His name was Daniel and he was empty.
He did not know how long he had been asleep but he felt as though it must have been a long time. He could hear the steady breath of the sea; lazy waves breaking against the shore as tiny lights flickered in the dark beneath a sky that swam with fast clouds, impelled like restless smoke.
There were voices. They ebbed toward him and died away again, carried off by the noises of the water and the air as the surf grew thunderous. The lights blinked with the rise and fall of the ocean and he rose and fell with it, his mind lolling, unable to rouse.
His senses brought him tiny pieces: the smell of salt and the chill of the wind; the sounds of people near by; voices and music. But everything was heavy and the more he tried to wake, the further he fell toward the warm and easy darkness. He tried to concentrate, to will his eyes to open, and felt a dull ache that rose behind them. He flinched and his body stirred, a tremor of pain licking listlessly at his back, nudging him toward a languid consciousness.
His face felt wet.
His eyelids fluttered, dancing open against bright and stabbing light. Contours and creases sparkling black and silver as the sea pitched up and down, scattered with tiny islands that appeared and disappeared. Beyond them a facade, rising vertical from the surface, mineral colours shivering from side to side, reaching to the sky that blazed white. He blinked and the undulating surface of the sea rose once and stopped, suddenly still. The steady rhythm of the waves broke long and with a rasping sound disappeared to leave only a cough in the back of his throat.
Everything had gone and he peered at the kitchen. The black and white squares of the tiled floor and the fronts of the cupboards, the sink beneath the window.
He shielded his eyes from the fluorescent bulb swinging slowly back and forth on the ceiling. His shadow swayed and his stomach with it.
He dragged his legs under him and pushed at the ground. It was warm and a film of moisture in the shape of his own body lay beneath him, shrinking like a ghost as he moved.
There were little beads of red at the top of it and something thick trickled down his face and touched his lip. He tongued it and tasted injury like warm iron. Two perfect drops, bright as buttons on the tiles. He touched one of them. Dragging his finger away he gave it a tail like a comet.
Pieces of broken porcelain lay in all directions, splayed out from where he sat to the skirting board and beneath the refrigerator. Groggily, he began to pick them up, moving on his hands and knees, collecting each little piece until he had them all. He carried them to a black bag that sat open against the wall and tipped them all in except one. It was splashed with the same red and he put it in his pocket. He took a cloth and held it under the tap, and with it he wiped his blood from the floor. He swayed again, his mind back upon the ocean. The sound of his breathing conjured notions of waves breaking, now far far away.
Voices cheered and music rose. Blue light flickered in the gap beneath the living room door.
The kitchen was right again and he could not understand how he had imagined it to be somewhere else. He left it, walking down the corridor with one hand against the wall, up the stairs to the top of the house. His head throbbed with the beat of his heart as he walked into his room and fell onto the bed.
He began to slip back down into the darkness and he pulled the blanket over him and thought about tomorrow. He would climb mountains and look down at the world from the top. He would walk beside the lake and watch the high spaces. He would find a story. He would help someone. Find someone who needed saving.
Tomorrow he would do these things. He kept hold of them as best he could, and they filled the gap between the ache and the empty space until he fell asleep.
In the first of the early light he woke to the patter of rain against the window. His breath misted in the air as he took his bag from the foot of the bed and his coat from the peg on the back of the door. The silence of the house cracked like ice as he tiptoed down the stairs on heavy legs. In the kitchen he stretched up to the counter and drank from the tap, water spraying off the pile of crockery that languished in the sink, showering the counter, and he wiped it away with the sleeve of his coat.
As he turned to leave he kicked something. It twirled away from him and came to rest, a little patch of white upon a black tile and he picked it up. A shard of broken plate. It had laid on the floor all night, there for anyone to see. He went straight to the black bag, desperate to be rid of it, but as he dropped it inside he heard it rattle and he looked and saw that it had landed inside a can. He picked the can up by its lid, a peeled back slice of golden metal and tipped the piece back onto his hand. He dropped it into his pocket and slipped the can into his bag as he opened the front door and went out into the morning.
Night clung to the edges of the street as he dodged puddles bathed in the blush from the fading street lights. He passed the dark houses with their black staring windows, their front doors and squat steps choked with grey mulch.
At the end of the street he passed the bus stop, its glassless frame goose-bumped with dew. Beside it a stem of metal sprouted like an uprooted tree from a split in the pavement with a twist of cable at the top. There was no sign to say it was a bus stop. Daniel supposed that this was why buses did not come to the street.
The terrace of houses ended and he walked quickly across the exposed high road, clambering over the concrete spine that split the empty lanes as the distant sounds of the waking city murmured against the rising light: the drone of motors and the wail of a siren; the thunder roll of an aeroplane. He hated the high road for the noises of the city, but from it the factories came into view, silently welcoming him. From up here he could see them better than from just about anywhere else, stretching away for miles behind the red brick wall, all the way to the river. Rooftops, towers, masts, and the great white bodies of the chimneys.
At the far side he went down the bank, grateful to be swallowed by the red bricks of the alley in whose shade the ugly mutter of the city shrank into the background and all he could hear was himself. Overhead, iron walkways bridged the gap between the buildings like cobwebs, black against the pale sky. He passed beneath each one. Footsteps echoed down at him out of time with his own. He imagined they belonged to someone else as he picked a path between the grids of metal and trolley wheels cluttering the narrowing alley, careful of corners and sheered ends.
He came to the door. He grabbed the thick string that hung from the hole in its centre tugged sharply. With a click of the latch it swung outward, casting his shadow inside a box of light upon the floor, past which was only darkness. He stepped over the threshold and the last sounds of the city vanished as the door shut behind him.
Daniel breathed the air, heady with the smell of old fires, and waited for the room to appear.
Slowly, a crescent shape like a sliver of moon emerged on the far wall. In the high dark he began to see thin lines that became the edges of black squares all across the ceiling in uniform blocks. Then the darker things that he knew by shape and place awoke as shadows, gradually revealed as his eyes adjusted. As he walked farther into the room, paper rustled beneath his feet.
He noted one by one the unchanging details of the room. A tyre, torn and black against the floor like shed skin; the dark straight surface of the workbench; the vice that grew from its flat silhouette like a flower. The room gained a clandestine life, animated by his imagination and the obfuscating darkness.
This was the room of stories. All the way down to the workbench at the far end they were stacked into towers against the longest wall and he reached out, touching the frayed pages and the string that bound them into bundles, his fingers moving up and down with their curves as he walked and a long dry whisper filled the silence.
There were so many pages that Daniel thought there must be enough of them to contain every story there had ever been.
He came to the wall at the far end, to the workbench and the vice, its jaws flecked with moments of rust. He wound the handle round and round with one finger, watching them yawn open.
Reaching into his bag he pulled out the tin can and placed it in the vice. Soft, hollow sounds against the steel jaws. He turned the lever back on itself until the can was held still. With both hands he tugged. At first nothing happened but then he jerked the handle as hard as he could and the tin concertinaed, sides creasing as it collapsed with a quiet pop. He turned it round and round and the metal crinkled until the handle would turn no more.
He let go and his hands felt red and raw in the darkness.
In the meagre light it was no longer a can, now a flat disk and the transformation made him smile. He tapped it against the corner of the table and a dull metal sound fell away. He realised that it would never make that soft hollow sound again and laid it gently on the bench beside the vice.
Tools hung from the walls. Cupboards with their hundred little drawers went all the way from where he stood back to where the darkness hid the doorway that led farther inward. He felt compelled to move on, to put more distance between himself and the outside but first he had to find a story.
He looked back to the towers and a familiar urge came over him. He wanted to pull them all down, tear the string from each and every bundle and look at every single story. He felt the pull of knowledge, and of destruction.
At the bottom of some of the towers the pages spilled out, escaping across the floor, some so soft that they became dust between his fingers. He knelt beside the workbench and felt around the bottom of the nearest tower and pulled on a protruding corner. A page tore away. The tower teetered, swaying for a moment before becoming still again.
He could just make out a photograph on the page and words of different sizes. He folded it in half and put it in his bag. Walking back the way he had come, he once again traced a line across the face of all the towers with his hand, in love with how the string bit into the pages and held them, never letting go.
He looked down at the sheets of paper that lay strewn across the ground and it occurred to him that they had been part of the towers too, fallen like leaves from a tree, the stories on them faded away like old memories and he walked away toward the doorway at the back of the room.
He passed into the thick damp air of the corridor. Light spilled in from the far end, catching the metal edges that crowded the narrow space. There was creaking and scraping, bolts jangling as he climbed over broken things. The ceiling blistered down at him, a mess of wrecked squares and unknown things that hung like vines. Pieces of it had fallen and they crunched and snapped where ever he walked. Beneath them, the floor seemed almost soft.
Daniel held his breath, picturing himself inside the throat of a great creature who would wake and swallow him if he was too loud. The crunching pieces were teeth, the ground its tongue.
The corridor did not end but rather disintegrated, the next room overflowing into it in a landslide of scree that had caused the walls to buckle back onto themselves. Everything beyond the corner was white and he squinted as he climbed the slope that rose into the brightening morning. He listening to the crunch of loose stones, the tiny sounds that tumbled in his wake as little avalanches flowed behind each step. He reached the top and saw white clouds drifting.
The building was a monolith of empty air wrapped in crumbling concrete and exposed steel, too large to look at all at once. The walls towered, disfigured with cracks and holes that made it seem as though they were stretching upward to the sky and breaking with the effort. The top was just a hole, remnants of the roof hanging inward from the edges, chunks of concrete clinging to bowing cables, thick black veins against the sky above. Daniel felt that if he could climb to the top, he would be able to reach up and touch the drifting clouds.
At intervals thick lines crossed the scarred walls where once entire floors had been. Jutting pieces and the beginnings of door frames clinging on where the walls met. In one place there was the start of a staircase ending in midair. Everything that had once been up there now lay upon the ground in pulverised piles like a ring of mountains and in the centre, beneath the hole in the roof there was a lake the colour of milk.
Beside him, a great window came up from out of the rubble, its base hidden beneath the fringes of the slope. A hundred panes of glass, opaque with grease and dust. Through it he could see the red bricks and mossy slabs of a small courtyard. He had searched for a way into it many times but had not found one yet.
He began to run down the slope when an urgent flapping sound filled the air. He stumbled, glancing up in time to see the shape of a bird take flight from the long morning shadows. Black wings beat against the pale walls as it climbed up the centre of the building and vanished through the roof. The noise echoed through the space, chasing the bird up into the sky, the impression of it hanging in the air. He could still hear it after it was gone and he stood and listened to it until even his memory became silent.
There had never been a bird before.
A droplet of water hit the lake, landing without a splash. Slow circles rippling out across the surface. They reached the dusty shore and disappeared.
Sometimes he stared into the lake, standing where the tips of his shoes touched the water. It was like looking down from the top of a high place, the windows and the hole in the roof reflected and distorted, appearing to be far below. He never leaned too far forward for fear of seeing himself reflected as a grey and faceless shape.
He climbed another summit and jumped from the top, making giant foot prints where he landed. As he made his way around the building he wondered if perhaps things were upside down. Maybe he was wrong that what was now on the ground had once been up above. Perhaps the building was not destroyed but unfinished, waiting for someone to come along and assemble it from the rubble at his feet.
Up and down and up again he made his way round to the opposite corner to where there was no more wall. From the final peak he looked back at the light cast from the window across the strange space. The mountains and the lake lying in the bottom of the building.
As he turned to leave he thought again about the bird and what he might do if he saw it again. He imagined it standing on his hand eating from his palm but he began to feel less sure that he had really seen it at all.
In the open again he walked along a narrow passage.
Tall weeds grew between the flagstones, heads bobbing in the breeze and Daniel listened to them swish against his trousers as he walked a line along the cracks.
At the end was a paved courtyard. It had many exits; many doors, some open and some closed.
A door hung awkwardly from failing hinges to his left and through it there was a thin building, the floor a sea of shredded paper. Another led into a corridor that smelled sickly sweet. At its end was a room filled with hooks that hung from the ceiling above bottomless troughs of black water.
He picked an entrance with a shutter that came down out of the ceiling and stopped level with his waist. Though he had never stepped inside he had previously traced a path along its outer wall to a door away past the end of the courtyard and beyond to be sure he it would take him in the direction of the river.
It was a thin warehouse: black windows along one side and bare brickwork on the other. Wooden sleepers lay in two long rows upon a sandy floor and at the far end there was a doorway and high up in one corner a small window. He touched the nearest sleeper with his shoe and could tell that it was very heavy. He wondered if he could make it all the way to the other end without touching the ground, hopping from sleeper to sleeper. But as he looked at the long blocks of wood they began to seem painfully solemn, laid out like war dead in the gloom.
Rain began to fall on the tin roof. He walked quietly down the centre of the room, looking at each sleeper as he passed. At the far end, wooden pallets were stacked into a neat tower. He wondered who had placed them so straight.
He left the warehouse behind and stepped into the next room. Light seeped through cracks in the black painted windows and he could see that it was small and empty, with shelves along one wall and a metal counter beneath them.
He wandered, pausing by the shelves which were stacked with dusty bottles. He picked one up, brushed the dust with his thumb and saw that there were words melted into the glass and he took it to the windows and turned it over and over in the light.
Behind him, the tinkling sound of glass against glass made him turn.
"Hello?" he said.
He went back to the shelves and placed the bottle down upon the counter. Standing apart from the others it looked different to the rest.
"Hello" said Daniel.
"Hello Daniel." It replied.
"Sorry I kept you waiting."
"That's okay," it said. "You're here now."
"I can take you somewhere safe," he said. "It's a long journey but I know the perfect place. There's a beautiful lake and there's room for all of you to live by it. And it's surrounded by mountains so you can climb out of reach of anyone who wants to hurt you."
"It sounds wonderful," said the bottle.
"It might take a while to get everyone there," said Daniel. "I can't carry everyone at once."
The bottle whispered something, too quietly for him to hear. Daniel leaned down, his face inches from the dusty shoulders of the green glass.
"Are you old?" he asked. "You're very dusty."
"We are old and we are dusty," said the bottle sadly.
"That's okay," said Daniel. "At the lake you can get clean. But I can't take you right now because I'm going the other way. I'll come and get you on the way back."
He looked up. Suspended above the bottles a creature clung to the ceiling, squatting like a giant spider. Thick pipes came out of it, some attached to the ceiling and others hanging. Faceless, it stared down at him. There were vents in its sides like gills on a shark.
He walked backwards into the shelves and the bottles jangeled together.
He jumped, and went toward the doorway. Barely glancing back, he hurried through the next room, not noticing what was inside. He grabbed at the handle of the door at the far end and it groaned open.
Caught between the urge to keep moving and the need to somehow seal the spider away from him with some physical obstacle he fumbled with the handle of the door. It was heavy and took more than the strength in his arms as he tried to keep moving. It slammed and he kept walking, the sound echoing away into the gloom as he looked back with every other step. He passed through the room, climbing or ducking beneath obstacles until he came to the other end.
Through room after room he glanced back at the doors behind him until he stepped into daylight and fell breathless against the wall.
He caught his breath and moved on, across old concrete, relieved to see things he recognised after the long string of unfamiliar rooms. He went past the skeleton frame of the green house, awash with its odd litter; warped tables covered in moss, veneers peeling. On either side were grey walls; corrugated roofs; a tower.
The metallic taste of the river was in the air, and he thought he could hear it in the distance.
He pressed through the gap between two panels of wire mesh and climbed the little hill, toward the road, the gutted shops, and into the shadows of the factories beyond, through places meant for tools and machinery, now dusty echoes left on board and slab.
He felt as though the spider were watching him and he stopped often, turning to look at the stillness behind.
At last he came to the sealed gate, almost as high as the red brick wall itself and to one side of it he crawled beneath the gap in the wall and was outside again. The shale slope led up to the bridge and the sound of fast water.
As he stepped onto the bridge, a cross-wind brought the suffocation of the city. He counted quietly as he crossed, the wind stealing his numbers, carrying them far down to where ever it was that rivers go. Fifty six steps to the other side.
Electric bells sounded in the distance and he broke into a run. They were still ringing as he ran through the school gate.
Daniel sat in the classroom beside the window watching the grey haze in the distance and waited for the bells to split the hours. His fingers drifted absent-mindedly over the desk as he thought about the bottles, abandoned to the spider. He looked out across the playing fields past the tree line, back in the direction of the river.
At the front of the room the woman stood up from behind her desk and clapped her hands together once. Daniel looked at her and she began to speak, her voice like the sound of the television beneath the kitchen door. She gestured to writing on the board behind her and held up a book. He saw that its cover was red and some of the writing on it was white and some was black but all that filled his head was the spider that hung from the ceiling. He could see it, prowling quietly through the rooms looking for him.
She continued to talk. On the wall behind her hung a picture of a ship on a churning ocean, its large white sails straining, and he wished he could be there instead.
The pitiless shrill of the bell drowned her out mid-sentence and he left the room with the other children, swept down the corridors by the jostling, eager bodies. But while they headed for the lunch room or the benches out in the wide courtyard, he turned and pressed himself to the wall, sliding against the tide.
They ran together in pairs or stood in groups. He could not comprehend their strangenesses, the ways they moved with one another, connected in a way he could not see, oblivious to the distances between them. Shouting, laughing together as though they understood each other. They seemed unreal, noises that existed at the edge of his life, beyond what made sense.
At last he was almost alone, and he walked into a block of toilets and hid in the farthest cubicle.
He laid his bag upon his lap and took the story out, unfolded it at last. A photograph of a man leaning on a shovel took up most of the top half of the page. He wore a cap on his head that hid his eyes. He was standing in front of a train.
Above the photograph were large letters proclaiming:
The long ride west for the age of steam
Beside the picture there was text, faded to almost the same colour as the paper itself. He saw the rivets on the face of the train, the carriages that stretched off into the distance beyond the border of the photograph. He wondered if the man was the driver, or if he was the engine master of the train and had ridden it since he was a boy, grown up with the dirt of the railway on his skin and in his blood.
He stared at the man and wondered what lay in the west.
He heard voices out in the corridor and shoved the story into his bag. The door opened and footsteps shuffled across the floor. He heard the hum of urine against the metal of the urinal. The tap squeaked, the paper towel dispenser whirred tore, the door banged and he was alone again.
He listened to the footsteps fade into the other sounds of the hallways and the spaces beyond. He felt cold and put his hands in his pockets. There was something small in each one of them. Two small pieces of white porcelain and for a moment he was confused, unable to remember where they had come from. They were all but identical, small shards of something larger, something gone. One of them had blood on it and he remembered that it was his.
The flat sides were smooth, the edges rough and sharp and he looked from one to the other for some time to figure them out. The bells rang, the noise permeating the walls and the door and window, from everywhere at once, and reluctantly he left.
He spent the afternoon willing the hours by, waited for the bells to set him free.
The picture of the man.
They had a story.
Everything had a story.
The chimneys were the first things that he saw, emerging pale as ash from the haze of sleight rain. They dominated the rickety skyline, twice as tall as the next highest building, and he knew that they were where he wanted to go.
Fifty eight steps across the bridge, down the slope and through the gap and he was back inside again.
In the rain the buildings became musty, puddles grew and trickling seams of water appeared upon the walls. He hopped from pallet to bucket, rubble to girder, to keep his feet from getting wet and because the ground might be deadly.
In the remnants of a tall factory the water dripped steadily from the ceiling. He opened his mouth and let the drops fall onto his tongue: mineral like an old penny.
He hummed. Holding a tone until he ran out of breath before starting again at a different pitch. Against the sound of the rain it made for a peculiarly pleasant music.
Stairs lead him up to the loft with its creaking wooden floor and its skylights. It was dominated by a great circle set into the opposite wall, thick blades behind a rusting grille. He had never quite been able to work out what it was. He had tried to make the blades move. The grille had squeaked as he pushed his arm in, but they were stuck fast. From across the room it looked like the shell of a giant snail, and Daniel stopped his humming.
He sat on the bare wooden floor, a hundred sandy shades given a liquid life by the rain that slid down the skylights in the waning light of the late afternoon. He took a stone from his bag and began to draw on the floorboards. He used a dark line in the grain of the wood as the crest of a hill, adding tufts of grass and a tree. He added dashes around the edges of a knot and it became a black and white sun in the wooden sky and he filled the spaces with white clouds. He finished the drawing with a bird perched in the tree.
It was not long before the light was too meagre to see properly what he was doing and so he left the way he had entered, waving to the snail as he went.
He wove through the buildings, keeping the chimneys always in front of him. He saw them through the windows and the gaps, though even when he couldn't see them he knew just where they were.
He stopped in a room littered with slate tiles. In one corner some were arranged in several neat piles and he decided to help. He picked up tile after tile and carried them over to the corner and placed them on the piles until they began to teeter and then he started new piles beside them. Many of them were mere pieces and would not easily be stacked. He began to make a jigsaw with them but there were a great many and the sky was growing darker so he left the room behind.
A gate caught his eye. Behind it was a staircase piled with rocks, leaving only slivers of the sky in the cracks between them. He peered through the bars and wondered why.
The amber light of the city bled into the colour of the sky like a distant fire. He heard wind in the branches of trees.
The chimneys were not far away.
He climbed some boxes onto window sill, rubbed at the brown glass and looked out at the night. He could see rows of buildings, stretching back into the dark. The same grey tower over and over, hunched on tall grass like the tombs stones of giants.
He had never seen them before. They looked like places for people to live, the closest just a few hundred feet beyond the glass, and he could see its windows, black squares recessed deep into the walls. His gaze lingered on one window. It had no glass in it and there was something small on the edge of the sill. For some reason he felt as though he was looking into a mirror that would not show his reflection as it should. And then the shapes upon the sill lifted like fingers and disappeared.
The wind gusted across the grass and shook the rafters of the warehouse. He wiped again at the window but the dirt shifted about the glass and the buildings became a blur.
He left slowly, unable to decide what he had seen. Perhaps the wind blew away something that had laid on the window sill.
From the warehouse he walked to the corridor that led to the chimneys, shuffling down the gentle slope, nearly blind in the darkness and for the second time that day he wondered if he could trust his own mind. The empty room rang with the sound of him as he crossed the gangway and into the chimney itself.
"I came back," he said, the words reverberating all around. "I said I would and here I am. I've thought about it a whole lot and I know what to do now."
He stepped onto the wooden pallet that lay half in the pool of water in the centre of the chimney's base and leaned forward, reaching out toward the thin sheets of metal.
"I'll take you to the bridge and drop you over the side," he said. "from there maybe you can swim to the sea. That's where the river goes. I'm sure of it. It will take you back home."
He stretched forward. The pallet bucked beneath him and he fell, gasping as his foot plunged into the water.
"It doesn't matter," he said. "I want you to take me with you. I can learn to breathe and we can swim away together and I'll protect you from the pirates."
He could reach them now and he gripped the rusty edge of the nearest. He tugged at it and it shifted toward him. Others fell away to the sides, plunging into the water, falling down behind to bang against the ground.
He tugged it from side to side to pull it out from under the others and it came, long bright scratches in its corrugated skin. As it cleared the pile he lost his grip and it crashed into the water showering his legs. He began to drag it up the stony bank but his feet slipped from under him and he fell hard against the wall of the chimney. The steel sheet clattered to the ground and slid back down toward the water.
They were so much heavier than he had expected, their weight settled on his stomach.
Dejected he moved through rooms made anonymous by the night.
Before he knew it he was back beside the mountains, climbing up and down beside the silent lake, back through the room of stories and outside again.
The high road was bathed in an electric glow that glistened on it's surface like a sickness. The effort to climb over the spine seemed so much greater than it had that morning. With his hands tucked under his arm pits he walked, his feet beyond feeling.
He stood upon the high road and looked back the way he had come. He could still see the chimneys, mighty shapes almost lost against the sky.
The front of the house looked like a grim face, black windows and walls streaked with dark lines that ran down from the gutter. He pushed the door. It opened reluctantly and he stepped into the still dark. Letters rustled on the mat beneath his feet as he stood and listened to the house. The electricity meter on the wall clicked and in the kitchen something small scurried.
He walked down the corridor to the kitchen with one hand against the wall. Raising himself to the tap he drank in great gulps until he had to stop Daniel wandered into the living room and saw food cartons on the carpet. He nudged them with his foot. They were empty.
Something cracked on the carpet. He held it up and in the light from the street lamps saw that it was the shell of a nut and he groped around on the carpet to see if there were more. He slipped a hand beneath the sofa and found the shells of peanuts. His fingers touched something smooth and he held it up. Four holes in the centre of a small circle. It was a button.
On the coffee table was an ash tray, empty bottles and a pizza box. He lifted the lid and inside was a slice. He pulled it out and bit into it hungrily. On his knees he devoured it, his mouth full until it was all gone. It left an after taste of ash upon his tongue.
Back in the kitchen he opened the cupboards and looked up at the shelves. He knew better than to bother opening the refrigerator. Finally he stepped into the larder, pinched sugar from the little dish between his thumb and forefinger and stuffing them in his mouth, crunching the granules and ignoring the tingle in his teeth.
He climbed the stairs and tucked into his room. He hung his bag on the back of the chair and took off his jumper, tie, shirt and trousers and made a pile of them.
Rubbing his eyes, he sank onto the bed and slid beneath the blanket. It was quiet now. Only the click of the meter at the bottom of the stairs. He buried his head beneath the covers and curled his legs up into his chest.
He imagined that he was leading the bottles away. They marched through the corridors and the factories, into the room with the mountain range where they could live beside the lake. And on his back he was carrying the waves, all of them, out of the chimney to the bridge where they would all dive together into the river.
The details began to blur together. He saw again the buildings beyond the window, those high towers upon the churning grass and he imagined climbing the one and finding someone inside. Someone like him. He closed his eyes.
He was not quite asleep when the slam of the front door jolted him wide awake. In the dark he glanced about at nothing. Through the bedroom door he heard a loud crash. Something glass and heavy fell to the ground but did not break. A shuffling sound and two loud thuds: a cold sweat broke at the small of his back. A low creak from the first step of the staircase filled the house. It was followed by another and another and the sounds grew closer. He felt the rhythm fill his chest, the noise grew louder and with it he began to hear breathing, thick and laboured.
He shut his eyes tight and heard his own breath whimpering from him. The footsteps stopped. Something was sent clattering down the staircase onto the tiles at the bottom. They started again, drawing closer and louder. He heard them reach the top of the stairs and outside his door the floorboards groaned as weight swayed from foot to foot.
The door of his bedroom creaked loudly as it was leant against and Daniel felt his bladder jerk. The handle moved, squeaking as it was gripped. The door banged. The handle shook.
He waited for the sound of it turning.
Instead, the landing wheezed as the footsteps shuffled along it away from him. The door at the far end creaked on its hinges and the footsteps were gone.
He felt tears in his eyes and a scratch in his throat as his thoughts returned to everything he had tried to do. Today was over and he had failed to rescue anyone because he was too weak, one way or the other.