One month away from publication of my new novel, Last Days, so here is the Prologue … I often read that Prologues are old hat, but I like them when they justify their inclusion. For me, this one did …
And the woman could hear those old friends moving in the distant, and not so distant rooms of her home. Old friends she tried to forget for longer than she had the strength to remember. Until she understood her life had been one long wait for them to show up and commence with whatever business they were so eager to finish. Because the old friends never forgot. They arrived without invitation and appeared with little warning. They visited after dark and they never let go.
Of late, the old friends were bolder and stronger. More skilled at getting inside. At passing over. Tonight, their movements suggested the visit was conclusive; the endgame to an incremental reunion. Closing her eyes, the woman sighed and supported her weight with one hand against the door frame. Then looked up, her body rigid with enough determination to take one step inside the house. Then another. And another after that. Stood at the foot of the stairs in her unlit house, still wearing her coat and shoes, she looked up and into the darkness concealing the top of the stairs. And listened with all the straining concentration the ears of the frightened can command. But she also listened with the resignation of the weary.
Only the thinnest peripheral glow from the closest street lamp provided any light, and that never penetrated far inside the hallway before the open front door. In the distance a car accelerated and she wished she were inside it. She turned her head and looked at the deserted street. And was gripped with a powerful urge to run for somewhere where the lights would still be on and where the faces of people would be engaged in their smiles or their talk, or just their silence. She wanted to be with them, and part of their unexceptional lives so much it hurt. She tensed in anticipation of her usual flight taking hold. Moved one foot towards the open door. But not the other. She stood still. Stood her ground.
Because she was as damned as a ghost on the last day of its occupation. A wraith with little to haunt besides the empty rooms of an unpeopled existence. A shade watching the world from another place, half in this world and half in another, listening to the sound of all the bright, clear voices, but never offering up her own. She’d fought harder than the rest. She had endured when others had gone under.
Into her came a sudden invasion of regret, and its attendant hopelessness. Living with the consequences of actions committed before reason and experience had much say in anything felt familiar enough to be tedious. No matter how many times she revisited the past and added presumptions, or extracted details, it remained unmovable and always promised to deliver her right to where she currently stood, alone. She reckoned she was about ready for that time. She swallowed and removed the cold weight of the .38 from her handbag. And to think she was one of the lucky ones.
This was the third house the woman had rented in the past five months under a false name, and she had lost her deposit on each property because of the walls and the signs the old friends had put upon them. Three days back, she came downstairs from her bedroom to a cold house without power. Scents of bad water and the ashes of a fire soaked by overnight rain had seeped up the basement stairs into the hallway. She’d found wires chewed through under the fuse box in the basement. And the wall behind the damaged cables was stained by unidentifiable matter, mostly dry, which she covered with black paint. Kept her eyes closed and cried at the same time as she lashed the wall with the brush.
With an unwelcome frequency they had also begun to leave things behind. To introduce inevitability to a daunting re-acquaintance. Yesterday, before she wrote a long email to her son in Toronto, writing as if it were the last communication she would ever make, she found a little blackened shoe on the kitchen floor. Small enough for a child. Hard as wood, stitched like a buckskin moccasin, and old. So very old. Dropped from a foot she dare not even consider. A puff of soot had fallen from it when she scooped it up with a pizza menu to drop in the trash.
Bump bump bump bump. Frantic now in at least one room upstairs. Probably her bedroom. The woman recalled a party above the thin ceiling of a motel room she’d once rented in LA, a long time ago, on the run even then. Those muffled thumps of feet and sudden shrieks and bursts of laughter from strangers that served no greater purpose than a reminder of her disengagement from life, while keeping her awake. But up there, in this house, her final refuge, wasn’t any kind of party she wanted to attend.
They were in her room for sure. Because the determined bumps, swaddled by bedclothes, had become crashes as something on her bed started to cast about. A bedside table was swept of its contents. The woman pulled her dry tongue from the roof of her mouth to swallow the lump in her throat. She knuckled a fist against the wall until the dizziness passed. Then turned around and closed the front door. Shut herself inside. With them.
Another of her uninvited visitors attempted to raise itself from the floor of the kitchen. She could hear it behind the closed door at the end of the hall. A disturbance she’d heard in the last two apartments she’d rented right before she fled them in the middle of the night. Sounds that brought to her mind the image of a wildebeest calf she had once seen on television, with a leg broken by the jaws of a crocodile, jerky in its attempt to pull itself away from the water.
When she wondered if they would come for her on all fours or upright, she raised the pistol and went and stood at the foot of the stairs. Supported her lead hand with the other like she’d learned on the gun range, but with the barrel pointed up. Ready.
The woman stilled her mind and let her final thoughts find a memory of her boy, on the night she carried him through the cold desert, pressed into her chest. So long ago, but she remembered his snuffles, his warmth, a little hand clasped in her raven hair like it was yesterday. Went all the way down to her waist in those days and covered her baby like a waterfall. That boy always knew who his mama was too. Didn’t matter what they did to make it not so, make no mistake, he always knew. And she got her boy out.
She smiled through her tears. Sucked her breath inside.
‘Come on you bitch!’ she screamed at the thing that moved into partial visibility, in a murky articulation of painful movements, onto the top step.
Darkness folded about the stairs; they brought it with them from the lightless place between here and somewhere else. And within its protective veil, the intruder obeyed her request and came down to her, on all fours, the face upturned.
Before it covered the short distance between them, the woman shoved the cold barrel of the handgun inside her own mouth. When it felt like it was somewhere behind her eyes, she squeezed the trigger.