The sky was greying but the wind was calm. It was approximately 4pm as Mike Rustman wandered aimlessly down the almost silent street, Minding His Own Business and thinking about Big Fat Nothing. It was what he did best. Although he knew it was not only a little odd but also rather stupid, he was still quite proud of this unnecessary skill. His weak mind held no knowledge at these moments, and this nothingness was lightly glazed over with a thin, but nonetheless strong, relief. However, wandering aimlessly did have its faults, and Mike tripped over the kerb. This slight unexpected movement seemed to kickstart his mind again, and he cursed under his breath as
his thoughts came back to him. He thought of what his mother would say if she heard the profanities he was muttering, and laughed - a jerky, almost malicious laugh. Like... who was the character who laughed like that? The Joker. That was it. The Joker.
He continued on his totally random stroll, and realised with a start that he was on Westwood Street. Westwood Street was, in fact his favourite street in the whole city, and, although he knew it was pretty abnormal to have a favourite street, the corners of his mouth twitched slightly, then broke into a full, broad smile. His eyes hungrily scanned the shops, as if to check none had changed or closed down during the last hour or so that he had been away. It was, thankfully, the same.
Westwood Street was, to any sane or untainted person, just like anywhere else. There were precisely eighty-eight shops there, and there was approximately one charity shop to every two conventional shops. This was the reason Mike was drawn to this particular side of town - he, like many other people, cherished the bargains that were often hidden in these shops, and, also like many other people, usually kidded himself that the actual reason he liked them was because by purchasing even one item, he was 'doing his bit'. He never seemed to mention the price tag. What he didn't like so much, also similarly to many others, was
the unpleasant smell and stale bubble-like atmosphere that always seemed to enclose a charity shop. This was the reason he now went to car boot sales often, instead of taking a trip into town.
Mike halted. There was a single still moment, silent excpt for Mike's lonely thoughts, and the grubby sign above the shop window directly to the right of him, which screamed 'British Heart Foundation'. The shop itself was closed. After all, it was half past nine. He guessed it would have been shut for at least three hours. The logic that was barely present in his mind
it was closed
told him to go home, but first he had to see, to check something. It wouldn't take long, but was extremely important - more important, in fact, than anything that ever was or surely that would ever come in his life - although he didn't know it yet.
Careful to place each foot on exactly the same paving slabs that he had just walked on, Mike moved steadily and accurately backwards. He seemed neither to gain nor lose any speed at all. He moved with ease whilst doing something that would prove difficult for anyone else, like a gymnast moves on a balance beam. Precision, he thought over the haze, is the key. That, and structure. Otherwise the plan would fail.
Do you want the plan to fail?
He inhaled at a deliberately sluggish speed, then exhaled even slower. Big Fat Nothing clouded over his mind, then floated away - he was concentrating too much on repositioning his feet to even try to catch it. He almost let his past slip in, then stopped moving for just enough time to shove it back out again. That happened to be about a quarter of a second - quite impressive to say the least as it often took him several minutes to push his memories away. But he still battled them, because he was terrified that, if he didn't, they would get stronger and stronger until they burst through his brain and swallowed him whole and he would be engulfed in them forever. He often thought that, then decided he must be crazy, or at least have some mental deformity that made things like that occur to him, but, considering the terrors that he had experienced in even just the past few years, maybe it was sensible to never let himself recollect his memories. In fact, he decided, of course it was sensible. In fact, he decided even further, it was important. He had to organise his mind in an orderly fashion. Otherwise the plan would fail.
Do you want the plan to fail?
When he was precisely one step away from the kerb he had tripped over, Mike stood still. Too still. At the same time, however, his mind was whirring, the cogs inside turning, turning, halting, working.
Rewind. Rewind. Stop. Play.
Now he was at the right place. Exactly?
He smiled, a small, strong smile, then thought of
how messed up his life was and almost cried. The almost crying descended into a deep Big Fat Nothing, and his mouth formed a perfect straight line.
He tilted his head so that he was facing the shop to the right of him. When he was sure he was at the right place, he rotated the rest of his body to match. The name of this shop clearly read 'N ws gen s', and it took Mike roughly three second to realise that several letters were missing, and that he was looking at a battered, decrepid newsagents. It was somewhat socially crippled in comparison with other newsagents - even the ones on Westwood Street, but was still fully functioning - the faded postcards and torn 'A Mars a Day...' advertisement were telling evidence that civilisation could still be reached inside. A dirty, but once blue and white canopy drooped steeply over Mike's head, and he glared sullenly at it, but it did not go away. Without warning, he felt ill. Really ill. A sharp pain
screamed inside his head and for a second he felt like his skull would crack, no, shatter under the pressure.
He panted for what seemed like several minutes, but less and less hoarsely each time, and as his breathing slowed, the pain subsided. What was left was
you guessed it
don't you get it
Big Fat Nothing. His world stopped and he blacked out.
It wasn't funny anymore.
When Mike Rustman woke up, so did the world. It was about eight o'clock the next morning, and there were several people on Westwood St - this was a quite impressive amount considering the side of town it was on. As reality swam into sharp focus, Mike remembered the night before - how he had taken a few steps too far from his unknown destination, how he had been sickened at the idea of turning back, how his brain had sizzled and screamed inside his head. No-one had helped him, he realised almost sadly, and at least a few people must have seen him during the course of the evening, night and morning. Then he sawthe gin bottle lying broken next to him. His arm was even stretched out towards it, and although he knew that he hadn't been drinking, others didn't, and that, he thought, must have been the reason for everyone walking past without taking a second glance. In fact, if it would have been him wandering past, he wouldn't have done anything, at least not before consulting his list of rules.
rule number 3. never assist anyone who has digested alchohol and/=or any illegal substances
Nope, he wouldn't have done anything.
He didn't hurt, but a slimy and numbness clung to his insides like damp to a wall. The numbness felt rather comforting, but
if only it were a bit drier
he knew that he had to get up sometime. There was no point dragging out the process. Now that wouldn't be very organised, would it?
Moving just one arm, and very slightly too, brought him out of the numbness with a sudden jerk. For just a moment, he felt as if organs were going to come out of his mouth, and he was forced to swallow a whole mouthful of vomit. It tasted strongly of carrots, and he remembered the day. Monday. He had had a Sunday roast yesterday - it was the vegetables from then that were now threatening to emerge. But, as always, the feeling passed, and Mike exhaled.
He felt like a military leader, preparing for battle.
He was going to succeed.
Teeth gritted together as he concentrated, Mike moved a crooked arm inwards, towards the small of his back. It didn't hurt, he thought with a complete, pristine surprise. One of his eyebrows raised itself comically
to form a perfect arch,
but he wasn't laughing. He straightened out his other arm, then pulled it quickly and efficiently to match the other one, but this time on his left hand side, instead of his right. Without warning, a sharp
but slight pain shot up to his elbow, and his whole body flinched, but as he peered down at the affected area, he realised with an almost excited relief that the discomfort was merely caused by a small piece of gravel, that had somehow wedged itself into the wrinkles of his straightened elbow. He shook it out then glared at the ground where it lay, half expecting it to roll away sulkily. It didn't. The feeling of irony entered, uninvited, into his mind and he wasn't sure why. He shook that out in the same way that he had ridded himself of the pebble. Now, where was he? Oh yes. Halfway through getting up. Gosh, he was not on form today. He thought carefully about which limb he should move next.
He gulped then heard himself gulping several seconds later. There was a ringing in his ears and he shook his head quickly, like a horse would shake flies away from its face. He blinked, once. twice, three times. All the while he was thinking of Big Fat Nothing. He sighed without knowing it, and his mind
it was closed
drew back into focus. He noticed everything again - the gin bottle, the 'N ws gen s' and the ever so kind members of the public who hadn't helped him in the slightest way. Now for the plunge, he thought. Although it wasn't a plunge at all - in fact, in was the exact opposite. He was going to attempt to stand up.
He was going to succeed.
In one swift but still almost mechanical movement, Mike pulled his body sharply upwards. A strong stinging sensation flooded into him and he winced. He let a tiny but slick piece of his past slip in under the door of his mind. He remembered sitting patiently in the doctors office, when he was only a small boy - not more than eight or nine years old - waiting for her to wash out some equipment. She had been stood at the sink, facing away from him. When she had turned around she had be brandishing what he had thought of as a weapon. It's long, gruesome spike had glinted menacingly in the sickly sunlight that was pouring through the open window. Oh god, he had thought, she's going to kill me. She's going to kill me and then chop me up and distribute pieces of my body to different schools all over the country and the students are going to poke and prod at them, so much so that when they have finished with me all i shall be is a few mangled bits. Oh god. Mike had recently dissected his first animal - a frog. It was quite a small frog - alot small than he had expected. In his then naive and unopened mind he had assessed the different possibilities and had decided on one - that each animal they would dissect would be bigger than the last. It was, of course, inevitable that someday the class's task would be to dissect a human being. Or at least a piece of one. Child Mike glared at the weapon in the same way that adult Mike had glared at the shop canopy and the gravel. It, like the other two, did not go away. Fear had galloped into Mike's throat and he had let out a strong wail. It was, by any standards, a very long wail, and by the time he had finished yelling and assembled his mouth into a perfectly straight line
the nurse was standing right in front of him smiling and now holding a small piece of tissue to his arm.
"There," she had smiled, "all done."
That was Mike's first proper injection.
Mike looked down, surprised. He was now stood totally erect. Pleased to find that he didn't hurt nearly as much as he thought he would, he tensed and relaxed every muscle that he could possibly think of. He did this in a inhuman, almost robot-like fashion.
Mike turned as sharply as scissors and marched down Westwood Street towards his house.
It was Tuesday. The sky was a blank canvas of utter serenity and the sun was clouded over by an incessant but almost beautiful mist. It was valentines day but modern times had gradually blurred the celebration's meaning and it was sexuality not romance that now clammed up the otherwise pure air. Carla Stevenson fixed her piercing, light blue eyes on the computer screen in front of her. Pressing the space key on the keyboard, she fought back the sobs that were threatening to escape and run down her soft, untarnished skin. She glanced back up at the screen, then almost did a double take when she realised exactly what she had just typed. The word 'SADNESS' was staring back at her, unblinking, unaware of her reaction. Carla panicked, trying to kid herself that someone else had typed the word, that she was fine, that she was happy. She failed. In one swift movement, Carla pressed the 'off' button.
She could see her reflection in the screen. A cold, real-life pottery doll, with a pale comlexion, long dark hair and a stiff expression. What she longed for the most was personality - but it seemed that was the one thing she also could never have. Her heart was overgrown with moss and weeds by now and the part of her brain that referred to comedy was still inside a box marked 'this way up'. Only it was upside down. She glanced self-conciously over her shoulder, worried that someone may have noticed her silent breakdown. They hadn't. Arching her back as if she was stretching lazily, Carla smiled bitterly then carried on typing.
'Good times', she thought, 'Good times'.
The sudden, smart rap of the door opening and consequently hitting the wall seemed to summon an abnormally awed silence from everybody in the room. Carla flinched, then nervously peered up from her work cubicle - a small, unfriendly work space that was unbelievably grey and disinfected of anything that even dared to mention fun. The door had been opened by her boss, Mr Hownslow. However, unusually, it wasn't him that had caused this still moment. It was the man behind him. Very tall and somehow sharp and jagged, this man's skeletal frame looked like it belonged in a hospital gown, not a work suit. His sallow, wishy-washy skin was so shiny it appeared to be laminated, and his short, neatly arranged hair was an opaque brown and extremely shiny, to the point of which the light reflected off his crown. A thin moustache peeped out from underneath his rather pointed nose.
"This," Mr Hounslow stated flatly, "is Mike Rustman."
That was the end of that.
On Valentines day 2008, Mike Rustman began his new job. He had been pleasantly surprised when he got the phone call informing him that the job was his if he wanted it. The application and interviewing process had been more than three months previously, and after a few weeks, Mike had just assumed that someone else had got the job. But, as Mr Hounslow had explained over the phone, the delay had been because his house had been flooded. This was not what Mike had expected, but Mr Hounslow had gone on to tell him that his contact details had been presumed to be unattainable - but they had been found and consequently he had been called. Mike was pleased. This was part of his plan to become independant. For the past few moths, Mike had been living on benefits, and he detested it. Relying on the government to pay his way filled Mike with a kind of self loathing that he wondered if anyone else felt - a sick feeling that he was a rusty cog in the works of the huge machine that was Great Britain. As soon as he put the phone back on its stand, Mike breathed a sigh of relief.
Good riddance, he thought, as he resumed the day's primary task of cleaning his small semi from top to bottom.
Mike began his new job the very next Monday. He arrived at the insurance office at exactly four minutes to nine - the time he had planned to. Climbing the many incessant stairs up to his floor six would take precisely two minutes, he had calculated, and then there would be another two minute leeway in case the clock in this building differed from his watch. Mike had planned his timing the night before; he had slipped into the office block just as most of the employees were leaving, armed with a stopwatch and a small notepad that he had purchased from the £1 store during the day. Mike had climbed the stairs no less than thrice, recording how long it had taken him when he reached the top, then worked out an accurate mean of the three results. Then Mike had headed home via Westwood Street, made himself a drink, and descended into a deep, hot chocolate induced sleep. The last words he uttered before lowering his eyelids made him smile a small, calculated smile.
Precision, he muttered more in his mind than out loud, Structure.
Carla Stevenson had been intrigued and also a little intimidated by the man that settled into one of her neighbouring cubicles. He appeared to know what he was doing - perhaps more than she, and she had been slaving away at her computer for no less than four years. Every chance she got, Carla would peer over her monitor at him, just to catch a glimpse of his expertly shaped hands, which careered around the keyboard as if they knew it back to front and upside down. They probably did - he had obviously been on some sort of typists course, anyway.
It was at least three days before Carla noticed anything else about Mike - his hands had held her curiosity for all that time and still she was not tired of them. However, Friday was the day Mike introduced himself, so Carla was forced to acknowledge at least his face. She actually found him rather good looking, and decided that noticing the whole of him did not pain her; in fact, she found herself quite enjoying their shared encounter. What scared her a little though, was that Mike appeared to be perfect - not in the ridiculous way that she had heard people describe their lovers, but in a truthful and almost exact way. Not one of his hairs was out of place, his skin was clean and unblemished and the shirt and trousers that he wore always seemed to fit him so... correctly, as if his clothing had been measured to the millimetre to fit him. Carla often found herself searching for a flaw in his appearance - only when she had searched at least eight times and found none did she look up the word 'perfect' in the dictionary. She scanned through the alphabet and then through the 'P's until she discovered what she was looking for.
1. Lacking nothing essential to the whole; complete of its nature or kind.
2. Being without defect or blemish.
3. Thoroughly skilled or talented in a certain field or area; proficient.
4. Completely suited for a particular purpose or situation.
5. Complete; thorough; utter.
6. Pure; undiluted; unmixed.
Carla scribbled all of these down on the notepad she had acquired from the £1 store the day before. She didn't really know why she did it, but it gave her a release from the mounting pile of work on her desk, and also gave her something to strive for. Perfection. Somewhere long ago, perhaps sometime in her childhood, Carla had been told never to aim for perfection, as nobody had ever accomplished it and nobody ever would. Well, Carla had proved that wrong by observing Mike Rustman. She wondered what else she had believed that she shouldn't, and cringed. Carla had been manipulated as a child, and moulded into what she was now. All that needed to change.
Carla Stevenson snapped her notebook shut and lifted the first sheet of paperwork off her desk.
I can't, I can't scream anymore... hands, just hands, clutching at his throat, seeming not only to cut off his windpipe but to rip the air from it, grasping tighter, tighter, keeping the vomit that was threatening to emerge from doing so... forcing him to retch and choke - a rabbit squirming in the mouth of a rottweiler. No, no, I can't do it, I can't survive, not with the greying, the blacking, the... Big Fat Nothing.
Mike awoke to find his own sallow fingers enveloped in a mechanical grip around his gullet. It took him a moment to realise they were there - he had thought his dream was just refusing to end. When Mike did eventually peel his fingers from his throbbing throat, they were saturated in hot, foul smelling sweat... and blood. The scream that almost escaped from his lips only reminded him of the nightmare once more, and he made a mental note to somehow secure his wrists together before ever allowing himself to descend into sleep again. Mike was afraid - something he saw as a terrible weakness. He took himself to the bathroom and methodically washed his hands and neck.
It was the 8th March, and Mike had been working at the insurance company for almost a month. He frequently silently commended himself for managing to keep this job - it was the first he had stayed at for this long in a while. It was the computers that did it. They fascinated him - every part of them captivated his mind. They were logical, and could rationally and simply do things no man could even attempt. They were in a way perfect, as they were never wrong - that was one way in which humans could never achieve perfection. They had minds that were often unbelievably wide of the mark - Mike saw people's brains in the same way as he saw a bowling alley; a central area, and two strips down the sides that were incorrect and pointless. The ball could fall down these strips at any time, and then would be lost altogether. He actually thought about this alot, and wondered if scientists would ever be able to just tear those parts right off. He hoped so.
At precisely four minutes to nine Mike was located at the foot of the office stairs, as per usual. There were employees surrounding him at all sides - he was caught in the crush, one might say. Although most people seemed to be chatting eagerly to each other, not one person greeted Mike as he arrived. At first he hadn't noticed this - and even if he had he wouldn't have been bothered, as no-one here had had a chance to get to know him - but it had been over three weeks, and Mike did notice. Ignorance was just plain rude, he decided, and there was no excuse for it. Consequently he elbowed his way up the stairs rather forcefully, significantly harming several people's various body parts on his way. The grumbles that followed satisfied Mike greatly.
Carla sat. Bored. And Tired. And Bored. And Tired. Last night had been a late one for her - a drunken stumble round the clubs with her sister then a severe fall come passing out on her kitchen floor. She didn't make a habit of drinking; possibly because her step-father had been a borderline alcoholic, possibly because she had never been very good at it. Remaining composed whilst completely smashed was a talent she had a great respect for, because she certainly couldn't keep rational - not even after just a couple of beers. When Carla was in her mid-teens she had had a disgusting one night stand after a party, which had put her off the idea of alcohol altogether. The night before she had had to be practically dragged out of her house before she even agreed to go out.
Now she wished she had put up more of a fight. There was a whole herd of elephants stomping noisily in her head and she could still feel the heavy alcohol sloshing around in her stomach, ruining as much of her insides as possible. The bags under her eyes were big enough to support a full supermarkets worth of shopping and her hair was lank and smelt strongly of some stranger's vomit. All this contributed to the fact that Carla was not in a particularly good mood. She couldn't even manage a smile when Mike Rustman marched through the door, mirroring perfection as usual. He smiled at her, a small, contradicting smile - contradicting because it was both shy and quietly confident at the same time.
Carla waited for Mike to move past her cubicle and settle himself into his before she sighed. No matter how tired she was and how ill she felt, she wasn't a rude person, and after all, Mike was potential boyfriend material. He wasn't sexually attractive to her, but she was working on that. It was his presence that made her feel... something, a mixture of curiosity, fascination and wonder. She also felt an almost motherly need to change him somehow, because he scared her as he was - his perfection terrified her. Although it was hard for Carla to even admit this to herself, she felt she needed proof that he was even human. Having Mike around made her feel clumsy and awkward – he made her feel bad that her life was imperfect. To the outside world her lifestyle probably seemed very good - she had a career, a flat of her own and family nearby. But to her her life was too… stable. It lacked excitement and passion. She felt completely predictable and far too conventional. All she had was... precision. And structure. As Mike passed her, she thought of those two words at exactly the same time he did.
Both Mike and Carla felt something at that moment - an uncomfortable and embarrassing feeling commonly known as a crush. Carla was almost relieved that the part of her brain that triggered these feelings still worked - it had not been used in a long time. In the calm intensity of the moment she opened her mouth, and eight awkward little words tumbled out.
"Do you want to go out after work?"
As soon as the sentence had left her lips, Carla regretted it. She hadn't been out on a date in over a year, and if she was honest, she didn't quite know how to act on one. The thought of going out with a man she would have to see again scared her, and that it was also with a man as intimidating and mysterious as Mike Rustman was terrifying up to the point of ludicrousy. Knowing that her fear was irrational didn't sway Carla at all, and the silence between her proposal and Mike's reply seemed like hours.
"Yes, that would be nice. We could go to the new chinese restaraunt on Houghton Road... if you like chinese food, of course."
Damn it! She couldn't get out of it now - he had seemed rather excited about their fact, it was the most that Carla had ever heard Mike say at once. She cursed under her breath before giving Mike the widest smile she could manage, under the circumstances.
"Yes, that would be great. I love chinese food."
Mike Rustman nodded smartly, turned at an exact right angle and marched on towards his cubicle.