The bakelite phone on my nightstand gives off a half-hearted jangle, as if it’s decided for itself that this is a wrong number, but I’m across the room and have the handset pressed to the side of my head before it can ring again. “Katie!” I cry, but there’s no response, just a sound like a Scotsman playing Loch Lomond on a set of bagpipes. Maybe I can’t hear her, but she can hear me. “Katie,” I say again. Still no response. Now there’s not even bagpipes, just static. One final time I say the name of the only person in the world who has the number for this phone. But now there’s nothing. Not even static.
I lower the handset on to its base and slump back across the room to my unfinished game of solitaire, but as I pass the window I catch a flash of red from the the street below. I duck behind the curtain just as a Santa Claus steps out from the deep shadows under the railway trestle, and into the glare of the late summer sunshine. A blob of jolly vermillion against the monochrome of Celestial Avenue. Santa lowers his sack to the ground, opens it, and draws out a long samurai sword. Somebody must have been very naughty indeed, and that somebody is almost certainly me.
God! Wednesday! I should have guessed. I was born on a Wednesday, I did the stupid thing I can’t even talk about on a Wednesday, and according to statistics I will probably die on a Wednesday. I should be afraid, but I’m not. I’m just tired. Very, very tired. I’ve been expecting him for so long it’s almost a relief that he’s finally showed up.
I slide the deck of cards off the nightstand, and turn over the top one. The one-eyed Jack of Spades. Big surprise. Who could have seen that one coming. Oddly enough I can use it. I place it below the Queen of Hearts and go back to my lookout spot at the window.
The Santa outside is a very realistic-looking Santa, I’ll give him that. He even looks a little crest-fallen, like a mall Santa who’s just been fired––apart from the sword, of course. He holds his weapon out straight in front of him with both hands, then executes a series of cuts and thrusts that look to be well rehearsed.
I have to give him credit for finding me so quickly. I wonder how he did it, but then on the other hand it’s difficult to be inconspicuous when you’re six foot seven and have no face.
It is possible that this Santa might not be who I think he is. He might really be just your everyday harmless disgruntled mall-Santa with a samurai sword, but it makes no difference. It’s a Wednesday after all.
But I’d be kidding myself if I thought that he isn’t who I think he is. There is no way in any version of reality that he could not be who he so obviously is.
Halfway through one sword swing Santa stops, and sweeps the weapon back into the sack. A couple of boys saunter past, the bigger of the two dragging a reluctant doberman on a chain. Dobermans are always reluctant. Maybe I should have got a doberman for protection, but then what help would a doberman be against a fake mall-santa with a sword? The boys look almost identical, although that could just be because they both have the kind of haircuts kids get when they have lice.
“Ho, ho, ho,” says Santa. The dog snarls, the boys give him a wide berth, and they all pass without looking at him. It’s hardly surprising. The Christmases of boys like these probably consist of shitty presents, their parents getting drunk and beating them, and finally getting sober and beating each other. Christmases could be worse. They could be a lot worse, but these boys don’t know that.
Once they’re out of sight I expect Santa to take out his katana again, and pick up his exercises where he left off, but he doesn’t. He looks directly up at my window. I flinch back behind the curtain, but I’m probably too slow. Not that it really matters. He knows exactly where I am. It would be impossible that he could have found out I’d cut and run to the Gibson Valley, more specifically to Ephraim Falls, and even more specifically to Celestial Avenue, without knowing I was holed up in the disused railway station signal box.
Now I stare down at the sliver of Celestial Avenue I can see from behind the curtain, not daring to peep out at Santa again, and finally the fear creeps in, but it’s only about the same amount of fear I used to feel when there was a moth in my bedroom, back when I was a kid. If I could see the moth I was very afraid. If I couldn’t see the moth, but I knew where it was, then I could live with the fear. I know that Santa is just out of sight behind the curtain, gazing up at my window, the seasoned samurai with all the time in the world, but as long as I know exactly where he is then I’m not especially afraid of him.
What’s more, he’s not a very professional assassin. If it was me, and I wanted to sneak up on someone unnoticed, I wouldn’t choose to disguise myself in a Santa costume in August. But that’s me. Perhaps hiding and pouncing is not his style. Perhaps likes to approach in full view of his prey, and paralyze with fear.
Or perhaps he’s a totally crap hit-man.
Yup. It’s August. Summer is almost over, and Flinders Comprehensive School will be open for business. At this very moment Mr. Ballinger will be waddling back forth at the front of the biology lab, complaining about his type two diabetes, and offering us his quaint simplifications of existence. “The air goes in and out. The blood goes round and round.” He will subdue his rotating chair, clamber onto it, and point at the class with his red marker. “That’s all there is to it at the end of the day, my friends. If the air stops going in and out, or the blood stops going round and round, then you have a problem.”
Bee will argue with him, because she’s a lifeguard, and knows CPR inside out, or thinks she does. Asher will ask some irrelevant question because he has Aspbergers, or thinks he does. Shirley will rattle off some technical jargon such as ‘ventricular tachycardia,’ because she already has the entire textbook on flashcards, which in turn is because she thinks she’s dumber than everyone else, but isn’t. Istvan will be rubbing his balloon-like biceps, thinking about the salad his mom packed for his lunch, and wondering when he can sneak his next cheeseburger. Ray, Steve, and Angelica will be contemplating their next cigarettes.
All of them will be dreaming about becoming paramedics, and nurses, and maybe even doctors. Fantasies about the lives they were going to be saving over the coming decades. Except for me. If the situation arose I would be more than happy to save a life or two, but I was only in ‘Anatomy and Physiology for High Schoolers’ because of my goal of spending as many of my waking hours as possible with Katie Snow, and to be fair, we’d done a very thorough study of each other’s anatomy.
All of them will be wondering where I am. Med-nerds aren’t just good people. They are the best people, and Katie is the best of the best. There can’t be a nicer person on the planet than Katie. As for me, I was a bit of an impostor in the class. I’m not good people. I’m not even fair-to-middling people. I’m bad people. And Katie––bless her––knew that, and still she was devoted to me. She once told me we’d be buried next to each other when we died. “Together for ever,” that’s what the tombstone would read. I didn’t think I’d be dying quite so soon. Now, when Katie’s time to up and die comes, hopefully in about a hundred years from now, she’s not going to have the faintest idea if I’m alive or dead, let alone where I’m buried. Come to think of it, that samurai sword looked pretty sharp. I’m not sure that all of me will even be buried in the same place.
I wish I could go back for a few minutes and tell them it’s all okay, because good people have enough to worry about without having to worry about me.
Yup. Good people worry. I hate when I hear someone say something like, “Stop worrying. You’ll worry yourself to an early grave.” My response is, “Fuck you. They’re worrying because they’re good people.”
On the other hand, bad people worry too, and here I am on the brink of an early grave––and a shallow one too, probably––so maybe they have a point after all. I don’t want the Med-nerds to worry about me though. I should make a sprint for the airport, and buy a plane ticket, so I can tell them it’s all as it should be. But they’d never let me on the plane. You need a face to board a plane and I don’t have a face.
Yup. I do not have a face. You know that game where you have to say whether you’d prefer to loose an arm or a leg? Why do they never include losing your face? I’d much rather have lost an arm or a leg than my face. Let me be more specific. I have eyes, ears, a mouth, and some of a nose. I don’t have cheeks, a chin, lips, eyelids, or pinnae (pinnae are the outside part of the ear. Anatomy classes can sometimes be useful).
A deep rumble fractures the stillness of Celestial Avenue. It starts almost inside me, then spreads across my room, and builds in volume until the shafts of light that cross my ceiling ripple and fragment as if they’re spreading across a swimming pool.
It’s seven AM. Nobody uses this signal box any more, but trains still stop here twice a day. One at seven in the morning, and one at seven in the evening. The train stops, and I draw back the curtain a couple of inches. If Santa is still in the same spot under the railway arch, then while the train in the station, he will not be able to see my window. I can’t see him either, and if I can’t see him he becomes like one of the moths from my childhood, and I can pretend he’s not there for a moment. As usual nobody gets on or off the train. My floor shakes. The train eases out of the station, and Santa Claus is gone. If I could see the moth, then I was afraid. If I couldn’t see the moth, but knew where it was, then I wasn’t afraid. But the worst fear of all is when I knew it was there, but I didn’t know exactly where. My hand trembles as I draw the curtain back again.
In the days when I lived somewhere with a TV, I used to love watching gangster shows, but one of the scenes that always bothered me was the conference scene, and every gangster show that’s worth its salt always has a conference scene. The gangsters are all sitting at a long table (or maybe around a round table), while the biggest, meanest gangster holds forth about profit margins, productivity, and supply. Meanwhile the camera zooms in on the doomed gangster, the lieutenant gangster who’s been skimming from the pot. The head gangster always makes a joke, then the doomed lieutenant laughs and the head gangster laughs. They laugh louder, and louder, and louder, until finally the head gangster shoots the lieutenant dead in front of everyone. What used to puzzle me was why did the doomed gangster even go to the meeting? Why didn’t he run and hide?
Now I know. Running isn’t as easy as you’d think.
You can run if you have legs, but you can’t hide if you don’t have a face, and you’re almost seven foot tall.
There’s another scene from movies. The private detective goes into the bar, and has to hand the barman an unknowable quantity twenties for information about the fugitive. When the fugitive is six foot seven and has no face the detective doesn’t need the twenties. As soon as he walks into the bar everyone’s talking about the freakishly tall guy with no face.
Santa still has all his cash and the time in the world to lurk outside, but I don’t have all the time in the world to wait in here. I don’t just have no school to go to, and no Katie Snow. I have nothing to eat, I have nothing to drink. I don’t even have anything to do. In fact with all the doors and windows alarmed, booby-trapped, and sealed shut I barely have anything to breathe.
Then, of course, the phone rings again.