Short story I am working on

9pm in the kitchen, before the event. The cat was unsettled and it leapt down from the ledge above the radiator to the floor, brushing table and chair legs once, twice, three times, so Dan would give it some attention.
He gave up driving through his stack of mail and pushed his plate away. Dinner’s over. Perhaps he’d go out. First, better deal with the animal: a mangy-brown creature left him by his last partner, who turned out not to be such a pet-lover after all. Don’t know what’s got into it today. The cat was now right over the other side of the kitchen. “Come here, Riley - come on, you”.

THUD. Dan emitted a yelp at the noise and a neat thrice-folded letter was dislodged by his arm and fell to the floor. He spun around, the cat darting into the space by the sink, noticing the red letters on the top of the letter in loud Bold italics. Forget all that, what made the noise?

He checked out the forward and rear-facing windows before heading into the hall. There was a low churning sound now, erratic, accompanied by something creaking under strain.

The front door was in the hallway, but he could have sworn the noise had been made by something closer. Dan felt each of the spikes in the sound-scape, as if his Year 10 pupils were jabbing at percussion on his shoulder blades. Perhaps someone was laying granite on his lawn, or in his head.

Somewhere the cat seemed to scream. What was happening? With growing horror he looked down the hallway as someone opened the front door.

He breathed again. Of course, it was Julian, with a face full of hair and a grip smooth as plastic. He was already saying something about the letter. “Nice to see you” Dan managed as Julian swanned into the kitchen, swanning as gracefully as a 13-stone office caterer could, tipping over Mrs Marigold’s tulips with careless abandon and managing to aggravate everything else on the windowsill as he tried to set them back up.

Dan slowly realised something was required of him. The cat was still pleading for help, so he fished Riley out from where he’d got stuck, and grasped the kettle.

He still wasn’t right. He tried to explain. It was as if, any moment, an operator would open a door in his skull and walk out with a cheery wave, leaving Paul to get on with the chaos. Julian had a disarming laugh.

“You just need drugs” he was told, and luckily Julian had some. He produced a bottle of fluorescent blue painkillers and, waving them in front of Dan’s eyes, began talking them up. He recommended pills like some people recommend a good Chinese or a trip to Cyprus. These are the effects, this was his experience, this is what it was good for.

At least he’d shut up about the counselling lately. Dan was all for counselling, of course, every time. He agreed that more people should go and sit down and talk to a trained sympathiser to work out the reason they are in a pattern of difficult relationships, and be well, sympathised, and yes he agreed key relationships for him didn’t work out as planned, but he felt that he, Dan, with a Psychology GCSE, and a promising job in a local school and a brother to support in Cornwall constantly overspending on the minimum wage, was finding plenty of people to talk to about any barriers to future personal growth. One thing was bothering him now though.

“Julian, did you hear something just now? A thump, just before you came in?”

The bearded giant stopped rummaging in the fridge and looked up with a frown. “Yes, I heard something out there. Want to go and have a look?”

It was only just September, the greying sky hopeful for a ray or two of early evening sun to coat everything in orange and red. Instead blue shadows were closing in on the semi, framing the two men, ensnaring them in their relative youth, while their middle-age crouched, ready, behind the scenes.

Dan blinked and stared at what looked like a giant replica of his own head, heavily lying against the blind side of the house with only a massive branch of the old hawthorn tree underneath it, torn off in a fall from nowhere. It appeared to be made of something like hardened clay and the ear had smashed off.

Dan looked at Julian, flabbergasted, who returned his gaze, dumbstruck. The pair of them stood and looked at the thing until finally Julian couldn’t take it anymore and punched out its staring eyes, leaving two gaping holes.

Later that evening, Julian crept up to Dan’s main bedroom and knocked.

Entering anyway, he noticed the phone book. Dan had been making embarrassed phone-calls to get the thing removed from the garden. He didn’t think the cat would ever leave the house again, or perhaps it would run off and never come back.

“Hi again. Weird day huh.” They chatted awkwardly about work for a few minutes.

Eventually he asked to borrow Dan’s shaver as he’s left his at Jo’s.

Could Jo be responsible for this? Dan wondered. The strange painter, York-born, but who’d spent some wild years in South America, making some kind of doom-saying effigy of her boyfriend’s flat-mate, to scare the living daylights out of him? Better be careful here.

“You should bring her over more,” he said. “We can use the lounge and have dinner if you like. Is she, you know, OK at the moment?”

Realising he’d asked the wrong question, he had to interrupt an account of the various medications she was trying and how she had been building up a resistance to what sounded like basically anything on a microscopic level.

“No, I mean, since her ex started calling her again?”

He gave Dan the “that’s off limits” look, but made the effort anyway. “She’s coping better now. Jennie helps. They chat all the time, even now Jo’s supposed to be working. She helps, I think. And when her exhibition starts, she won’t have time to worry…”

Julian drifted off, seeing in his friend’s eyes that he’d lost him. A vision of his face, fallen, glazed over, outside the house, gripped him and Dan seemed to share the feeling. The disembodied head had materialised for no reason, and was sitting there, blind, gazing out towards the quiet houses opposite and the small, bare park. Perhaps its body would come back for it. Perhaps some kids would smash it in.

Dan was glad when they’d heaved it inside even if it was even eerier sat in the shadowy lounge. He tried to shake the image out of his mind as he went upstairs to bed.

At around three in the morning, after uncomfortable images of trees walking towards his house from the park and cats hissing at him from behind each one, Dan got up. He discovered the letter he’d knocked to the floor, and eyeing the unsettling red print, he began to read:

“WELCOME TO YOUR NEW IDEAL HOME – Free for 2 months but sent back if problems.
Features include: more head room, improvements to wide-vision, fine-tune stereo hearing, improve your head space capacity, surprising new appearance, standing tall and strong, many benefits in staff/office relations, reach further than ever before, squash on the competition, run further and keep on going, no drugs required!! We do not permit use of force, customer is liable. We are a company determined to make YOU rich, handsome and popular, with no guarantees. Extra fees for replacements. Please do not lose packaging.”

In the end he tried to fax it to someone to verify what he was reading, but the machine ate up the letter.

In the morning Riley was stock still, finally beginning to claw at the window when he registered Dan. Julian had already left. It was now just Dan and the garish white thing. Inexplicably, he decided to eat his breakfast in front of it, the gaping holes where its eyes were holding some kind of ominous power over him. It seemed to be wearing a smile this morning, but its enormous size was still intimidating. He needed to keep an eye on this thing. Was he supposed to try and wear it?

..... to be continued!!

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