The Sundowner


The Sundowner

by Carmilla Voiez






I knew my life would never be the same again the moment Rebecca opened her door. “We have to talk.”


Rebecca and I had been dating for five months, which was four months and three weeks longer than I’d managed to sustain any previous relationship. Most evenings, I’d arrive after a soul-sucking day at the office so we could spend time together and relax. Her apartment had become a safe space where she’d feed me and listen to my thoughts, nodding mute agreement. I appreciated the lack of effort the relationship required, a welcome contrast to conversations I’d overheard between colleagues who frequently complained about high-maintenance partners. Her words squeezed my throat like a hangman’s noose. She never wanted to talk, why now?


“Okay,” I said, after checking my escape route was clear.


“Do you love me?” she asked.


I wondered what was for dinner. My stomach rumbled. I couldn’t recall what I ate at lunch, certainly not enough to comfortably miss an evening meal. This break in my routine put me on edge. Surely, she could have waited until after dinner to strike up a conversation. Without the smell of cooking, her one-bedroom apartment seemed lifeless.


Rebecca stood on the other side of the room, clasping her hands together, massaging her knuckles. Distant memories, of watching my mother perform a similar action whenever she attempted to defuse one of my father’s rants, only increased my anxiety. Rebecca chewed her bottom lip, while her unblinking eyes tried to read the language of my body.


I stepped forward and she retreated, unclasping her hands and allowing them to seek refuge in the dark blonde hair that curled around her freckled face.


“What’s going on?”


“Sit down, please,” she begged.


My skin tingled as hair rose across my arms and legs, but I did as she asked and flopped clumsily onto the velvet sofa. I listened while she told me what was on her mind, then I fled.

I strode purposefully, needing to put distance between myself and the gleaming jaws of the sprung trap. The night was bright with dead stars and a scythe moon. My torso huddled against the biting wind as I turned shadowy corners and crossed decaying concrete streets at a speed designed to keep blood pumping to my extremities, allowing my surroundings to scroll past me while I attempted to unpick the knots in my brain.


In spite or perhaps because of the example from my own parents, I felt that love should be as natural as the sun coming up, and easy like Sunday mornings, the kind I often slept through. In retrospect, I’d made certain assumptions that now felt naive. I’d expected Rebecca to tell me if she wasn’t on the pill, but this evening she’d made demands and announced ultimatums as if the thing growing inside her was my responsibility.


Already, Rebecca’s midnight-blue eyes felt further away than the indigo sky and the narrow blade of the moon; her yielding touch was forgotten along with the taste of her fragrant lips, yet the parasite inside her was a ravenous beast that kept pace with my steps.


She intended to keep it; a unilateral decision I found difficult to understand. Years from now her child would scream, “I never asked to be born!” A sentiment I fully endorsed. What was the point? Not happiness, certainly. Was life better than the alternative? Was it some miracle in the midst of a dead universe? To have voiced such questions would have frightened Rebecca. She might have thought me suicidal; I wasn’t. I was mired in routine that required little thought. Planning an end to my life would have required more energy and emotion than I could easily access, but so would fatherhood.


My nostrils flared to inhale smoke from blackened chimneys, the metallic under-note of frost, and the alkaline tang of my cooling sweat.


I cut through the park. Low rhododendron bushes silvered with cobwebs on one side and antique play equipment on the other offered no protection from the wailing wind. Mature trees gathered some distance from the path but reaching their shelter would involve an unnecessary detour.


The basketball court was locked up tight and surrounded by fences too towering for even the most determined teens to climb. Small wire diamonds threw shadows across the path like quilting, reminding me of the soft bed and warm covers waiting to embrace my exhausted soul. Bent and rusted poles held aloft the dying petals of slanted hoops festooned with disintegrating grey nets like forgotten Halloween decorations, while the earth-bound thunder of skateboard wheels made my teeth vibrate.


I was startled when a filthy man materialized at my shoulder. Either he’d appeared from nowhere or I was more oblivious of my surroundings than I realized. Perhaps the tramp had escaped the shadows, for their darkness clung to the pockmarked face below his fraying hoodie. I should have been forewarned by the odour. The man stank of homelessness, urine, alcohol and worse.


“Good evening,” the man said in a disarmingly eloquent voice.


I nodded a greeting but lengthened my stride to reach the gate, stopping short when the exit came into view. Three teens gathered there. One had something in his hand that glinted like a sliver of moonlight. The youths approached and the weapon came into focus: a broken bottle. The grins on their faces were sharper still.


“We’re gatekeepers,” the nearest one said. “You need to pay the toll.”


Breath like swamp water invaded my nostrils as the tramp whispered in my ear. “Don’t worry. I’ll lead them away. You run on home, and I’ll catch up.”


Terror silenced all other thoughts, and I was rendered incapable of forming a reply. The tramp darted, with surprising agility, towards beech trees, pursued by the three screeching gatekeepers.


The world spun around me on its axis, and I stuck out my arms to keep my balance, ears roaring like jet engines driving my turbulent descent. My lungs couldn’t supply enough oxygen to keep me upright. Time slowed and stuttered as I collapsed into darkness.


When I regained consciousness, the hair plastered against my forehead was brittle with ice. My torso and chin were bruised, and grit from the path stuck to my cheek. I clambered to my feet, legs shaking beneath me. I checked my skull for injuries but found only scrapes and bruises.

I scampered home and locked the door behind me. My sanctuary where I was safe from scruffy kids from bad neighbourhoods with violent mischief on their minds, and free from all the other unreasonable demands of the world.


My heart pumped lava through my veins, and I felt as though my skin was on fire. I fixed a mug of cocoa with a drop of something stronger to calm my nerves. I was tempted to phone Rebecca and yell at her, but childhood memories of hiding while Father shouted and swore at Mother before she upped and left us both dissuaded me. I needed to deal with the situation rationally, and to do that I would have to separate myself somehow from my anger and the sense of bitter betrayal.


My armchair and the hot drink soothed me and, by the time I’d rinsed my mug, I felt ready for bed. When I was halfway up the stairs, the doorbell attempted to summon me back. As the echoes faded, fists beat a staccato rhythm against my front door. I would have to answer and send the caller away before they woke the neighbours. I entertained the thought that it might be the police before brushing it aside. Had the gatekeepers followed me to collect their toll? No, that was ridiculous. I must keep paranoia at bay. Maybe it was Rebecca. Had she come to apologise?


The tramp stood on the front step. His forehead wet with blood that flowed from an open wound on his scalp.


“You need to go to hospital,” I said.


“I’m fine,” he said, gripping the doorjamb for support. “But I could do with a drink and a bite to eat.”


I wanted to send the man away but couldn’t. The blood seeping from his head wound shouldn’t be his only reward for saving me. I invited him inside but recoiled when he sank into my favourite chair, tainting it with filth for eternity. My father always told me I was too sensitive for this world. Could he have been right?


“Cocoa?” I asked.


“Do you have something stronger?”


“Whiskey?”


“Perfect. And a sandwich if it isn’t too much trouble.”


“No trouble at all.”


I perched on the edge of the sofa and watched the invading stranger drink my Glendalough and eat a chunk of ham between doorstops of white bread. He was younger than I’d assumed, not much older than me. He tore into the sandwich as though he hadn’t eaten in weeks. My stomach reminded me I’d missed dinner, and I felt something close to shame at the comparison.


“Better?” I asked when the vagrant finished. “It’s just, I have to get up at dawn, so...”


“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said. “The sun won’t be coming up tomorrow or the next day for that matter. Night only from now on.”


The man was obviously insane. Ancient tribes might have wondered whether the sun would rise again, but this was the twenty-first century. I would have laughed if I hadn’t been intimidated by the weight of his stare and the violence it threatened.


“Still, I really do need you to leave now… please.”


The man nodded and creaked to his feet. “I’ll see you around.


I ushered him out of my house, vaguely concerned that he needed medical attention but willing to ignore that fact if it meant I could abdicate responsibility and go to bed. I half-crawled up the stairs and fell asleep the moment my head touched the pillow.


My alarm woke me at seven. The words of the tramp were forgotten as I stood under the steaming shower nozzle, rubbing soapsuds over bruised skin.


The sky was black when I left for work, but November often clung jealously to night. I needed more coffee than usual when I reached the office, and the fluorescent strips stung my eyes, but properly awake or not I was at my desk and would appear, to any passing supervisor, as if hard at work. At midday I left the office to grab lunch. It was only as I crossed the street and was caught in the headlamps of a slow-moving car that it dawned on me that it was dark as night.


If anyone else noticed the starlit sky, they did not seem concerned. Shoppers hovered outside windows decorated for Christmas. Workers hurried past, clutching briefcases and folded umbrellas, while squawking into cellphones. I headed for a news stand on the corner. Would the newspapers report on the phenomena? The tabloids heralded celebrity gossip, new killer viruses and spikes in violent crime, while the broadsheets focused on failed businesses, mass redundancies and political scandals. I flicked through an astronomy periodical but found nothing about the absence of our nearest solar neighbour or any eclipse. Of course, they would have been printed before dawn was due. I would need to check the evening editions.


“Strange weather, huh?” I said to the seller as I paid for a paper and a packet of chips.


The man shrugged dismissively. He might make his meagre living as a purveyor of world news, but his hollow eyes remained fixed on his wares, scouring the area for potential thieves. He paid little attention to what was happening outside his sphere of influence.


I left work at 5.30. Streetlights and headlamps washed the street with silver, suggesting treacherous ice. The evening editions didn’t mention the lack of sun. Perhaps heavy cloud, coupled with the tramp’s words, had tricked me.


I didn’t visit Rebecca that evening. I tamped down my conscience when it tried to accuse me of cruelty and neglect, knowing that I hadn’t had enough time to process my feelings let alone talk about them. Going to see her now would likely make things worse for both of us.


I cooked burgers and laid the table for two, anticipating the tramp’s return. At seven I devoured what was on my plate, covered the vagrant’s food and popped it in the microwave ready to reheat. He hadn’t arrived half an hour later when I was washing up. I sprayed my beloved armchair, but it still smelled awful. I’d have to get the cover dry-cleaned. I settled on the sofa with a glass of whiskey and turned on the television to pass the hours. At eleven I woke with a yawn, slunk up the shadowy stairs, my back bent and shoulders rounded from fatigue. I showered quickly and headed to bed afraid that the sun would not rise the next morning.


The doorbell woke me. I checked the clock and saw it was just after midnight. I threw a bathrobe around myself and hurried downstairs to find the shadow-cloaked tramp at my door. His wound was healed, but his hair was crusted with dried blood. I recoiled but invited him inside.


“I made dinner,” I said as the man reclaimed my armchair. “I’ll get it.”


“May I have some more whiskey to wash it down?”


I’d need to buy a new bottle, a cheaper one next time. “Sure.”


The fire was lit when I returned to the living room, and the man’s eyes were half closed. I placed the plate and glass on the coffee table and put some distance between myself and his stench.


“Why didn’t the sun come up today?” I asked.


The man opened his eyes. “You noticed?”


“Of course.”


His bearded face lit up like one of those jolly elves from the ubiquitous window displays when he smiled. If he smelled better, I might have enjoyed his company. I considered offering him use of my shower, but he’d probably clog the drains. I had enough problems in my life already.


“What was the weather like two days ago?” he asked. “What was it like last Monday or the Saturday before?”


I shrugged.


“But you looked up at the sky today, didn’t you? You searched for the sun and couldn’t understand why no one else noticed it wasn’t there.”


“Why?”


“People see what they expect to see. Did you notice the homeless people in doorways?”


I only saw briefcase-wielding workers, window shoppers and the newspaper seller, but I felt I shouldn’t admit that.


He nodded as if I’d replied. “I surprised you in the park, the teens did too. Have you never been scared before?”


“I’m not afraid of gangs. Dad always said you should walk around like you own the place then no one will bother you... It normally works.” My father also told me the sun wouldn’t shine on a coward, whenever he found me hiding or crying. Was that why all this was happening? I’d run out on my girlfriend then fled from children wielding a broken bottle. It all seemed cowardly in retrospect. Something else I needed to mull over when the tramp left. “Thank you for helping me,” I added.


“I want to help you,” the tramp said. “But you’re a difficult case.”


It was far too late, and I was much too tired for riddles, but if I threw the man back onto the street would the sun come up tomorrow? I glared at the vagrant, noticing afresh the mud, the blood and sweat stains mixed with what might be vomit on his coat. How could anyone live like that?


“Have you cursed me?” I asked, not certain where the question came from.


“I’ve simply opened your eyes. Now you can pay attention to what surrounds you. See what I see.”


It sounded like a curse. The man’s smile morphed into a portrait of smugness. I’d held in a lot of anger and was ready to explode.


“You need to leave.”


He stood up and rubbed his distended belly. “Thanks for the food. I’ll see you around.”


I sincerely hoped not and locked the door behind him.


At seven o’clock my alarm chimed. Sunrise wasn’t due for another hour, so I had time to pretend everything was normal before facing the truth, one way or the other. I opened my eyes, switched off the alarm and got out of bed, yawning.


The light on the landing didn’t come on. The bulb must have died. Shadows moved in the corner of my eyes as I lurched to the bathroom where the light was blisteringly bright and bounced off the smooth surface of the mirror, banishing all darkness, except for the black rectangle beyond the window.


I sipped coffee and swallowed crumbs of toast, rolled obsessively between twitching digits. I paid attention to every mouthful, noticing how the sharp crusts scratched the roof of my mouth and the coffee made my tongue tingle.


The sun should have been rising when I left the house at eight. Even on cloudy mornings the sky warmed to salmon in the east, didn’t it? This morning everything was black apart from glistening puddles of white under streetlamps. I couldn’t see the moon although the odd distant star glinted above, requiems from solar-systems long-since dead.


I passed a mailman and had to stop myself grabbing the man, begging him to confirm or deny the existence of the sun. That would be crazy. I needed to calm down. It would get light soon. It had to. I stepped beyond a circle of halogen. Two steps, three. My shadow stretched until it was ten feet long with stick legs and trailing arms. When the shadow split into two I spun around certain someone was right behind me, but no one was there. The shadow remained pronged when I faced ahead again. I vainly attempted to reassure myself that a second source of light cast the additional shadow, that it didn’t belong to a supernatural pursuer, determined to drive me mad.


I struggled to breathe air that felt like mercury and coated my windpipe. I could barely hold my head up. Strobe-lights danced in the edges of my vision. Counting the seconds between breaths didn’t help. One... two... three tasted like poison, and on four I coughed uncontrollably. I gripped the jagged bricks of garden wall and swayed precariously on legs that threatened to fold under my weight.


Needing to distract myself from the terror, I studied the brownstones, searching for lights in the windows. I noticed their fascias for the first time, the different coloured doors and windows where drawn curtains or blinds muted the lights beyond. One of the doors was a welcoming shade of burgundy and I felt myself drawn towards it. The desire to stumble up the path, knock on the door and beg for help from this neighbour was almost irresistible. I needed to talk to someone, but they would be too busy, still rolling along the tracks of life, and oblivious to my derailment.


I had to keep it together. The sun would rise soon.


I pulled the phone from my pocket to call Rebecca, hoping her voice would calm me and I could apologize. Voicemail. The recorded message sounded metallic and inhuman. I asked her to call me back.


I arrived at work an hour late. Monstrous faces of colleagues turned to frown at my tardiness as I weaved self-consciously around their desks to reach my chair. I put on headphones and logged into the computer without pausing to fetch my usual morning coffee. At least it was easy work, fixing people’s computer problems. The simple routine quickly became my focus, swallowing thoughts of insanity and end-of-world scenarios with the mundane. Usually I worked through calls quickly, but this morning I extended each conversation, asking questions about the callers’ lives, families, where they lived and, most importantly, whether they could see the sun. Voices claimed it was a crisp and sunny fall morning, but the windows around the office revealed only dark skies.


At lunch I tried Rebecca again but didn’t leave a second message. I bought samosas and cracked open the pastry to inspect the filling. Chickpeas and what looked like minced carrots and peas, browned with spices.


I gazed into doorways. Sick faces with sunken eyes and grime-streaked skin stared back. I hadn’t realized how many homeless people subsisted in this city. I gave my last samosa to a young girl wrapped in a blanket, hoping it would be enough. Enough to keep her from starving and enough to make the sun rise.


I walked to Rebecca’s after work. A curtain twitched, but she didn’t answer the door.


I wanted a weapon. If I had a heavy knife in my hand, I could have stalked through the park on my way home, searching for those gatekeepers or the tramp. I wanted to punish them for making me afraid. My father would understand the desire to externalize fear into explosive violence. I had nothing more than house keys, so I took the long route home even though it was still early. I cooked a meal for one and watched a documentary before going to bed, bone tired, at nine o’clock.


The doorbell didn’t wake me, and I slept until the alarm went off at seven. The echo of a nightmare stretched its claws inside my mind, disappearing as I opened my eyes. Today would be different. Today I would see the sun.


But it was just as dark.


I accepted my dual pronged shadow, my evil companion, as the new normal. We think the human mind is fragile, but mine was supple enough to adapt and was already planning for my survival. The narrow sidewalks between the office and eateries were crowded, and I was forced to weave between bodies like a serpent. The shops buzzed with consumers. Thousands of unfamiliar faces attached to badly dressed bodies that milled around aimlessly, blocking my path, delaying my lunch, wasting my precious time, all the while interrupting my carefully crafted routine.


I purchased a long-bladed chef’s knife after work and tucked it into my jacket pocket. Sixty minutes later, I found myself outside Rebecca’s building with no recollection of walking there. It seemed pointless to knock on her door when she hadn’t returned any of my calls. Instead, I ate dinner at a small restaurant.


“Table for one.” Could anything be lonelier?


I bent over a white plate that dominated the table. Savouring every mouthful of timballo, I studied the other diners, grasping the edges of conversations, and searching for any hint of unease, but finding none. At ten, the waiter asked me to leave. I patted my pocket and was reassured by the shape of the blade. Time to go hunting.


I couldn’t recall the faces of the three who had called themselves the gatekeepers, only their cruel grins and the way light reflected off the broken bottle. I decided to look for them at the park exit. If they were there, I’d know I’d found my targets. If not, I would skulk around until I spotted anyone vaguely familiar.


The park was full of noises. The wind howled like an injured animal, filling my head with its cacophony; stones, caught between the grooves on my soles, scratched the tarmac like rats behind walls. Shadows moved beneath distant trees, and the diamonds of a high fence made me think of prison. By the time I had the gate in my sights, I was hyperventilating. I needed to see the thugs who had threatened me and the tramp who had cursed me. I had to destroy them. It was the only way life might return to normal. My despair when I realized the gateway was unmanned made my knees buckle. I put out my hands to prevent landing on my face and ripped skin from my palms. I couldn’t leave until blood had been shed, and the light in the eyes of each of my victims had been extinguished. The sun required a sacrifice if it was to rise. The Incas knew that and now I understood it too.


I stalked across grass towards the trees. It was more like a forest than a thicket. Fallen leaves crunched beneath my feet. Twigs snapped under my weight. Something screeched – an owl or a fox. I strode deeper and deeper, losing myself between the multivariate trunks. The knife was no longer in my pocket but clutched in my fist. My knuckles shone white in the gloom. I used the torch on my cellphone, tilted so its pool of white light revealed the uneven ground.


Four mounds, covered with russet leaves, disrupted the natural beauty of a clearing. Instinct told me I had reached the centre of the woodland. I got to my knees and brushed earth from the first humped shape, revealing a familiar filthy coat and vomit-inducing stench. The clothes of the others were cleaner, and one clutched something in his hand. It glistened in the light of my phone. I recognized the bristly cheeks and sunken eyes of the tramp, but the others were unrecognizable, covered in bruises, broken mouths wide in terror. Who could have done this and why? I wept. If I was unable to sacrifice those who had tormented me, I might never see the sun again. I squeezed the handle of the knife. If this blood wasn’t available, I would find plenty more at the skate park.


I sprinted, filling my limbs with new purpose. The children had no time to react before I was drenched in their blood. I felt no guilt. Had they survived beyond this endless night, they’d have no jobs, no future. I encountered junkies in the public bathrooms, their eyes shut to suffering and their acne-ravaged, gaunt faces softened by stupid smiles. They would never wake to chase another dragon.


I cleaned my face and hands as well as I could, before heading back to Rebecca’s. I needed to convince her of the folly of parenthood in our uncertain and miserable world. If she refused to open the door, I had a key.


I burst into Rebecca’s living room and shouted her name. A man filled the doorway to her kitchenette. I barely registered his features, feeling like a betrayed fool as I came face to face with what could only be another lover. I steamed towards him, but he moved quickly aside and grabbed me from behind. Shock waves of pain ravaged my nervous system, radiating outward from my arms and shoulders as he yanked them into unnatural positions. Plastic cuffs were pulled tight around my wrists, forcing them together behind my back, digging into my skin. A kick to the kidneys made me topple forwards, crushing my nose while my front teeth punctured lips. I turned my broken face to the left and spat out blood and carpet fibres. The man’s knee dug into my spine.


“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you in court. You have the right to talk to a lawyer for advice before we ask you any questions. You have the right to have a lawyer with you during questioning...”


“The tramp stole the sun,” I explained, but my words were ignored.


“If you cannot afford a lawyer, one will be appointed for you before any questioning if you wish. If you decide to answer questions now without a lawyer present, you have the right to stop answering at any time.” His mouth barely moved when he spoke, as though he was a solitary motionless point at the centre of a chaotic universe. I doubted he was aware of the perpetual night, too focused on his own routine.


Blood dripped from my mouth and oozed from a hole in my side. The blade must have torn through my jacket and pierced my skin. I wondered whether the wound was fatal as I processed the man’s words. Questioning. Lawyer. The weight on my back shifted then withdrew as the man pulled the knife from my pocket before dropping it into a clear bag. His face loomed above me, obscured by creeping shadows.


“What are you doing here? How do you know the deceased?”


“Rebecca’s dead?” I imagined or perhaps remembered her midnight-blue eyes as they faded to opal.


The cop unhooked his radio and pulled it close to his lips. The tramp’s voice seeped into my ear with seductive reassurances.


“Not guilty by reason of insanity.”


I foresaw a quiet room and the encouraging nod of a man with a neatly trimmed beard to whom I would relay stories about my father and the bruises I wore after each life lesson; the mother who saved herself and left me behind; and the sun that refused to shine on cowards. I chuckled as the cop pulled me to my feet. Let him record my strange amusement in his notebook, it certainly wouldn’t harm my defence.

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