The Loneliest Number

By MJB

Disclaimers: The characters are all mine, in looks, thought and deed.

Sex/Violence:  A little from column A and a lot from column B.

Feedback:  Would be greatly appreciated at mjb1_1@hotmail.com

Creatures walk abroad by night; in the shadows caste by stone giants they peer out, watching.  Some are familiar, with names as old as time:  chaser, hunter and taker.  The age old drama of predator and prey played out in twelve hour shifts.  Of course, the names have changed over time.  New language and new ways of life making thieves out of takers, rapist of predators, the list goes on and on.  The more things change the more they stay the same, such is the way of things.

Yet one pair of eyes was different, luminous in the black, shinning like an eerie beacon.  At street level infinite possibilities swarmed before the hungry eyes but up here prey was harder to find.  When necessity demanded or desire called it would plunge, head first, into the mire and swim amongst the other sharks.  Taking only what it required.

Things hadn’t always been this way for the aberration who sat among the spires but time had been a cruel mistress.  In the passing of a handful of years, decades seemed to have passed leaving it isolated, unique, alone.  The loneliness was the killer.  Looking at it now you would never know that it had once held the greatest thinkers of the ages in contempt.  The twitching, slathering thing bore little resemblance to any sort of academic.  The chasm left behind by retreating knowledge had been filled with an inhuman craving to inflict pain, to hear the screams of the weak, to take what it desired.  And it did.

+++++

Grey walls, grey door, grey ceiling, grey floor… and they wonder why I’m so depressed!  The cynical thought was punctuated by a wry snort from the young woman lying, prone, on the bed.  Not her bed, just a bed, like the room that she simply occupied rather than owned.  That was the pattern of her life these days, bleak nothingness and crippling pain.  Not physical pain, mind you, a much more cerebral sort of agony, one that comes from deep within and eats away at your soul.  Depression; it sounds so benign, how are you supposed to take it seriously?  That’s how it gets you; it sneaks up on you while you’re too busy to notice, slips something into your drink and takes advantage of you.

Eyes, once a vivid hue, now stared fixed and lustreless at nothing.  These windows to the soul revealed a terrifying landscape of despair, wells of black leading nowhere.  Like her eyes her skin had taken on a sickly pallor, the once healthy tan all but banished.  It hung on her bones, tight and dry and translucent through lack of sun and food.  A tragedy, then, that at nineteen a woman who only months earlier had been considered a great beauty had been brought to this.

Exhaustion suddenly filling her limbs with led; she eased clumsily under her faded sheets and turned her back to the room.  Now facing the dingy wall she was surprised, not for the first time, to be reminded that the walls were not in fact grey but a faded shadow of once vibrant flowers, never wilting but fading away as surely as any bloom.  Fumbling behind her she managed to extinguish the tiny lamp and plunge herself into a world of black.  Closing her eyes tight against the dark, colours began to flash beneath the lids, a riot of rainbows blinking and flashing.  Falling into the oblivion of sleep she tried to dredge up the memories of better times but each one left a bitter taste after its initial sweetness.

It has to get better than this, a final thought before, nothing.

+++++

“Elizabeth Newly?” 

Straightening the faded black skirt that had long since seen better days, the young woman with the dead eyes stood up.  Following the well dressed secretary into the personnel manager’s office she felt extremely underdressed.  Here she was, in a thrift store skirt, scuffed pumps, no pantyhose and a grey blouse that had once been white; expecting to get a job.  Who was she trying to kid?  Certainly not herself, she had long since stopped hoping, stopped dreaming.  Today was just another exercise in futility.  Only today, today it really mattered.  The door opened before her, revealing the ordered confines of the office.

“Please come in, Miss Newly, take a seat.”  She felt his eyes wander over her body.  Once, not too long ago, he would have been checking her out; now he was just noting her shabby skirt and emaciated state.

Sitting across the desk from him, she couldn’t help but envy his expensive haircut and tailored suit.  It had probably cost more money than she had seen in a year and the worst part, the worst part, was that he was only a very tiny fish in the company pond.  She had plenty of time to study him as he leisurely looked over her resume.  As minutes passed, second by agonising second made clear by the ticking of the clock, she already knew what would be said in this small room.

“Well Miss Newly,” finally his eyes met hers and she could see the apology in their depths already.  “You seem to have had a lot of jobs recently; would you like to tell me a little about that?”  Thunk!  The first nail in her coffin.

“Well, partly it’s because I’ve moved several times since leaving home.  I just found a lot of those jobs weren’t right for me.”  Valiantly she tried to keep her voice even.

“So, you just quit because you didn’t like the jobs?”  Thunk!

“I know how that sounds but I really think I’d fit in well here.” Damn, damn, damn!

“We expect a certain level of commitment from our staff here, Miss Newly.”  He glanced at her details again.  “You didn’t graduate from high school?”  Thunk!

“No, I didn’t, I had to leave home suddenly and I haven’t had the opportunity to go back.”  The look in his eyes said it all; so long and don’t let the door hit you.

“Miss Newly, you applied to both the secretarial and cleaning positions we have open and honestly the fact that you showed indecision in application is not a trait that we like to see in our employees.  I don’t feel that you are suitable for either position.  I suggest that you get your GED and then apply for secretarial work.  Your lack of direction makes you unsuitable for the cleaning job.”  He stood and she mirrored his pose.  “Very sorry that we can’t help you Miss Newly, I wish you luck elsewhere.”  Holding out his hand for her to shake she did so, silently hearing a death march for her hopes.

On her way out she scooped up her threadbare grey overcoat and scuttled from the building.  Once through the highly polished glass doors and onto the street she let herself lean, dejectedly, against a wall.  Allowing her head to fall back onto cool brick, she watched her breath puff out in tiny white clouds.  What now?  With her fifth failed interview of the week she knew that her time was running out.  Her say at the hostel couldn’t last much longer; they only catered for people staying a short time before getting on their feet, she’d been there almost six months.  They’d already made it clear that her time was up, other people needed the room.

“What am I going to do?”  A whisper lost in the cool breeze.  She’d known, without doubt, that she wouldn’t get this job.  The place was well out of her league but it was just about the only thing she hadn’t already applied for.  She’d been rejected from fast-food chains, cleaning jobs, waitressing; even car washing and she had been fired from her last three jobs only days after starting because of her despondent attitude.

Gathering her coat more tightly around her she fumbled to fasten the few remaining buttons against the cold.  Not that it did much good, the old piece of apparel was so thin in places that it did little to block out the chill.  Ducking her head in a vain attempt to shield her face from the biting wind, her short dark hair whipped into her eyes, she ignored it and moved on.  The only good thing about this failed interview was that it was so close to her dwelling.  Even in her thoughts she couldn’t call it home.

Finally reaching the cheery red door of the hostel she fumbled with the key to get in.  The welcoming façade of the building was mirrored by its interior.  It was shabby, certainly, with the government giving it so little funding but it was clean and homey.  The rooms were much the same, wallpaper faded, carpets worn and furniture sagging but still liveable.  Not unusually, the place was quiet at 3pm, most of the occupants out doing the same thing she had, job hunting.

Moving steadily towards the stairs that lead to the second floor and her room, she was curious on hearing voices and the odd thud of small objects hitting the carpet.  Rounding the corner onto the landing her breath caught at the sight before her.  There, on the floor, lay her meagre possessions being thrust into an old gym bag by one of the buildings volunteers.  Another volunteer walked out of the open door with the last of her things in hand.

“Hey!”  Her sharp cry brought both heads up and looking in her direction.  “Jane, Simon, what’s going on?”  Inside she already knew.

“Beth, we’re really sorry but you have to go.  We told you last month that this was coming and we just can’t keep you here any longer,” Jane looked genuinely apologetic.

“I understand Jane.  You’ve kept me here longer than you should have but why are you clearing out my stuff like this?”  Hurt crept into her voice.

“It’s not a reflection on you Beth, we have a girl arriving in around an hour who needs this room and we didn’t know when you’d be back.”  As they spoke Beth had walked closer.  Simon held out the bag and gave it to the teen.  “Sorry kid.  Did you get that job?”  His mellow baritone was hopeful.

“Yes I did.”  Why make them feel worse?  She watched as their eyes lit up and they smiled in congratulations.  “Can I go in and just change my clothes before I get out of here?”

“Of course you can.  Come downstairs when you’re done and we’ll have dinner ready for you.”  The husband and wife team moved past her, Jane giving her a quick hug before moving to the kitchen.

Hefting the overstuffed bag she walked into the dingy room, closing the door softly behind her.  Placing it on the freshly made bed she pulled her things out until they littered the white surface.  Stripping out of her only coat, her blouse, skirt and shoes she carefully folded them and placed them in the bottom of the bag.  Quickly folding the rest of her clothes she put some into the vinyl bag before pulling out a plastic shopping bag and stuffing the rest inside.  Pushing her clean panties into her pumps she put them with her clothes and wedged her bras around them.  She was almost done.

Standing only in her underwear she reached for a small clear bag containing several pill bottles.  Moving to a sink in the corner of the room, she popped open a contained and took two capsules before positioning her mouth below the faucet and turning on the water to chase it down.  Straightening she wiped the water from her face and took a look at the reflection in the mirror above it.  Her blue eyes were dull, surrounded by dark shadows that betrayed her tiredness and cheeks sunken by hunger.  Her body also betrayed the same lack of nutrition and care.  Hair that had once been dark brown and glossy, stylishly cut in a feathery style, now looked brittle and dry. 

With a sigh she crossed to the bed and tugged a blue t-shirt over her head, covering it with a thick sweater.  Adding jeans to the ensemble she tugged them over her hips before sitting on the edge of the bed.  Shoving her feet into a pair of thick but holey socks and warm sneakers she was ready to go.  Long coat covering her from shoulders to knees and buttoned closed; she slung one bag over her shoulders and grasped the other in hand as she left the room.

Quietly she padded down the stairs, careful to avoid the kitchen.  She couldn’t take the forced good humour of saying goodbye and living up to her lie.  Putting her key on the hook by the door she took a quick look at the clock mounted on the wall; 3.45pm and everything had changed.  Who knew that 45 minutes could change your life?  Opening and closing the front door as softly as possible she made her way into an uncertain future. 

Walking along the street she was at a loss, what could she do now?  Darkness was falling rapidly, stormy looking clouds blowing in to caste the world in gloom, reflecting her emotional state.  She trudged the street for over an hour with no sense of direction or purpose until, finally, she ended up at the bus shelter.  Reaching into her pocket she came up with a handful of coins.  Her entire fortune in her palm; just enough for a ride…Suddenly she knew where to go and what to do.

Heading to the shelter, she settled between a rather smelly old man and another teenaged girl.  Waiting patiently as bus after bus came and went, taking her two seat mates with them, she was rewarded when her bus came at last.  Thankful that the rain had yet to fall, she walked to the long silver box and stepped inside, beginning the short journey to her future.

+++++

Tonight it just watched, perched precariously above the streets, tucked into a dark alcove; out of sight from those looking up she was safe.  Scanning across the deserted streets it realised that tonight nobody was out to look up, and took the time to study its hunting grounds.  This area of the city was a slum, buildings crumbled all around while prostitutes prowled the streets, stopping the ‘nice’ cars that passed through.

The men in those cars could regenerate this neighbourhood but they only came to cruise.  They indulged their guilty pleasures before returning to the comfort of their lives.  More often than not these men were prey to the violent elements of this society.  More than one of the trophies and trinkets in the green eyed observer’s home came from them.  Their cars were taken by other factions; much like an African savannah, the hunters killed the prey but the scavengers cleaned up after it.

Vagrants who usually slept in doorways had managed to creep inside empty buildings tonight, giving in to the chill.  Rats took up residence with families this time of year, families whose problems were far bigger than their rodent houseguests or some spectral figure that killed at night.  Even the police seldom ventured here, unconcerned by the problems in these lives.  She almost wished a police car would go past tonight, the stillness was mind numbing.

Directly opposite her building was the bus stop, with its broken glass and graffiti.  Green eyes returned again and again to the skeletal structure; looking for what, it couldn’t be sure.  When eventually a long silver bus did draw up to the curb and begin to idle there, those luminous eyes could not look away.  Frigid as the air was, the sky pregnant with rain and the street still as death, the behemoth broke the monotony.  One, lone passenger disembarked, feet hitting the sidewalk in tandem with the opening of the sky.

Drowned by the deluge the grey figure trudged dejectedly forward.  Clasped in each hand, seemingly weighing down slumped shoulders, were battered bags, heaving at the seams.  Step after soggy step it moved on.  The…person, for the watcher could make out no detail of gender through the curtain of water, seemed to be fast approaching its location.  What would they do?  Fascinated by the slow moving figure, it felt no desire to hurt this person, just to observe.

+++++

Hair plastered to her skull, she shuddered violently as water oozed its way down her neck and into her clothes.  Old and worn, her coat did little to protect her from the elements, leaving her feeling sodden and heavy.  When she had started her journey to this place she hadn’t been entirely certain of her own plans.  She had only ever passed through this derelict block on her way elsewhere but the towering building at its centre had always called to her.  Today was no different; she felt a pull towards the old deco building that, from its size, had once been a hotel.  Positioned opposite the bus shelter, it had been the first thing she saw before the rain came in.

Getting closer and closer, vision made blurry by the pounding storm, her plan crystallised.  All she needed now was a little luck and an opening big enough to climb through.  For the first time in months, maybe even years, it seemed like Lady Luck was listening and with only a little fumbling she managed to pry away wood that covered a window.  Easing through the small opening she pulled her bag in after her.  The vinyl of the gym bag made it through but the plastic bag caught on a nail and split, spilling clothes onto the wet sidewalk. Unwilling to venture back outside for them she let the wood fall back into place and turned to the darkened interior of the building.

Fire had obviously torn through the place at some stage, whether before or after it had been abandoned Beth couldn’t tell.  The still acrid smell of smoke and mould clung to the air, making her sneeze.  Carefully navigating her way around the sparse, charred furniture that filled the gloomy lobby she made a beeline for the staircase that she could just make out on the far wall.  The stairs had two branches, the left side nothing more than twisted and warped pieces of metal and wood, the right appeared secure.  Night would take hold soon, plunging the bowels of the building into total darkness and she needed to get as far as she could while some weak, grey light still seeped inside.

Slinging the bag back over her shoulder she resolutely set her foot against the stair and moved swiftly up.  Reaching the first level with no painful problems, she rushed to find the main stairwell, almost falling through a gaping hole in the floor.  Heart hammering she realised that she wouldn’t have noticed the gaping aperture had it been any darker.  Did it really matter if she fell through a whole, with what she had planned?  Yes; for a change she would control her destiny rather than have it control her.  Carefully edging around the hole she found the door to the access stairway, pleased to find it filthy but untouched by the fire.  Squaring her shoulders she stepped forward into the near total darkness and took hold of the guide rail, reading to climb the ten floors to the top.  Hand clutching the rail, she started her dark journey into the unknown.  Walking calmly to her fate she took each stair with purpose.

After what felt like an hour in the darkness, but was in reality probably only a third of that, she almost walked straight into the heavy door leading to the roof.  Feeling her way towards the handle she fell forward as the door gave under her weight.  Thrust back out into the storm, she barely felt it this time.  Distractedly she dropped her bag to the floor, unconcerned when it landed in a puddle, her mind was elsewhere.  Up here it was much brighter than inside, backwash from the streetlights below gave everything a strange yellow tinge while the moon and stars, still barely visible, lent a creamy edge to things. 

Finding herself suddenly standing between two of the huge gargoyles that decorated the side of the building, looking very much out of place, she drew in a fortifying breath.  Don’t look down!  Don’t look down!  Don’t look down!  It became a fortifying mantra as she stared at the skyline.  One slender hand came to rest on the gigantic head of one of the stone beasts, steadying her as she stepped up onto the ledge.

In the shadowed recess beneath the gargoyle’s chin, it sat deadly still wondering what the woman breathing hard above it would do.  It had seen her enter the building.  Watched as clothes spilled out onto the cement like a fabric rainbow, then lost track of her progress (it now knew the visitor was a woman as the footfalls had been too light for a man) until she stumbled onto the roof.  Now the woman stood only inches away… What was she doing?

Almost as if to answer the hidden individual’s silent question, Elizabeth drew in a breath and threw her arms open wide.  She leapt into oblivion…

Only to be stopped almost as soon as her feet left the wall.  Something strong held tightly to the back of her coat, holding her suspended parallel to the ground.  Staring down at the street far below she felt the adrenaline seep out of her blood, replaced by fear as se realised just how far it was.  Beginning to panic and hyperventilate she turned her head, searching frantically for whoever, or whatever held her so still.  Turning to her right she came face to face with a corpse!

“You should be more careful.”  Growled more than spoken, they were the last thing Beth heard before she lost consciousness.

+++++

Studying the young woman lying on the nest of cushions, sheets and old mattresses, she found herself fascinated.  Somewhere at the back of her mind a memory stirred from a time when books and words meant everything to her.  Loath to take her eyes off the slumbering girl, she quickly shut her them, shuffling through the jumble of images in her mind.  Snow White!  It burst into her head and her eyes snapped open.  This girl looked like Snow White, albeit a slightly dishevelled version.

Working more like a computer than a human, she held the picture book image from her childhood in her mind and transposed it over the passive features.  Her skin was a little too sallow, her eyes ringed with fatigue and her hair dull yet something wouldn’t let her discard the image.  The dark hair framed the heart-shaped face; naturally coral lips formed a soft pout in repose while long lashes dusted sharp cheekbones.  Having carried her into its lair and stripped her of soaked clothes, the watcher knew that the girl was terribly malnourished.

Knowing that the young brunette would need to be fed when she woke, her observer took one last look at the peaceful face before stalking out of the room.  The girl couldn’t possibly eat anything in the building, which meant a scavenging expedition.  Flying through the building with incredible speed and grace, leaping over the gaping holes made long ago by fire, she was soon in the foyer.  Then out into the night.

Glad for the cover provided by the pounding rain and the dark, she moved like a shadow across the deserted street.  Taking a fleeting look around, she ducked around the dilapidated convenience store.  Reaching the back entrance, she grasped the simple padlock that held the door closed and snapped it off.  Yanking the door open, certain that there would be no alarm to worry about, she walked inside.

Bare feet slapped on the grubby linoleum, leaving wet footprints as she moved through the box lined storage area and out onto the floor.  Shielded by the shutters that had been hastily drawn down by the shop keeper, she could move around the aisles without worry; there were certainly no cameras to catch her.  Moving quickly through the shop she found a can opener and stuffed it in her pocket. 

Now what?  Unsure what the girl would eat, what any normal person would eat, she moved down the closest row and quickly realised that cans with a dog on them were probably out.  Seeing something she recognised on the far wall she lunged and grasped a loaf of bread.  Pacing around to the cash register she snagged a paper sack and stuffed the bread inside.  Snatching a few cans and packets that had pictures of fairly attractive, she supposed, food on them and a huge canister of water the shadow made her way back to the exit. 

Passing the register for the second time, a slender yet strong hand ripped open the drawer and stuffed all of the bills into the pocket with the can opener.  Not seeing a safe, the journey continued to the door and back out into the night.  Hoping that the young women had not woken up and run away, though she wasn’t sure why, the shadow dashed back where she had come from.

+++++

Oh God, where am I?  Dazed blue eyes fluttered open and tried to focus.  Her attempts were thwarted by the absolute lack of light in the room, not one sliver penetrated the gloom.  Knowing that for the moment she wasn’t going anywhere, the darkness and sick throbbing of her stomach holding her prisoner, she tried to gain as much information as she could while sitting almost perfectly still.

Tentatively she reached out, feeling the softness that surrounded her.  Even with head pounding and fear pulsing in her veins, she could easily identify the yielding surface beneath her as a mattress; what she wasn’t so sure about was what covered it, and her.  Fingers gliding across each new texture, she was able to make out sued, corduroy, silk and… fur?  The luxurious nature of the fabrics contrasted rudely with the pungent odour of dust and damp that pervaded the room.  It’s almost like I’m in a nest, the thought was almost laughable, had it not felt so plausible.

“Ok, Beth, I think you can safely say that you’re not dead.”  Not entirely sure whether that was a good thing or not, she did at least feel the pain in her head start to recede.  “I must have come in here and passed out.  All that stuff on the roof was just a dream,” sitting up further she felt the covers fall to her waist but her mind was too busy to recognise the sudden chill.  “No way was that thing up there real, Beth, just a nightmare after a really bad day… just a bad… I’m naked!”  Hurriedly pulling the covers back over her chilled body, reality came crashing down on her.

Falling heavily back, surrounded by the strange, musky scent, she threw an arm across her eyes.  Oh, God!  How did this happen?  For the first time in her life she hoped she’d been slipped something in a drink and that this was a cheap motel, some act of sexual deviance leaving her naked and confused.  It was preferable to the alternative; that some… creature, some ghoul, had hauled her into its lair, taken her clothes and imprisoned her.

“I don’t even watch horror movies!” It was a weak attempt to fill the gloom with a little life.

Feeling tears of frustration and fear forming, she refused to let them fall.  Breathing deeply in an effort to keep the tears at bay, she tried to ignore the disconcertingly sensual feel of fur moving across her naked breast as she sat up straighter.  Knowing that her only way out of this situation lay in getting off the mattress, she gathered one of the sheets and wound it tightly around her body.  As prepared as she could be under the circumstances she swung her legs over the edge; touching the floor with a tentative toe, she quickly jerked it back as pain lanced through the limb.

Once again ensconced in the relative safety of the bed, she reached down and ran a cautious finger across her toes.  Her left big toe seemed the worst affected, throbbing in time with her heartbeat.  She could feel the warm stickiness of blood as she drew her hand away and thoughtlessly wiped it onto the fabric around her.  Refusing to give into the overwhelming sense of defeat that wanted to wash over her, she steeled herself to try again.

Elizabeth reached out a tentative hand and felt around the bed.  She was surprised when her hand made contact with the wall along the left side of the bed.  Following the wall she found that the head of the bed was also pushed against the wall.  Not sure what that meant but quite certain that the room must be small if the bed was wedged into a corner, she found new resolve to get out.  Backing into the corner, safely ensconced in the covers she waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness.  So intent was she in making out something in the darkness that she failed to notice the near inaudible sound of somebody entering the neighbouring room.

Soft light suddenly blazed to life in the doorway, the weak light of a candle revealing the aperture.  Startled, the confused young woman pushed herself even further into the corner with near bruising force.  There stood the creature from her nightmares, wreathed in golden light, face partially shadowed.  Forcing herself to take in the figure in the doorway, Elizabeth was surprised that the other person in the room was very obviously female and making no attempt to move further than the doorway.  Uncurling fractionally, the young woman found her voice.

“Wh…” In an effort to get her voice under control she paused, desperate to appear as undaunted as possible in front of this menacing presence.  “Who are you?”

TBC

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