Jack paid for his groceries, ignoring the voice as he took the bag and walked out into crunching snow. It was something that had started to happen a while ago.
Mum dropped by with Brian earlier. She brought back some fans – the folding paper ones? He’s sweating like a pig.
Jack snorted, shaking snow from his boots before stepping indoors. That was Jessie’s voice, as it usually was. Sometimes it was Mum or Dad, and occasionally strangers. At first he’d been really worried; but it was only now and then, they weren’t saying anything nasty, and he knew it wasn’t real. They connected to form a loose sort of story – Mum meeting some bloke called Brian, recently them having gone to China or somewhere for a holiday. Apparently they were back now, and it was summer.
Next morning he stepped outdoors to slush trickling down the hill into gurgling storm drains. The grey sky had cleared and birds flocked overhead. Jack put on his leathers and rode out through the countryside.
You’re doing well. The sound of Jessie sighing, merged with the roar of the wind and the bike’s engine to ghostly effect. Remember when we pushed Mum in the pool? I think that was Tenerife. She screamed like the Wilhelm scream and the three of us couldn’t stop laughing. Then Dad came along and – he throttled past a tractor, missing the first few words of what followed – they broke up. Don’t blame yourself.
He stopped at the side of the road and took off his helmet. He frowned. So something had put their relationship under stress, something to do with him. Maybe this was the voices beginning to take a turn. He shook his head, rubbing his ear as though that was where they came from. He turned back, recalling the day last week with Mum, Dad, and Jessie. They were fine. That was real.
When he got home he splashed his face and looked in the mirror. He messed up his helmet-smoothed hair and stared into his reflection, leaning on the mirror with corded forearms.
‘Look,’ he said to himself, ‘you’re not going crazy. You’re just hearing stuff sometimes, that’s all. Ignore it. Nothing worth worrying about.’
Hey, Jack. Brian here. I’m looking forward to meeting
Jack turned the shower on full blast and sat on the rim of the bath, jamming his fingers in his ears until the voice stopped. The mirror frosted with steam. Jack drew a motorbike in the condensation then went downstairs, opened a beer with his teeth, and sat in the armchair by the fireplace drinking and tapping the electric fake coals with the poker, staring up at a cobweb on an exposed beam.
The next few bottles he used an opener for. Jessie always said that one day he’d chip a tooth. He’d done it last week to chuckle at Mum’s wince, then Dad did it too and she left the room. He set the empty bottles up like bowling pins and flicked them down. He turned the telly on to have some background chatter while he sank in the armchair, half watching, half listening to the rain outside the cottage pounding slate and asphalt like a stream falling from above. Sitting curled up in the flickering light of the TV – though he didn’t remember turning the lights off – he sank under with his last thought being that maybe he needed a change of scenery.
Jack woke up once to a loud buzzing and a stranger’s voice saying promising neurological activity, then went to bed. In the morning the air was crisp, the edges of leaves rimed with frost. He rode towards the coast, finding the roads remarkably clear. And free of potholes.
He parked his bike near the beach and sat with an ice cream watching the roiling waves. Yesterday’s upset seemed daft now. Getting so bothered about hearing something he knew wasn’t real. Though maybe it couldn’t hurt to get looked at. He nibbled the flake, spilling chocolate fragments on himself, then stood, brushing them off, and wandered along the stony beach.
They’d probably have a pill to shut it up for a mild case like this, he decided. It was just a bit of an annoyance. He heard Jessie for real on the phone enough.
After lunch he started to think about heading back and looked for his bike. It wasn’t where he’d left it. He went up and down the road checking he hadn’t remembered it a little off. Groaning, he went down a few alleys to make sure before he would call about a stolen motorbike. And all of a sudden, every parking spot in sight had a motorbike. His model.
His heart sank. It was getting worse. Visual, now. He went back to where he’d parked and that was the one spot left empty. He nodded to passers by, pretending nothing was the matter, and decided to head back to the cafe and wait until this spell passed. If it didn’t, he’d have to cross that bridge when he got to it.
The brisk walk around searching for the bike had made his feet ache, and his heart beat a furious tempo. He sat back in the cafe with another coffee, facing away from the street and its row of identical bikes. Looking at a kitschy little painting of a sail boat on the wall, he sipped coffee slowly so that by the time he finished it and turned round again this episode would be over. Once he got home he’d see a doctor. It was going too far now.
‘Jack!’ Jessie cried from the door. She sat opposite him, ruddy and windswept from the cold bluster.
‘Oh. Fancy seeing you here,’ he said. Assuming she was real.
‘Yeah. How long have you been here? Shame we didn’t know. I was going to warm up a minute and head back.’
‘Look, um. There’s something I should have told you…’
She frowned. ‘What?’
‘I think I’m -’ he said. She disappeared. He felt sick, hollowed out. He went outside. The excess bikes had gone, at least. His real one was where he’d left it. He got on and headed away.
As he sped past another Jessie at the side of the road, he heard her say wake up, throttled harder down the empty road hoping that it actually was as empty as it looked. Please just wake up. She sobbed and it started to rain. He pulled over, removing his helmet and letting himself get soaked. This was becoming all too much.
The leathers at his elbows and side started to peel away, eroding all the way through until there was a trickle of blood. He heard a phantom squeal of brakes and the helmet cracked in his hands.
I don’t know if you can hear me.
Wait. They’d had to sell Granddad’s old cottage. Why was he living there now? He dropped the helmet. A crowd of Jessies appeared and one gripped his hand. ‘They say it could be any day now,’ she said. Days. How many days had it been Saturday for?
He understood. A dreaming mind, skipping over the cracks in its imagined world.
He heard the beep of a heart monitor. Jessie gripped tighter as this world blurred like vaseline smeared on a camera lens. It was a warm, bright summer’s day as Jack opened his eyes.