No crossword post, folks, as I’m away on hols. All being well, I’ll be back in a week or so. In the meantime, how about a short story, what with it being Halloween and all? – LP
The Last Temptation of Darren Grisley, Destroyer of Us All
I pull out the phone and glaze over the cracked screen. I don’t need to see the words. The ringtone is enough to know it’s Chelle, my ex. I don’t answer her. Instead I cradle the phone in my hands and watch it ring.
Someone harrumphs close by, reminding me I’m not alone. I jab at a tiny button on the side of the phone to lower the volume. The mute switch doesn’t work. Neither do the volume buttons, truth be told, but that doesn’t stop me trying. It’s a wonder the phone still works after the abuse I’ve given it. I’ve always been a bad loser.
The phone continues its demand of me, undeterred. This can only be about one thing. The only thing it’s ever been about since Chelle kicked me out: money. This is hardly the time or the place.
The bus I’m on shudders to a halt. Traffic lights. I look up and notice a number of my fellow passengers are on the brink of stabbing me in both eyes. Further ahead I see the driver flex and relax his hand against the wheel, as if limbering up to pop me one.
“Answer. The Bloody. Phone.” A voice behind me. Probably the harrumpher from before.
I hit ‘Answer’.
“Chelle?” I say evenly. I don’t want to say anything else until I can gauge what kind of mood she is in.
“That money still hasn’t come through, Darren.” Her voice is as volatile as a box of old dynamite.
See? I told you. It’s always about money.
She lets out an angry snort, presumably because I didn’t respond straight away, then: “Joshua starts secondary school next week. You know we need that money.”
“It’s definitely not come through today?”
“Of course it hasn’t,” she hisses. An uncomfortable warmth blossoms across my face with the accusation in her voice.
“Look, let me check my account,” I say. “It’s on an app so I’ll have to call you back.”
“I’ll call you right back, Chelle. I promise. I just need to find out what’s happened.”
Her voice has softened and my heart sinks. I don’t want to hear what’s coming, and yet I cannot pull the phone from my ear.
“Are you getting any help?”
A breath catches in my throat. After the mess I’d made of everything during the last three years; once my broken promises had worn thin and my lies and debts had caught up with me; after the slanging matches in the kitchen, the street, the pub and everywhere in between, things have finally come to this: concern. It feels like the tiniest spark of warmth in a snowstorm. The back of my throat tightens. The corners of my mouth tug downwards and my eyelids rim with tears.
“I’ll call you back,” I say, and hang up.
I didn’t call her back.
Instead I sit in a cramped two-bedroomed flat, nesting amid an ageing collection of greasy takeaway tubs and pizza boxes.
The flat belongs to a musclebound firebrand I know called Ray. We used to go to school together. He was big back then too.
I’m looking after the place while he is away on the rigs. I just have to pay the bills and keep the place tidy. This arrangement, I know, is a good thing. When you have been homeless for over a year and have exhausted your friends’ goodwill sleeping on their sofas every night, then anything that keeps you from sleeping on the streets is a good thing. Just don’t anyone dare call me one of the lucky ones.
Ray’s flat sits above a struggling sports bar. He doesn’t have broadband, so I piggyback the bar’s WiFi connection. I think they change the password every week to coax me in for a pint, anything to drum up a bit of business.
I hold my phone close to the laminate floor. I use the feeble signal to check something I already know. The money for Josh hasn’t moved from my account because it wasn’t there in the first place. I had to pay into Ray’s bills account first. Ray always gets paid. That’s the deal. Break the deal and Ray breaks me.
I return my phone to the home screen and its wall of useless apps for Paddy Power, Ladbrokes, BetFred, Betfair, William Hill, Sky Bet and all the rest. The apps still work. They occasionally tease me with alerts of special odds, price boosts and other glamorous offers, but, being bereft of credit, they are all dead to me. The free bets they once so freely offered all dried up about the same time as my cashflow. Funny, that. And yet I cannot delete the apps. I still feel their burn within me. My mind itches at the sight of their icons, colourful invitations to come inside for some harmless knockabout fun. So long as I gamble responsibly, of course – a phrase that now makes me want to puke every time I see it.
The screen suddenly darkens and blurs. The phone rings with the clamour of a 1940’s rotary telephone, its default ringtone. I feel around for the phone’s off button. I don’t want to speak to Chelle, not if she’s so angry with me that she’s used someone else’s mobile to call.
But then I notice the number beyond the splintered screen is mine. Somehow my mobile is calling itself.
I’ve heard of caller IDs being spoofed by scammers, but I’ve never seen anything like this before. I hesitate, unwilling to switch off the phone, but equally unwilling to answer. It’ll be some shitty recorded message, I reason. Some soulless dick in Eastern Europe trying to swindle money from me that I don’t have.
I set the phone down on the coffee table amid a clutch of remote controls and let voicemail handle the call. My stomach gurgles for the hundredth time since I stepped in, so I hunt the last dregs of food from the kitchen, unearthing some macaroni, a squirt of tomato puree and a can of tuna flakes. Tomorrow I’ll be supping the salad cream.
I return to the sofa with a steaming, half-filled bowl of pasta. The moment I sit down my phone springs into life again, thrumming loudly against the wooden coffee table. Once more my number glows beneath the cracked screen, beckoning me to answer. I pick it up and wonder whether it’s possible to block calls coming from my own phone.
Who would call me like this, twice within the space of fifteen minutes? I’m guessing it’s not an auto-dialler. Not unless it has a pitifully short list of numbers to try. At least I’d have the satisfaction of giving a real person some verbal abuse before hanging up on them.
I hit the ‘Answer’ button.
There’s the crumpled sound of wind passing over a microphone. There are hurried footsteps too, as if the caller is running at full pelt. There’s screaming and crying and shouting in the background, and… tearing. Massive, massive tearing. It sounds like someone’s called me from the middle of a mass uprising. Whoever it is, they seem in trouble.
“Hello?” I say. “Who’s that?”
“Don’t…open…!” But the rest is garbled noise.
I nearly drop the phone. The caller is me. Unmistakably me. I’m agitated, stressed, panicked. I shudder as I listen, as if my body heat is leaching through my socks and into the laminate floor.
There’s a scrape of boots against paving stones. My boots. There’s heavy breathing, gasping, fumbling – everything soundtracked by tearing and screaming chaos – and then, at last, my voice again. I’m bellowing into the phone. Distortion. My mouth is too close to the phone, but I can still hear the words.
“IGNORE THE APP!”
The tearing sound resumes. It somehow grows louder over the phone. I hear myself screaming at something, my vocal cords tinged with madness, and then… I feel sick. There’s a heavy thump. It sounds as if I’ve been hit by something big, hit hard enough to silence me.
Two soft beeps mark the end of the call.
I sag into the sofa, feeling faint. I look dumbly at the phone like it was the first of its kind and I mine.
What the hell was that all about? Had I just been prank-called? I run through a list of friends for potential candidates, which takes a depressingly short length of time. It doesn’t matter. Whoever was behind the call, how on earth had they gotten my voice? How did they engineer me into those cries and screams and those huge, bizarre tearing sounds? Ignore the app? What was that supposed to mean?
I pace the room. My mind spirals off into increasingly ludicrous explanations. Had someone secretly recorded me? The way I move? The way I breathe? When have I ever said “Ignore the app” like that? Never. So what just happened? Whoever rang, why did they call me? Was someone trying to scare me?
I notice a crack above the sofa, floating in the air, which pulls me from my thoughts.
I lean against the armrest and take a closer look. I thought I was seeing things, but no. Hanging roughly above where I’d been sitting there is a perfectly still hairline crack. I rub my eyes but the crack is still there. I blow at the crack but it does not move. I slowly run my fingers through the middle of it, but the crack remains unbroken.
“What… the… hell?”
The sound of an old car horn makes me jump. I look accusingly at my phone. A text message has arrived from an unknown number. The practiced hand of a serial recipient of junk texts immediately sets into motion its deletion, but then I see two words that turn my blood thick and icy.
I snap my thumb away as if the screen was alive with electricity. I feel my knees weaken as I read the text message in full.
You have been invited to beta test The Hook, our new app! Ever wished you could call yourself three hours ago? Well now you can! Go to url.me/g6xq14 and download The Hook today!
“Ignore the app,” I mutter to myself.
I sink once more into the sofa, phone in hand, my food now cold and forgotten. I bring up the text message again and let my eyes rest on its teasing blue hyperlink. Nervous energy buzzes through me like the business end of a ten-way accumulator. I hold and re-hold the device, unable to find a comfortable grip.
I surely hadn’t heard a future me just then, had I? A version of me three hours from now? How was that even possible? And through some smartphone app? Seriously? It had to be a set-up, but then how had the hoaxers gotten my voice? Could I be certain it was really me I’d heard?
Then it dawns on me. My attention is drawn to the flat-screen television and the self-satisfied grin of Ray Winstone. It’s an advert for Bet365, which quickly gives way to the opening titles for tonight’s Monday Night Football. Shit, was that why I’d tried to call myself?
My brain is suddenly a storm of activity. Thoughts roar and cascade over one another, plunging into areas of my mind that once made up the old me, the parts I’d spent so long trying to ignore. Oh yes, I can see exactly what’s happened here. It’s seven in the evening. Fast forward three hours and the match will have finished, with the result known along with a hundred and one in-plays.
I glance once more at the text message on my phone. This is no hoax. I’m looking at a gold mine.
Ignore the app!
I cannot. The burning itch of old consumes me again. I return to the home screen of the phone and sweep through pages of betting apps, launching them in turn, digging out my diary of passwords for those I hadn’t used in a while, seeking any bookmaker for whom I may have missed the odd fiver’s credit. There is nothing. My inbox chimes with ‘welcome back’ emails, as if my absence had been through choice.
I scour my memory for any betting sites I haven’t tried, any with a tasty free bet sweetener. But what’s the use? My cards have been cut up, their credit maxed-out, frozen and inaccessible. There is a block on every one of my accounts against every known betting site to stop me spunking away any more money. Payday loan? I’ve had my fair share of them too, but they’re almost impossible for me now that lenders have been forced to background-check everyone.
I take a few deep breaths and force myself to think straight for a moment. Why would I have called myself after a match if I had no means to bet on it? Was I merely proving a point to myself? Even if I was, why on earth had I tried to call halfway through Armageddon?
A cool wave of nausea washes over me as I recall the heavy thump I’d heard. The way it silenced me. I try to block the memory from my mind.
Why had I called? What was the point? Then it clicks. There’s a William Hill just around the corner of McGinty’s pub that doesn’t close till 10pm. I don’t need credit to bet, or a bank account. I just need some folding money.
The only papery things in my wallet are receipts. I leaf through them for my hidden tenner, but I know I’ve already spent it. I’ve enough change in my pockets for a cheap half pint and that’s it. After that I’m officially penniless. So did I put a bet on? If so, how? Tonight’s match is Man City versus Liverpool: first versus second, even this early into the season. With such a low stake I’d win buttons, whatever the result. I must have called myself to simply prove the app worked. It’s not as if I had anything worth selling, save perhaps for a kidney.
Ray, on the other hand…
I look around the lounge and its shelves of books and TV box sets. Maybe I stole something and flogged it down the pub. Ray is still offshore. What the fella doesn’t know won’t hurt him if I replaced whatever I stole using my winnings.
But then really? I’m being reduced to this again? Stealing?
“Ignore the app,” I hear myself saying, then: “Shut up, Gris.”
I blink and an image of Josh flashes before my eyes. Hot shame spreads over me, easing some of the itch. Between us, Chelle and I have next to nothing – certainly not enough to buy everything Josh needs for secondary school – and yet here I am eager to bet again at all costs. Once more I find myself putting my own needs over those of my family and I hate myself anew.
And yet in my hands I hold something that can make everything right again. After years of shitty luck, I’ve finally been handed the break I deserve. But at what cost? My life? It sounded like I’d been hit by a truck in the middle of the Rapture, and all because I hadn’t ignored the app.
Maybe I should sleep on it and get a fresh perspective. I still have a week before Josh starts school again. I don’t need any serious cash until then. I can microwave my tea, watch the match and resist temptation.
My phone rings, a different tone. It’s Harold from the print works, one of my zero-hours.
“Alright, mate. I’ve got a half-mil’ mailing to get out sharpish, and I’m pulling in some troops. I’ve got you anything up to twelve hours if you want them, usual rate, cash in hand. You in?”
I feel the itch subside some more. I glance at the time and figure I can just about survive a twenty-one-hour day. I’d collapse into a heap once I got through the front door again, but at least I’ll have ignored the app and would have a little cash to tide me over.
Some folding money, as it were, and the lack of scrutiny that comes with it.
“Thanks, Harold,” I say. “I’ll be there in an hour.”
It’s seven in the morning when Harold drops me off outside Ray’s flat. My muscles twitch with fatigue and a general lack of food, but my mind is on fire. My phone is out before I’ve kicked off my boots. I hurry into the lounge and lay on the laminate floor, searching for the sports bar’s thready WiFi signal.
Harold had switched the radio over to the match commentary while we worked. Liverpool were stuffing Man City away from home. My mind was boggling over the odds when the sixth goal went in. No wonder I’d tried to call myself. The app – The Hook – I’ve never needed anything so badly.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!”
The connection is no longer there. The bastards in the sports bar have switched off their WiFi overnight. I let my phone clatter onto the floor before I can do anything foolish. The state of the screen is evidence of how destructive my childish outbursts can be.
I take in deep breaths to calm myself. I’m being an idiot again and I know it. I catch a vision of myself, lying on the floor, scowling and frantically jabbing at a phone like some pathetic loser. I force the itch within me to subside. I swallow it down.
So what if I couldn’t download the app right away? What was I going to bet on at seven in the morning? Aussie Rules Football?
“Get a grip, Gris, for Christ’s sake!” I hiss.
The fog surrounding my thoughts thins a little, allowing me to see a way through all of this. I just need to get some shuteye. When I wake again the sports bar will be open and, bingo, I’m back in business.
No, Gris! Ignore it! Ignore the app!
Overwhelmed with exhaustion, I fall asleep on the floor.
I wake with a start and instantly feel my back pull. My phone thrums loudly against the hard floor. The tinny sound of an old telephone echoes around the lounge. I haul myself over to the phone and see my number glowing on the screen again. It’s just gone eleven in the morning.
What the hell do I want at this time of day? No, wait, in three hours’ time? Whatever.
I hit ‘Answer’ and am amazed to hear Josh’s voice.
“Hi, Dad…” he says, and he immediately screams at me. Something awful has just happened. He screams and doesn’t stop. I’m reminded of every one of his nightmares, and how he would shriek in the dark until either Chelle or I looked in on him. It’s a sound I’d hoped never to hear again. I feel my guts twist into a tight knot.
“Josh?” I sit bolt upright, hissing through the pain in my back. “Josh, what’s wrong?”
There’s the sound of tearing again, huge and dominant. My son, still screaming. The phone is in his hand. He’s running hard, soft footfalls on grass. There are faint sounds of others yelling and shouting and crazed dogs barking. I can hear my future self coughing and calling out for him.
“Josh!” I yell into the phone. “Josh, talk to me! What’s happening?”
He can’t hear me. The blasts of wind across the mouthpiece suggest he’s sprinting now.
“Help me, Dad!” I hear him cry. “Please! Help me!”
His screams then fracture into panic and animalistic terror. The tearing all around him is immense.
The phone casing cracks in my hand, I’m crushing it so tight.
“It’s the phone, Dad!” he shrieks. “Don’t…”
The call ends. Two soft beeps.
I pull the phone away and jab at the screen, trying to reconnect the call.
I redial the last caller. Of course it doesn’t work.
I throw the phone into the sofa and scramble across the floor to get as far away from the damned thing as possible.
I sit there for a long time, rigid and tight against the wall, breathing hard, my eyes fixed on the phone. It lies face-down in a nook of cushions, as still as the dead.
That was not a prank. It couldn’t have been. If it was then whoever was behind it had somehow gotten Josh involved and that made me burn inside. What I’d heard was not a put-on. Nobody could ever have acted so scared. No, what I’d heard was a boy – my son – being reduced to nothing but instinct and terror in a matter of seconds. If this was some bastard’s sick idea of a joke, then that must have meant they’d gotten… that they’d somehow gotten Joshua to…
I don’t want to think about it. My stomach spasms.
When I finally draw my attention away from the sofa, I notice a second hairline crack. It’s much longer than the first, starting from a few inches above the floor and running up a couple of feet in a tight curve. It looks like a thin, unbalanced ‘C’ hanging perfectly still in three-dimensional space.
I focus a little above the sofa and catch sight of the first crack. Comparing the two, the second crack seems slightly thicker.
It’s the phone, Dad!
I ignore the cracks in the air and my phone lying on the sofa. I try to focus on one madness at a time.
Why had Josh called me? Obviously it was to say “Hi” but how had that come about? I wasn’t supposed to have him until four at the earliest. I received the call at eleven o’clock in the morning, my time; two o’clock in the afternoon, his. That was, of course, assuming the text message was telling the truth about a three-hour gap. I don’t know what to believe any more.
I focus instead on the facts. I have received two calls from the future: one from myself, which ended badly for me, and one from Josh, which ended badly for him. But I didn’t die following that first call. I managed to resist using the app. So it follows that Josh must do the same.
But how had Josh called me in the first place? He had used my phone, as it was my number that flashed up on the screen. I think back to my state of mind before I’d fallen asleep on the floor. I’d been driven near mad with desire for a WiFi connection I could use so early in the morning. I’d felt the old itch spread across every square inch of me throughout those interminable hours following the match.
In the future I must have downloaded the app as soon as the sports bar had opened. Maybe I had told Josh about it in a bid to make me seem interesting again. Perhaps Josh had badgered me to use it.
And then the tearing and the screaming and the shouting began again.
“Ignore the app,” I mutter to myself.
Then I remember about the Euromillions tonight.
Chelle’s caller ID is displayed on the phone. Above it the time approaches half one in the afternoon. Despite the sunny weather outside, I feel an icy chill collect in my bones. So this is how it happens. I’m about to discover why I get to have Josh a few hours earlier than usual today. I’m probably also about to receive an almighty bollocking from Chelle for not calling her back.
I steady myself and hit ‘Answer’.
“Chelle?” I say as evenly as I can.
“I take it you’ve run out of credit again,” she says. Every word is a railway spike struck deep into the base of my skull.
I am about to tell her about the sixty quid I have in my back pocket – well, forty of it anyway – but she carries on without letting me speak.
“It doesn’t matter. I need you to take Joshua a few hours early.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“It’s those little shits from the estate. They’re banging on Mum’s door again and chucking stones at her windows. I don’t want Joshua to see me wringing their necks.”
Eleven o’clock my time; two o’clock his.
My skin bunches up into gooseflesh.
“Okay,” I say. “What time should I bring him back?”
“The usual. I still need to head to Lidl.”
“Thank you,” I say, meaning it. “Shall I come round?”
“Hold on, I’ll get him,” she says. “JOSHU-AAAHHH! It’s your Dad! I swear to God, Darren, the sooner they’re back in school the better. Here, he’s on the phone.”
A bolt of elation courses through me upon hearing his voice again.
“Heya,” I say. “Looking forward to big school?”
“No. Mum says I’ve got to be with you for a few extra hours?”
He doesn’t seem entirely thrilled about the idea, but then who can blame him? I haven’t exactly been Father of the Year.
“Yeah. Nice day for it, though,” I say, trying to sound chipper. “Do you want to do anything in particular?”
“Ally and Yobba are playing footie in the park. I kind of said I’d join them.”
Something clicks in my mind. I see the park. I see people strolling by, enjoying the sun, walking their dogs. Crazed dogs barking. Tearing. I hear my son’s anguished screams.
“Tell you what,” I say. “Why don’t we do something in town, yeah?”
Something far away from the park, from the dogs. Something far away from any free WiFi too, if possible.
Choose something cheap, choose something cheap, choose something cheap…
“Well, the new Marvel movie is still playing at the Odeon,” says Josh. “We could go and see that.”
“You’re the boss.”
If Chelle has murdered any little shits during the last five hours, she’s made a good job of washing the blood off her hands. I count four tenners onto her outstretched palm. At least Josh can go to school without being dressed in rags, or at least for a couple of days per week.
“I rang the bank to see if they could reverse the Direct Debit, but they said no.” The lie forces me to keep my eyes lowered. “I’m getting a few calls for work now, at least. I might get a few more hours’ work tonight.”
Thankfully this is closer to the truth.
She says nothing and so I look her in the eye. Dark rings have formed beneath her eyelids. Faint wrinkles surround her lips. Her face hardens, but I can see her clenching her jaw, trying to maintain the look. I feel a small tugging sensation at the back of my throat and an ache in my chest. After everything we’ve been through, I still love her.
Eventually she speaks: “Are you getting any help?”
“I’m dealing with it, Chelle,” I say. “It’s just taking a while.”
“Where are you now?”
“House-sitting,” I say. After that, probably camping. “I’ll pop round tomorrow if I get any extra money through.”
She nods and folds her arms across her chest, then turns and walks slowly towards her ground floor flat. I notice the darkened crack between Josh’s curtains narrow. When Chelle closes the front door, I start walking.
I slow to a snail’s pace as I near the corner shop. I can’t help it. I see the garish yellow and blue poster in the window.
IT’S OVER £120M!
It’s a quarter past seven. The Euromillions draw takes place in a couple hours’ time. The tills shut in fifteen minutes. I fix the time firmly in my mind. Despite those vile warnings from the future I still find myself craving a phone call.
I’m not so much walking now as loitering, but my phone remains silent. I step inside the shop to waste some more time. I leaf through a poor selection of magazines and a stellar range of puzzle books, but it’s no good. I’m looking more like a shoplifter with each passing minute.
Twenty past seven comes and goes without a call. I smile weakly towards the shopkeeper, then make my excuses and leave.
I should be happy. In avoiding the park, by ignoring the app, I had saved Josh from whatever hell awaited him. I’m still alive too, no longer wiped out by something big and heavy. And, putting the app to one side for a second, I’m starting to earn some money again, even if it is a pittance.
But I’m not happy. My future self hasn’t called, and that gets the conniving, itchy, selfish side of me thinking: “why not?” The future is malleable. It’s mine to change. I’ve proved it. So what’s to stop me from using the app to phone back the winning numbers? My future self is expendable. I just have to resist downloading the app once the call is made. I simply need to sit on my hands back at the flat and watch Lottery HQ make me rich. Whatever hell lay ahead of me needn’t happen as I am always in control of the present.
No sooner does the thought enter my head than my phone starts ringing; the familiar clamouring bells of a rotary telephone. My number glows through the cracked screen. I smile. It seems my future self has gotten the message. I run back towards the corner shop. After a few badly aimed jabs of the finger, I finally manage to hit the ‘Answer’ button.
“…you have to trust me,” I hear myself say. Then the tearing noise begins. Loud hissing soon follows. Screams. Alarms. Then a huge crashing sound and a sickening wet thud. I hear myself cough and choke, eventually managing: “Jesus Christ! No!”
I burst into the shop and scrabble for a slip of paper from the lottery kiosk. I scatter pens everywhere as I try to grab them.
“My God! Oh my God, NO!” I hear myself saying before coughing hoarsely.
“Just read out the numbers, damn it!” I yell into the phone.
There comes the most horrifying, inhuman shriek I have ever heard; a blast of distorted noise that causes me to drop the phone. I manage to get my boot underneath it to cushion the blow. Even with the phone lying on the ground I can still hear its terrifying roar.
But then the noise stops. The screen lights up momentarily with an ‘End of call’ message before going dark again.
“Shit!” I yell. “Shitting, shitting shit!”
I stamp the heel of my boot down hard, only avoiding the phone at the very last minute and jarring my ankle in the process. I swear a lot and at great volume as spikes of agony shoot up my leg.
When I eventually stop raging I am met with a shopkeeper holding a can of pepper spray to my face. Between us in mid-air hangs a jagged black squiggle a couple of millimetres thick. The end of it dips down to the floor where my phone lies.
The digital clock at the back of the shop flicks over to seven thirty-one.
The storm clouds in my head had cleared by the time I’d limped home, allowing me to think rationally again. So what if I didn’t win the lottery tonight? My plan doesn’t need to change, even if some Belgian dentist wins the lot. The jackpot will build again, and it will be mine to claim whenever I wish. I just needed to exercise some patience.
I had let the itch get the better of me again, but this time I don’t feel quite so ashamed. I have something any gambler would give their right arm for: a system I knew worked. If I played my cards right, I could have an infinite line of credit on tap. I could win any game I wanted. In a perverse way, maybe this was exactly the thing I needed to break my addiction. Once the gloss of winning all the time had faded, perhaps I could then move on to something else, like living my life. I could spend more time with Josh. Maybe I could even get back together with Chelle.
Before any of that, however, I clearly needed to get better at calling myself.
My phone sparks into life at around half eight.
“Chelle?” I manage through a mouth full of Chinese food. I wasn’t expecting her.
“Darren? Darren, it’s Joshua,” she says. Her voice is high and wavering. She bursts into tears.
I spit the food into a nearby takeaway tray.
“Chelle? What’s happened? Is Josh alright?”
“He’s been hit,” she says. “A car hit him.”
“Oh my God, Chelle, I’m coming right over.” I leap from the sofa.
“No, we’ll be at the hospital,” she says.
“Okay, I’ll see you there.”
She is suddenly overwhelmed by a mother’s anguish that tears me to pieces for not being there. I’m reaching for my boots when she manages to speak again.
“It’s his head, Darren,” she says. That’s all. She is lost to her grief.
“Don’t worry, Chelle. Everything is going to be alright.”
I pause in the doorway, letting the front door rest against my back. I look over my shoulder and towards the floor of the lounge. I slowly run my thumb along the edge of the phone.
Chelle explained what happened while we waited in A&E. The little shits from the estate she had chased from her mother’s house in her own unique way had gone and told a few bigger shits who decided to come and do some knocking of their own.
I felt a small flicker of pride when I heard how Josh had followed his mother outside to confront them, but that was quickly snuffed when I heard what happened next. One of the feral bastards had gone for Josh and chased him out into the road.
The driver had slammed on the brakes but couldn’t avoid hitting our son.
For the next however long, Chelle tried to keep Josh conscious until the ambulance came. There was a frightening amount of blood on the road. When Josh’s eyes rolled up and closed, she thought she had lost him.
Either way, dead or alive, it’s bad. I feel like smashing myself in the face. None of this would have happened if I’d kept my stupid vices in check. I’d still have my old job. We’d still have our marriage, our son and our house well away from this hellish side of town, mortgage and all.
The first of the evening’s drunks staggers into A&E. I check the time on my phone. It’s been well over an hour since Josh was admitted. I’m about to enquire at the desk when I hear someone summon us.
The doctor tries to soften the impact of what we are about to see as we ride the elevator to intensive care. She can only spare us a short time with Josh but says it’s important that we see him. She assures us Josh is responding well and that we shouldn’t feel alarmed upon seeing him. A swirling vortex of dread grows within me. No parent should ever have to go through this.
We find our only child lying completely still in a vast, white bed, the top half of his body covered in bandages and tubes and wires. I blanch at the large plastic breather plugging his mouth. Beside him a nurse busies herself checking a hundred and one different monitors. She exchanges an unspoken nod with the doctor.
I feel faint. Chelle covers her mouth and sobs.
“Josh is heavily sedated but conscious,” says the doctor as we rub antibacterial gel into our hands. “It’ll do him a power of good to see you both, but you’ve got to be brave for him. He can’t see you looking upset, okay?”
Chelle nods. I can’t take my eyes off my son. We both rein in our emotions as best we can, but when we enter the room my heart beats harder, pushing more blood into my head, making me feel nauseous and faint once more.
The patches of skin visible beneath the things keeping Josh alive are livid with scrapes and the beginnings of enormous bruises. They seem to cover his left side from shoulder to waist. His upper body, especially his neck, looks swollen but what terrifies me the most are the number of bandages wrapped around his head.
Chelle sits slowly by Josh’s side and gently takes hold of his hand.
“Heya, big guy,” she says. “How are you feeling?”
Josh’s eyes swim in their sockets. They lock onto his mother briefly but he’s fighting a losing battle against whatever sedatives they’ve pumped into him. I feel my throat dry instantly the moment his eyes drift lazily my way and all I can manage is a croak and a weak smile.
He looks lost in there and I feel damned and ashamed. I’ve betrayed the only things left in the world I’ve ever loved and now I look upon what I’ve reduced them to.
I let out a heavy sob. I can’t help it. I ignore the looks from Chelle and the others and reach into my pocket for my phone.
“I’m sorry, sir, you can’t use that in here,” says the nurse.
“Mr Grisley, please, you’ll have to take that elsewhere,” says the doctor. “We have a designated area further down the corridor.”
“Darren!” says Chelle.
“I can make things better again,” I say. The words sound numb and bassy in my head.
The home screen of my phone glows beneath the spider web cracks. The time in the title bar flicks over to ten twenty-seven. I thumb through pages of dead betting apps and find the newest arrival. I dab a finger against the icon for The Hook.
“Sir, please, take that away from here”, says the nurse.
Chelle rises from the chair, hiding her fury from Josh.
I edge nearer the door, my ex-wife closing in on me.
“What the hell do you think you are playing at, Darren?” she hisses. “That’s our son over there. Switch that bloody thing off!”
“I can stop this from happening, Chelle,” I say. My voice is breaking.
The loading screen for The Hook, like its icon, is a stylish but simple design of a quarter-circle with a backwards arrow forming the arc. The loading screen clears to reveal perhaps the simplest app I have ever seen. There are no configurable settings to worry about. There was no need to register, nor did I have to approve any terms and conditions. All there is on the screen is a big red button with the words ‘Hook me up!’ written in the middle.
And so I press it. I hear a muted dial tone and hold the phone to my ear.
“What do you mean you can stop this? How, Darren? How? For God’s sake, it’s already happened!”
“I can put things right, Chelle,” I say. “Please! You have to trust me.”
(c) Paul Collin 2019