First chapter of 'Jack' by Richard Willis

 

Jack

Chapter 1.

 

Friday 3rd December 19:34pm

 

“Are you ready?”

Tyler Hughes heard his friend call from the living room.  “Nearly,” he replied.  He pulled the laces tight on his trainers.  This was going to be your standard Friday night pub crawl with the usual alcohol and expected conversation.  That suited him fine.

“Andy’s just text me, they’re at the pub already,” his friend called again.

“They’re early,” said Tyler.  “I thought everyone was meeting at eight?”

“Hurry up and I’ll tell you.”

Tyler sprayed himself with deodorant and put on his brown hoodie.  No need to dress up, better to keep things casual.  Trainers, jeans and that nineteen year old stubble shaved clean off.  He ticked off the rest of the basics from his prep list.  Keys, check.  Phone, check.  Money, check, or what little he could scrounge together.  Ready to go.

As he joined his friend in the living room he asked, “So, why’s everyone in such a rush?”  Tyler’s home was a simple maisonette flat and there was only a short hallway separating the two rooms, hardly a divide to block the conversation.  The reason became apparent when he saw his friend busily texting on his phone.  “Nash?” Tyler persisted.  “Why are we in a rush?”

Nash held up the index finger of his free hand. Tyler refrained from any further query behind a straightened smile and waited for his friend to finish.  Plain walls were a suitable entertainment until Nash said, “Austin’s with a few girls from his work place so we’re all meeting up before they scatter.  Some of them are supposed to be pretty fit.  This is a good chance for you to mingle, get you out of this dry patch.”

A set up was in progress and Tyler’s defences flared.  It’ll be embarrassing, that old voice reminded him.  Your future tied up with someone random.  To be prepared he scoured for chat up lines he didn’t know and the ever elusive knack at small talk no one bothered to teach him.  This wasn’t what he had planned for his standard night out.  “Great,” replied Tyler with a flat tone.

“As long as you’re up for it?” checked Nash.

“What do you mean?” asked Tyler.  He’d let his reluctance slip out and gave himself a kick to drum up the retraction.

“Your headaches.”

“Oh, right,” replied Tyler, as his friend did all the work. “They’re not too bad, they come and go…I’ll be alright.”

“Did you go to the Doctors?”

“Yeah, but they weren’t much help,” said Tyler, giving his critical assessment.  “Three weeks I’ve been having these migraines, they ran every test, took an x-ray…and then told me there’s nothing wrong.”

“Andy said you almost blacked out the other day.”

“Yeah, while I was at work,” Tyler confirmed.  “The migraine just hit me.  Luckily I was at my desk so if I had blacked out…”

“It wouldn’t have been so bad,” his friend concluded for him.

“Exactly, not like if I was driving.”

“And the doctors still said there was nothing wrong with you?”

“They just proscribed me some pain medication and asked me to check in if things get any worse.”

“Nice, proscription pain killers and beer,” Nash joked.  “You’re going to have a wild night.”

Tyler laughed but he followed it up with a new concern, “I should be okay, right?  It’s been a few hours since my last pill.”

“You should be fine.”

His friend’s assumption was based on absolutely nothing but it made Tyler’s next breath a little easier all the same.

“Anyway, come on, we better go, everyone’s waiting.”

The two friends left the flat and made their way to the first bar.  They barely had enough time to discuss his hospital visits before they arrived and ventured inside.  The bar was somewhat deserted for a Friday evening which made it easier to find their friends amongst the gathered circles.

“Drink?” asked Nash.

“Kronenbourg,” Tyler’s replied.

A few shuffled steps took Tyler to his other friends to say hello.

“Hey look, the hypochondriac’s emerged from his cave,” joked Andy.       

The comment raised a laugh and Tyler braved a reply.  “I could have brain cancer,” he added with some melodrama for greater effect.

Andy spotted the lack of sincerity straight away; ten years of friendship made this conclusion a fact.  “Brain cancer, really?” he said, carrying on with the joke.  “And yet you still said yes to getting pissed with us.  Yeah, you’re really dying.”

“You wouldn’t leave me alone until I said yes.”

“You still took less convincing than normal.”

There were a few sniggers from the rest and Tyler replied, “I couldn’t be bothered staying in my flat for another weekend.  The doctors don’t know what’s wrong, I don’t know what’s wrong, so I’m just going to forget about it and get drunk.”  Tyler’s grand conclusion raised a cheer from his friends and a few chinks of their half full glasses.

“A rare thing coming from you,” Andy noted.  “But, dear God it’s good to hear.”

Nash returned from the bar and handed Tyler his drink.  As soon as the glass touched his hand he took his first gulp to get the night started.

The group had assembled with Tyler on one side and Austin and his herded work colleagues on the other.  He latched his sight to his drink.  The plan was to get drunk, go home, and enjoy his hangover in peace.  Alone.  His own private, little corner.

“So, my birthday’s coming up,” said Andy, “is everyone still up for one of those experience days?”

“Any ideas what we’re going to do?” asked Nash.

“A few.  There’s parachuting, or race car driving.  Or, there’s one where you get to drive,” Andy paused for dramatic effect, “a tank.”

Applause from everyone all but sealed the deal.  Tyler cheered but quickly jumped off the extreme event band wagon.  That’s too dangerous, his little voice advised.  And far too expensive.  Whether it was caution or good old fashioned fear, this voice worked to keep him safe.  Watching the drops slide down his glass he prayed they didn’t single him out on the list.

“That sounds good to me,” Nash added.

“You don’t get to fire the tank,” said Andy, “which is a bit of a shame, but it’ll still be funny.”

“Damn straight,” added Nash.

Sleep made an unexpected call to Tyler.  Their words climbed over the gentle ambient music but only as dull and corrupted bass.  His head was a one tonne weight balanced on twigs.  The lights dimmed behind falling slides and somewhere else slipped in.

A voice called from this beyond.  Their words were smuggled amongst all the others as a whisper.  He couldn’t make out what it was saying, only that it was getting closer and the creator would not be disobeyed.  If a simple yes was uttered his body would have dropped.  There were no fists raised or shouts released, only compliance on his part.

“Tyler?” Nash called.  A sharp jab broke the delirium in half and Tyler came to with the snap.  “Are you okay?” 

Sound jumped at Tyler at its usual frequency.  He looked his friends in the eyes.  “Yeah, I’m fine,” he assured them.  “Just felt a bit funny all of a sudden.”

“Headaches again?” Andy asked.

“No, nothing like that,” Tyler replied.  “I just felt dizzy.”

“You always were a bit of a light weight,” Andy playfully remarked.

Tyler parted his lips to show his teeth but couldn’t shape the smile that was to go with it.  Smirks and sideways glances were sent his way before he returned his sight to his drink.

“Is you’re company still cheating you out on a party this Christmas?” Andy asked Nash, changing the subject.

Tyler let the conversation carry on as more guided thoughts stole his attention.  What the Hell was that? he pondered.  Should I be worried?  He tried to find a reason for what happened.  It would make things easier if he gave it a name.  When that whisper slipped in his choice was removed and compliance immediately followed.  Tyler took a sip of his beer to steady his nerves.  It fizzed down his throat to raise a smile as its flavour brought a welcomed familiarity.  He’d bounce back, he always did.

The conversation seeped in a little.  “Why not have a makeshift party with the others from your office?” Andy proposed.

“Probably will,” replied Nash.  “Birmingham?  The German Market, maybe?”

“Lots of beer and fragile stalls.  No possible hazards there,” said Andy.

Laughter followed the predicted calamity but Tyler remained absent.  Busy fingers pulled and pried at his eye lids, frantic in their need to seal them shut.

The glass slipped down his fingers.  He was going to drop it!  Down his neck, into his arms and into his knuckles, a jolt clamped his hand.  That other voice was calling.  Not his own.  Not his friends.  There was no name and yet somehow it was familiar.

The remedy to the attack was the order to sleep.  He couldn’t feel his body.  Skin and muscle had turned to vapour in the wake of the order given and it was given gladly.

Sounds fell away and were replaced by a high pitched ting in his ear.

Lines of distortion trickled down the walls as abstract colours, reducing the bar to sludge.  The people faded from grasp except for one.  A stranger stood beside Tyler and held his shape in the collapse.

He was a taller man and wore a three quarter length coat over a well tailored suit.  A blank expression was the greeting but his eyes carried incite into a coloured history.  The whites, the browns and the pupils spoke the words Tyler could hear, leading him to a place far away, somewhere cold and out of sync with his safe, little corner.

Movement broke their gaze as the stranger placed his hand on Tyler’s shoulder. 

Sights and sounds regained their distinction with an instantaneous rush of attention.  The bar, his friends and their comforts were drowned out and replaced with waves of gushing water.

Gravity made its claim and clawed at his legs.  The tiled floor of the bar was plucked from under his feet and Tyler plunged face first into a rushing stream.  The rapid descent dunked him beneath the waves.  Upside down and back to front, everything span and toppled.  Those quiet comforts had been ripped away and his senses sparked to try and rebuild the world.

Weightless in the void he gasped and rancid water rushed in to clog his throat.  It was in his eyes, curling every colour and every line around and around and around.  It was in his nostrils, sealing his remaining breath behind a tidal wave.

Muscles cramped.  His skin seized.  The world had turned into a river of ice.

The how and the why would have to wait.  Can’t breathe.  For God’s sake, what’s happening.  Can’t breathe.  Panic set in.  Seizing fingers clawed at the ripples above.  Close to the surface or miles away, there was no way to be sure.  There was light above.  Kicks propelled him a little closer.  Another thrust of his arms.  He couldn’t hold in the air much longer.  Needed to breathe.  Had to breathe.  Locked away, the last spec of oxygen tightened his ribs, pulling them in.  Another kick.  Another thrust. 

Rushing tides erupted into a gushing roar as he breached the surface.  Rapid currents, overlapping and swirling tugged at his legs and threatened to dunk him under again as they carried him down stream.  The water in his mouth turned to rotten cabbage and he spat it out with a wretch.  He hauled in a full gasp of air which was then spilled out in timid whimpers. 

Afloat on the waves he was now lavished with those missing colours and hues.  A few service lights dotted on the far wall smeared the tunnel with ambers, then browns, then blacks, as his sight exceeded their reach.  Shadows curled above with open jaws.  Below, the water sank into a bottomless ocean.  Gasps on the inhale and cries on the exhale echoed in the tunnel, draining into hollow moans in the distance.

A flowing stream, wider than his reaching hands, held him inside rigid shores of glistening stone.  No sky above; he was closed in on all sides, trapped underground. 

Fluid sprang up his nose and pressed down into his throat until he choked.  Quick, vibrant kicks kept his head above the surface.  Thoughts were sparse.  Breathe.  Stay afloat.

Caught in the twirling currents, his unforgiving captor slammed Tyler against a sluice gate.  Assault quickly turned into a blessing as Tyler found leverage.  He poked his fingers through the tiny gaps and clamped down.  Slime, slick and green, gave traction to his efforts and helped him find a stable grip.

Slacking arms and dwindling breath whittled down everything into a drive that was secure, get out of the water!  Tyler complied wholeheartedly.

He edged himself across the grate.  He let go with one hand, locked a new grip and pulled himself further along.  Had to be careful, couldn’t rush.  The waters thrashed at his back and he gave the proper respect.  The grate was sturdy and with five rivets on each hand he could take his time.  Passed the chequered gaps the tunnel filtered out into a bottomless black.  The water continued to gambol down stream, far into the distance were Tyler’s sight couldn’t follow.

His simple method of one hand after the other slid him to the cobbled shore. With a strained wheeze he lifted himself from the water and dropped onto the walkway as a sodden heap.  Rancid fluid poured from his clothes and laid a pool beneath him.  The muscles in his arms and legs strained at the joints, he felt he’d been running for hours.  He lay still, dragging in his next breath with a grind in his throat.  Pressed hard against the stone he was safe for now and rewarded himself with a rest. 

The how and the why came back but Tyler ignored them again as he saw just ahead, an open manhole.  Layered across his tongue and crammed up his nose, the stink became the motivator.  Muscles begged and pleaded to stay put but the promise from the sky above was a more compelling bedfellow.  He lifted himself off the stone with a laboured shove and edged himself towards salvation.

There was light above, he’d be safe there.  Answers were waiting outside with their blankets to coddle him.  Buildings, streets, a skyline, everything he can use to get his bearings and fix his feet to the ground. 

He ran his fingers along the wall.  The erosion of one hundred and fifty years scratched along his finger tips.  Even underground the plummeting temperatures seeped into the walls and shared the chill.  At the slightest caress his fingers turned numb and sent sparks shooting up his exposed finger nails. 

He reached the manhole and climbed the ladder.  Fingers curled to grip the rungs and skin seized across his joints.  Every part of him wanted to buckle and fall limp and it was only the promise of escape that lifted his feet to the next rung and pulled him a little higher. 

After the final rung he reached out and grabbed at something to hold onto.  His fingers pried and dug deep into the cracked tarmac.  He lodged each hand into the makeshift grooves and dragged himself into the outside world.  Snarling breaths fuelled the heavy lifting and he scrapped his chilled skin across a bed of nails.

He dragged his legs from the hole and rested on his hands and knees.  Long gasps for air invited the winter’s chill into his lungs.  He’d never felt so cold before in his life.  Where were the walls of his home?  Where were the smiling faces?  There was no way he could blame this on a dream, the winter bit too hard.

His sight jittered from one side of the road to the next, hoping to find shelter or someone to help.  To his left a line of flat, black trees were etched out against a zaffre streaked horizon.  Branches twitched to show they were alive but the night stole everything else.  What ever lay beyond the natural barrier was lost in the darkness except for the light of a church on a far off hilltop.

On the other side, passed a chain link fence, bright floodlights from a factory estate called him close.  The bundle of offices and factories were dormant at this unknown hour but over their carved lines he could see the whites and yellows of a distant town.  The chain link fence barred what would have been a straight shot to civilisation and left him confined to the road. 

The expected references and familiar names he promised himself had yet to present themselves.  The town wasn’t his home. That was the only certainty he could claim.  Where was he?  Birmingham?  Worcester?  Names and places appeared but none of them seemed to fit.  The road at his feet was the only certainty and he followed it, leaving the gushing sewer behind him.

His friends were gone.  Dear God, what’s happened to them?

Familiar comforts had been replaced with a single stretch of road and nameless buildings.  He could’ve been anywhere.  That could be any town.  He’d been out drinking countless times but never like this.  He’d always find his way home.  Some of his friends had even joked there was a homing beacon implanted in his brain. 

Binge drinking as the reason was dismissed with a swift no.  This was different.  He carried himself with a limp.  Hands dropped at his sides and his shoes scraped the tarmac.  He was exhausted but not hung over.  The how and the why returned for a third attempt and this time found a captivated audience.  The only problem, Tyler had no answers to give.  No memories.  No explanation.  He tried to think back, add more frames to the reel but his mind was blank.  There was the bar, Andy and Nash talking and drinking and then it tumbled into a river of frozen needles as it swallowed him whole.  There was nothing in between.  The how and the why plunged into the same blank patch.  One second he was in the bar and the next he was face flat in the water.  Tyler picked at the black space, waiting for the grand inspiration to come, only to be driven away by the uncertainty of it all.

“Help!” he shouted.  There must be people working nearby and he prayed for a hundred of them  with cars and phones and warmth.  “Somebody, please help me!”

There were a few pathways and small roads inside the estate in view but there were no clues to indicate where they would lead.  Entrance or exit.  The best short cut could have been right in front of him and he would have walked straight passed it.

Amongst the glare of the floodlights slips of black played and danced.  Over the walls, bobbing through the stacks of pallets, diving behind the cargo containers, a sordid company teased him.  There was a sweep of movement with no body to claim it.  Arms stretched across the sides of buildings as black streaks.  Crooked bodies jumped and skipped to follow him.  They twirled and flew and streaked as the shades claimed this night to play.  Rounded shapes turned and followed with the eyes he could feel upon him.

He looked.  A trick of the light?  Adrenalin? A person?  The shadows turned to statues as their music stopped.  They didn’t want to ruin the game.  He didn’t call out again.  The thought he was being watched crawled over his skin with the cold in toe.  There had to be a turning further along the road where he could make his way into what ever town was within view.  This was his focus; everything else was pushed away.

Wind broke against him as waves of ice.  His clothes were soaked through and clung to his skin, enticing the cold to crawl across every inch.  The chill ran through his matted hair to pinch his skull tight.  He wrapped his arms around his chest to kindle the few flickers of heat left in his body and his hands were squeezed beneath his arm pits. 

Another bitter wind pushed him to the side of the road and his teeth chipped away at each other.  An English December was no time to be outside, especially without a coat and no break against the wind. 

Traps lay along the road as cracks and pot holes.  Hidden amongst the shadows Tyler tripped over every one, putting strain on his withering legs. 

Far ahead, something grabbed his attention and didn’t let go.  Lights swooped out from behind an invisible corner.  Two spheres, no bigger than dots skimmed the surface of the road.  They were moving closer towards him.  Too fast to be torches.

Headlights.  A car!

The lights broke through the storm.  Miles still to walk were reduced to a handful of ever decreasing metres.  “Hey!  Over here!” he shouted.  The promise of rescue regrouped his scattered confidence faster than the car travelled.  He didn’t care who they were, or what they wanted as compensation, he welcomed them with jumps and waving arms.

The car followed the road straight to him.

“Over here!  Help me, please!”

More lights?  The piecing glare of solid white merged with a rhythmic pulse of blue.

A police car, even better! Tyler thought, bringing laughter to his words.  “Over here!”

The familiar comforts that had been snatched away were returned in the flashing blues and purr of the engine.  They would take him away from this darkness, all to the sound of his never ending praise.

As the car neared him the driver slowed and the passenger stuck her head out of the window to breach the contrast of light inside and dark outside.  Tyler waved his arms up and down to carve himself out of the gloom.  Her investigation had a simple purpose, friend or foe, concern or passer by.  She held his face in profile and in that instant her own slid into an open mouthed glare.  There was no mistake on her part and she quickly darted back into the car.  She spoke to the driver who then brought the car to a sudden halt, turning as he did.

The road was cut in half by the metal blockade and Tyler stopped with his feet nailed to the spot.  He looked back, expecting to see those shadows rushing up behind him along with there creators.  No one.  The road was a vacant line that stretched into nothing.  The officer was looking at him and only him. 

The officers climbed out of the car but sheltered behind the doors and bonnet, building up to their approach. 

He was patient zero; a host of cancerous spoors covered his skin, along with what ever else his imagination could conjure up.  His breaths were black smoke, his body riddle with lice.  Something made them keep their distance, but what?

“Tyler Hughes?” one of the officers shouted, ending the stalemate.  They knew his name.  “Are you Tyler Hughes?” repeated the officer.

The second enquiry came with a sharper rasp; there would not be a third.  This was Tyler’s cue to respond.  “Yeah, I’m Tyler Hughes.”

“Down on the ground, please,” was the request.

“What?” he queried.  He wished he could laugh; this had to be a joke.  Maybe he was trespassing and they were just taking things way too seriously.

“Down on the Ground!” was the order.

Blunt commands lashed the back of his knees.  Right knee first, then his left.  His hands followed and he rested himself flat on the tarmac.  All the while he looked at the stones that lined the road and every move was made correctly.

Polished shoes caught the headlights as they approached Tyler’s gaze with slow, considered steps.  Handcuffs clicked around his wrists and pinched tight.  A less than gentle encouragement then pulled Tyler to his feet and led him to the car.

“What’s wrong?” he mumbled. “I haven’t done anything.”

The officer pressed him against the bonnet and patted him down.  “Tyler Hughes, I’m arresting you on suspicion of assault and battery,” she stated.

Hands slapped against his arms, then his chest, then his legs.  It was all happening too quickly.  Questions, ideas and responses spilled out of his mind one on top of the other and he was caught in the rush.

“You do not have to say anything but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later may rely on in court.”  The office removed something from his pocket.  Bent over the car Tyler couldn’t see what she’d taken. “Adam, get an evidence bag.  Quick,” she said, this was not a request.  The officer then placed the item on the bonnet in arms reach of her partner.

Tyler looked at it point blank in front of him and those rambling thoughts silenced all at once.  As he walked along the road he’d mistaken it for his keys and hadn’t even considered checking.  It had pressed against his leg but he never would have thought, he never would have dreamed.  There, resting in front of him, was a cutthroat razor.  The blade was folded into an ivory handle with a thin, silver chain hanging from the bottom.  He’d never seen one in real life, only in the movies, but there it was. 

What was it doing in my pocket, should’ve been the first question if he hadn’t dared to pry further.  If he’d looked away and closed his eyes he would never have seen the blood.  Along the edge of the blade the crimson was put on display in this shared exhibition, “That’s not mine,” he said.

“Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”

“That’s not mine!” he announced.

“Put him in the car,” her partner said, giving the final word on the matter.

With a firm tug the office lifted Tyler up and shuffled him towards the back door.  The razor, the way they looked at him, the way they pulled and pried at him, it all pointed to someone else.  That person had the same name, the same face but it wasn’t him.  Couldn’t be him.  Every fact they spouted referred to this other Tyler and sent him spiralling back into the sewer water.

Questions continued to gather as he neared the car door.  Where was he?  What was happening?  His steps were decided.  His fate.  Tyler looked down.  He wasn’t even searching for anything, just a place to look, somewhere to hide, anything but straight away he noticed the clothes he was wearing.  His jeans, T-shirt and hoodie had changed to black trousers and a dark purple shirt.  “These aren’t mine.” he said, his voice trembling into a frenzied squawk.

The other officer called in on the radio.  “We’ve found the suspect Tyler Hughes and we’re bringing him to the station.”

He should have resisted.  He should have tried to explain himself.  Maybe they’d understand?  They were mistaken, they had to be, but as he was shoved into the car he could only repeat the same words, “These aren’t mine!”