguely hairy man awoke with unwelcome rapidity as his half-digested doughnut crumbled into his lap. The polystyrene cup he held, filled with lukewarm coffee, was crushed as his greasy digits formed a fist in alarm. The dark brown liquid ran down his arm, the drips forming a polite queue at his elbow, from which they plipped obediently onto the already mottled carpet.
He grunted distractedly and wiped his arm on his faded Hawaiian shirt without looking down – his eyes were staring intently through his non-prescription lenses into his VDU, across which a series of messages were scrolling impatiently.
Still focusing to the best of his blearily conscious ability, his right hand took the initiative and tapped the videophone next to his workstation without direct permission from his brain; it was too early in the morning for his sensory neurones to be at their best. Most of them were probably swimming deliriously in a sixty-percent proof jelly anyway, by now . . .
He reflected absently that the best part of his twenty-eight years had been spent close to a vegetative state anyway. A kind of detached regret wended its way into his thoughts, similar to the feelings experienced by a ten year old who has just kicked Mum’s best pot-plant over playing cricket in the living room – he doesn’t actually give a shit, he just feels he ought to. All part of living in the ‘environmentally considerate’ New Millennium, his left hemisphere added casually to the rather disjointed cerebral fray, before moving the right hand up to pick at a slightly yellowed tooth.
‘Magnolia’ added the right hemisphere, anxious to be helpful before returning to its usual task of scratching the arse with the left hand.
The videophone crackled slightly and the slightly blurred image of a girl – woman, he corrected himself hastily – who had no bloody right to look so gorgeous at this hour, appeared.
Her face had the kind of deeply ingrained beauty that doesn’t need makeup, even in the early hours – although, his left hemisphere added sagely, at your current stage of consciousness a plate of sardines would look like something that should look forward to a great night at your expense. Such musings were suddenly punctured, bringing him back to reality as the vision of untamed beauty spoke.
“Pete…? What the fuck are you doing getting me up at this time of the morning?” the vision half growled, half hissed through clenched teeth. “You’re such a wanker,” she added affectionately, and despite the blurred reception signs of a smile were creeping into the corners of her mouth.
“Hi sweetheart,” he murmured wearily. “Slight prob over here babe, can you come over a.s.a.p. and give’s a hand?”
She flicked her glossy brown hair back with one hand and left it slightly spiked, because she knew he found that damned sexy, like one of those old Japanese cartoon things he used to watch. Probably still did.
“Sure, I’ll be there in five, you ugly bastard.” She broke into a smile. “Missed ya, big guy.”
Pete thought for a moment, successfully filtering the ambiguity of her last couple of words as he subconsciously pushed his chair back a few inches to accommodate his trouserly challenged midriff. Shit, he hadn’t v-phoned Tina for over a week now, he had to cut down on all that ‘computer crap’, as she liked to call it, though they both knew that she was as into it as he had ever been. If her workstation could do half the things he could do when pissed, she’d probably be ‘noncommittally linked’ to it instead of her big guy . . .
“Sure, me too, babe. See ya soon.” He cut the transmission and flicked his eyes back to the VDU. The messages were still coming with a relentless urgency, and he felt a sharp pain in his lower regions as Fear began to constrict his body in its malicious coils.
His body stopped for a moment and took its bearings; it soon realised that it had never actually been that scared before and now was no time to start. A second reflection led him to realise that the sharp pain was in no small part due to the fact that the last time he’d had a slash was last night, before dinner.
Suddenly the World was against him and sounds previously content to reside in the background leapt out at him. The broken washer in the kitchen tap must’ve dashed out to Dixons and acquired an amplifier and accessories just to piss him off, and before long both hemispheres of his brain had developed an inane fascination with waterfalls and all related accompaniments.
He prised himself from under his desk and lumbered his way to the toilet, slowing only to circumnavigate an open and half-filled pizza box, only part of the exotic coating the floor of his apartment had grown over the past few months.
Soon any recollection of the crisis at hand had trickled away with typical male single-mindedness, and as Pete contemplated whether to bother taking the seat up or not, opting for the easier option of cleaning up later, a series of resonating booms rippled through the stale air of his flat. Recalling the urgency with which the messages had woken him and the disturbingly conspiratorial content of the first, he threw himself half-decent to the floor in terror, where Tina found him minutes later.
“Wake up, you lazy bastard, it’s the least you can do after dragging me out at two in the morning.”
Head somehow wedged between the basin and the wall, Pete wondered absently if he would have preferred some other, more terrorist-related explanation for the sound. More exciting, he decided, but not quite as sexy.
He opened his eyes, and quickly closed them again, as he had no wish to know details concerning any wall that had evaded cleaning for a good few years, least of all his own. He’d probably cultivated an unorthodox cure for cancer somewhere amongst the rest of the crap.
With the sudden realisation that some of the contents of his hair could quite plausibly be crap, Pete jerked himself free and faced his nemesis.
“Hi baby, cheers for coming over.” He struggled to sift through the disturbing collage of faeces-related fears as he kissed her to recall exactly why she was here. It clicked surprisingly quickly, and he reached down to pull up his trousers before taking her hand and leading her through to his workstation, finding the time to take note of how soft and feminine it was in contrast to her somewhat turbulent disposition.
Pete had met Tina at Uni when she was nineteen; he was in his final year of computation, she was about halfway through her French degree and hating every bit of it. When she finally came out the other end – ‘like a processed chicken on a conveyor belt’, she had analogised – she was miserable and depressed.
Not being the kind of bloke to take advantage of a vulnerable young woman, the twenty-three year old Pete, then in a relatively stable job as communications consultant at Scribes Internet Development, comforted her but nothing else.
However, not being the kind of bloke to pass up on a gift-wrapped situation, four years later he asked her to marry him, expecting a ‘yes’ and a long, passionate kiss at the best, a slap at the worst. She swung a right hook and floored him; he was off work for a fortnight, as the corner of the sideboard managed to get in the way halfway down.
From that point on, they had still been in a relationship, but in its loosest sense – any onlooker would say Pete was lucky to be alive, poor bugger. She loved him really; she was just too proud and too independent to say so. In fact, she knew subconsciously, if he asked her again, she’d agree without argument, though the word ‘bastard’ would probably figure prominently in her reply.
Tina seated herself by his VDU and dragged the chair closer to the desk by wrapping her socked feet around the hydraulic column and bouncing in a series of short, sharp jerks, murmuring something about fat bastards.
Pete looked on, again deflecting the poorly aimed insult and admiring how gorgeous his sweetheart was looking this morning. Her hair had kept the spiked, modern effect that framed her features so well; her chestnut brown eyes flicked energetically from word to word as she scrolled back up the barrage of messages, her small but smoothly contoured nose led through to his favourite part of her – the lips. Not too thin, to give her the aura of a sadistic old woman who liked to torture children and small, fluffy woodland creatures; not too puffy and pouting to give the impression that the area beneath her nose was designated for the breeding of hairless caterpillars – perfectly proportioned, intelligent, kiss-able.
The perfectly proportioned embouchement of wondrous splendour parted to bring forth sweet, pensive nectar.
“Fucking hell Pete, this is big…”
She continued to read, chestnut eyes widening further at the start of every line until she began to resemble a drugged-out bush baby. Her lips began to silently trace the written words as if to bring them further into reality – but for once Pete was not watching her lips, for his own were parting slowly as his jaw dropped to epic proportions. His gaze was fixed on the monitor, but not on the words – on the glass. On the small, red, pinprick of light that was flickering, and moving slowly to the left until it leapt onto the back of Tina’s chair, brighter now, and moved upwards, more quickly this time. He felt his vision narrowing to a point, as the enormity of the shit in which they now found themselves became crystal clear.
“Shit, Tina, get DOWN!”
Partly from instinct, partly because she had never heard her boyfriend shout louder than she could, Tina dived sideways and cracked her head on the side of the desk. She rolled onto the floor, cradling her bruised forehead in her hands, and clenched her teeth for the second time that morning, though because of pain rather than showmanship.
“For Christ’s sake… If that wasn’t important, I swear I’ll castrate what manhood you have with something very blunt and cold…”
Pete dropped to his knees and held her head in his lap, stroking her forehead gently. He held his finger to his lips and pointed silently to the back of the chair, where the red dot was procrastinating, its target temporarily mislaid.
His arm made its way by instinct around the shoulders of the now shaking Tina, and she squeezed his hand tightly; the pain emanating from her dented forehead, now turning very pink, was instantaneously thrown aside in favour of cold, hard Fear – the real thing, Pete was sure this time. Either that or he’d drunk considerably more than he thought previous night.
He looked down at his faded Hawaiian shirt, stretched over his stomach, and noticed the black hairs on this forearm were vertical with panic – all of these were reminders of just how helpless the pair of them were. Tina was trembling now; eyes still fixed on the dot. The warmth of the chestnut brown seemed to have been drained out from her eyes, leaving only the icy grey of terror. It was apparent to the couple that they were now quite firmly up Shit Creek without a paddle – without a boat, even.
At any moment the both of them expected the screen to suddenly smash and for smoke to billow from the jagged cavern that the bullet had carved behind itself. They stayed rigid, clinging to each other, images of government conspiracies and burly men in black saloons chasing each other around inside their minds, for what seemed like several hours.
At which point, Pete stood up. Tina grabbed his arm; silently ordering him to stay put. He kissed her briefly and in favour of calling on the military training he could have had, he referred back to all the films in which people laid flat on their stomachs and propelled themselves forwards along the ground using only their elbows. It always looked so bloody easy, and it wasn’t even jungle terrain here, just a cluttered carpet. A roughly straight path was already making itself available in his mind . . .
“Pete, you crazy bastard – why don’t we just get out of here?” Tina’s voice sounded strange, as if through water – neither of them had spoken for over ten minutes, and the silence seemed to deafen all else.
He kissed her again, for slightly longer this time, then without a verbal answer prepared himself for his journey across the room. One aspect he had not taken into account however was that every man who had utilised this method of transportation had a flat, six-pack stomach and was probably computer-generated anyway.
Resembling an absurd sea creature that somehow crossed a porpoise and a rhino, Pete flobbled across the carpet like a rocking horse, legs hardly touching the floor, elbows scraping the carpet in a ridiculous fashion like someone attempting to row with oars that are a couple of inches too short.
The spectacle managed to punch a fragment of amusement through Tina’s confused mind, and from across the waves the porpoise-impersonating rhino dimly heard “mad, mad bastard.”
Pete was not actually particularly fat; he only totalled up fourteen stone or so, and his arms and legs were not much wider than most. His downfall was the fact that he was only about five-foot-seven and it was the way in which the flab seemed to congregate around his middle that seemed to inconvenience his progress so much, especially when horizontal.
Reaching the window, he rose slowly – perhaps from subtlety, perhaps from exhaustion, either would be plausible – and spread his arms along the wall, flattening himself as far as was possible. The dot remained still, predatory as it loitered with intent on the back of his hydraulic chair.
Avoiding sharp movements he leant very slowly around the window frame. The whole flat seemed to inhale expectantly, although most of the accompanying noise came from Tina, who was still huddled on the other side of the room, staring at the window, and at Pete.
As his head rounded the curtain he could make out a dim shape on one of the neighbouring rooftops, but it was quite impossible to determine exactly what it was. He dropped to the floor again, and made his way over to Tina in a slightly more elegant fashion, having had some practice on the way there.
Her eyes and slightly open mouth said the inevitable ‘Well?’ for her.
“Someone, or something, on roof. Next door. Going to create a diversion; see if he, she or it takes a shot.” Pete was actually starting to enjoy the suspense, mostly because nothing actually dangerous had happened yet and it now had the atmosphere of a game. Plus it gave him the excuse to talk in sharp, military style sentences without any flowery eloquence. Sounded cool. Yeah.
Tina raised an eyebrow, picking up on his excitement and deciding to humour him in case he ended up delaying their escape further by justifying the necessity for military procedure.
“If you must. I still think we should get the fuck out of here now, before anything dangerous happens.” She thought for a moment. “We’d better get a hard copy of those messages in case anything happens to your PC.”
Pete nodded, but in acknowledgment of the fact that she’d finished rather than in agreement with what she’d said. He was occupied with a table tennis bat and a drumstick that his mate Rob had left there a few weeks ago. He suddenly realised that in the films, people always had exactly what they needed, where they needed it – only a bit of ingenuity was required. Suddenly reality hit him like a mallet.
Tina, obviously concerned with the global implications of the situation in which the two of them were trapped, assumed this outburst to be of great importance, and dropped beside her boyfriend, awaiting an explanation.
“No bloody sellotape,” he explained absently. “Have to just wave the bat out the window.”
She sighed and shoved a CD-R into the drive on the floor beside her, before punching a key on the table above her, still crouched under the desk. The drive hummed then propelled the disc into her outstretched hands.
Without waiting for a response or a counter statement Pete negotiated his way back to the window, and more quickly than before as the confidence swelled inside him, stood and protruded his arm across the window. This was not so much as to test whether the form on the roof was a gunman, but to prove that his idea was decent – the consequences had never entered his mind.
Which was fortunate, because there weren’t any.
Pete swung his arm back into the room decisively and strode back to his girlfriend in full view of the window. The fact that his courage had now swelled his head to a size greater than it had any right to be prevented him from watching his feet, and he collided with the pizza box to be propelled, suddenly in slow motion, towards Tina.
She was shouting something, though no sound seemed to be coming from her open mouth, as a muffled hiss followed by the tinkle of glass sounded where his head was seconds beforehand. He turned his head as he fell to see his VDU explode violently, showering glass onto the table around it. A glimmer of flame threw an orange tinge onto the now jagged edges around the edge of the screen, and he felt his hand being pulled from under him as Tina dragged him to the door, her other hand tightly clutching the suddenly invaluable disc.
The room erupted with the furiously insane chatter of automatic weapons, and as Tina kicked the door shut with her socked foot, nearly dislocating her ankle, the sound of the window frame disintegrating under the artificial hail crashed abusively into their ears.
At least he wouldn’t have to clear the bloody floor again, Pete reflected distantly. Then a searing pain rippled through his head and the world went black.
© Nick Carson 2001