JAMES STRETCHED FROM under the safety of his warm quilt to switch off the alarm. As he did, his tired eyes spotted the red circle on his calendar that had spent weeks slithering toward him like a preying snake. Today it coiled around his body and crushed the life from it. Today he would digest slowly in some overactive stomach acid. Today he must leave his house.
James remained in bed and stared at the ceiling while listening to Classic FM. He contemplated having to venture outside for the first time in years. His stomach acid swirled and he couldn’t decide whether he needed to shit or vomit or both. His heart thumped several beats above the legal limit but he didn’t care about the police coming to arrest him, so long as he could stay at home.
“What are you scared of? Pussy!” said a sinister voice cutting out the music.
James whirled his head aside toward the radio and his eyes explored it at high-speed. “What the fuck,” said James as he peered closer.
“I’m in here you big baby! You’re so scared you could shit the bed.”
James did some brisk blinking and shuddering of his head; he could swear he saw the speakers appear as a set of mouths.
“You’re twenty-seven years old and you’re scared of going outside. Pussy!”
“You’re not real! Shut up! Leave me alone!” James’ mix of fear, confusion and annoyance jolted him upright.
“You’re a pussy! Grow a pair, you mooching piece of shit!”
Rage surged through James’ veins causing him to lash out and whack the radio. It plummeted to the floor with a thud. While panting and sweating, James leaned over and glared at it lying there, silent at last. “What sort of crazy shit was that?” said James, lying back down and taking heavy breaths, trying hard to persuade himself that he had dreamed it all.
His charging blood eased, along with his pounding heart. His swirling stomach acid returned to a more paced rippling. James suddenly remembered he had to be somewhere, so couldn’t stay in bed all morning. If he missed his appointment, or was late, he would be in trouble.
As he lumbered out of bed, he stubbed his foot against the fallen radio. James leaned over, picked it up and fiddled with a couple of the knobs until Classic FM returned. He wiped the sweat from his brow while he sat on the edge of the bed listening to Gruber’s “Stille Nacht”, which filled his mind with memories of how his fear of the outside had begun six years earlier.
JAMES CHECKED IN another guest at the London hotel he worked at as Night Porter and Receptionist. It was Christmas and the hotel had full occupancy because people wished to enjoy the festive season in one of the greatest cities. This meant more work for James but he didn’t mind because he relished interacting with people from all over the world.
Later into his shift, when it was quiet, James decided to go and sit in the guest lounge. The hotel was small and independently run, so the manager didn’t mind employees socialising with guests, even while on duty. In fact, he encouraged it.
An American guest called Steven was watching the television when James entered the room. As soon as Steven caught a glimpse of James, with his lean figure, dark hair and oval-shaped green eyes, he quickly forgot about the television, moved to sit next to him and started a conversation.
James revealed it was his twenty-first birthday and Steven suggested they have their own little celebration. They talked for hours until James had to prepare the dining room for breakfast. Steven went up to his room after wishing James goodnight and a happy birthday.
Within a few minutes, the switchboard rang and it was Steven. He requested James go to his room with a bottle of wine, which he couldn’t do because reception staff didn’t have access to the bar. Steven wouldn’t accept that, so went to an all-night store.
Upon his return to the hotel, Steven placed the bottle of red on the reception desk and told James to bring it up with two glasses. As it had reached 7 a.m. and his shift had ended, James accepted Steven’s command.
James knocked on Steven’s door, who opened it wearing a night robe and a broad white smile. James walked to the table and placed the wine and two glasses on it. When he turned around Steven was standing next to him naked.
“What are you doing?” asked James, as he tried to back away.
Steven pressed himself up against James and said, “This is what you want. Why else would you be here?”
“No, I just thought we could chat and drink some wine.” James’ heart accelerated, the room felt smaller and he couldn’t back away any farther.
“Now come on, James, don’t go playing all hard to get and this English rose shit!”
James scanned the room and considered ways he could get to the door fast.
“I’m tired and just want to go to sleep. Let’s carry this on later,” said James gently, hoping to appeal to Steven’s kinder side.
“No! I want to have some fun now. I want to give you your birthday treat. Come on, you know you want it as much as I do. You don’t need to play these games, you fucking cock tease!”
James recoiled from Steven’s stale whiskey breath. His heart drummed in his chest and he feared he wouldn’t get out of there. James tried to reason with Steven.
Steven grabbed James by the hair and dragged him to the bed. Memories of his child abuse paralyzed him, so he failed to fight back. Pain and shame zoomed back to James like a speeding truck. He begged Steven to let him go. Tears streamed down his face as his scalp burned under Steven’s firm grip.
Steven yanked James’ head back. “You’re going to fucking get it, you English fag!”
A jaw-crushing thump sent James flying onto the bed. His head flopped from side to side as he let out gentle moans. Sharp pains shot up his arms as Steven pinned both wrists using his knees. James retched as a pungent odour of stale fish blew up his nose and warm fluid dripped onto his lips.
“Come on, there’s a good boy, suck it for Daddy. You know you want to. You like the feel of it against your lips, don’t you? You little cock tease!”
James gagged and struggled to turn his head away but Steven yanked him back by his hair. As James yelped, Steven filled his mouth with his bulging dick. James panicked and writhed.
“Come on, James, this is shit! You can do better than this. Maybe I’ll go for the real treat. You’d like that wouldn’t you. Yeah, you fags can’t get enough cock!”
James panted hard, and feared vomiting, after the sweet release of Steven’s dick. Steven moved downwards and started to tear off James’ trousers. James ached to fight but his arms lay limp and prickled as the blood worked its way back through the thirsty veins.
“Oh God, please don’t do this,” said James as he sobbed and kicked.
“Shut the fuck up, you cock teasing fag!” Steven twisted James over onto his front and muffled his cries in the pillow.
“No! Please don’t do this. Please, I’m begging you.”
“Boy, you sure are good at this playing hard to get shit. You’re a nasty little fucker!”
TEARS RUSHED DOWN James’ face as he recalled how he left the hotel that day in a rush, returned to his hometown of Plymouth and never spoke about what had happened. Panic attacks crept into his life whenever outside or in crowds of people. Employers couldn’t tolerate his mood swings and violent outbursts. Friends faded away and his sex life became as dry as the Sahara desert.
James rubbed the tears from his soaked cheeks, rose from his bed and plodded to his closet. He pulled open the doors to reveal a well-organised space by a disorganised mind. His entire long-since-unused work shirts, trousers and suits hung neatly on the right-hand side, followed by his casual shirts, trousers and t-shirts all the way along until you reached his jackets. You wouldn’t find one wire hanger in there, either.
Above the regimented clothes lined his shoes like well-polished and well-behaved little soldiers, not a single lace was out of place. Numerous immaculate ties hung evenly from their rack.
James stretched up to the top shelf and groped for his Memory Box, which he found with ease in his well-organised closet. He enjoyed keeping items from different periods of his life but with the last six years spent imprisoned in his home he had not explored the box in a while.
He sat the box on the bed and stared at it for a moment. His stomach jumped a little and he wondered if perhaps it might be better to leave some memories unvisited.
After a deep breath, James decided to open his box of memories. He rummaged through old love letters, awards he won for swimming while at school and then he saw it crumpled under a photograph of his dead cat. It was impossible to mistake the green colour and creased image of the White House.
James stared at the twenty-dollar bill and remembered how Steven had thrown his limp body over his shoulder, carried him out into the corridor and dropped him onto the floor as if he were nothing more than a piece of trash. Steven then returned a moment later with James’ clothes, which he threw at him.
As James struggled to his feet, with his body crippled in agony and blood stinging his anus, Steven reappeared at the door and threw a twenty-dollar bill to the floor, “Happy fucking birthday, James! You better not have given me AIDS. Fag!”
James reached in and grabbed the bill. He sank onto the bed unable to take his eyes off the image of Andrew Jackson, with his big head and equally big white hair atop it. He pondered how many years he had lost because of what had happened moments before he received that dollar bill. He wondered if Steven ever thought of what he had done or of him; James doubted he did.
The sound of the Classic FM DJ announcing the news snapped James back into the present, and to the fact that he had to be somewhere important. He threw the dollar bill back into his Memory Box and plodded to the bathroom still partly locked in the dark thoughts of Steven.
HOT WATER CARESSED James’ body. He wished a shower washed away more than physical dirt. His thoughts soon shifted to the fact he had to leave the safety of his home for the first time in six years. His stomach squirmed and his heartbeat kicked up a notch once again.
James peered down at his limp dick and mourned how long it had been since he had enjoyed using it with another person; he hadn’t had sex since Steven. He was a twenty-seven-year-old man but may as well have been a hundred.
Thoughts of sex sent blood rushing to James’ dick; it soon stiffened and throbbed. He started to stroke his shaft while his mind filled with sexual images. He threw back his head while expelling a deep moan as waves of pleasure started to wash away his stress.
“Look at what we have here. You dirty bastard! Can’t go out and do an honest day’s work but can wank in the shower. That about sums you up: a first-class mooching wanker!”
James gasped and fell back against the cubicle glass. Water stung his eyes as he looked around in terror. His dick soon fell back to its useless limp state.
“I’m up here you feckless wanker!” said the showerhead.
James remained slouched against the glass. He rubbed water from his bloodshot eyes and attempted to focus. His nose and throat burned where he had inhaled water in his panic. He placed his hand on his chest and tried to calm down. His heart was ready to burst through his rib cage.
“You’re not real. I’m imagining you because I’m so stressed.”
“Put your poor, unused dick in front of me and you’ll soon see how real I am.”
“What the fuck do you want?”
“To tell you that if you go outside you’ll die.”
“Great! You’ve told me, now fuck off!”
“Jeez, fiddling with your pathetic little dick has made you suddenly masterful.” The showerhead cackled, displaying a set of jagged teeth.
James grabbed the shower, tore it from its holder and smacked it against the cubicle wall, spraying water everywhere. He roared as it cracked and fell to the floor. James slumped against the wall as the adrenalin made his body ache. He threw his hands over his face as he started to weep.
“How about I give you something real to cry about and castrate you while I’m down here.”
James yelled as he collared the showerhead and smashed it against the floor. It spewed water as if it were its life source. It was dead! James collapsed to his knees and sobbed.
JAMES LOOKED INTO his bedroom mirror and gazed at the grey eyes full of fear staring out at him. He wondered which of them would move first: the first sigh; the first twitch of a nerve coming back to life.
“I wish I didn’t have to go out today,” said James to the reflection.
“Then don’t go. Stay here where you’re safe,” replied the reflection.
“But I have no choice.”
“Why do you have to go?”
“This new fucking government is out to screw disabled people. They want us working again and for no pay.”
“That’s one screwed up government. You sure it isn’t suffering from mental illness?”
James snorted. “They’re Tories; what more do I need to tell you? God, I can’t do this. I. Can’t. Go. Out. Side. How did they find me fit to work?” James clenched his fists and thumped them against the mirror. Eyeball to eyeball, he and the reflection peered into each other’s soul. Their breath fogged the glass.
“Tell them you’re not going. Stay here with me.”
James sighed. “They’ll stop my money. They don’t care about people like me. All they care about is having us clear their debt.”
“Stop being a wimp! Tell them you’re not leaving the house. You can’t go out there, it’s too dangerous.”
James shut his eyes, sighed and turned away from the mirror.
JAMES RETURNED TO his closet and looked for something smart to wear because he wanted to make a positive impression. He would be visiting an office where the employees expect the unemployed to be unkempt.
The hangers tried to persuade him to stay home: “Don’t go outside. Stay in here with us, where it is safe.”
James yanked his hair and fell to his knees. “Stop tormenting me. Leave me alone!”
“You’re going to die outside!” said a booming voice.
James peered over his shoulder but saw only the room, which looked darker. It reflected his mood. He stumbled to his feet and glanced around the closet door. “Hello.” He paused at the closet entrance and took deep breaths. “What the fuck is happening to me?”
James threw off his shower robe, grabbed a shirt and underwear and trousers and a tie. He flung on his shirt, yanked up his shorts, hopped like a demented rabbit putting on his socks and tumbled putting on his trousers while stood in the closet entrance.
James stumbled back to the mirror so he could fix his tie and make sure he didn’t look as if a drunken blind person had dressed him.
“You’re going to die outside,” said the reflection.
James ignored it.
“It’s dangerous out there!”
James perfected the knot of his tie, refusing to make eye contact with the persistent reflection. Not happy with being ignored, the reflection constricted the tie around James’ throat. He gagged. He lost his balance and lurched toward the mirror, thudding his head against the glass. His tongue projected; he gasped. His fingers scratched at the shirt collar; his nails scraped his bulging neck. The tie squeezed.
His legs weakened. His tongue left a trail of spit on the mirror as he slithered closer to the floor. James’ heart thundered in his chest. His vision blurred. He rolled onto his back. He tore at the tie; he ripped the top button from his shirt.
James jittered and spluttered as the sweet sensation of oxygen raced back around his body. His throat burned as he coughed. Tears rolled from his eyes. He stared at the ceiling, rasping with each quick breath. His heart rattled inside his rib cage.
“You’re going to die outside,” said the reflection.
James shut his eyes and said nothing.
THE SWITCHED OFF television emitted static. James raised his head from the floor, peered across the room and saw a snowy screen.
James eased up from the floor, keeping his eyes on the set. He crept towards the bottom of the bed, leaned over and glared into the screen. His mouth dried and his heart’s brisk rhythm returned. A snowy face with its mouth stretched wide jumped out towards James. “You’re going to die outside!”
James jerked and crashed onto the unmade bed. He writhed on the bedclothes, struggling to get back up. James ordered himself to stop. He froze, staring at the ceiling. He rested his hands on his heaving chest. “Okay, just relax. It’s nothing to worry about. I’m just stressed.”
James took a few full breaths and raised himself up on his elbows. He glared at the television but saw only a blank screen. His eyes scanned the bedroom; everything seemed normal. “See, I just imagined it. It’s the stress. Thank you, Tory government!”
James eased off the bed and straightened his clothes without looking in the mirror.
AS JAMES WALKED down the hallway, he froze and gawked at the photograph of his dead great-grandmother, Nain, because he would swear he saw it move. “You will die if you go outside,” said Nain.
James leapt back smacking into the wall behind him. “Listen to Nain; it’s dangerous outside.”
James’ heart did the quick step once again. Nain frowned at him as he crept towards her photograph. Her eyes widened and flared red. “You’re going to die outside you stupid ingrate! Will you ever do as you are told?”
James swayed on his heels and gasped. Her voice screeched around the dim hallway and sent icy ripples charging up James’ back. Her intense glare pierced his eyes. He dashed into the bathroom and slammed the door. James puffed against the door. “It’s official, I am fucking nuts!”
He opened the bathroom cabinet and took out some hair product. He switched on the light above the sink because the room continued to darken. He shifted on the spot while looking at the reflection in the mirror because he feared it would act as the one in the bedroom had done.
The bathroom door rattling sent James whirling, causing hair product to plop into the sink. Someone or something gripped the door handle from the outside. James tiptoed toward the shaking door. “Hello. Who’s there?”
His trembling hand inched towards the vibrating handle but as he grabbed it, the door stopped rattling. He pressed his other hand against the door, paused and took a couple of deep breaths. He glanced down to the floor and closed his eyes. James waited for the racing adrenalin to ease. He knew he would have to open the door eventually.
After one last full breath, he slowly opened the door and peered into the dark and dingy hallway. He saw nothing strange. James eased from the bathroom. His eyes darted. When he spied his great-grandmother’s photograph, his heartbeat increased.
James crept to the spare bedroom and peered inside. He saw the tidy room and double bed. He observed that the plant on the bedside cabinet looked withered, which shot a pang of annoyance through him. He poked his head through the doorway and noticed the two-hundred-year-old wardrobe, he had purchased as a bargain via eBay, standing against the wall. He also viewed his unvisited back garden through the window.
James edged farther along the hallway passed his bedroom to the study. He inched open the door and peered inside. He saw the desk with his second-hand laptop on it. He scanned the bookcases lining the three walls and considered how he still had many books to read. James released a heavy sigh. The only sounds he heard came from him.
JAMES’ BUBBLING STOMACH reminded him that he had to be somewhere. An appointment meant he must go outside.
With the house finally quiet, James headed downstairs to fix some breakfast. His stomach may have been in knots but he could always manage a bite to eat; it was one of the few pleasures in his life, which his expanding waistline proved.
He thought scrambled eggs would be a good choice, washed down with some cold orange juice. James opened the refrigerator and grabbed the carton of juice before reaching for the eggs. He froze as the egg box jumped and rattled. Its lid sprang open revealing cracked eggs with shrivelled feathers poking through.
James backed away squeezing the carton, with his eyes transfixed on the hatching eggs. Bulging eyes stretched on wiry necks from inside the crumbling eggshells, and sharp yellow beaks squawked like a tone-deaf choir. “You’re going to die outside!”
James spun, losing his grip of the carton, sending juice splattering across the floor. He couldn’t discover the source of the booming voice that had returned to torment him.
The chicks’ cacophonous screeches drove James to slam the refrigerator door. It shuddered into an eerie silence that soon made James twitchy, so he switched on the radio. Classic FM played one of his favourite pieces: Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”. Its slow mellow tones bathed the room in silky warmth and brightness.
James tore off a load of paper towels, crouched and mopped up the sticky wet juice, being careful not to get any of it on his clothes; orange juice would definitely leave a stain.
To avoid another rendition by the Deformed Chick Choir, James opted to eat a banana and drink a good old-fashioned glass of tap water. How rustic! He persuaded himself that a simple, bland breakfast would probably be better for his partying stomach acid.
Beethoven’s little piece of heaven ended, the DJ spoke for a moment and then abrupt silence hit the room like a freight train going too fast into a truck stuck on a crossing. The last piece of banana squeezed hard down James’ throat as his eyes darted toward the radio. His stomach acid exploded from partying to full-scale volcanic eruptions in a belch. He froze. He held his breath. Blood raced around his body at causing his inner ear to start drumming; a sound James had heard a lot over the years living with anxiety.
The radio jolted back to life emitting a static ghostly voice that told James death awaited him outside. With his feet apart in a firm stance, James threw his head back, pulled his arms in tight and wailed from the depths of his volcanic-acid guts. His outburst didn’t concern the disobedient static that continued to crackle its message of doom with delight.
James glared, his eyes burning in rage. He gritted his teeth, snorted and charged like a frenzied bull. He yanked the cord from the socket and hurled the offending radio across the room. The delectable sound of it smashing into the wall sent James flopping to the floor consumed by a deep belly laugh.
James clipped his laughter as static spluttered from the broken radio. He stared towards it and his nerves twitched. He rested his hands on his chest, feeling the poor heart within that hadn’t hit a regular beat since he awoke that morning.
Without warning, the room began to convulse. James flipped over onto his stomach and scrambled to get to his feet but the aggressive force smacked him back down. He scratched and kicked at the carpet as if trying to keep his head above a violent ocean.
James dragged himself towards the kitchen doorway, while being pelted by falling objects. The thunderous warning that death awaited him outside echoed around the room. The refrigerator door flew open and the Deformed Chick Choir added its own ear shattering shrieks to the chaos.
The house continued to spin and rattle as James clawed uphill through the doorway, sweat poured down his crimson face. He grabbed the frame of the lounge entrance and heaved himself towards it.
The house stopped moving and calm washed over the place. James flaked out in a star-shaped pose. Moans and groans shot from his mouth while deep breaths sucked in the odour of the carpet. James caught a waft of his hot metallic breath as he panted.
THE RINGING TELEPHONE jolted James from his darkening thoughts. He struggled to his feet and stumbled to answer it. “Hello! Is anyone there?”
“You’re going to die outside!” said a shrill voice.
“Leave me alone! Do you hear me?” James slammed the receiver and took a step back.
The telephone rang again. James fiddled with his hands and shifted on the spot. It continued to wail. James caved to the piercing sound and grabbed the receiver. “What do you want?”
The voice repeated its tormenting message. James screamed, threw the receiver at the wall and tore the cord from the socket. “Leave me alone!” said James.
Rumbling rose from underneath the house. The room darkened. The shaking intensified. The television switched on and its static told James that the outside would kill him.
James slogged across the shaking lounge towards the hallway. The chaos around him increased. The noise pounded at his head. He clawed his way into the hall as the house shook and spun. He grabbed the radiator and dragged himself toward the front door.
The hall light flickered. The deformed chicks continued to squawk in the kitchen. The booming voice repeated its mind-numbing message. His great-grandmother’s shrill voice echoed down the staircase from her photograph. The broken and detached telephone rang.
The front door drifted farther from James with each trudged step he took towards it. He screamed as he scratched along the wall.
JAMES GRIPPED THE front door’s handle and reached for the key. The noise echoed around him. His heart thumped at his chest. His mind and fear fought between what took place behind him and what lay in front of him. James stood between two evils and wondered which one would devour him first.
The world appeared to slow down as James eased open the front door. He pulled it towards him, breathing harder than ever before. His heart rattled in his throat. The darkness behind him intensified.
James opened the door a little more and a dazzling light flooded the dingy hallway. Birds sang, traffic travelled in the distance and voices resounded nearby. A warm breeze whirled around James’ sweaty body and he received a waft of summer and freshly cut grass.
James balanced on the tightrope between his two worlds. One had been his protection for years but now stood behind him falling apart. The other had been his terror but stood before him warm and welcoming.
A hand reached out to James. His great-grandmother smiled and beckoned him into the light. He stared at her in shock. “What’s going on? How can you be out there?”
“Look behind you, my dear.”
James peered over his shoulder and discovered himself swinging by his well-knotted tie from the bar inside his closet. His eyes stared and bulged lifeless while “Moonlight Sonata” played from his bedroom radio.
James reached for Nain’s hand, closed his eyes and stepped into the warmth…inside, where it is safe.