by D R Miller
snakebite and black
I first laid eyes on him two days ago.
I was standing on a dark, windswept train platform late in the evening. I had been out with a few friends after work and had drunk a little too much again. I know, it’s a recurring habit that has become all too familiar for me over recent weeks since Joanne threw me out, but it helps the evenings pass quicker and keeps my mind free from the burden of regret.
There were only three other commuters waiting alongside me for the last train of the evening. As usual, everyone had spread themselves evenly along the platform for as much privacy as they could manage, keeping themselves to themselves. It was a cold night and I fidgeted from one foot to the other to keep warm. My hands were firmly entrenched in the depths of my jacket pockets while my collar was up around my face as far as it would reach. I even hunched my shoulders in my efforts to maximise every last bit of protection from the biting, wintery wind that howled along the train track and blew litter across the platform.
I squinted at the station clock.
Two minutes until the train arrived.
I would have been home by now if I still lived with Joanne.
Then I noticed him. Staring at me from the opposite platform. I could have sworn blind there was no one there a moment ago and yet, as soon as I looked back from the clock, there he was. Right in front of me. Looking straight at me. I say looking at me; I was unable to see his eyes, but he was facing in my direction. Okay, maybe it was the drink, but it felt like he was looking at me.
The man wore a fleeced hood that reached up from beneath the raised collar of a long, dark coat. The hood was overly large and hung over the man’s face so I could only make out his mouth and chin in the weak, amber light of the station lamp. His clothing was so black that each time the lamp buzzed and flickered occasionally, he seemed to disappear into the darkness for a millisecond. Then, when the lamp fired up and found him again, there he was, a dark shape with an amber halo.
I have to admit, I was completely unnerved. The man piqued a sense of morbid fascination in me. I felt him returning my gaze from under the hood and normally I would have avoided any such contact in accordance with the unwritten etiquette of public transport. But alcohol had emboldened me beyond such etiquette. Did I know him? There was certainly something familiar… He cocked his head to one side and snapped it backwards in a fluid movement. Was he beckoning me over?
I was giving serious consideration to finding out what he wanted when the train pulled into the station, startling me slightly. The man was lost from sight as the brakes squealed and the train jarred to a stop. I hastily boarded the nearly deserted carriage and chose a seat facing forward on the side closest to the stranger. I looked for the man immediately. I put my nose to the window, then cupped my hands around my face to help see past the reflection of the interior lights. There was no one there. Alcohol had never made me hallucinate before, but I guess there is a first time for everything! I waited, concerned, bordering on irrational. I half expected the man to cross the footbridge and jump on the carriage at any moment. I puffed out a long sigh when the doors finally hissed, closed, and the train departed the station without incident.
Despite my inebriation, I had been unnerved and felt far from comfortable on my short walk home half an hour later.
My second encounter was yesterday. My headache had told me I needed some air, so I left work during my lunch break to buy a sandwich from the local supermarket. It was a fairly regular routine for me, a chance to leave my desk and stretch my legs. The supermarket was old-fashioned with chest-high shelving and price tags stuck to many of the products. The in-store advertising was hand-written onto luminous orange card, cut with jagged edges to resemble a cartoon explosion.
I stood by the refrigerated shelf trying to decide between Joanne’s favourite, tuna mayo on brown bread, or the half price but just out of date BLT. That’s when I noticed the man standing two aisles over. At least, I presumed it was the same man because he was dressed in the same hood and jacket as the night before. Again, although I could only make out his chin, I could feel his eyes boring through me. Despite the harsh neon tubes overhead, very little light seemed to fall on him, as though it were absorbed into his dark clothing. I remember how his stillness made him stand out amidst the bustle of the shop around him. I looked away immediately, not wanting to catch the man's gaze, yet knowing he had seen me looking at him.
My stomach dropped like a stone and I had a sudden feeling of sickness, of unreasoning dread. A thick dose of paranoia surged through me. Was it Joanne’s brother? Was he looking for some payback for my indiscretion? Had Joanne put him up to it? I had never met Joanne’s brother in our few short months together and quite frankly didn’t want to after hearing about some of the things he was into.
I snatched the BLT from the shelf and headed towards the checkouts with urgency in my step. Four people in the shortest queue. I seriously considered putting the sandwich back on the shelf and making a hasty exit, but my hunger was more rational than my head, so I walked to the back of the queue and stood impatiently, tapping my foot nervously. I faced away from the stranger and my eyes became fixed on the basket belonging to the old lady in front of me.
The queue had moved quickly but I found myself becoming impatient with the checkout girl. She just sat there, waiting for the old lady to unpack her entire basket onto the conveyor belt without attempting to swipe any of the items through the checkout machine.
Come on! How long can it possibly take to unpack five items?
I wanted to look over my shoulder. Was he there? If so, was he looking at me? I glanced at the other two checkout points to see if they were free, but they both had a queue. The checkout girl, barely old enough to be out of school, had finally begun processing the old lady's items. I shivered involuntarily as a chill meandered down my spine.
Someone has walked over your grave, Nana used to say. At the moment, her sayings were not helping.
I was sure he was there. Behind me. Certain he was staring at me. My frustration began to bubble when the checkout girl had to ring for assistance to process a bottle of wine, then whistled like a boiling kettle when the old lady began to sort through the silver coins in her purse to pay for the items.
I was unable to stand it any longer.
I whipped my head round to look frantically about the shop.
My shoulders relaxed and I exhaled a long, relieved sigh as the steam of my frustration began to dissipate. The old lady took her receipt and poked it neatly into a hidden compartment of her purse whilst standing in the way of the checkout’s packing area. I stood close beside her, impatient, trying my hardest to mentally hurry her along. She placed her purse into her bag, but it no longer mattered. I gave the checkout girl the correct money and took the sandwich. I did not wait for the receipt as I skipped round the old lady and headed for the exit, leaving her to frown and tut at my rudeness.
As I approached the automatic doors to leave the shop, I glanced up just as the doors closed in front of me. I almost jumped out of my skin to see the hooded stranger in the reflection of the glass! I spun round, attracting attention and more disapproving tuts from the elderly shoppers. The man was nowhere to be seen. I backed through the doors and bumped into a mother with a push chair as I went. I mumbled an unconvincing apology at her, then turned and hastily headed back towards the office.
I spent the afternoon glancing nervously out of the second-floor window. Every time I looked, I expected to see the stranger staring up at me from the street. Thankfully, he was nowhere to be seen.
The third time I saw the man was this morning. I was standing on the pavement at a zebra crossing waiting for the traffic to stop when I noticed him looking at me from the other side of the street. It was drizzling and he was wearing the same dark clothes as our previous encounters, the hood hanging low over his features. This time I could see a faint smile beneath his hood and wondered if he was mocking me. He raised his hand and beckoned to me with his index finger, slowly moving it back and forth.
That was it. I had had enough. Who was this man who had been stalking me for three days now? If it was Joanne’s brother, I needed to put a stop to it. I wanted some answers! I marched off the pavement to go and find out.
Looking down, I can see myself.
I am sprawled across the road six feet below my vantage point with my head in the gutter. My upper torso is at an unnatural angle to my pelvis and my left leg seems to bend backward at the thigh. Tyre marks lead away from me and end at a large, silver coloured off-road vehicle with a blood-stained dent in the bonnet and a shattered windscreen. The driver’s door swings open and a young man runs from the vehicle towards where I am lying. A crowd is gathering as blood begins to mingle with rainwater, filling the gutter before bubbling and gurgling down the drain.
My initial confusion turns to shock and panic when I realise what I am seeing. I notice something glimmering beneath me, a twisted tendril which stretches from a hole in my skull and snakes up into the sky towards my feet. It looks like a thick silken thread which floats and sways on each gust of wintery wind. As it curls up my legs, I can see that the end has frayed into smaller tendrils, like tree roots, each one helping to grip me and hold me steady above the chaos of the scene below.
As I try to make sense of what is happening, I notice the stranger again, standing in the road beneath me. He approaches the thread that anchors me. People are running past him, around him, but nobody appears to notice him. He looks up at me and smiles. It is not a cruel smile, but it is hard to give it context without seeing his eyes. There is plenty of light so his face should be plain to see, but yet again, all the features above his mouth are shrouded in an inexplicable shadow.
The man steps back a pace and suddenly he is holding a scythe. A long, black, twisted wooden shaft with a thick, wickedly curved blade at one end. I panic as it suddenly dawns on me who the stranger is. Using both hands, he pulls the scythe back above his head and sweeps it in a long, graceful arc before raising his head to smile up at me again.
The thread linking me to the world is severed. The scene below me fades to nothing as my screams are lost upon the wind and rain. My last thought is of Joanne, as I float endlessly upwards.