Malcolm surveyed the lay of the land, studious and stoic, face betraying nothing, ignoring the heat toasting his shoulders from the sun overhead. The crowd lumbered around him, babies bawling in prams, geriatrics wheezing what could be their last, kids haphazardly weaving paths through the gaps, jostling with nonplussed adults. The heads of the young buried in portable game consoles, while the heads of the older generations were immersed in the sustaining glow of their phones.
Today was a typical Saturday at the shopping centre, ideal stalking conditions for Malcolm. He was in his element, replacing the pith helmet of his forefathers, for a baseball cap, tucked tight and low, obscuring most of his features, allowing for optimum scanning mode while preventing others from easily following his eye line. Hunched low, head downcast, making himself as small as possible, a moving wallflower, of no distinguishing characteristic, no one would be able to tell him apart from the stream of flesh meandering along.
He was fastidious with how he hunted, leaving little to chance, assiduously keeping the hunt on his terms. He hated surprises, that was a new trend, the surprise of the breakup had been sufficient to forever foul his opinion of them.
Forget surprises, Alicia gave me one to last a lifetime. Now to pay the misdeed forward, again and again.
Leaning against a store dedicated to the sale of phone cases, Malcolm adjusted the brim of his hat once again and rubbed his hands together, annoyed that they were sweaty, that they shook noticeably. He would need to get that under control, the prize could be ruined if he was visibly nervous, if he displayed any of the tell-tale reveals of a bad actor.
With his phone dangling loosely in front of him, aimlessly swiping through social-media as a prop for any passers-by who took an unlikely interest in him, Malcolm began scanning the crowd in earnest, thoroughly searching for his quarry. He had no type, he was indiscriminate, race, ethnicity, creed and colour, Malcolm was not a prejudice man, he bitterly hated them all equally.
Time to make this right, by making everyone else’s lives like mine. Welcome, welcome all, form a line and wait your turn.
He was not a sick man, disturbed yes, undeniably, Alicia had made sure of that with her final acts, but he was not sick. Having hunted for the past few months, with mixed results, Malcolm knew that he would eventually need to seek professional help, that what he did to make himself feel better would ultimately cease to do so, replaced with a pernicious, gnawing guilt that would not abate, self-harm would be an unavoidable stepping stone leading to an inexorable outcome.
That was food for thought at another time, a time when he was more sympathetically inclined to the fates of those idling around him, oblivious to the peril they were in, unwittingly straying into the sights of the life-wrecker in their midst.
Malcolm had spied perfect prey, they strolled along, some thirty feet away, interlocked by the interlacing on their hands. Young, early twenties at the latest, garbed in clothes that catered to those proud of their physique, wanting their respective lovers specifically and the world at large to admire what a strenuous exercise regimen could achieve. Taut flesh, rippled with muscle, modified with tattoos, the man in particular had serious ink, tribal tattoos as generic as a post-ofce calendar, trailed down his arms, stopping short of his hands. Malcolm suspected a tradie, though in this day and age of image-obsessed men, it was no longer easy to tell.
Hope it’s a tradie, they always have the best meltdowns, they always get violent.
One of the main changes in his character from the Alicia fallout had been Malcolm finding himself utterly without fear, moreover, he relished the thought of pain, of being hit, of being hurt bad. Thus far, in the six odd months since Alicia had ended things and he had begun his ‘hunting’, no man, or woman for that matter, had indulged him in this want.
This guy looks like he’s not averse to a few cycles of steroids, maybe he’ll be the one to smack me around. Finally end this thing once and for all. Suicide by enraged boyfriend, not bad. There are worse ways to go, to be sure.
Malcolm gave chase, which was exceedingly easy, given the couple were wandering aimlessly, focused more on one another’s company than any sort of predetermined destination. After forty-five minutes of tailing them and with no end to their frolicking in sight, Malcolm started to grow bored, his mind entertaining the possibility of other, worthier pursuits.
Maybe I should swing past the food court, there’s always an abundance of potential there. These two are screwing around too long, killing my vibe, without distraction Alicia returns and controls.
Malcolm supposed he could rush up and confront them now, abruptly enter into the next stage of his game. But that would deviate drastically from his own terms, surrendering the outcome to the whim of fate. There was too much at play and too much at stake, namely his own satisfaction, he could not risk spoiling that by entering the fray half-cocked.
He was in turmoil, warring with himself as to the next best decision – either abandon the pair that he had spent a good deal of time readying himself for and search for sweeter spoils elsewhere, or obstinately stick with them for better or worse. Fortunately fate bestowed a toothy smile upon him, a rarity that he seldom received and never neglected to appreciate. Ever since Alicia had removed him from her life with the same revulsion and disdain a surgeon would in slicing out a lump of cancerous tissue, Malcolm refused to believe he was ever the recipient of good luck.
The winds of change tickled at the fine hairs atop his neck, quickened his pulse, brought about by sighting the couple seating themselves at a nearby café. Their journey had brought them to an open courtyard area, dominated by a water feature at the centre, with a myriad of cafes and restaurants taking position on all points around it, Malcolm found the spot suitable for what he planned to instigate.
Let the real fun begin, this could be one of my best.
Malcolm traipsed around, browsing the goods each store had displayed in their front windows, in racks and stacks at their entrance. He was giving the clueless couple time to relax and order, waited for the coffees to come, not dissimilar, he wryly noted, to a stay of execution.
Some ten minutes later a young waitress emerged, carrying two beverages that only the truly obnoxiously healthy could stomach, lurid coloured and encrusted with some skin, both of them looked revolting.
The couple’s choice of drink had unwittingly bumped them up to the top of Malcolm’s ever-widening shit-list.
You two are going to regret that transgression against the non-douchebag folk, like me. You’d get along famously Alicia, she’s probably dating someone like you right now, lazing in a similar fashion, drinking the same pretentious crap, chuckling at how much I chased her.
With little awareness of what he was doing, all pretence and patience suddenly forsaken in place of his surge of emotion, Malcolm stomped straight toward them.
‘What the hell is this?’ Malcolm demanded, making no attempt to maintain a conversational-level voice.
‘What?’ The meat-head meekly asked, having to hurriedly set down his wheat-grass, quinoa-salad cocktail.
‘Not talking to you,’ Malcolm snapped at him, with the unflappable assurance of the righteous. He directly addressed the young female. ‘Ask you again, what, the hell, is this?
’‘What are you on about?’ She tried to assert herself, but her voice was timorous, and she cast furtive glances around her, feeling the eyes of the crowd savouring the spectacle, burning into her, hearing their sniggering.
‘Who’s this?’ Malcolm jabbed an accusatory finger to the stupefied mountain of man-muscle. ‘Seriously, I genuinely want to know, who is this person?’
‘Hey-’ The guy tried to rally some courage, incensed, but even his voice was a mere squeak, as he gazed around at the other tables, silently imploring someone to rush to their aid, to reknit the tendril of normality that had come undone.
The hoi polloi were in no rush to intervene, having correctly gauged what had happened, what was transpiring, they knew that they had been bestowed front-row seats to an event that only promised to get better.
‘Shut up, shut up,’ Malcolm snapped, the boyfriend, who had to be at least twice his size, actually cowered, shrinking away from Malcolm’s booming tone as a kicked cur. ‘Don’t even speak to me, I’ve got nothing to say to you.
’This grub of a human being would have no qualms, whatsoever, with absolutely rearranging my face if this was in the arena of a bar and provoked by the spilling of a drink. Here, now, he is a putty of pussy moulded by my blatant lie of a revelation.
‘Look,’ the girl said, voice reedy, body shaking, eyes already glistening, beads of tears caught at the rims, crystals in the afternoon sun. ‘I don’t know you, this is a mistake, seriously, this is all just some horrible, horrible goddamn mistake.’
‘Really?’ Malcolm turned to her, arms folded, exultant in the combined gaze of fifty people, in the thrall of his own performance. ‘Really? For real? That’s really how you are going to do this? That’s really what you are going to do? Pretend that you don’t know me?’
‘Who is this?’ The guy had abandoned all hope of trying to extract any information out of Malcolm, the aggressor, now only speaking to his girlfriend, voice openly hostile, dripping in disdain. He repeated the question as his features coloured an unsightly shade of crimson.
‘Nobody, I don’t know,’ she flailed and stammered, she flitted her eyes from Malcolm to her boyfriend and back again, trying to pretend that at least half a hundred other sets of eyes were not vigilantly watching her every move. ‘I seriously don’t know.’
‘You sure?’ The boyfriend asked, bringing a st down on the table, upsetting the two half-finished drinks. His rolled off and smashed with a triumphant crack on the ground, the sound and violent move caused some onlookers to gasp, murmuring amongst themselves in a steady babble, they had whipped themselves into an ecstatic state, gorging on the schadenfreude. ‘You really sure about that? He sure seems to know you alright.’
‘Yes, of course I’m sure,’ her face was all hurt and indignation, tears spilled on cue, lip trembled uncontrollably. ‘I’m a hundred percent sure.’
She frantically reached a hand out to his, seeking the solace only brushing his flesh could provide. The boyfriend, muscles bulging and jaw clenched, smacked the hand away as if it were a pamphlet extended by a street spruiker. She gasped and the impromptu crowd gasped, but the gulls circling overhead for scraps just squawked in impatience.
‘Babe,’ she said, now no longer attempting to hide her crying as the flow of tears leaked in profusion, marring her pretty, fair features. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Delete my number,’ he rose from the seat with such force he knocked the thing of its legs. The patrons behind him scraped their own chairs back a foot, primed for the boyfriend to succumb to some psychotic episode, attacking everyone with extreme prejudice. ‘I’m serious, delete it right now. We’re through. You are a shady, shady character. Lie to my face like that, make me sick, who are you?’
‘Babe, please babe, what are you doing?’ She had half-risen from her seat, one hand steadied herself on the table, the other still reached out, proffered to her lover, clutching and unclutching at the air, waiting for his own hand to fill the void.
‘Any of your shit at my house is going straight in the bin.’ He retrieved his sunglasses that were housed on his bull-neck, slipping them on and tugging his hat down. ‘How could you embarrass me like this? Are you serious, like actually? You are a bad person.’
‘Wait,’ she became entangled with her own chair, nearly tumbled face-first onto the ground but somehow managed to right herself, no one of the many watching made a move to assist her, least of all Malcolm. ‘Wait, don’t go, this is all a misunderstanding babe, this is all so messed up, it’s all wrong you know, you can’t believe this.’
‘Get yourself home.’ He said, heading off, he appeared to have lost half of a foot from his height, much of his muscle withered as if by a fast-acting, particularly aggressive parasite. His gait was that of a man freshly turned into an eunuch, the aura of devastation that now emanated from him was severe enough to deflect any sunshine.
Another happy customer, how does that feel buddy? Believe me, you get off lightly compared to the hell I endured.
This story first appeared in the Australia Times Fiction Magazine.
Return tomorrow when we publish Part 2 of this story.