If he’d have to guess, Alex would’ve said it had been four months since he’d first had the desire to leave the city. The skyscrapers and smog had begun to wear him down and he felt imprisoned both physically and mentally. When he sat at his work-desk, he imagined flying a plane into the cityscape, or driving on the pavement for as long as he could manage before the police gunned him down.
He needed a change of scene.
He hadn’t decided that himself; Alex thought the feelings of mass homicide were typical of a city-dweller but his therapist had advised him to seek a more freeing environment.
That’s when he bought the mill.
At first, his wife was reluctant to come with him, fearing their children would pick up bad habits from a less metropolitan learning environment, but eventually Lillian’s concern for her husband prevailed and they found a small parish school on the outskirts of their new village that would suit them until the children needed to go to secondary school in 4 long years.
They called the building the mill but truthfully they lived in the building directly across the courtyard from the actual mill. The actual mill was crumbling and when they’d come to visit the property, the previous owner had warned them that the floor was likely to collapse in several places and lord knows what kinds of mould grew throughout the structure.
They brought a dog while there, to enjoy long country walks and alert them to trespassers trying to snap pictures of the mill.
They talked about having the building pulled down but it was listed and by the end of that first summer month, Lillian had come to appreciate the arcing shadow that made it’s way across their house.
Things had been going well, mostly. Their daughter. Maggie, was making friends and her teachers would sing her praises when they came to pick her up. Their son, on the other hand, had not quite taken to country life so readily. For the first 3 months, Jamie had been distant. He’d barely spoken to his father and his teachers began using words like “anti-social” in the meetings they’d been called into. Alex and Lillian were perplexed. How had their daughter excelled but their son grown so sullen overnight? The pair contemplated counselling.
The next time Alex drove into the city to meet with his therapist once again, he asked if it would benefit. His doctor dismissed his concerns, telling him that Jamie would settle in his own time, then began to turn the conversation back to Alex. This time, his therapist had decided Alex was co-dependant. Alex muttered that that was rich coming from a man who’d found a way to connect with him once a month and got paid for the pleasure.
When Alex arrived back home. Lillian had just finished dinner and was preparing to dish up. Maggie had taken her seat across from the space reserved for her mother and Alex would sit to his wife’s left. Jamie, who should have been sat directly across the table from his father, had elected not to attend. They had come to expect this and so they left Jamie’s dinner on the stove, heated slightly by the remnants of power fading from the stove-top coils.
He didn’t join them the next day.
Alex tried to speak to him in the fleeting moments they passed each other on the stairs, but his son just stared forwards and kept walking, leaving the house to explore the mill grounds by himself.
They found a knife under his pillow. That was the final straw.
Fearing for his child’s sanity, Alex burst into his therapist’s office and demanded, then begged, for someone to find out what was wrong with Jamie. They arranged to stay in the city with a friend, leaving Lillian and Maggie to enjoy the house without the hostile air.
By the end of a busy week, the leading child psychologist at the clinic had declared Jamie to be in prime health. They returned to the mill that evening. Jamie once again didn’t come down to dinner.
At the mill, it seemed the dog was the only creature whose company Jamie ever sought, taking him on long walks around the small woods behind the property, but when they came back from the city that too disappeared.
It was about three days after they returned that Alex noticed the absence of the dog. At first, he assumed it was with Jamie until on the third day, while lining up the medication he’d begun to doubt needing along the bathroom sink, he saw Jamie leaving the mill with no dog in sight. The kids had been warned not to enter the mill but he wasn’t surprised to see Jamie disobey him.
Alex marched downstairs, ready to grill his son over the location of the dog.
As Jamie passed through the front door, Alex grabbed him and lifted him up to his eye level, pinning him against the wall, squirming.
“Where’s my dog?” he bellowed into the child’s face.
Jamie didn’t reply. Instead, he turned his head and shut his eyes.
His eyes flicked open, drifting upwards through the window panes of the door, towards the upper levels of the mill.
Alex dropped his child, letting him bump his head against the wall as he fell, and flung open the door. Alex ran across the courtyard and slipped through the stiff mill door Jamie had left askew as he left.
There was a smell in the mill. Musty yet sweet and tumbling down from the top level of the mill.
Alex approached the stairs, shuffling his feet and carefully laying them on each stair, being sure to stick as close to the wall as he could. Each wooden stair creaked, threatening to give way under his weight, yet Alex managed to ascend the stairs without anything but dust and a few splinters falling from their perch.
There, bathed in the dusty light of a cracked window, was his dog, motionless, on its side.
The smell was stronger here, thick in the air. Alex threw the collar of his shirt over his nose and carefully shuffled his way to his pet.
He tried to gasp as he came up alongside the body. Under a writhing mass of yellow maggots, something had torn the dog apart, leaving its sternum jutting out from its skin. Alex wiped away a tear as he fixated on the festering flesh. He looked around for something to carry the dog out in but finding nothing, he unbuttoned his shirt and draped it over the body, working the sleeves underneath to form a makeshift sling.
Alex took Jamie back to the therapist the next day, spending the first day in a hotel before moving on to the friends they’d stayed with before. It was no different from last time, even after Alex told them about the dog, now buried in a corner of the mill’s courtyard. Reluctantly, the doctor ran up a short prescription for Ritalin.
When they returned to the mill, Lillian couldn’t look at Jamie without crying. That night, they agreed they’d move back to the city, where Jamie couldn’t wander.
Naturally, Maggie was heartbroken. They didn’t tell her the full details, they wouldn’t put her through that. Instead, they told her a car had hit the dog and it had to be put to sleep and that she shouldn’t be too sad because he hadn’t felt any pain. She accepted this, solemnly. Alex hugged her and apologised for making her go through a move again.
They put the mill up for sale and moved back, to a smaller apartment than they’d had before. They planned to rent until the sale of the mill went through.
Maggie settled well into her new school and began making friends once again. They’d tried to find some way of getting her into the school she’d left four months ago but without the money from the mill, they couldn’t afford property in that catchment zone.
Jamie seemed better too. Amongst the hustle and noise of the city, he began talking again. They didn’t ask him about the dog. He attended the therapist once a month, just like his dad had, and they continued to tell Alex and Lillian that he was fine.
Alex however, sank back to his old ways. He’d find himself in traffic jams wondering if he had enough space to build the speed required to crush the people in the back seats of cars ahead of him.
He grew tired quickly. His visits to the clinic became weekly, until, on one morning 3 months after moving back to the city, Alex swerved his car at a cyclist.
When he arrived home, he was smiling. Free of the worry that blighted him amongst the concrete maze of buildings, Alex felt alive. He hadn’t hit the man on the bike, just startled him enough to make him tumble.
The next morning, once more on the drive to work, Alex swung his car at another cyclist who slammed on their brakes and flipped over the handlebars.
He kept this up, chasing down people on their morning bike ride and giving them a jolt. He liked to think they’d thank him for bringing them into sharp connection with the world. These cyclists didn’t pedal mindlessly through the city anymore. They were aware of every building, road, curb and car. They would learn to recognise the faces of their fellow commuters. Anything to avoid the car that hunted them.
He kept this game running for about a month. He hadn’t told the doctor about this, but he had in recent sessions been told they might go back to their previous monthly meetings.
Alex’s happiness was infectious. Jamie settled back to the bright and cheerful boy he’d been before, Maggie continued to be her normal wondrous self and Lillian grew more beautiful as her husband seemed to treat her like the most special woman on Earth. They hadn’t sold the mill yet and money was tough but, between the four of them, they were happy. Ever since Alex started playing his game, they’d been happy.
Alex began to ponder. If merely startling cyclists had brightened him up so magically, was there anything more he could do? How far could he push this feeling?
That’s the moment he decided to run one down.
He didn’t do it at first; vehicular homicide still seemed like a far stretch, but the more he thought about it, the more it made sense. Of course, taking the game to a higher level would make him happier and if he was happy, everyone else seemed to be happy also.
The morning he finally set out to kill a cyclist was warmer than normal. More people would relish the heat and enjoy their journey to work, free from the traffic jams and stop signs. It was as his car rolled out from the parking structure that he selected his victim.
Dressed in yellow lycra, a bald man on a racing bike pumped his legs furiously. Alex had bumped him before, causing the cyclist to slow down and fall to one side, tangled in his bike frame.
He followed the bald man for a mile, careful to hang back far enough to not raise suspicion but also close enough that he could catch up after the traffic lights along the way.
They met on a bridge over the river. Alex had managed to get just a little ahead, enough to slam his brakes on at the least opportune moment and reverse into the cyclist. The bald man didn’t stop, instead, he swerved his bike, losing control and sending him careening into the wall and over, into the filthy water. When they fished him out, they determined he’d died the moment he broke the surface tension of the water.
Alex stopped his car and pulled over. He didn’t fight when the police came to arrest him. He was free that afternoon, claiming he hadn’t seen the man, that everything could have been avoided if the man in lycra had been paying attention; a freak accident caused by the cyclist’s negligence.
When he arrived home, he ran to Lillian and grabbed her tightly by the elbows, beaming at his gorgeous wife. He told her everything, the feelings before and every single bicycle commuter he’d caused to crash. She looked at him with horror as he joyfully recounted his tales.
Lillian took the kids that night, back to the mill, away from their father. Lillian took the car too.
He was called into the police station again in the morning. He was being charged with manslaughter. Alex chuckled and explained that, of course, the whole thing was an accident.
That defence didn’t work in front of the judge. They pulled out footage of every cyclist he’d troubled. The judge declared him insane; an obsessive need to cause trouble that resulted in the death of a much-loved member of the community.
The cell Alex went to was small, but he was alone. He had space, a bed of his own and a desk to write at. He sent letters to his wife and kids but he never received a response. Sometimes he thought the guards were throwing his letters away before they reached the post room. He was right.
The on-site psychologist was baffled by how he’d been sent to a mental wing.
Alex shrugged. “Maybe I’m just a product of my environment.”
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© 2018 Connor Sansby
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.