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Gary Couzens is a British writer whose work has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone, The Third Alternative, Peeping Tom, Psychotrope and Urges, and in the anthology Bizarre Sex and Other Crimes of Passion (Richard Kasak Books). This story previously appeared in Substance #4.

Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@indiana.edu.

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by Gary Couzens

(Go back to Part Two)

Part Three

     The following morning, Penny boards the Intercity from Birmingham to Southampton via Reading and Basingstoke, a journey of close to four hours. Faint glimmerings of her migraine are still present; she wears tinted glasses to cut down glare.
     She's grown accustomed to living in Birmingham: she went to University there and stayed on after graduation. She'd never been inclined to drift aimlessly like some of her friends, or go round the world in a year. She wanted a job and after a couple of months found one, with an insurance company. Since then, apart from Christmas and odd weekends and more significantly her father's funeral, she's never been back to Southampton, where she was born and brought up and where her mother and brother still live.
     She finds an unreserved seat and tries to lift her suitcase up on the luggage rack as the train pulls out of New Street Station. She almost stumbles, and sweat breaks out on her forehead and under her arms. She looks frustratedly up; she's just that couple of inches too short to manage to push her case up all the way.
     "Excuse me, Miss, do you need any help?"
     She turns. A man in his early forties, hair greying, is standing in the aisle to her left. She nods and he reaches up and pushes the case in.
     "Thanks," she says. "It's not easy when you're five foot two."
     He smiles. "You're welcome." And walks past her, his copy of the Daily Telegraph under his arm. She watches him go. He's obviously sensed she wants to be alone. But he seemed quite safe, not the type to try it on. She's not dressed provocatively , as a rape-case judge might say: a loose peach-coloured top that doesn't show the shape of her small breasts, and black leggings. And that Miss jarred: she's always insisted on Ms.
     Her concentration is too fragile for reading. She changes trains once, then twice. She sits back for the last forty-five minutes of her journey. But as the train pulls out of Winchester she becomes aware of a growing sense of unease. She realises that it's been with her since she got on this train at Basingstoke. A lowering disquiet, as if someone is staring directly at the nape of her neck. Once or twice she turns round but there is no-one there. Apart from her, the carriage is empty.

     I left the train at Southampton and exited the station by the north side, near the Mayflower Theatre. I glanced round the carpark and saw no-one I recognised, so I sat on my suitcase and waited. Five minutes later, Richard and Michelle pulled up.
     Richard helped me put my case in the boot. Michelle came out to watch. She was petite and pretty, her round face framed with black pageboy cut. Her abdomen had rounded out a little: I'd known from Richard's phonecalls she was four months pregnant, but this was the first time I'd seen her that way. She wasn't unfriendly to me, but there was a distance between us. Maybe the aloofness was in me, or in the signals I gave off.
     "Did you have a good journey?" Richard asked me.
     "Yes, thanks." It had been an hour and a half's journey from Aldershot, with a changeover at Woking. I'd moved away, and found lodgings in Aldershot, when I found a job in Guildford; later I got my present job, walking distance from where I lived.
     "Keeping well?"
     "Uh-huh." I looked up; Michelle flashed an awkward smile at me. Richard and I got on fine over the phone; face to face we became incommunicative. It took us time to penetrate each other's carapace, to seem like the brothers we were.
     Richard drove up to his house in the Portswood district, just behind the shopping centre. As we approached, I became aware of a disquieting sensation, a back-of-the-head throb: I'd had it in the train, but it had disappeared once I'd got into the carpark, leading me to suspect it was caused by the stuffiness of the train compartment. But it returned, and intensified during dinner. I thought it might be some unusual kind of headache, but it never developed into that.
     We sat and watched television then I, claiming tiredness, went to bed just after ten o'clock. I spent half an hour unpacking. I'd brought some of Marie's clothes with me, but I knew I'd never have a chance to wear them, except possibly a pair of knickers under my trousers. I saw myself as others, not understanding, might see me: frivolity in the presence of death. Perhaps that was the source of the anxiety I felt, that near-headache I still had. Normally I'd get through the day knowing I could lock myself in my room at night and shed Peter to let Marie out. Like a snake sloughing its skin. But I didn't have that relief now.
     I was still feeling edgy, so I locked myself in the bathroom and masturbated into a sheath of toilet paper. I felt better; at least the anxiety was gone. As I was kneeling down, wiping away some semen that had spilled despite the care I'd taken, I heard Michelle's low voice outside: "He doesn't say much, does he?" Then Richard's voice, shushing her.
     I went back into my room and lay down in the dark.
     And then I heard the voice in my head.

Go On To Part Four