Workaholic developer Richard Gardener is laid up at home for two week’s mandatory leave—doctor’s orders. No stress. No computers. Just fourteen days of complete rest. Bliss for most, but hell for Richard… in more ways than one.
There’s a darkness that lives inside Richard’s home; a presence he never knew existed because he was seldom there alone. Did he just imagine those footsteps? The smoke alarm shrieking? The woman in his kitchen?
His wife thinks he’s just suffering from work withdrawal, but as the days crawl by in his solitary confinement, the terror seeping through the walls continues to escalate—threatening his health, his marriage, and his sanity.
When the inconceivable can no longer be denied, Richard is forced to come to terms with what is happening. Can he find a way to banish the darkness before he becomes an exile in his own home?
“Steven Jenkins weaves such masterful shades of weirdness between the workaholic programmer’s inner psyche and the supernatural elements he encounters that the reader is equally unsure if they are real—or just products of his overworked brain. I did not want to put the book down until the mystery was solved.” — Val Muller, author, The Scarred Letter
“If you’re a fan of the haunted house tale, it’ll grab you and make you scared to get up and go to the bathroom if you read it late at night. As a fan, you know that’s a good thing. It’s a lightning quick read and hard to put down.” — Sue Millinocket, Reader’s Lane
“Gripping, tense, and bloody scary. The author has taken the classic ghost story and blended it faultlessly with Hitchcock’s Rear Window.” — Colin Davies, Director/Producer for the BBC’s award winning show The Coal House at War
Richard Gardener was wide awake, watching the clock on his bedside table turn to 5:59 a.m. Despite being a workaholic, he hated the sound his alarm made. He would always wake just before it sounded and switch it off. But today Nicky had purposely failed to set it.
He watched the digital display turn over to 6:00 a.m., with no horrid alarm wail. The silence was deafening. Staring at the time, he couldn’t help but remember the events of yesterday. At the office. That morning from Hell. He tried to shake off the memory, but it was embedded in his mind.
He could see himself sitting at his desk, trying to concentrate on the screen. He remembered how much his eyes stung as he punched the data into his computer, and the screen blurring every few minutes, causing him to rub his eyes with his palms. Focus! he screamed in his head. He remembered every hour passing so rapidly. You have to focus! What’s the matter with you? Leaning back in his chair, all he could hear and think about was the tick-tocking of the large clock hanging on the wall next to his desk. Come on, Gardener, get it together… you’ve only got three hours to finish this. Move your ass. Clutching his coffee cup, he remembered that it was stone cold. He stood, adjusted his tucked-in shirt, and as calmly as possible walked over to the coffeemaker. As he reached for the pot resting at the top of the machine, he noticed his trembling hand. He clenched his fist tightly to stop it. Turning his head, he checked if any of the telesales staff had noticed—they hadn’t. Suddenly feeling light-headed, he grasped the wall for support. He closed his eyes, waiting for the feeling to pass.
After a few seconds his head began to clear, so he seized the coffeepot handle, ignoring his still trembling hand. Pouring its hot contents into his mug, he rescanned the office for onlookers—again there were none. As he started for his desk, his vision blurred again. He stopped, but the room began to spin. His stomach somersaulted as he felt hot coffee splash over his ankle. The office filled with loud echoes, like the sounds of a swimming pool. He could hear the muffled voices of the telesales staff speaking to customers, the noise of fingers clattering against keyboards, and distorted laughter coming from Leah’s office.
Then dead silence. Not even the sound of his coffee mug smashing against the hard carpet could be heard. Nothing. The next thing he saw was Leah standing in front of him, mouthing something, with a look of worry. He tried to hear but it was no use. His knees began to buckle, and as if a time-lapse had occurred, he fell, hitting the back of his head on the desk.
And then he remembered the darkness.
# # #
The sound of Nicky rustling beside him pulled him out of his daze, so he rolled onto his back. Staring up at the ceiling, he wondered how on earth Leah was going to cope without him. He tried to think of another subject, like movies, or sports, or even what to have for breakfast, but thoughts of the website and the missing files continued to seep through. How am I ever going to relax? he thought. She’s never gonna cope without me. Give her three days and she’ll be begging me back to save her ass. But I’ll just have to decline. Tell her I have to relax, put my feet up. Doctor’s orders.
Nicky shuffled again, and then popped her head up to look at the clock. “It’s a quarter past six, why aren’t you sleeping?” she asked, eyes half-shut.
“I’m trying. My body clock’s all messed up. I’m not used to sleeping in.”
She rubbed her tired-looking eyes and yawned. “How you feeling today? Any better?”
“I’m fine. I think.”
“Not feeling light-headed or anything?”
“No, nothing. Probably just a one-off.”
He turned his head and kissed her cheek. “Get some sleep. You’ve gotta get up soon.”
“Love you,” she said, barely audible.
“Love you, too.”
He listened to her heavy breathing as she slept beside him. Gently stroking her long brown hair, he stared up at the ceiling, trying desperately to block out thoughts of work.
No such luck.
# # #
Richard had been up since 6:45 a.m., unable to sleep. Nicky was standing in her underwear at the other side of the living room, ironing a dress. He glanced at her slim, sexy body as she ironed, trying not to be late for work again. It made him smile. No matter how early she was up from bed, she would still always manage to be in a mad rush.
“How’s the bump?” she asked, still focused on her dress. “Is it still bleeding?”
Richard prodded the cut at the back of his head, and then checked his hand for blood. “No. It’s fine. It’s dry.”
“Thank God. Lucky you didn’t need stitches.” Nicky sighed. “Or worse.”
“Worse? What’s worse than being carted out on a stretcher…in front of everyone in the office? It was bloody humiliating.”
Nicky stopped ironing her dress and scowled at him. “You could have been killed.”
Richard chuckled. “That’s a bit overdramatic, babe.”
“No it’s not. You could’ve smashed your head on something worse than a desk. You could’ve had brain damage.” She returned to her ironing, clearly irritated. “Don’t know how you can be so calm about it.”
“Look, Nic, there’s nothing I can do now. The doctor said it was just a nasty bang on the head. Maybe a little concussion. So there’s nothing to worry about. Honestly, I’m fine.”
She slipped the dress on and then unplugged the iron. “Well, make sure you call me if you start to feel unwell. Or better still, call the doctor.”
She walked over to the couch, almost running, and kissed him on the lips. “Right, I’m off. See you later. Don’t forget what I said.”
“Okay. Don’t worry. Just have a good day,” he replied, getting up to follow her out.
Standing at the front door, she kissed him again. “Don’t stress yourself out today. No heavy lifting. No work stuff. And no coffee. Just take it easy. Promise?”
“I promise. I’ll be fine. I’ll phone you if there are any problems. Don’t worry about me. I’m just gonna chill out on the couch. Nothing stressful.”
She left the house and headed across the street toward her car. “Love you.”
“Love you too. See you later.”
She gave one last wave goodbye and drove off.
Watching her as she vanished down the street, he had a sudden feeling of loneliness. This was the first time he had been alone in the house since moving in five months ago. His work schedule had become almost unbearable, even for him. He sat back on the couch and began watching the news again. Nothing registered. His mind only had room for one thing: work.
He glanced at the phone on the coffee table next to him. Should I call Leah, just to ask how she’s coping? he thought. No, I shouldn’t. The time at the corner of the television screen read 7:45 a.m. The office isn’t even open yet, he realized. What the hell is wrong with me? Get a grip, Gardener. Enjoy two weeks of lazing around the house, with no one to bug you. Come on, forget about work. They can manage.
No they can’t. Not without me.
Trying to ignore the temptation, he could feel the lure of the phone pulling on him like a drug, or like the desperation for chocolate. He focused on something else: what to have for lunch. But it was futile; the enticement proved too much as Richard picked up the phone and dialed the office.
Ashamed of his lack of willpower, he waited for the call to go through. After a few seconds the sound of Leah’s voice filled his ear.
“Hello. TSH. Leah speaking. How can I help you?”
“Oh, hi, Leah, it’s Richard.”
“Hi, Richard. How are you feeling?”
“Yeah, great. Thanks. Just a little hazy. Other than that, pretty good. Feel a bit stupid after yesterday. All that fuss about nothing.”
“Richard, it wasn’t ‘nothing’. You collapsed.”
“I just fainted. People faint all the time. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“The doctor seems to disagree. He said that your blood pressure was through the roof, that it was most likely stress-related. That doesn’t sound like something you should be brushing off so lightly.”
“I might have been a little stressed, but who isn’t these days?”
“Look, Richard, I understand the pressure that you’ve been putting yourself under—I really do—but what I don’t understand is why you kept it from us? I mean, over some bloody missing files? I told you it didn’t matter. It was nothing to get so worked up about. We all make mistakes. You could’ve told me you were stressed, taken some time off, instead of bottling it all up. I’ve said time and time again to take it easy. Skipping meals. All that coffee. Sooner or later something like this was bound to happen.”
“I didn’t keep anything from you. Don’t be so dramatic. It’s no big deal.”
“It is a big deal, Richard, you need to get some rest. And you shouldn’t be calling the office. We can cope fine without you.”
“Yeah, but I don’t need to be stuck here for two weeks. It’s ridiculous. I’m not sick. We’ve got too much to do. I feel like I’m being punished for something.”
“Look, Richard, don’t be so paranoid. I’m not suspending you.”
“Well, that’s what it feels like.”
“All we’re saying is for you to use up a couple of weeks of your holidays… to relax. That’s all. You haven’t used a single day since you started. It’s too much. It’s not good for you. Everyone needs a break once in a while. Recharge the batteries. Maybe take Nicky somewhere. You’re no good to me all worked up and stressed. I need you to be on top of your game. And after two weeks, you’ll feel like a new man. I’m sure of it. And then you
can put all this behind you.”
Richard sighed. “I’d be less stressed if I could finish the website.”
“Look, I appreciate your concern, but David’s more than capable of finishing the website. So there’s no need to fret.”
“Jesus Christ, David? How is he meant to finish up? He doesn’t know what he’s doing. At least let me come down so I can bring him up to speed.”
“Absolutely out of the question. You need to calm down. And stop working yourself up so much. This is exactly why you need to take some time off. You’re gonna give yourself a heart attack if you’re not careful.”
“I am calm, Leah. I just need to—”
“Goodbye, Richard. I’ll speak to you in a fortnight.”
“What if I just talk to David over the phone?”
The phone went dead. “Leah?” Richard threw the phone down on the couch in anger. “Bitch.”
He stormed into the kitchen, opened the fridge, and stared at its contents. Food, he thought. Need something to eat. Anything. He grabbed a packet of bacon and a pot of margarine, and placed them on the counter. Opening the small cupboard behind him, he reached in and pulled out two slices of white bread. Can’t beat a bacon sandwich. He popped the bread into the toaster, put the bacon into the microwave, and waited. David. What the hell does he know? Jack-shit, that’s what. I bet he’s gunning for my job. I bet he’s been having cozy little meetings with Leah. Behind my back. Jesus Christ—I bet he’s been sleeping with her. Richard chuckled as the microwave pinged. Well, who the hell cares! Not me. Let him try to take my job. See how he copes with the pressure. Doesn’t bother me one bit. I’m the one at home, chilling for two weeks, while they’re stuck in work all day, slaving in front of a computer screen.
Who’s laughing now?
He returned to the living room couch with his toasted sandwich and a cup of coffee. The news had finished, and in its place was a cookery show. He despised cooking, especially cookery shows, which was why he lived on microwave dinners, takeaways, and Nicky’s amazing home cooking. Despite his poor diet and lack of exercise due to his workload, Richard was a slim man. He had been as a child. No matter how much he ate, he maintained a lean physique—much to his wife’s annoyance. Although slender herself, Nicky always stressed about her weight, signing up for expensive weight-loss plans and purchasing countless workout DVDs. She even joined a gym when they first moved back to Bristol—which she failed to actually use. He wanted to be supportive by going with her, but finding the time was always one task too many.
He checked his phone: 9:01 a.m. The office’ll be about full now, he thought. Probably all running ’round like headless chickens trying to get the new website up and running. Probably all in a panic. Stop it! Think of something else, for God’s sake. He shook his head, trying to remove the thoughts from his mind. Gotta take my mind off it. He scanned the room for some inspiration. After coming back empty-handed, he sank deep into the couch and attempted to learn how to cook, sighing.
As 10:00 a.m. approached he got up and walked over to the far cupboard. Kneeling down, he opened the door and inspected his vast DVD collection. He ran his index finger along each movie case, hoping to find something to take his mind off work. After several minutes of painful kneeling on the hard wooden floor, he finally selected a movie to watch: Predator, one of his favorite films as a child. Standing, he felt light-headed. He returned to the floor, assuming that it was simply a head rush from getting up too fast. Nothing more.
After a minute or so he got back up onto his feet, wary. The sensation had passed. So he walked over to the DVD player, popped the disc in, and sat to watch the movie.
# # #
Richard had fallen asleep during the movie. He woke at 1:30 p.m., unable to stop the thought that it was lunchtime at the office, reminding him he was hungry. He headed back into the kitchen to make something to eat. After throwing a frozen pizza in the oven, he went back into the living room where he noticed the ironing board still out. He wrapped the cord around the iron, folded the ironing board, almost jamming his fingers in the process, and placed both back into the cupboard. His stomach rumbled, so he checked the time on his cell phone. Twenty-minutes before it’s ready. Got to do something productive.
Walking back out into the hallway, he opened the door under the stairs. He pulled out the small vacuum cleaner, plugged it in, and began to vacuum the wooden floor. With only half the floor completed, he switched off the vacuum cleaner, dropped the long nozzle, and entered the kitchen to check how his pizza was doing. It was still very much frozen. Using a tea towel, he turned the pizza, and then closed the oven door.
He glanced at the hallway, and at the vacuum dropped at the center.
God, he was bored.
# # #
As the day went on, Richard’s boredom grew.
He had spent most of it watching TV, eating, and listening to music. He had attempted to surf the Internet, only to discover the laptop and modem missing. He shuddered at the sight of the neat dust mark where the computer once rested. At first he thought it had been stolen—but then he remembered the astuteness his wife possessed.
How much stress could one computer cause him? At the most he would check his e-mails and see if the cursed website was up and running. Nothing more. Ten minutes. Tops. Well, maybe an extra five to look at porn. But stressful? No chance. Removing it from his life was far more taxing.
# # #
His cell phone read 4:30 p.m. With reluctance, he got up from the couch, picked up his dishes and cups, and returned to the kitchen. Placing them into the sink, he covered them in soap and started to run the hot water. Despite Nicky’s warnings to relax, he didn’t want her to come home to a messy house, so he scrubbed the dishes, cups, and cutlery as fast as possible, aware that she was due home around 5:00 p.m.
After he had cleaned everything, he started to dry them with the tea towel, putting them away as he went along. When it came to the cutlery, he opened the drawer and noticed that only three of the fifteen dessert spoons remained. He frowned for a moment, and then carried on drying. The sound of the front door opening startled him, causing him to almost drop a cup. He glanced at the clock on the wall. 4:51 p.m. She’s home early, he thought.
Finishing off what was left of the dishes, he waited for her to enter the kitchen to greet him. When she failed to come, he called out, “Nic?” He waited for a reply—there was none. Frowning again in confusion, he left the kitchen, walking to the foot of the stairs. “Nic! You home?” He waited, but there was only silence. Listening for a few seconds, he shrugged off the bewilderment and went back to cleaning the kitchen.
To his left, next to the wall, he noticed the bin overflowing with rubbish, with his discarded pizza box from earlier sticking out of the top. Drying his hands with the tea towel, he walked over to the bin and attempted to compact the rubbish with his fist. After straining for several seconds, he gave in and decided to change the bag. Securing the black bag, he yanked it from the tall, metallic container, trying not to pull a muscle in his back. The last thing he needed was another two weeks laid up. Once out, he tied the pull-string in a knot and carried the bag out through the back utility room and then outside, leaving it propped up against the back door. I’ll put it in the garage tomorrow. No point rushing. Friday’s bin day… I think.
Wiping his hands on his tee shirt, he locked the back door and headed into the kitchen.
Nicky was in the hallway next to the stairs, removing her coat.
“You’re home?” Richard said, puzzled.
“It’s after five, babe,” Nicky replied. “I’m always home at this time. Lost track of time bumming ’round I bet.”
He smiled and then joined her, kissing her on the cheek. “I’ve had a very productive day, actually.”
“Oh yeah?” She hung her coat over the banister. “Doing what?”
“I did the dishes. I took out the rubbish. I even did a little vacuuming. What do you think of that?”
Her face lit up with gratitude and surprise. “God, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you clean since we’ve moved in. Well done. Let’s hope you collapse more often.” She beamed and then dropped her car keys onto the stairs.
“Have you been home already today?”
He shrugged. “That’s weird. I could have sworn I heard you come home about fifteen minutes ago.”
She shook her head. “No, not me. Probably next door. These terrace houses have thin walls.”
Nodding in agreement, he picked up her bag and placed it in the cupboard under the stairs.
They walked into the living room and sat on the couch, with Nicky exhaling, as if the weight of the world had just been lifted.
“Tough day?” he asked, leaning in close.
“Not really, just felt long. Couldn’t wait to get home. How’ve you been? No funny turns or dizzy spells?”
He shook his head, “No, nothing. Uneventful, like my day.”
She gave a playful, sad look, as if to feel sorry for him. “Oh, my poor baby. Don’t worry, only thirteen more days to go.”
Leaning back, he smiled and reached for the TV remote control. “Great. I’m sure the days will fly by.”
# # #
As Richard lay in bed with Nicky reading her book beside him, he thought about the events of yesterday. How could he have fainted in front of everyone like that? Him. The boy who
giggled when Tammy Wolford fainted in school assembly. The man who hadn’t taken a single sick day since his first job in Worcester. How could he let things get so bad? After all, he was used to a little pressure, a little lack of sleep to get the job done. His whole adult life was based on demands, on deadlines. Everything from finishing his degree to getting TSH up and running. This was him. Richard Gardener. And Richard Gardener didn’t get sick. He didn’t crack under pressure. He thrived on it.
Sure, it worried him a little. Who wouldn’t be a little concerned? But he wasn’t dying. Not any time soon. He felt great. The best shape of his life. Doctors don’t know everything. Yesterday, Richard just had a bad day at the office. That’s all. Doesn’t everyone?
And now he was stuck at home for two weeks. Forced at gunpoint by his doctor and senior manager Leah—a woman who couldn’t run a team if her life depended on it, let alone hand out medical advice. Two whole weeks of sitting, watching TV. Fourteen tedious days of eating junk food and sleeping late, achieving nothing of meaning and accomplishment.
Nicky slipped an old shopping receipt into her book as a bookmark, set it down on the bedside table, and turned off the lamp. “Good night babe,” she said, leaning over to kiss his lips.
Nicky closed her eyes and nodded off.
But Richard had way too many thoughts flying around his head to sleep.
And tomorrow was yet another day of boredom and contemplation.
This holiday stinks….