Most mornings were the same back then. I woke up, I had breakfast, I got dressed and went to school. 5 days a week, every week for 8 years. The morning in question was just another one of those. 1 Wednesday in 1 week out of 52, but when I close my eyes I can remember it all like it was yesterday.
I can taste the corn flakes and fresh milk I had for breakfast, I can smell the toast and coffee my father was eating as he sat at the breakfast table across from me, I can hear the morning radio playing away to itself.
I can see the puppy-dog eyes Robbie, our dog, was giving me as he tried to guilt me into stealing him a piece of toast from my father’s plate.
I can hear the shower getting switched on upstairs and my sister wandering from room to room singing to herself as she busied herself getting ready for school.
Most of all though, I can hear my mother’s weeping. Over the radio, over my sisters singing, her weeping drowns it all out. I can see her face as she appeared at the kitchen door mumbling to herself through streams of tears, holding in her hands a blood red envelope.
I can hear the smash of my father’s coffee cup hitting the floor. I can sense the panic from Robbie as he scattered and scampered out the kitchen in fear.
I can see the deep, black lettering of my name on the envelope and I can see my mother’s eyes, bloodshot and haunted as she laid it down on the table in front of us all.
As you are aware, since the enactment of the Bardow Selection (Scotland) Act 2024, all citizens of Scotland can be selected at random to become recipients of Dame Yanzi Bardow’s life enhancing medicine. It is estimated, but not guaranteed, that the medicine will increase life expectancy of the lucky recipient by an additional 50-80 years.
The legislation states, in line with the Transan Global Agreement 2024 (TGA ’24), any Transan Government introducing the use of the Bardow medicine must take appropriate steps to regulate the population of the country. Where a country does not take these steps, appropriate action will be agreed upon by the Transam High Court, Washington DC. To ensure Scotland adheres to the conditions set out by the TGA ’24, all citizens of Scotland can be selected at random to to be terminated.
I am writing to advise that you have been selected for termination.
Please accept my apologies to your family for this inconvenience, however I am delighted to advise they will be provided with a Government grant of £500 which can be used to part-fund your funeral proceedings.
Within 5 working days you will receive, by drone delivery, a package which you can inject to carry out thetermination. Further details can be followed in the attached guidance document ‘How to administer your terminal injection‘.
If you have not carried out the termination within 5 working days of receiving the package we will take swift and appropriate action against you and your next of kin.
I thank you for your sacrifice and know you will join me in wishing the recipient of the Bardow medicine, Lord Morton Brown MBE OBE, well for his extended future.
THUG SI A BEATHA AR SON A TIRE, FUAIR SI BAS AR SON A TIRE
William H Ferguson, Minister for Population and Environmental Control
I stood rooted to the spot, staring at that word. “Terminated”. A cold chill took over me and the room seemed to dim in colour. My stomach churned as the floor beneath me began to tilt. I felt like I was being spun round a kaleidoscope of greys and blacks. I couldn’t even take in the commotion around me. Mother had passed out on the floor next to me, my Father and Sister were fussing around her bringing her back to consciousness.
My Father’s hand gripped my shoulder tightly from behind. Still stunned and wobbly, I allowed myself to be spun around and pulled tightly into his embrace. His chest bobbed my head up and down as he quietly sobbed whilst simultaneously gripping me tighter and tighter as if he could squeeze away what the Government had decided on for his son. “It’s OK” he mumbled, maybe more to himself than me “I’ll do something about this.”
Since it’s commencement 5 years ago, every single recipient of the Bardow medicine had been some old, rich, white person. Whether a man or woman, they always had some initials after their name or had some connections to the Scottish Parliament or Scotland’s Royal Family.
We weren’t living in the slums, but we weren’t eating caviar every night either. I saw how hard my Mother and Father worked to provide for us every single week. My Father worked his job as a freelance journalist well into the evening most nights, sometimes starting his morning before the milkmen woke up. My Mother juggled three different jobs across the week including cleaning toilets every Saturday morning at our local leisure centre. Much of my Saturday morning social media mentions consisted of me being tagged in a recently used toilet with a witty message about my Mother cleaning up after them.
After the first couple of years of the medicine lottery we didn’t really take much notice of it. Media coverage tended to focus on celebrating whatever privledged person had become recipient of another 50-80 years on this dying planet. We didn’t really think it was ever anything that would ever affect us.
Of course, the person who the media now referred to as ‘the leveller’ i.e. the poor person selected for termination was always someone from a poor or working class background. A 46 year old joiner, a 25 year old Polish bus driver, a student nurse placed here in an exchange agreement with the German Government, a 17 year old black girl who had gathered a large following online through her brilliant songs addressing social issues in the country. And now me. A 17 year old mixed race kid from a working class background with two hard working parents who have only ever tried to live well and provide for their family. It stunk. Selected at random, yeah sure.
We sat together around the kitchen table and agreed to try to go have a normal day, the bills didn’t stop needing paid just because we’d received this. We’d talk again tonight, a bit of time would give us all an opportunity to try to think a bit clearer.
I opened our front door and was immediately blinded by a flash from a giant, remotely operated camera, it was sat on a tripod on large, all terrain wheels. Some journalist obviously didn’t have the balls to brave the outskirts of Edinburgh so had instead decided to send in the machines. Unfortunately, the camera wasn’t alone. Around 10 or 12 drones zoomed around above my head, each one with voices shouting questions at me as they swooped down towards me at increasing speed. With the focus on keeping my head remaining on my shoulders, I jumped back into the house and shut the door.
The following day was worse. Our whole family had been plastered across the media’s 24/7 breaking news ticker for much of the day and night. Sat holed up in the house we spent most of our time staring at eachother and consoling my Mother. That was until the next breaking news of the day exploded onto the screen.
The reporter stood in front of a grey stone pathway with a professionally trimmed garden running up either side of it. In his face you could see the reflection of blue and red flashing. As he tried to speak he was knocked sideways by a line of black-clad men wearing helmets and thick vests. SPS was emblazoned across the back in bright yellow and white reflective material. The reporter returned back onto the screen and began to describe the scene.
A hostage situation was ongoing and he had been told that the Special Police Scotland branch had surrounded the house and were believed to be attempting to negotiate with a lone combatant. Just as he was about to explain where the location was, my phone exploded with WhatsApp notifications. 20 or so urging me to click a link. Distracted from the TV, I clicked the link and was taken to a streaming site I didn’t recognise.
What I saw, I couldn’t comprehend. What looked like a balaclava’d man was stood in a large living room with a camera trained on him. A small older man, clearly terrified, was perched down in front of him with the butt of the man’s gun placed to his head.
With a large intake of breath my family were suddenly around me, eyes fixed on my phone too. The TV had been muted as we huddled round watching the small screen.
“I am the rich man’s nightmare.” the man bellowed. “for too long they’ve taken from us and filled their own egg timers to the brim. Lord Morton Brown. This privileged, rich, white, 76 year old man here has been randomly selected to receive the Bardow treatment.” for a second he had released the gun from the terrified man’s head to accentuate air quotes when he had said the word random. At this movement the older man had cowered and screamed.
“For the first time in your life, my privileged friend” he continued looking down at the top of the man’s head “you have been incredibly unlucky. Not only have you been selected to receive the Bardow medicine but you’ve also been randomly selected by me, the Reaper.. ” the word random triggered air quotes and a scream again “…for execution. This is for you Brandon.”
A pop filled the air. The older man slumped to the ground out of the grip of the masked man. Red spilled from the top of his head. The masked man walked towards the camera, he held up a piece of paper with the phrase “#forBrandon” and the stream turned to static.
The soft wetness against my lips was heavenly. Those big beautiful red lips were intoxicating.
It was the first time I’d been kissed like that in years. I disappeared into a divine trance as her hard, sandpapery tongue ran across my face. Wait a minute? Sandpapery? Tongue? All across my face?
I sprang up from my pillow and wiped the dog drool away from my face, the dampness disappearing but that horrible slippery feeling never quite coming away.
I squinted through a blur of tiredness at my 5 year old black labrador, Albert, sitting bright eyed by the side of my bed looking at me with expectation in his eyes. His tongue lay lazily on his open mouth, half hanging out like a beach bum sleeping on a hammock. They say dogs are intelligent animals but when Albert would look at me like this I had pause to question that theory.
His tail was going mad, helicoptering it’s way round and round and up and down behind him. I patted him on the head, giving him what he craved to prevent him taking off towards the ceiling. “OK mate, I’ll get up, I’ll get up” I grumbled. With that he hopped up on the bed in celebration and begun to cyclone his way around me. I grabbed his legs and we had our customary morning wrestle.
I’d had Albert since he was a puppy, in fact I picked him up the same day I got the keys to my place. It was a culture shock for me, to say the least. I’d gone from living with my Mum who catered to my every need to living in my first flat with a new roommate who liked nothing more than to cock a leg and pee on the floor and chew on the corner of walls. With being so concentrated on Albie, I think it helped me settle into life on my own. Or at least the life of washings, ironing and homemade cooking. Whatever I had, he had. None of that nonsensical stuff you read on the internet, how could I possibly sit and tuck into a steak whilst my boy sat and stared at me pushing pedigree chum around a bowl. Nope, Albie was my equal and I made sure he was treated that way.
Only thing I couldn’t tolerate though was sleeping together. I didn’t mind at first, he didn’t stink, he didn’t shed a lot of hair. Nope, the problem was that Albie would steal the covers from you in the middle of the night. I’d wake shivering, freezing cold. I’d look over and see him satisfyingly sound asleep rolled up in the covers like a hot dog. So with much regret we went together and picked him out his own giant dog bed to get comfy in. After this, the rude awakening I’d received this morning had become the norm. It was like his stomach had an automatic timer set to go off at 6am. I didn’t mind, if my boy was hungry, he’d get his breakfast and I’d let him out into the garden for a sniff and the toilet. I could head back upstairs for another snooze then we’d head out a run.
Albie is my best mate. He’s my running partner, my guy to watch Netflix with, my dining companion, my football buddy and my therapist rolled into one. I genuinely believe when I look into his eyes and chat to him that he knows what I’m saying. His tail goes like the clappers when I get his Arsenal shirt out before a big game. Sometimes when I tell him for the millionth time about Julia from my work does he let out a fart and walk away? Yes. But not everyone’s perfect. My boy’s as close as it gets.
He flew down the stairs in front of me and bumped the kitchen door open with his nose. He marched straight over to the fridge and looked up. “I know where the food’s kept mate” I said to him, laughing. He just wagged his tail and looked at me hopefully. “Right, what are we on today?” I pulled some chicken sausages out the fridge and threw them onto the gas grill. I clicked on the coffee machine and collapsed onto my kitchen couch whilst I waited for the sausages to cook. Albie ambled over and lay over my feet, keeping them cosy.
As the grill alerted me the sausages were ready, I popped some leftover rice into the microwave and waited. Albie, sat at my side, keeping a keen eye on me as if I may somehow forget that this was his breakfast I was making. I emptied the tub of rice into his bowl and pulled the sausages from the grill. By this point Albie’s drool was dripping on each side like a couple of large vampire-dog fangs protruding from his mouth. “Jeez, lick your lips mate” I said to him. One quick smack of his tongue and the drool disappeared. I laughed and ruffled his coat.
I chopped the sausages and added them to the rice. I pulled some fresh orange juice from the fridge and poured myself some. Albie nudged me again with his head, as if it would have been possible that I’d again forgotten that this food in the dog bowl was for him. “It’s cooling down you maniac” I laughed at him. “You’d burn your tongue!” His tail began to helicopter again as he turned and hopped up on his bench at the table.
I laid the bowl down in front of him and he stared a hole through me waiting on the command. “OK mate” I said and he began scoffing it down. I slumped back down on the couch and slowly began to sip on the orange juice. I popped on some music through my kitchen’s Bluetooth speakers and began to plan our morning run. We were due to do 10km this morning, hence the chicken sausages for him. I was due to run a half marathon only a month from now and my training partner was doing an excellent job of keeping up with my progress.
Run planned, I popped my phone down just in time for Albie to lick his bowl clean of any morsel of food. He lapped himself up a long drink of water and trotted towards the back door. I hopped up from the couch and let him out the back door into our grassed and fenced-off back garden. I left the door ajar for him as he disappeared out and tidied away the dishes from his breakfast into the dishwasher. After that I plonked myself back down, ready to go back upstairs for another hours sleep. After a few minutes of aimless scrolling I realised that Albie hadn’t come back in so I got up and wandered over to the back door. I assumed the kids from next door were out and he was playing up to them, licking them through the fence, an activity they all seemed to revel in.
Instead he was stood bolt still, his back to me, facing towards the bottom of the garden. I couldn’t see past him to see what he was looking at. If anything, it looked like he was stood staring at the fence at the bottom of the garden. “Albie?” I shouted out to him. “In you come mate, I want another sleep.” But he didn’t move. It was then that I noticed that his tail was rigidly tucked between his legs. A horrible feeling came over me and a shiver took over my whole body. I grabbed my shoes and closed the back door behind me, making my way onto the grass. As I approached him from behind I could see he was shaking. His whole body looked like it was vibrating. “Albie?” I asked and he let out a little moan. I touched his body and he flinched, baring his teeth at me and growling, his hair on his back stood on end like a spiky mohican. I fell onto my backside away from him. “Albie?” I asked him “it’s OK mate, it’s me.” His ears flopped backwards and he threw himself between my legs curling himself up in a little ball. “It’s OK mate, it’s OK.” I reassured him. He stayed there, curled up as small as he could make himself, it reminded me of him as a puppy when he would curl up on my lap and crash out after a little wrestle.
As I looked towards the bottom of the garden where he’d been stood, I could see that there was some disturbance in the grass. In fact, as I stood up I could see that there wasn’t just a disturbance, there was quite a large area of my grass missing. On further inspection there had been a large, rectangular hole dug out of my grass. “What the…” I muttered under my breath. I looked down to see Albie almost clinging behind my left leg, his tail still tucked up behind him. “It’s OK mate” I said to him, giving him a pat on the head. His scared eyes looked back up at me, suggesting that this was very far from OK and could we just head back upstairs to bed now.
The hole was maybe 4 foot long and around 2 foot wide. It had been clinically dug with sharp, straight edges around it. I stood at the edge and looked in, Albie whined at the top of his lungs. It was a deep hole. But not so deep that I couldn’t see inside it. Maybe 6 or so feet down into the earth, lay something I couldn’t quite believe I was seeing. I dropped to my knees to get a closer look, Albie’s whines turned to scared barks. He began tugging at my shorts, almost succeeding in pulling me away. “Enough!” I snapped at him and he dropped the material from his mouth. Turning and lying down on the grass a foot or so away from me.
I dropped back down to my knees and peered into the dark hole. Perfectly placed at the bottom of this hole which had appeared in my garden seemingly out of nowhere was a small shiny, brown, mahogany coffin. It had gold seals along the sides which shined way more than they had any right to at 6am on a dark winters morning. They glistened at me as I peered closer and closer. On a plaque placed on the middle of it was a name in fancy, calligraphy-type writing. I squinted my eyes to try to make it out but was none the wiser. I grabbed my phone out my pocket and tapped on the torch function. I shone it down into the hole and got a better look at the writing on the plaque. Just as I began to get a better look at it a loud thud came from the box. Albie jumped up from his safe spot on the grass and took off into the house. My heart flew up through my rib cage into my throat and I screamed. I looked up to see curtains ruffling in the windows at the houses either side of me, I laughed and waved up at them, trying to convince them, and me, that everything was OK. I succeeded with one as both neighbours waved politely and disappeared from the windows.
Returning to the edge of the grave, because that’s what this was right? A grave. I kneeled back down and shone my torch back down in the hole. As I did the coffin began to slowly creak a little on one side. After more horrible, aggressive thudding which rattled their way right through my body the coffin began to slowly open. On seeing this I toppled forward, unsuccessfully clutching out at the grass as I fell, head first past it. In the time of the small drop I grimaced, setting my teeth together, bracing myself for the impact of the coffin, but it never came.
The 8 hour drive had taken its toll. Everyone told me I was mad. That a drive that long after a night filled with drinks, tears, hugs and goodbyes from my nearest and dearest would have to be done over two days. Take a night to sleep off the road and do the remainder in the morning, they said. I knew better. Course I did! Well, I’m man enough to admit it, I was wrong. After a treacherous drive along the never ending, snow-covered forest track, trying to shine my phone on my map whilst concentrating on not hitting any trees, I eventually found it. My cabin. My sanctuary. My forever home. This was it.
My second, or third, or fourth wind hit as excitement washed over me like a warm refreshing shower.
I’d always wanted to live off the grid. It’s just something that’s always appealed to me. I never had any social media, hell I only ever had a mobile phone and email for work. I never massively loved socialising, even as a younger man. I was at my happiest when left to my own devices. Some folks might call me a loner but I just enjoyed my own company.
After months of long, drawn-out conversations with my boss, he’d finally agreed. We both knew I was too good at what I do for him to say no, it would just take a while to break him down. Much to my smug delight, he finally broke.
It was agreed. I would be relocating 400 miles across the country to the coldest, remotest area I could find. As long as I had an internet connection for work with nearby access to food and whatever resources I needed, I’d be good. With my lists of books I had always wanted to read, an IMDB app-worth of movies I’d yet to see, access to music streaming and my note pads and laptop to finally write that novel I’d started years ago, I’d be a happy man.
After much internet browsing and telephone calls, I’d finally found the perfect place. Marvanarro, a small town in North Minneapolis with a grand population of 166. Shops and a town hall nearby, deep, snowy forests acting as a border to the town with large wooden cabins buried deep into the trees, it offered the perfect future secluded life.
After struggling with a combination of chittering cold hands and a stubborn frozen lock on my new thick wooden front door, I emptied my truck of my belongings, got a fire going and slumped on the couch. It was 9pm. I’d left at 10am that morning.
I must have nodded off.
Over the sound of the warm fire still popping and blistering away to itself I was awoke by the sound of my front door being banged on, no, hammered on. I scrambled across the couch to fix my bleary eyes on my laptop screen. It was 3.18am.
“Hello? Please, is there anyone there? Please help!!”
A woman’s voice. She sounded in danger. She seemed to be flitting between sobbing, shouting and banging on my door.
“Hello?” I shouted out. Still clamouring for my bearings, having been in such a deep sleep I was finding it difficult to shake the cobwebs.
“Oh thank god” she shouted. “Please help, I’m out here alone and I’ve got a flat. I’m so sorry to wake you but my phones out of battery and I saw the fire through your window – I thought you would be up”
I made my way over to the front door and peered out the peep hole. Adding to my already confused state, I couldn’t see a thing. It was pitch black.
“Hello?” I shouted again and got no response. “Hello? are you there? I can’t see you!” I was again met with silence.
Just as I raised my face back up to the peep hole, the door was pounded on again, violently. It shook hard against my face, forcing me to recoil.
“Look again” she sobbed despairingly. Without thought I pushed my eye back up to the hole and immediately fell backwards onto the floor in horror. Staring back at me were 6 or so figures, each wearing what appeared to be black plague doctor masks. Protruding beaks and black hollow eyes stared back at me through the peep hole.
“What the fuck??! I’m calling the police!” I screamed.
I was met with rapturous laughter from what sounded like more than the 6 or so I could see.
I ran over to my landline and dialled for the local police. As I did, my cabin was engulfed in lights and the roar of multiple engines filled the air.
Screams and woops could be heard as they disappeared down the off-road track leading to my cabin. I ran to the window and drew back the curtain in a bid to see if I could see a plate but they were already gone.
After an hour waiting for someone to pick up I was eventually advised I’d receive a visit from the police sheriff in the morning. He never came.
This incident, or a similar version of it happened off and on every few nights. It would start with the banging at 3.18am, there would normally be a woman’s voice who claimed to have a flat. Sometimes the plague masks were there, sometimes no-one at all. I was terrified to sleep.
During the day, in the cold pale sunlight, I would go out and look around, check the tyre tracks, look for any clues as to who this might be. I’d take a drive past the other cabins a mile or so up the road from me but there was never any sign of anyone around. Curiously some of the cabins looked burnt out or it looked like construction was being carried out on them, but still no-one. No cars. No dog walkers. Sometimes there would be 6 or 7 different tyre tracks. I googled and googled but found nothing negative about the local area.
I was too scared to mention it when I was out picking up food and other supplies in town. It crossed my mind to buy a gun but I didn’t have the first idea how to use one. Jumpy and paranoid, I almost knocked over a homeless man who stepped in front of me on the way out the store.
“Stop answering” he mumbled to me. He had a hood covering most of his face and all I could see was a thick unkempt beard and a scattering of teeth on the bottom row. “sorry?” I stuttered in reply. “Stop answering the fucking door to them Jimmy, they’ll give you the plague” He burst into a booming laugh as I hurriedly made my way to my truck, taking care to make sure he wasn’t following me.
Physically and mentally exhausted, between work I spent most of my days trying to get through to the police. Continually I was met with the same response. “I done told you before Mr, the police sheriff will come see you in the morning.”
But no-one ever came.
The last time I dialled them was when things took a weirder turn.
“Hello, this is Jake Burgess, I’ve called…”
“I know who you are Mr Burgess” the voice on the other end of the phone snapped. “I’ve told you the sheriff will come see you in the morning”
At this point the phone was normally slammed down on me but she left a pause to let me respond.
“Listen, I appreciate the sheriff must be very busy” I reasoned “but I’d really like to talk to him. I’m being harassed by…”
Again I was cut off half way into my sentence. “Harassed are ya?” she said mockingly. “Another neighbly bob eating his own shepherd’s pie, toohoo ya smelly wombat.”
“Excuse me?” I said.
“There was no-one at your fucking door Mr. Now fuck me off and water my weasel wire. Me and Cochise have got garden warden to shove in our pussies and rhubarb to shear, HA HA!!”
The phone slammed down.
“Garden warden? Cochise? What the fuck?” I muttered to myself. My spine was ice cold. A spider of fear crept its way up my back and onto my neck. I was more terrified than I had been during the 3am visits.
1 WEEK AGO
Drool involuntarily dripped from my face onto my bare toes. I knew that I wanted to stop it but the message didn’t seem to be getting from my brain to my body. I was slumped in a wheelchair, backed up against a poorly painted pale green wall. I faced into the room, looking out at 15-20 or so other men, similar ages to me, sat slumped in chairs too. Some had chess boards between them, some were staring at a TV buzzing with static, others just stared emptily out the windows.
Looking around I locked eyes with a guy staring back at me. His eyes were bright and alert, he was actively looking right at me. I couldn’t even get my arm to move to acknowledge him. My body felt heavy and kind of blurry like I had woken up in a bout of sleep paralysis. I raised my eyebrows at him, which seemed to do the trick. He wheeled over towards me and backed himself up against the wall right next to me.
“Hey” he whispered out the side of his mouth. “You’re new so I know they’ve got you drugged to the eyeballs. Don’t worry, your body adapts after a few hours.”
A huge bearded, burly man dressed in pale green medical scrubs marched into the room and looked over at my new friend sceptically.
“Shit” he said in response to this. He slumped his body down, similar to mine and groaned a little. Drool began to slip out of the corner of his mouth. The orderly, satisfied, chuckled and began to walk on, only stopping to slap the back of a man’s head, knocking him completely out his chair. The orderly laughed a loud, nasty laugh and walked on out the room.
“Listen, they’re drugging through the food. They’re trying to make out like we’re all crazy. They need to keep us here. I’ve not worked out why yet but I’m gonna.”
Confused I sat and listened, I didn’t have much other choice, my body wasn’t responding to attempts at moving. I realised that this was the first time I had felt lucid and could actually remember anything since I got here, wherever here was.
“I’ll speak to you at lights out, don’t want them getting suspicious. I know you’re confused, but listen, I’m legit. This place is fucked. You’re probably thinking I’m the crazy one. I’m not. You wanna know how you’ll know I’m not crazy? 3.18am? You were living in one of the cabins right?”
1 MONTH AGO
The visits in the middle of the night had begun to tail off. There was, however, a new development. Each morning when I’d wake up, I’d check my work emails, make a to-do list and stick my coffee on.
One morning as I went about my routine I noticed an email had landed in my junk folder from a DrCochise@yourdoor.com. I nonchalantly clicked on it, assuming it was would be my lucky day to have met a Nigerian Prince who just needed my bank details to make a million dollar deposit. It wasn’t. On the screen was a high definition photo of me lying asleep in my bed. Panic struck me like a hammer blow. A further look showed that the email had been received at 3.18am that morning.
I showered, dressed, jumped in the truck and hammered into town. Terrified at the idea of someone following me, I quickly picked up new locks for the front door, some planks of wood for the windows and a large sledgehammer for my protection. I had no idea if I could even lift it to strike someone in a struggle, but it helped me feel a little better about my safety.
Regardless of the lock changes and the boarded up windows the photos continued. Each morning I’d wake filled with dread to find another photo in the junk folder. “Smile” was the caption one morning. The photo showed me smiling at the store clerk when buying the locks. Another day there was a photo of my naked back as I stood in the shower. I was beginning to lose my mind.
It was at this point that I started to seriously consider the very large elephant in the room. Should I stay here? Is this why I came out here? Or should I go home? I knew I would get blasted by everyone who said I wouldn’t make it out here on my own but it was either that or end up as a stuffed head on some psychopaths wall.
I emailed Mark, my old roommate, and told him about the visits in the night and now the photos, I told him I was genuinely scared for my safety, that these people were harassing me and there didn’t seem to be any interest from the local police department.
From the minute I clicked send, I sat with my hand on the mouse, my legs shaking in anticipation. Thankfully it didn’t take him long to respond. He said he’d already rented my room out but I was more than welcome to sleep on the couch until I got something sorted.
Relief. Excitement. Panic.
I began packing immediately. By the time I was ready to start filling the truck it was night time, darkness had engulfed the forest surrounding the cabin.
An hour or so later I slammed the back door of the truck shut, jumped in and threw a middle finger up at the cabin. “Fuck you motherfuckers” I screamed in elation.
I turned the engine over. And over. And over.
It wouldn’t start.
I looked around. I was a sitting duck, sat inside a truck that wouldn’t take me anywhere, engulfed by darkness. Everything I owned was packed up in the back.
I was beginning to run through the merits of unpacking everything and getting inside to a warm fire when outside in the darkness a light flashed in my peripheral vision. I was sat frozen to my seat. Frantically looking around I searched the darkness for movement but I couldn’t see a thing. As I turned to look behind me, my cabin lit up from the inside. At the window a figure appeared, drawing back the curtain slowly. A female figure. She was dressed in black with a black hood lifted over her head but I could still see her smiling and waving as if I was a friend arriving for dinner.
It was then that it became apparent it wasn’t electricity lighting up the cabin. Flames had began to escape from the roof, flailing like a wild trapped animal. The woman emerged at the door, flames ripping and roaring behind her. She slowly, almost casually, approached the truck. I dived across the passenger side and slammed down the lock on the door. She stood at the other side of the window, laughing at me.
They say in life or death situations flight or fight kicks in, apparently not in my case. I was still frozen stiff, stuck to my seat, physically unable to move. The woman moved to the front of the truck and began to pour something around the perimeter. With one last gasp of hope, I flicked the keys one last time and the engine roared into life! My headlights illuminated her and we locked eyes. The smile disappeared and a look of panic appeared across her face.
1 WEEK AGO
“LIGHTS OUT!!” bellowed an orderly. At that, I was engulfed in darkness again, sat in the wheelchair in a cold room that had looked like it was last decorated in the 1920’s.
“Hey man” whispered a voice. I jerked my head round and round the room, trying to establish where it came from. “Over in the corner dummy” it said. I wheeled towards the corner of the room and ran my now working fingers up and down the wall. I felt a small hole in the wall. “There ya go” the voice said, sounding satisfied.
He told me his story. His name was Bud. He’d moved here to get some isolation. He’d lost his family to a terrorist bombing, running from his memories. On his first night he was visited by the plague masks just like I was. He’d received the photos of himself, just like I had. He’d decided that no amount of isolation was worth the terror and planned to leave. The last thing he remembered was trying to start the engine on his car. “All I can remember was turning the key and the smell of burning wood.”
“Shut the fuck up in there!”
I heard Bud’s door being banged on. I jolted upright and instinctively wheeled myself backwards away from the corner of the room, as if some evil being was going to emerge through the tiny hole in the wall we’d been talking through.
“We need to get out of here friend” whispered Bud again. “Don’t worry, I know a way out, we can do it together. Let’s talk tomorrow.”
On the “ow” of tomorrow I heard his door slam open. Hard, heavy footsteps thundered along the floor followed by four or five quick sickening blows which sounded like meat being tenderised by a butcher. A river of dark liquid began to slowly trickle under the wall into my room.
3 WEEKS AGO
I floored the accelerator, wheel spinning hard in the snow. After a second of suspended acceleration the truck took off with a jolt, knocking the woman down underneath the tyres. I bumped over her with a sickening crunch and took off down the snowy path. In my rear view mirror headlights blinded my vision. There looked to be more than one set and they were gaining on me fast. With my attention fixed on the cars behind me I arrived at a corner much quicker than I remembered. I threw the steering wheel to the right but the back end of the truck had other ideas, the wheels went out from me, skidding across the snow. The back end of the truck hit something and came to a clinical stop. My head jerked forward then back slamming hard onto the head rest. My vision began to fade as I saw the black plague masks making their way towards the drivers side window.
PRESENT DAY – 11.30am
I sat backed up against the poorly painted pale green wall, looking out at my fellow doped up zombies staring at eachother, out windows or at a non-existent TV channel. This was day 3 since the incident in Bud’s room and I’d begun to give up hope that I’d see him again and, selfishly, hear the details of how he planned get out of here.
Some things had changed in that time though. I’d wisened up and stopped eating the meals. I was starving but it was worth it. I’d been able to drink plenty water and through a scintillating method of trial and error had established that the bread was clean. It wasn’t enough to sustain me for a long time but I didn’t intend on sticking around. The first chance I could get, I’d be out.
I had a plan.
I’d established that each night, an hour after lights out, an orderly would come in and search the room and check you were asleep. I had only been fully lucid for it for the first time last night but thinking back I’d been vaguely aware of it for the other nights too, I just couldn’t fully understand what was going on. Last night I was so uncomfortable with how close they had been to my face that I’d screwed my eyes as tight shut as I could. Tonight, I wouldn’t be so timid. Tonight, I’d strike.
PRESENT DAY – 9.00pm
The large man ambled in through the porch and eased open the kitchen door. Sweat already dripped off his brow as he removed his thick skiing jacket, scarf and hat, then as he entered the kitchen he was hit with a hot, bustling room of activity. “Hey Chamo, how are ya” said a young man with long greasy black hair and tattooed sleeves. He looked to be in his late teens or early twenties, a light bristling of dark facial hair dotted it’s way around his chin which hinted at a young man not yet comfortable enough in his skin to know that he wasn’t yet ready to grow a beard. He was sat at the end of a bench filled with similarly aged young men all facing a long rectangular wooden table, packing electrical goods into brown cardboard boxes.
“I’m good, Elvis” the large man, Chamo, replied “now that the naughty patient has been dealt with, the rest seem to be behaving themselves.” He dropped a red-stained bag on the kitchen counter, it oozed and pulsed until it seemed to settle in place. Elvis smiled uncomfortably and nodded at the bag on the counter, the older man didn’t acknowledge him. Elvis hesitated as he looked for the next words to come which he thought might impress his elder. “How’s the new one?” he finally asked. “Good, quiet.”said Chamo. “Find any decent shit in his truck?” he asked. Elvis nodded enthusiastically, “oh yeah we did Chamo, Gannock over there found a laptop, mobile phone and sat nav.” Chamo walked over and ruffled the hair of one of the other young men “Well done Gannock, you can have some time with the woman tonight after lights out, she’ll be drugged up and ready to go.” All the young men around the table let out mock sighs and protests as Gannock’s face lit up. “oh yeah Chamo! Thanks man” he said. “No problem. Listen, all of y’all keep working hard, get that shit online, get it boxed and you’ll get your shot too.”
He walked through the kitchen and into a darkly lit sitting room. Shutters were closed over the windows to avoid the glare from the low sun reflecting off the snow which surrounded the property. A woman sat in a large lounge chair in the room, her legs curled up and under her, she moved slowly and elegantly like a cat. Her long black hair covered up much of her face. As she turned to look at Chamo, it barely moved. “All done for tonight?” she asked as Chamo dropped himself down onto the couch. A fire crackled in front of them both, he rubbed his hands together and put them to the flames. “Yeah, I’ve got Cochise watching them but they’re all in their rooms now. An hour until lights out Lisa, you sure you’re up to doing the rounds at 10?” She bristled a little, “you kidding?” she replied “it’s my favourite time of night. I love skulking around those rooms whilst those freaks lie there, unable to move. You know I sometimes sniff them?” behind the hair she raised her eyebrows at Chamo coyly as if she knew this would rile him up. Chamo shook his head. He got up and approached her, cupping her chin in a large frying pan of a hand. “How’s the bruising?” she swept her black hair from her face to reveal a sea of purple, red and yellow bruising across her face and neck. “I keep telling you, I’m fine” she said “I got these painkillers, they’re helping.” She looked wounded. Not just physically but mentally, as if it hurt more that Chamo would think she wasn’t up to her job. “I’ll be fine” she said again. “OK” said Chamo “Did you call the insurance company? Everything go OK?” She nodded and sniggered a little. “Yep, he said that we’ve had awful bad luck this year, our tenth cabin to be burnt down. I almost couldn’t stop myself laughing. Anyway, I gave him the usual story, out of towner, mental problems, must have fell asleep with the fire on. Cheque’s already on it’s way.” Chamo smiled a satisfied smile. “God damn!” he whooped, running his hands together “I keep thinking that one of these days they’re going to come down here but as long as there’s shitty weather and snow in this forest, we can keep this going Lisa.” She nodded in unison.
“I’m heading upstairs for a lie down, I’ll be back down at 11 to check back in with you, make sure everything is as it should be.”
PRESENT DAY – 10pm
“LIGHTS OUT!” bellowed the familiar voice. I slowly lay down on the mattress. Staring up into the dark room I began taking long deep breaths through my nose and exhaling through my mouth. I hoped it would calm me down but my heart had other ideas, I could literally see my rib cage being played from the inside like a bass drum. Thud, thud, thud.
I heard room doors being rhythmically opened and closed down the corridor, one by one. The bass drum in my chest played louder and louder as the opening and closing of doors drew nearer to my mine. I heard the door from the room next to mine slam shut and the voice in the room muttered something about forgetting he was gone. So that was confirmation, Bud was gone. I took another deep breath, gripped the fork in my right hand so tight that I had began to draw blood and waited. The door adjacent to mine slammed shut again.
My door unlocked and footsteps entered, the door slowly and purposefully closed behind them. I felt a presence in the room and had to fight to keep my eyes shut. I wanted to know what I was up against. If it was the giant orderly who liked to slap people around, I’d want to know. Similarly, if it was that skinny looking ‘cook’, Cochise I think they called him, I’d fancy my chances. As these thoughts tornadoed their way around my mind, I felt the presence much closer to me. Same as last night, the person penetrated the radius of my personal space like a rocket brushing aside the clouds accelerating towards space. It was a woman. Or it smelt like a woman anyway. She ran her face up and down mine, sniffing my cheeks. She let out a sickening sigh of elation. She climbed up onto the mattress and lay on top of me. “You can’t do anything to me” she whispered into my ear.
Slowly, I opened my eyes, squinting to see through the black hair that covered my face. As she lay there on me, still, I reached up and plunged the fork into the back of her neck. She jerked up awkwardly and fell back off the mattress, I jumped up, locking eyes with the woman who had waved to me from my window that final night in the cabin. The woman who had tried to burn me alive. The woman I had run over in my haste to get away. She looked like she’d seen a ghost, I suspected I looked the same.
Fight or flight didn’t fail me this time, I mounted her and plunged the fork into her chest this time. She slumped to the floor, life seemed to seep from her eyes.
I opened the door to my room and poked my head out into the corridor. Complete silence. I tip toed out into the corridor, making my way past the other rooms. The whole place was a ghost town with the exception of some noise which sounded like struggling coming from the last room on the left. I cupped my ear to the door to hear what sounded like flesh slapping on flesh. Curiosity got the better of me. I slowly cracked the door open and peeked my head in and recoiled at the smell. The slapping of flesh on flesh only got louder. Inside, a young man was laying on top of a clearly drugged up woman on a mattress, thrusting back and forward. Without thought, I lunged towards the half naked man, grabbed him by the hair and slammed the back of his head hard onto the stone floor. His eyes looked up, vacant, as blood poured from the back of his head. The woman lay completely naked on her mattress. She clearly couldn’t move similar to how I was the first few days I had arrived but her eyes told me everything. They were terrified, frantic and darted around the room. I gestured to say that it was OK and covered her body up with her clothes. “Don’t worry” I whispered, “I’ll get help.” Her eyes shot wide with fear. “I promise” I whispered. I lay the blanket over her and dragged the lifeless body from the room and dropped it out into the corridor.
I tiptoed out to a reception area which lead to a large old fashioned archway and a large wooden front door. I opened it and sneaked out into the freezing cold night.
I ran across a garden area towards another large building. I found an unlocked side door and tip toed in. Fumbling in the dark I ran my hand along the walls searching for a light switch. Finally, I found one and flicked it on. Lights flickered on in a staggered pattern eventually illuminating what appeared to be a huge warehouse. Wooden crates and brown boxes with addresses plastered over them lined the room. As I looked around I counted 10 different states on the address labels. This appeared to be some sort of storage space for some type of shipping business. I came across a fire extinguisher lay by another door, grabbed it and slipped through into a wooden floored hall.
Behind me was a closed door with light bursting out from under it, shadows moved around behind it and the hum of voices filled the air.
I decided against taking on a room full of what I assumed were more rapists and black plague masked crazies and crept to the end of the hall, climbing a set of old dusty carpeted stairs. The landing at the top of the stairs led to one solitary white door. If I could find a set of car keys I could be out of here with no more bloodshed. The fire extinguisher in hand, I took a deep breath, paused on the door handle and turned it.
PRESENT DAY – 10.50pm
Chamo rolled over and checked the bedside clock. 10.50pm. Lisa must have returned by now he thought. He rolled back over and dropped his large slab-like feet onto the wooden floor. He sighed and pushed himself up. He’d been living like this for ten years now. He was young when he’d started with his Father and Uncles. It had been a buzz to creep out all the out of towners, see the terror in their eyes. Ten years later it was a business. A way to keep his sister safe and pay all the young mouths that relied on him for money. Insurance fraud and shipping out stolen goods online wasn’t the way he’d saw his life going, not to mention running an asylum with a bunch of drugged up tourists looking for their own little slice of the country life, but dammit it beat a 9-5.
He pulled on his trousers, threw on his socks and boots and looked up towards the door. As he did, he saw the door handle being turned from the outside.
PRESENT DAY – 10.51pm
I slowly opened the door and was met face to chest with the hulking large orderly and his scruffy beard. He grimaced at me, looking confused. Fight or flight grabbed a hold of me once more as I swung the fire extinguisher hard and fast at his chest. He stumbled back, grunting. With the cobwebs cleared he jumped straight back off his bed and grabbed for me with his giant hands. With no other option available I swung my right leg as hard as I could kicking him between the legs. This buckled him. He dropped to his knees in front of me and I followed up slamming the fire extinguisher over his head. His full weight slammed to the floor, face first. Looking down at him I realised that this man was the unkempt homeless man who I had bumped into when I was in town in that first month. This was no coincidence.
The blood coursed through me, adrenaline had brought me most of this way since I’d lay on the mattress, eyes clasped shut, but pure vengeance was now pushing me on.
I ran across the bedroom to the window. It looked out onto a wide open garden filled with abandoned trucks, cars and vans. Looking across them I spotted my truck. Some of my things were still in the back of it although it had clearly been looted.
I crept out onto the bedroom balcony and climbed down as far as I could before dropping onto the grass below me. I sprinted across the grass to my truck to see the keys dangling from the ignition. Unbelievable. I pulled the door and hopped in, flicking the keys to start the engine. I reversed across the grass and pulled the truck along the path around the house and past the building I’d escaped from. I pressed the headlights on before slamming both feet onto the brake, the truck skidded and thundered head first into the tree I had seen too late.
1 MONTH LATER
I woke up from what felt like the deepest sleep I’d had in months. Slowly reaching up to my chin I wiped away the drool and scratched at my stitches on my head. I tried to get up but decided against it. I was happy sitting here, there was something good starting on the TV so I sat and lost myself in it. The restraints on my feet itched but they didn’t bother me too much. My friend Chamo came across to make sure I was comfortable then gave me some more of my favourite sweets. My head slumped down in front of me, I was tired again. This move had been good for me, I was so chilled these days.
It was the 23rd of October, part of the way through the first half of the season. Things had been going great for me professionally, I was scoring goals for fun and at home we were so excited to be expecting another baby.
It was our second time experiencing the 12 week scan, with our other little one nearly 2, but it never seemed less surreal. A lubricated, sterile appliance giving you a window in to see the little life you’ve created together. Except this time there was no-one occupying our window. There was no euphoric feeling of excitement and love. It was emptiness. “I knew it, I knew something wasn’t right” she said, slumping her head down in anguish. We held eachother as the midwife cleaned her up and helped her off the bed.
We were in shock. The next hour or so was a whirlwind of talking heads telling us what was best for us.
We went home that night, switched off all the lights and slept. And that was how it felt for the next few months. Dark rooms, quietness, sobbing, staring into space.
The boss was excellent, he told the press I’d injured myself and would be out for a couple months. I was so lucky I had such an understanding man in my life. Compassion was his middle name. I suppose looking back I didn’t realise quite how lucky I was.
3 days into the New Year I was awoke by my phone buzzing on the bedside table. Confused we both dived out of bed and made for the kids room until we realised the source.
It was the boss. “Sorry son, I know it’s late. I’ve got some news and I don’t want you to read it on the internet or get a text from one of your mates hearing it in the chippy” Half asleep or not, I knew it couldn’t be good after the long pause and deep breath. “We’ve had a bid for you, a big one. Big boss is saying it’s too good to turn down.”
So that was it. I was out the door. I didn’t really want to leave but having chatted things through with my wife and having seen the figure I was being offered a week to play a sport I loved, it was a no brainer. Look at it as a great opportunity to further my career whilst cementing our families future, I thought.
Things started out well. Although I was adapting to a new style of playing, I wasn’t the only one. The team had brought in another big name signing at the same time. We quickly gelled which made settling in all the easier.
After a month or two, whilst racking up some decent results with some decent performances, I felt myself becoming frustrated. I’d been successful as a main target man and goalscorer when they’d bought me but they’d started playing me on the wing, instead putting this new fella up top. A flamboyant signing with a reputation for the controversial. Pink hair, ambiguous sexuality and a massive following online. A marketers dream. Maybe shirt sales were more important than results.
I would sit at night watching film of myself, watching film of the top players in the league, trying desperately to improve myself. It wasn’t long before the media were questioning the price tag they’d paid for me, not to mention the sly digs from supposed team mates on social media. Footballers aren’t the smartest bunch, it’s not hard to decipher who the thinly veiled song lyrics were targeted at.
It was at this time that I approached the new gaffer. I let him know that I was struggling to adapt to this new position and the new style of play. That we’d lost a baby the previous year and I was feeling overwhelmed. I asked for some time off.
“Time…off?!” he shouted in broken English. He began to laugh and slid a piece of paper under my nose with the remaining fixtures of the season on it. “You score goals, we win games and then…..time off.” With that he smiled, nodded his head and walked out, leaving me sat at the table, my head in my hands.
I finished the season, then had to pull out of the 4 international games over the summer. I was gutted, but completely run down. I spoke with my old boss a lot over the summer, he was great, giving me some encouragement and even having the respect for me just to leave the air quiet when I asked if the chairman would bring me back. “We’ll see mate” he would say.
Injuries kept racking up once the season began again after the summer. Little niggles were keeping me out week by week and very quietly I became relegated to a substitute role.
It was during this time that I witnessed the gaffer walk through the changing rooms after a game, stopping to say something to my mate who had joined at the same time as I had, emerging from the showers. Things looked to be getting heated between them when suddenly the gaffer grabbed a boot and rattled it on the guys bare toes. The room fell silent as we all looked on, stunned. Nothing further was said and the gaffer just walked on through the changing room as if nothing had happened.
The guy never returned for a month. The press had a field day of course but nothing came out about it. I think everyone was too scared to even saying anything. “Not worth jeopardising that wage, mate” said one teammate to me. Was it not?
By the end of 2017 I spoke to a sports psychologist recommended by my old boss. He said they’d helped him when he’d been going through a particularly tough time and he had no doubt they’d get me back on the pitch feeling my old self again. He was right. They helped me to put in steps to challenge the worries I had. I was working harder in training, I was back on the pitch, scoring goals and creating chances. I felt like my old self again.
But, not for long.
It started with a little thing, I think I got a kick on the shin during a game, it hurt but you got these kinds of things every game. It wasn’t until I realised I’d been sat in the changing room after a game poking and prodding at it until I was the only one left in the room. I was still in full kit, bar my shinpads and boots.
From there, it was a mole on my face, a shaky hand after chopping some vegetables, sore legs after training, sore legs after missing training, sore heads, migraines, swollen glands. Each day brought a new ailment. The medical staff would shake their heads and exchange glances as I would walk in with a new imaginary complaint.
Before long I was sat in front of the gaffer again. He was shaking his head, grunting and grumbling looking at a sheet of paper raised in front of him.
“If…you can’t play…” he said to me, in his best South American broken English “…then you don’t mean anything….to me.” Charming. With that he got up and moved to the door, he turned to look at me “Listen!” he belts out pointing his fingers into his ears “you get better….you play….you score. It’s good. You don’t. You go.” And with that, the door was slammed shut.
I couldn’t bring myself to keep going to the clubs medical team, I felt like I’d burned my bridges there. I was surprised they didn’t have a poster up of me with ‘Boy Who Cries Wolf’ emblazoned across it.
So, I called up my old boss and asked to speak to the medical team there. As usual, he was as gracious as ever, he didn’t even question it and made me an appointment. I was prescribed some medication to help me deal with the phantom injuries, recommended a counsellor to talk to and given some breathing exercises to do. It worked wonders. I wasn’t cured by any means, but I did stop feeling like I was going mad.
Beginning to feel like my old self and having not played consistently in sometime between being injured and being dropped I decided to ask to leave, look for a fresh start. Rather than have another fun filled grunt-off with the gaffer, I decided to speak straight to the chairman. It wasn’t a decision I’d taken lightly, as I sat outside his office like a naughty schoolboy, my stomach was in knots thinking about what I was going to say.
“Leave?” he snarled, his top lipped curled so hard it was practically inside out. He giggled to himself. “Leave?!”. Nope. You owe this club, my friend.” He weaselled at me. “You owe us performances and you owe us goals. You’ve got a contract and you’ll be here until it expires, I don’t care what imaginary thing is wrong with you next. Get out. The next time I see you it better be on that pitch”
It wasn’t too long after this, following a string of bad results, that a new manager came in. It’s fair to say I wasn’t gutted to see my old mate, the wordsmith, given the boot.
The new guy seemed reasonable. He was meeting with all the playing staff one-to-one to get a handle on everybody. Smart, I thought. I didn’t want to string him along so I told him straight out I wanted away. Unfortunately, after the January transfer window came and went with no bids for me (or so they said) I agreed to see things out until the end of the season the following summer.
Easier said than done.
By March I was going out of my mind. I was being played in midfield, we were underperforming and being visited by Mr Chairman after every match to be told in no uncertain terms that if we didn’t achieve a top 4 league position then the club’s future would be at stake. No pressure then. It was at this point that I decided to talk to the new gaffer again to tell him about my struggles. That I was still unhappy, I hated playing in midfield and I told him about the support I’d been getting privately. I didn’t get the response I was hoping for:
“Listen pal, you’re playing a pivotal role in this team, you understand? I’m putting my neck on the line every week playing you and you’re in here saying you’re struggling with your feelings or something? If you leave, we don’t make top 4. OK? Simple as that. If that’s everything then I’ve places to be.”
I’d had enough, by this point I wasn’t even bothered if I got fired, I just wanted out. As I walked to the car park I flicked my phone out my pocket and opened twitter:
We’re told society wants men to talk about mental health. They want men to open up. But really, nobody wants to hear it. #hadenough #fireme
I switched my phone off, cranked up the music in my car and drove home, my head in a raging fire of bliss. I spent the rest of the night playing board games with my wife and kid and watching Netflix. Just as I was heading up to bed my wife flicked on the 24/7 sports channel, front and centre was the gaffer stood at the front door of his home, his face illuminated in flashes by the hundreds of photographers surrounding him.
“Any statement by any of our players on social media does not reflect the views of our football club. We take the matter of mental health incredibly seriously and we wish all our players and anyone associated with our club to be treated with dignity and respect. Thank you all.”
I barely slept that night. I flitted between anger, regret, resentment but the common theme was worry. Despite the temptation, my phone stayed off, I couldn’t bring myself to switch it on and become immersed in the inevitable circus. Instead I ate and watched game footage of myself. It helped.
Pale as a ghost and cranky with about 50 minutes of sleep in me I made my way into the training ground the next morning. Hood up, I avoided the press as I jogged past them, straight into the training complex. I was met at the door by the gaffer, stern faced, waiting on me. “My office” he spat.
Tail between my legs I slumped down in front of him. “Listen” he started, surprisingly softly. “I want to apologise, I said things I shouldn’t have and I reacted inappropriately. Can we try to get things back on track here?”
I couldn’t believe it. Dumbstruck I nodded “Yeah, course gaffer” I managed. “All I want is to win games and play where I can be most effective. I want to win here”
He smiled, a big puffy rosy cheeked smile. “It’s what we all want son” he said. I smiled, nodded then got up from the chair. He patted me on the back as I left. Just then, a thought hit me. “Uh, gaffer” I asked as I popped my head back in “will you be putting out any press release or making any reference online to this? It feels like it might make a good story, you know about mental health and all that?” The smile disappeared, the rosy cheeks drained to a pale grey snarl. “No.”
The same day I was contacted by a players union representative. Most guys tend to shun them and are wary about being seen to work with them. It can be easy for you to be portrayed as a bit of a problem child for clubs once you get involved with them so although in the back of my mind I knew I should be cautious, I was also still reeling from the gaffer’s change in tone about trying to publically reconcile.
They laid it on thick. It was what I wanted to hear. “You want out? we can help you, we know what you’ve been going through, we’ve helped other guys just like you.” They gave me examples, guys I knew, good guys with their heads screwed on. They privately wrote to the club on my behalf. The club reacted exactly how I thought they would and denied any knowledge of any issues I was having.
Another weekend of no football, I was privately suspended by the club until the end of my contract. They’d had enough of me. In the back of my mind, I knew they were playing games, but that didn’t stop me spending that weekend as stressed as I’ve ever been at their denial of my issues.
Come the end of the season the club website publishes a review of each players season, in previous seasons it had described me as a “goal machine” and “world class striker”. This season’s said the following:
Sadly off the field distractions resulted in a reduction in quality this year. Wherever he ends up next season he should work on remembering he’s not the only player on the team and not the only human on the planet.
We wish him all the best.
Nothing really shocked me anymore. Against my better judgement I tweeted a link to it with the following:
I’ve worked hard to try to better myself over the last 3 seasons but the lack of respect I’ve been afforded is disappointing. People want to talk about treating eachother with respect but when it comes down to it, all that matters to them is winning games. We’re all pawns in the chairman’s little game of chess. To him it doesn’t matter if it’s me or the next guy. That’s fine. But I came from a team where the people pulling on the shirt matter. The fans care. The staff care. You become a part of the fabric of the club. Not just a plaything for a 60 year old toddler to get fed up with if it’s not working. That’s the measuring stick I hold any future employer to and if no club can match that then I’m happy to hang them up – but I do know one club that can.
In response the club put out the following statement:
“There is no value in our great football club involving ourselves in mudslinging with former players. Both our chairman and manager are available should any player wish to discuss any personal or professional issues. We will not be commenting on this issue further”
My name trended online for days, I received over 100 media requests, some of which I took up. I gravitated to the ones that gave me an opportunity to speak up about my medical treatment and how I was treated by the club, not those who just wanted dished dirt to get clicks and views.
I resigned with my old club and old gaffer in the August of that year, a few weeks after my wife had given birth to our second child. It should have been one of the most joyous periods of my life but I often felt regret. And anger. And resentment. What had I done to deserve to be sat with this little gift in my arms whilst I contemplated what life would be like for my family without me? Tears trickled down my face, dripping onto his little head. I felt ashamed of myself.
Ashamed of getting involved with the nonsense. Ashamed of retaliating. Ashamed of not just getting on and playing football. I know I’m not to blame. I know that. But I can’t shake this feeling of resentment towards those people and that football club. I want the world to know what they really are. I want their world to come crashing down around them, I want them to have to experience what I did. And that’s when I feel ashamed the most. Because they’re just human like me. They’ve got kids and families too and they don’t deserve to be treated like I was.
I’ve started banging in goals. I’m back playing up front again. I’m happy on the pitch. I’m back changing nappies. I’m back singing nursery rhymes and being up through the night for the right reasons. I’m happy at home.
Hornswall, the most Northern of Kingdoms was the very tip of our world. Royalty – loved, respected and feared sat as the centerpiece, the very heartbeat of the Kingdom.
A vast sweeping domain of cities, woods and seasons, Hornswall had once been a Kingdom fractured by borders and dominated by bloodshed for decades. Since the dawn of the first men, five proud families were raised to become combatants in a perpetual chess game for control. The women, most of them more resilient than the warriors they cared for, lived to raise a perpetual carousel of war-hungry centurions.
The Benjon’s. The Hurvants. The Gilliam’s. The Gome’s. The Draff’s. The Dune’s.
For eternity their ancestors had fought tooth and nail to take the Hornswall Throne. To rule across the Kingdom. Only during the Century of Peace and Progress did the conflict take a backstep to politicking. Only for oceans of bloodshed to flood the shores with a horrifying vengeance.
That was until the rise of King Rendan Hurvant of House Hurvant. The Great Unifier. The King of the Black Kings, who would come to be known to history as the King of Kings. He united the Kingdom as one, breaking down the borders and recognising the possibilities that unification would bring their great land. Once it became clear that the myths about the invading tribes from The Southern Border were no longer that and they were the nightmare incarnate the fables had painted them to be, raping, murdering and pillaging their way through Hornswall, unification wasn’t difficult.
Resources were combined, 5 proud armies became one and the Borders which had once sought to divide now united. They became the sites of historical battles at which hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives defending the honour of their beloved Kingdom. The power their fathers and their fathers before them had warred over for millenia was no longer under threat from each other, but from an unknown, terrifying race. The Barbarian’s from The Southern Border were without morals. They tore through the Province, which sat on the Southern side of Hornwalls enormous imposing walls. The Duffs had owned the Province since the beginning of time and would continue to do so until time was no more. Lead by the charismatic ‘Provincial King’ Lariston Duff, the once noble gatekeeping land of the Kingdom was decimated by millions of maniacal, merciless savages. Duff’s proud armies couldn’t stop the onslaught of depravity from their adversaries who appeared to have no purpose but to seek blood, death and destruction.
In Hornswall they found it in droves. Duff lead what remained of his depleted battalion in tandem with their former bitter rivals, the awaiting army led by ‘The High King’ Huntro Gome. They met them head on. Across the former City of Hallstorm they battled night and day for weeks on end. The once golden roads and fields of Hallstorm were painted red with the blood of men from both sides. The King of Wolves, Walton Dune, and his pack of a thousand Wolf-Men rode out to join the brutal conflict providing a crucial tipping point in the numbers in favour of the defending Hornswall army. It was on the twelfth day of a tumultuous war that Grood Gilliam of House Gilliam, now famously known as The Architect of Desolation for the part he played that day, stood upon the Hill overlooking the chaos before proceeding to slay all before him, beheading the largest and meanest of the Southern Barbarian’s. The tide turned on that day, on that very swing of his sword.
It was that night that King Hurvant joined the battle. Over the following week the allied armies would push the remaining Barbarian tribes back out of the gates of Hornswall, back down through the decimated Province and farther South through The Fernes. It was at The Fernes that the united armies stood their ground and saw off the final, concluding onslaught.
That very night and for the next 3 weeks the army lead by Martal Benjon of the former city of Gern would carry out an operation to restore the Kingdom and the Province to its former glory. This vital and oft overlooked operation earned Benjon the moniker ‘The Burier of Bones’. A fitting but often misinterpreted label which he was happy to wear.
The united Kingdom, backed by representatives from all 6 families, unanimously crowned King Hurvant as their ruler. The Black King quickly sought to name those who had selflessly fought aside him in battle as his lieutenants. Thus, the Black Kings of Hornswall were crowned:
The Executioner, King Losan Hurvant. The brother of the King who had fought side by side with his Royal kin night and day.
King Martal Benjon, the Burier of Bones.
The King of Wolves, Walton Dune.
King Grood Gilliam, The Architect of Desolation.
The High King, Huntro Gome.
The Provincial King, Lariston Draff
The Black Kings would secure the Kingdom of Hornswall and The Province ensuring that no battle like the one which threatened to wipe out their bloodline would occur ever again. Their families, after they were but dust in the wind would continue the tradition. Each Black King made a blood oath before the people of the Kingdom to signify an end to the blood shed by their ancestors and to forever honour the now unified kingdom of their King.
The Unifier, King Rendan Hurvant, the King of the Black Kings sat raised upon his golden throne before his table of loyal lieutenants, The Black Kings. Battle scarred tissue covered his 52 year old face. No longer the powerful warrior he was at age 25 when he lead the final charge against The Southern Border Tribes, he winced, as he did most days, when a flash of bloodshed and a drawn sword haunted his daydreams. Not a day went past when he was not reminded of the battle his kingdom endured. Not a night of slumber had went by without a visit from the men who’s lives he had taken that day. And not a day went past without him visiting the Chantry to give thanks to the Path of the Gods for guiding him to unify the Kingdom either. The act had defined him, not only in title but in character too. It haunted his sanity with every aging day.
“What news from the Province, King Draff?” asked King Hurvant in a gruff tone as he ran his large ring-heavy hand through his thick grey beard. “Nothing to be concerned with beyond the Ferns my lord” replied the beady-eyed Draff. The other Kings banged their large tankards in unison “‘Tis the Path of the Gods” they chanted.
This exchange had opened the counsel since it’s inception. It was the unwritten anguish which plagued every Hornswall family since that momentous day on which the victorious battalions had returned. When would the savages follow again? For more bloodshed, death and brutality. To take the lives of their wives, their lords, their sons, daughters, their lovers, their sisters and brothers. Children with no knowledge of the history of the once fractured kingdom they lived in, had grown up regaled with tales of the brave Black Kings who drove the evil out of the Kingdom back down to the Southern part of the world where no soul dared venture. But the question remained, when would they return?
Somewhere beyond the Southern Border
It was no mirage after all. Liano Roark slumped to his knees and dunked his head deep into the beautiful, blue, flowing water. He stayed under until he could no longer hold his breath. He dropped his satchel and blood stained sword to the ground and considered for a second diving straight into the flowing river. It was going too fast and he knew, given his lack of energy, he’d have been swept away in a wave of beautiful blue relief. His red skin sizzled as he splashed the cool water across his body. He had travelled for what felt like weeks across the barren desert with only the odd scrap of rotten carcass to tame the rumbling he felt in his stomach.
This young warrior, named Maximiliano Roark First of His Name by his mother, aided by the beguiling Princess Junes Hurvant, was to become King Liano Roark: the Ruler of Fate. The King of Autocracy. The Obliterator of the Path of the Gods. And most notably, The King of the Black Kings.
But before all that, he had some savages on his trail and he was in dire need of some food and rest….
Hard, cold rain strikes my face and rolls down my cheeks, the thunder crackles and fills my body with dread.
“Not great weather we’re having at the moment is it?”
I nod and shrug and agree and keep my head down. Don’t say anything. What’s the point? Small talk is for other people.
I really need to get out of this rain. It’s chaotic. Its so heavy I can barely see in front of me. I know how to get back, I just can’t seem to find my way. It’s too heavy.
“Jeez, what’s wrong with you now?”
“It’s only rain”
“Everyone else is trying to get home too, you’re not the only one. Why can’t you just deal with it?Do you think you’re special?”
My clothes are soaked, my body aches. I’ve been trying to get out of this rain for hours. It feels like days, months, years. Its rained like this before, I know it has, but it’s still heavy, it’s still frightening.
“Lighten up, yes, it’s raining but everyone else is getting on with it”
I’m pushed to the ground, trampled on, kicked and laughed at by angry, snarling faces. Chaos surrounds me. I’m trying to get to my feet amongst a crowd of wet bodies.
My body aches. I consider, for a moment, lying here. Just lie there on the cold, wet, hard surface and let it happen. Let them kick me. Let them trample. Maybe if I pass out it’ll pass me by.
There’s something inside of me knows that’s not right. My legs throb, they’re cold and wet, hot and fatigued. My clothes are stuck to me like a second skin. But I push up as my thighs scream out at me. One last push. I’m up. I push my face out of the crowd into the air and take a deep breath.
I emerge to a very different place. No longer am I surrounded by angry, snarling commuters. Its very different.
It’s warm! The sun! It’s here! It’s beautiful! Almost too beautiful! I stumble a little, I’m completely overwhelmed. Slowly, I begin to forget that rain even exists. My clothes are dry. My body feels refreshed. I smile and chat to everyone I meet. Small talk is for me after all. I chat. I smile. I’m alive!! It feels amazing! Almost too good! I feel giddy with glee!
“Remember that rain?” she asks. “you got soaked didn’t you?”
I smile and chuckle and recoil. I look to the sky and feel the sun’s warm beam fade from my face. NO! One wet drip plops on my cheek. I laugh uncertainly. I wipe it away with my hand and smile. Forget it. Its just one drip.
But it’s not just one drip. The rain, its back. I can’t see again. The thunder strikes. Help. Chaos resumes in a flash, I’m saturated. How did it change so quickly? The once happy smiling people before me are gone. They bang into eachother, faces mangled in annoyance. They hate the rain. No, they hate me. Do they think its my fault?
“I DON’T CONTROL THE RAIN!!” I scream at them.
They turn to look at me. Haunting, twisted, snarling, monstrous faces laughing, pointing, taunting me.
I turn to run away. I run and run and run but can’t escape. I’m still in the same place. They’re still there, staring at me, taunting me.
“HOW DO I GET BACK TO THE SUN?!” I shout at them.
I’m met with a snarling crowd of laughs in reply. But then.
“you’ll get there…” says a friendly voice. It’s unlike any of the others. No snarling. No growling. No taunting like the others who surround me. It’s kind, it’s laced in hope. It’s feels warm. Like the sun.
“….why don’t you try this first?” it says.
I look up at the object thrust towards me. Confused, I take the black umbrella and open it. The crowd of monsters recoil all at once.
I laugh in annoyance at myself. Of course!! An umbrella!! I knew that!!
“But I really want to get home out of this rain. I want to get back to the sun.”
“Now come on everyone, repeat after me: We Are Someone’s Paradise.”
“WE ARE SOMEONE’S PARADISE” droned the reply from the crowd.
Wolliver Sting stood smiling before his small group of dedicated followers. Each and every one of them stood to attention, hanging on his every word. He prickled with delight as they repeated his mantra over and over: “WE ARE SOMEONE’S PARADISE.”
“We were born wasps…” he preached, marching up and down like an army sergeant in front of his dedicated followers”….we didn’t choose to be wasps, no more than an elephant chooses to have a trunk or a dog chooses to be a wild eyed idiot. That doesn’t mean we have to be the enemy does it?”
“NOOOOOO” returned the group in unison.
“We don’t need to use violence as a means to get attention do we?”
“NOOOOOO” they replied again.
“What do wasps who use violence get?” he asked
“SWATTED” they shouted back at him.
He chuckled and clapped his antennae together. “Very good!” he said, clearly proud of his recruits.
He pointed to a large jovial looking German Wasp with a protruding honeydew belly “Bernard! How long have you gone without stinging now?”
Bernard looked around with a proud smile across his face. “I’m coming up for my 12 week anniversary” he beamed. “WOOOOOW” replied the group in awe. “You must teach us your ways, zen master” said a young European Hornet named Garth. Bernard chuckled and pointed back at Wolliver. “Wolly here is the real zen master, I just followed his ways. Stick with us little guy, you’ll soon no longer feel the need to plunge your zinger deep into the succulent flesh of the enemy. To hit them once, twice, maybe even thrice. To watch them recoil and slowly realise that they’ve been paralysed by your hand.”
Bernard’s eyes had began to glaze over and his stinger had began to jerk and twitch uncontrollably as he recounted for the group the very intimate details of the encounter he had had with a small house spider 12 weeks ago. As he was reaching a particularly graphic section of his story he suddenly slumped to the ground and began to convulse. Wolliver stood over Bernard’s unconscious body clutching a small taser. “I’m sorry you all had to see that folks” he said with an uneasy smile. “Sometimes it’s best to get in front of our urges, Bernard will be fine, he just needs to sleep off his lust.”
“What do we say when we get the sting lust gang?” he raised his antennae out to the group for the answer – they responded expertly “THE KEY TO PEACE IS SELF-REFLECTION, USE OUR STING FOR SELF-PROTECTION”
“Wonderful” clapped Wolliver in delight.
The tree shook beneath their small antennae and from the small hole in the tree emerged a beautiful, elegant large Asian hornet, flanked by 4 smaller muscle bound hornets, each of them staring and laughing at the group. Wolliver dropped to a knee as the Asian hornet approached him. “Still trying to recruit these freaks to your peace army huh Wolliver?” she smirked. The group all dropped to a knee in her presence. “Good day your majesty” replied Wolliver, his eyes still facing the floor. “Good day your majesty” repeated the group after him. The 4 smaller hornets flanking the Queen sniggered and giggled at this. “What happened to this one?” snarled one of them gesturing his stinger towards a still unconscious Bernard “you all decide to have one last hit together and take out the big one? look at that belly!” The four minions all sniggered and giggled together at this.
“HUSH!” interjected the Queen. The laughing ceased immediately, the Queen’s minions all paused and looked to the floor, scorned. She looked down at Wolliver “I only came to invite you to the unveiling of the new nest tonight, thought you and your peace corps could do with integrating with the rest of us savages. Don’t worry, we won’t try to indoctrinate you, it’s just an evening of celebration.”
“Thank you, your majesty, for the gracious invite” replied Wolliver, still kneeling “we’ll definitely consider it”
“We’ll definitely consider it” mocked one of the Queen’s minions in a childish voice. At this the Queen spun in a flash and zapped the minion with her large stinger. The minion hit the ground with a thud, his lifeless body jerking uncontrollably. The group watching on recoiled in horror, some hiding their eyes, others screaming at this assault. All that is, except little Garth. “Coooooooool” he said, stepping a little closer to get a look at the minion lay jerking in the middle of the room.
“Idiot” muttered the Queen. She kicked the body hard, it flew straight out the small hole in the tree and disappeared from view. Garth looked as if he might pass out with excitement. “You and I should talk privately, Wolliver Stings” the Queen said cryptically as she exited the tree with her three minions in tow. “See you tonight” She turned, winked at a stunned Wolliver then flew off.
“Uhhhhh” groaned Bernard from the floor. He climbed to his antennae and looked at the scared faces around the room. “Sting lust again?” he asked Wolliver. “Yup” he replied. The big Wasp began to sob as Wolliver took him in an embrace. “It’s OK Bernie” said Wolliver, “a nest is not built in day, just as inner self reflection is not realised in 12 weeks. We can do this together.” Bernard’s shoulders began to bounce up and down as he broke down into a wild howling cry. “There, there” said Wolliver as he smiled out to the rest of the group.
“Can we go to the party tonight master?” shrieked a clearly still excited Garth, his pre-pubescent voice splitting the tension in the tree. “Well, Garth” replied Wolliver as he helped a still sobbing Bernard into a seat. “I believe you’ve all worked so hard that we do deserve to let our wings down for one night. All I ask is you remain true to yourself and true to my teachings. There should only be wasps there so there shouldn’t be any temptation. We can reconvene tomorrow.” The group rejoiced in celebration and conga lined their way out the tree off to prepare themselves for an evening of celebration. Wolliver chuckled as he watched them go.
He lay down on his bed and let out a long sigh. What did Queen Gojin want with him? what could she possibly want to discuss? There was only one way to find out, he supposed.