By Jacqueline Applebee
Alex ran through the dense green cycle path, overgrown with anonymous bushes and scratchy wild stinging nettles. The occasional shopping trolley, discarded upside down marked his slow journey like weird milestones at the side of the grassy corridor. His pale legs pumped with their own rhythm, carrying him beneath the yellow streetlights, for a moment he became illuminated in their pool of lemony light and then back into darkness once more. Harsh short breath after breath sped into his lungs, never enough to satisfy or to comfort the man as he chugged his unwilling sizable body further.
- Just a few minutes more, this isn't school, there's no one else here to see. I can do this. I can do this.
Alex's foot bent awkwardly, catching on some unseen object beneath him, pulling him down sideways, falling in a tumble to the hard ground littered haphazardly with crisp packets and empty condom foils. His foot felt like it was on fire, practically glowing with pain, pulsing steadily in his nervous hands as he closed them around his ankle. The handle of a white container protruded out of the ground – the perfectly obvious hazard that he had failed to see.
“Are you ok?” A short black woman, made all the more dark in the shadows seemed to appear from out of nowhere and she stretched out a long hand to him. Alex looked up into concerned eyes for an embarrassed moment, before waving her away.
“I'm fine; I'll be lucky if it's a sprain.”
“Why would a sprain be lucky?” the woman had not backed away and Alex noticed her wide smile, unnaturally wide as if she was actually glad to see him. He forgot for a brief moment what he was going to say, so brushed his hands against his grey tracksuit bottoms, smearing red and black mud over his thighs.
“You're bleeding,” she nodded in the direction of his legs.
Alex looked at his palms in surprise.
“Just a scratch. Thanks, see you.” He was limping away before the words had left his mouth, yet the woman still followed.
“They dump so much stuff around here, it's a wonder there aren't more accidents.”
Alex looked back at the woman as she walked calmly behind him.
“The chemical factory – or the poison palace as I like to think of it,” she continued.
“Really, well there's a minicab place just down the road, I think I'll get one, take the pressure off.” He smiled politely through the banging pain and thank god, the woman took the hint and let him scuttle slowly down the incline and out to the busier main road, for a short ride in the back of a cramped car to his flat. The cab driver made comments about Alex's size throughout the journey.
“Why don't you go on a diet man? My cousin took these herbal tablets and you should see her now! How heavy are you anyway?”
Alex tuned out the erratic testimonials coming from the anonymous man in front and stared out of the scratched window instead.
- She must be nuts.
Still he thought of the strange woman as he peeled off his sweaty clothes, throwing them in a pile with the others.
- She was never coming onto me, was she?
The usual evening routine continued - Alex bent over the bathroom sink, vomited soundly until his throat hurt, withdrew sticky fingers from his mouth and washed his hands and face, groaning at the soreness in his belly. The shower, where he could usually relax a little, proved unhelpful tonight and he stumbled out roughly, as soon as he could.
Alex sat with his sore ankle raised on a spare chair, swallowed two aspirins and a large glass of ice water. There was a documentary on the box; all about the popularity of organisations that reunited long lost schoolmates, the success stories of friendships renewed after decades past, with a small mention of a pretty woman who had used the service to find those who had bullied her twenty years ago, so she could send them death threats and decomposing mice in the post.
Alex fell asleep with the television on and dreamt of the Black woman from the cycle path, sitting at a desk – naked and beautiful, writing ‘I hate you', over and over again in blood, on the pages of a big white exercise book.
The sound of mail coming through the letterbox and landing on the doormat with a thunderous slap jerked Alex awake. The TV was now showing ‘infomercials' full of skinny Americans, gushing happily about the latest rowing machine that worked all major muscle groups. He switched it off and walked with surprising ease to his front door.
Sprawled at his feet lay the local free paper, as well as flyers for several different 2-for-1 pizza deals. He ignored the garish adverts and unfolded the newspaper instead. The headline of locals demanding the closure of the chemical works caught his eye. There was also another smaller article on the front page, of a missing worker at the plant, quite a senior man, who was wanted by the police to help with their inquiries.
Alex frowned to himself and crouched once more to gather up the rest of the junk mail. It was whilst he was bent over that he noted the swelling and bruising from the night before wasn't there. He swept his hands up further and flinched as his left hand touched upon a sore spot just below his knee. He hadn't been aware of that before and he gently prodded the inflamed area, disturbingly purple against the paleness of his skin.
- It's nothing; those nettles must have done this to me.
He glanced slowly at the newspaper once more and got dressed.
The long cycle path was a very different affair during daylight hours. Alex would never run in the glare of the sun, no matter what time it was. Exercise was a personal private pursuit, a place where he could strive to forget his size and heft, but never truly lose his calculations of calories burnt, things he wouldn't eat today, people who he still had to avoid after so long.
He reached the spot where he had fallen the night before and looked around, breaking off a twig from an overhanging tree and prodding the ground in a tight circle. The half buried container wasn't there, yet he could still see the wide streaks in the mud, where he had tripped and fallen. He crouched down with a little difficulty, his wide thighs suddenly feeling tight and raw. There was nothing to see here, but there was a sudden blurred movement, a shadowy swoosh that he felt before he saw. It was followed a chorus of laughter, not small, childlike or happy, but adult and deep, with a warning tone to the derisive chuckles. It could be local or it could be from the chemical plant, but whoever it was, they did not sound like they wanted to share a good joke.
Alex stood hastily and stepped back. It sounded as if there were several people behind the bushes and he mentally kicked himself for coming here at all. Alex spun around, his feet swivelling easily in the mud, then he was running and to his swift amazement, he was moving faster and smoother than he had ever done before, speeding back past the nettle bushes, the shopping trolleys and out to the railway bridge – just around the bend would be his home, safe, with a door that locked and curtains to block out the threat.
He sprinted on feet that barely touched the ground. This time there was no shortness of breath, drenching sweat and pounding in his head; this time, he practically flew and it was effortless and exhilarating, even though he could still hear the cruel laughter behind him slowly disappearing into the distance.
The door slammed shut with the force of his body falling heavily against it from the inside. Alex looked down at himself with confusion and feeling a new wave of boneless exhaustion, he moved to the only mirror in the flat – inside the bathroom. His reflection showed one significant change – he had a massive grin on his face.
It was three o'clock in the morning when Alex drew back his heavy curtains and surveyed the deserted street outside. He pulled on his dark sweatshirt, lowered his hood, partly obscuring a happier face. The click of the door latch sounded deafening in the quiet, the pad of his old trainers on the tiled front path, a repetitive roar.
He had to run again; to see if what had happened earlier was some fight or flight mad survival thing, or if he was really that swift now. It didn't add up in his head, he knew instinctively that people didn't change that suddenly, but this was too good an opportunity to pass up. He tested his gait, jogged on the spot rapidly for a few moments and even as he tried to stay in one place, his feet began to carry him forward, down the street in the opposite direction of the cycle path and further into the residential area.
The soaring sense of freedom lifted Alex, propelling him faster and faster, moving with amazing speed towards the school that he had left a decade ago; he rarely journeyed past that place, he could still hear the echoes of the bullies calling out ‘fatso' and ‘mammoth' to him. He could still see the blank indifferent faces of the teachers there. He would never have children of his own – it was a promise he had made a long time ago. Besides what woman would ever look at him?
- If you weren't so fat, people wouldn't tease you.
Alex shook his head and rounded a corner; as if the mere movement would dislodge the advice his disappointed parents had given him. Suddenly directly in his path were a couple and they both flew into his vision as Alex willed himself to stop in his speeding tracks.
“Oh, hello. It's you from the other night isn't it?” The peculiar woman from the cycle path was with another man who looked at Alex with undisguised disdain.
“You're out late. Out for a walk are you?” he enquired, already itching to get going again.
“Yes, we're just enjoying the quiet. It's so crowded round here. But how about you - are you alright?” The woman smiled kindly.
Alex nodded in response, noting the almost blue tint of the woman's ebony skin. Her partner, currently sneering with displeasure was pale, sickly looking and obviously annoyed. A spark of knowledge flared within Alex; he knew this man, had gone to the same school, but in different years. He couldn't remember his name, but he knew that the man in front of him had made his life a misery until he had left a year before Alex had.
“Where did you meet this one Yolanda?” he turned to address the woman. “How long have you known this tub of lard? Is he another one from the chemical plant?”
Yolanda raised her hand and the man snapped his mouth shut.
“Hush. There's no need for any of this,” she said softly reaching the same hand out to stroke her partner's face affectionately.
Alex was beginning to feel like a voyeur and looked down, embarrassed at the intimacy of the couple.
“We just live around the corner. Will you come back? It won't be any bother.”
“No, no thanks,” Alex tripped over the words as he began to move past the couple. “Maybe another time,” he smiled, breaking into a trot.
The magical speed had dissipated, leaving behind only a tired man who struggled to carry on further from the couple. He turned around briefly and they were gone. Then as his thoughts began to settle down into working out why his speed wouldn't last, he heard a sound; like a cough or a bark, but it was human. The sound carried over to him once more and this time, he knew what it was. Laughter, loud and cutting bellowed out behind him and Alex ran slowly, his energy leeching out of him as quickly as it had come. He panted and pushed himself on, around the block, gasping, heading back to his home with his heart in his mouth. He neared the bottom of his street, could see his flat on the ground floor from here, as he fished in his baggy pockets for his keys.
A firm grip on the back of his neck caught him as he paused, holding his door keys in shaking hands and everything tumbled, spinning into blackness.
The sound of an argument brought Alex out of his enforced slumber.
“You said I was the only one. Have you slept with him yet? Have you?”
“You were my first since coming to this place. You'll always have a special place David, but that one is superior – big, warm, soft and so furry,” she purred, rolling the r's. He'll be a fine father. Look at how he responded to my venom – it almost killed you, but with Alex,” she walked over to the bound man, her blurred features coalesced into a solid form in front of his sore eyes. “With Alex, it brought him back to life.”
Alex blinked with confusion and then strained to sit straight with difficulty; his hands were crudely tied behind his back and when Yolanda realised, she reached over and politely helped him to sit up against the sticky wall.
“We've already got Dr Willis, he's almost due. We don't need anyone else. Why do you want that fat git messing things up? Yolanda are you listening to me? Yolanda?”
Alex's gaze moved past Yolanda and he focused on the far wall; in a corner lay a mound of fibrous grey plaster or cement, with large cracks marring the surface. He spied a hand protruding from the mound and followed the outline around to the half concealed face of an elderly man, with unmoving vacant eyes. As if he felt Alex's gaze upon him, he jerked up, blinked and cried out.
“You can stop this Yolanda, dear god, don't do it,” the man broke off his pleas and began grunting and puffing, stifling his noise further; a look of pain punctuating his face with short bursts.
Alex struggled madly, vainly against the wall, scuttling away from the surreal scene and finally managing to free his bound hands in the exertion.
“You're mad, all of you are mad!” he repeated, backing sideways into a corner.
Yolanda looked down at Alex with amusement and turned back to David, a new sharp look in her eyes.
“You don't get to make demands David. You are a persecuting brute who doesn't deserve anything else from me,” she said lowly, advancing towards the doctor. “Except this,” she finished, punching her long slender arm through the grey cocoon on the floor.
What remained of Dr Willis convulsed violently, thrashing, splitting open and tearing apart with force. Long spewing jets of viscous crimson matter blasted against Yolanda, the walls, the ceiling and then the doctor fell still, as a what seemed to be a body of dark smoke rose up, moving and curling in the air like a small black cloud. Alex's eyes continued to focus on the phenomena as it floated with haste towards him. As it grew nearer, he could see that this was no cloud, nor was it smoke; there were a thousand smaller objects that created the illusion. There were dark furry creatures imbedded within, blurred in their flight into one heaving flying mass. They rushed like a twisting tornado to his shaking quivering form and then they turned, suddenly retreating back in an arc to David instead. They swarmed over the thrashing frenzied man, devouring and destroying him as he tried to flee. His flesh, his bones, even his desperate cries were swallowed whole by the creatures and the only sound that remained was the quick urgent breaths dying in Alex's throat. And then the cloud of life broke apart and scattered, falling to the ground in soft graceful progressions, until a flowing black carpet swayed at his feet for a bare moment before they were gone, disappearing through fissures in the walls, gaps in the floorboards, under the door and out of the cracked window.
Alex heaved on nothing, groaning and doubling up against the wall, his stomach clutching wildly. With a long borne instinct, he felt his fingers extend and rise to his mouth; he had to throw-up, had to remove the awful realisation of what had happened from his mind and this was the only way he could think of achieving it.
The fingers that touched his lips however, were not his own; these were the colour of forbidden chocolate and molasses and syrup and every other sweet gooey substance that he could think of. They tasted so good and the surge of longing inside him calmed the rising bile, softened him to stillness. A gentle hand on his shoulder, that his body welcomed, rubbed in circular motions and he felt himself, insanely begin to relax into the stroke.
“You'll make a great father. I can see the kids now; not like the last batch. These will all be strong chubby and beautifully fat.”
Yolanda snaked out her hands once more, running her digits through his brown hair. “Your plump fleshy sweetness will nourish a whole brood of strapping juicy children. I can hardly wait Alex,” she whispered with eyes that reflected his own startled face.
Alex stared at Yolanda and through the impossible fear, terror and dread, he slowly stopped trembling, breathing out a long slow breath. He smiled a small hesitant smile and she pressed forwards, kissed him, gently, cautiously and then with more confidence, murmuring with plush satisfaction.
Alex looked up, through the dark web of Yolanda's hair, up to the ceiling of the splattered basement, listening with waning interest as the gurgled screams and terrified cries of the people in the streets outside, rang out all around.