John entered the kitchen to the smell of frying bacon and poured himself some tea. He smiled to himself as he watched Beth rush around. ‘You better hope no feminists see you making breakfast for your husband or you’ll be kicked out of the sisterhood,’ he said.
‘As long as I’m not wearing an apron I think it’s fine,’ she smirked.
‘Any plans today?’ he asked, sitting down at the table.
‘Always something to do, always errands to run.’
He stared in to his cup. The liquid was making patterns as he swirled the tea around. Something seemed strange about them. Before he could pinpoint what was bothering him the cat jumped up on to the table. Shocked out of his half-asleep daze he spilled his drink. He tutted and began wiping at the stain on his shirt. ‘Get down,’ he said, swatting at the cat.
‘Don’t yell at the cat, it’s not doing you any harm.’
The cat licked its paw and stared at him. He glared back. He hated the way it paraded around the house with such an air of arrogance. ‘I think we should get rid of the cat.’
‘Don’t be silly, we’re not getting rid of Aline. She’s gorgeous.’ Beth leaned over and stroked the cat behind the ear. It purred in response and rubbed its head against her. ‘Right, I made you some bacon, here you go. I’m going out. Anything you want from the shop while I’m there?’
‘Are you talking to me or the cat?’
‘Oh shush. Don’t be late for work. See you later.’ She kissed him on the forehead and left the room. He heard the door shut as she left the house. He finished the last of his tea and put his mug down on the table.
‘I’m watching you. Aline,’ he emphasised the name mockingly.
The cat crouched on the table and slowly blinked at him. He stood and left the kitchen to get ready for work, casually pushing the cat off the table without breaking stride.
* * *
‘Building is closed, can’t let you in, mate.’
John looked up at the multi-story office block before him. The drab concrete and glass structure so familiar to him was today surrounded by a yellow warning tape. Groups of people were loitering around talking amongst themselves. The fluorescent jacketed man speaking to him was casually leaning against a wall smoking a cigarette.
‘What’s going on?’
‘Gas leak. No one gets in until it’s sorted.’
‘A gas leak,’ John repeated, pointedly looking at the cigarette. The man just stared back. ‘Okay,’ John pinched the bridge of his nose, ‘any idea how long before we can get inside? I need to get in to work.’
‘You and everyone else, pal. Could be all day. If I were you I’d write the day off and go home.’ He dropped his cigarette and stamped it out. ‘Wish I was so lucky,’ he added as he drifted away in to the crowds.
John sighed. He walked back to his car wondering what to do. He slumped in to the seat and watched the traffic pass by for a while. He could not shake the disconnected feeling following him around today. Deciding to go for a drive in the country to clear his head he pulled out of the car park and turned on to the main road.
After a few minutes driving he arrived at the underpass out of town to be greeted by emergency vehicles blocking the tunnel. The scene lit by strobing blue lights only magnified his surreal feeling. A police officer walked towards him waving his arms in the air furiously.
‘Nothing to see, just a minor traffic accident, please go about your business,’ he said.
John sighed. Seeing no point in arguing, he pulled a U-turn and headed for home.
* * *
John stepped through his front door and put his jacket and hat on the hook. He made towards the kitchen but stopped when he noticed the cat sitting in the middle of the corridor. It stared through him.
‘What is it with you? You make me feel like a stranger in my own home. You don’t own this place you know, I do.’ He lunged towards the cat, which made it streak away, and headed in to the kitchen to make a drink. If he could not work at the office today then he could at least try to do some paperwork from home. He started the kettle boiling and placed his briefcase down. Leaning against the table, he rubbed his face trying to summon some enthusiasm.
Suddenly he felt completely alert. He could feel his pulse quickening but nothing was happening. He stood frozen, straining his senses. He heard a faint noise coming from upstairs. Picking up a knife from the side he crept along the corridor. He stopped at the base of the stairs and turned his head to try to make out the noise more clearly. The sound was so alien, like running water falling on to a drum.
He sensed something behind him and whirled around ready to strike with his knife. There was nothing there, just the empty porch. Jane could not have been home as her jacket was not hanging next to his.
Trying to calm his edging nerves, he slowly climbed the stairs straining to hear where the noise was coming from. Once he reached the top he realised that it was coming from the other side of the bedroom door. He took a deep breath to compose himself, then with a blur of motion he pushed the door open and jumped in to the room brandishing the knife.
A huge shadow in motion dominated the far wall. As he burst in to the room it was already falling to the floor until it disappeared. Something darted under the bed. John was stunned at the shadow, nothing in the room was big enough to cast something like that. He crouched to the floor and checked under the bed, knife extended in front of him. Looking back at him was the cat.
‘Goddamnit cat. What the hell are you doing!’
He wiped his brow slowly feeling his heart rate return to normal. The noise had stopped. He checked around the room but found nothing out of place. Unease lingered in his mind though. He could not understand what had been causing the noise or the impossible shadow. It had happened so quickly that he had not seen anything more than an indistinct shape.
Hearing the kettle whistling downstairs he took one last look around the room, shook his head, then went back downstairs.
* * *
John climbed in to bed next to his wife. She put her magazine down and peered over her glasses at him.
‘What’s wrong, dear?’ she asked.
‘Just thinking,’ he replied. The day had left him with a strong feeling of unease but he could not understand why. Nothing specific had happened to put him on edge but he was having trouble processing the events of the day.
‘Something happen at work? It wasn’t that fat little manager again was it? I still think you should report him. He shouldn’t be able to get away with handing off his work to other people like that all the time.’
‘No, no,’ he interrupted her. The last thing he needed was her ranting while he was trying to think. ‘Nothing like that. I’m fine really, just tired I think.’ He forced a smile.
She raised her eyebrow then shrugged. ‘Okay. Get some rest then, you’ll feel better tomorrow. Turn the light off soon, okay?’ She kissed him then rolled over.
‘Sure. Good night.’
He lay back staring hazily as he tried to collect his thoughts. After a few minutes he noticed Aline creep in through the bedroom door. The cat leapt up on to the end of the bed and locked eyes with him. Dizziness surged over him and he felt himself falling through waves of nausea. As his eyes instinctively closed he caught a flash of the monstrous shadow again. Clearer this time, though just as briefly, against the far wall. A hulking mass of appendages sticking out at impossible angles. He reeled against the spinning room, trying to sit up and open his eyes but something was dragging him down and he fell in to unconsciousness.
* * *
John opened his eyes to a blinding light shining down on his face. He tried to shield his eyes but found he could not move his arms. Panic rose up through his chest as he struggled to move his body. Two silhouettes glided in to view above him.
‘He missed it. Yet another failure.’
‘The readouts show he exhibited suspicion.’
‘Suspicion wouldn’t save him. Or us for that matter. You know the directive stipulates awareness must be clearly observable.’
The voices drifted down to John, garbled and seemingly far away. His thoughts were sluggish and he was struggling to keep his concentration from slipping away. He tried to speak but he could not get his mouth to form words.
‘We’ll find more eventually. We have plenty of subjects.’
‘Will it be in time though?’
‘We have to trust that it will. Too much rests on this. Dispose of this one and we’ll set up the simulation for the next.’
John heard a mechanical hiss and the light above him slowly faded in to darkness.
© 2015, Gavin Zanker.
Photo by thisisbossi licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic