Chipper, chipper, the call of the man in the suit as he trots down the stairs.
Set at the table: two slices of toast, one marmalade, the other plain, unsalted butter. Both brown. Coffee with a milk chaser, carton on the table for independent refills.
The carton has no pictures on it.
He smooths the leaves of a broadsheet paper across the table, frowns at the sheen of print clinging to his fingers. He nudges his spectacles further up his nose. According to the paper, the weather today will be fine with a twenty percent chance of rain.
Marmalade sticks to his mustache, pinning crumbs to his face like bugs to flypaper. He wipes with a pressed napkin, briefly examines the resultant smear. His mother would have read his fortune in the spittle stains.
The headlines tediously flaunt the world’s decay; the president entering the Big Brother house, hate crimes on the train lines, women shouldn’t wear black and brown because it both ages and fattens.
Across the table, little Bobby grins, waves a pudgy hand. The world’s news isn’t for the eyes of babes.
It’s not until turning the page for the eleventh time that pictures of the missing fill a double spread. Last week it was front-page news. This week, it’s an after coffee afterthought.
A crowd of people line the street tonight. Some lost, some lonely, some not really there at all, behind the eyes. The chipper man pulls a milk carton from his bag-for-life. Bends, folds, tears the cardboard.
Doing his bit for the homeless, he offers it.
The first, batted to the floor.
The second, coughed up, phlegmy line of insipid vomit.
The man, still chipper, wipes stinking mucus from his shoes. The night’s security patrol, all fluorescent jacket and over-compensating bling, looks over once before turning, spitting. It’s an easy shift; no one cares what happens here.
The third time’s the charm, as they say.
The third guzzles from the carton like a new-born calf. Perhaps some change, please? But the chipper man simply watches. Watches as the third time’s the charm wipes milk from his mouth, starts clawing at his mouth, starts choking. Bubbles and bile, milky foam.
The meat will be a little lean, and his face will never grace the cartons—too old, too uncomfortable for consumers—but at least it’s free-range. And low risk.
The saddest thing about the twelfth page is that it’s a page of the missing and yet it’s missing many missing. He never forgets a face. It’s his duty, to remember them. To remember the ones that don’t make copy. And he knows a double spread would never be enough.
Across the table, Bobby takes a drag from his sippy cup, reaches a hammy fist towards him, mouths around gums half-grown with splinter teeth.
“I’m hungry, Da.”
And the chipper man folds away the paper, goes to the fridge for fresh meat.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tamara writes mainly dark, surreal tales with a touch of science fiction. Her novel Grind Spark was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award in 2014. She is interested in all things weird in the world of psychology, artificial intelligence and armageddon. You can find her on Twitter @tamrogers, or at www.thedustlounge.com where there’s a strong possibility she’ll be talking about cats.