(Part One was published here)
‘Wait, hey, wait,’ the young girl raced off after him, neither of them remembering to pay.
Not that the waitress was inclined to rectify the matter, she observed the drama unfolding like the rest of those entranced by the spectacle, with a broad, dopey grin plastered on her face and a hand occasionally cupped to her mouth to stifle a giggle. Her behaviour, though arguably abhorrent, was not unusual in the slightest. Malcolm had been performing these sorts of games for nigh on six months; had witnessed the whole gamut of human emotions evoked and expressed. He was no longer shocked when people laughed or openly commented about the crisis as said crisis transpired, making jokes and jests to the shattered couples left crying and fighting.
Job done, Malcolm squandered no time departing from the scene in a sure, though unhurried pace. He would wait for a while, regain his composure and prepare for the next. He knew that he should cast his net elsewhere, select another hunting ground. The shopping centre was large, but creating epic scenes like this, in such a short amount of time and a relatively similar location, was apt to raise too many eyebrows and give voice to too many suspicions from nosy types.
That was the problem with ruining people’s lives in public – the incident left a lasting impression on any who witnessed the occasion.
For the time being, Malcolm was parched and afflicted with the onset of a brutal migraine, the tender mush of his brain prodded with pitchforks without cessation. He had forgotten to bring his medication, the unpronounceable pills prescribed when he had first, in a fit of despair, approached a doctor about his extreme depression sans Alicia in his life. The pills left him numb and dumb, and he had preferred the sporadic unforgiving migraine to the alternative.
There was a time when a thirst to him meant of the alcohol variety, and that being of the kind found only in hopeless degenerates. The liquid therapy had proven useful for a while, but since he had discovered endless amounts of satisfaction attained via destroying other couple’s relationships he had slaked his hellish thirst on their misery. He crushed the bones of their love and sucked the marrow of their adoration clean, feeling a fleeting sense of relief, of purpose, during the immediate aftermath.
The rush was lessening with each instance though. Malcolm begrudgingly conceded that he needed more and more to achieve the same sensation, the high of their heartache.
I need a drink.
Malcolm resolved to buy himself a juice, not the freshly-made muck peddled by the stands peppering the shopping centre, for they seldom offered anything quenching, only a pain in the pocket and later in the bowels. No, he sought the mass-produced kind only found in the supermarket. Onward he went, his pace leisurely, a toneless, breathless whistle spurting from his cracked lips. The trip to the supermarket was short, consisting of negotiating two escalators and passing a few nondescript stores catering to the tween market that patronised them in hordes.
Malcolm observed his fellow mankind with only vague interest, as a shark digesting a hearty meal might, drifting through a school of fish. The supermarket was maddeningly packed, families vying for space with other families, futilely hoping to conduct their business and be out in a prompt manner. Babies bawled, children wailed, parents coddled and scolded, tinny eighties music was the ubiquitous voice of god trilling overhead.
Hate you all.
Malcolm weaved through the tottering fools lingering out front, engaged in some dance to retrieve trolleys. The farrago of assiduous shoppers and those aimlessly perusing was ongoing and showed no signs of ceasing. Malcolm couldn’t care less about their petty activities, his concentration solely consisting of his need to rehydrate, then perhaps reconvene elsewhere in search of ideal couples to prey upon.
Having cleared the throng, Malcolm orientated himself with his surroundings, realising for the first time the significance of the supermarket he had so carelessly bumbled into. This was the supermarket of choice for Alicia during their time spent living together. Many a night were spent procuring the goods necessary for a meal, he more often than not angling the recalcitrant cart around, her dashing off for ingredients, laughter, smiles, squeezing of one another’s buttocks and stealing the occasional kiss in front of nonplussed, geriatric shoppers.
What happened to that?
Malcolm gave his head a curt, violent shake, trying to dislodge the rose-tinted memories, angry that they had somehow been conjured from imagination and wishful thinking. He was weakening, that indefatigable heart of his finding voice, finding strength, demanding attention. He stifled it with hate-speak, missives of metal songs and recollections of all the treachery Alicia had so cruelly done him.
His thirst overrode all other thoughts, and he succumbed to its lead, taking him on a direct path through the gauntlet of inconsiderate shoppers blocking his path, slowing his progress. His unflappable obstinacy paid off with quickly arriving at the cool-drinks section.
Malcolm stomped past the rows of pearl-white milk, ignoring the colour palette of the flavoured varieties. He glided past the lighter juices of apple, the cloudy of pear and peach, until he arrived, with the palpable triumph of a conqueror, at the orange section. All neatly arrayed, pulp and not, imported and home-made (whatever that really meant).
He selected his favourite, a brand he trusted above all others, not a modicum of pulp to be found, for he detested it.
Alicia always reminded me not to drink too much of it, because of the sugar content, because she cared, she cared at some stage. Until she slept with someone else.
The bottle was invitingly cool in his hand, seemed to spread over his chest, his core, a talisman of magical properties bestowed him, one that would cure all ailments and vanquish all foes. There was no sense in the rigmarole of buying the bottle first, the heavenly nectar demanded prompt consumption, and he was in the thrall of its seduction.
He popped the cap, letting it skittle somewhere, as he took a long, languid pull on the bottle. His throat worked and his stomach set to task, tasting, savouring. He must’ve cut quite the figure, imitating a drunk awarded that final, hard-sought drink. No one paused to gawk as they moved around him, squabbling, chittering, in a totally different world, divided by their disparate minds, theirs blissfully simple and pure, armoured in the virtue of acceptance, his corrupted by the break-up, the catalyst that launched his rapid descent.
Who cares about it all? Alicia sure doesn’t. Soon as I’m done, I’m going back out there, there’s more couples to destroy, so many more. So spoilt for choice. Thank you, god, whatever. Thank you. Make me forget me by being something bad, transport me to another mind that Alicia can’t reach.
‘Can you be a lamb and get me that,’ a feminine voice penetrated his musing, his turmoil. ‘Just over there, yeah, you see it?’
Furious that someone had presumed to address him in such a manner, Malcolm immediately desisted from draining the bottle and flung his gaze over to the sound’s origin. A cursory glance informed him that he was not the intended target of the voice.
A young woman stood, eyes locked to her lover, who stood a trolley-width distance away. She was pointing to some object within the open refrigerated stretch, maybe cheese, possibly milk, maybe weapons-grade plutonium or Hitler’s second testicle, Malcolm wasn’t tracking her gesticulating, he was singularly absorbed with her.
Alicia, that can’t be you, surely?
After a beat stricken with pure terror, Malcolm registered and accepted that he was mistaken, the young woman was not Alicia, although she bore a startling resemblance to his first and only love. Long hair, naturally auburn, frosted with blonde tips that he had largely detested, save in the certain light of a fading evening when they enhanced the brightness of her emerald eyes. Freckles that never faded with age, heightened by the milky-white of her skin, the shine of her eyes, regal cheekbones, a sharp jaw, thin lips. Her features were borderline austere, if not for the warmth of her eyes, the kindness that exploded outward, a mouth never dormant, always curled into a welcoming smile, the humour of the sweet, the rich complexion of the permanently youthful.
This girl was slightly different, though not an inferior version.
Her eyes were wider, more prone to frenetic darting, like a cornered animal. Her beauty was marred with what appeared to be a broken nose, flat at the bridge, with a slash of scar tissue. Her features were less robust, less defined, more padded with flesh, not unattractive, not at all, just different.
She was motioning to some hulking brute, his back to Malcolm, steroid-enhanced muscles bulging through a straining-taut-till-fraying singlet, and child-sized shorts. A quick sweep of his eyes down and Malcolm was pleased to note the thug had a propensity to skip leg day, as so many of his wretched ilk were so inclined. From his stance, shoulders bunched, head mostly obscured in a pad of veiny muscle where a neck should be, Malcolm deduced that the guy was unimpressed with how he was being spoken to.
‘What?’ He barked, leaning across the cart, a good head taller than his companion. ‘What you say?’
‘That,’ she tried to keep her voice level, conciliatory, her eyes all imploring and lip all quivering. ‘Can you get that?’
‘What?’ The man was growing increasingly irate, tone raised, warranting the interest of a family meandering past.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ she assured, trying to diffuse the situation by circling around to pick up whatever the item was she had indicated for. ‘All good.’
‘Who is this?’ Malcolm demanded, righteous voice booming, belonging to a god. ‘What the hell is this?’
‘What?’ rounded the guy, repeating the only word he seemed to possess in his vocabulary.
‘Not talking to you,’ Malcolm dismissed, flicking a hate-filled glare that the boyfriend recoiled at while trying to assess, peanut brain on overdrive, unseen steam shooting from his cauliflower ears. ‘Shut your mouth.’
‘Who are you?’ asked the girl, though her voice waivered and her body trembled, Malcolm was positive he glimpsed relief in her eyes, gratitude even.
That can’t be right.
‘Are you serious?’ Malcolm conveyed outrage with aplomb, he let the crimson creep into his cheeks, he willed the right amount of hurt and incredulity to shape his voice, define his posturing. ‘Are you actually being serious right now? You can’t be.’
The shove was a tidal wave, the connection was a car crash, sending him flying, feet knocked off the floor, careening back into the orange juices displayed in the open-refrigerator section. He was stunned and rag doll, no effort to brace, meaning he came off relatively unscathed, more surprised than scared. A chuckle at the absurdity of the trip dried on his lips when he glimpsed the man-mountain charging toward him, hands made for hurting, calloused from scores of brawls, raised, ready.
For the first time in a long time, Malcolm felt a refreshing change to the numb of desolation and detachment that pervaded over all. An end to the period of non-Malcolm, where Alicia’s lasting malignancy had clouded his brain and sapped his strength, reducing him to the shambolic husk wallowing in the barren plains of pathos. The sensation that first panged, then pumped vigorously, was a new one – one that took an age to identify.
The thug closed in and blotted out Malcolm’s vision. At that exact moment Malcolm understood what it was this man’s presence had evoked in him – exhilaration unprecedented.
Whereas others, the majority, would’ve cowered at the onrushing locomotion of testosterone, Malcolm welcomed whatever oblivion his newfound nemesis held within his fists.
You are making me whole again dude, do your absolute worst, bash away the scar of Alicia.
He expected some entreaty from the man’s girlfriend, shrieking and wailing at that ear-splitting decibel reserved exclusively for hysterical young women imploring men to not exchange blows. Malcolm had heard the self-same sound many an evening out, when strangers sparred for the amusement of onlookers and to illicit immense distress in their female companions.
Surprisingly, the girl remained mute, probably enraptured in the destruction that was set to take place. Malcolm didn’t begrudge her, were he in her position, he too would be mesmerised, willing the brute to rain down blows, urging him to totally submit to a berserk state, transforming into an artist crudely hewing their work.
The first blow was a glancing one, ill-placed and timed, thrown wildly more than a measured shot. His meaty fist bounced off Malcolm’s temple, scraping nails against flesh, ringing his ears, dimming his senses, dizziness prevailed as adrenaline coursed through his system. Making no attempt to ward away any more blows or retaliate, Malcolm simply readjusted and waited for more.
He did not have to wait long.
The next caught him full in the face, he heard something crack, sharp and distinct, a sound that dwarfed all others. Malcolm didn’t feel any real pain but he did feel something unnatural occur in his face, a pronounced shifting as if two objects unwilling to move, or not designed to, suddenly had such an action thrust upon them. Blood burst and gushed, he could taste it, and he could feel little splinters, rock hard and jagged, embedded in his tongue. He realised they were teeth, or the displaced remnants of them.
Hello, is that you life? Is that what being real feels like, is this what real is after Alicia? Why does it feel so good when I should be screaming, begging for mercy? Why do I want more when I know it’s all so awful?
He felt himself collapse back, thrown by the might of the barrage, for the blows were now dealt in profusion, with no slackening of savagery. Head knocked to and fro, bashing against the unforgiving metal shelf formerly containing the peaceful assortment of orange juice bottles. Now he was drenched, in the remnants of the OJ and the spreading of his own blood, merged as one, achieving a shade not dissimilar to the ending of dusk.
The man beating him grunted and swore a string of obscenities, most of it was guttural, impossible to understand. Teeth gritted, spittle pooled and flew, knuckles torn and bleeding, Malcolm registered such minuscule details in his attacker’s appearance, marvelling at the visceral imagery of reality. Finally, an elbow connected with his forehead brought him a sudden session of sleep.
Lights, lurid and obnoxious, demanding attention like a petulant toddler, brought him back from the liquid pool of unconsciousness.
Go away, leave me, leave me be.
Malcolm had savoured the lull in life, that void of blissful nothing, a sacred place where Alicia’s memories could never gain access, could never dominate. A black, godless place to be sure, but a welcome respite from her visage hovering in his mind’s eye. Now he was alert, or more conscious than a moment ago, now she had returned in earnest, with a vengeance. Vignettes of the break up, of all she did, played back in stunning clarity, unbidden, sound blaring, images billboard sized, impossible to avoid or shut out. He willed the desolation back, that release of all senses, abandoning all responsibility to himself, to his ongoing existence.
Fate violated his dreaming, contained within something tangible, a physical appendage, a hand maybe. He felt it touch his cheek, gentle as a compliment, digits caressing, tickling at the bruised and bruising flesh. He tried to flip his eyes open dramatically, to instil fear in the individual who had the gall to touch him. Malcolm barely managed a meek flutter, not dissimilar to a fainted damsel awakening, all expressive lashes and demurring sighs.
The girl from the supermarket was seated next to him, the drabness of his surroundings took time to take definition, a mess of muted greys and bleak blacks, smears of white interspersed throughout. The place was unfamiliar, and unremarkable, probably irrelevant at this stage, only she mattered, she being the one whose life he had tried to wreck, for no other reason save that.
‘I’m surprised your jaw’s not broken,’ she said, voice hushed, eyes downcast, her hand was near his on the bed, but not touching close. ‘The way he worked you over, thought it would be wired for sure.’
‘Why?’ Malcolm croaked, his voice life-long smoker gravelly.
When was the last time I spoke? Days? Longer?
‘Had it happen to me enough times to know,’ her smile was melancholy, her eyes were haunted, they looked barren of tears, the ducts long since ruined from overuse. ‘It isn’t fun, not being able to speak and all, the wiring cutting your gums. They say it won’t happen, but it does.’
Malcolm grunted in the affirmative, unsure of the adequate response to that.
Silence ensued and sustained itself, not unpleasant, more that of an old couple, which was undeniably weird. Malcolm would have squirmed, had his body not been so unresponsive, a battered shell that ached, that throbbed dully and smarted sharply.
‘How did you know?’ She asked, leaning forward, breath and life hinging on his answer. ‘How could you have known?’
‘Known what?’ Talking hurt, his throat was shredded, suggesting that he had guzzled broken glass and rusty nails.
Must’ve copped a few hits there.
‘That it would work,’ she cut her own sentence short, verbally floundering, hands grasping out for the right words to articulate, to no avail. ‘You know… That, like … it would work?’
‘Not sure what you mean.’ He wanted to ask for some water, there was a cup resting on a plastic tray located near his head, the condensation was the invitation of heaven.
I can’t ask her to do that for me, I don’t even know her.
‘You saved me,’ she said, now her hand fell to his, soft and warm, like her voice, like her hair caught in the slanting rays of light. ‘Not to sound overly dramatic or anything, but I thought you knew, figured it out somehow.’
‘From this, more of this,’ she dabbed at her face, rubbed it in a circular motion, focusing on her right cheek, the skin discoloured, turning an ugly shade of blue that yellowed at the edges. ‘All of this, do you understand, do you get it now? Do I have to spell it out?’
‘Nah, I know what you mean.’ He replied, not unkindly.
‘Can’t believe it you know,’ the girl said, mostly to herself. ‘If it were for anything else, I’d be the one lying there, tubes and blood packs and everything, but the thought of cheating made him run, can you believe it?
’Malcolm had no response to that, fortunately the girl continued regardless.
‘I’ve been home once, to get some stuff, all of his was gone, like he was never there. I cried, really bad, for ages. Not because of him.
Definitely not because of him.’She looked like she was about to succumb to another crying fit, but swallowed it back. Face drawn, features reset, eyes settling back on Malcolm.
‘Sorry, god, sorry,’ she reached for the cup and knocked the water over in her haste to recover it. She shrank away as if bracing for a blow, turning to him. ‘I’m so, so sorry.’‘All good,’ he attempted a smile, an ephemeral smile that contorted into a grimace, hurt like a son of a bitch to twist his tenderised muscles so. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
She busied herself with plucking the cup from the floor and refilling it with the nearby jug. Malcolm observed this in awe, admiring the ambient light, soft and unobtrusive, colouring her features, entwining through locks of her hair as gossamer-sized threads of pale amber lending her an almost ethereal quality.
She made the atmosphere shimmer, a cloak that she wore, lithe in material, all fused as a beacon, brightness upon warmth. The scars that marred had not faded, but they had been outshone.
‘Here,’ she brought forward the cup, straw extended out. ‘You all good?’
He wordlessly assured he was, and accepted the straw, drinking deeply, greedily. As only his former drunk self ever could. Eventually his thirst was sated.
‘Thanks,’ he said, ashamed about the drool conspicuously building on his lips, not that she seemed to recoil at all. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Veronica,’ she introduced, inclining her head a fraction, sending spirals of light shooting from her blonde hair. ‘You?’
‘Malcolm.’ Malcolm replied.
‘Nice to meet you,’ Veronica said, squeezing his hand, leaving it there.
This story first appeared in the Australia Times Fiction Magazine.