I was in my late twenties and had been living in my own apartment for about a year. For our generation, it is difficult to find decent, affordable accommodation, with the increase in house prices, so naturally I was thrilled when I moved into my own place, searching for months to find the right house. I’d been sharing an apartment with a couple of friends for a few years but nothing beat having my own home.
Currently I was sitting on a train back to my hometown. Years had flown by without me coming home to visit. It was my fault mainly, but life does seem to get in the way of plans. At least the weather wasn’t too bad. I curled up in my seat, staring out at the countryside, cheek pressed up against the window.
“TICKETS PLEASE.” I must have nodded off, as standing to the side of me was a large man, covering me like an umbrella. It was the ticket collector.
“Yes, yes.” I fumbled inside my purse, searching for the ticket, handing it over into his sweaty, beefy hands. He scanned it over, passed it back and left, where I must have dozed off again. I woke up with a start. A man, a passenger facing opposite me, was just staring at me, like he was trying to guess who I was.
“Can I help you?” I felt unnerved by his direct stare, as if he was looking right into my brain.
Nothing. Just blank stares.
The train grinded to a halt. I was pushed forward, the wheels screeched on the tracks.
The man made no attempt to get off. This was the end of the line, there was nothing here besides where I grew up. I got out of my seat, still focused on the man, looking in fascination, I caught a glimpse of his name, on the train ticket he had left in front of him, on the table.
I realised it was my art teacher from school. I was his top student back in the day, I didn’t recognise him, how could I? He looked completely different. It had been seven years since I last saw him. It was prom night and I distinctly remember he was on drink duty. He had been much better looking then. Clean shaven, he wasn’t very old, he must have only been a few years older than me, newly qualified. He always dressed so smartly with his brown jackets and bow ties. Now, as he sat before me, he resembled a tramp. His well-kept hair and clothes were now torn and messy. A large scratchy beard covered his face. His jacket and shirt were now replaced with a large raincoat, big boots, and sweatpants. Something horrible must have caused this.
Mr Simmons didn’t answer me, just stared, with his eyes glazed over. Eyes that had once twinkled with joy, now filled with hopelessness. There was nothing more I could do, I stepped off the train, while he continued staring at me from the window. Even when I was standing on the platform his look didn’t alter.
There wasn’t much to the train station. Fields for miles around, not a single soul about. I remembered the buses being reliable, but we were talking nearly 10 years ago now.
The bus stop was shabby and in major disrepair. The metal seating had collapsed in on itself, a hole in the glass wall, blew a gust of wind through, kids had probably thrown a brick and smashed it. I waited and waited. I had arrived around dinner time and now I could see the sun setting slightly in the clouds. I must have been waiting for at least an hour, but nothing.
I decided to walk into town, it wasn’t that far if I remembered correctly from when I made the trip to the station, when I was seventeen, but things do seem shorter when you are younger. As I walked, the streets seemed still. It was only early, even for a small place, it seemed more like a ghost town. I had always remembered the streets and shops being full of people.
“Adrian?” I shouted across the road. It was one of my friends from school, staring at a shop window full of television screens. He was dressed in a policeman’s uniform, head to toe in blue. I crossed to the other side, to find his face completely blank, no expression visible.
“Adrian. you’re in the police now, huh?”
I looked at what he was staring at. The tv screens had been switched off. Black mirrors reflecting our faces. He turned to face me, but just like Mr Simmons on the train, he just stopped, just glaring into my soul.
“Right then. good catching up with you, speak soon!” I dashed off down the street, looking over my shoulder every so often, to see if anything had changed. It didn’t. I was thoroughly creeped out. I felt as if something was wrong with the whole town. I didn’t run, but I walked briskly up the road, towards my childhood home. I prayed my parents would be inside, my world had turned topsy turvy in a matter of moments, and to see their faces in my hour of need was everything I needed right now.
I smiled at the house, with the blue, shabby, wooden front door. The immaculate flower beds, my mother spent each day pruning; dad’s old rusty bike propped up against the gate. Stone steps lead up to the house, every step brought back memories from my childhood, hurrying off to school and running too fast, so that one time I tripped and grazed my knee.
The old net curtains still sat in the windows, filled with knick-knacks we bought on our holidays. The door knocker was still a golden brass, heavy to touch. I hammered on the door. Nothing.
A cold sweat crept around my blood. “Not again.” I mumbled.
“Mom? Dad? Are you in?”
“Oh god. not again, not again…”
Then a light patter of footsteps came to the door, and it swung right open, revealing my father stood in his slippers.
“Oh, am I glad to see you! The entire town seems to have gone completely mad! I saw…” I stopped. I knew I was rambling. “It doesn’t matter.”
I stretched my hands out for a hug when I was pushed back.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Dad barked.
“Dad? It’s me? Dad? Dad, I’ve come home for a few weeks, we talked about it on the phone.”
“Why do you keep calling me dad? We have no children?”
I sighed. I had given up hope.
“What the hell is going on.”
“Hey! I will not have that sort of language spoken in my house!”
“Who is it dear?” It was my mother calling out.
“Mom!” I rushed through the hall of my childhood home, and raced into the lounge, finding my mom staring at some knitting she was working on.
“Excuse me! I didn’t give you permission to enter my house!” Father yelled, looking at me like a stranger, like I was nobody to him.
The room was just how I remembered it. That hadn’t changed, it was as though I had stepped back in time yet I wasn’t a part of it. The television played in the background, some old game show. The same screen, dust marks all over it. The same curtains that I had accidentally burnt when I was eight. The disgusting mouldy green carpet I would sit crossed legged on, watching cartoons, where my parents would warn me about getting square eyes.
Everything looked the same, apart from the pictures of me at school, the photograph I had hated of me at Prom, hung over the fireplace. All traces of me, gone.
I walked in front of her. She was frail, her eye sockets deepened, her skin pale and wrinkled.
“Mom. “I lowered my voice.
Her beady eyes looked up from her knitting and saw me now kneeling before her.
“Who is this, Gerald?” She was scared. Her voice wobbled like a jelly.
“Mom. it’s me. “
I was being pulled away by my own dad, like a criminal.
“Mum, dad, please.” I felt myself on the verge of tears.
I was rejected, thrown back out on to the road, the door slammed in my face. The world had gone mad, and there was nothing I could do to change it. Everyone had either lost their minds or lost their memory. I didn’t like to think it but it seemed I was the centre of this problem.
The rain fell heavily. I made my way to the old bus stop I used, when I was going to school. Luckily, this bus stop was in better condition. I lay curled into a ball on the hard metal bench, pressed up again the steamy glass, raindrops falling on my clothes. I must have fallen asleep, because as I woke up, I was greeted by daylight and crowds of people I recognised from my youth, glaring at me unnervingly. They all had blank expressions on their faces. Everyone looked as if they had been gathering dust for decades. Their clothes moth bitten, their hair mouldy, cobwebs dangling from one lady’s hair.
In the middle of the crowd, I spotted them. Both my parents. They were gaunt, sickly, and spindly as if they hadn’t eaten in years. They looked completely different from when I saw them a few hours ago. Dad walked forward. At that moment the crowds of people stepped out of his way, leaving a walkway to me.
The corpse like people stood either side of me. I saw Adrian, his police uniform in tatters. My first teenage crush, looking less attractive, her teeth like beavers, her skin weathered like paper. Mr Simmons had joined them, his back hunched over like an old man.
“Why did you leave?” Dad croaked, except this wasn’t the voice of my father. His once cool and friendly tone was sour and scratchy, like a caveman uttering his first words.
“Why did you leave?” He repeated.
“I don’t understand. Why did I leave?”
He kept repeating the phrase over and over, each time his breath became gruffer.
I had always wanted to leave this town. There was nothing to do, every day was the same. I wanted excitement and opportunity. I wanted to live in the city where there was more for me.
A horrible thought struck me. Come to think of it, no one seemed to have left the town, only me.
“No one never left, did they?”
Everyone looked at me in that way, their dead eyes watching me.
“Why did you leave?” My dad asked again.
“Why did you leave?” The entire town of people spoke the same words, like a haunted chorus of demons. Each voice was modified, sounding less human with every breath they made. They just kept repeating and repeating and the vibrations kept on getting louder.
“You can stop it now.”
I felt myself being backed into a corner. I bumped into the glass wall of the bus stop, causing me to sit back down. They were moving closer, ever so slowly.
I didn’t think. I saw my opportunity, a tiny gap amongst the singing crowd, and dashed forward. I had never run so fast since gym class; I was much faster then though. I didn’t even know what direction I was going in or where I would end up, but I just kept running and running until I reached the entrance to the woods.
The woods were always forbidden to us. As teenagers, all the kids from school would sneak off amongst the thick branches and dense leaves. I suddenly remembered an old club house we used to hang out in, high above the trees. I hurried into the dense forest. I looked behind me to see the town people following me, still chanting, as if I was a witch accused of witchcraft. Everywhere I looked, the trees and brambles had taken over the area. The trunks of trees grew for miles. Nothing looked the same, and my memory was unforgiving.
Branches were flying in every direction as I sped up. I didn’t dare look behind me now, I was focused in front of me, foliage toppled and flew into my hair, brushing against my face. I couldn’t remember. I couldn’t remember where it was, I had a dreadful feeling that it may have been pulled down many years ago. A stitch burned through my heart and skin. I wasn’t as fit as I was all those years ago. I lent on a large oak tree its branches looking older than the forest itself.
It seemed as if I had lost the crowd and my guard started to drop. Perhaps they were lost in the tangle and mess of this forest? I bent my legs and panted like a dog, trying to get my breath back. The pain surged up my legs and into my muscles. I looked around me. The sun was peeking through the trees, shadowing it from view. Everywhere around me was so still. No birds and no humming of the wind in the distance. I had no clue how I was going to get out of this.
Something unnatural swooped me from the ground. My legs were suddenly dangling two feet from the ground. I looked above me; each arm was gripped by this being. My eyes directed upwards and I saw the most grotesque creature. A hunchback ball of limbs, wrapped together, thick hair growing all over its body. I was lifted sideways and thrown, landing on my back with a thump.
The old wooden treehouse had stood creaking for years. The bark nearly decaying from the rain. A wooden floor made from dead wood layers, stacked on top of each other. A rotten roof, about to crack at any moment, kept the rest of the house from getting wet. I remembered magazines and treats used to be stored here but everywhere looked bare now, completely stripped back.
He sat in the far corner, his back lightly leaning against the walls. He sat in a frog crouch, staring at me, tilting his head slightly.
I realised it was me. My face from years ago, before I moved away, when I was just an impressionable child. But how? I leant in closer, moving my head towards this doppelgänger. I could feel it staring into my soul.
“Why did you leave?” It croaked.
I pretended not to hear and tried to communicate with the creature.
“What are you?”
“Why did you leave?” It croaked once more, now moving closer towards me, as if to examine me.
One step back, two steps back…
Then with one move, the creature had pushed me, I was tumbling back through the air, hurtling towards the ground. I stared down, seeing the entire town crowding around where I was going to land, waiting for me, like a strange trampoline. I landed with a large thud. People I knew, the memories I’d lost, crawling at my flesh. I saw the last few images of myself, above just watching….
About the author
Elizabeth Butler has a masters in Creative Writing University .Her published anthology, Turning the Tide was a collaboration. She has published a short children's story and published a book of poetry through Bookleaf Publishing.