The furore of the murder subsided, Joan's suicide had become a communal and individual reproach. Both were a year old memory, stale tragedies with the edges blurred, dust-covered and distant. The memories still cut, but bluntly, numbed by time and muted by other fears that now stalked the occupants.
Maya's failing eyesight.
Tisha's court case.
Enoch DeStiy's mugging.
That woman's growing agoraphobia.
Everything had escalated since the deaths. Life in the apartment had fallen out of control. They felt the building slowly confine each one of them. The apartment block wanted them out. Or dead.
Lights go up.
A hum of conversation grows as seats empty. Groups of people chattering. Passing in studied politeness, heading up the aisles.
Patiently waiting, you open the programme at a random page. An actor's picture surprises. You read his biography: it is your biography, your picture.
Perplexed, you look up.
The auditorium has emptied. Empty, even, of seats.
People flood back into the balconies and sit in expectation. You're the sole person on this thrust stage.
The curtains part to reveal an audience, waiting for your first words.
Without warning, a single spotlight suddenly illuminates you.
That's your cue.
"The police did what they had to do. Questioned. Accused. Questioned again. All those questions..." Maya Reimnitz, Apartment 1.
"Professional. Thorough. " Daniel Ryland, Apartment 2.
"Cordoned off." Tisha Lopez, Apartment 3.
"Phorensics and suchlike." Enoch DeStiy, Apartment 4.
"Chemical and DNA analysis. SOCO. Finally pissed off. Bloody useless." Rick Meredith, Apartment 5.
"Frightening. Frightening. Frightening." unknown, Apartment 6.
Returned ten days later, a surprise attack! En masse, the police removed the residents to a nearby hotel and redid what they'd already done in every apartment. Reinterviewed everyone, again, and again, and again.
Then, unofficially at least, closed the case.
The emptied sleeping-tablet containers lie in Joan's lap, while she smothers her wet face in Neil's favourite jumper.
Neil is coming for her. She calls desperately, slurring his name, but he flies away laughing. Her arms outstretched for him, she sobs loudly.
When he returns she's twenty years old. She kisses him on the lips but his body fades and she is left holding his smiling head.
And then there is lacerating pain, spasmed agonies and darkened vision until
and takes her hand,
he leads her away from her pain
and they become young and timeless forever
It's the small things I miss. The way he said "Morning!", his voice like sunshine. He'd stir my tea with his spoon: "just to make sure" he'd say, though neither of us knew what we had to be sure of. The snore before he fell asleep over his book. He'd rub my hand for no reason. Those little notes he left, even after so many years. The little smiles that meant nothing and everything. Oh so many little things I miss, so many huge little things. They held my life together, those huge small loves. They're gone now. Gone, forever.
Ryland stares vacantly at the phone and sees himself three nights ago, naked on the plastic sheet on Tisha's floor. The handset's numbers waver before his eyes:
Tisha's whip: the first whiplash always hurts.
"Your punishment, Daniel," Tisha hisses; Crack!
She, grunting with effort. He, moaning: Yes God- punish me- absolve- me of- my weaknesses.
Ryland moansobs: ecstatic, blissful, tearlashed pain.
Faster. Harder. Bite!
Almost... there, whipcrack, whole body vibrating in stingling nirvana "I'm bad!" he shouts, coming.
Tisha destroys his reverie. "Telephone?"
Maya puts the tea down on the table next to Joan.
"My name's Maya," she says. She doesn't know what else to say. She notices her own voice is quavering.
Joan remains silent. Her eyes are wide, staring. 'They are the eyes of the hopeless,' Maya thinks, 'The broken-spirited. The utterly, utterly defeated.' She is shocked because she has no idea where these words have come from.
Suddenly, surprisingly, she thinks of her grandmother. Other words enter her head 'I have seen those eyes before.'
Maya shakes her head and squeezes Joan's arm.
"Neil," Joan says, "Neil. My Neil."
Simultaneously, Maya Reimnitz and Tisha Lopez lead their charges into their apartments.
Maya has put her arm through Joan's and turned her away from the stairs. There's a blurred something up there, lying on the stairs, but Maya doesn't want to know what it is. She leads Joan into her apartment, sits her down and puts the kettle on.
Tisha has helped Daniel up and they stagger into her apartment. All Tisha knows is that here's a man in distress who's trying to collect himself and phone the police about something.
Now that he's seated, she hands him her telephone.
Something's happened. Like when something happened on Enoch DeStiy's 27th birthday.
9: trinity of trinities: spiritual blossoming.
The age was appropriate. He felt himself blossom.
Only one number more powerful than 9.
And that's 11. The number of letters in Enoch DeStiy's name.
Enoch added his age and his name, 9 and 11. 20. Adds those digits. 2.
2: the horns of Satan.
That was many years ago. Then, as now, someone died. But then, unlike this day, Enoch DeStiy had summoned the executioner from beyond the thin obscuring veils of this world.
Enoch jumps when he hears the scream. Something terrible must have happened nearby. He listens eagerly and the whispering holds its breath.
He rises from his chair and leans his head closer to the door, as if a few inches will make a difference.
He reaches for a roll-up, lights it at the third attempt and lets it dance on his lips as the whispering begins again. He rises again, but can't locate its source. Slowly, he sits again.
Perhaps it's been outside, he thinks, referring to whatever is whispering. Perhaps it's done something very bad.
She's balanced on the balcony rail outside her cell, steadying herself, gripping a pillar. Four floors below, unreal faces look up as warders clatter at pace up the stairs toward her.
"Don't jump!" she hears,
She jumps. She lands on a damp mattress. Her father is taking money and promising ice cream. A strange man, smelling of beer and onions, is taking her hand. The man puts his hand over her face. Now she can't breathe. Or scream. But it's ok, the scream has come to her: it's there, now, as she sleeps, slowly crawling up her legs.
She's asleep in the chair. Only just asleep, her hands are still twitching, and her eyelids twitch like she's blinking, like someone's thrown pepper into them or threatened to slap her. Sometimes her twitching wakes her up, but not this morning, she's too tired. She hasn't heard the scream, not from the throat of poor Joan, which is surprising, or as it slipped through the wall from next door - which isn't.
It scuttles across the wall, spider-silent, closing in on her.
Her legs twitch now, repeatedly.
It's as if in her dream she's trying to run away from something.
Timmy's in the water, staring ahead, silent. It's quiet in Tracey's apartment: it's quiet everywhere now the scream has gone.
A strange thought ripples through Tracey's head: can you see a scream? Which is odd, because while Tracey discounts the thought as a product of being startled, Timmy sees the scream clinging to the bathroom wall...
It's not like toyboxes, or Duplo, or crayons. It's like alive things, but without colour and you can't feel it if you touch it. But you can touch it.
He watches it move around the bathroom then disappear through the wall into Apartment 6.
Even above the noise of the bath filling, Tracey Meredith heard the scream and it chilled her. Instinctively she rushed out of the bathroom to where Tim was just about to start crying. His face had reddened and his customary smile had collapsed. He saw her and his hands reached up for her.
"It's okay Timmy, just a loud noise," she said soothingly, and repeated "It's okay," as much for herself as for him. She lifted him up and headed back to the bathroom to turn off the tap.
She tested the water, smiled shakily at him and said "Bathtime!"
Ryland is on the back of a flatbed lorry, the journey making his whole body vibrate. Also on the back of the lorry are four dozen boxes of detonators. All is as it should be. A bearded private is asking how he is, what happened? what's wrong? But he's got Tisha Lopez's voice, this private. Ryland doesn't officially know Tisha Lopez, but he does, so ssshhhh! Then the private has her face. The noises in Ryland's head abate, but he still trembles and sweats. He's clinging on to Tisha Lopez's arm. He may throw up. He must phone the police.
Maya Reimnitz and Tisha Lopex simultaneously emerge from their apartments. They see each other, then the cleaning woman, then Mr Ryland, now on his knees, struggling to stop the sobs that convulse his body, struggling, but failing, to get up, to reassert control.
Mr Ryland on the floor frightens Maya. She wishes she knew the cleaning woman's name so she could speak to her, not Ryland. But she doesn't.
Tisha runs to Ryland: "Daniel - what happened? What's wrong?"
Tanks growl past Daniel Ryland. He sees his Corporal's chest obliterated beneath crushing tracks and blood jet vertically out of his mouth.
The corpse later. First, settle the woman. Alert police. Cordon off body. He puts his arm around the woman's shoulders. Looks up again. Even from here, he's satisfied it's dead.
Sees the head. Instantly, explosions and machine-gun fire spray inside his head. Desert heat burns him as do acrid chemical smells. Screams return, nerves fail, tumble.
He hears everything: fear, agony, sharp jagged clatter, enough to wake the dead. Legs weaken and he sinks to his knees, which brings him closer to the severed head. Rolls away from it, repelled, frantic, curls up foetus-like, and sobs.
Daniel Ryland is the first to respond to the scream. Strides to his front door where he stops as military training kicks in. Listens. Opens door slightly. Recce. Open wider. The cleaning woman, nothing else visible from his own location. Slides around the door, leaving it ajar.
She is shaking, otherwise silent, immobile. Looking down. Not up the stairs. Conclusion: no danger up there, where he can't see.
He locates and identifies a corpse now, but misses the head. Believes he understands the woman's distress.
Poor woman, unused to death. Situation assessed, he assumes control. Prioritises. Then acts.
She stands near the cubes, trying to remember. But memory is such a fickle friend, always changing.
All her important memories, they'll never change because she's already moulded them into what she needs. That's the thing about memories: you change them but can't remember doing it.
She lifts a machete out of one of the cubes.
Then pulls out a severed head. It is fresh. It drips blood down her arm as she holds it aloft.
Then she lowers it carefully to her feet.
And screams. And screams.
And the stage vanishes and Joan shudders in the dimly lit stairwell.
With silent automatic movements, she slumped into a chair and put the radio on. She began listening but soon memories took over. Thoughts and memories tumbled.
To be anonymous. She had had enough of being frightened when she was a child. Her dad. His friends. Growing up. And before prison, her friends. Two years out of prison. Fresh air. In prison she'd learned not to be frightened of anyone. No one to be frightened of now. Not in work. Nor here, provided she kept her distance and everyone else kept theirs.
No, no one frightened her now. Apart from herself.