TIM LEBBON is a New York Times-bestselling writer with over thirty novels published to date, as well as dozens of novellas and hundreds of short stories. Recent releases include The Family Man, The Silence, The Rage War trilogy, and The Hunt. He has won four British Fantasy Awards, a Bram Stoker Award, and a Scribe Award, and been shortlisted for World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson awards.
A movie of his story Pay the Ghost, starring Nicolas Cage, was released last year, and there are several other novel and screenplay projects in development for the big screen.
The Space Between Breaths
When it regained consciousness, he had already glued its mouth shut.
This excited him. It was like locking the life inside, not letting it bleed out. Usually there was some sort of leakage as something died beneath his hands––blood, breath, tears. This already felt different. He decided that he would use the glue again.
He turned away as it started to twist and moan. The bindings were tight, and he knew that there was no chance of it working its way free. Not in the short time it had left. But for a moment he wanted to observe unseen, not meet its gaze. He liked the power this gave him.
Circling around behind the chair, he paused to watch. Perhaps it could smell him. It could certainly hear him, because his breathing was deep and heavy, calm. But now that it could no longer see him, the panic was deeper, the desperation more divine.
He watched for a while, coughing once, uttering a long, low whistle, excited at how these sounds affected its behaviour––a pause, and then more frantic efforts to break free.
He glanced around the room. The house was old and abandoned, everything neat and ordered but layered with years of dust, perhaps the home of a dead person with no relatives. It was out of time, and he was confident that he would not be interrupted. The traditional life represented here by a bulky TV, a table for dinner, and family photographs, was not his life.
Far from it.
A loud snort drew his attention back to his victim. Blood and mucus shot from its broken nose, and then it breathed more easily.
He closed slowly from behind, and then pounced.
Moving with confidence, he pulled its head back against the high-backed chair, pressed the tube’s nozzle into one nostril, and squirted the superglue inside.
Then he dropped the tube and squeezed its nose shut.
As it squirmed and tensed, attempting to writhe from side to side against the ropes, its strength surprised him. He had to pull back hard, tipping the chair onto its two rear legs. But it didn’t take long.
After a minute he let the chair drop back onto all fours. The impact on the hardwood floor had the sound of finality. Retrieving the tube of glue, he moved around to face it for the last time.
Its right nostril was closed, deformed. Its eyes were wide and desperate, issuing pleas that it knew would not be answered.
He could see that realisation in its eyes––there was no hope, and the only future remaining was the space between this breath, and its last. That pleased him. Its panic was his fuel.
Pressing its head back against the chair, he heard the sudden inhalation that would feed those final few seconds. He squirted glue into its open nostril. Squeezed the nose shut. Looked into its eyes.
“Shhh,” he said.
But even then, he did not smile.
It was the downhills that scared Dom the most.
He’d once read that cycling defines the man, and as he mounted the brow of the hill and followed Andy down into the first curve of the big descent, he couldn’t help but agree.
Andy was hunched low, hands on drop bars, head down arse up, and he was already moving noticeably ahead.
Dom’s hands were feathering the brakes. They’d ridden this descent together several times before, and it was always at this point that the fear bit in.
The garish pink house flitted by on the left, big dog barking from the raised deck and old man sitting in his garden rocker as usual, a bemused expression on his face.
On the right was a low hedge guarding an incredible view across the Monmouthshire countryside, shimmering and hazed in the growing heat of yet another scorching day. And then the road curved around to the left and grew steeper, and there was no going back.
The breeze blasting past his ears carried a distorted “Yeaaahaaaa!” from Andy, and Dom grinned and hunkered down over his handlebars. As the road straightened into the long, steep descent, Andy was speeding away from him.
Dom always thought about what could go wrong. He knew the route pretty well, and so could swerve around the two portions that were rough and holed. But he’d once seen a squirrel dart across the road just feet from Andy’s spinning wheels. If that happened to him, he’d either strike it and spill, or panic and grasp the brakes, which would probably result in a skid and crash.
There was one area of road halfway down that had slumped, kerb bowing down the hillside and road surface cracked and dipped where it was starting to collapse. Trees shaded the road for the last mile of descent, and in those shadows it was harder to see the surface. He might get a bee trapped in his helmet or, worse, behind one lens of his glasses. A puncture at over forty miles per hour could be catastrophic.
At the bottom of the descent was another bend, not too severe, but at those speeds he’d have to steer on trust: trust that there was no car coming the other way in the middle of the road; no cows crossing; no crows feeding on the slick remains of a crushed badger, or––
But as he switched his hands to the drop bars and the wind rushed past his ears, Dom realised that today felt different. Maybe it was the three straight weeks of record-breaking heat and cloudless skies. It could have been the thrill of being out so early, enjoying almost traffic-free roads for the first hour of their ride.
Or perhaps it was because he and his wife Emma had made love on their patio the night before. He’d been worried about being seen, even though the garden of their modest detached home was hardly overlooked. She’d soon seen away his fears.
As his speed increased and he reminded himself to be loose and relaxed, he yelled in delight.
Andy still beat him to the bottom, disappearing around the bend twenty seconds before Dom.
Dom moved into the centre of the road and raised himself slightly, trying to see through the trees and shadows and make out whether anything was coming in the opposite direction. He swept around the corner and drifted back towards the left, and as his momentum decreased he switched down a few awkward gears and started pedalling. He’d have to get his gearing sorted before the descents. One more thing he should work on.
Andy was waiting for him half a mile further on. He straddled his bike in the village hall car park, gulping down a drink and looking cool in his expensive shades. Dom came to a stop beside his friend, breathing hard, not from exertion but from the thrill of the descent.
“Fifty-one!” Andy said.
Dom checked his bike computer. “Forty-eight. Fastest I’ve done down there. Felt good today.”
“Do one thing every day that scares you.” Andy was fond of the Eleanor Roosevelt quotation, and it always made Dom smile. On these long rides with Andy, he’d usually manage two or three things, at least.
“Christ, it’s scorching already,” Dom said. Now that he’d stopped the sweat ran down his face and soaked his jersey, even speckling the hairs on his legs. Andy looked sweaty too, but it seemed to suit him more. His T-shirt was tight and clingy, but whereas Dom’s jersey showed his pudgy waistline and lanky arms, Andy’s clung to his flat stomach and broad shoulders.
“You’ll beat me down one day,” Andy said.
“Should do. You have a distinct weight advantage.”
“Yeah, yeah, thanks.”
Andy grinned. “So, cake and coffee with the Moody Cow?”
Moody Cow was not the name of their favourite pit stop on this particular route, nor the woman who ran the cafe. That was the Blue Door and Sue respectively. But she’d given them enough stern looks to invite the name which had become permanent.
Andy reckoned she fancied him and was playing hard to get. Dom thought it quite likely. Over the two years he’d known Andy, Emma had called him grizzled, rough, and lived-in, and his string of casual girlfriends attested to his effect on the opposite sex.
“Race you!” Andy said. He caged his drink bottle, clipped in and moved off without looking back.
Dom followed. He was pretty good at sprints on the flat, and had been working hard on his turbo trainer over the previous winter to improve his power. Nevertheless, it took the whole two miles to the village of Upper Mill for him to catch Andy, and even then he had the weird feeling his friend let him win.
“Pipped me,” Andy said outside the Moody Cow. “Coffee and cake on me.” He leaned his bike against the fence and opened the big blue door.
Dom watched him go, leaning on his handlebars. He was exhausted, breath heavy and burning in his chest, legs shaking. Sweat ran behind his biking glasses and misted them, and he had to take them off. Andy had hardly seemed out of breath.
“Bloody hell, fat bastard,” he muttered, taking deep breaths and feeling his galloping heartbeat beginning to settle. In truth, he wasn’t fat at all. Compared to most men in their early forties he was way above average when it came to fitness, even though he carried a few pounds extra. But Andy wasn’t most men, and Dom really wished he could stop comparing himself to his friend. They were good mates, but their lifestyles were chalk and cheese, and he wouldn’t change a thing.
Leaving the bikes against the timber fencing that surrounded the cafe’s front garden, he chose a table in the shade.
There were a couple of elderly couples having their morning coffee, and at the garden’s far end a group of businessmen nattered over fluttering sheets and a laptop.
There was also a couple of women, maybe in their early thirties, dressed in tight shorts and vest tops. They’d obviously been for a run, water bottles discarded on the table in favour of tall fruit smoothies. One of them caught his eye. He smiled; she glanced back to her friend.
Dom unzipped his jersey halfway, self-consciously turning his back on the women. As he sat down and kicked off his bike shoes, one of them laughed softly. It was nothing to do with him. It can’t have been.
He took the phone from his jersey’s back pocket and slipped it from its pouch. There were no missed calls or texts, but he took a selfie with the cafe behind him and sent it to Emma. Refuelling stop, he typed with the picture.
Andy appeared and scraped a seat across into the sunlight before slumping in it. “The coffee stop of kings,” he said. “Our lovely hostess will bring our morning repast forthwith.”
“Ahh, this is the life.” Andy stretched like a cat. “Nice spot, this.”
“Sue should start giving us regulars’ discount.”
“Right, I’ll let you ask her.”
“So what’s next week got in store for you?” Andy asked.
“New kitchen fit-out up in Monmouth.”
Today, Dom had given himself a rare day off from work. He ran his own small electrical firm, just himself and an apprentice who’d been with him for three years. Davey was a good worker and a pleasant lad, and Dom was pretty sure he’d soon be making a break to set up on his own. He didn’t mind that so much. It was bound to happen, and he couldn’t expect the lad to stay working for him forever.
Andy chuckled. “Oh, Mr Electrician, have you come to rewire my plugs?”
“Yeah, like that’s ever happened.”
“Sure it has.”
“Not all manual labourers have lives resembling the plots of pornos, you know.”
“That’s just you.”
“Sure, the sordid life of a freelance technical writer.”
“So how is the gorgeous Claudette?” Dom asked.
Andy had been on-off dating a French doctor spending a year on a work exchange at the hospital in Abergavenny. Early-thirties and beautiful, Dom had only met her once.
Andy leaned over. “Porn star,” he whispered, grinning.
Dom rolled his eyes, and when he looked at his friend again, Andy was staring across the road.
“Take a look at that,” he said.
Dom followed his gaze. He was expecting to see the two women jogging away, or another attractive woman perhaps walking her dog. So at first he couldn’t quite make out what Andy had been staring at.
A security van was pulled up across the square, and a man was carrying a heavy black case into the local post office.
Dom had never been in there, but it was obviously a typical village post office, doubling as a newsagent and grocer. It had a selection of wooden garden furniture for sale out front, windows half-filled with flyers for local jumble sales and amateur dramatic presentations, and a homemade display wall of bird tables and feeders.
He’d seen people going in and out, and often they’d stop and chat on the wide pavement in front of the shop. This village was far smaller than Usk where he lived, and everyone seemed to know everyone else. The Blue Door cafe probably only thrived because of the main road that ran through the place. That, and the entertaining sourness of its owner.
“So?” Dom asked.
“Doesn’t have his helmet on.”
“And he’s left the van’s driver’s door open.”
“It’s really hot. So, what, you’re casing the joint?”
Sue arrived then, placing a tray on their table and giving them their drinks and cake. She knew whose was whose.
“Busy day?” Dom asked.
“Rushed off my feet.” She left them and cleared a couple of tables before going back inside.
“Wow. Positively chatty today,” Dom said, but Andy was still staring across the street and didn’t respond. “What now?”
Andy stuffed some flapjack into his mouth and took a swig of coffee. Then he nodded across the small square again. “Just asking to be ripped off.”
The security man was standing outside the post office talking to a large, middle-aged woman. Dom had seen her before, and he guessed she was the postmistress. They were standing in front of the display window, both shielding their eyes against the sun’s glare as they chatted. The woman threw her head back and laughed. The man waved his free hand as if to illustrate a point more clearly. He still carried the case.
“How much do you reckon’s in there?” Andy asked.
“Just standing there.”
Dom started on his chocolate shortbread, balancing the guilt against the promise of a thirty mile ride back home.
Andy ate silently, then drank more coffee.
It wasn’t like him to be so quiet, Dom thought. Usually he’d be joshing, making quips about some of the other patrons, talking about the ride they’d had and the route to take back home.
“Suppose it’s pretty safe around here,” Dom said, more to break the silence than anything else.
“Just take one daring person, though.” . He licked his finger and picked up crumbs from his plate, looked into his empty cup, obviously contemplating another coffee.
“Or two,” Dom said. He chuckled. “‘And no one ever suspected the two innocent cyclists’, the papers’ll say.”
Andy glanced up at him, and the moment paused.
Dom still heard chatter from the women and businessmen, and even the distant mumble of voices from across by the post office. But the air between him and his friend seemed to stop for a moment, movement ceased, and Andy’s eyes grew painted and still.
Then he sat back in his chair and stretched, interlocking his fingers and cracking his knuckles above his head.
“Gonna be a hot ride,” he said. “Get back to Usk two-ish. How about I carry on home and change, then get back down for a couple of early evening ones at the Ship?”
“Friday cider weather,” Dom said.
They stood and headed back to their bikes.
On the way through the small garden area they passed the two joggers. “Morning, ladies,” Andy said. He got a smile from one of them, and a lingering stare from the other.
Dom sighed. It was a hilly ride home. He’d be following in Andy’s wake.
(C) T.J. Lebbon 2016