Here is the opening chapter of my debut novel Blood on the Motorway, currently on sale for only 99p/99c in ebook from Amazon UK, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Scribd and more. The print version of the book is only £9.99 from Amazon UK, and $14.99 from Amazon.com. If you like what you read, please feel free to treat yourself.
The Beginning and the End
Tom ran his fingers over a cracked wine glass, staring out of the kitchen window, his hands frozen from the bowl of icy water. Had he known the world was about to end he might not have bothered with the washing up.
While Leon sat outside oblivious to the cold, Tom had resorted to putting on every available article of clothing he had. Three pairs of socks and he still couldn't feel his toes. Leon, on the other hand, sat out on the crumbling patio with nothing more than jeans, a T-shirt and a bottle of supermarket own-brand bourbon to fend off the arctic conditions. It made for a ridiculous spectacle, but Tom still half-admired him for it.
Four of them had come to the seaside city of Sunderland some seven years previous, all fresh-faced and innocently prepared for three years of hard work. The plan was to toil earnestly in their mid-level academic institution, then beat a quick exit to the working world. The best part of a decade later, all they had to show for it were perpetual hangovers, short-term memory loss, decimated credit ratings, and piss-poor degrees in irrelevant subjects. Now they were stuck, eternally trying to live the student life on ever decreasing means.
The city itself had proved to have a limitless supply of two things: cheap alcohol and a North Sea breeze that could flatten a man. All you could do once winter came was stock up on the former, crank up the heat and stay indoors.
Unfortunately for Tom and the other residents of the house on Riversdale Terrace, it had been five days since the gas, along with all the other amenities, had been cut off. The house now creaked constantly as it adjusted to the lack of heat, and Tom was concerned the next major event in his life would be dealing with a burst water pipe. There had been portentous rumblings from deep within the walls.
Earlier, Tom had heard Danny banging about against those walls, presumably in an attempt to keep warm. The noise had stopped as abruptly as it had started; Tom guessed his housemate had either given up or knocked himself out.
Their final housemate was a housemate no more. That morning, Adam had collapsed in a sobbing heap after phoning his parents to come and rescue him, then sat on the stairs in silence until they arrived. His father had been so shocked at the conditions his son had been living in, as though he'd walked into some BBC Four documentary on Northern drug dens. They’d left most of Adam's belongings behind in their haste to escape. Tom had taken to housework to combat the cold, the boredom, and the embarrassment he'd felt when he’d seen the look on Adam's father's face. He'd tidied the communal areas as best he could, then turned his attention to the tower of washing up, a task made near impossible by the lack of hot water.
Throughout all this he’d kept thinking. He needed to get out of this house. This house was where all dreams came to die.
Thinking about how much his life sucked made his head hurt, and the cold water made his hands ache, so he abandoned both tasks.
Since he had arrived in Sunderland he had become a distant echo of his earlier, hungrier self, and nothing at all like the man he’d once thought he would be. All ambition had drained away, eroded by endless nights of excess and days of tedium and daytime television.
He caught sight of Leon again, looking serene on his mouldy plastic sun lounger, dressed in baggy jeans and a faded T-shirt with an ironic vintage computer game logo, just as always. Not that Tom could claim to be any more sartorially developed; his own wardrobe was full of black T-shirts covered with indecipherable heavy metal band names and rude words.
Tom slid open the French doors and entered the terrace.
'Thomas,' Leon replied, somewhat slurred.
'I thought black guys did better in the heat. Aren't you cold?'
'Well come inside then, you berk,' Tom said. 'You'll end up a fucking icicle out here.'
'No, I like it. It's refreshing, and it doesn't smell like feet out here.'
Tom shook his head and turned to go back into the house.
'Have some generic supermarket own-brand bourbon, it helps immensely,' Leon called to him. He offered the half bottle to Tom. Tom turned back, took it and swigged, enjoying the sting as it hit the back of his throat, then the creeping warmth that flowed through him.
He pulled up the chair of crates they had fashioned as a second seat and considered the crumbling exterior of the house. Moss attacked the pipes, and vines had penetrated the brickwork to the extent that the wall now sagged. A month or so ago, they had confronted their landlord over the matter, but he had raised the topic of rent unpaid, and they had beaten a hasty retreat.
'Adam's gone,' Tom said, remembering Leon had missed the action. 'I think he had a bit of a breakdown actually. His dad looked at the house like he'd just walked into Gomorrah before bundling Adam into his Range Rover.'
Leon laughed. 'I don't blame him. Anyway, we don't need his TV now we don't have any electricity.'
'That's true,' Tom replied, taking another deep swig.
Distant storm clouds darkened the night sky, bruising swathes of it a deep purple. They watched them in silence. The buzz from the bourbon diffused the anxiety that had sat in the pit of Tom's stomach all day.
'I think it's time I left too,' he said.
'Maybe you're right,' Leon replied. 'It's stopped being fun, hasn't it?' He motioned for Tom to return the bottle. Overhead an angry rumble issued from the sky.
'It has,' Tom replied.
'Hey, maybe we should do something together.'
'Well I've spent the day putting together a very vague plan.'
'And here's me thinking you were just getting drunk.' He laughed.
'The two aren't mutually exclusive, you know.'
'So what was the plan?'
Tom waited for him to elaborate, but he didn't.
'Road trip?' Tom asked. 'What, around England? That'd be a pretty fucking short trip. Devon and back. We'd be home again in a week.' He took the bottle.
'Beats sitting around in this shithole though, doesn't it?'
He had a point. For the past few weeks, Tom's main source of personal achievement had come from a crossword puzzle which had taken him over a day to complete.
'What do we do on this road trip?' Tom asked.
Leon shrugged. 'I thought I'd leave that part of the plan to you, since you're the brains of the operation.'
'Okay. Why not? Road trip. Makes perfect sense.' He stood, and shivered. 'You coming in for a smoke?'
'Nah,' Leon replied.
Tom went back in. A road trip had merits, he supposed. He could write, get the inspiration for a novel, pick up some freelance work here and there. He sure as shit wasn't doing any writing here. It would make sense for Leon, too. Tom's best friend, since their first day of University, had always struggled with being one of the few black faces in a predominately white northern town, and he'd spoken more than once about wanting to escape. He was an artist, or at least he had been. The painting of Buffy on the wall of Tom's bedroom that had been a Christmas present some years back was probably the last thing his friend had actually painted, but being an art student still served as an admirable chat up line in the pubs and clubs of Sunderland.
He was a good friend though, despite his flaws. Or maybe Leon's flaws just complemented his own. If he was going to leave, he couldn't think of anyone he'd rather do it with.
Tom went back to the lounge and pulled out a little baggie of weed, some skins and tobacco, from a drawer, and set about rolling a joint. He felt the old familiar pang of guilt at not being able to pay the electricity bills, but somehow always managing to find money for weed, then buried it where he normally did.
He lit it, took a deep drag, watched the acrid smoke fill the cold room and thought about leaving. There was nothing tying him here; no work, no family, and few remaining friends. Countless acquaintances maybe, but what good were they? Since the house had fallen into its current state, there wasn't much to separate him from being de facto homeless.
Sinking into the broken sofa, his eyes fell on the dead television, the collection of games consoles, and the towers of DVDs gathering dust. Even his beloved smart phone was now an uncharged brick of useless technology. Maybe the landlord would find all this junk and accept it as rent owed.
A low rumble issued from the sky, barely perceptible at first, but then back it grew louder. Tom took a deep drag of the spliff and walked to the back door. Lights were flickering against the windows so he went back onto the terrace.
Something was wrong. The hairs on his arms stood in rapt attention. Outside, the volume trebled, thunder rolling on and on.
Leon stood up, staring at the storm clouds, mouth agape. Tom looked up. Heavy black clouds covered the sky, spidery arcs of light dancing through them.
'It's warm,' Leon said.
He was right. Tom's permanent goose bumps were gone.
Tom handed Leon the spliff. 'It's not raining either.' Despite the constant rumble and the thick black clouds there was no moisture in the air.
His ears popped. The volume grew again: loud cracking sounds and the sounds of metal expanding and contracting, like old pipes called into action. Tom heard a whistling sound too; although he couldn't tell if it was just in his head. The light show intensified, veins of electricity dancing through the cloud, growing thicker and changing colour.
'Can you hear that?' Leon shouted, but Tom could barely hear him over the din.
As if someone had turned up a dial, pressure filled the air; dropping like a brick on Tom's chest. His legs buckled, everything went dark, and he fell to the ground.
* * * * *
His eyes opened to daylight. A stab of pain rocketed up his left side to greet the day. The rough edges of a dream played at the edge of his memory, something about a weird storm, but then realised he was lying not on his hard bed but on the cold concrete of the terrace. He tried to move, but it hurt. His cheek was wet, his hand too. With a rising panic he brought it up to his eye line, expecting blood.
Drool. That was one less panic, then. His tongue felt like a hard, dry sock, and his ears were ringing. With all the energy he could summon, he dragged himself up, his joints protesting at every small exertion.
Leon slept next to him on the concrete, his chest rising and falling. Tom saw the half-smoked spliff on the floor and picked it up, his hands groping for a lighter, glad it hadn’t burnt itself out. He wondered if this was the right response to waking up like this, but his head was a fog of noise and confusion and his nerves were shot to hell.
He lit up, breathing deep and greeting the warm wave of intoxication. The clouds had gone and taken the warmth of the storm with them. The air felt crisp and clean. Purified.
The ground was bone dry. There had been no rain. The only moisture was his own puddle of saliva. He listened for sounds, but aside from birdsong there was nothing.
Leon started to wake, then shot bolt upright, his face full of confusion and fear. 'What the fuck?' he shouted, his voice raspy and hoarse.
'Don't look at me,' Tom said, his own voice husky and cracked. 'I've only just woken up. Spliff?'
Leon stood and took the nearly-dead joint.
'Fucking hell,' was all he could muster. He looked up at the house. 'We should go and see if Danny saw the storm.'
Tom hadn't even thought about their third housemate. Danny barely registered when he stood in front of him. He surfaced from his room only occasionally, generally to plunder the fridge. Since the power died, sightings had become rarer still. Tom had wondered how he was even passing the time now he couldn't play World of Warcraft for eighteen hours a day.
Back in the house, Tom pulled on another jumper, then he and Leon headed up the stairs. They passed Leon's room. Tom glimpsed inside and saw it was immaculate as ever. For one of the laziest people Tom had ever known, Leon was fastidious when it came to his own space. It was the communal areas he didn't give a shit about.
Danny's door was covered in stickers from countless nights out, remnants of a time before he'd discovered massively-multiplayer online games and became a warlock, or whatever the fuck it was.
Tom knocked. No answer. He tried again. He looked at Leon, who shrugged and started pounding on the door with his fists.
'Danny,' he bellowed, 'let us in, you miserable fucker!'
Still no response.
Tom tried the handle. Locked. Danny was the only one in the house who had a lock, the result of smoke-induced paranoia.
'Maybe we should kick it in?' Tom asked.
'Danny, we're going to break down the door!' Leon shouted. They gave it ten seconds or so, then Leon shrugged.
Tom threw his weight against the door. It gave at the first attempt, swinging inward. Before Leon could congratulate him, they saw Danny's body. He lay on the bedroom floor, eyes open in a terrified stare, blood smeared across his face, mouth open in a silent scream.
Leon stepped back. 'Holy fuck!'
They both stared through the doorway for a moment, then entered the room slowly, unable to take their eyes off the contorted corpse. Neither said a word. Danny lay in an awkward position. One leg rested up on the bed, the other tucked behind itself. The blood appeared to have come from his mouth and nose, but other than that Tom could see no visible reason for him to be lying dead on the floor.
'Danny?' Leon asked.
Tom's mind ran through every police procedural show he'd ever seen and wondered how this would look to a homicide detective. The house one step removed from a crack den. The broken door. The dead housemate. His stomach dipped in fear. 'We should call the police.'
Tom left the room, careful to give the body a wide berth. He looked back at Leon, who was fumbling for a cigarette.
He ran downstairs, his mind racing. Hands shaking, he picked up the house phone and punched in nine-nine-nine, but there was no dial tone. His eyes drifted to the collection of burned-out candles on the mantelpiece. It was a miracle the whole place hadn't burned down in the night.
His mobile phone hadn't worked in days. He tried turning it on to see if it would give him enough juice for one call, but it refused to give him so much as a flicker. Tom flung it against the wall. It didn't even have the good grace to shatter in a satisfying manner, instead falling to the floor with a thud. He remembered the pay phone across the street. He could call the Police from there, if it wasn't already kicked into oblivion by the feral youth of Sunderland. He pulled on his coat and headed for the door.
Halfway down the steps, he stopped.
The smell, burning meat mingled with the heavy stench of petrol, caught at the back of his throat before his eyes could register the devastation before him. Max's Newsagent – good old Max's – was gone, burnt to the ground as though a large fiery thumb had come from the sky and stubbed it out. Corpses lay all over the street. Some were burnt, their limbs curled into themselves from the heat. Some were crushed, entangled in one of several car wrecks that dotted the road. Limbs, torsos and heads were strewn haphazardly in their wake. Some were just dead, lying there oblivious to the carnage that surrounded them.
Dozens of corpses. Old corpses. Young corpses. Bodies, and dead, and bodies again, to the end of the street and beyond. It was more than he could process. Tom stopped, sank onto the step with a thud, and wept.
* * * * *
If you've enjoyed this sample chapter, Blood on the Motorway is on sale throughout March for only 99p/99c in ebook from Amazon UK, Amazon.com, iBooks, Kobo, Nook, Scribd and more. The print version of the book is only £9.99 from Amazon UK, and $14.99 from Amazon.com.