A sleeping woman watched over by the stranger who had hidden for hours in the shadowed bay of her bedroom curtains. That’s all there was to the scene. He was a spider, patient and unmoving, poised to drop and stun his prey. There was no malice to it. Only need. The white sheet covering her body rose and fell with each breath in the oblivion of slumber. Three steps forwards and he could reach out and touch her, run his hands through her long dark hair, press the half moon of his fingernail into the dimple that punctuated her right cheek as she smiled. His arms would wrap around her frame perfectly.
In his mind, he’d measured every part of her. Twice, he’d passed by close enough to brush her body with his, once in the street, once in the school playground. The latter was a risk, but it had proved fruitful. In the beginning, he’d been concerned that the watching phase might be dull. How wrong he was. Familiarising himself with the lives of the ones he’d chosen had become his oxygen as the rest of his world had started to fade.
He ran appreciative fingers over the top of the dresser at his side. No dust. No sticky fingerprints from the children. Angela was all wife, mother, and homemaker. Her bedroom was the epitome of family. Photographs adorned the walls. A wedding, more than a decade ago, with a bride leaning into the arms of her groom, her dress demure, hair pinned up with just a few curls left hanging. A promise for later that night, Fergus thought.
It had taken months of patience to find a time when her husband would be away, then he’d struck gold. The man of the house had treated the children – a boy of seven and a girl of five – to a camping trip for a night, enjoying Edinburgh’s idyllic August. The husband couldn’t have realised it, but the experience would be good practice. After tonight, he would be a single parent unless he married again. Fergus couldn’t imagine why anyone would try to replace Angela. She was everything.
Each morning she walked her children to school, the boy racing ahead, sometimes on a scooter, while the girl held fast to her mother’s hand. He liked to watch them all together. Angela’s face wore an indelible smile when she was with her offspring. He’d never seen her looking tired or cross. In all the hours, all the journeys he’d witnessed, she hadn’t rolled her eyes, yawned or snapped at them. In the photos on the bedroom walls, she was not just a parent but utterly engaged in the act of parenting. He studied those pictures one last time, committing each to memory. There she was hugging her son as he clutched some sports trophy, and there she was laughing as she made cupcakes with her daughter, beaming with love. And there they were as a family on their bikes, pausing as a passerby took their photograph, defining togetherness.
Fergus had been in that bedroom before. He’d taken pieces of her home with him. A silky soft shirt from the laundry basket. A lipstick from her handbag. Nail clippings from her bathroom, still showing the colour of her toenail varnish. There was a whole section dedicated to her in his own bedroom, and a file. Paper, not digital. He was ill, not stupid. Computers could be hacked. The information he’d gathered was from the real world. Her date of birth and marriage certificate had been obtained from official records. He knew where she shopped, which doctor’s surgery she attended, who her friends were. A timeline constructed from his labours provided an accurate structure of her week.
Her kitchen bin was an endless source of intelligence. She rarely chose precooked meals or processed foods, preferring fresh fruits and vegetables. There were no magazines, but the odd newspaper was recycled. Angela liked hard soap bars rather than liquid soap dispensers. And she was on the pill. The discarded wrapper from the previous month was in his file, too. No more children planned, for now at least. She was content.
Edging closer to the bed, he breathed in her scent. She’d bathed before slipping between the sheets. He’d been in the house long before that. Easier to allow her the reassurance of checking each window and door, believing that anything that might do her harm was safely beyond the boundaries of her home. As she’d soaked in the steaming water, lavender bubbles caressing her skin, he’d made sure her curtains were drawn and taken the keys from the lock in the back door. No point taking chances. If she got spooked or surprised him and ran, he couldn’t allow her to exit the property.
When all was secure, he’d sat outside her bathroom door and listened to her humming. He’d imagined her running the pale green flannel up and down her arms, her legs, between her breasts and around the back of her neck. He’d waited as she’d read the book he’d noticed on her bed, resting on a freshly laundered towel and her dressing gown. When he’d heard the cascade of water that signalled her standing, he’d shifted position into the window alcove, behind her curtains, focusing on breathing silently and remaining still. There were windows open in the upstairs bedroom to allow some of the cooler night air in, and he’d planned to close those once she was sleeping soundly. If she screamed, the noise would travel out into the crescent, and her neighbours would be alerted. Fergus couldn’t allow that to happen.
Now, she was right in front of him. So much hard work had brought him to this moment, he almost couldn’t bear for it to end. Until he looked in the mirror. Hung on the end wall of the bedroom, opposite the window, it reflected Angela’s pretty head on her pillow, and the man looming over her. While her hair was gleaming and vibrant, his harshly shaven mat was greying prematurely, thinning more than anyone in their late thirties should have to tolerate. His eyes were pale in the scant light that entered from a streetlamp beyond the curtains, but he could still make out their watery blue, surrounded by creases of red on white. But it was his skin that told the real story. A greener shade of white. Waxy, sallow, wanting.
Fergus Ariss was dying.
However long he had left, there was insufficient time to achieve everything. He’d dreamed of travelling. In his twenties, he’d had a world map on his wall. The idea was to scratch off a section of chalky paint every time he took a trip. A school visit to France had offered one country beyond the United Kingdom’s borders, then came a friend’s stag weekend in Amsterdam. He’d always wanted to go to the USA. To explore Peru. The Great Wall of China was his ultimate goal. Now, he had to fulfil all of his dying wishes in Scotland. Even the borders were too far to cross at this stage.
His body had betrayed him. There was nothing the doctors could do, in spite of their protestations that he should let them assist. He could smell the rot of his own body. No herb or spice could mask the taste of death in his mouth. There was pain and grief, then there were moments of clarity when he understood that death would be a release. Months of hospital treatment weren’t the answer. Prolonging life regardless of the quality of that time was nothing more than fading away. He didn’t want to fade any more than he already had. He wanted to blaze a trail into the next life. But there was so little time, and so much left to do. Starting with Angela.
After creeping around the end of the bed and slipping off his shoes, he slid his body weight gently onto the mattress. A smile flitted across Angela’s face as his body joined hers. He fitted behind her like a puzzle piece, and she murmured as he slid his arm over her waist, pushing his face gently into her neck and breathing the scent of her shampoo. She was so warm in his arms. So soft. Destined for him.
Then she woke, took a breath sharp enough to push Fergus’ chest from her back, and every muscle in her body seized. She jolted, but he’d been ready for it. He squeezed his arm around her, dragging her backwards into him, snaking his free hand under her neck and over her mouth.
‘It’s all right,’ he whispered. ‘Angela, you have to trust me. I’m not here to hurt you.’
She tried kicking, going for his shins with her heels, but the sheet hampered the force of her movements, and Fergus shifted his right leg on top of both of hers. Her breath was hot and wet in his hand, and her head was a wild creature whipping left and right. He waited it out. There were no surprises. He’d played the scenario out in his head hundreds, maybe thousands, of times. In his pocket was a handkerchief, and on it was a carefully measured dose of chloroform. There were things he wanted to do with Angela, and those things required her not to fight him. Fergus wanted her pristine.
‘Let it out,’ he said. ‘I know you’re scared and confused, but I chose you.’
Angela heaved forwards, rolling her mouth hard onto his fingers and biting down. Fergus tried to keep his grip on her, but his hand betrayed him. His fingers shot out straight and his wrist flicked backwards, giving Angela the space to bend her head forwards then smack it backwards into Fergus’ face, the rear of her skull a true weapon, splitting Fergus’ nose from between his eyes to below the bridge. The pillow became a mess of bloodied hair. He couldn’t see, and his face was a mask of agony. Only his right arm and leg remained steadfast, holding her in place. She spat, and a chunk of something warm and soft landed on his hand as he pinned her to the bed. The flesh was from his finger, he realised as he rolled her onto her back and slid his body on top of hers before she could attempt an escape.
‘’S all righ’, lemme help you,’ he muttered.
Blood droplets from his face burst juicily as they hit hers. Angela began to sob.
‘I’m not cross. Don’t cry,’ Fergus said.
Fergus pulled the handkerchief from his pocket with his right hand, shifting his left forearm to rest solidly across her breastbone. She gushed air.
‘Please don’t . . .’
‘Hurt you? Why would I? I’m your one true love, Angela.’
He pressed the handkerchief to her lips. A cotton kiss in the dark. Angela’s hips bucked beneath him, and he imagined a different bed, her holding him, wanting him on top of her.
Her neck arched. She did her best to fight, but he wanted her compliance more than she wanted her freedom. Desperation had fine-tuned him into an extraordinary beast. He could smell her toothpaste, and it was a field of wild mint. The diamonds in her eyes were more riches than he had ever imagined he would own.
Then the bedside lamp was arcing through the air. Had it been switched on, he knew it would have left a rainbow of light in its wake. Even as he saw it coming, he recognised it was too late for avoidance. Shattering on contact with his cheekbone, the pottery base turned gravel and took root in his flesh.
Angela fought harder as Fergus swayed, his head a wasp nest as he reeled from the injuries to his nose and cheek. The important thing was to keep the handkerchief over her mouth until she was asleep, but his hand was trembling and weak, and now he could see two Angelas, neither of them clearly. His hand needed help to maintain the pressure, so he pushed his forehead down on top of his own hand, doubling the force and allowing him to close his eyes for a moment. If he lost consciousness now, it was over. If she got out from under him, he was done. Everything he wanted, what pathetic time he had left, would be smoke.
She battered him with one fist. He had to take back control until she complied.
With one last monumental effort, Fergus raised his body a few inches then slammed his whole weight onto her ribcage. He grabbed her wrist with his free hand and her fingertips scratched weakly at his knuckles. The bed was wet, he realised. His knee rested in a damp, warm patch. That was fine. A success, in fact. She was relaxing. Surrendering. His whole head buzzed and burned, tidal nausea swept over him. Fergus let her hand slide from his grasp as the world pixelated then faded. His body covering hers like a blanket, the handkerchief then his hand and finally his head resting on her mouth, Fergus could resist unconsciousness no longer.
Was it possible that death was coming for him so much sooner than he’d anticipated? Fergus breathed deeply, trying to catch hold of the pain, yearning to stay in the moment with Angela, but there was a roundabout spinning mercilessly in his head, and he couldn’t get off her, couldn’t have lifted his head or moved his hand from her mouth if his life had depended on it.
Angela’s body juddered beneath his.
He couldn’t get off.
Angela inhaled ragged, raw breaths through her nose as the chemical held over her mouth worked its magic.
He couldn’t get off.
The last breath he heard leave her body was an inhuman rattle. He longed to comfort her, to tell her he was sorry. There was so much he’d wanted to do with her, and it had all gone so dreadfully wrong. Now, he had to start over. And first he would have to find someone new.