He had found solace in doing this work and had met people who were as forgotten as he was.
None of the men he worked with ever talked about their personal histories. The business of the supermarket, and the ordinary goings on, was the staple of all their conversations. This was a place that he could hide.
Most of them shared a house. He was comfortable with this situation which was not dissimilar to his time in the hospital. There had not been any talk on the ward, other than the occasional sleeper waking in the middle of a sentence, but there was the chatter that went on beyond consciousness. Nick had always been able to hear the chatter of the others. Now, Nick knew more about his housemates than they knew about themselves.
Stuart was the eldest in the group and he was a short, stocky man who had been a sailor in a previous life. He had married and had had children. Their names had escaped Stuart over the years along with the very fact that he had even had a previous life. These days, he lived in the present and only the very recent past.
Long, long ago, a fire had destroyed his young family but had spared him. That was when he surrendered. Depression was followed by suicide attempts and then alcohol. He had been sleeping rough and heading for a squalid end when Nick found him under a viaduct. Since then, Stuart had clung to Nick.
Now, Stuart was missing. He had not returned to the house after his late shift and had not appeared at work the following day. There had been a little concern at his non-appearance at first but that soon faded. He was one of them and they did that sort of thing. Nick thought otherwise.
This day saw several more of his people not turning up for work. The numbers had started to increase over the last few weeks and the manager had put it down to a virus, a flu-like virus, that was sweeping the city. As he collected the trolleys which had been flung to all corners of the car park, he thought about how the number of shoppers had been declining too.
By seven o’clock, the car park was generally full with people who were hoping to avoid paying for a space. They would arrive in their cars, dressed in the business attire, make moves which suggested they would be shopping, walk towards the supermarket’s doors and then veer off towards their places of work. Nobody generally saw Nick nor noticed the others like him.
At night, kids would often congregate in the car park to smoke or drink. Sometimes, if a trolley had not been properly secured, they would use it for sport. In some cases, trolleys had been known to travel many miles during the hours of darkness, turning up in some of the unlikeliest places. On more than one occasion, they had been found at the central cemetery as if fulfilling one last shopping request. Leaving his mounting train of trolleys plumb against a fence, he walked around to collect the stray.
Nick moved hesitantly towards the only one not to have been hijacked. He placed his hand on its handle and was pulling it towards him when something attracted his attention. The waste bin had not been emptied. Its normal contents of McDonald’s packaging, cigarette packets and coke cans were in evidence, but beneath them was a thing that Nick recognised. He placed his hand inside the bin and pulled out the iPod that had been Stuart’s prized possession.
His first touch told him what he had suspected all along; Stuart was dead.
Nick would have cried if he knew how to. Instead, he pocketed the iPod and pushed the trolley back to its companions. He knew what this meant: The Piper was setting his trap of intimidation, attempting to lure his enemies out into the open, before dealing with them, one by one. The eyes and ears of the creature were not as accurate as they would be in the due course of time. He was rusty. Unfortunately, as time wore on, those attributes would become sharper and more focussed. If Nick was to survive this, he would have to move quickly. He scratched a scar on his forehead that was, to the uninitiated, no longer visible.
The memory of the ward folowed him wherever he went.
Each neuron was being tapped, charged and connected. Each tiny response was being measured and evaluated. He was running along the corridors, chased by the swarm of rats, whose hunger was insatiable. His bare feet rapped against the wet, stone floor and his skin ripped against the walls. Each turn offered false hope, each doorway an unreal escape. The probe ran deeper, its tip cold and unremitting.
That was when he cried for the first time in his life. He cried for the life that had been snatched away and for the future that he had been denied. He cried for the sins that he must have done to bring him to this and he cried because there was nobody to love him.
Nicholas was out of the open door and away. He could hear the panic running through the spine of the rat army and could sense that they too wished desperately to escape. Their rush of fear and cowardice meant that many were trampled underfoot, their screams mixing with the high-pitched hiss of the others. They did not see Nicholas as he mounted the steps. They did not see him as he reached for a brick coal chute and climbed up its tar-layered length. They could not stop him as he opened the door to freedom.
Then he ran. He ran into the night like a feral creature. He was naked, covered in bruises, scratches and blood. All of this was hidden by a thick layer of soot that made him almost invisible to anyone who cared to search the surrounding landscape. The night air bit deeply into his lungs and his muscles screamed. Eventually, he dropped and slept. He slept deeper than he had ever done before and when he woke, he woke to sunshine and dew.
From some way off, a voice of warning came.
Nicholas. Nicholas. Nick. Nick.
He woke again to the world of now.
Run Nicholas, run!
Nick should have fallen, a delayed delicacy for vermin, a triumph for the greater will, but he didn’t. The pain that radiated from the now reddening scar reminded him of twhere he had run from.
You need to pull yourself out of this and you need to do it now. Follow me.
Find the family and warn them of his coming.
The headache had lessened but would not leave. He was awake and conscious of having been away.
“Are you all right Nick? Are you feeling any better? We were very worried for a moment.”
Nick woke to find himself on the bed in the medical room. Two of the women who worked in personnel were looking over him, their faces etched with concern. Nick nodded and tried to say something.
“No, don’t talk. You had a nasty fall. You don’t seem to have broken anything, but we’ve called the doctor just in case. You haven’t been taking anything you shouldn’t have, have you?”
He shook his head.
“He doesn’t look well does he?”
“I need the toilet. I think I am going to be sick,” he managed before rising to his feet and making a dash across the room. The two women could only watch as he left the room, their shared looks showing a sympathy reserved for children.
Nick didn’t feel sick any longer and he didn’t rush to the toilet. What he did was hasten his way out of the supermarket and into the grey morning.
The Piper was not coming any longer, he was here, and Nick had to warn the family.