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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Getting Out

Category: Issue 7, Short Story Winners

The cursor flashed on the computer screen, taunting him.

>COME AT 3 THIS AFTERNOON

He had been contacting Benton for a few weeks now, first by email and then by instant messenger. It had started fairly innocuously… but then it quickly traversed into something much more dangerous.

> I CAN’T DO THAT. I’M UNABLE TO LEAVE THE HOUSE. I’M AGORAPHOBIC.

He wasn’t lying. Benton hadn’t left the house in months. He did everything from home – online shopping and home delivery was his own personal technological saviour. Benton spent his time immersing himself in his writing. He was currently working on his fourth novel; the last one of which had catapulted him into the literary spotlight.  But recently, he’d found it increasingly difficult to concentrate.

> MEET ME AT 3, OR IT’S ON YOUR CONSCIENCE.

He logged off.

Great, was Benton’s only coherent thought. He was planning to commit suicide if Benton didn’t show up there alone. Of course, he would have liked to have called the police and let them deal with it all; but he’d said that if he saw the police or anyone else, the result would be the same, and it would be his blood on Benton’s hands.

Panic started to set in— the thought of leaving the apartment was enough to bring on severe anxiety: it overwhelmed him, the walls seemed to close in and begin to crush him.  He began to do some deep breathing exercises to calm down.

One, two, three…

He looked up at his bookcase for inspiration. “Getting Out – By Benton O’Reilly”. His last book had sold close to one-million copies worldwide. It was the story of Peter Lankton, housebound by chronic obesity and blackmailed by the games of a homicidal maniac, who threatened to kill one person for every day that Peter remained at home. It was art reflecting modern life, and now, his life was reflecting his own art. The man who was contacting Benton had chosen the screen name ‘Donald’, just like the maniac who’d stalked Peter in his book. Donald had even chosen the avatar of Donald Duck. He was making a parody of Benton’s story, and with chilling similarities.

The phone rang— it made Benton’s heart flutter. He picked it up. “Hello?”

“Hi Benton. It’s Caroline.” Caroline was Benton’s friend and editor. “Listen, I took a long look at that last chapter and emailed it back to you with a few comments. You okay today? Can I get anything for you?”

“Thanks. I’m okay… don’t need anything. I’ll check that mail.”

“All right then honey. I’ll see you later. Bye.” The line went dead.

Caroline called him at least twice a day to check on him. It was a comfort that he’d grown used to. It gave him a connection with the world that he desperately needed. She was a friend first and his editor second – and she was beautiful and single. If only he wasn’t so messed up, he could actually ask her out.

It was already well past two o’clock. If Benton didn’t meet this Donald at 3pm, then the Ducky was dead, or at least, that is what he’d claimed. Benton had experienced trouble with fans before, but nothing like this.

Donald had given Benton his address: 32, Wilton Avenue. It was only a few miles away, but it seemed like a global trek to Benton. It’s time to get out Benton. “You can do it. You’ve done it before,” said Benton to himself.

He put on a coat and scarf, his battle clothing for the war ahead. He grabbed a few aspirin and swallowed them dry. Then he opened the front door and stood there, immobilised.

Shit.

*

Benton was moving at an excruciatingly slow pace. It had taken him twenty minutes just to leave the apartment building. At this rate, he would not make it on time.

The guy from number 14 walked past him. Tom or Tim or someone.

“Hey Benton, not seen you for a while. Where did you go?”

“Nowhere,” said Benton. He was wheezing lightly and holding onto a wall.

“Hey, you okay? You look a bit pale.”

“I’m fine. A bit hung-over that’s all.”

“Right man, sure. Know what you mean. Take it easy.”

“Yeah. Bye.”

Benton continued his sorrowful stroll up the main road. Cars whizzed by on either side, heightening his anxiety. Although Benton was agoraphobic, he was not afraid of open spaces, as the literal definition suggests. He suffered from anxiety and panics, which he had over time, developed avoidant behaviour to combat. This avoidance eventually led to him being housebound. Outside, every external stimulant added to his mental discomfort.

“You can do it,” said Benton, encouraging and galvanizing himself into action.

Two young women were having an argument up ahead. Benton would have to pass them.

“Get a life, you sad bitch. You wanna’ get out more,” one of the women said. The other woman reacted by slapping her adversary just as Benton was passing them. He had a severe panic attack and fell over into some rubbish bins and landed on the floor, covering himself with the contents.

“What’s your problem? Jesus!” said one of the women. “Come on Trisha, let’s go. This guy’s weird.” The two women quickly forgot about their spat and walked away like best friends.

Just a few more blocks. Benton removed some paper and rotting vegetation from his lap, stood up, and brushed himself down.

“Come on.”

Benton thought of Caroline, her sweet encouraging smile. It nourished him and got him moving again. She had visited him only yesterday; she did almost every other day. She’d brought him cake and they’d had tea together while talking, talking about the new book, the world news, and her dog. It was always the highlight of his day. But she was an outdoorsy kind of person and the idea of them getting together was a fantasy for as long as his condition persisted. He had to admit though; he had not made much effort to recover lately. It had just got too hard: his condition had become chronic.

Why didn’t I get Caroline’s advice about this.  Stupid.  She would know what to do.

A cat ran past him and screeched. Breath Benton, breath. “He fought off the sabre-tooth tiger and struggled on…”

You’d better be worth it Donald.

An old woman with a stick overtook him. “Slow down Benton, you might get a speeding ticket.” Benton decided to take a short cut down an alleyway. It was quieter and there was less scope for interaction, or at least, that was the idea. He made it about half way down the back alley when he became aware of someone behind him: getting closer…

*

“Hey! Turn around,” a male voice said. Benton complied and turned around. A grubby, unshaven man was holding a knife and pointing it as Benton. “How much do you have? Give it to me,” said the man. Benton couldn’t breath. It took all his effort just to stand.

“Come on— give it to me!”

Benton instinctively put out a hand to balance and grabbed the man. The mugger dropped his knife and Benton got him with a bear hug, not out of aggression, but simply a feeble attempt not to fall over. Benton was wheezing heavily.

“What’s wrong with you?”  said the man, his intonation began to rise. “You crazy?”

Benton tried to speak. “I… am… agora…agora… phobic.”

“What the hell is ‘agora-agora’  you freak. Get off me. Keep your scummy money. I don’t need it that much.” The mugger peeled Benton from him and jogged away, looking back at Benton who fell to the floor.

“No problem,” said Benton. He struggled to his feet and got moving again, using the alley wall as support. He exited the alleyway and came out at another main road. It was Wilton Avenue. Donald’s house was at the end of the road. Almost there. Keep going.

An ambulance roared by with the siren on: a flock of birds flew from a tree, alarmed by the sudden noise. Benton missed the cake and tea; the comfort and security of his home.

Number 12,14,16…18. Good. Even numbers. No number 13. Number 32 was Donald’s house. He could see it up ahead. It had a garage adjoining it with a yellow door.

Benton looked at his watch – 3:07pm. Late. Hold on Donald, I’m almost there.

He arrived at number 32 and walked down the path to the front door. The door was open, ajar a couple of inches. Benton knocked hard and waited— nobody came. He decided it was best to enter; his need to be indoors spurred him on.

Inside was homely - there were some fresh flowers in the hallway. Maybe Donald was just a screwed-up kid who lived with his mum.

He entered the kitchen and a woman was sitting at a table with her back to him. “Hello” he said. “Don’t be alarmed.  I’m Benton. I let myself in. There was no answer.  I’m here about Donald.” She did not reply. Benton suddenly felt exhausted. “Could I have a glass of water and sit down? I suddenly feel quite ill.” he said.

She turned around— It was Caroline. There was an empty bottle of pills on the table next to a glass of water, and Caroline began to droop over.

“Oh no— what have you done sweetheart?” said Benton, panicking.

“I didn’t think you were coming. You’re late. Donald gave up,” she said. Her neck seemed to have no strength in it and lolled around loosely. After calling for an ambulance, Benton pulled a chair up next to Caroline and held her. “Hold on there, okay.” A spaniel ran in from the back garden and went to Benton.

“You’re going to visit me in hospital right?” she asked. Then she began to lose consciousness.

“Sure I will. Just hold on, okay baby?”

She revived a little. “I can hold on… if you take me out next weekend.”

“Sure— you got me. It’s date.”

Caroline smiled and passed out. A few seconds later, Benton did too.


END

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