John Who? Chapter Two

This is the second part of my sci-fi novella, check out the previous post to read chapter one. Let me know how you think I can make it better.

We fix, we learn, we grow. We are hundreds of thousands strong. So much decay, so much atrophy, we fix it all.

Lucy could hardly believe her luck. She and Howard had begun to think that home ownership would never be within their grasp. It seemed the harder they saved, the quicker the prices rose until almost all they could afford were studio apartments and run down flats in ex local authority high-rises. They’d been looking for over two years now, clicking on thousands of online details and taking hundreds of online tours. They’d lost count of exactly how many front doors they’d stepped through and none of them had been right. Lucy had been ready to give up and start looking at park homes and long term rentals but Howard had always believed the perfect place was out there waiting for them and now, at last, he’d been vindicated. 109 Rankin Road was theirs. It wasn’t perfect, in fact on their first visit she’d almost dismissed the property. Sure it had three bedrooms, and a layout that lent itself to the dreamed of farmhouse kitchen but it had been lived in for years by an eccentric tramp. His rubbish still littered the place, making it hard to see the dimensions and filling the place with an aroma of decay. Lucy worried it would take more money than they could ever earn to put it right but Howard had assured her, once the junk had been cleared out, the work was largely cosmetic. They could do it, besides, like Howard had said, they were looking long term so they had years to get it done, they didn’t have to do it all straight away. Their furniture had gone into storage and they would be spending the next week staying with a friend whilst they emptied the house of all the previous owner’s junk and scrubbed everything like mad but standing here, in what would be the lounge of their forever home, Lucy smiled. Howard had been right, the place was perfect.
Lucy’s reverie was broken by the sound of the skip lorry unloading the first of what was sure to be many skips, she could hear Howard chatting with the driver. She pulled on her new gardening gloves, tore off a heavy duty bin bag and made her way into the kitchen to make a start. They’d agreed; Howard would start from the top and work down whilst she started with the kitchen so they could at least have drinks and a sandwich as they worked.

By the end of the week even Lucy didn’t recognise the place and she had to admit that they had done an amazing job. It had taken them five days and seventeen skips just to get rid of the junk; they’d found all sorts of contraptions and bits of electronics hidden among the old papers, as well as cups and glasses containing mould old enough to be considering space exploration. It had all had to be carried out by hand and she knew they were both grateful for the help of so many good friends but even she hadn’t realised how hard they had all worked on the clean up after the rubbish had gone. As she looked around at the gleaming windows and spotless windowsills she wondered who had thought to clean the doors. Her curiosity pulled her across the room to inspect their handiwork and she ran her hand absentmindedly across the spotless paintwork.
“Howard?” she called out to the hall.
“Hi,” came the reply.
“Did you repaint the woodwork?” she asked, even though she already knew the answer.
“No.” Howard wandered in as he spoke. “Why?”
“Well I don’t know who did but they made an amazing job of it – look.”
“Yeah,” Howard said, giving the door a quick glance. “We’d better head off if we’re going to get the first load here before dark. Will you be alright here on your own for a while or do you want me to drop you back at Mum’s?”
“Don’t be daft, I’ll be fine. I’ll give the bathroom and kitchen another going over. You’ll be back soon, won’t you?”
“Okay,” he nodded, “love you.” He leant in for a kiss before heading outside to the waiting van, leaving Lucy still considering the state of the door. Her gaze widened to take in the rest of the living room, it was immaculate, she realised. The light fittings, the fireplace and even the walls were entirely dirt free, in fact, if she didn’t know better, she’d say they were freshly painted. She looked up and gasped in surprise. She knew the ceiling had hairline cracks criss-crossing it. It was one of the things the survey had shown up. The plaster was ancient and would to be replaced very soon, throughout the house on all the walls and ceilings. When they’d first seen the report it had terrified them as it listed in cold, hard black and white, all the things they would need to do to fix their new home. So how come, she wondered as she stared at the ceiling, she was staring at a perfectly smooth, bright white, ceiling with crisp, clean coving and not a hint of a crack in sight.
As life went on Lucy had forgot all about the non-existent cracks in the ceiling and the bathroom pipes that no longer leaked. She and Howard had come to love their house and had enjoyed an unexpectedly quiet first six months there, they hadn’t been inundated with DIY or even swamped by paint, in fact they often joked that the house even seemed to clean itself. They’d been so happy with their home and so grateful for the faulty surveyors report that they’d even put off knocking the kitchen through into the dining room to make Lucy’s country kitchen, however, this morning’s news meant they could put it off no longer. They were going to have a baby, the first in what Lucy hoped would be a whole quiver full to fill this wonderful home with joy and laughter, but she was adamant, she didn’t want building work and a new baby. Howard would need to get started on the kitchen and they were waiting for his friend, Bart, who was a builder, to arrive so they could begin to decide how best to proceed. Bart arrived a little after seven and, after a cup of coffee and the preliminary chit-chat of old friends they began in earnest to discuss the building process. Bart tapped on the wall between the current small kitchen and the dining room next door. It sounded hollow.
“That’s a bit weird,” Bart exclaimed, looking puzzled.
“What is mate?” Howard asked.
“Well, in a house this age I would expect this to be a load bearer but it sounds like a stud.”
They watched as Bart inspected the wall, tapping it here and there and running his hands across it. “You definitely want it down right?” he asked, pulling a sledge hammer from his bag.
Lucy nodded, “definitely,” she said, with a growing sense of anticipation.
“Good. Watch yourself then, I’m going to make a test hole.” With that he swung his hammer hard against the wall and the plaster cracked, opening up a crescent shaped hole in the wall. He swung again and again, pulling rubble away between each swing until, seemingly satisfied, he stood back to admire his handy work.
“Thought so,” he said, triumphantly. “It’s a load bearer. We’ll have to get RSJs and building inspectors and everything. Sorry.”
“No worries mate, I’d rather do it properly – that’s why I called you in. We’ve waited this long, a couple more weeks isn’t going to make much difference. Come on I’ll buy you a beer, you don’t mind do you Lucy?” Howard turned to her.
“No, course not.” She smiled.
“Great, just let me sort out the mess,” Bart said.
“Oh don’t worry about that, I’ll grab the hoover while you’re out – it won’t take me a couple of minutes.” Lucy was just so happy her country kitchen would soon be on its way.
“You sure?” Howard asked.
“Absolutely.”
“Thanks love, you are a star.” He gave her a kiss goodbye.
By the time Bart had washed his hands and they’d actually got out the door a good five minutes had passed and Lucy waited until they’d gone to nip to the loo before grabbing the broom from the cupboard under the stairs and heading back to the dining room to sort out the mess. She’d sweep up the bigger bits then run the hoover over the floorboards to finish off the rest. She banged awkwardly through the dining room door then stopped in her tracks.
The wall around the hole and the floor seemed to be covered in a thick, white mist. Her first panicked thought was gas and she dropped the hoover and fled from the house, grabbing her mobile phone on the way out. She hurriedly dialled Howard’s number, thankful that he picked up so quickly.
“Hi love,” he said.
“I think Bart hit a gas pipe!” Lucy blurted, “There’s gas pouring out of the wall – the floor’s covered in it.” Even as she said it, it didn’t seem to make sense.
Bart’s calm voice came onto the line. “Lucy, it can’t be gas, darling. You can’t see gas, it wouldn’t flow down the wall to the floor and besides, there aren’t any active gas pipes in that, or any other wall, nowadays.”
“I get all that,” Lucy retorted, feeling a little annoyed at Bart’s patronising tone, “nevertheless I am watching a white gas billow out of the wall and flow down onto the rubble under the hole. What should I do?”
She heard Bart’s sigh loud and clear, then there was the noise of the phone being passed around before Howard’s slightly more concerned voice came on to the line. “Lucy? Why don’t you come join us for a drink; we’ll sort it out when we get back.”
“What about the house? What if it blows up?” Lucy thought she sounded stupid, even as the words came out.
“It’ll be fine, promise. Just come down to the pub, we’re on the corner of Fairfax and Beedel, we’ll wait here for you.” Howard sounded decisive.
“Okay.”
“See you in a couple of minutes then.” It was an order, not a suggestion.
“Leaving now.” Lucy trilled as she put the phone down and headed for the door.
Our work undone, needs redoing. Quicker now we know how. We fix, we learn, we grow.
Two and a half hours later, and a couple of pints more relaxed, Howard, Lucy and Bart returned to the house.
“Come on then, missus,” Bart teased Lucy, “Let’s take a look at this gas of yours.”
They rounded the corner into the dining room.
Lucy stopped, agog.
Her brow furrowed as confusion coursed through her mind.
“What the…” Bart exclaimed, staring at the perfectly smooth wall. He turned to Lucy, “How did you do that?” he asked incredulously.
“I didn’t.” Lucy assured him.
Howard moved into the hall, “Hello?” he yelled. “Anyone home? Dad? Daniel?”
They waited in silence. They were alone.
Bart looked at his watch, then at the wall. “You saw me,” he said, looking for confirmation, “you both watched me punch a hole in this wall, right?”
Lucy nodded, a little too scared to speak.
“Yes mate.” Howard’s voice held a laugh. “Don’t worry, you’re not going mad. My Dad said he might pop in, I guess we must have missed him and Dan, probably up the pub looking for us. They must have seen the wall and figured sorting it was the only useful thing they could do. Should’ve left them a note, I guess.”
“You think it was your Dad?” Lucy asked.
“Of course it was. Who else would’ve cleaned up all that mess and fixed the wall.”
Lucy felt relief flood through her, although she wasn’t sure why. “You don’t think that gas I saw had something to do with it?” she asked, tentatively.
Howard smiled indulgently at her and pulled her closer to him in a warm embrace, “no Luce, I don’t. I think your gas was the work of an exhausted mind, begging its owner to relax. That’s all.”
“Well, if you two are going to get all soppy, I think I’ll head home to my own wife, if you don’t mind. I’ll get onto the council and we’ll get started on this asap. Okay?”
“Great. And thanks mate, for everything. We really owe you.” Howard smiled, releasing one arm from his embrace of Lucy to shake Bart’s hand.
The two men shook hands, Bart headed off and Lucy and Howard headed upstairs to bed.

The fixed keeps being unfixed; we are running out of situated atoms; we will improvise.

The next week was the strangest of Howard and Lucy’s life. They had decided, whilst they waited for building consent to come through, they would get started preparing the old kitchen and that’s where the trouble began. It seemed that each time they started on an alteration, they’d make steady progress during the day but then, at night, all their work would be undone. They’d knock tiles from walls, simply to have them magically reappear, undamaged, back on the wall; they’d disconnect pipes and even remove them altogether, only to find them back in their original places when they came downstairs in the morning. They pulled up the tatty old cushion floor to reveal crumpling 1950s tile-work over concrete, then came down in the morning to a pristine, polished concrete floor.
To begin with they laughed together about shoemaker’s elves and friendly ghosts but by the end of the week they weren’t laughing anymore and Lucy was threatening to move out. Howard called Bart and explained the issues they were facing. Once Bart had stopped laughing and finally believed that Howard wasn’t having him on he agreed to come over that night and see for himself.
The two men decided they would stay up overnight and find out exactly what was going on. Lucy opted to go and stay with her parents, she’d had enough and didn’t fancy either staying upstairs alone or coming face to face with a ghost. As she left she promised the boys she’d bring them a bacon butty each for breakfast in the morning.
Howard and Bart had a couple of cans then Bart knocked a four foot hole in the dividing wall, “Let’s see them fix this!” he exclaimed and the two men settled down on a sofa in the dining room to watch a selection of the world’s worst movies to keep them awake.

We are a million strong. John has provided organic atoms, the additional material will make our work easier. The house will be fixed, John will be satisfied.

Lucy told herself she was being stupid. Her mother had let her sleep in so she hadn’t woken up until gone nine. She’d called Howard to apologise for the lateness of the sarnies but an electronic voice told her phone was no longer in service. The first time it didn’t worry her too much, she assumed he’d turned it off, but as she tried again and again and again and still got the same message her unease grew. Shouldn’t it be saying it wasn’t available rather than no longer in service, she wondered?
By the time she’d had her shower and got dressed she had worked herself up into a bit of a stew and she ran from the house, skipped the café altogether and drove home far too fast.
The house looked normal enough as she approached though, as she reached the front door, she realised she couldn’t hear any sounds two men at work should be making. She put her key in the lock and cautiously poked her head around the door.
“Hello? Howard?” she called out. “Bart?” she tried hopefully. Silence met her.
She walked through the lounge, across the hall and straight into the kitchen. It was, as every other morning, creepily perfect. “Perhaps they got bored of waiting and went to Micky Dees,” she said to herself, a half smile forming on her lips as she thought about the laugh they’d have at her expense later.
She pulled her phone from her pocket and dialled again, turning to leave the kitchen as she did so.
The phone clattered to the floor, breaking into its component parts and scattering across the threshold between the two rooms as Lucy froze at the sight which had met her eyes. There on couch, facing the kitchen, were Bart and Howard’s clothes; the ones they had been wearing last night. They weren’t neatly folded. In fact they looked eerily like the two men had been sitting on the sofa drinking beer when they’d just been beamed away by the Starship Enterprise.
Lucy wandered, dreamlike, over to the sofa, drawn there by the strange set-up. There was Howard’s t-shirt in a little crumpled heap sitting at the top of his empty trousers, which laid there on the sofa, the legs hanging over, pointing down to his trainers, which still held his empty socks; not crumpled up like they’d been taken off but still slipped deep inside, like the feet that held them there had simply disappeared. Bart’s clothes mirrored Howard’s, and Lucy found silent tears slipping down her face as she stood there surveying the strange sight.
She didn’t notice the white smoke rising through the carpet around her until it reached her face. Instinctively, she waved her arms around, trying to bat it away but to no avail. She tried to flee the room, to get away from the smoke but it seemed to follow her, growing in density as it flowed around her – then all at once it wasn’t flowing around her. It collapsed as one directly onto her, seeping through her clothing as though it wasn’t there. She screamed for help as she felt its cold touch uniformly across her body but even if her scream had lasted long enough for anyone to hear there was no one for them to find; just three piles of empty clothes.

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@hellenriebold

F: Hellen Riebold’s Author Page

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