Ross Landy was stuck in limbo, unable to sleep.
He had been lying as still as a stone statue on the floor - remembering that although uncomfortable, sleeping on a hard surface was supposed to be good for one - but nothing had happened. There were actually dark yellow circles under his eyes. On that pale face with its red-rimmed eyes, it made him look and feel like a zombie.
Ross felt sure that the insomnia was fairly acute and would pass soon. He didn't know what would happen if it didn't.
He decided to get up - which took longer than he would have liked - and then stumbled over to the window. Ross peered at the garden outside. It was pretty enough, but the owner had been absent long enough for the shrubs to become overgrown. He could see plenty of weeds too. He'd have gone down and picked them up himself... if he'd actually given a damn.
He was sick of it. Sick of everything.
Ross couldn't remember how his life had turned out like this. He'd been a good student - not the best at meeting deadlines or colouring in maps in Geography, perhaps, but the grades had turned out alright in the end. And now... well, he didn't understand his life anymore.
He even found it hard to deal with waking up and going to sleep. His life was a failure. And he was living in a borrowed house with a crap job and no hope of anything getting better.
There was only one thing for it. He was going to say goodbye.
Seven years ago, Ross had been sat in a sweltering hot classroom, staring in boredom at a row of WW2 propaganda posters, drawn by the year eights. One showed a crouching, tearful woman clutching her children, in the silhouette of a gun-toting soldier. The poster bore the legend - 'Don't let this happen to the people you love. JOIN THE ARMY for your family and for your country'. Underneath this, some genius had drawn half a dozen swastikas.
As usual, Mr Dunstan, the overweight, bald history teacher was glaring at him from his desk. It was a well known fact that Mr Dunstan hated children, but he particularly loathed Ross. Every flash of the eyes from behind those horrible spectacles said loud and clear, 'You're dead.'
Around him, Ross felt the breeze from a bunch of paper fans. He stared at the wall until the bell rang. The rest of the class stampeded out. But not him. He knew he couldn't leave.
Sure enough, Mr Dunstan kept his eyes on the paper he was marking until the corridor was deserted, then strode across and locked the door. He approached Ross with a cold stare.
'Mr Landy,' he was saying.
Ross looked up. Mr Dunstan was not adjusting well to the unseasonable heat. Beads of sweat sat on his fat nose, almost ready to roll off down his blotchy face. There was a red rash on his neck. Ross could see damp patches under his teacher's arms. He focused very hard on the poster again.
'Look at me when I'm talking to you!'
Ross looked. It would be worse if he didn't.
Mr Dunstan carried on. 'I'm had it up to here with you, Landy. You won't learn, you won't even try. Are you just stupid? Are you thick Landy? Or are you just plain insolent?'
'You're a real tough guy, aren't you? You think you're so fucking special that you don't have to listen to me. You don't have to treat me with any kind of resPECT!' Some saliva flew out as he said this, hitting Ross on the lip. His mouth twitched in revulsion. It was the wrong thing to do.
'On your feet, Landy! Come on, I'll teach you something. Something that's going to stick in that thick skull of yours for a long time.'
When Mr Dunstan tried to 'teach' you, you didn't fight back. You let yourself be throw down and submit. If he was satisfied with your performance he let you go.
And he did let Ross go. But this time he added a parting shot.
'You're useless,' he said, wiping the perspiration off - this kind of exercise was hard work. 'Why don't you just end it?'
Ross had contemplated it then. Crossing the bridge home from school, he'd seriously thought about it. He had his tie. If he was quick, he could catch Mr Dunstan as he drove past underneath. A student's body swinging in the air would give him a few nightmares alright.
But he'd been too weak.
He wasn't too weak now.
Ross headed for the stairway, across creaking wooden floorboards. There was a wooden beam above the stairs that was fairly sturdy. There was some rope in the garden shed somewhere, underneath the toolbox.
Ross retrieved the rope, moving quickly. No time to waste. He'd got his hands oily from knocking something over in the shed, but he didn't stop to wash them. You didn't get spruced up to die. What was the point?
He was finally going to get some sleep.
As he climbed the stairs again, he found himself grinning at the thought of the house owner returning. If they ever did, they'd need to do more than a bit of weeding the garden.
It took Ross Landy an hour to get the rope in place, flinging it at the beam and eventually knotting it securely. Then he completed the noose at the other end. He couldn't do a hangman's knot, so settled for a bowline. He tied it securely. Then he realised that for full suspension of the body he wanted less rope, so it would become taut before his feet met the next stair down. Grumbling he adjusted the noose.
He took a last look at the stairs, and further down, the hallway. That ridiculous decor, the peach wallpaper and that rustic pine floor. This would be the last thing he'd see if it all went well.
Ross took a deep breath, slipped the noose around his neck, and hopped off the step.
For five seconds he swung, his momentum taking him back and forth. Ross felt a sudden kick of panic as the pressure around his trachea spiked. Some fight-or-flight response made him claw uselessly at his neck. His head hurt. His lungs felt like they were filling up with water, and it was terrible, he was going to die, slowly and painfullyeeeeeeeeeee...
The rope was cut somehow from above. Ross dropped suddenly and hit his head on a step. He kept on tumbling forward. Someone was thudding down the stairs behind him, gaining speed. They grabbed his arm, and he felt a painful yank on his shoulder joint. Ross's legs skidded out as his body came to a stop.
The hand was still gripping onto his. His legs stopped rolling. He stayed still, spread across four or five steps.
The hand let go.
Slowly and painfully, Ross pulled himself into a sitting position. His whole body was aching, but he was still alive.
The pain was still pulsing in his throat. He was sure something in his throat had been seriously damaged. He was having trouble beathing, even after the person who'd cut him loose bent down to remove the noose.
It hadn't worked. Fan-bloody-tastic.
Ross finally looked up. He wanted to get a look at the bastard who'd taken away his chance to die, and once he got his strength back, he'd kick him to oblivion.
The stranger, as it turned out, was about the same height as Ross, and shared the same black hair. Even so, he was less pale and looked a lot healthier, if a little worried. He was dressed in a greenish trench coat and muddy jeans. He was covered all over in a fine white dust. It covered him completely - Ross could even see some up the stranger's nose.
Ross knew that nose, that face. It was unmistakable. This stranger was him.
'No,' Ross croaked.
'Don't talk, your windpipe may be damaged.' The New Ross quickly glanced at a watch, then went back to looking at him. He tossed the noose aside - it lay forgotten. He inhaled deeply, then blew some of the dust out of his nose. He cleared his throat.
'Try to stand up,' he said. The voice sounded different somehow.
Ross didn't want to stand up. He wanted to carry on sitting here and just die. Go away. Leave me alone.
'Come on, you have to stand up. I need to check you over.'
New Ross sighed and scooched down a step until he was sitting beside him. He took a look at Ross's neck, which was red and sore and a little scratched from his fingernails. He checked the shoulder to make sure there was no ligament damage. He checked his knees, his ankles, his elbows and everything in between for broken bones, all the time ignoring his past self's protests.
'You're going to be fine,' he said uncertainly. 'I should have known, really, but... well, couldn't help being a little anxious.'
Get the hell away from me, Ross thought. I'm supposed to die.
'No.' New Ross got up and offered him a hand. 'You're supposed to live. Get up and let me explain.'