A Bright Red Sun- Anomaly One

FRAGMENT_20150509_225715_-1184055928

Anomaly One

2017/08/18- Six weeks after The Cataclysm Event.

 

St Thomas’ Church, Wiltshire

After the townsfolk had shuffled out of the church and into the unfriendly night, Father Enoch stepped down from the lectern; his shadow was thrown, large and sinister, across the back wall by the long red candles that burned in neat rows in front of the altar.

He had just given the evening’s service to thirty-nine people and one dog; his largest congregation yet. There’d be more people tomorrow; the apocalypse had a way of making people reconsider their theological viewpoints.

People had stood outside in the chill night air, blowing into their hands and stamping their feet on the gravel path as they listened intently.  He had given one of his favourite sermons, and it seemed apt given that most people believed – and rightly so – that it was the end of the world.

He had started with his favourite quote from Jerimiah 4:25; “I looked, and behold, there was no man, and all the birds of the heavens had fled. I looked, and behold, the fruitful land was a wilderness, and all its cities were pulled down before the Lord,” he’d said with ecclesiastical gravitas. There’d been real fear in the eyes of the townsfolk, bright like beasts in the flickering candlelight.

The dog had curled up and gone to sleep. Ignorance was bliss.

Enoch sighed to himself, reflecting on the service, unsure whether he wanted those words to be true or not. Six weeks ago, the world had fallen to ruins, and humanity, as pampered and privileged as it had ever been, had been blown back to the Dark Ages. The global death toll in the first few hours alone had been astronomical. Ten minutes without Facebook and everyone was foaming at the bloody mouth

. He had assured them that greater and bigger things than themselves were in operation and that the Lord would provide some kind of answer, and that maybe it was a punishment wrought upon us all as a result of our self-centred egotistical hubris. What else could it have been? The sudden unplugging of all of our electrical devices, the subsequent persistent failure of any new ones constructed. Then, the floods and the torrential rain for five days straight. All of it just smacked of the end times.

Before the Event, it had been a long time since Enoch had seen the place lit only in candlelight and he found it both beautiful and sinister at the same time. The ancient grotesques and the angels carved in stone atop the grey columns along the walls were given a lot more depth and impact; they almost seemed animated. Jesus looked on forlornly from his crucifix, and Enoch clutched at the simple iron cross hung around his neck; a gesture that had become automatic and comforting.

He had eschewed trying to amass any kind of riches himself, preferring instead the quiet life in Wiltshire, far from papal politics and judgemental finger pointing. He was fine with the homosexual agenda, he didn’t have any feelings this way or that about female priests, and he thought that Africa should start a programme of education on the benefits of safe sex. All unpopular beliefs with the church and in the small town he lived in generally. There was plenty to love about the place; the long walks along the idyllic rolling landscape, birdsong, and a glass or two of Jameson before bed. It’s not that he had become cynical, it was just that the world had changed without him and he stubbornly refused to adapt.

He needed to appear calm and without fear; that was what he’d been taught at the seminary. He needed to appear brave to his congregation. If reports were true, his congregation would continue to grow; from what he had heard from the steady stream of travellers and refugees, most of England appeared to have floated away into the sea. When he went for his usual morning walk – a ritual he maintained even given everything that had happened – he now saw new lakes and rivers where once there’d been valleys.

It truly felt like the Biblical end times and Enoch wondered why it had not strengthened his resolve, why he had not become more fervently religious, and why he just remained his normal stoic self. He was certainly glad that the rain had finally stopped though; the damp had played merry hell with his rheumatism.  The new church roof had held up well against the nonstop downpour, which was more than could be said for a lot of people’s houses.

Most people had left, but a few had remained in prayer, near the front of the pews. Enoch blessed them as he walked past.

A woman was sat at the back of the church on her own. She was crying.

“Is this really the end Father?” she sobbed, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her dirty coat.

“Who is to say?” He replied, and smiled sadly, “Regardless of what happens now, time will march steadily forward, and we will need to face what comes at us with open hearts.”

She smiled nervously. He desperately wanted to believe that himself.

“Does God hate us that much?” she asked.

I’m afraid so, and who can blame Him, he thought, but replied, “Of course not my child. These things are sent to test our faith. We must be resolute, and have faith that He will provide.”

“But I didn’t believe. You know, before. Am I going to go to Hell for that?”

Yes. “Of course not, child. Better to believe now, then never at all.” He tried to sound convincing, “All who accept Him will be welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

He reached over and rubbed her shoulder reassuringly. He knew he was wrong, but he couldn’t help but feel a tiny flicker of disdain for her, and those like her. They’d sneered at the church and the faithful all their lives, and now here they were, like people who turn up to a party late and claim they’ve been there the whole time.

“Thank you Father,” she said and went back to praying. She seemed genuine, at least. He felt immensely guilty and he resolved to pray for forgiveness later.

He stayed for the next hour listening to people confessing their sins to him. He listened to the townsfolk confess to affairs or impure thoughts or minor dismeanours. One man, older than Enoch, confessed to killing over a hundred Nazi’s in the war, some up close and extremely personal. One particular incident involved him, a lead lamp and two enemy soldiers being clubbed to death in the middle of the night. He said it happened in a chateaux just outside of the French town of Valence-d’Agen.

The old man had looked at the palms of his shaking and liver spotted hands as he told the story as if he could still see the blood on them.

Enoch had forgiven him, and reassured him that he’d just been doing his duty and defending the world against the evil of the Axis force, and there was no way God was going to forbid him entry into the Kingdom of Heaven for that.

All the while he talked, Enoch was desiring a very stiff drink.

*

When the church had finally emptied, it was sometime after midnight and Enoch was exhausted. He stepped outside for some fresh air, and was greeted with a panoply of stars winking in the cloudless firmament. The moon was huge and luminescent in the bejewelled sky, and moonlight limned the contours of the landscape.

Far away, a building burned, orange in the velvet-blue night.

Enoch breathed into his hands; it was unseasonably cold for August.

He went back inside and closed the heavy double doors behind him. He locked them and let out another long sigh as he pulled the white collar from around his neck. He looked up at the crucified Jesus and formed the sign of the cross, drawing two fingers down from his forehead and then across his body.

When he’d finished the motion, the air suddenly felt heavier. At first he thought there was something wrong with eyes or that he was having some kind of episode. He rubbed his eyes, and when he looked back his jaw dropped in an almost cartoon gesture of disbelief; Jesus had suddenly disappeared, along with the altar and the lectern.

His old heart was thudding and he felt a warmth in the back of his throat as he slowly walked up the aisle, resting his hand on the tops of the pews for support. There was a faint smell of rain on dry grass, and burning metal. As he breathed this in, a long-buried memory rushed to the forefront of his mind; being a boy and running under a bruised sky, through freshly quenched fields that surrounded his childhood home.

Enoch stopped a few feet from where the lectern had been. He heard a faint buzzing, more like a vibration in his ears than an actual sound. He thought it actually was just a problem with his ears, the same way he’d presumed the heat-haze shimmer had been a trick of his eyes, but when he turned his head the sound oscillated. It touched a nerve in his brain, and made him feel uneasy and afraid.

The air was still visibly rippling. It almost looked like a trick of the light, but if he cocked his head that way and this, he could see in mid-air the faint reflection of a candle flame, pulled long over the curved, invisible surface of whatever it was that had disturbed the air. He took a few steps back, and saw a shift in the light, a blank space that was bending and refracting light around it, like a soap bubble.

Enoch was a calm, sensible man by nature, but right then he felt a sudden very urgent urge to run screaming into it and into the arms of Jesus and the lord himself because at that instant he knew what it was; way down past his rational minded cynicism, and from the deepest depths of his faith he knew that this was the gateway to heaven and that the rapture had finally come. Firstly though, he needed a whisky and then he needed to tell someone.

He stopped himself from running through, and chided himself for his selfishness. The gateway wasn’t just for him. It was for all of them.

His congregation had to know. They had to be told that salvation was here.

He didn’t know how long the doorway would be there and whether or not it was meant for anyone else other than him, but he beat those thoughts away. He was just excited and scared because it appeared that the Lord had answered his most secret prayers.

Sleep was hard at first; he kept thinking about the gateway, and wondering what really lay in wait for them in the hereafter, and whether or not it would still be there in the morning. Twice he found himself forced from the warmth of his bed to inspect the thing, to assure himself that it was still there. Finally though, exhaustion had him, and he fell into it and dreamt of nothing, except for the excited buzzing of the sphere.

*

The first thing Enoch did the next day was to call around to his assistant, Pike, who lived at the edge of town in an old stone cottage that the church had assigned to him. He was a bit slow and naive, but his heart was in the right place. When Enoch thought of the young man, he usually thought of the similarly dim but charming character Private Pike from the old TV show Dad’s Army, though he knew that to do so was mean-spirited.

Pike was perched on top of a wooden ladder, clearing the guttering with his bare hands when Enoch arrived. The grass was still wet from a recent downpour, and Enoch noted that the house hadn’t faired as well as the others in town, most likely on account of its age. Enoch had actually lived in the house himself until a few years ago, but had given the place up to move into the small dwellings attached to the church itself. His knees hadn’t been up to the long walk up the steep hill to the church anymore.

The rose bushes Enoch had planted as a young man had been pulled out and replaced with sunflowers; he didn’t care for them, or for the crazy paving path. Still, it wasn’t for him to get upset about, and anyway he had a grander purpose; a divine mission that he needed to set Pike upon.

The young man climbed down and greeted him with a smile, and they both went inside the small cottage. Pike’s wife was a thin slip of a woman, with long mousy-coloured hair and great brown eyes. She was stood over the wood-burning stove at the back of the kitchen. The air was heavy with the smells of cooked meat and coffee, and Enoch’ mouth started watering; he’d had nothing but tinned food cooked over the feeble flame of an old Calor gas stove since the lights had gone out.

She turned as he and Pike entered the kitchen, and beamed at him.

“Care for some breakfast Father? We’ve still got some left over!”  Her cheeks were ruddy from the heat and she was wearing a cloth apron that may have once been white. The whole scene reminded Enoch of his childhood, just after the Second World War; in fact everything recently had reminded him of that.

He and Pike sat at the kitchen table. Like all the furniture in the place, it was old, solid dark wood.

“I won’t, thank you Elizabeth. I would murder for a tea, if you’ve some?”

She smiled and nodded, and busied herself with a pan of hot water.

“So, Father,” asked Pike, “What’s brought you down here so early?”

“Is it early?” Enoch asked, and then chuckled to himself. He looked at his wristwatch – dead since the Event, like all timepieces – that he was still wearing out of habit.  “You know, I’ve lost all notion of time.”

Elizabeth brought over his cup of tea.

“It’s black,” she said apologetically. “What with the cows being… well. You know.”

“It’s fine Elizabeth. This is perfect.”

Elizabeth smiled, and was about to say something when she was interrupted by the cries of small child, coming from the other room. Elizabeth’s bright smile was replaced by a look of concern.

“I’ll go and see if she’s okay,” she murmured.

“I can-” Pike started to say, rising.

“No, no, it’s fine,” said Elizabeth. “I’m sure Father Enoch has something important to talk to you about.”

She hurried out of the room.

“Eloise?” asked Enoch. “Is she alright?”

“Nightmares,” Pike sighed. “She’s not making it through the nights. She doesn’t understand what’s happening. She’s scared.”

Her and me both, thought Enoch.

Enoch held the white china cup in his hands, and stared down into the tea for a few moments to gather his thoughts. He was asking a lot, after all.

“Michael,” he said, forming each word slowly and carefully. “The Lord has sent us a sign. It’s time for those worthy of forgiveness to move on.”

Pike was stirred by the use of his first name, and looked up from the scratched wood tabletop. The two men locked eyes for a second. The only other time Enoch had used Pike’s first name was four years ago, when Pike’s mother had passed away.

“What do you mean Father?” he asked, confused.

“Last night, after service. There was a…” he paused for a second, searching for the words, “A… gateway, or a door. I’m not really sure what to call it. But it opened up there in the church, and Jesus was there Michael. He was there in front of me, as real as you are to me now. Then He was gone, disappeared.”

“Actual Jesus?” Pike asked, a puzzled look on his face.

“No Pike, the plaster one on the cross,” snapped Enoch. You stupid boy, Private Pike.

He took a deep breath to calm himself. “I looked away for a second and He had gone. Taken by the Lord Himself, just as He was in the flesh. As God as my witness, it’s true,” he said, looking up and crossing himself quickly. “It’s a sign. I know it. We are supposed to leave this place now.”

“Have you told anyone else?” Pike asked.

“No,” replied Enoch. He took a sip of tea to try and steady his nerves for what he was about to say. “I… I have a job for you, Michael.”

“A job?”

“Yes. A job. Not just me. The Lord.”

Pike frowned. “Don’t you realise what’s going on?” he said. “I have to take care of my family now. That’s my job-”

Enoch closed his eyes and sighed, “Psalm 118:19-20,” Enoch cut in. He hated to do it, but needs must. He pointed a shaking finger at Pike. “Open to me the gates of righteousness; I shall enter through them, I shall give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous will enter through it.”

Pike looked dazed and a little upset by the zeal in Enoch’ voice.

“I… I mean, I can’t….” he stammered.

Enoch drained his cup and slammed it down on the tabletop.

“Come with me then. Come and look at it. After that, we will see what jobs are important.”

*

Pike kissed his wife and child, and the two men left the house to wander slowly up the hill. Strangely, they did not speak about the portal. Instead, they took in the view as the land rose; the crowded and uneven layout of the town, a mix of ancient buildings made of uneven stones and post-war brick buildings. The air smelt of honey suckle and rapeseed and as they climbed the hill to the west they could see the bright, yellow fields, methodically cut there amongst green fields dotted with purple lavender and golden hawthorn.

Much like the surrounding countryside, St Thomas’ hadn’t changed significantly the last three hundred years, even surviving unscathed during the Blitz, unlike other parts of the town. It stood solid and defiant in the face of chaos, the calm at the heart of another storm, a beacon of hope for the lost and scared.

They walked through the churchyard. Enoch glanced at the graves, some as old as the church itself, and blank as slate except for faint curlicues and greenish lichen. He wondered how many of these departed souls he would meet when he went through the doorway himself.

They went inside. The sphere was still there, distorting light around it. Pike’s mouth hung open as he stared at it.

“I can hear it buzzing,” he whispered. He reached out a finger as if to touch the shimmer, but drew it back at the last moment.

“Do you believe me now?” asked Enoch. “What else could it be if not a sign from God?” He handed the man a small pre-prepared tumbler of whiskey and watched the amber liquid disappear down the young man’s gullet.

Pike took his eyes from the sphere to the priest and then back again, “I do believe you Father,” he said finally. “I’m sorry I doubted you. Forgive me.”

“It’s fine Pike,” Enoch said. “In your position, I would’ve been just as skeptical.”

They stood and looked at the sphere for a while, neither of them speaking.

“Have you been through yourself?” asked Pike.

“No, just in case I couldn’t get back,” said Enoch. “We need to tell everyone first. This is a test Pike, a final test. We have to tell as many people as possible that salvation is to be found here. Do you understand the nature of what you need to do now? It’s a mission from the Lord, and we’ve been chosen to spread the word as loud and as far as we can.”

He reached out and took Pike’s hand in his own.

“We can save them Pike!” he said fervently. “The townsfolk, Elizabeth, Eloise… all of them! We can save them all!”

Pike nodded, knowing that this was indeed his job. He would be the Lord’s messenger. There was no longer any doubt in his mind.

*

They sat in Andrew’s office and talked about how Pike would go about his mission; he would have to travel to as many towns as he could, tell as many people as possible, and hope that word spread even further. In a world without phones, email or even a postal service, word of mouth was all they had. When Pike’s work was done, he would go through himself.

Pike went to fetch the mayor, and brought him back so that he could be told everything. After he’d seen the gateway – and after Enoch had pushed a glass of whisky into his trembling hands – they’d told him their plan.

“I’ll let everyone know,” said the mayor, accepting a second whisky. “A town meeting. Yes.”

An emergency town meeting was held. Ten minutes later, the whole town was crowded on the hill outside the church. There was some shoving and impatience, but the general sense was one of immense relief. People were crying, hugging, praising God for delivering them from suffering. Even the staunch atheists – and there were fewer and fewer of them each passing day – had come along, out of amused curiosity.

No one was carrying luggage; they wouldn’t need their belongings in Paradise. The old and young alike climbed the hill, taking one last look out across the abandoned fields.

Enoch welcomed them all with warm smiles and kind words. He stood at the head of the crowd, and felt an overwhelming pressure to give some kind of sermon; something that might set the people’s fears at rest. So he did, telling them that all of their lost ones would be waiting on the other side in the Kingdom of Heaven. They were blessed, he told them. God had chosen them to survive this nightmare. They had been tested, and their faith had carried them through this most awful of ordeals.

In the crowd, he spotted the woman who had been crying the other night, and she smiled nervously at him, as if she was worried that things seemed too good to be true.

Enoch managed to get people to form a queue. There was no rush, he told them. Heaven was eternal; it wasn’t going anywhere. He managed to get people singing as they waited, good rousing hymns like Amazing Grace and Jerusalem.

The first person to enter was the old soldier that Enoch had spoken with the other night. He shuffled up to the curve in the air, and squinted at it with his watery blue eyes. He murmured something to himself – his wife’s name, who knew for sure? – and then stepped through and disappeared.

Cheers filled the room and then, one by one they all began to shuffle into the church, down the aisle, and up into the heat-haze shimmer; some wept as they went, some approached it with reverent silence, others laughed and sang even louder. It filled his heart with great joy and terrible loss.

Not everyone went willingly. A young boy screamed at his mother that he didn’t want to go, but his mother pressed forward, holding his hand tightly in hers. Like everyone else, they stepped into the sphere and vanished.

It took most of the day for all the townsfolk to pass through. The mayor was one of the last, and he shook Enoch’ hand vigorously.

“I’ll see you on the other side,” he laughed, and practically skipped through. “I’ll be at the bar.”

Pike led his wife and daughter up the hill to them. His wife’s eyes were rimmed in red and it was clear that she had been crying.

Enoch fumbled for some comforting words, but Pike spared him.

“Now now Liz,” he said gruffly. “Father Enoch has given me an important job. I’ve got to go tell everyone about this here doorway.”

“But why has it got to be you?” Elizabeth wailed. She was crying again.

“Because God said so,” Pike said, and that was that. He embraced her and his little girl, and whispered promises in their ears that they’d see each other again. Enoch looked away, awkward and embarrassed to be intruding on the family moment.

“Bless you Father,” said Elizabeth, hugging him.

“And you, my child.”

“Bess oo,” gurgled Eloise, wrapping herself around his leg.

Pike went inside with them. Eloise waved back at Enoch with a chubby hand.

Enoch waited outside for Pike to exit, affording him some time to say good bye. He sat on the uneven stone wall and watched as the sun set, setting the yellow fields ablaze. A large blackbird squawked in the boughs of the willow tree that hung languidly over the northern section of the graveyard.

He was at peace. He’d done a good job; more than any man could ever hope to do.

Pike walked out of the church looking utterly bereft. Enoch went to him and hugged the young man hard.

“I suppose it’s your turn now,” Pike said. He sniffed, and wiped his eyes.

The priest shook his head, “I will linger a little longer and help shepherd any stragglers through. They may have their doubts and will need me to… you know, allay their fears.”

His mind wandered to the bottle of thirty year old Glenmorangie safely nestled away in a locked drawer in the bottom of the old filing cabinet in his office. He had his own personal reservations at relinquishing the pleasures of the flesh and he wanted at least one more night with his old Scottish friend. The lord could wait one more more day.

He squeezed Pike’s shoulder. “You aren’t alone in this, Michael. Now go, rest. You should set out tomorrow, as early as you can. Who knows how long the gateway will stay open?”

“Thank you, Father.”

“Don’t thank me, Michael. Thank God.”

They said goodbye, though Enoch emphasised that it wasn’t final and the old man clapped the Pike on the shoulder and smiled. They would meet again, when Pike’s work was done.

Enoch went back into the church. Pike went back down the hill, casting one last look back at the old man who had saved the town and delivered them into the arms of the Lord.

*

Pike spent the night curled up in bed surrounded by the scent of his absent wife. The idea that she was no longer on this physical plane greatly upset him. He hoped that she could see right down, into his secret heart and know that he missed her and Eloise so much that it felt like it might break.

At dawn the next morning, Pike packed for his journey; it was only a twenty mile walk into the next town. He took only one photo of his beautiful family, which he kissed and then folded it up and slipped it into the pocket of his jacket.

He wondered if he should go and see Father Enoch before he left, but they’d said their goodbyes. Besides, they would see each other again soon. He’d promised after all, and Pike’s ma had always taught him that priests never broke their promises.

Pike started to walk, humming cheerfully to himself. Finally, everything would be alright.

*

 

Father Enoch stood before the gates of heaven.

It had been five days since Pike left. He’d made signs over the past five days and hung them around town; if strangers came by, they’d know where to find salvation.

When he was done, he passed the time reading during the day and drinking away the lonely nights.

People had come to him; refugees and people from other towns. Pike was clearly doing his job. People were listening, and desperate to be saved. Enoch had taken each of them into the church, listened to their prayers of thanks, and ushered them through the gateway.

The sphere wobbled and rippled in mid-air. A tiny part of him had wanted the whole works; golden light, angels singing and then St Peter… but the Lord worked in mysterious ways.

Enoch closed his eyes and readied himself, took a deep breath and then stepped into the sphere.

*

-82.132190, 36.335871

Bright white light assaulted him, and he raised his hands to shield his eyes from the blinding glory of God.

Except it wasn’t God, and this wasn’t Heaven. Something was wrong.

Something was dreadfully, dreadfully wrong.

The cold was savage and complete, and ripped the air from his lungs. A howling wind sent icy shrapnel biting into his face. He pried his eyes open slowly, and he saw Jesus; the plaster Jesus that had hung above the altar in St Thomas’. It was rimed with frost.

Enoch’ eyes adjusted, and he also saw the lectern and the altar. Around him, the tall blue-white teeth of mountains spread off into the distance. The burning light, it seemed, was the sun bouncing up off the snow; snow which seemed to stretch infinitely in all directions.

Littering the snowfield around him were the bodies of the townsfolk who had frozen to death in their hundreds. The entire town. He saw Eloise wrapped in Elizabeth’s arms, both of them stiff and grey-blue, the sunlight dancing on their crystalline skin.

This wasn’t salvation. This was extinction.

Enoch stumbled in the snow. He had to get back, to get away, God had chosen him, he couldn’t die here… Something gripped his chest and squeezed.

The portal didn’t work. He staggered into it, but he went through it as if it was plain, empty air.

He went to try again, but he physically couldn’t; the cold had completely consumed him. Worse than the cold was the realisation that he had killed these people. The guilt and rage hit him like a wave, he ripped the white collar from his cassock and screamed like an animal into the biting air.

Then it hit him; the knowledge that Pike, a good man, would keep telling more and more people about the gateway. No-one would ever know. There was no way to warn them to stay away. They would keep coming, and they would all die here in the snow.

The thought was too much for Enoch. He collapsed onto the freezing ground, hand stretched to the sky as if pleading for a true miracle, or at least an explanation as to why this had happened.

He lay on the freezing ground clutching his chest; in the last, frantic beats of his heart, he turned his eyes skyward, and they were filled only with regret.

 

Scrubbed

FRAGMENT_20150717_202649_-705160020

This morning, I got a letter which said I was too far behind on my payments, and that I had been enlisted for a Scrub.

I lost my job a month ago. I’d pumped the last of my savings into making my payments, but when I couldn’t find work and my money ran out, I got the letter. The letter was typed on a single sheet of thick expensive looking paper with a seal embossed at the bottom. I held it up to the light and saw the watermark running under the text.

I sit in the kitchen and read the whole thing through twice before the words started to come together and make sense; missed payments, premiums, deductions, debt, unfortunate circumstances, contract, solution. These words jumped out as if emboldened; it was the final one that set my teeth on edge and my heart racing loudly in my ears. It suddenly seemed as if the light shifted as I read each individual letter- “Scrub.”

How could five letters fill me with such dread?

I had managed to avoid it for twenty five years. But somehow, now, I had been commissioned. The solution to my debt problems was in a case that was currently being prepared for shipping.

I call the number at the bottom of the letter and speak as calmly as I can manage as I relay what I want, to at least ten automated menus, each one seemingly designed to make me as irritated as possible. The system designed so that when I finally get to speak to someone, they would have no recourse other than to terminate the call because of my poor attitude.

When I am finally put through to a real person I try to explain in a quavering voice that it’s not in my constitution to do a Scrub, that I am a good person. The calm, friendly voice at the other end of the line tells me in their most customer friendly and scripted, I am pretending to empathise with you voice, that since I don’t have a job or any savings left, that there are only two options left. Scrub or be Scrubbed, as per the conditions of the agreement I signed up to. I explain that I think I might be pregnant, but it falls on deaf, but friendly ears.

I beg, then I cry. Finally, I tell the voice that if I am assigned to be Scrubbed, I wouldn’t last ten minutes and that the person doing the Scrub would have that on their conscience for the rest of their lives. We talk in circles, following the same pattern until I am worn out and just hang up, defeated.

A few minutes later my phone buzzes to notify me that I have received an encrypted email. I have to verify who I am by the retinal sensor on my handset. The email is tracking information for my hardware. Once it arrives, I have forty eight hours to complete my contract.

At the bottom of the email is a tick box that says I agree to the terms and conditions of the scrub, but nowhere does it actually lay out the terms and conditions of this process. There is a number to call, so I can once again navigate the rough sea of automated services with white knuckled rage again should I wish.

I am nearly out of food. The fridge is empty except for the smell of ozone and a few leaves of salad frozen to the back wall.  My cupboards contain dry pasta and a couple sachets of soup in a flavour I dislike.

I call a friend from my old job and they ask how I’ve been. I want to tell them what has happened, what I am now contractually obligated to do. But if I do, I invalidate my terms and conditions and I go into the roll of names to be scrubbed. So instead, I cry down the phone to them and after a few minutes of incomprehensible sobbing they awkwardly hang up.

I can’t stand the thought of seeing the news or watching anymore real time reality shows. So, I go upstairs and pretend to read a book; each word blurs into a meaningless river of black text amongst a sea of off-white. The book is old, a gift of loosely held, yellowing pages from my mother a long time ago. I guess I could sell it, but it’s not worth much.

I drink myself into a stupor and I drift in and out of a sleep that is filled with bad dreams. I am hiding in my house and the house is slowly shrinking, constricting around me, like the coils of a vast snake. Long enough for me to realise the inevitability of the process, but fast enough to catch me before I can escape.

I’m not dumb. I get the metaphor my brain is rudely hitting me with.

When I wake up I find that the contract has been accepted and that I am absolved of guilt for doing this by virtue of not being able to remember the act.

There is a knock at my door and when I an open the door, an official looking person smiles at me grimly and takes my fingerprints. He hands me an innocuous looking package and leaves. My phone makes a cheerful sound as I receive a message telling me that I now have forty eight hours to make good on my agreement. I apologise out of habit and shut the door.

I can’t bear the idea of unwrapping the box, rifling through pink polystyrene peanuts and finding a face, a folder and a gun. I sit and stare at it on my kitchen counter top, sending its oily shadow across the fake marble, like it’s leaking. I can feel the weight of each accumulated moment slowly building, as what little time I have winds down.

I start to try and make myself hate them, the person in the folder. It’s their fault they put themselves in this position. They deserve it. They must deserve it. Probably some rapist in a state that has run out of room for rapists in their prisons. Definitely a womaniser, maybe someone like my dad.

Spurred on by the mounting pressure of each passing second bringing with it the weight of the last, I cave and slit the box open with a kitchen knife. I hesitate for a second and then I reach into the pink guts of the box. I feel something inside me let go and I watch myself from outside of my body as I reach in and pull out the folder.

It’s a manila folder with Confidential stamped across the cover in scarlet ink. It’s not very thick; I guess it will just have their address and some basic background information on the person to be scrubbed.

My heart is hammering in my chest as I flip the first page of the folder and see you there.

I sigh. I can’t hate you.

The photograph is a standard face shot, you are squinting a little from the flash, which has forced your thick, brown eyebrows together – not enough for them to meet, but enough to make you look slightly sad. You have deep hazel coloured eyes, and dark hair that is at the point of starting to turn grey. You are clean shaven, have a prominent chin, almost too much chin, but I can’t hate you for having a strong jawline. I can see the top of the charcoal suit and a tie, which is the sort of pale blue that makes you think of glaciers, or a winter morning.

Your lips have a sad downturn like you knew that you would meet me someday and I would be the bearer of your bad news and a bullet.

I turn the page, and there is another photo of you. You look tall in this one; I don’t think you knew you are being photographed because you are pulling a slightly goofy face, but there is a hint of smile. I get to know you for the next hour or so.

You are a whole country away, hundreds of miles east. A one-way bus ticket is tucked into the manilla folder, along with a small envelope which holds some crisp bank notes; for misc. expenses, the enclosed piece of paper explains. It’s not a lot, but it’s more money than I’ve seen in two weeks.

I look into the box and pushed tight between two pieces of tightly moulded foam is a small black gun, the magazine and three bullets.

I take them out and turn the box upside down on the counter top, a small manual for the gun rides a pale pink wave of polystyrene out into the cool counter top.

I read through it with one hand holding the gun in the other. When I pick it up, (deceptively weighty) the firing mechanism unlocks. The manual tells me that the gun has been biometrically locked for my use only. It goes on to say that clause 127 of the contract I signed states clearly that, the signatory cannot provide pecuniary recompense for, or request assistance from any other party in the completion of the Scrub. Contravention of any of the clauses in the contract could result in the invalidation and termination of the contract and the application of penalties. 

I follow the instructions in the manual and gingerly press the bullets into the magazine and slide it into the bottom of the gun. I push the firing mode into safety and I put the thing down. Holding it makes my skin tingle and my hands sweat.

I look at the clock. I exist now in the purgatorial state of waiting, until I can climb aboard the bus with the deadly contents of the box stuffed inside a cheap backpack.

Will you know that I am coming for you? That a pale, twenty five year old woman with unkempt hair, bags under her eyes, and debts she can no longer pay off, is coming to shoot you in front of your family. Will you see it in my eyes before I pull the gun on you? Will you run?

*

I put the gun (now loaded) back in its case, and stuff it, along with the folder, cash, and some spare clothes into my backpack. I leave the apartment with my backpack hanging from a single shoulder and walk towards the pale sun, and out of my neighbourhood towards the bus station. It’s cold and my breath trails behind me like gun smoke.

I leave the house with my backpack hanging from a single shoulder and walk towards the pale sun and out of my neighbourhood towards the bus station. It’s cold and my breath trails behind me like gun smoke.

At the bus station I buy a weak coffee at a stand manned by a rotund Italian man and wait on the bus as it slowly fills with people. When it finally moves off, we crawl through the city exchanging passengers, young for old, black for white, male for female.

The dense flow of traffic eases off as we roll through the suburbs past neat rows of houses with their well kept lawns and children running for the school bus with heavy bags slung across their backs.

Cars pass; people going to work to pay their bills, so they don’t have to do this. It’s strangely nice to have a purpose for being awake at this time instead of just stress and insomnia. I feel like I am existing purely in the moment; it doesn’t matter about bills or routine, or any of that stuff.

The coffee is only half full and cold. I balance it on my legs as I pull the folder out of my bag. The man next to me closes his eyes and pretends to be asleep.

I angle myself so that no-one can read the file and I flip through the pages again. I say your name in my head over and over again. In my mind, I play out the scene of where we meet and how it will go down; I will walk up to you and you will sneer at me. I will pull the gun out, push it up into your ribs. I’ll pull the trigger and you will die. I will leave the weapon at the scene so the police will know it’s a legitimate scrub and I will be debt free for twelve months. In my mind, I am sure I will do it.

I trace a finger around your features; eyes that have never met mine. Are you a better person than me? Do you deserve to live more than me? It doesn’t matter, because I want to live and I can’t run. You don’t look poor in this picture, but maybe your circumstances have changed. How much money do you owe?

I imagine another scene, where you answer your door and smile at me, and we sit in your kitchen and talk. The whole thing is just a big misunderstanding. See, you recently split up with your wife, (who cheated on you for some unfathomable reason.) You haven’t been in town long; maybe some of the bills got sent to the old address, and you didn’t get the messages because you got a new phone too. So I ring up the company and they tell me to stand down. They say that money that you just put into the account has cleared and that means that I don’t have to go through with it. I apologise to you, and you tell me that it’s okay because these things happen and maybe if I let you put my number into your phone, we could meet up under better circumstance and get a drink or something?

The bus judders to a stop and my coffee falls on the floor and a dirty brown wave washes under the seats the seats in front. I quickly back-heel the empty cup under the chair and carry on reading as passengers look around for the culprit. The morning cold has turned into staccato threads of rain now and it taps at the glass drawing my eye to the city’s disjointed and jagged skyline, where I see distant curtains of rain touching down.

 

It’s going to be a long bus journey. I try and get some sleep, but I dream of the coils again, trapping me and crushing me. So instead I stay awake, through the morning and afternoon; the bus, in turns weaving through cities and suburbs and highways, that stretch long, and flat, and grey.  Evening comes and pale violet creeps across the horizon. When the passenger lights go out, my eyelids finally feel heavy enough to sleep, but it’s too late. Like so many other things.

*

My stop comes as we roll into an quiet town. I jam the folder into my pack and leave the bus. It’s still raining lightly. I hurry into the shelter offered by a squat, brown office block, and consider my options. I could just go and see you now. I know where you are. I know your schedule. I know you’ll be at home. I could just go and get it over with.

I see a few bric-a-brac stores, a discount clothing store and a small diner across the road, Shelly’s Place the bright sign buzzing outside says. I count out some change in my hand and I’ve got enough for another coffee and some food. I’ve got a headache now and it pounds against the inside of my eyes, and makes me grind my teeth

I walk over and take a quick look inside through the window at the half empty place. There’s a man reading a book and staring out the window. He looks at me briefly and then goes back to his novel.

The bell above the door jingles as I walk in and the man reading the book looks up at me with wide eyes.

I slide into the window seat behind an old couple, and look out as the occasional car sloshes past in the rain.

The place is alive with voices, laughter, and the endless sounds of cooking; plates being stacked or collected, hissing bacon, and the steam from the coffee machine making the air near the ceiling thick with fog. The smells sets my stomach off and soon my mouth is watering. I crave the entire menu, bacon and pancakes and whatever else is on the damn laminated thing.

The old man laughs and stretches a liver spotted hand across the table, and squeezes the old lady’s. She is not wearing a wedding ring. Perhaps this is a geriatric tryst. I smile at the idea.

A woman, presumably Shelly, approaches me with an electronic pad in hand.

“And what can I get you today, miss?” She smiles, but behind the bad veneer, I can see that she hates me. The lips curl upwards revealing lipstick on her nicotine-yellow incisors, in a shade similar to blood. Her crow’s feet tells me of impatience and years of bitchy looks cast from across a room.

I order a coffee and a stack of pancakes with bacon and she disappears, leaving me to stare out of the misted window. I fan away condensation with the palm of my hand so I can see outside. The rain has mostly stopped, but far away I spy the driftwood-grey shapes of pregnant clouds coming this way.

I feel sick at the thought of what is coming, but when my food comes I vacuum it down with a speed I didn’t think I was capable of.

My food comes, and for a blissful few minutes, satisfying my hunger is all that matters. The food doesn’t last as long as I want it to. I clean the plate, and settle back in my seat with a heavy sigh.

I close my eyes and concentrate on the warmth of the cup pressed into my palms; these are my favourite moments, sated and alone in a place filled with people. My thoughts are gone for a few moments.

The mood is broken by the door opening, the jangle of the bell above it, and the sudden rush of frigid, foreign air. It’s closely followed by the screaming of a baby, and the fussing of its parents.

Do you have kids? God, I hope you don’t. I try to memorise your features, so I don’t have to give the game away too soon by referring to a picture of you before I shoot you. The kind eyes and easy brow. Laughter, but also sadness there. I try and lock the image of you in my minds eye. Will you open the door for me or will it be someone else? Will I have to ask for you by name?

I think I will recognise your face. I think I do recognise your face in a different context. Who are you to me, and I to you? Soon to be knitted together in violent cause and effect, like a double helix. So many subtle confluences of events and circumstances dancing in the ether waiting to be tied to an inevitable outcome.

I wrack my brain trying to think of it, have we slept together? No. Definitely not, I would remember that. Go to school together? No, I am pretty sure of that. Maybe we met some time in the past, maybe I served you, and maybe you were rude to me in a line somewhere. Maybe, I’ll just try and cling on to that.

The coffee tastes burnt and the child doesn’t stop screaming. I decide that being cold and wet outside is better situation than warm and annoyed.

I pull my rain-damp coat back on. Water runs down the back of my neck and I shudder. I shoulder my bag, and leave what amounts to the last of my money on the table.

The air is freezing and it sharpens me up again. The pain in my head has eased a little. It’s mid-day; I really need to get a move on. I thread my other arm through the strap and pull them both tighter; this is my serious walking set up.

It takes me about forty minutes, and I am on your street. Do you know about me? I can turn around and run if I wanted to, but then I would be in your position.

Another thirty seconds and I am at your house. I tell myself that this isn’t actually going to happen.

Five seconds and I am at your door.

I place the backpack on the floor between my feet and retrieve the pistol. I hold the deadly thing in my sweaty grip, the trigger engages with a small, cheerful beep. I press your doorbell.

Noises in your house, your wife? Your cleaner? You? Are you a kind or a good man or are you a bad man? I guess it doesn’t matter.

I level the gun to about your stomach height. You are going to be my first and I wonder who I will be afterwards.

I could turn away now, but I just let the moment play out until I know it is too late. I have no choice.

There is movement behind the frosted strips of glass.

I clear my throat and remember to smile.

.