I still stood by the door, the Spider-Man walkie-talkie in my hand. I noticed that it had a convenient belt clip and was halfway to clipping it on to my trousers when I started using my brain again. It was something to hide, despite the forethought of its creators. I squeezed the button on the side of it and got a reassuring burst of static. If Alison’s family upstairs were listening for a signal, they might have thought this was it. To dispel any doubts I held the button down again and murmured “testing” into it. I felt like a complete tool. I did remember to release the button.
A moment later a boy’s voice came through.
“Sorry, I was just testing it to make sure it works.”
“Um. Spider-Man out.”
“Right. Okay, well, Mary Jane out then.”
Well, at least I’d established our communication protocols. That was important. I stuffed it into my pocket and held myself up towards the mirror. It wasn’t visible. Good. Covert comms were go. I hadn’t used a walkie-talkie since I was about nine. I’d begged for a set of Action Force ones and finally gotten them. They were of an appalling quality. We had been better off with the cups and string. That was still less covert than simply shouting between trees. I’m fairly sure they didn’t even work up to twenty feet apart. The modern era had brought us such advances.
It did put me on the track of how we might still be able to talk to people outside of the town. Seeing the soldiers on telly had reduced my desire to test the quarantine zone. I’d never been reassured by people carrying guns, still less when their express purpose was to keep people like me away from other people. The sight of armed police around Crown Court and airports never failed to send a chill through me. Somewhere like America you must just get used to everyone carrying a machine who’s express purpose was to kill things. I carried chewing gum and house keys. At a push I could do quite a lot of damage if I tried very hard, but even combined – sticky keys were no firearm. I’d always fancied having a taser though. They looked like a lot of fun. The soldiers probably had those too, but they appeared to be preferring their rifles which also provided some hints about how seriously the authorities were taking this Event. I know almost nothing about walkie-talkies, but I couldn’t imagine there were many if any channels reserved for children to talk on, so whatever frequency this Spider-Chatter worked on it would probably be picked up by similar devices. So in theory I could get close to the fence… and talk to the soldiers there, who would probably shoot me. Genius.
I still had no idea what to do next. I was alone, newly in receipt of a secret and secretive communications, and a bit sweaty. The only definitive action I could take was to enjoy a shower on my own. As I’d told Alison, I had no idea if or when my Watcher would return, or what would happen when it did. Seeing it go haring off in what I suspected was a decent approximation of my gait had been unnerving, never mind what had followed. I hadn’t enjoyed my washing experience that morning. Being watched had made it a swifter and clumsier affair than usual. Being clean always helps me think better. Part of it is not being able to smell myself. Even though I was alone I still locked the bathroom door. I did that anyway, whether there was a Watcher in my life or not. Living alone always makes me susceptible to the memes of horror films that have infected my mind . Locking the door was not an Arachnophobia response of course. It was a sensible answer to Psycho and its million knock-offs. The bathroom is not a bastion of safety – the panelled door is far too easily split by an axe and this one has no window either to enable a swift but ungainly exit. I was beginning to regret living in a flat with only one entrance and exit.
Still, with the door securely locked and a towel laid along the gap at the bottom of the door I felt like I’d exerted as much control on my environment as I could. If it came back I hoped it would give me a few moments of privacy, and even if it didn’t I would get a short heads up when it moved the towel. It occurred to me that I was being a little paranoid and neurotic, but given the circumstances I was okay with that. I was due a anti-depressant dose, but that could wait until I was clean, and anyway being on edge might be what I needed right now. It turns out that having a shower while constantly checking whether I was still alone is not much more relaxing or enjoyable than having someone standing over you watching. I dried off, moisturised more thoroughly than I had managed earlier and felt better for it. With a towel wrapped around my head and dressing gown firmly in place I removed my defences and emerged from the bathroom.
My flat was still empty. I felt… empty too. I’d been getting used to having some company. I retrieved the trousers I’d been wearing before and transferred them to a fresh pair. I decided to dress more sensibly. Clothes I could run in easily for example, which were dark and would keep me warm without being too hot. The Spider-Man mouthpiece rested comfortably in the thigh pocket of the combats I’d chosen. I felt better prepared. Prepared for what, I had no idea. But the general idea of ‘preparation’ was certainly reassuring. To that end I added a few things to my jacket and the small rucksack I use for infrequent sallies into town over the weekend. I couldn’t put my current book in it, of course, since I was still reading it. One of the many Diskhalers was already in there, but I added a bottle of water and a pair of scissors. It’s about the best weapon I have.
I was waiting for the Watcher to return. Which was ridiculous. As I’d realised during my conversation with Alison, I had no idea where it had come from or what its intentions were. I didn’t get the same vibe off it that Alison and her husband had. I had perhaps, been a bit quick to trust. That’s not normally one of my first instincts with a new person – I am hard pressed to let new people in. Partly because it’s a lot of effort, and involves a lot of sharing. I wasn’t ready for either of those things. But the Watcher had been easy company. It required no explanation for what I was doing, who I was and where I had come from. I’d felt accepted, despite its obvious intrusion on my privacy. I even felt as if we’d begun to establish some lines about what was appropriate and what was not. The initial bathroom experience was early in our relationship, but I felt like I could change its behaviour there at least. I think I missed it.
There was no point hanging around the house. There was nothing I was going to accomplish here that I couldn’t accomplish elsewhere – which is to say nothing. I was a little wary of going out though. The reaction of the people who still had Watchers earlier certainly gave me pause for thought. There was also Alison’s family to think of. If I went out, who would warn them that someone else had come in? What if no one came in? I’d be waiting futilely, exactly as I was now. It’s amazing how much of a day I can burn caught between impulses, or between equal portions of pointlessness. I fingered Spider-Man’s mask in my pocket. I could tell them I was going to pop out.
As ever, the decision was taken away from me by another knock on the door. Twice in one day was unprecedented. I couldn’t see why Alison wouldn’t just use the Spider-Men. I sighed and opened the door. It was not Alison. It was a harassed looking man I’d never seen before.
“Hello. Can I help you?” I leaned on the door, perfectly poised to slam it closed while appearing casual. I know – I’d checked in the mirror.
“Yes. Hello. I’m from the council,” he said.
Of elders? Jedi? I chose not to voice my queries.
“The town council,” he helpfully clarified, “we’ve been asked to coordinate a town meeting. At the town hall.”
The man’s Watcher loomed behind him in the tiny hallway by the stairs. ‘Loomed’. That was a new one. I held the door more tightly, to ensure no one could see past me and notice my most obvious lack.
“What about?” I got that look again, like I was some kind of special idiot. I’d been getting those looks all day. Maybe I’d been avoiding people for too long – I was getting slow.
“Uh – the Event. And the quarantine – you must be aware of our… visitors,” he half-looked over his shoulder.
“Of course. Yes, sorry – I’ve been asleep. I’m very aware of them.”
“Good, good. Well, the meeting has been arranged for six o’clock this evening. At the town hall.”
I guess I wasn’t giving him much encouragement. “Thanks for letting me know, I’ll certainly be there. Do you know when we’ll get phone coverage back?”
“Ah, well. I’m sure that’s one of the things we’ll be discussing. The main thing is – not to worry! Our visitors might be a surprise, but there’s no reason to think they’re dangerous.” To the man’s credit, his eyes barely flicked from side to side as he talked. “The council have have prepared a leaflet, which will hopefully answer any questions that might be pressing.”
I took the proffered flyer. “Great,” it looked about as useful as the campaign literature running up to a national election, with a design layout that any pizza shop could beat.
“Well then. We hope to see you there later, you and your visitor, of course.” He squeezed out a smile and turned for the stairs.
“Oh, hey – everyone’s out. Just me in today. I’d be happy to pass on the leaflets and tell them about the meeting though.” I was halfway hanging out of the doorway in my haste.
“That’s very thoughtful,” he didn’t look like the kind of person who enjoyed stairs, “It’s two other flats isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I think him upstairs went out to work earlier, and the top floor went to the park. It’s turned into a nice day. Good for kids to run around. You know.” I was aware that I’d begun to babble and twisted my mouth into a helpful grimace instead.
The council rep gave me a few more leaflets and made for the exit. His Watcher was standing on the bottom step of the stairs, looking up them.
“Bye then,” I called cheerfully. The rep gave me a wave and held open the door for his Watcher as it reluctantly followed him out. Not without taking the opportunity to stare at me. I closed and locked the door and scooted over to the window without tripping up. They walked down to the next little trio of flats and went in.
“Spider-Man, this is Mary Jane. Spider-Man, this is Mary Jane,” it’s impossible to use a walkie-talkie without feeling like you’re in a ’40s film noir pulp film. I’m sure they had proper radios and everything, but Spider-Man’s diminutive face held close to mine would just have to do. After a burst of static, the other end picked up.
“What? Who is this?” This was not the boy I’d spoken to earlier. It’s possible that our communication protocol had not been shared
“Uh, Mary Jane… it’s your neighbour downstairs,” now I felt slightly silly.
“Oh. Hi. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing – everything’s fine. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve just had a visitor. From the council. But I stopped him from going upstairs, he’s gone now. Its okay.” I wasn’t getting much feedback. I remembered that I had to let go of the button so he could speak.
“What did they want? Do they know what’s happened?”
“No. No, it’s all fine. They’re distributing leaflets about a town meeting later on today. About the Event. I’ve got a leaflet for you.”
“What does it say?”
“I… don’t know. I haven’t read it yet. I wanted you to know that everything was alright.”
“How do you know everything’s all right if you haven’t read it yet?”
I doubted that the leaflet would be an exercise in scaremongering. That was the opposite of what I imagined it would be for.
“I mean, it’s okay because he’s gone. No one’s about to knock on your door. It looked completely routine. He had a massive bag of leaflets so I bet there’s dozens of people out doing this,” this was becoming hard work, “I can come up and drop it off if you like. I need to stick one under the middle guy’s door anyway. If that’s convenient.” The line went dead. I assumed they were debating whether that was a good idea or not. I’d come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t know a bright idea if it took over my mind and directed me to lead a life of perfection and purity.
The walkie-talkie crackled again, and Alison’s voice emerged this time. “Hi, yes we think that’s okay. Unless you want to read the leaflet to us.”
I restrained my ‘fuck no’.
“It looks quite boring,” it even had a picture of the mayor on it. I didn’t even know we had a mayor. She had a lot of gold chains draped around her, so I assumed it was real, “I’ll pop up in a minute. Mary Jane out.”
I was getting a kick out of the walkie-talkies, even if we were using them seriously. I peeked out of the window again, to make sure no one was just about to come and disturb us. All clear. I grabbed my keys and carefully scanned the tiny area between the outside door and the stairs. Nothing. I locked my door behind me and loped up the stairs. I can’t just walk up stairs. It pains me. They take so damned long, and there’s enormous satisfaction in leaping up them two or three steps at a time. It’s close to the only exercise I get. I paused for a second next to the first floor flat and listened against the door. I couldn’t hear anything, so I pushed a leaflet through the letter box. All of our doors had those letter slots with brushes on the inside. That certainly helps keep the breeze out and a decent sized package or a fistful of letters get through fine. A single page leaflet however just gets folded up in between them. I had to shove my whole hand through it to make sure the leaflet got into the flat. I retrieved my hand and bounded on.
We hadn’t established a door knock pattern, so I used the Spidey-talkie again. I heard a series of tearing sounds before the door opened a crack, the chain restraining it.
“It’s just me. I’ve got your leaflet,” I held it up for inspection, “and my Watcher hasn’t come back yet.” That was probably the bit they really wanted to know.
Alison closed the door again, removed the chain and opened it to let me in. She and I both did a careful look behind me and down the stairs before I came in. The door was locked behind me. I could see they had duct taped the door shut, and Alison’s husband was carefully pressing it back along the door edge.
“I’ll be off in a minute. I don’t want to intrude.”
“It only takes a minute. It feels safer.”
“Here’s your leaflet,” I handed it to Alison.
She looked at with the contempt that council communications generally deserve A little boy peeked out of the bathroom door.
“Hi, I’m Mary Jane,” I said. I’m not a big fan of children. I prefer cats. But I’m not too bad at dealing with them.
“That’s silly. You’re not a girl.”
“You’d already taken Spider-Man,” I said accusingly.
“You could have been the Hobgoblin. Or Doctor Octopus.” Dammit, the kid had a point. Doc Ock would have been much cooler.
“I didn’t think of that.”
The boy harrumphed victoriously and vanished back into the bathroom. Kids leave me feeling dazed. I have no doubt they’ll grow up to be better at being people than I managed.
Alison was busy reading the leaflet.
“We can’t go to this. We don’t have ‘visitors’ or ‘watchers’ or whatever you call them. They’ll know we’re not there.”
“I doubt it. There’s no way they’ll get everyone in the town hall, plus loads of people won’t go anyway. You know what people are like.”
“You can’t go either if you don’t have a Watcher. They’ll be looking for that.”
I thought she was possibly being a little paranoid, but then I hadn’t killed five of them and dumped them in the recycling bin. She was right though, I didn’t think that I could just turn up on my own. It might be alright in a crowd – no one would be trying to count one for one. But even so, I’d still have to arrive on my own. I wondered if I could paint up my Boba Fett standee and somehow tow it behind me. That might be one of my worst ideas ever. I decided not to mention it.
“We need to know what’s being said,” I pointed out.
“What about Derek?” I almost asked who Derek was, but I must have looked sufficiently blank. “He lives between us.”
“Yes. Derek. He’s out. I stuck a leaflet through his door on the way up.”
“Be quiet – someone just opened the front door.” Alison’s husband hissed at us from where he crouched by the letter box.
“I should go. I haven’t done anything wrong. Not that you have either, but I definitely haven’t done anything.”
Alison and her husband looked terribly unsure.
“It’s fine. It’s probably my Watcher come back anyway. And I had a good reason to be up here.” I brandished the remaining leaflet.
Reluctantly the duct tape was drawn back from the doorframe again and I was allowed out.
“I’ll keep you updated, don’t worry.” The door closed behind me.
I leaned over the bannister to see what was below me. I couldn’t see anything. With less exuberance than my ascension I quietly went downstairs. Derek’s flat looked just the same, like flats generally do. I turned down to the next flight and saw what was waiting for me. My Watcher was standing patiently outside my flat’s door. It was facing me, and I knew it was mine. Its hands were clasped together in the same way I do when I’m waiting or trying to make a decision, all triangley.
“Hi, I was just delivering these leaflets,” I held them up as if it were an explanation in its own right, “there’s a meeting in town later. I thought we might go. If that’s alright with you of course.”
It wasn’t saying anything. Not that I expected it to. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe I was expecting it to be angry that I wasn’t where it had left me. It had come back to where I was most likely to be though. It moved aside to let me open the door and followed me inside.