The buzzing of the doorbell penetrated right to the very tip of the bread knife that was poised above Mary’s sandwich. She looked down at it guiltily. It was approaching midnight and she shouldn’t really be eating at that time. A cheeky evening snack: cheese and pickle on white bread. The sudden angry emanation from the door felt accusatory.
Mary discarded the bread knife and, brow knitted, made her way to the front of the house. From upstairs, Jack’s voice, partly muffled by toothpaste, greeted Mary as she placed a hand on the lock.
“Wath that the door?”
“Yes, I’ve got it,” she answered.
The front door had only the top window allowing any glimpse of the outside world. The black night sky and a burning street light were all that Mary could discern. She unfastened the lock and took the plunge.
The air bit into Mary’s cheeks as she cautiously opened the door, digging in piece by piece. There was a murmur of a breeze that whistled through the deserted streets and the sky overhead was thick with darkness, obscuring the gaze of the stars. The street light sat just before hers and Jack’s semi-detached house and a trail of illumination snaked up the front path to the porch. A man in his early fifties with a piercing gaze and tailored business suit, stood coolly before her.
“Ms. Close?” said the gentleman.
“Good evening. Yes. I mean, sorry, that’s me,” Mary replied, noting the long black coat slung over the gentleman’s right arm. “Can I help you?”
“Ms. Mary Close?” The man’s eyes seemed to sting Mary’s skin more than the cold night air. She shifted uncomfortably in the doorway.
“I imagine you’ve been expecting me.”
Mary frowned. She studied the man again, feeling a certain fatigue, as she met his deep green eyes. He was slim, age stretched perfectly over his face and his hair a distinguished salt and pepper shade. He seemed familiar but Mary couldn’t place him.
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting anyone,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Franks,” said the man, in a tone that suggested this was obvious.
Mary shook her head. “I don’t know the name.”
“We’ve been planning to meet for some time.”
“Erm...I’m quite sure we haven’t.”
“I assure you,” Franks said, allowing a wry smile to enter his expression, “that this has all been previously confirmed.”
Mary contemplated the strange scenario unfolding before her. She should simply slam the door in the man’s face or call to Jack. But this Franks had an aura about him she couldn’t evade. She couldn’t entirely shake the conviction that she might indeed know him from somewhere. But every time she began to focus, the man’s very presence seemed to disrupt and distort her thoughts. Mary hugged the doorway, trying to work on the memory a little more.
“Perhaps you can remind me of this meeting,” she said. “I don’t suppose it’s my husband you’re after?”
“Most definitely not,” Franks confirmed, his smile departing instantly. “Ms. Mary Close. That’s who I want.”
Mary was beginning to feel unnerved by Franks’ insistence. He made no move towards her but his voice had an eerie air of authority that made him seem almost otherworldly. Mary felt as though he was somehow taking away her sense of control.
“You are not my first or last appointment tonight, Ms. Close. I would prefer it if we could address the situation directly,” Franks emphasised. His hand moved slightly under the coat and Mary thought she heard a noise but it was a fleeting sensation and she couldn’t be sure. She made to reply but Jack’s voice sounded again from the bathroom, this time cleansed of toothpaste.
“Who is it, Mary?” Jack called. Franks’ face tightened at the sound of Jack’s voice.
“Tell him I need directions,” Franks urged. Mary found herself complying.
“It’s someone who’s lost. Took a wrong turn. Just helping him with directions,” Mary returned, her hand gripping the frame of the front door. There was a pause. “Alright,” came the eventual reply.
Mary turned back to Franks. He seemed to have moved a little closer. Mary could feel her chest swell in quick rhythm. She thought of the sandwich sitting prepared on the kitchen top and its absence from her stomach made it rumble.
“Our appointment,” Franks continued, “was made at your behest. I’m never wrong about an appointment.”
Mary placed a comforting hand on her stomach. She felt a surge of strength. “I never made any appointment. Look, I don’t know who you are and I don’t know what this is about. You’ve made a mistake.”
Franks’ face didn’t alter a whisker. He placed his free hand on top of the black coat.
“My last client said precisely that,” he said, his voice laced with undertone. “Fear is the problem. It stops you grasping the situation.”
Mary could hear Jack moving about upstairs. His footsteps seemed to tread heavily across her skull. “What should I be scared of?”
Franks sought out her eyes and locked his gaze back onto her. “What’s inside.”
“Inside?” Mary exhaled slightly in exasperation.
“It’s when you wake up and the sweat clings to the sheets. An uncertainty late at night that has you rise and wander the house. It’s the terror of sleeping through your alarm. It’s a sudden headache that scorches your brain and you wonder if it’s the start of a tumour. It’s never being in on the joke.”
Franks suddenly laughed a hollow, humourless laugh that had the effect of penetrating deep into the house. Mary felt the start of tears underneath her eyelids; hot, violent tears. Tonight was not the first time she had woken anxiously and ransacked the house for an answer.
“Are you coming to bed?” Jack called. His voice was coming from the bedroom now. Mary’s mouth dropped open limply.
“Are you coming, Mary?” whispered Franks in a low, rasping hiss. His fingers twitched on top of the coat. It was like he was holding a shadow.
Mary looked up at the street light. Moths were drunkenly swaying back and forth in the luminescence. It was a warm golden glow: high pressure sodium. She understood the comfort it provided. It gave Mary the strength to meet Franks’ gaze.
“I just need a signature,” slid out of Franks’ mouth and his hand started to draw back the coat slung over his right arm. The street light seemed to flood around Mary’s periphery and as the coat gave up its secret, she opened her mouth to give up a silent scream.
Jack awoke to find himself slumped diagonally across the bed, half buried in the duvet. Momentarily puzzled, he looked round for Mary but the opposite side was empty. Rubbing his eyes clear, he shook off the disorientation and got up to search for her.
After he finished checking the upstairs rooms, Jack’s wanderings took him on a descent towards the front door. The door was wide open and the breeze outside had grown stronger, whipping in the cold. It beat in angrily at Jack as he shuddered and pushed it close. The chill remained in the hallway. Jack began to rub at his arms and chest for warmth.
The kitchen light was on. Jack called for Mary but there was no reply. Now the wind had been shut out, the house was deathly quiet. Jack went into the kitchen, unnerved by the silence. He looked around for his wife but upon failing to detect her, went to turn off the light. In doing so, he noticed Mary’s abandoned sandwich.
Jack inspected the snack. He clearly wasn’t impressed, muttering, “white bread” and “bad carbs” among his criticisms. Disdainfully, he pressed down on top of the sandwich and noted the bread had begun to harden as it stood exposed on the plate. Grabbing the plate, Jack opened the bin and slid the contents into the liner. The sandwich made a satisfying smush as it hit the bottom. Jack closed it back up triumphantly.
Outside, the moths hovered tremulously in the glow of the street light. Somewhere in the dark, a car could be heard starting up. A long black coat lay crumpled on the pathway below. One moth, overcome with masochistic excitement, flew straight onto the heated surface of the light. Its delicate body sizzled upon contact and, as if in repulsion, the light crackled and went out. The house before it was plunged into gloom. The remaining moths lost interest and departed to pursue other attractions, as the car could be heard reversing before rumbling away into the night.