Jeffery Jenkins turned his silver BMW into the gravel driveway, switched off the engine, and sighed.
Streetlights hadn’t yet been installed on the freshly laid brick road that led to his house and the moon was new so as he killed the car’s headlights he was plunged into an oily darkness.
He sat in the soft leather seats and stared at the house—no longer a home—that gradually came into focus as his eyes adjusted. His was part of a sprawling new development and the only one currently occupied on the long cul-de-sac. It stood detached and alone, a monstrous square visage, screaming back his loneliness at him.
The November evening was still and graveyard quiet. This new suburb sat on the very outer edges of the city, far from any main roads or motorways, a long concrete tentacle slowly lashing out at the countryside.
A little further down at the end of the road were the piles of dirt and palettes of bricks that marked the site of what would be the largest house in the neighbourhood. Beyond that was a small stretch of woodland saved from the developer’s axe by a local group of conscientious citizens. The woodland then opened up on a large quilt of farmland, where Jeffery used to take his son to see the sheep and cows.
He closed his eyes and allowed himself a single short, sharp sob before forcing back the swell of emotion with a deep breath.
He pressed the remote clipped to the visor above his head which caused a loud click to emanate from the darkness, followed by a rumbling groan as the garage door yawned slowly. There was a reluctant flickering as the light came on—an oppressive, soulless light that only fluorescent strip lights are capable of. He restarted his car and pulled gingerly into the cold concrete room before turning off the engine once again.
The double garage was large and immaculately organised. A long workbench lay against the full length of the far wall and above it various tools hung from nails against their light red outlines painted on the wall behind them. To the right was a door that led into the dark house.
Jeffery pushed the button on the remote again, got out of the car and went over to the bench. Lying along it was a long rubber hose, uncoiled like a dirty orange snake, and a couple of old tea towels.
As he stood there, he took a step out of his body and looked at himself.
He was still handsome, with quick blue eyes and thick, salt and pepper hair. After Jules had left, he had found it easy to get dates but he found that they all came with too much history and it was too heavy for him to carry along with his own.
He was wearing a pair of designer suit trousers, a pale blue shirt and silver tie. The top button was undone, his tie was loose and he had a rough five o’clock shadow against his strong chin, scruffy in expensive clothes.
He let out a small humourless laugh as he took in the image—this rich, successful, good looking man with a big house, a nice car, no wife and an empty soul. The postmodern cliché, in all it’s destructive glory.
He picked up the the hose and the towels and walked to the car’s exhaust pipe.
Angie peeled her grubby, unwashed blonde hair out of her dark eyes, shifted the small backpack she carried, and ducked down behind the small porch wall at the house next door. She hugged herself tightly, nervously chewing her thumbnail as she waited for lights to go on in the house.
The car had pulled into the garage a while ago and the light still leaked from the edges of the large door but, as yet, it hadn’t spread into the house.
The wind started to pick up, blowing in gently from behind her and bringing with it a sharp cold that burrowed through her ratty wool sweater to nip at her skin. She hugged herself tighter. She already had the itch—in a few hours it would be unbearable—and to turn back empty handed now would mean another night without, a prospect too terrifying to contemplate.
She wondered how long it had been, thinking that he should have gone inside by now. Before, she would have known how much time had past. She had been good at estimating time, able to schedule the arrival at her desk with minute precision thereby maximising her mornings at home.
Now, time either compressed into a momentary bliss where hours vanished in a minute or stretched into an clawing, scraping torture, each epic second bringing with it new and seemingly infinite pain.
Suddenly, she heard a soft muffled thumping of a bass drum. She tensed up and leaned forward, listening, trying to hear it above the sound of her own throbbing pulse in her ears. It ebbed and flowed with the wind between a distinct clarity and an almost inaudible muddy hum. But it was definitely music, coming from the garage. Her breathing shallowed and quickened. She couldn’t wait any longer.
Keeping low and tight to the front wall, she scrambled across the thick chunks of mud that would one day become an impossibly green lawn where healthy children with glowing skin would play. Reaching the corner of the house, she stopped and looked around carefully. Seeing only the empty darkness, she darted across the as-yet fenceless gap that separated the houses and flattened herself against the far wall. She stood still, pasted to the bricks, listening for the reassuring thump of the music over the soft rustle of the wind.
It flowed in again and she quickly sidestepped her way around to the back of the house, giving a quick tug on the small downstairs toilet window as she passed, finding it to be disappointingly secure.
Around the corner, she felt the paving slabs under her feet and she slid along a short section of wall to the back door, crouched down and pulled out a thick pair of gardening gloves and a centre punch. She put on the gloves and pushed the centre punch against the lower corner of the top pane of glass, nearest the handle.
She paused, tilting her head to the sky.
She waited until the noise grew again and, as the thump-thump-thump grew louder, she pushed the tool against the glass and, with a deafening crash, shattered the glass and the peace of the night.
She panicked and ducked back around the corner, crouched down, back against the wall, her head glancing left and right. She tried to slow her breathing and listened.
“Shit, shit, shit,” she whispered under her rapid breath.
She readied herself to run, waiting to hear the footsteps coming to the back door.
Then, like a reassuring word from an old friend, she heard the beat return. It was faster this time. A new song.
She closed her eyes and let out a deep breath, then quickly went back to the door, reached in through the large hole the punch had made and fumbled for the lock, finding what she was looking for—the rounded end of a key sticking out of the lock like a stuck coin. A quick twist and she was inside.
With a small pocket torch she crept quickly through the kitchen, carefully opening drawers and cupboards, the refrigerator (she noted the six pack she’d grab on the way out) and freezer, the broom cupboard, looking for anything small but valuable.
Out in the hall, she checked the small entryway table but realised that the wallet and car keys would still be in the garage, where the music was still playing. It was clearer now, and she suddenly realised that she was hearing The Doors, Morrison asking about a whiskey bar.
She turned around and pushed open the door behind her, flinging the torch around like a miniature searchlight. It landed on a laptop. Bingo. She looked over it briefly, before closing its lid and expertly removing all of the external disks and peripherals. She slipped it into it’s bag that was at her feet, and hoisted it onto her shoulder along with her backpack.
Back in the hallway, the song hit its last staccato beats and in the few seconds of silence that followed, she heard a slow, distinctive rumble.
Her instincts screamed at her to go grab the beers and leave. The adrenaline was already winding its way down to her legs, urging her to start moving. The itch reminded her that she had places to be.
She closed her eyes for a second, cursed quietly to herself, then crept down the hallway, away from the kitchen and the back door and freedom and on towards the rumble. At the end, she slowly cracked opened the door.
“Fuck!” She shouted, dropping the laptop bag and her backpack and rushing to the back of Jeremy’s silver BMW which idled gently in the large bay.
She yanked the warm hose out of the exhaust pipe, then ran to the driver’s door where Jeremy was still sitting in the front seat, obvlivious. His eyes were closed, a light fog surrounding him, the high end of Manzarek’s Vox Continental meandering through Light My Fire blasting from the speakers.
She opened the driver’s door and Jeremy’s eyes flashed open like a startled rabbit. He jolted around, causing Angie to flinch step back as if he might strike her.
“What the fuck you doing?!” She shouted at him over the music, regaining control and lunging forward at him again. She leaned over and turned the key, stopping the engine and killing the noise. She crowded over him, one hand on the dashboard, another on the backrest by his head.
“I…Er…I was…” Jeremy stumbled, blinking in the sudden brightness, slightly panicked.
“You was trying to off yourself, ya prick! Why the fuck would you do that?” Shouted Angie, her ghost-like face inches from his.
“What? What are…who…?”
“I’m your fucking guardian angel, asshole.”
Jeremy felt as though he had been slapped hard by a reality that he’d thought he’d left behind. Where the longed-for peaceful silence should be was this thin, pale woman leaning over and shouting at him, with hair that stuck to her face and deep black rings around her eyes. She was close enough that he could smell the cigarettes on the breath; close enough to kiss. His eyes were barely able to focus. Suddenly he felt a blinding headache.
He closed his eyes and rubbed his temple. “Ow, my head.”
Seeing this, Angie relaxed and stood up out of the car, letting out a long breath.
“Yeah, that’s what happens.” She looked up and down the length of the car, noticing it for the first time. “Wow, this is nice. You realise these luxury German cars are shit for this, right? Between the emissions limits and the cats in ‘em, it’d have taken you all night.”
She smiled at him. “Wait here,” she said.
She ran back inside the house and Jeremy sat there for a second rubbing his eyes. He felt like he had been knocked sideways by a huge wave and sent spinning through the water, gasping, ears filled with the noise of the sea, barely able to breathe before being spat out onto the beach. He took a deep breath.
There was a click next to him.
“Drink this, you dumb shit,” said Angie, offering him a beer as she sat in the passenger seat.
He paused and looked at her for a long moment. The smile had gone, and her mouth was thin and hard. She eyed him back with narrow, distrustful eyes. She took a long swig from her bottle, without breaking his gaze.
He nodded at her and took the beer.
“I guess I should thank you,” he said, looking down at the bottle.
“Like fuck you should,” she said, setting her jaw. “All I did was bring you back to this steaming shitpile. Whatever drove you here ain’t fixed, believe me. Be surprised if you weren’t back here in a couple of days.” She took another long gulp. “Though I won’t be here next time.”
They sat in silence, staring out at the whitewashed walls with the ridiculously neat tools and anal red outlines.
“So,” he said slowly. “Why me? Seems a bit out of your way.”
“You’ve got insurance coming out of the asshole, mate. Most of the people I know just rip off each other for scraps. Not only will the shit you’ve got here sort me out for a month, you’re also insured up the ass. Everyone wins.”
“I win, do I? How’s that?”
She stretched out indecently in the front seat as she tried to wrestle a set of folded sheets from her tight jeans pocket, then slumped back into the seat, unfolded it and started reading. “You overvalued everything and your excess is, like, fifty quid,” she said after a minute of studying. “That piece of shit laptop you’ve got back there is, like, four years old which means you basically get a new Pro for fifty pounds. Shit, I’m doing you a favour.”—She swiped his shoulder with the back of her hand—“Once you use it you’ll wish I’d done it ages ago. Fucking fast as shit. Your still using those ancient spinning drives. Once you get a solid state, you’ll be all set.”
He watched her grow animated as she talked about discrete GPUs and games, die shrinks and nanometers, waving her arms around to describe the more important details. She asked him about his work, sizing him up and telling him about all the ways he could become more efficient, enthusing about all of the latest cloud software he could use to revolutionise his workflows.
He had no idea what she was talking about.
He guessed that she couldn’t be more than thirty. As she talked, he saw her hair lift, its shine returning, its volume increasing. He saw the dark rings around her eyes fade and a brightness return to them and her skin lost the pallor and started to glow.
He imagined her as a child—bright eyed, curious, confident. An infectious zest for life, a pure and fearless fascination with the world. He saw her in a room full of Lego and amateur electronics kits. He imagined what it must have been like when she first discovered the Internet.
Then he wondered what she had crashed into, or what had crashed into her; what events had occurred that she couldn’t recover from.
“How do you know all this?” He said when she finally stopped.
She narrowed her eyes at him again, instantly bringing back the dark rings and deflating her hair, the excitement gone. “What, you think I’m making it up? Why can’t I know about this shit? Think you know me, do you?”
“No. Not at all. No, I mean my insurance. How’d you know what excess I have?”
She relaxed again and slapped the paper in her hands. “Looked you up, innit? Last thing I did before those pricks fired me was print off a bunch of tasty records. Yours was at the top of the list.” She flipped over the pages and scanned them. “Dude, I coulda got you such a deal. Your premiums are in-sane. Shit, you’re like a gold star platinum super customer. You’ve even got flood coverage.” She chuckled as she looked up at him. “You realise you’re at the top of a hill, right? Must’ve had a right giggle when you added this.”
Jeremy smiled at her. “My insurance premiums haven’t been at the top of my list of concerns recently.”
“Yeah, right. ‘Course.” Said Angie quietly.
“So what happens now?” He asked.
“Well,” she smiled. “I could still really do with that laptop, you know. Got a recent backup?”
“I think there was a drive attached to it.”
“Then you’re all good. Left that there for ya. I’m not a monster,” she flashed a smile. “Get down the store tomorrow morning and you’ll be back up and running in no time and with a fucking beast of a machine. Tell you what, I’ll even wipe yours before I get rid of it. As a favour, like.”
Jeremy let out a laugh. “Yeah. Some favour. Thanks.”
“Hey, I just saved your life, fuck face.”
More silence. Angie bit her thumb nervously.
“Say, any chance of a lift?” She said finally.
“Man, you live out in the middle of fucking nowhere. Three buses it took to get here. Take me ages to get back, especially at this time of night and I could, er—“ she looked down at her shoes—“really do with getting back, you know.”
She stared at her shoes, sipping at her beer as she waited for an answer.
He floated out of the front of the car and turned and looked through the windscreen at the two of them sitting there in the front seats. He thought about the people he knew, what they’d make of them. He thought how he’d get a pass on his dishevelled appearance but that she wouldn’t. He could imagine the words and the whispers. But really, there was little difference other than she wore her pain on the outside and he just wanted his escape to be a little faster.
“Damn, we’re a right pair.” He said eventually, smiling at her.
She looked up.
“Tell you what,” he continued, “I’ll take you to get whatever you need, then we’ll stop and get a couple of nice bottles of wine and come back here. You do what you need to, we’ll open the bottles, chill out and watch a couple of films. Tomorrow I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
He nodded at her. “Least I can do.”
She nodded her thanks, then suddenly brightened up. “Hey, how about tomorrow I help you buy you a new laptop? Get you all set up.”
“Fuck yeah!” She said, breaking out into a big grin, softening her eyes. She held out her hand. “Angie.”
“Jeremy,” he said.