Max awakes, his eyes snapping open at exactly 7:50 AM. He lays utterly still in his narrow bed, a bloodshot blue gaze peeping fearfully over the top of his patchwork quilt, his heart ticking in perfect unison with his alarm clock. He can’t get out of bed yet, doesn’t dare, because last week he realised that between the hours of midnight and eight in the morning, the floor of his little ground-level bedsit is electrified, perhaps even lethally. He has become convinced of this one sleepless night after watching a stray feather from his pillow dance crazily across the horrible green carpet with what he knows is some kind of static charge. The possibility of a draft whispering beneath the locked, chained and bolted door of the bedsit has never crossed his mind.
He glances at his alarm clock. 7:52. The clock is the old fashioned kind, cogs and springs and a tiny hammer poised between twin bells, set to ring in eight minutes time, when it might be safer. Max doesn’t like those digital clocks. He has heard that they radiate carcinogenic beams that stimulate brain tumours. Max smiles to himself. He knows all the tricks.
Suddenly a small grey bird hops onto the peeling ledge outside his window and peers in through the breath-misted glass. The bird glares at Max, its tiny black eyes blinking rapidly.
Max closes his eyes and tries to imagine a great black wall, as high as the sky and ten times as wide. Big enough to shield his thoughts. He has read somewhere that scientists are breeding telepathic sparrows as part of some military madness, and although the bird perched upon his windowsill doesn’t look like a government prototype, a person can never be too careful. Max knows how to spot most of them, though; they are the ones whose early morning calls have evolved to sound like real birds, all the better to disguise their unnatural nature.
Either way, the wall in his head eventually proves too much for the bird. Soon it flies away, to report back to headquarters.
The time is 7:54.
There is a sudden thump from the flat above. Max sucks in a startled breath and thinks, Oh God what if a serial killer has broken into the building and murdered the man upstairs! Maybe that thump was the sound of his body hitting the floor and what if the killer comes down here and –
‘Stop it.’ he tells himself harshly. ‘Stop it. You’re starting to sound paranoid.’
Paranoid. It’s the word that Max’s doctor has used, his Arctic eyes glittering behind the half-moon spectacles, his thin lips pressed together in a bloodless smile that Max suspected was just a few millimetres away from a smirk of cold superiority. Paranoid. A word that had cropped up more and more in his constant arguments with Carolyn in the months before she’d finally given up and thrown Max out of their house.
She’d called him paranoid as he tried to warn her about the clocks and the sparrows, and had suggested sarcastically that maybe all the cameras on Big Brother actually worked both ways, allowing the television people to spy on the viewing millions. Max had managed to laugh at that, believing it was ludicrous – until he started to think about it.
In a way, Max is glad to leave the house. There is something nasty there, lurching around the attic in the middle of the night. And besides, Max knows that his wife and the doctor are lovers. Carolyn has denied it, of course, but what else would she say?
For a month or so after that he stayed with Beverley. He had thought that he could trust his own sister, even though he knew that her boyfriend – the unpleasantly handsome Rick – didn’t want him in their house. One time when Rick had offered to cook dinner for the three of them Max had peeked into the kitchen and watched him slip poison into Max’s food. Beverley had assured him that the poison was some harmless seasoning or other, but even so Max had swapped the plates around when no-one was looking.
After a few weeks, Max had started to relax a little, to feel safe even. Then, one day, Beverley had brought home a little honey-coloured kitten from the veterinary surgery where she worked as a nurse. Max didn’t trust it. The little sparkle in its eyes told him that it had only been pretending to be sick, that it was just waiting for the right moment to scratch Max’s face, or to bite at his fingers.
The kitten had been nameless, and so Rick had jokingly suggested that they call it Furball, but in the end Bev had decided to name it Honey, on account of its colour. Max’s muttered suggestion of Satan had seemed to go unnoticed.
He started to watch it, knowing somehow that the animal was plotting against him. One time he found that it had coughed up some yellow stuff on his pillow as a kind of a warning. He suspected that it was leaving the house at night to rendezvous with its feline accomplices, and that they held meetings where they gossiped about Max in some secret cat language that despite his best efforts and a dozen filled notebooks, he had not as yet been able to interpret.
He had thought about mentioning his suspicions to Beverley, but realised dismally that she was working for his many enemies now. He saw it in the way she could never quite meet his eyes, heard it in the telephone conversations where she tried to disguise her hatred for him by talking about work or arranging to meet her friends. She was using some kind of code, he thought. And then what happened? meant, Max’s listening. Oh, yeah, I think so, meant, Oh, I hate him, too. And, most damning of all, Yeah, okay, speak to you soon, meant, We’re going to kill him. Soon.
Eventually, about six weeks ago, he’d left. Beverley and Rick had both supposedly been at work, and he’d been alone in the house, except for the kitten. Max had packed his bags and then sought out his feline nemesis, finding it toying with a tattered ball of wool in the warm darkness of the airing cupboard. He drowned it in the washbasin, then went around the house wiping his fingerprints off everything.
He had thought about leaving a trap for his enemies, maybe some ground glass in the sugar jar, but eventually thought better of it. Simply escaping their clutches would be enough for him.
He’d drifted for a little while then, sleeping rough, a doorway here, a freezing bus shelter there. He used his cashcard sparingly, because the cash dispensers are in constant electronic communion with the orbiting spy satellites, which in turn might relay Max’s location to his enemies. Max isn’t sure when he realised that it’s this unending stream of data to and from space that is destroying the ozone layer, but he knows that the scientists are wrong when they blame the humble deodorant. And they call him paranoid!
And so at some point he ended up here, in this little bedsit. It isn’t much, but he feels safer now than he has for a long time. In spite of the electrified floor. He looks at the clock. 7:57. In three minutes time – four, he amends, just to be on the safe side – in five minutes time he will get out of bed and make himself a nice cup of tea.
Above him, he hears a door open and then slam shut. He sighs, relieved; the man upstairs hasn’t been murdered after all, it seems.
Unless of course, that’s his killer Max can hear, slamming the door behind him on a charnel-house tableaux and descending the stairs with slow, heavy footsteps. There is an odd, somehow liquid quality to the footfalls that Max finds unsettling.
Thump / Squish, they go. Thump / Squish.
It’s okay, he assures himself, though his pulse is racing now. Nothing to worry about. But suddenly he finds himself afraid that he hasn’t locked the door to his own room, that he’s forgotten to slide the bolts and secure the chains. But of course he hasn’t forgotten. Locking himself in at night comes as naturally to him as breathing and besides, even from his bed he can see the door and see that everything is as it should be.
The wet, heavy steps stop outside his room. Max waits to hear the main door to the building swing open and wheeze shut, but it doesn’t. He can hear someone out in the foyer, breathing in hard, rapid gasps.
And quite suddenly, there is a knock at the door.
Max swallows uncomfortably. He thinks about hiding under the quilt until his visitor goes away, but something tells him it’s too late for that, that whoever is out there in the foyer already knows that he’s in here, already knows that he’s scared.
There is a sudden, splintering crash, and the door bursts inward, the locks and the bolts and the chains giving way to some massive impact. Max opens his mouth to scream, his throat yielding little more than a startled squeak.
The man in the doorway is covered in blood.
He stands in a pool of it, tall and wide, leather-jacketed and filling the doorway like the devil in torn jeans. His black hair uncoils from out from his scalp in crazed corkscrew shapes, slick with the same crimson muck that streaks his white face like warpaint. His hands are gloved in gore, and hold weapons still wet with murder. A knife in the left. A claw hammer in the right.
‘Hello.’ he whispers, then, raising the tools of his trade. ‘And goodbye.’
Max starts to cry. He cries because he’s scared, because he’s about to die, but somewhere in his fear and despair there is a spark of great joy. I’m not paranoid! he thinks deliriously. They were all wrong – the doctor, Carolyn, Beverley and Rick. All of them! I’M NOT PARANOID!
His suspicions flood back into his mind, only this time they aren’t suspicions, are they? They’re facts. His sister and her boyfriend had been planning to kill him, probably with another poisoned meal. The kitten had been conspiring against him, its horrid mewlings the threats of tortures to come. His wife and the doctor were lovers, laughing about Max behind his back, probably in the marital bed itself, in the house with something lurking in the attic. And the sparrow! The sparrow on the windowsill had been sent by the government, to probe his innermost thoughts with its genetically engineered telepathy! It’s all true, the cancer-causing clocks, the man in the doorway murdering the man upstairs, even the electrified –
Even the electrified floor.
As the killer takes his step, lifts his foot over the threshold of the door and lowers it towards the horrible green carpet, Max shoots a look at the clock on his bedside table.
The time is 7:59.
Max closes his eyes, his heart fluttering unpleasantly in his chest like a bird trapped in a chimney, his trembling hands tugging the quilt up to the bridge of his nose. He waits to hear the of several thousand volts channelled into a human body, waits to smell the heady odour of cooking meat – he imagines that it will smell something like roasting pork, rich and sweet, and resolves that if he survives this ordeal he might well become a vegetarian.
But it doesn’t happen. After a moment Max opens his eyes, and sees the leering, bloody face of his assassin looming over him. As the killer raises his knife, the hands of Max’s alarm clock reach 8:00 AM precisely, but the ringing is lost amid Max’s desperate, final screams.