There was a sharp, cutting edge to the air. Icy water caressed the sore, decaying wooden limbs of the pier, which extended out into the bay in a perfect metaphor for human endeavour. So close, eagerly stretching towards those twinkling lights, the sparkling appeal of something better, yet falling short. Here, balanced on the railings, I perched over the luxurious silk of black water, which rolled into gorgeous undulating waves and whispered eternal truths as they gently burst against the shore. I yearned for the oblivion of the deep ocean, a paradise of crushing darkness and freedom. Everything there would be so simple, a world of endless wandering through a blank canvas of rich blue, unbroken even by sunlight.
I had yet to find anything for myself on the earth. It was impossibly overwhelming, the extensive options and pressure to commit to something valuable. For the first time in my life, I was adrift, free of the mechanical conveyer belt of education, but finally forced to evaluate my aspirations. I wanted to change the world; I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to do it now, to have done it, to be famous and powerful and successful. I just, lacked the will or patience to start, it seemed. Everybody, in either casual conversation or genuine interest, was obsessed with my future plans, how I would apply the talent I viewed in myself more than anyone else did. I could picture my life as a fairy-tale, but I couldn’t get there immediately. Everything takes time. I didn’t know if I had the strength to fail.
The night was my indulgence, a period in which all expectations were suspended. Everyone lay dormant, as I hummed through various woes and lamentations. Only now, in this fleeting pocket of safety, could I relax. The bay, curled into the coastline, was a haven for all weary travellers, a placid pool distinct from the wild and untamed sea. It swelled up the banks of the shore, once proving a fertile seed for the town to flourish, to grow inland, trickling over fields and forests and stamping concrete over the natural land. Once young and hopeful, that town had blossomed into an arrogant squat of urbanisation. I was so insignificant against that backdrop of history. So frustratingly incapable of achieving anything of worth, carving a mark into the impassive block of time. I wanted, had to do it now.
These anxieties and insecurities were frustrating, unwanted lodgers in my mind, frequently inviting insomnia. It wasn’t a question of impatiently waiting a matter of minutes before declaring sleep impossible. I had no idea what left me exhausted all day, only to prevent sleep, or even weariness, the second I fell back upon my bed. I was stressed, about so many things, really. That I wasn’t where I needed to be in life, or wasn’t making the best of opportunities, that I wasn’t doing the right thing. I was, of course, stressed about being tired, and stressed about not being happy, and not being able to sleep.
I sighed, and the wind sighed with me, snatching my hat away from me and sending it tumbling into the water, where it floated, tranquil as a glistening, white swan. My dad had given me that hat for my twelfth birthday, just three months after my mum died. Each day I wore it, it served as a halo of his protection. Distraught, I might have stared blankly, forlornly, after it, but a flash of movement caught my eye, as I circled round in a desperate attempt to catch the hat. I was left facing the closer shoreline, and the body of the pier. It was dark, but intermittently exposed by frail spills of light from the weak lamp fixtures, loosely washing off the wooden boards into the sea. At the pier’s far end, something had arrested my gaze. In a brief explosion of sight, an object hurtling towards me was illuminated, before vanishing, then illuminated again. A man, running as if the devil were at his heels, straight at me. Before I could blink, he was upon me, a flailing arm sending me cascading over the side of the railings, that thankfully defended pedestrians against the deadly chill of water. The impact sent me hurtling, forced clear of the railing. By mere fingertips, I caught the wooden board, driving a splinter into my thumb, but clinging so close to the waves I felt the cold wafting upwards. Unperturbed, unseeing, the man pressed on, and dived over the railing at the far end, splashing gracelessly into the ocean. I waited a beat, completely unsure of what had transpired. I heard no sounds of him resurfacing. I was straining just to maintain my feeble grip, completely lacking the strength to pull myself upwards to safety. Suddenly a little boy, I longed for my dad in a rush of inadequacy, feeling a mortifying sting of moisture attacking my face. Even alone, I couldn’t bear the embarrassment of crying. This transition didn’t make sense – just seconds ago, I had balanced neatly on the railings, like the regular comfort of my whole life. Now, in an unexplained swipe, I had been thrust aside, and couldn’t hold on. I contemplated ending the struggle, dropping into the water and swimming back, fully clothed and despairing.
The boards began to tremble.
Through all my exertion, I could peer just high enough to glimpse over the boards, at the pier. Dangling from the side, I was swallowed by darkness. Something was moving in my direction. Clad entirely in jet-black, a hood concealed their face, shielding them from the pitiful light. Like some visage of pure evil descending down the pier, instinct restrained me from calling for help. They paced towards the end and gazed out, almost exactly as I had done, but with sinister intent. Clearly following the man who had flung himself into the water. I scarcely dared breathe. My shoulders were drained, but I now realised, falling into the water would not be an option. I couldn’t risk betraying my presence. Out there, shining like some great beacon, was my hat, which briefly drew the figure’s attention, threatening to exhibit the existence of another human. There was surely no way to connect it to me? The throbbing in my thumb had grown, the pulsating almost audible. My skinny shoulders were numbed by the intense exertion of holding my painful grip, shaking and exacerbating the challenge of staying hidden and dry. It was almost too much.
After an eternity, finally satisfied, the figure turned. His toes just centimetres from my fingers, I looked up in dread, and, in a minute flicker of light, glimpsed half of his face. High cheekbones and an elegantly carved nose both threw the mouth into shadow, but, in his eyes, the torrential whirlpool of blue thrashing against his pupil was ablaze. I froze, utterly petrified. My father’s eye.
Momentarily transfixed, seized by shock and entirely incapable of processing the image before me, I slipped, falling in a deafening crash, spanked by the water. I hit my back hard – it was barely deep enough to cover me. The diver must have cracked open his head against the shingle bed, lurking only centimetres beneath the waves. Still spluttering, I lifted my head to witness my father’s purposeful gait halt, before he whipped back to examine the source of noise. Consumed by panic, I dived under the pier for protection, hoping to could remain hidden. Sculling gently, heavy breathing concealed by the rolling waves, I reached the shore, checking above me for the progress of my father. He continued to patrol the sea, pacing the worn boards. As he was standing on the steps that fed the pier, he unfurled a torch, and started about the beach. Clinging to one of the support beams, I held my breath. I was powerless, as the torch was flung at my hiding spot. Gulping again, what could have been my last air, I forced myself under the inky water. It was so shallow, keeping myself submerged required hugging the sharp rocks, straining against natural buoyancy, but I couldn’t imagine the alternative. Strangely, the cold had evaporated, and an alien warmth entered, like a gentle spring breeze. For as long as I could, I held my breath, before trying to resurface inconspicuously.
My father was gone.
In complete shock, I stood back on the beach, soggy and deflated. I had no idea where to turn. With each gust of wind, the cold intensified, wrapping round my throat in a suffocating chill. I didn’t know what to do.
Except, I hadn’t been seen, I assumed. My dad would have no idea, he couldn’t possibly expect that I knew what transpired. In fact, not heading home would be the more suspicious action. I had to feign complete ignorance.
The water had transported me into a new reality. I could comprehend nothing alongside the knowledge my father possessed murderous qualities. It defied any realm of logic, or rational explanation. Exactly six hours earlier, he’d been making supper, having worked in his mundane council worker job all of that day. Now, he was what? Someone who lurked the streets at night, and was responsible for killing people? What would he have done to me? That, I couldn’t grapple with.
Walking home, laden by heavy, drenched clothing, I decided to strip down, removing all but my boxers. Presumably, this would have been considered an egregious breach of social conduct, had anyone been around to see. But it was just me, and my dad, and the conspiratorial moon, harbouring all universal secrets behind her shimmering façade. The blackened streets were long and dark. It felt so pathetically insufficient, reaching my home, clambering in through my ground-floor window, and lying back in bed. I, that very night, had watched a man die, a truth swirling through the chaos of my thoughts as an overriding disturbance. I thought of little else, whilst the soft light of day slowly lowered itself on my floor, and delicately snuck into bed alongside me, first gently caressing my cheek, before kissing me on the eye. Blinking, I turned to admire the full scale of her beauty, an eager pastel blue dusted across the tops of houses. She had arrived just in time. After all my thinking, I was now fully convinced that, I might have seen a man die, but I could not have seen my dad. He wasn’t there.
He was in my kitchen, already fully dressed as I entered in yesterday’s outfit, now dry and identical, save for the progressive smell and wrinkles. Naturally, I had heard his morning develop, emerging quietly, thinking me asleep, before preparing us both breakfast.
“Morning champ”, he smiled, as I nodded back. “You’re looking nice and refreshed – good night’s sleep? It was one of those, I woke up feeling exhausted, too. But a big day for both of us, right?”
It was wrong. He knew I had precisely nothing planned, and would struggle to occupy myself. This teasing ritual, designed, presumably, to be reassuring, wore me down more than anything. As if a dam had burst, a flood of numbing weariness saturated my brain, drowning the possibility of returning any conversation. The second my dad left, I would probably return to bed, only to be unable to sleep. He put a plate in front of me and ruffled my hair.
“I never say this enough, but you’re absolutely incredible. I’m so proud of everything you’ve achieved, and that you always manage to keep going. I know as much as anyone, it’s tough out there, but, and I know I keep saying it, you’ll find something. Soon. And you’ll love it.”
With both arms, he squeezed me into a hug from behind, before kissing me on the head, whispering a goodbye, and leaving. It was infantilising and awkward, but I shivered with confusion. I longed to be held, to feel young, to take the weight of my own expectations of my shoulders. And yet, I was an adult. A man. Sometimes, I wished I could punch myself on the arm and just grow up, to reject the emasculating cradle of my dad’s arms.
Nursing an increasingly cold coffee, glazed over before the news, I balanced my various options. They consisted of an already-doomed attempt at job-hunting, which I always lacked the motivation for, trying to sleep, or exercising. Ultimately, as the only one with which I might achieve success, I opted for the latter. More accurately, just more fresh air. My experiment with physical strength last night had demonstrated our incompatibility, evidence of my never working out. I rarely even ran or cycled. But I enjoyed very long, purposeless walks.
It was slightly bizarre to me, with the pandemic remaining an immovable feature in our lives, the disdain so many harboured towards basic safety precautions. Despite imposing itself so prominently upon these individuals, the main high street close to my house was a tightly packed flock. Avoiding the jostling, and exaggerated distance people vainly planted between themselves, I instinctively found myself walking along the beach, which was still enjoying a healthy human population. Moving towards the pier involved navigating an almost impossible crush, but I located a removed bench, allowing me to recline, and people-watch. In stark contrast to last night’s abandonment, a vast diaspora occupied the wooden boards, with no sentience of the hideous acts previously transpired. Faintly, I supposed the very bench I sat on possessed some unique and lurid history, which I would never accurately realise. At the pier’s end, a sequence of couples actually queued to take pictures, to prove their organic and everlasting love. Further down, a father stood behind his daughter, and I felt an immediate pang seize my throat, a bitter cocktail of jealously and guilt sliding into my stomach. My eyes, inflamed by some alien sensation, bled the slightest droplets of moisture, whilst a familiar haze of angst and uncertainty compressed my thoughts. I realised I was holding my breath, and released a juddering sigh wracking my entire body. No one seemed to have noticed, except a homeless man staring at me intently.
My own eyes flicked momentarily towards his gaze, before quickly escaping. His hair was long, though only clumps of messy stubble adorned his chin and mouth. His clothes had the distinct appearance of dirt, but his eyes glowed with wild eccentricity. Sensing his unperturbed interest in me, I grew indiscreetly uncomfortable, twitching and tensing my shoulders, bringing them forwards and shrinking in place. Apparently unaware of this, he never wavered, eventually stepping forwards. My speech was already well rehearsed in my head.
“No, sorry, I don’t have anything”, my eyes now fixed to the ground. He just laughed.
“I knew I recognised you. I mean, you’re literally still wearing the same thing. Which is crazy, dude; you fell in the sea last night, and now you’re in the same place, like, what? Why are you here, man?”
“Dude, I literally saw you last night, hanging out on the pier, and then you just, like, jumped in. It’s so cold in there!”
He was loud, and oddly friendly. And surprisingly well-spoken, which I recognised as a dreadful stereotype, but it was unexpected. Meeting his eyes, I realised he was probably the first homeless person I had ever, properly spoken to.
“You can’t deny it! I saw you, on the pier, last night, take a swim, and then take your kit off. I saw your skinny little chest, and half of one of your balls. Full disclosure. It just happened. I wasn’t looking. You’re not a kid, are you? That would be bad. I didn’t see anything. You were naked, it’s not my fault. Okay, actually let me go. Nice to see you – I never saw you, ever, I’m”, he rose, mid-sentence, leaving before I had managed even one actual word.
“No, dude, I’m sorry, thinking about it, this has been weird of me, so–
“– You were here last night? You saw me jump off the pier?”
“Did you notice anyone else hanging around at the same time as me?”
“Uh huh, there were, like, two other guys here, that I saw. Yeah. Why?”
“Did you not notice anything strange about those two?”
“Oh yeah, one of them dived off the end. Pretty sure he died, dude, so I wouldn’t be so cavalier about it. Pretty serious stuff. He and the other guy, the one in black, they were chatting before he sprinted away like a mad man and just, you know, went for it. Dived off”
“You witnessed everything that happened? Two guys started talking, one in all black, the other not, which led to one man leaping off the pier, and ultimately dying? Followed by me jumping off the pier, and running away?”
“I witnessed it, but if anyone asks, I didn’t, like, witness it, witness it. As a witness, you know?”
“What were they talking about, do you know? Before the one guy… ran away…” He sat, straight-faced, letting that silence fester, before quipping,
“Nope. But, if anything, it definitely appeared to involve a question and answer dynamic, as if it were perhaps an interview”
“How would you know that?”
“An elementary deduction, quite frankly. You see… No, I’m basically guessing. But that is what it struck me as”. He motioned to sit beside me, and I made no reaction. Taking this as invitation, he nestled at the far end of the bench. He was unpleasant, verging on outlandish, but truthfully, my own stench rivalled his. I was unwashed in several days, but it just ironically never felt like something I had time for.
Had it been my father, it made considerably more sense to not have been an unprovoked attack. Perhaps his work involved dangerous clients or customers, or exposed him to dangerous people, some of whom needed to be interviewed, in the depths of night, over a nefarious issue capable of driving a man to suicide. As much as I tried to share with my dad about my life, I supposed I knew very little about him. He rarely discussed his days, or his job, or his feelings. That’s just how our arrangement functioned. Certainly, there were many things I could never bring myself to disclose. But strangers always make the best confidants. Looking at him, I probed for some solace.
“What are your ambitions in life?”
“Dude, what? You think I’m some homeless loser?”
“Oh, no. Sorry, it’s more something for me. I don’t really know my own ambitions, I just wanted to know yours”
“I’m joking. Technically, I’m not homeless. Or, I suppose, more accurately, it’s by the technicality that I am homeless. But I do have a home legally registered under my name. If I wanted to return to it. The problem is that it’s irreparably stained with debt, so I have no interest in doing that. I was barely afloat at the start of this year, but then, you know, everything else that happened, it went under. My bookshop – I managed my own bookshop, underneath my apartment, which was pretty cool. But it was also just me, and I do not have the infrastructure to do mass deliveries – just paying to keep my website online was damaging enough. I basically decided to take my self-employment stimulus and flee. Hopelessly irresponsible, I know, but, to be honest, it’s been the best time in my life. I obviously still have the keys, so I go back, time to time. But, for the first point in my life, I’m not just reading. I love books, but I’ve spent too long reading. I’m finally out here, writing. Trust me, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done”.
I had nothing to add, so I didn’t try to. His genuine happiness was infectious, and his charisma was sweet. He was admirable. The universe is not driven by fundamental truths – nothing is objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. His path to discovering that was underway, one of self-enjoyment and personal fulfilment. I guess everything is relative.
Together, we kept that bench company until the sun inevitably set, clawing at the sky as it tumbled into the earth, leaving glittering, crimson wounds in its wake which scattered across the water in gorgeous, vivid bursts of orange. I knew we formed an unsavoury pair, and had been delivered a wide berth by every passer-by. So eternally magical, some hidden force always captivated me, compelling me to admire sunsets. Watching the vengeful embers of dying light burn into a dusty, orange haze, which melted into shades of pink, a solemn melancholy, of perfect clarity, overtook my thoughts. The pier, drizzled with the rays of golden hour, was a single finger, extended towards heaven. I would ask my dad about his day.
He gave so much, I needed to show I cared, took interest in the affairs of his life. What was work really like? Was he even satisfied by his job? Social commitments seldom removed him from the house, but I had never noticed until now, his only form of contact was me. A pretty harrowing thought. Departing from my new friend, I offered him a good night, to which he smiled, wryly. I knew where to find him.
A thick darkness had infested my chest with a rasping croak before I reached home, the unpleasant consequences of a winter chill snuggling against my bones. My dad welcomed me in with a hug, before nonchalantly dismissing my question,
“Nothing of interest, I’m afraid, really. My job isn’t too exciting, I have to say”, he smiled, vacantly, before adding “You been up to anything cool?”, which was unworthy of answering, and he anticipated nothing, instead continuing “Trust me, once all of the travel restrictions are gone, you’ll be able to have so much fun again. See all your friends, travel the world, right? You’ll find yourself, and I’m sure you’ll find something you love.”
“What are you looking forward to, when we have freedom again?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve got everything I’ll ever want right here”, staring directly at me, those glorious eyes alive with the motions of his soul. The soothing relief of an oasis amidst the scorching, bare desert sands; a pool into which a single drop can fall forever. “It takes your whole life to figure out what you want, which is the cruel thing. By the time you have, it’s virtually already over. So, all you’re left with, really, is the journey. The destination, the final goal, achieving it is pretty great. But the journey is all the memories you get to treasure whilst you enjoy it. Whatever you do, or want to do, you have my undying support”, smiling again. Half-returning his grin, somewhat sheepishly, I nodded and entered my room before he could note the tears bursting forth once more across my face, plunging my sobs into a pillow.
Facing the ceiling, my eyelids drooped, and it seemed by body might mercifully be prepared for sleep’s consumption. But the pier was seared into my head, its image constructed across the walls in my room until it was embedded in my ceiling. With an unavoidable flash, I was reminded of the man, my dad, striding down it with unfeeling determination. From the brink of tumbling into unconsciousness, a peculiar sensation tickled my chest. Something tugged at my eyelids, prying them apart, and the feeling on my chest amplified, until a definite weight pressed me. I felt soft, foreign breathing against my neck. Suddenly alert, wide awake, the pier remained on my ceiling, but now I was unable to escape the vision of the hooded man, marching towards me, clad in jet-black, barely a shade of his face revealed. As the image unravelled, I saw a jaw locked in wondrous fortitude, intent only on one thing – finding me.
That thought propelled me out of bed, with faintly trembling hands. Intuitively brushing my neck and chest, they felt cold, that feeling of cold when something warm is lifted off, leaving the skin yearning for more.
Having left my house via the usual route, leaving my window inconspicuously ajar, I found myself guided by the coastline again. I was trapped in a circle, seeming to revolve around one fundamental question: what was the point? There was no inherent value to my life, since everything was relative. So, without a purpose or ability to positively assess myself, I could walk in the ocean, and never stop. Of course, my dad would not only be devastated, he would presumably feel responsible. People loved to appropriate the guilt of other’s, to sprinkle some flavour over their own boring mediocrity. Unnecessarily harsh, perhaps, but I still didn’t know what inspired him. And he wouldn’t tell me. Unless he just loved murdering people.
In that moment, without requiring internal confirmation, I resolved to question him on the events of last night. At the very least, someone had died. I supposed I needed, at least, to provide the authorities with that information. I hadn’t to this point, I wondered, out of feeling detached, both from reality and society.
Finally establishing this course of action awakened in me a confidence I had not experienced in years. With the shifting winds of my fresh attitude, the hazy smog of doubt was cleared from my mind. I had something I needed to do tomorrow.
The bubble of my defiant isolation was inexplicably breached by voices of indiscernible character floating over me in a low hum of murmured words and human presence. Some instinct warned me they were laced with danger, which I heeded, stepping forwards cautiously, forced by morbid curiosity to forge onwards. Closer, though I could not distinguish individual words or sentences, the conversation’s anger became palpable, ricocheting from various walls and snapping through the low waves.
My breath snagged and my heart stopped, as two figures entered the full glow of a streetlight. One was short, adorned in an ill-fitting suit, baggy around his shoulders but tighter at the waist. The other was jet-black, a figure of pure umbra even in the light. As they grappled, I became overwhelmingly aware of the hooded man’s strength. I hadn’t previously noted his enormous size, but he now plucked his smaller opponent into the air, and hurled him against a wall. Rebounding hard, he somehow rushed himself forwards and struck the hooded man low on the chin with his own head. Stumbling back, a slither of chiselled jawline glinting, the hooded man emitted a vile whisper, dripping with blood and venom. His hand struck the shorter man in the throat, throwing him back against the wall, and punching free a squelching yelp, echoing through the deserted air. As I watched, impotently, my father, veiled by his hood, pulled free a knife, and stabbed the other man through the front of his cranium so forcefully the metal splintered with a brutal crack.
A waterfall of blood gushed over his petrified face, ruining the little man’s suit. This was murder. An eerie acceptance descended over me, like an elegant silk gown. The crumpled heap of cells not so far from me was utterly devoid of life. For the period I’d had this man’s acquaintance, he had been dead for as long as he was alive, so was it really so unusual? Now, he just slumped forward, melting into the ground, boasting a shining horn. As I watched, from the shadows, a third man entered the fray, additionally sporting an untailored suit. A sheen of sweat glistened over his pale skin, almost translucent in the fragile moonlight. Despite never having seen one, something about his complexion reminded me of an eel, with beady eyes poking from a slimy face. He exuded a devilish energy, garnering the hooded man’s unmitigated attention. Then, as I caught one sentence of their conversation, the protective, calming veil neatly draped over me, was shredded.
“… make sure to kill all witnesses.”
Like flicking a switch, all sound stopped. Time paused, arrogantly aloof, spectating as the hooded man swivelled to face me. I gazed into a sadistic pit of darkness.
For a consecutive night, I was sprinting home, fleeing this man. A frantic, animalistic urge for survival summoned an invigorating power to my legs, and arms, driving me through the blackened streets. The route was familiar, now seared by trauma into my mind. Each road was a blank canvas, onto which I painted my fear with loud, pounding steps that whipped against the housing facades. Great, booming feet thundered after me. From what I prayed was still distance, I could feel the rhythm of his bellowing lungs, mechanical heart, and feel his frenzied mind lashing against the restraints of his skull with rabid intent.
I cut to my left, ducking quickly into an alleyway, hopping over the low wall at the end, into the first of a row of terraced gardens. The first two fences, I took in stride, surprising even myself. Here, I undoubtable gained the advantage. They were flimsy, single-planked ornamental wood designed for purely aesthetic purposes, and not inclined towards supporting the massive, irate behemoth ploughing past them. I heard cracking wood, yielding to his clambering as they had not to my lighter frame, and his fumbling grunts of frustration. In this domain, I could be more effective. So, I took a risk. At the third fence, perceiving myself out of sight, I cut right, diving over the house’s front gate, reaching the street again. Quickly crossing, and ducking behind some bins, I waited only a beat, ensuring he had not followed. By all appearances, he had not. Still, I was unrelenting in my haste, rewarding my tactical evasion with a panicked, but quieter trot, only stopping at my driveway.
Unbelievably, the obvious had not occurred to me. The blinding, and soul-wrenching reality I had confronted yesterday. If my dad had seen me, which I was now almost certain he had, and recognised me, home was not an option. It could never be.
Typically, I would approach my house from the rear, the best access to my window. This time, I had instead circled round the front, keenly alert to my surroundings. No lights were on, my dad’s curtains were drawn. I, whilst lying in bed, had heard him retire, but not reawaken. Which didn’t guarantee anything. Resting behind my car to gauge the danger, I jumped away from the cold metal. Evidently, it had not been recently used. The tell-tale signs of a clicking, cooling engine were absent. Something possibly resembling stupidity possessed me, as I moved forwards, instead calling it boldness. I would uncover the truth.
Sliding around the side of my house, and into my bedroom window, I moved towards my dad’s door. It was simple. My fingers dangled over the handle. Either, he was sleeping behind this threshold, or a fugitive in the night, stealing about after me, having fallen for my misdirection. I couldn’t detect any breathing. There was only one choice.
Except, there was another. Without warning, my false bravado departed. That door might have been a mountain, for I could no longer move it.
Feeling pathetically worthless, I scurried back to my room. Armed with all the loose change I had ever amassed, I slunk back through my window, for the last time. The sun had timidly peered over the horizon, beckoning youthful light over the land with encouraging nudges. Then, spotting me in all my shame, he conspired to spit scornful rain from the wispy clouds, disgusted by the futility of my actions. I didn’t dare think, lest I be embarrassed into returning home. I was a weak, hideous little girl.
Having reached the pier, and been relieved to see nothing of last night, I woke several hours later to someone joining me on my bench.
“Hey dude, I don’t know which bit it was yesterday, but, no offence, I didn’t really mean to inspire you.”
“I’ve just realised, I don’t think I can be at home.”
“Well, correct me if this is an enormous, unwarranted leap, but, like, does it have anything to do with running around naked the other day?”
“The other night, and, I guess a bit.” Strangers do make the best confidants, so in a garbled explosion I unloaded everything, levying the accusation against my father, and the fears for my life. My immovable stress, and sensation of failure. My hopeless confusion, and inability to confront the world.
“Well, the biggest question is really, what on earth is going on? I mean, you say your dad is a council worker? But, like, here he is, killing people, with an unknown motive. I’ve read a lot of mystery novels, but this seems to me an entirely novel idea. I mean, bravo, to him, for his unique take, it’s certainly an interesting one. The only solution I can offer, however, is a tested one. You need to be pro-active, do some investigation. Unearth his deep and dark secrets.”
“I can’t go back home.”
“That, is an issue. And one you might need to overcome, my friend. First, like, why don’t you try and organise some of your thoughts. Safe space.”
“You mean, thoughts on investigating? On the investigation? Okay. So, two nights ago, a mysterious guy engaged in what might have been an interview. Which ended poorly, because the one guy tried so desperately to get away, he jumped off a pier and likely died. Which led to me, who was stuck there, having to run away, and hide in the water. Then the next night–
“– Don’t overlook the pivotal detail of you running home naked”
“Okay, yes. Then the next night, the same, mysterious guy is out, in basically the same place, with another guy, but this time straight up murders him, no question.”
“And is clearly working with the slippery dude. And he tried to kill you again, it seems. That’s pretty, like, bad, dude.”
“Uh huh. What have we stumbled into here?”
“If it helps, which it probably won’t, I know who the slippery dude is. At least, I know what he is. You know, I didn’t see him with the hooded dude, but I saw him wandering about late at night, and he definitely fit your description. Plus, I recognised him and, yeah, like, if I hadn’t seen him last night, I could have guessed you were talking about him. Sweaty dude. Back in the bookshop, I didn’t have many regulars, but I got to know them well, and he was actually one of them. He was also a police officer.”
Our theories battled until the morning grew old, retiring into noon, with little conclusion. To our inexperienced eyes, something espionage-related was unfolding, unfortunately clipping into our lives courtesy of our sporadic routines. The most extraordinary game I’d ever participated in, seeming to involve vigilante police, and criminals lured from their homes to be assassinated, with the hooded man a central, yet mysterious, puzzle piece.
Together, we decided to conduct independent, investigative work, arranging to meet by the pier that evening to compare our findings. The elation was thrilling. I skipped home, scintillated by a new dynamism injected into my life. This was purpose.
Knowing my dad’s schedule, he would long-since have abandoned the house for work, but I took precautions in returning. The driveway was vacant, and no one returned my knock on the front door. It was approximately a normal lunch time, when I found myself alone in the kitchen, so I ravenously pillaged the fridge as my first priority, before settling at my dad’s home computer. It was meticulously organised, but nothing in particular stood apart as incriminating, or even as betraying anything of particular interest. With time to burn, I poured through each folder methodically, encountering archived work documents, details of clients’, the itineraries of past holidays, even a list of his every online account and its accompanying password, despite them all sharing the same one. I wanted to mention sometime the document should be renamed, away from ‘passwords’, without exposing my intrusion onto his computer, of course. The only discovery of interest was his ‘dream journal’ betraying a dirtier mind than I’d ever credited him with, but not lending towards cultivating suspicions of his being a murderer. I collapsed into the chair, contemplating my next moves. It was two hours before my dad was generally home, leaving precious time to recuperate. The shower was, for me, an increasing necessity, so I savoured the steamy warmth, lightly scalding my skin and re-entering the kitchen a full hour later, tingling and pink, with only a towel across my hips. I was hungry again, and still had time to feast. Until I heard the key enter the lock.
My stomach plummeted as icy panic surged through me. I wanted to shake and cry with panic, but instead grabbed the closest weapon available. My dad swung through the front door, and froze with me, in a perfect tableau. He, armed with keys, and me a brush. In the violent movement, my towel had started slipping. Then his brain restarted, the transition flickering across his eyes. He lunged.
And caught me in a hug, blazing a trail of tears, wracked by great, choking sobs. Only after soundless minutes could he whisper, ‘I’m sorry’, drumming this mantra into my soul. I felt the intensity of his worry, and pain. As his confusion morphed into unadulterated relief, I witnessed the transcendent clarity overtake him, questioning where I had been. A numbing guilt started to wear into the back of my brain, reminding me that this man, who had without question or demand, provided for and loved me. I had disappeared from him, with no explanation. How could I have not opened his door, and visited his peaceful, sleeping form, to assuage any ludicrous suspicion? It could have been so easy. Returning his hug, the shape of the hooded man, which I had so unfairly attributed to my dad, began to blur.
It was, so nearly, cataclysmically stupid. I repeatedly found the same conclusion that evening, as my dad and I enjoyed a wonderful supper, and lounged before a film. Generously ensconced in our cosy bubble, I kept thinking: What had I been doing? It was simply beyond any realm of possibility, that this quietly happy man to my side, possessed any hint of malice.
Even I felt content, moving towards bed that night, surprisingly close to sleep. Everything I had was enough. I begged for unconsciousness to finally accept my claim, and it seemed for one delicious moment it might, to resolve an ultimately brilliant day.
Raw adrenaline tore through my veins, with vicious, visceral desperation. It was the dead of night. On the ceiling, the hooded man lorded over me, guarding his pier domain. I had slept, but now effortlessly donned my attitude of full alertness. I was completely, unequivocally certain. A door had closed. A physical one, not in my mind. Someone had accessed a part of my house. The silence was all-consuming, the absence of sound engulfing my senses. I rolled out of bed, still dressed, placing an ear on my own door. Still nothing. Aiming to replicate my environment, I summoned complete control to press the handle down, and press open the door, without any noise. The house felt empty. Perhaps, no one had entered. Someone had left.
Each step infused with growing confidence, I came to my dad’s door, opening it with the same care as my own. Holding my breath, I shifted in miniscule, delicate steps towards his bed, expecting to accidently wake him. My worst fears were confirmed when, squinting through the dimness, I realised it was empty. His duvet was rolled into a semi-human form, whilst the shape of shadows thrust over his pillow resembled a head. Forced to confirm, I switch on his bedside light. The illuminating glow mercilessly dispatched any doubt. Why, why was he gone? I glanced around, praying for clues of innocence, but was immediately smacked by the unavoidable answer. Across the room, proudly mounted on the far wall, was a board, plastered with various pictures, all thoroughly annotated. Names, and occupations, and links, which I was careful not to touch, discovering my hands had become clammy from the shock, cold sweat tickling my back. A vast conspiracy, involving all these people in an illegitimate, unidentifiable activity. My dad would know. I felt sick.
Two pictures were partially obscured. Their faces immaculately adorned by neat, red crosses, clearly administered with a ruler, denoting their newly deceased status. One was the short man, falling victim last night. The other, I could not immediately recognise, though I of course knew his identity. The man on the pier, sprinting for his life, knocking me into this hideous plot. In this mug shot, his face was placid, unassuming. Closer to the centre of the board, I also noticed the slimy, almost translucent man. Without understanding my dad’s motivations, I couldn’t fully decipher the connections, or the meaning. My heart stopped at another figure, off to the side. A blurred photo, captured at night, of a hooded man.
Here was the proof. My father must have been involved. It was gutting, appalling to know I had been so wrong as to trust him. In that same moment, I came to another realisation. I needed to honour my agreement. I had promised to rendezvous at the pier tonight.
If one could sneak out, we both could. I left from the front door, following my dad, once again leaving for the pier.
Brimming with determination, I perched on the railings, exactly as I had two days before. My breath curling into the clouds, I felt hot. I felt powerful, felt my energy humming across the waves, crackling over the shingle beach. Purged of pernicious doubt, everything narrowed into a clear focus. Admittedly, I was short on knowledge, on facts. But, feeling bizarrely confident, I sensed the success my new detective friend and I would enjoy. Something scuffed against the far end of the pier, on the shore, sounding like fabric scratching against the wood, before a grunt bounced over the boards.
Looking over, briefly spot lit, my friend entered one of those precious globes of warm light, becoming visible. He stumbled slightly, leaning backwards with arms splayed straight out, as if walking along a beam, or mimicking the crucifixion of Christ. His face was a picture of pure, innocent sadness, disappointed melancholy pinching his cheeks and confusion staining a frown over his forehead. His mouth, slightly ajar, gasped, struggling to comprehend his position.
Then his throat exploded in a flash of silver steel. All hope for adventure and excitement were extinguished from his now-glassy eyes, as vivid crimson burst in a fecund fountain over everything in his vicinity. His final, wasted moment was to tumble into the water, engulfed by the ocean.
Following him in the light, the hooded man stepped forwards. I was blank, unthinking, wholly split from reality. Watching my father tower above the vanished ripples, I finally experienced his ineffable transformation towards evil. I jumped off the railings.
This was irreversible. He could never be forgiven, and I could never be forgiven for standing by. This was my clarity of reason, my purpose. My friend would be avenged, and I would honour his fascination for life. I could do this. I started striding forwards.
The hooded man turned a swift, but lazy circle in my direction, and rolled his shoulders. Sizing up his new opponent, hurtling at him with demonic fury, he rested the knife on top of the railing. I dived with everything I had, everything I could be, launched as a human projectile, a human weapon. Soaring with the force of all my pain, and anger, and grief, and guilt, and despair, and doubt, and pain, and pain, and I was dumped into the ground with just one, outstretched arm. Hit hard through my stomach, I wheezed, crumpled against the boards, the air smacked from my lungs. The hooded man had flicked me aside. Barely processing, I was crying, in little weeping shudders, clutching my arms around my chest. This. This was everything I would be. Pitiful despair was infused with the sweet perfume of relief. This was it. This was it. Somewhere between bemused and bored, the hooded man collected his knife once more. His face was entirely obscured by blackness. The pounding in my ears ceased, and the world fell still.
With frenetic haste the pier was swarmed by police officers, all contributing to a disarming cacophony of shouts and commands stunning the hooded man into compliance. My father was grabbed from behind, forced to his knees. Except, he wasn’t. My dad stepped forwards.
Disorientated, my brain was punch out of orbit, scrabbling to regain its perspective. My dad reached his hand out, connected to a torse covered by a police officer’s uniform. He hugged me again, in a shorter, stiffer performance than earlier this afternoon.
“I’ll explain in the car”, he assured, before turning back. I stood at the pier’s end, waiting for the formalities to end, until we, just the two of us, adjourned to our car.
“I’m not a council worker. In some capacity, I work for the council, but I’m not a council worker. I’m a police officer, if you hadn’t gathered. To be honest, I don’t know why I lied, really. I guess, it just seemed appropriate. In case you ever worried about me. As you’ve now seen, it can get pretty dangerous. I know you like to walk at night – I know about your insomnia,” at this, he turned to me, with an impassive face that attempted to convey a serious condolence, “It’s something I need to be better at helping you with. But, this case, that you inadvertently became involved in, it’s a big one. It’s been all I could think about for a long time, and I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you. Two rival traffickers were on the verge of an all-out war. Mergers and acquisitions function a little bit differently outside the law. Our hooded friend, there, would be considered a pretty hotshot lawyer in most circles. He’s great at negotiating settlements. But that’s what we were doing, that’s why I’ve been out the past couple of nights. I’m sorry I’ve been so poor at communicating, but when I missed you this morning, I just thought… I just thought, maybe, you got caught up in something… I know how dangerous this stuff can be. But, it’s okay now.”
A blanket of amicable silence was wrapped over us, warming our hearts. I thanked him, which felt both silly and infinitely inadequate. He laughed. There was some comfort in the unknown, a beauty in the truly indecipherable. We are never meant to know everything. Placing your faith in the mysterious can have positive consequences. All that needs to be acknowledged is, however difficult, no challenge is insurmountable. It just takes one person, one step at a time, to change the world. I had always regarded my dad as my guardian angel, but never in this literal capacity. There was a majesty, in little surprises like that.
At home, staring at my ceiling, all I saw was the light blue paint. Quickly, blessedly, I fell asleep.
This was inspired by Creative Writing Ink’s prompt (picture credit to them) – check out their website here:
Thanks for reading! Please leave any feedback, I would love to hear from you. I regularly post more short stories, so feel free to check out the collection.
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