Thursday 4am - Julie

Derek woke just before the alarm. He always did. He always joked, “Even when I retire I’ll be up at 4am!”

He reached over and cancelled the alarm; it was his daily treat to lie in the quiet until the clock changed to 4am. When it did he gently eased himself out of the warm bed, glancing at his wife still sleeping soundly. She could sleep through a war he always joked, and just as well too or they might not still be married.

His work clothes and overalls were neatly waiting for him on the bathroom. He had shaved the night before so he just splashed cold water on his face and got dressed. Getting up this early everyday wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea but Derek was proud, boastful even, of his discipline. 32 years he had worked the early shift and not once been late.

He went downstairs, avoiding the creaky stair. He took a pint of milk from the fridge and his pre-packed lunchbox. By the time he had reached his car the milk was almost drunk, a liquid breakfast, not a liquid lunch, he always laughed at that one himself.

Geoff loved this time of day, 4am, it was his time. The sky over the town centre was just starting to lighten to a dark navy and he was King of the Road. The bottles clinked and chinked as the electric van went over the uneven road. His music. Thursday’s round, the North Harston Estate, a mix of smart executive houses, oldies bungalows and modern I bed terraces. Not that Geoff cared too much he liked the dark, quiet streets, a secret world very few knew or bothered about. He did see the odd shift worker or an illicit lover leaving before dawn and of course the darling kitty now morphed into its guise of killer of the shadows. But mostly he had the roads to himself.

He had long since worked out the most convenient places to stop to deliver to several houses at once. There weren’t as many stops now as when he first became a milky but enough with the cartons of orange juice and other stuff to still make a living. Just as well as Geoff really couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Mrs Jennings, just 1 pint now since her kids have grown up and she decided she had a dairy intolerance. Geoff scurried up the short path collecting the empties and placing the full bottle in one practised movement. The light was on in the front bedroom, it often was.

Toby Jennings had reach level 23, he had killed 15,135 insectoid aliens, he was now a commander of the imperial fleet. He didn’t consciously register the clink of the bottles on the doorstep, after 8 Red bulls he was flying like his avatar in his own universe.

Eyes, red in circles of black, darted rapidly from side to side in a hypnotic pattern. Thumbs pulsed in jittery arrhythmia. He had advanced further than any of the others on the forum – this was new territory and he, Toby Jennings, was the pioneer.

A few hours ago when his mum got up for her nightly “old Lady wee”, she had banged on the door telling him to shut it off and go to bed as he had college in the morning. His concentration had dangerously wavered in that moment; the unwelcome intrusion had almost got him nuked. She got a few choice words back and he survived. We cared about college anyway – full of posy wankers and stuck up tarts – and a useless certificate at the end. In Hellium he was a hero. He took another sip and killed another creature by spearing it through its ugly great eye which erupted in green goo. Besides sleep was for wimps.

Sarah wanted sleep more than anything else in the world. She looked again at the tormenting clock - 4am. She had been through the usual routine, herbal sleep remedy, twice the recommended dose, taken an antihistamine that causes drowsiness and at least a tumbler full of gin. Now she felt sick and slightly drunk, so tearfully tired but still her mind wouldn’t switch off. It was too late now she had to be up at 7, the meeting was at 9 and she would be crap.

A burst of light shot up the stairs – she jolted – the security light had come on. Hardly daring to breath she listened, a clink, the milkman, she relaxed. Sarah carefully slid out of bed for the fifth time, he was still breathing heavily. She must not disturb him, he had work too. He always laid his head on the pillow and was gone; he got angry with her tears and hysterical midnight episodes. “Just shut our eyes and go to sleep, its not that hard – except it was.

Downstairs she wrapped herself in the spare duvet she kept behind the sofa and quietly wept, pleading for release from this terrible night. She even wished for that final sleep of death, an end to long nights and mind fogged days.

Maisy Evans had gone to bed Wednesday evening feeling content. She had finished the crossword, spoken to Lisa, her granddaughter lovely girl, about her visit at the weekend, and she watched a DVD of Singing in the Rain. Tomorrow she was having lunch with Joyce at the garden centre for a good gossip and a laugh; she must remember to get a house plant for Edi’s birthday while she was there.

She woke with a start; there had been a terrifying dream and feeling of being crushed. She gasped and tried to turn and look at the clock. She could not make herself turn; she could only stare at the shadows cast by the streetlamps. A terrible pain drove into her head as if it has been split in two by an axe. She heard a clink, it was Geoff the milkman. She tried to cry out for help but she could not find the words. She tried to scream but no sound came out. The pain got worse, searing, blinding pain until her eyes could only see red. Maisy choked at the smell and then realised she had peed herself as uncontrolled bladder muscles went limp. Clean, proud and fastidious Maisy’s last terrified thought was the mess they would find her in.

Finally she found the words – Help me – but it was already too late. Maisy Evans drowned in the flood within her brain still screaming silently.

Derek arrived home to find the wife was still having her lunch.

“You’re late eating today love – ‘ere there was a right commotion outside them old folk’s bungalows, 2 police cars, loads of people around. Wonder what was going on?”

“Yes that’s why I’m late, been aright upsetting morning I can tell you. Completely thrown me off my chores it has”

“Oh dear”

“An old lady was found dead, her neighbour noticed she hadn’t taken in the milk or drawn her curtains. They had to call the police to knock the door down. It was terrible they used one of them things they use on the telly; you know when they do them drugs raids. Bashed the door down, two of them it was”

Oh dear, that’s’ terrible – what happened to her? “Derek started to make a sandwich of his own.

“Found her dead in bed, heart attack or stroke they reckoned, sometime in the middle of the night”.

“Oh well if you’ve got to go, dying peaceful in you sleep is the best way”.

Yeah suppose you’re right, she wouldn’t have known anything and she was 86”

“ had a good innings then – mind you if Old Nick comes for me in the middle of the night he won’t catch me unawares – I’ll still be……..”

“…………. Up at 4am even when I retire, completed his wife, “silly ole fool”