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“It’s bitter kaut today, ay?”
Devey studied Mr Opperman’s wizened face, then glanced up at the ominous grey sky. “Certainly is, Mr Opperman. Bet you miss South Africa on days like this, huh?”
The old man spat on the small patch of lawn outside his bungalow. “No way, boet! I never miss that shit hole. Do you miss Pakistan?”
Devey chuckled. “I was born in Northfield, man, but my parents say India is nice, which is where they are from. I’m sure every place has its good and bad.”
“Like people,” said Mr Opperman, sounding grumpy—but then everything the South African said sounded grumpy. Sometimes he bordered on offensive, too, but he always greeted Devey with a smile, so he liked the old man overall. “Any post for me today, boy?”
Devey slid a letter from his postbag and handed it over. “Just the one, and it looks like a bill, I’m afraid.”
The old man spat again and deposited the letter inside his faded green cardigan. “I suppose you’re only doing your job, boy. Take care today, ay? It’s gunna rain, and you ain’t dressed for it.”
Devey smoothed his hands over his dark blue shorts. He wore them because he had run out of clean trousers, and groaned internally at the thought of having to do laundry tonight. “And here was me thinking it would be mild today,” he said. “You take care, Mr Opperman. See you tomorrow.” He waved the old man goodbye and continued to the next bungalow. Right on time, Mrs Partridge emerged from her front door and wheeled her bin up the path. Devey trotted over and took it from her as he always did on a Thursday morning.
“Oh, you’re a dear,” she said—the same thing she said every week. Devey hated watching the pensioners on Blackstitch Lane struggle with their wheely bins, so it had become routine he would lend a hand during his rounds. He even looked forward to it.
“No problem, Mrs Partridge,” he said with a smile. “Here’s your post. Someone’s popular today!”
The old dear’s face lit up at the bundle of letters. Usually she got nothing. “Oh, how wonderful,” she said. “I turned eighty today. These must be cards from my family.”
Devey gave a thumbs up. “Oh, wow. Happy birthday, Mrs Patridge. Many happy returns. Are you doing anything nice today?”
She shook her head and a melancholy whistle escaped her dry lips. “You stop making a fuss at my age. What I’d give to still be a sprog like you.”
“I’m twenty-four!” Devey objected playfully.
“Aye! A babby. Enjoy your youth while you have it because it’s gone before you know and you never know which day will be your last.”
“Enjoy your birthday, Mrs Partridge,” he said, not wanting to depress himself with talk of old age and infirmity. He strolled to the next bungalow, but Miss Mallon didn’t come out to greet him like she usually did. The pensioners treated their weekly bin run like a social event, an opportunity to wave and check in with one another. Miss Mallon was usually out with the rest of them. But not today.
“Suppose I’ll have to do it the old fashioned way,” Devey mumbled as he pulled the woman’s post from his bag and headed down her path. The front curtains were closed, which was another unusual sight as Miss Mallon was active for her age—an avid Bingo player and a regular at the swimming baths according to their chats—and she took pride in her house’s appearance.
The front door was open. Just a little.
“Miss Mallon?” he called out. “Mary? It’s Devey, I have your post.”
No answer. His empty stomach growled, but it wasn’t in hunger. He stood on the doorstep, unsure whether to go in. He called out again, but still he got no answer. Knocking bought no response either. Mary’s hallway was dim and unlit. Why was she not answering?
He could lose his job for walking into an addressee’s property he reminded himself, but he couldn’t just drop off Mary’s post and leave, right? What if she was hurt? “Come on, man,” he chided himself. “She might have fallen and broken a hip. What’s to think about?”
Mind made up, he prodded the front door with his trainer. The smell hit him like an open palm—a sickly-sweet odour like curdled milk. “Mary? Are you here? It’s Devey, the postman. You’ve got me worried.” He peered down the hallway, then took one cautious step after another. “Your front door was open,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind me checking on you.”
He passed by the lounge and peered inside. An embroidered couch faced a small flat screen television, but there was no Mary. Further down the hallway, a doorway opened onto what he assumed was the kitchen. The room was lit and, as he walked towards it, the odour increased. He called out again. This time a reply met him.
Carpet covered the hallway, but Devey had been unaware of it until it changed texture beneath his feet. His trainer left the bristly fibres and came down on something tacky—a substance not quite wet but not quite solid. He lowered his gaze and saw blood, a slick trail leading into the kitchen. All at once, the walls tilted either side of him. His vision spun. The slim tendrils of fear that had been clutching him since he’d left the doorstep now swelled into monstrous tentacles wrapped around his guts. “Mary? Mary, if you’re okay now is the time to say so. Mary? Mary, please answer me!”
Another whimper. A low moan.
Devey swallowed a gelatinous lump in his throat and stepped into the kitchen, fighting the urge to run away.
Blood smeared the cream linoleum. A cat fussed over something in the centre of the room and flinched when Devey entered. It didn’t abandon its prize, though, and even let out a low growl to warn him off. The animal was not his concern, and he glanced around for Mary. A flimsy wooden table and chairs blocked his view of the far side of the kitchen and left him with no choice but to go further inside. He’d now lost all hope of there being a simple reason for Mary not putting her bin out.
Man, do I really want to do this? Still time to turn around and leave. Pretend this never happened and go back to my rounds.
How would I sleep at night?
He took a step forward.
And found Mary.
Although it could have been anyone.
The stench which had been a mild annoyance up until now, became a noxious wave that doubled him over. His balance deserted him and he fought to keep from tumbling to the blood-streaked floor. Mary’s wide eyes stared up at him, and her teeth clacked together trying to speak—but she had no lips or tongue. Tendons stretched back and forth across her face, ending at her hairline in sticky clumps. Barely a scrap of healthy skin remained. She was a ghoul.
Mary lifted an arm to him, just an inch, but Devey understood she was asking him for help. He reached down to take her hand, but recoiled in horror when he saw finger bones bursting through the pads of her fingertips. “I-I’m sorry,” he said, stepping back. “I-I’ll get help.”
Mary’s arm collapsed to the ground. The light faded from her lidless eyes.
Devey kept backing away, legs like rubber, until his heel struck something. He turned around and saw the cat. It hissed at him and scurried away, leaving behind its prize—one of Mary’s ears.
Devey vomited again before fleeing the kitchen.
* * *
Mr Opperman waited with Devey on the front lawn until the ambulance came. The wrinkled South African was smoking a cigarette on his front step when Devey had spilled out of Mary’s home screaming for help. The old man did his best to calm him down, rubbing his back and chatting, but it didn’t work. Devey was still shaking by the time the police arrived ten minutes after a pair of paramedics in an ambulance. Devey didn’t even remember if it was him who had called 999. His phone was still in his pocket.
“You say the front door was open when you arrived, Mr Singh?” asked one of the two police officers, a lanky man with coppery sideburns to his chin. His partner remained in the car, talking on the radio. Both officers were as freaked out as him—the horror was written all over their faces—and they’d come rushing out of Mary’s house one minute after going in. Blackstitch Lane was busier than ever with an ambulance, police car, and several gawking neighbours. Mr Opperman had waved a hand at them to go back inside several times, but none of them obeyed. Devey tried to speak. That gelatinous lump choked him again, and he struggled to swallow it down. Mr Opperman rubbed at his back, which helped. “There, there, boy. You’re out of it now. Just tell the policeman what you saw, ja?”
Devey nodded. “Y-yes, the door was open.”
The police officer frowned. “But you found her in the kitchen? Why did you go in?”
“I was worried. Mary is—was—a strong lady, but she’s still old. I thought maybe she’d fallen.”
“Mary? You knew her personally?”
“No, I just… I know most of the people on this road. I watch out for them.”
The police officer tilted his head like a curious puppy. His long sideburns added to the effect. “Why?”
“Because he’s a decent boy,” said Mr Opperman snippily. He didn’t seem to like authority and glared at the officer every time the man asked a question.
The police officer shrugged. “Okay, fine. So Mrs Mallon’s front door was open, and you found her in the kitchen?”
“Miss Mallon,” Devey grunted. “She never married. There was blood on the hallway carpet, like maybe she’d dragged herself into the kitchen. She might have got ill in the night but couldn’t make it outside, or changed her mind about going outside to get help and went back in. I think she collapsed in the hallway.”
The police officer studied his notepad before putting it away. “We found a mobile phone on the floor next to Miss Mallon’s body. It’s possible she was about to leave her house but couldn’t manage it, so went back inside to call for help instead.” He pinched the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath. “What a wretched way for an old lady to end up.”
Devey agreed wholeheartedly. The pain Mary must have gone through… He could not imagine it. “Officer? What was wrong with her? There was barely anything left of her. What can do that to a person?”
The officer appeared just north of thirty, but right then he looked like a scared little boy. “Mr Singh, I wish I had the slightest idea, but I don’t. Perhaps the paramedics will know more.”
Devey glanced down the path to where the ambulance was parked on the curb. Both paramedics spoke on their radios, animated and fidgety. From first impressions, it didn’t seem like they had a clue what had happened to Mary either. In fact they looked downright scared. A car door slammed and the police officer’s partner got out of their car. She looked anxious about something. The male officer excused himself and went off to speak with her.
Devey clutched himself to keep from shaking. Mr Opperman trembled too, pulling his cardigan around himself. “You should go inside,” Devey told him. “You were right, I think it’s going to rain.”
“Don’t you worry about me, boy. You wanna tell me what you saw in poor Mary’s house? Everyone who goes in there comes out looking like they met the devil.”
The image of Mary’s decaying body flashed through Devey’s mind, and he screwed his eyes shut hoping to make it go away. He rubbed at his forehead and wondered how he would ever sleep again. That sickly-sweet odour might never leave him. “You don’t want to know, Mr Opperman. Her skin… Her skin had peeled away in a hundred places. There were pools of blood all over the floor. It…”
Mr Opperman waved a hand. “Ja, ja, okay. You tell quite the picture, boet. Is there anyone who can come get you? You can have a dop of whiskey at my house if you need to gather yourself first.” He frowned. “Do you people drink?”
Devey chuckled, surprised he could still manage it. “I’m Sikh.”
Mr Opperman shrugged and raised his eyebrows.
“So yes,” Devey explained, “I can drink.”
“You brownies all look the same to me.”
Devey chuckled again. “And during my first year on this route I thought your accent was Australian.”
“Ha!” The old man slapped his back. “You wouldn’t be the first.”
The two police officers came hurrying back. Devey wasn’t sure what had changed, but they seemed hostile, like they would have shot him if they’d been carrying guns. Mr Opperman moved in front of Devey and put up a liver-spotted hand. “Whoa, whoa, where is the fire?”
“Mr Singh?” The male police officer spoke only to Devey, ignoring Mr Opperman. “Did you touch the body?”
Devey struggled to understand. “You mean Mary? She reached out to me before she died.”
“Did you touch her?” The officer took a step forward, but his partner seemed hesitant to follow.
Devey stepped back, feeling threatened. “What? No, I never touched her! I bolted just like the rest of you did.”
“What are you doing? This man has done nothing wrong.” One of the paramedics hurried over from the ambulance. She glared at the two officers, her pretty face contorting with ugly anger. “Is there something we should know about?”
“Mr Singh needs to be isolated immediately. You should get instructions any minute.”
The paramedic’s tough expression withered, and she glanced at Devey nervously—maybe even fearfully—before taking a half-step back towards the ambulance. Mr Opperman took a step back too, removing his hand from Devey’s back. “Eh, boy, perhaps you better do as they tell you, ja?”
Devey shook his head and licked his lips. “What’s going on? You don’t need to-”
The police officer pulled something from his belt and held it in front of him. “Mr Singh, this is CS gas. If I am forced to spray you, the effects will be extremely unpleasant. Please don’t make me.”
Devey turned his face and splayed his fingers out in front of him. “Hold on, man! I don’t understand what’s happening here.” A squawk from a radio and the two paramedics hurried back to take a call from the ambulance. Their eyes never left Devey as they stood talking into the receiver. In fact, all eyes were on Devey. He felt like an animal at the zoo. The police officer with the CS gas lowered the cannister. “Look, Mr Singh. Devey, isn’t it? I’m not sure what’s happening myself. All I know is that I reported in the scene as normal, but then we got a call back from HQ saying to use any means necessary to keep you from leaving the scene. That usually means you’re dangerous, but we also got orders to see you into the custody of the Ambulance Service who are to isolate you immediately. I think you know what that means.”
The female paramedic who had stuck up for Devey now shouted over from the ambulance. “We need to take you in, Mr Singh.” She looked at the police officers apologetically. “You both need to present yourselves, too, at Quest Lane Hospital. That’s where we’re heading.”
The male police officer nodded that he understood, then turned a scowl on Devey like somehow this was all his fault. He felt like telling the guy to go shag himself. He’d done nothing wrong. Instead, though, he asked a question—a question he had asked already. “What was wrong with Mary?”
The police officer shook his head. “No one has a fucking clue, but if it’s contagious… Look, please just get in the back of the ambulance.”
If it’s contagious… Devey shuffled his feet like a zombie, so utterly terrified he would do whatever he was told if it meant not having to process what was happening. The paramedics kept their distance as he stepped into the road and rounded the ambulance. They slammed the doors the second he was inside. The engine rumbled almost immediately. As they drove away, Devey peered out the ambulance’s rear window at the residents of Blackstitch Lane. The pensioners stood in a line at the end of their paths, watching silently. He wondered if he would ever see any of them again.