CHAPTER 1: Daniel Howard
Bleep, bleep, bleep…
The alarm went off at six o’clock as usual, the small digital clock bleeping its cheerful tune, incessantly happy with itself but unaware of the annoyance being caused to the occupant of the bed just two feet away.
In response, Daniel raised his dishevelled head slowly from the pillow and scanned his surroundings. Underwhelmed, he allowed his head to flop back down and his eyelids to droop.
The clock continued to bleep merrily next to him, fulfilling its lifelong wish to rouse people from their slumber.
Bleep, bleep, bleep…
Daniel wondered how a clock could be so annoyingly smug.
Utterly oblivious, the offending timepiece continued to chirp away.
Could a clock be happier than him?
Daniel thought that perhaps it was and yawned in disapproval before his hand emerged from beneath the duvet and pressed the ‘cancel’ button on top.
Another day had dawned for Daniel Howard, and he had hardly slept yet again due to the strange dreams that had filled his slumber. Throughout the night he had tossed and turned as the latest in a series of nightmares played out in his subconscious, leaving him sweaty and disoriented on waking. During the past fortnight, the unwelcome visions had overwhelmed his sleep, flooding it with bizarre images of talking plants and then waking him with the sound of distant voices still whispering in his ears. Through the subsequent mornings, the image of a snake coiling down the corridor, or memories of a stranger stumbling across the desert would haunt him for hours afterwards. Even more worryingly, during the day, he found himself unable to shake the notion that he was being constantly watched from the shadows, studied by two evil yellow eyes.
Yawning, Daniel lay in bed exhausted and stared without blinking at the magnolia ceiling where the image of a talking cactus had been imprinted upon the white background by his brain. He rubbed his eyes and let out another yawn.
‘Crap, what is happening to me? Is this what my life has come to?’ He looked at the ceiling in despair and was not surprised it ignored him.
‘Should have taken some tips from Harry.’Daniel spoke to the magnolia vista as he thought enviously of his elder brother. He yawned again as he pictured his brother’s idyllic life with his beautiful wife and two gorgeous children.
Shaking away his jealous thoughts, he stared despondently at the ceiling, it still hadn’t responded.
Fixing his magnolia companion with a raised eyebrow and a grimace, he thought about his life and accepted, if he was to be honest with himself, that at one point it had been going quite well. At work he had gained a rapid promotion and earned enough money for a car—but, after the second promotion, he’d moved into the flat with HER and it had all gone wrong. The promotions at work mysteriously slowed after she’d attended the office summer party. In the aftermath the social invitations had dried up and now few of his co-workers would—barely—acknowledge his existence. Even his brother Harry and family had seemingly abandoned him. Then to top things off …she’d left him at the altar. Without warning she had disappeared two months ago, without a word and just two days before the special occasion, leaving him with a mortgage he couldn’t afford and a hole in his heart he couldn’t fill. Now he could barely afford to feed himself. Yet, even with acknowledgement of the betrayal she’d inflicted upon him, he knew he would take her back in a heartbeat.
So with his heart aching for her reluctant smile, a touch from her slender fingers, or a glance from her dark and sultry eyes, Daniel peered across wistfully at the picture of Aradia beside their bed.
She stared back indifferently.
A smile briefly touched Daniel’s face before he rose and made his way to the small bathroom where he brushed his teeth, shaved, and showered away the night. Yawning once again, he rubbed his eyes and appraised himself in the mirror. He could see that the small bulge at his waist had grown, producing two small love handles.
In response to the pair of unwanted extras that clung to his torso, he sucked in his stomach while puffing out his chest and tried to smile.
The smile faded.
‘Crap.’ He’d let himself go since he’d dropped out of university three years previously and his days of captaining the rugby team seemed an eternity ago.
‘Hmmm, that needs some work. Might go to the gym tonight?’ Daniel said to himself, then recalled that he did not have a current gym membership, ‘probably not then…maybe just go to the pub?’
Having given up on the ceiling, he conversed only with himself and concluded with a knowing smile. Then, a movement caught his eye and he frowned at the silent companion above, letting out a yelp as a snake materialised on its surface. In response to the cry of alarm the snake turned into a cactus and Daniel let out another sigh as he realised it was all in his imagination.
‘You complete bas…’ Daniel swore at the ceiling, apologising after shaking off the image of the cactus. Despondently he dressed, then breakfasted and—content no more snakes would emerge from above—picked up his rucksack before he left the flat through the tiny entrance hall, grabbing a music magazine from the lobby table as he went. Stepping out into the empty corridor, he locked the door and spun when he thought he sensed someone behind him.
Nobody, the corridor was empty.
Daniel drove away the anxiety and made his way down the corridor past his neighbour’s apartment while he pondered the secretive Professor Mortimer, the spindly man who had moved into the complex two weeks before. As he passed, unseen, two yellow eyes followed him and the hairs on the back of his neck bristled. Daniel shuddered as he considered how little he trusted the lanky new addition to his apartment block. Slowly he turned and to his relief saw that the Professor’s door was closed. He did not see the orbs that studied him, eyed him with malevolence and loathing.
As a chill shot up his spine, Daniel felt he didn’t want to remain in the little corridor any longer and pushed open the front door. Bursting out into the rain, he rushed across the street to his old blue Golf and, after fumbling briefly with his keys, threw open the driver’s door and jumped into the seat, slamming the door behind him. Through the rain-drenched window he glanced back at the door to his apartment block.
‘Phew. No spying professors. Oh crap, crap, crap.’ In disgust Daniel threw the ruined periodical onto the passenger seat, ruing the fact he’d used his music magazine in an attempt to stop his hair getting wet. To add to his annoyance, long black locks of wet hair flopped into his eyes. Cursing again, he pushed the wet hair back from his face before fastening his seat belt. Click, clunk, work.
Glancing into the rear view mirror he spoke to his reflection with mock enthusiasm.
‘Right. To the office then. I wonder what’s new in the wonderful and exciting world of business.’
He knew the answer was ‘nothing,’ but always kept a glimmer of hope. Some people think that the glimmer of light is the way out; others that it’s life waiting for them, and still others believe it’s the light at the end of the tunnel. Though he didn’t know it, for Daniel that glimmer of hope was the headlight of an oncoming train and soon he would be trapped in its beam like a startled rabbit.
And it was a bloody big train.