Giving Butterflies At Night
"When you see how fragile and delicate life can be, all else fades into the background." – Jenna Morasca
Tapas never struck Hannah as the type of food she would opt for, but by the time the plates arrived, she wondered how the hell she could have missed out for so long on something looking so yummy. Roasted duck breast with pistachio puree, smoked haddock risotto, courgette with goat’s cheese and honey, and more. Of course, Joel sat there with a 'V' of tanned skin exposed under a pink shirt, an easy and open smile on his face, watching her as the dishes arrived. Not them, but her. Hannah turned her attention to the dishes in question, and offered a silent prayer that blushing wouldn’t show. Not only had Joel picked up her up from outside her East Central office in Bishopsgate, but also driven her west across town to Goodge Street and introduced her to “a great little place” known as the Salt Yard. Tapas, Hannah mused, wasn’t the only thing that was yummy. By the time they had finished the meal and Joel had settled up, the sky’s pale blue heralded that somewhere beyond the buildings nearby, the sun had eased toward the horizon. By the time Joel’s Ford B-Max had swept onto Hannah’s street back in Kennington, night had fallen.
They let themselves out and walked to her building: one in a row of terraced beige-bricked houses with stone steps leading down from the front door to a row of cast-iron railings. Joel followed her up to her front door, noting the cleft at the base of her calves and meeting her gaze just in time when he joined her on the top step.
Joel stepped forward, close enough to hold her hand and saw her inhale as her gaze briefly dropped to his mouth. Her fingers felt soft and warm in his.
“You had a good time?”
“I had a really good time. Thank you.”
His heart began to pound. “My genuine pleasure.”
He leaned closer, noting her head tilt as her lips parted. Their lips met, soft and warm, and he drew her close, wrapping his arms around her waist as he did so. Hannah groaned through the kiss and Joel chuckled, pulling back from her. He drank in the sight of her: shoulder-length blonde hair framing a lean face set with dark eyes and full lips with little make-up. Slim curves under a camo-print shift dress led to toned legs in black leather heels. “I think you’re beautiful.”
“Thank you.” She turned away after a moment, visibly embarrassed. “You’re giving me butterflies.”
“Giving butterflies at night?” Joel considered this as he cast a sidelong glance: a move that had stuck with him ever since he saw Robert Redford in the film Legal Eagles. “I could live with that. Really, I could.”
They kissed again, deeper this time. When Hannah groaned against his mouth, Joel pulled away. Hannah inhaled sharply through her nose as she bit her lip through a grin.
“I’m sorry,” Joel said. “Perhaps I should save some for later. Can I call you?”
Her eyes were wide, glittering. Hungry. “Sure, absolutely.”
Joel left a lingering kiss on her cheek at which her eyes slid close, revelling in the sensation. “Goodnight.”
Joel trotted down the stairs and cast a backward look at the doorway. Hannah in turn stood half in the open doorway looking over her shoulder at him. Impulse took him and he kissed his fingertips before blowing the kiss at her. She grinned at him, turning her face to her shoulder for a moment before letting herself in and closing the door behind her.
Joel headed back to his car as he replayed the previous moments, savouring Hannah’s scent from the passenger seat as he slid his seatbelt into place. His first kiss with Hannah and he’d waited until the second date. She made him want to romance her. Romance? Now there’s a word. He keyed the ignition, thinking. There had been dates, but there hadn’t been any romance since Rebecca, for crying out loud, and that –
The key turned in the ignition but the engine refused to turn over: both it and the car were as silent as a grave. Several attempts followed, and in each instance, the only response was the jingling of the key ring hanging from the ignition, and Joel’s own breathing.
Joel slumped back in his seat and exhaled a sigh. At this rate, if he didn’t get the damned thing started, he’d have to call the AA, and at this hour … His eyebrows lifted, weary with exasperation: really?
The man leaning against the boot of the car in front watched Joel with an almost childlike curiosity. A faded white t-shirt hung on a frame with little muscle and a slight droop of stomach while a stubbly beard framed a thin mouth below eyes so small and dark it appeared that the man had a squint. As it was, the man bent forward a little as if Joel warranted a closer look. Joel ushered the man aside with a wave of his hand, only for the man to frown, lips parting in a silent huh? Joel could have slapped his hand on the horn, but to what end? The guy wasn’t in a hurry to move anyway, and there was no point waking up the rest of the neighbourhood and causing a scene.
Joel clapped his free hand around the headrest of the passenger seat and looked out the rear-view mirror. Room to manoeuvre, but not enough to fully reverse from the man. Ultimately, if the guy was going to prove a nuisance, there was little Joel could do about it, short of calling the police.
The man eased off the back of the car in front and ambled up to Joel’s door as if he had all the time in the world. Joel had already sized the man up, and decided that while physically the man was no match for him (for he seemed unfit at best), there was no telling what someone would do if hard-pressed. The man bent down, bringing his face level with Joel’s, and gave a slow rap at the window with the knuckle of his forefinger.
Joel gritted his teeth, doing his best not to swallow and appear anxious. Most likely, this guy was under the influence of something and right now, Joel didn’t care to stick around to find out what. He leaned forward and tried the ignition again.
“It won’t start.”
Joel spun – no mean feat when still held in check by the seatbelt – and shrank back against the driver side door as the man faced him from the passenger seat. “How the hell…?” He swallowed hard, his mind battling to find a purchase on reality: how was it possible, how the hell was it possible? His heart hammered in his chest.
“You like her,” the man said. His voice was low and a little rough, as though he were a smoker. “Anyone can see that you like her a lot. But it can’t go any further.” He turned his attention to the windscreen. “Don’t see her again.”
Joel never thought of himself as impulsive, and with good reason. Those who were rash and impulsive would often suffer the consequences without taking time – even a moment – just to weigh up a situation and pick the most appropriate action. Even now, Joel took time to study the intruder before reaching a hand out to the steering wheel and gripping it tightly enough that his knuckles blanched. “Look,” he said, his voice low and barely even. “I don’t know you from Adam and I sure as hell don’t know how you got in here. But I suggest you get out now.”
The man licked his lips, still staring at the windscreen. “Leave her alone.”
Joel shifted in his seat, giving the man a thin smile of little humour. “Or else what, pray tell?”
The man looked over his shoulder at Joel with the nonchalance of someone watching traffic pass. “You’ll die.”
And it wasn’t the words themselves, but the simple finality with which they were delivered. Genuine fear rippled a wave of gooseflesh across Joel’s neck and the inside of the car now felt cramped and cold. What made matters worse was that Joel would now have to get physical – the two of them had tap-danced long enough. He lifted his hand off the steering wheel and cupped one hand in the other, cracking his knuckles… and still wondering how the hell this guy managed to get into his car. Now that was a good –
Joel’s pulse pounded in his temples, the silence in the car deafening. Never one to draw first blood, Joel would do his utmost to ensure any altercation didn’t degenerate into a brawl. Now he had an engraved invitation for the very same and there was no backing down. But he found the man’s calm demeanour all too disturbing.
What would happen if he hit him?
What would happen if he didn’t?
Grim, Joel swung at his opponent, aiming at the face rather than beyond it, so as to pull his punch. His fist flashed through the man’s face – hitting nothing but empty air, and Joel snatched his hand back as though stung.
“You thought your bravado would scare me,” the man said, his expression neutral. “You’re wrong. I gave you a warning, but you wouldn’t listen.”
Dust began to shear off the man’s face in drifts, like snow windswept from a roof. “I know how she can make you feel. The excitement of it all,” he continued. “But it’s over for you.”
Any façade of Joel’s bravado now crumbled under the horror before him. The man eased closer, his face a tragedy of withering skin and lifeless eyes, each sloughing of skin flakes revealing more of the skull beneath. Through those eyes and the man’s face, the lines of the passenger side window and the night scene outside were all too clear. Skin continued to crumble, exposing the pale bone of the cheek under one eye.
Joel screamed, the sound surreal in his ears.
Fingers frantic, he scrabbled for the seatbelt release before struggling to open the car door. But haste and fate had betrayed him, and the seatbelt wound around his neck as he threw himself out of the car. The street swung around him in a sickening blur and Joel found himself hanging bodily outside the driver’s side door as the seatbelt tightened around his neck. He clawed under the sides of the strap, gasping like a fish out of water but his weight and his struggle simply drew the noose tighter.
“I warned you, but you wouldn’t listen,” the voice said in his ear. The proximity of the voice to ear, almost close enough for lips to brush against his earlobe, was enough to make Joel’s skin crawl.
Had Joel enough air, he would heave screamed even louder; all he could manage now was a gargle as his throat began to close in on itself.
“You’re not good enough for her. I know what she really needs.”
Lack of air led to lack of focus, and fatigue washed over Joel as darkness crowded in. It blanketed his fear and even the scoring under his jaw from the edge of the seatbelt. From somewhere low overhead and yards away came a scream: Hannah’s scream, soon followed by the slap of bare feet racing across concrete. Moments later, smooth slim fingers scrabbling over his, pulling at the seatbelt with him. Tears ran down Hannah’s cheeks in glistening trails. Behind her, the stranger stood downcast as he patted Hannah on the shoulder, his hand sinking into her and disappearing each time.
Erroneously, Joel’s immediate regret was that if he had punched the stranger harder, his blow might have connected.