The Treehouse – Chapter IV

By Jake Kale

The bus turns left into Kenlis Road, and I have to ride a short distance down the road until it reaches the next stop. There I get off, and I consider going to have a look round my old school. But that would only be putting off the inevitable.

I start walking back towards Easton Avenue, then cross over as I make my way to the cemetery that I have steadfastly avoided my entire adult life. I don’t even bother to check for oncoming traffic—there is none. There are still no pedestrians, either. Despite the years separating my journeys to this place I manage to retrace the route we took with no difficulty. I can see a smattering of houses to the north. Sunset Hill. I notice those houses do not look as decrepit as the ones on Easton Avenue, and I feel a little better. Maybe the foreboding impression of decay was only in my head after all.

Then I reach the low wall of Kingsland Cemetery, and despite having the advantage of several inches over my younger self its hedgerows look every bit as imposing as they had that day. Here I deviate for my previous path and follow the wall until I reach the cemetery gates. There I stop. The gates are closed but not locked, and looking through them I see the graveyard is every bit as still and empty as it had been that day. “Peaceful,” my mother had called it. I would have said lifeless.

Just like this entire section of town.

I can’t do it—I can’t bring myself to go back in there. I know that worse is still to come, and that it might serve me well defy my fear and fortify my nerve. That this soulless place is just a precursor to the true horror I encountered that day and must confront on this one. But still I can’t go in there.

So I turn away and walk on, deciding to take the long route around the cemetery, and I hope my nerve holds long enough for me to do what I came here to do.

*          *          *

Standing amongst the unkempt grass on the northern slope of the Fields, I was on the verge of full-blown hysteria. I looked back and saw nothing following me, but whatever it was that Elly had seen could’ve been anywhere by now. I started to sob quietly, and I knew I would draw attention to myself but I couldn’t help it. I knew this was going to happen! I’d dreamed it Saturday night and now it had come true. My friends were gone, and soon I would join them in that dark, cold place.

Unless I got out of the Fields quickly.

But how? I couldn’t go back through the cemetery, but the only other options were to follow its outer wall until I came out at the very edge of Cranford or walk two miles south to Abbeyville. Two miles through wide, open fields surrounded by distant woods. It was a terrifying prospect, but I knew the further I got from that cemetery the happier I’d feel, so Abbeyville it was.

I started walking, keeping my eyes forward and moving at a hurried pace, and soon the tall grass gave way to scraggly greens carpeting low hills. I made my way between those hills, staying well clear of the thick, irregular thickets of trees that dotted the Fields, deliberately averting my eyes from them. Those were the same thickets I’d gleefully explored with my friends many times, and these were the same hills I’d ran through with Nobby, my loyal Labrador cross who I worried I might never see again. I suddenly wished I had brought him with me. He would have provided absolutely no protection, and probably would have bolted at the first sign of danger, but he would have company at least. The Fields where I’d spent so much of my young life, that had been a source of countless hours of care-free adventuring, had abruptly transformed into a remote, exposed and horribly threatening place. I knew that whatever had been terrifying enough to cause my friends to turn and run, and stealthy to take them without eliciting so much as a single cry for help, would have no trouble spotting and overpowering my plump, defenceless frame.

I found myself thinking about Micky Wilcox, about what his body must’ve looked like when they found him, and about the stories of moving furniture in the cellar of his murderer’s shop. About the vision my Mum had seen during said murderer’s trial. I wondered whether he’d really come to say goodbye, as that weird old woman had claimed, or if he’d actually come to warn her about what would someday happen to her own son. I thought of my Mum and fought back tears.

Somewhere to my left, I heard the swishing of foliage.

I went rigid, listening. There was a small grove of trees quite close by in that direction, and while I’d kept as far away from it as I could I knew I’d be visible to anything lurking within. I heard the faint whistle of cool air in my ears, and the distant sound of traffic. But no more rustling. I wondered if it was just the breeze, or maybe a fox—I knew there were foxes living out here, and badgers, too. But I couldn’t bring myself to look and see, and I was too scared to move. So I stood quietly for while, waiting, wondering. Seeing if I could sense that formless presence from the cemetery.

Nothing happened.

Finally I plucked up the courage to start moving again slowly, testing to see if whatever it was I’d heard would react. It didn’t, so I upped my pace slightly. Then a bit more. And as I put some distance between myself and that particular stand of trees I started to relax. The Fields sloped gently as I continued south, following the contour of Easton Avenue. The only sound I heard was the soft crunch of grass under my feet, and I’d almost convinced myself that the rustling really had been nothing more than the air flowing through the branches.

Then I heard it again.

Again I froze. It had been fainter than last time but I’d definitely heard it, coming from the same direction, and I knew no breeze had caused it this time. It had not come from a fox or a badger or any other natural source, either. It was the thing from the cemetery, it had to be, and it was following me. Playing with me.

Stalking me.

Then I heard more rustling, only now it was coming from a grove of trees on my right. I almost turned to look out of sheer surprise—it had somehow moved across the Fields without drawing my attention, without making a sound. Except when it wanted to.

And it was getting closer.

Then I heard another sound, the clear cracking of twigs underfoot, and I started to run again, as fast as I could, and I knew it wasn’t nearly fast enough, because if my friends couldn’t outrun that thing what chance did I have? I was slowing down too, I still hadn’t recovered from that flight through the cemetery. I was too bloody fat, too fat and useless, but soon it wouldn’t matter because I would be gone, just like my friends. I was so panic-stricken I wasn’t paying attention to where I was running, and my foot landed on a pine cone or something and I slid and tumbled sideways to the floor, landing on my left arm with a heavy thud. I rolled over, heaving strangled cries as I struggled to stand, and I managed to get up but nearly fell straight back down again, and I’d just steadied myself enough to attempt running again when I heard a voice calling, “Kev, where’re you going?”

I stopped mid-stride, unbelieving, but when I looked behind me there were my friends standing unharmed a few yards away, just to the side of some trees where they’d obviously been hiding, actually smiling at me. They’d been following me the whole time!

This was nothing but a sick joke!

“You, you sod, Elly!” I tried to scream at him, but it came out as more of a wheeze. Ian and Ricky creased up laughing, laughing at the terror they’d just put me through! And Elly, my best friend Elly was laughing with them!

“Sorry, Kev! It was just a joke!”

I’d never felt such humiliation and seething hatred in my life. I started walking back the way I came, striding right past them without so much as a glance, and I was so mad I was sweating. I’d had enough of my so-called friends—I was going home. I heard Elly calling after me, “Oh, Kev, come on! It was just a joke! Kevin, come back!”

“No!” I yelled without looking back. I didn’t want to look at them, I hoped I never saw any of them again. They all deserved to die out here.

But then Elly came running up to me, and I tried to keep going but he blocked my path. “Kevin, I’m sorry, OK? We were just messing you about. We won’t do it again, I promise.”

“Yeah, come on!” Ricky said as he jogged over to join us.

I didn’t know what to do. They both looked genuinely sorry, though I could still hear Ian sniggering behind me, and Elly shouted at him to shut up. I wanted to beat their brains in for what they’d just done, but I could see they felt guilty. “Come on, Kev. Please?” Elly said.

I stared at him hard, taking my time just to make him squirm. Then finally I said, “OK.”

Elly grinned broadly, and my anger lessened somewhat. Looking back, I wish I’d said no and kept going. Maybe they would have followed me back home and we all would have survived. Then again, they might just have gone on without me and I would never have known what happened to them.

Frankly, either of those options would have been better than seeing what I did.

Chapter III Chapter V

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The Treehouse by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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The Treehouse – Chapter III

By Jake Kale

At the Kingsland Facade the 5A bus turns right and drives up, down and along several long roads, each one hauntingly familiar. These are our old stomping crowds, and here the memories come thick and fast, a blitz of imagery too fleeting to fully appreciate. The bus drives down Kinder Lane, and I actually catch a glimpse of the Northcott’s house—the tall hedges, the ancient wooden gate, the perennially drawn curtains. For all I know the Northcott’s are both dead by now, but still an atmosphere of desolation lingers over that house, exposing a hollowness in my own soul so conspicuous that I want to cry. Not far from here four childhoods were abruptly cut short, and three families were left in limbo.

Maybe I’m letting my emotions get the better of me. A perfectly understandable reaction given the nature and source of my fear, but it would certainly be advisable to try to compose myself. My journey is far from over, and more disturbing memories lie ahead.

I might feel happier if I wasn’t so alone. I had always planned to make this journey by myself, but I had not counted on the company of strangers being as sparse. Other than myself there is only one passenger—an elderly man sat at the front of the bus. There were only four of us to begin with, and two of those disembarked at the Facade. Nobody else has boarded since we left Monks Park and I’ve seen very few pedestrians on the way to Kingsland. By the time we turn into Easton Avenue I’m the only passenger on the bus.

I remember Easton Avenue well. It ascends a long, sloping rise, ultimately leading to the new housing development at Sunset Hill—I say “new”, but it must be ten years old by now. Before that it crosses Kenlis Road, and my old middle school is located along the western portion of the road. It is quite a distance, and I used to despise that backbreaking walk every morning. The traffic is light, and I realize I haven’t seen a single person in the street since leaving the Facade. Looking to my left out the window I notice the houses falling into progressively worse states of disrepair the further the bus climbs. I turn to look out over the right aisle, and the view is mirrored there—shabby council houses facing patchy, cluttered lawns.

I’m sure this part of town hadn’t been so neglected when I was a child. I know it’s probably just my imagination, but I can’t shake the idea that the tragedy that took place here all those years ago has radiated out to affect the surrounding area. That the evil that caused it is slowly sucking the life from Kingsland just as it did to my friends. And I can’t shake the thought that this is my fault, that this dereliction is the result of that evil reaching for the one child that escaped it.

And I know that, as much as I might want to, I can’t turn back now.

*          *          *

In the end, Elly and the others had convinced me to go with them. I didn’t agree to go because I wanted a MegaDrive—although I got one, oddly enough. I agreed to go because I was worried they wouldn’t come back and I didn’t want to lose them. I wasn’t a particularly sociable or outgoing child and had real difficulty making new friends, and I knew school would be an even lonelier, more miserable experience without them.

Elly had in mind to leave that Saturday afternoon, but Ricky persuaded him that Monday morning would be a better choice, since our parents wouldn’t be expecting us till tea time so we’d have more of a head start. Ian pointed out that the school might call our parents when we didn’t turn up, but Elly liked the idea of bunking off school so we agreed to go then. Of course that meant that I couldn’t take my dog, but I’d decided not to do that anyway—I wanted to leave my Mum something to remember me by. I was deeply uneasy about this idea, and it didn’t help that I had a terrifying dream that night. My memory of the dream is indistinct now, but I know I was in some cold, dark place and I was alone. I woke up Sunday morning feeling sick to my stomach, and I couldn’t shake the thought that none of us would be coming back.

On Monday morning I packed my school bag with a change of clothes and some crisps and yogurts I’d nabbed from the kitchen, hiding my school books under my bed. I still felt sick with guilt as well as fear, and I hardly touched my breakfast. I was sure Mum noticed something was wrong—she would later confirm that she had. I left as normal at 8:30, expecting to never return. I’d left Mum a note on my pillow, telling her I was sorry and I loved her. Oddly enough, she didn’t find that note till I got back.

I met up with Ricky at his parent’s house as usual and together we went to find Elly and Ian. We spotted them on Easton Avenue on the way to Kenlis Middle School, and the four of us made our way to the top of the road as normal. When we got there we turned right, away from the school and towards the rural outskirts of Cranford. They were decidedly rural then as well, no indication of the extensive housing development and shopping district that were to colonize the area within the next few years. Just a few short side roads marked the onset of civilization, and while taking a shortcut through one of them we spotted a milk float and stole two big bottles of lemonade from it. Elly also nicked a couple of bottles of milk, only to hurl them up into the air as we ran from the cursing milkman. We laughed hysterically at the incomprehensible Glaswegian tirade coming from behind us, and I must admit that my fears were calming a little, and I was beginning to get into the spirit of this adventure.

However, that lasted only as long as it took for me to see which route we would be taking—right through Kingsland Cemetery. I knew Elly must’ve had planned this just to freak me out, but I kept my mouth shut as we scrambled over the short wall and out of the tall hedges that bordered the old graveyard. Doing my best to control my fear I followed Elly as he weaved around headstones, and it didn’t matter that it was broad daylight, or what passed for daylight in autumn Cranford, that place was spooky. It was so quiet and still and empty. “Peaceful,” was how my Mum would later describe it when she visited my grandparents graves. I wouldn’t know about that—I’ve never been back. Elly led us up to a low hill lined with trees, past a small fenced-off children’s section—that was a particularly heartrending sight, all those tiny graves lovingly decorated with toys, dolls and flowers—and into some bushes so we could change into our regular clothes. Suddenly Ricky stopped and looked back down the hill. “Ain’t Micky Wilcox buried up here?” he asked.

“I think so,” Elly replied. Micky Wilcox was a teenager who was brutally murdered maybe five years before after he stumbled across a local shopkeeper in the arms of someone who was neither his wife nor female. Micky apparently threatened to tell the man’s wife and the man decided to stop him. I’d known Micky vaguely—his mum had been friends with mine, and my Mum had gone with her to the trial. She’d seen photos of the body there and had mentioned on more than one occasion how terrible he’d looked in those pictures—his injuries were so severe they hadn’t been able to have a proper viewing. Micky’s murderer was convicted of manslaughter and served just eight years, and Mrs. Wilcox swore she’d kill him when he got out, but she never got the chance—she’d died of cancer just three years later. The shop where the killer had lived had only occasionally been occupied afterwards and never for very long, and was almost burned to the ground in an arson attack. A couple of its former tenants claimed it was haunted, saying things used to move around in the cellar during the night, and I’ll always remember my Mum relating during the trial how one night she’d seen Micky’s face looming over her as she lay in bed. A medium told her and Mrs. Wilcox he’d come to say goodbye, though why he chose to visit her rather than his own mother she didn’t explain.

Making our way into the trees we opened our school bags and started changing into our normal clothes. I was grateful for that at least, as I hated wearing that uniform and often said so. Ian agreed with me. “I’m never wearing this again,” he said as he threw off his blazer. If only he’d known how portentous that comment would prove to be.

I turned my back on the others self-consciously as I changed into my T-shirt, keeping an eye out for mourners. “So where are we gonna stay?” I asked.

Elly was leaning against a tree as he pulled on his track suit bottoms. “I was thinking about that old barn near the pond.”

The “barn” he was referring to was a large, dilapidated stone building right in the centre of the Fields, the ring of trees surrounding it so extensive you might as well have called it a wood. While we referred to it as “the barn” we had no idea what it might actually have been used for, just that it must have been there for a long time, a couple of centuries at least. I had thought Elly might suggest staying there and it was an idea, but there was one major problem with the barn, as Ricky immediately pointed out. “It’s got no front!” he said, and he was right—as you walked up the path to the barn and the small pond beyond it the entire wall was missing, giving a clear view of the empty interior. Judging by the brick edges tall wooden doors once closed off that side of the building, but there was no trace of them now. If we needed to hide the barn would not be a good choice.

Ian didn’t appear to be too concerned about that. “So what? It’s got a roof, hasn’t it?”

Elly nodded. “’Xactly. It’s perfect.”

“I don’t care where we stay, as long as it ain’t here,” I said as tied up the laces on my trainers. Just thinking about Micky Wilcox and the creepy goings-on that had occurred during his killer’s trial had well and truly put the wind up me. I packed my uniform away, not bothering to fold it up, then I zipped my bag and stood. All the others were ready, and I was about to join them when I noticed Elly looking at me oddly. “What?” I said, but even as I said it I realized Elly was not looking at me—he was looking past me. I saw his eyes widen, and I was just about to turn around to see what he was looking at when he shouted.

“Shit, run!”

With that he turned and sprinted out of the trees, running down the hill and through the headstones, Ian and Ricky following quickly after him. I started running too, and I had no idea what I was running from but I didn’t dare look back. Whatever was behind me was enough to scare Elly, and nothing ever scared Elly, so I knew I had to get out of there. But my friends were so much faster than me and I struggled to keep pace. I saw that I was falling behind and croaked, “Wait!” but they continued to pull away from me and probably didn’t even hear me. I lost sight of them long before I huffed my way to the other side of the cemetery, where it joined onto the Fields. I could feel the unseen presence at my back and it spurred me on despite my poor conditioning, and I struggled through the tall hedgerows and over the low brick wall into the overgrown grass of the old golf-course, and I managed to get another ten feet further before I had to stop to catch my breath.

There I did look back, expecting whatever had chased us to spring from the hedges at me. The hedges remained still, not even rustling from my passage through them just seconds ago, but before I could feel relief or even fully recover I realized I was alone, and some distance from an inhabited area. I scanned the hill around me, my panic rising, tears escaping from my eyes. I was alone! My friends were gone and I was alone!

Chapter II Chapter IV

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The Treehouse by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The Treehouse – Chapter II

By Jake Kale

I give up looking at the bays for the bus to Kingsland and ask at the information desk. A bearded man in a reflective jacket tells me I want the number 5 or 5A, leaving from bays B and D respectively. He tells me that the 5 stops at the Kingsland shopping area before continuing up Elwood Road, while the 5A goes all the way through central Kingsland and up to Sunset Hill, and advises me it would be cheaper for me to purchase a £2.50 day-saver ticket. I walk all the way back to the other end of the waiting area and take a pew as I wait for the 5A. I remember it used to be the 13. Unlucky for some. Unlucky for me.

As it is a Sunday I end up waiting forty-five minutes. The 5 arrives, and I toy with the idea of taking that bus to Kingsland and walking the rest of the way before it departs again. I may have conquered the weight problem that blighted my early adolescent life, but I’m still a lazy sod at heart. At last the 5A appears, and after waiting several minutes longer for its new driver to grace his few fares with his presence I board, pay for my day-saver and find a seat, steeling myself for the journey ahead. The bus pulls away and drives through the cavernous enclosed lane, orange ceiling lights flitting past and giving me the unsettling mental image of plunging deep into some dark, abandoned mine shaft. The bus briefly exits into overcast daylight, then turns left and enters the second lane before exiting again at the other end and driving back into Loughborough Road.

Then north, towards Kingsland.

Just as it had in the bus station, reminiscence cues on dimly familiar locations and objects, evoking impressions long forgotten, yet searingly fresh. I look to my right as the bus passes a set of traffic lights, and I think of how Elly, Ricky, Ian and I used to take turns pressing the button and jeering as the traffic came to a standstill. I catch a glimpse of Barrack Park slipping by, and I recall the time we took our bikes there, and Elly snatched the turban off Mr. Khayum’s head as we cycled back past his shop on Kittinger Street. And as I turn my head to watch said street recede I remember that final journey through this road, several weeks after what happened, when my mother decided it would be better for us to make a new start as far away from Kingsland as possible. She’d gotten an exchange with a family in Arrowhead, on the opposite end of Cranford, and within a couple of weeks we’d moved in there. Neither of us had ever looked back.

Now, sixteen years to the day after it happened, I sit on the number 5A bus travelling up Loughborough Road, tasting a faint metallic tang in the back of my throat as I look ahead through the windscreen and see the shops of the Kingsland Facade drawing near.

*          *          *

The weekend before it happened I’d gone to meet Ricky at his mum and dad’s house in Kinder Lane. Ricky’s parents were quite old compared to the rest of our mum’s and dad’s, probably around 40 or so, and they were very old-fashioned and very protective. They didn’t like him hanging around with Elly—they thought he was a bad influence. They liked me, though, so he was allowed out with me. We had to meet up with Elly and Ian a few streets away. Ricky’s parents weren’t too fond of Ian, either, because he’d once thrown stones at Ricky when we were in lower school. I was involved in that too, but while they forgave me they would never forgive Ian. I suspect his being half-cast had something to do with that.

Even after I left Kingsland I’d still see Mr. Northcott in central Cranford from time to time, but he wouldn’t talk to me after what happened. I never saw Mrs. Northcott again. I used to joke that that was because she too busy resting under the floorboards.

After we met up with Elly and Ian we headed for to the Facade, a short row of shops that preceded the point where Elwood Road and Loughborough Road split. Elly was still fuming about what had happened the day before. Elly’s family was a scruffy bunch, and Elly himself rarely looked clean. Friday morning he’d been particularly dirty—he had some kind of green stain in his left ear, and I didn’t even want to guess what caused it—and Mr. Spender had apparently taken one look and loudly ordered him to go and wash himself in the sink in the toilets. The rest of the class had roared with laughter, and we laughed when we heard about it, too, but Elly didn’t find it so amusing. As was often the case, his problems at school seemed to stem from problems at home. This was something all my friends had in common.

“I hate my family,” he said as we sat in the shadow of Rosewoods Supermarket. “Dad’s never at home, and all Mum does is sit on her fat arse all day. Lazy cow.” She was lazy, too—I’d twice gotten fleas after visiting their house.

“You should be glad your dad’s never home. I wish mine weren’t,” Ian said, and while he didn’t go into details we’d all seen the bruises, just as we’d seen the botched job the doctors had done while trying to repair his mum’s nose.

“My fuckin’ old man watches everything I fuckin’ do,” Ricky added miserably.

I said nothing. Compared to them, I’d had it easy. Like Ricky I was an only child (Elly had a younger brother who he despised, while Ian had two younger brothers, two younger sisters, and another child on the way) and I’d never known my father as he died when I was a baby. Mum had never let me see her grieve, though, and made sure to raise me in a happy, vibrant home, where I was well cared for and provided for. I moaned about my family life like the rest of them, usually about some toy or other object I wanted but felt I had been denied as my Mum patiently tried to instil in me the value of earning my possessions. And I moaned even more when she tried to get me to put some effort into my education, or to exercise. But I did this mainly to fit in with them. And I’d come to realize that deep down they all saw through it and even resented me for it, particularly Ian. So now I would bite my tongue whenever they started rattling off their list of complaints. Which happened a lot.

That Saturday morning was different, though, and Elly really sounded liked he’d had enough. “I just wish they’d treat us better,” he said.

“Yeah, but what are we gonna do about it?” Ian asked dismally.

Elly didn’t miss a beat. “We’ll run away.”

We all leaned forward and stared at him. He’d suggested this before, many times, but this time he sounded serious, and that made me nervous. “Where to?” I asked.

“We’ll camp out in the Fields.”

What we called “the Fields” was actually an old golf course that hadn’t seen a putt in decades and was now mostly overgrown with tall grass and irregular copses of trees, only a few remaining sand traps giving any indication of its former purpose. It was pretty large as golf courses in non-golfing areas go, extending from Kingsland all the way southeast to Abbeyville, what is now Sunset Hill to the north. We used to walk Nobby, my Labrador cross, there, and he used to love running through the tall grass that bordered the Fields and exploring the patchy woods. I loved it, too. I wouldn’t have wanted to live out there, though. “We can’t stay in the Fields!” I told Elly.

“We’re not gonna stay in the Fields!” Elly said. He’d obviously thought this through. “I’m only talking about a couple of nights.”

Ian looked disappointed at that. “What’s the point?” he asked.

“To make ’em miss us,” Elly explained. “Maybe they’ll treat us better then. Maybe the teachers’ll leave us alone, too.”

Ian looked far from convinced. Knowing what his father was like, it probably would have made things worse. “I thought you meant for good. I don’t wanna go back.”

“Me either,” Ricky said.

“You can stay there, then!” Elly said cheerfully.

The whole conversation was making me uncomfortable. It was all well and good to joke about running away, but I didn’t actually want to do it. “We can’t run away,” I said.

“Why not?” Elly asked.

I thought it was pretty obvious why not, and I explained my reasoning in classic schoolboy fashion. “Because we can’t!”

Elly narrowed his eyes and groaned. “Oh, don’t be such a chickenshit all your life!”

“Shut up, Elly!” I shot back. Unlike the others, I was too much of a goody two-shoes to swear.

Ricky had no such reservations—outside of his parents’ presence he swore at any and every opportunity, no matter how ridiculous he sounded. “I’ll fuckin’ go.”

Ian had also made up his mind. “Me, too. And I won’t come back.”

“Where’re you gonna go, then?” I asked.

“I dunno, but I’ll find somewhere!” he replied, more energized and assertive than I’d ever seen him before.

Now they were all looking at me. I could see they were all serious, and I didn’t doubt for a second that they were going to do it. But I didn’t want to run away—I had nothing to run away from. That wasn’t my only reason, though. As much as I was loath to admit it, I was scared, and I really didn’t want to spend even one night in the Fields. “I’m not going,” I decided.

Now Elly looked disappointed. “Why not?”

“Because I don’t wanna run away! My Mum’s alright!” I snapped. That was the first time I’d openly admitted that, and it’s one of about a hundred callous remarks I’ve made in my life that I wish I could take back. Ian and Ricky stared daggers at me. Elly looked wounded.

“Fine, you can stay then!” Ian spat.

“Oh, come on, Kevin!” Elly pleaded. “You’ve got to!”

“No, I haven’t.”

But Elly was an expert in convincing me to go along with his schemes, and if he couldn’t talk me into something through the power of his argument he usually fell back on appealing to my pride or my acquisitive nature. “If you do, your Mum might get you that MegaDrive,” he said, almost casually.

I’m ashamed to say that actually made me stop and consider his plan for a second. But only for a second. “No, she won’t. She says she can’t afford it.”

“’Course she can afford it!” Elly said.

“Yeah, your mum’s fuckin’ rich,” Ricky added.

“What, because we’ve got a colour telly? Your dad’s just tight.” That was number ninety-nine on my list of things I wish I hadn’t said. Ricky’s family, in fact all three of my friends’ families were struggling to get by on meagre wages or benefits, while mine was pretty secure. Mum had worked fulltime since I started going to lower school, and while we weren’t rich as Ricky claimed we were better off than they were. That was another frequent source of tension between us and it bothered me, though I did occasionally play up to it, too.

Elly always saw past it, though, and my various other shortcomings as well. He was probably the truest friend I ever had, and I knew he’d be disappointed if I didn’t go with them. “Come on, Kev! You can take Nobby if you want,” he said, and I looked at him sitting there hopefully and felt a cold swelling deep in my chest, because I knew I’d end up giving in.

Chapter I Chapter III

Creative Commons Licence
The Treehouse by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The Treehouse – Chapter I

By Jake Kale

My eyes snap open as the double-decker bus jerks to the right, off Loughborough Road and into Monks Park Bus Station. It is an ugly building, squat and formed from dark rust-coloured brick, with twinned enclosed lanes on either side of a passenger waiting area that has been slowly decaying since the seventies. It has been threatened with demolition at least twice, yet this bleak monolith still stands impervious. As the bus pulls into the right lane I glimpse the car park on the second level—I remember when Elly and I had run rampant up there, spitting on or throwing things at the pedestrians using the narrow pathways on the sides of the building. I’ll always remember that one elderly man who’d stopped to give directions to a young mother struggling with an oversized pushchair. Elly had dropped an empty plastic Coke bottle on him—he’d been aiming for his balding skull, but he hit his outstretched hand instead.

The shape of the station evokes other memories too, memories unrelated to the building itself.

The bus stops and I disembark, not bothering to thank the surly driver. The man in front of me, a lumbering tattooed oaf, struggles momentarily to wrench the sliding door along on its aged, uneven metal track, and then we both enter, the other passengers following after us. The interior is much as I remember it but even filthier, and smells strongly of cigarette smoke and diesel fumes. Rows of uncomfortable wooden pews stretch out ahead of me, the escalators Elly and I used to evade the security guards visible beyond them. The escalators lead down to the underground walkways, walkways reputedly roamed by the ghost of the long-dead monk this former park was named for, and into the adjacent shopping centre, but they have apparently broken down and are now fenced off.

That doesn’t concern me—I have no intention of using them, or of staying in this smelly, depressing place for long. My first port of call is the information office further along the waiting area. I start walking, passing the pews and the escalators, passing the single lift that I remember also had a habit of stopping between floors (myself, Elly and two of our friends were once trapped inside, and I recall the cries of disgust from waiting shoppers when the doors finally opened to reveal the floor we’d used as an impromptu toilet), and I glance from left to right at the bays either side of me on the off-chance that I should spot the bus that now travels the route to my childhood home. My stomach mumbles in apprehension, and though I don’t stop walking I want to turn and go back the way I came, to leave Cranford for good and never return. But I know I can’t—I have to confront my nightmare, my shame if I am to ever have peace. That’s why I’ve come here. That’s why for the first time in sixteen years I’ve decided to return to Kingsland, and to the place where reality warped and my youth died.

*          *          *

I’d met Henry Eallis, otherwise known as “Elly”, on my first day at primary school. He was a skinny, scruffy-looking little urchin with unkempt brown hair cut in a classic bowl-style. When the teacher sat me next to him he’d been painting a picture, and he promptly covered his palms in red paint and proceeded to make handprints on the unsuspecting woman’s rear end when she turned to leave. I’d laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe, and Elly had revelled in my amusement. We’d been best friends from that day forward.

Later our double-act became a threesome and then a foursome as we entered Kenlis Lower School in Kingsland and met Ricky Northcott and his friend Ian Farmer, who transferred from another school. Ricky was a short, nervous boy with mousy-coloured curly hair, while Ian was a lanky, pale-skinned black boy with thick, black curly hair and thicker glasses that magnified his eyes so that they seemed all pupils. The four of us clicked instantly, united by our lack of motivation and contempt for authority, i.e. our parents and teachers. By the time we’d reached the ripe age of nine we already fit the classic definition of a slacker—consistently underscoring at schoolwork, never taking an interest in outside activities and avoiding exercise as much as we could. The other kids either looked down on us or ignored us but we didn’t care, and while myself, Ian and particularly Ricky became frequent targets for bullies, with the fearless Elly by our side we didn’t worry. He was a scrawny sod and he lost every single fight he started, but his irreverent humour and refusal to back down always left his aggressors frustrated, no matter how vicious a beating they gave him.

Lower school was a golden period in our lives, and we delighted in our peer’s bemusement, our teacher’s disappointment, and our parent’s embarrassment. Everything began to change when we moved up from Kenlis Lower School to Kenlis Middle School. Suddenly we had to contend with uniforms and homework, and we did not adapt to this change well. Years of sluggishness and a fondness for sweets took their toll on me as my waistline expanded, Ian started to become sullen and withdrawn, Ricky increasingly came to resent his overbearing parents, and Elly became very conscious of his ragged appearance—his uniform was slightly too big and was never ironed or particularly clean, much to the chagrin of his teachers. The fact that we were separated into different classes didn’t help. Alone, we each attempted to cope in our own way. Ian developed a studious streak and threw himself into his schoolwork, while I ambled through my lessons with the barest minimum of effort. Poor old Ricky settled unwillingly into the role of class punching bag, while Elly became more and more rebellious, constantly bunking off school and never bothering to complete his homework.

Gradually we began to grow apart, and while we each found friends outside of our group it wasn’t the same—the camaraderie, the cohesiveness just wasn’t there. The summer holiday allowed a brief reprieve and the four of us reunited, but were not especially rejuvenated. We realized that summer that as bad as school had become our home lives were worse—Elly’s parents didn’t seem to care about him, Ricky’s cared too much, Ian’s home had become a virtual war zone since his parents got back together, while I . . . well, let’s just say that my home life fell somewhat short of the ideal I aspired too. We realized that as much as we’d rebelled against lower school it had at least provided some respite, and we’d lost that now. And as we began our second year at Kenlis Middle School our depression reached a peak. The teachers always had it in for us and other friendships never lasted. We longed for a return to the old days when we had fewer obligations, fewer restrictions, and dreams of escape from the tyranny of education became common. More so, we dreamed of escaping our families. We openly discussed leaving and even planned ways we might go about it, sometimes jokingly, sometimes not. But when it came to acting on our plans we lacked the tenacity. All we ever wanted was our freedom. To be left alone, to be invisible.

For three of us, that dream came true.

Chapter II

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The Treehouse by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Untitled

By Jake Kale

I’m honestly not sure what to title this. I can’t think of a title that doesn’t sound like a cliché—I’d considered “My Confession”, but that’s not particularly fitting as I don’t intend for anyone to see this. At least, not yet. Not until I’m ready. I think I’ll leave it untitled for now.

My story begins about five years ago. I used to be a journalist, freelance of course and mostly restricted to local matters. But I was good, and I was respected. One day I got an email from a former colleague of mine who’d gone on to become a fairly successful writer in London, inviting me to a conference there. It sounded like fun, and it was a chance to meet up with old friends and make new contacts. To network, as the saying goes. So I booked a hotel and off I went. But by the end of the second night I’d had more than enough of my companion’s lack of humanity. Truth be told, I was at a bit of a crossroads, and was seriously considering switching to a new career. The conference made up my mind, and after foolishly spending a further two hours in my friend’s company at a bar (“for old times’ sake”) I left the on the pretence of having to go home early the next day. Which was true, but it wasn’t the real reason. I just had nothing in common with the man, and found myself wondering what warped part of my mind ever thought that I did.

While the bar had been a pretty upscale joint you’d never know it from the alleyway that led to it. It was like something out of Whitechapel circa 1888—dark, dingy and much more intimidating now that I was alone. The narrowness seemed to funnel the shadows towards me, eliciting a claustrophobic reaction so intense that I almost went back to the bar. Like a fool I ignored this perfectly rational, sane reaction and kept going, reasoning that the alleyway was short and I’d soon be out on the street. I couldn’t have taken more than five steps before a shadowy figure emerged from an offshoot that I didn’t even know was there.

“Give me your wallet,” the figure demanded, and at first I didn’t respond. Not so much out of fear, more because I couldn’t believe this was happening. In an absurd way I almost thought it was a joke. Then I saw the glint of a blade in his right hand, and my blood ran cold. Now it was fear that arrested my motor skills, and I found I couldn’t speak, couldn’t do anything other than stand there like an idiot, eyes wide and lips moving noiselessly. I could sense my aggressor’s impatience and thought I was about to die, then the door to the bar opened behind me and I saw his face in the dim light—a teenager, or perhaps in his early twenties, with narrow, bony features partly obscured by a dirty stubble and long, stringy hair, wild, frenetic eyes staring out from sunken eyes sockets, the classic junkie countenance. I saw fear in those eyes, fear of getting caught, and for a second I thought I was saved. Then he advanced and, grabbing my arm, yanked me into the offshoot he’d secreted himself in, hissing at me, “Get in here or I’ll cut you’re fucking throat!”

He held me against the wall, the knife right at my throat, and I dared not draw breath in case my expanding airway caused the blade to puncture the flesh of my neck. A man and a woman, both stumbling and giggling like toddlers, somehow made their way past, not even noticing the smaller alley where my life now hung by a thread. The drunken imbeciles must have seen me being dragged in here, but either that didn’t fully register or they were just too entranced by chemicals and rampant hormones to care. I felt my anger kindling. Once they’d gone the kid moved back round to face me, holding the knife just under my jaw line. “Now give me the wallet!” he ordered, but his brush with discovery had obviously taken its toll on whatever nerve he had possessed. The depth had disappeared from his voice, and he stuttered while saying the first two words. He both sounded and looked terrified, he was even shaking! I started to shake, too, and I felt cold beads of sweat on my brow, my heart expanding and contracting rapidly in my chest as the adrenaline flooded my system. As the darkness froze my heart and swallowed my soul. And in that moment, whether I lived or died, I knew one thing.

This snivelling little shit wasn’t getting my wallet.

Like a lot of people, I suppose, I’ve often wondered how I’d react if I were mugged. And, like a lot of people, I’ve even planned what I’d do in that situation. One idea I’d had involved “accidentally” dropping my wallet and then tackling the mugger whilst he was off-guard. I knew it would be risky, but thought that if I acted quickly enough I might be able to disarm or at least incapacitate him long enough to get away. This was the strategy I used that night. Doing my best to appear as terrified as he was (I was still visibly shaking, but that was entirely due to anger), I reached into my jacket pocket and made a big show of groping for my wallet. I finally pulled it out, and I think I did a very convincing impression of fumbling with it before it “flew” from my grasp. It landed a couple of feet away to my right, and so far my plan was working perfectly. I was all set to tackle the kid when the unexpected happened.

The stupid little sod actually bent down to pick it up!

I’m not sure what came over me in that instant. It was like a rapid-fire of impressions and emotions—surprise, apprehension, glorious anticipation among others, experienced at a rate that made it impossible to keep track of them all. I saw the opportunity was right there in front of me and in a moment of seductive impulse I wondered if I could actually do this. If I could actually get away with this. Then I acted.

I kicked him in the head, my foot connecting just beneath his jaw hard enough to bruise my calf. The kid’s head whipped to the right and his body spun with it, and he dropped to one knee but didn’t fall any further. I knew I couldn’t stop now, so seizing my chance I circled behind him and grabbed his right arm, forcing his hand into the floor at an angle and snapping the blade clean off the knife. At this point he tried to stand, so I adjusted my grip on his arm, keeping him doubled over, and ran with him, using his own momentum to drive him headfirst into the wall on the opposite side of the alley. This time he did go down, slumping on his left side before rolling onto his back, and I caught a brief glimpse of his dirty, withered, hopeless face, his dull, half-open eyes registering shock, and then I was on him, kicking his head repeatedly, over and over, and then I was stamping on his face and neck, and I felt a soft squelch and then a satisfying crack as first his nose and then his lower jaw yielded to my heel. And I kept kicking and stamping, I couldn’t stop myself, and I wasn’t angry anymore, I was euphoric—I’d never experienced a thrill like this in my life!

Finally I stood back, shaking harder than before and gasping for air. It felt like there was a hurricane in my head, carrying my thought processes away in a vertiginous mix of terror and excitement. I knew I’d killed him. I almost couldn’t believe it, but I knew it was true. Jesus Christ, I’d actually killed a man! I never imagined I’d be capable of murdering someone. I’m just an ordinary guy. But obviously there was more to me than I realized.

That sounded boastful. Sorry about that, I didn’t mean it that way. It was just a thought.

Just a thought. Maybe that’s what I should call this—“Just a Thought”!

No, that was distasteful. To continue in this vein would cheapen the entire thing, and I don’t want that.

So . . .

As the adrenaline wore off reality set in pretty damn quick, and I saw what I had done and wondered what the hell had come over me. I felt sick, and I had to get away from there, so I turned and ran through both alleyways and into the street where I stopped and bent over, sucking in deep lungful of clammy air, trying to stop my gorge from rising any further. I knew I had to get away, so once I was satisfied that I wasn’t going to throw up I stood and started walking. Fortunately there was no-one else around, but still I forced myself to walk as slowly, as nonchalantly as I could on wobbly, aching legs, even as every muscle in my body tensed in anticipation of flight, as my anxiety-ridden mind screamed for me to get as far away from here as I could. Somehow I willed myself to keep calm and keep walking. I got perhaps another fifty feet when I remembered I’d forgotten to pick up my wallet.

I froze, terror once again seizing my body in its icy death-grip. I had to go back! The idea of going back to that alley was repellent, and my body resisted it violently. How could I have been so stupid? I knew I had to go back, I couldn’t leave the wallet there. As afraid as I was, as much as I wanted to get away, as much as I didn’t want to see what I’d done to that kid’s face, I knew I had no choice.

I had to go back.

I turned around and started walking, and my terror was almost overwhelming. I thought, What if I’m wrong and I haven’t killed him? What if he’s waiting there for me? Or, worse, what if he is dead, but there’s someone else waiting for me instead? Someone in a uniform? But even as these possibilities occurred to me I knew they were not the real reason I was afraid. I simply did not want to confront what I had done. What I had become.

When I reached the scene of my transformation from everyday man on the street to cold-blooded killer I saw that nothing had changed. The kid was lying where he fell, mostly hidden in shadow. You might even think he was sleeping, at least until you looked closely enough. Steeling my nerves and carefully averting my eyes from the crumpled, still form of my would-be assailant-turned-victim I searched for my wallet. It lay on the ground next to a dustbin where I’d “dropped” it, about five feet from the kid’s right foot. I quickly bent to pick it up, then stuffed it right down in my coat pocket and stood. As I did so I couldn’t stop myself from turning to look at the body.

I don’t think I had time to wonder about how I would react when I saw it, though I do remember thinking that I might vomit and end up leaving trace evidence behind after all. The body resembled a heap of old rags arranged on the floor in a spread-eagled humanoid form, with only tattered shoes and greasy hands to indicate that there was an actual human being hidden within. The skull was little more than a dark, slick-looking pancake framed by stringy hair and punctuated by irregular shards of broken bone. A faint but noticeable metallic scent hung in the air. Strange as it may seem, I no longer felt any revulsion at all. I not sure what I felt, but it wasn’t revulsion. Once again a powerful urge overtook me, and I honestly don’t know why I did this, why I even thought of it. But as before, once I had, I couldn’t stop myself.

I pulled out my mobile phone, flipped it open and took a picture of the body.

I left the alleyway for good then, though I had no idea where I was going to go. I knew I couldn’t go back to my hotel yet—I probably had blood on me, and my shoes were bound to be covered in it. Fortunately they were black and as it was dark I was confident no-one would notice. I was more worried about leaving bloody footprints on the hotel carpet. I tried to wash the blood off my heel in a puddle, but then I decided to let it dry. I spent the next few hours wandering the streets of the capital, trying to sort through everything that had just happened. The fear was unreal. I became very aware of traffic cameras, and froze when I spotted the flashing blue lights of a passing panda car. CSI-inspired fantasies plagued my mind, as I imagined revellers stumbling onto the corpse, and perhaps catching a glimpse of my fleeing form. I imagined swarms of glum-faced and determined police officers descending upon the scene, followed by clean-suited forensic technicians armed with tweezers, cotton buds and spray cans filled with luminol. I visualized seated silhouettes scanning CCTV screens in darkened rooms, the images before them flickering rapidly as they watched the attack and tracked my movements afterwards.

Eventually I worked up the courage to go back to my hotel. When I entered I ignored the clerk’s cheerless “Goodnight, sir,” (which I immediately regretted, certain my sheepish behaviour had aroused suspicion) and swiftly made my way to my room. I was relieved beyond measure that my shoes left no bloody tracks. When I got to the room I took off my clothes and examined them. There were indeed a few spots of blood on my trouser legs, and the soles of my shoes were caked in it. It had dried, but was clearly visible as a dark brown flaky coating. I debated dumping the lot, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave the room. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t—dumping my clothes in the vicinity of the hotel quite likely would’ve led the police straight to me. Instead I packed them into two plastic shopping bags and stuffed them right at the bottom of my luggage. Then I took out my mobile and decided I had to delete that picture. But I didn’t. As incriminating, as damning as I knew the picture was, I couldn’t bring myself to even look at it.

Afterwards I showered and put on fresh clothes (I didn’t bother changing into my pyjamas as I knew I wouldn’t be getting any sleep, plus I wanted to be ready to get away quickly in the morning), then I sat down on the bed, drawing my knees up to chest, about to begin a night-long battle with paranoia. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t sleep a wink that night—I kept expecting a knock at the door any moment. When I thought about what I’d done I started to shake all over again. I’d never committed a crime in my life, I had never so much as got a parking ticket. Now I’d thrown myself right in at the deep end. I was a murderer. And the truly frightening thing was I’d enjoyed it. The next morning I paid the bill for the hotel, checked out and caught the train back home to Cranford. Throughout the journey I expected to see police officers entering the carriage, or to feel a tap on my shoulder.

When I got home I dumped all the luggage that was in the bag with my bloodied clothes, along with the bag itself, well away from my home. Then I tried to get back to the usual routine that was my life, and as the days, weeks and months passed I gradually stopped expecting that fateful knock at the door. You might wonder, as I did, whether the killing of a random junkie would be considered “newsworthy” in our jaded modern times. In fact, it was—but not for long. Pretty soon the papers went back to swooning over “celebs” and calling for immigrants to be forcibly ejected. Maybe if the mugger had been a former actor or musician fallen on hard times, or a refugee from Afghanistan or Iraq, he might have merited more attention. Luckily for me he was neither, and of the scant coverage his murder received, I didn’t bother to collect any press cuttings or tape any news reports. I didn’t need to.

It honestly surprised me that I felt no guilt. Don’t get me wrong, I lived in a state of constant nervous tension for months afterwards, but that was purely a fear of getting caught. I didn’t feel sorry for the kid—he’d brought it on himself. He was just another worthless, apathetic junkie who’d given up on his life and was simply waiting for it to end. I did feel some sympathy for his family, but they no doubt expected this to happen some day.

So that’s my story. I still can’t think of a title for it—I think I’ll leave it untitled. I have to wonder, assuming somebody else is reading this, what you might make of it, and of me. Most people who know me consider me pretty well-adjusted. I’ll go further and state that I actually consider myself to be a very well-adjusted person. I had a very happy childhood—I’ll admit I’ve been bullied at school, once quite badly, and I’ve been a bully, too, but nothing serious. I’ve built up a good career in which I am respected and, I hope, liked, and have a good home. I’ve never had any mental problems, not even depression, which everyone seems to get these days. And my relationships with others—family, friends, lovers—have all been healthy and fulfilling. In fact, throughout my life, both up to that night and beyond, I’ve gone out of my way to help people. I’m not a sociopath—I have empathy for other human beings, I don’t see them merely as “objects”. And that’s what confuses me.

Because I’ve killed six more people since that night.

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Untitled by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The Parasite

By Jake Kale

Mark Lewis was dying.

He was just twenty-four years old, but already his body had suffered more abuse than it could take. The relentless ingestion of narcotic substances to dull the mental and physical pain had poisoned his system beyond all hope of recovery—his breathing had slowed, and he had long since lost consciousness. Within minutes his already faint life-force would be spent.

And the parasite would have to find a new host.

The parasite was all too aware that it had caused this. Its kind had evolved to target their hosts in a specific manner, to suppress the production of certain neurotransmitters in such a way as to stimulate the depression, paranoia and hatred they fed on. It required great skill to manipulate the host’s mind enough to feed yet not so much that it was injured or caused itself injury. It was a delicate balance, and it was all too easy to become greedy. And that’s exactly what the parasite had done—it had become greedy. It had pushed Mark Lewis’s mind and body too far much too quickly. It had driven him to despair, and to inflict psychological and bodily harm on himself and others. And while the parasite itself was immune to these things, its host was not. It had finally driven him to death, all that potential for nought, leaving behind a devastated family, a devoted if foolish girlfriend, and an unborn child.

The parasite felt no guilt. This was the nature of things, and the parasite knew better than to fight nature.

Mark Lewis had stopped breathing, and the parasite prepared itself for his death. While it had become used to it, the act of leaving one’s host and re-entering the outside world was always a difficult transition. It was worse if it had been with the host for longer—after an extended period of time living in tandem with another being it was common to lose yourself within them, to actually come to believe that you are one and the same. But that was the goal. To be as one with the host. To work in tandem with it, to instigate and prolong its suffering in order to feed.

As Mark Lewis’s brain died, the parasite swore that next time it would pace itself. Next time it would be sure to truly savour its host.

The end came within seconds, and the parasite knew it needed to leave. Summoning all of its strength, it tore itself free of its former host’s deceased mind, and the agony was exquisite. All too suddenly the limited world of three dimensions melted away as the parasite pulled away from Mark Lewis’s body and went back to the Source. It struggled to orientate itself, specialized sense organs that had lay dormant for twenty-four years reawakening. In this place all levels of reality converged and coexisted, and the parasite had its pick of new hosts from any point in time and space. However, it had already made its choice.

It hoped Mark Lewis’s child lived longer than its father had.

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The Parasite by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Reflection

By Jake Kale

I doubt I’ll ever really know what happened that night—I can’t trust my memory, for reasons which will become obvious. For a long time I had no memory to trust or distrust, and I suppose I should have been grateful for that. But I’m a curious guy, and that curiosity soon overrode my common sense. It’s taken me ten years to get this far, ten years of my mind taunting me with isolated flashes dealt at its own irregular pace, daring me to explore further. Ten years of fitting those flashes into a timeline, a coherent chain of events. This is the result.

At the time I’d been out of school for just over a year and had begun working for an employment agency called Progress Workforce, and if you’ve ever worked for such an agency you’ll know work tends to be sporadic. Progress was especially shoddy (in fact they’ve since closed down) and I’d had no work throughout the summer. Then in September several jobs opened up at the Denhams factory and Progress got the gig. I was offered an evening shift, two till nine, and while I preferred day shifts funds were getting desperately low so I accepted.

The Denhams factory was located on the Gatehouse Industrial Estate in western Cranford, and was typical of the buildings on that estate—a huge brick box built around a flimsy-looking skeleton of scaffolding. The Progress workers manned a line of tables in front of the delivery bays, row after row of tightly packed clothing behind us. As with all factory jobs the work was mind numbingly boring, and in the case of my merry little band involved taking delivery of cardboard boxes from the bays and hanging the contents on a ceiling-mounted railing, then pushing them round to the either the right or left aisle where other workers would transport them to their assigned place on one of the three floors. We found ways to entertain ourselves, usually by firing the elastic clasps that we had to remove from the clothes at each other, or by wolf-whistling at the redheaded college student who always wore a long dress and always seemed to end up on the second floor, so that we got an eyeful through the grating.

I’d been working at Denhams for a little over three months when that night began, a personal best during my time with Progress. My recall of the start of that shift consists of little more than fuzzy impressions. My friends from the factory told me that I had complained of a headache early on, and I vaguely remember I’d been feeling sick as well. The only clear memory I have, which strangely enough was the first one to come back to me, is of standing in front a sink in the toilets, staring into the mirror. It confused me for a long time, because I had the strongest sensation that my reflection was talking to me.

Apparently I managed to endure the pain for a whole two hours before I decided enough was enough and asked if I could leave early. My supervisor was a decent bloke and had been happy with my work so he OK’d this, but when I telephoned Progress from one of the kiosks in reception (this was back before everyone had a mobile phone) I was informed the minibus would not be coming out until the regular pick-up time. Which was another six hours away. So I called for a taxi instead and because I needed some fresh air I waited for it on a bench outside.

The air outside certainly was fresh, I remember that clearly. In fact it was bitter—I was “freezing my Frankincense off” as a colleague of mine used to say. I remember it was getting dark, too. The factory’s entrance looked out onto Gateway Road, the main road through the industrial estate. A wooded path bordered the other side of the road, and in the setting sun the outline of the trees had seemed to glow. To my left were the delivery bays, while the booking in area and, I believe, a small car park were located around the right side of the building. The only sign of human habitation had been the pale blue flickering of a portable TV coming from the security hut. I sat for I don’t know how long waiting for the taxi, feeling cold and miserable, but the only traffic I saw was the odd lorry thundering past or through the main entrance. My recall becomes confused here, as I have another memory of myself sitting on the short wall in front of the chain link fence next to the entrance, staring back at a row of empty delivery bays, only now the sky was dark. I don’t know if I came back to the factory later that night or if this memory is from a different night. I do know that my taxi didn’t turn up.

I eventually got sick of waiting, but I couldn’t call back to check on the taxi as I’d used the last of my spare change to book it in the first place. It would’ve saved me a lot of heartache—ten years worth—if I’d just asked the girl at the desk if I could use the phone there, but for some reason I think there was bad blood between us, so I didn’t. In a testament to masculine obstinacy, I decided instead to follow the road out of the estate and get some change from one of the shops along Mill Street, then look for a phone box there. What the hell made me think that was a good idea I don’t know. But that’s what I did.

I remember Gateway Road being longer than it seemed by minibus, and what I thought would be a five-minute walk ended up taking maybe ten. The sky darkened, and being an industrial estate I saw no other pedestrians. The road snaked ahead of me, shadowy trees on one side and the black edifices of other factories on the other, the smattering of orange night lights that covered them providing little in the way of illumination. The trees made me nervous, and I also worried that passing lorry drivers might not see me because I was wearing dark clothes. The fact that I’d worked at several of those other factories during my employment with Progress made me feel a little better, though. I knew safety was nearby if I needed it.

I finally reached the turn-off from Mill Street, a short shopping district that ran parallel to the industrial estate. I remember it was just as empty as Gateway Road had been, but at the time I didn’t care. I was just grateful to be back on a street with houses and shops, signs of actual habitation. Since there was no traffic about I jogged across the road and started looking for a somewhere to get some change. Most of the shops were closed, except for an off-license and few takeaways. I wasn’t in the mood for anything alcoholic and I certainly wasn’t up to a curry, so I ignored those and carried on up the street, passing a phone box which I noted for later, and finally spotting a lone newsagent, Merton’s I believe it was called. I went in and I think I bought a bottle of water and some mints because the miserable sod wouldn’t change a tenner, and I definitely remember the look on the old git’s face when I insisted on small change.

After I got my change I went straight to the phone box. I’d already decided by then not to bother booking another taxi but to call my friend Russell instead and ask him if he could come and pick me up. Unusually for phone boxes in this part of Cranford this one had been pretty clean with all its windows intact, though when I entered I remember I couldn’t close the door completely as there seemed to be something wrong with the hinges. I remember putting the money in the slot and dialling Russell’s number but getting no answer. I let the phone ring for a while and turned to look outside the booth, and that’s when I caught sight of my reflection in the glass.

I think of that moment every time I look in a mirror or out of a window, and I know I always will. I’ve tried to convince myself that I must have imagined it, that I couldn’t really have seen what I think I saw. Because what I think I saw was the ghostly image of my own face staring back at me, it’s mouth forming words I couldn’t hear, even though I knew my mouth was closed. I was too shocked to react, so we mirror-images simply stared at one-another until a liquid glint drew my eyes to my double’s chest, which I saw was slick with dark fluid, and looking up again I spotted its source—blood was gushing from a ragged slash across it’s, no,  my throat.

Here my memory falters again, and honestly I’m glad. I have no desire to pursue it, because as things stand I can at least hold on to the possibility that my mind is simply playing tricks on me, that I just imagined my bloodied reflection in the phone box window, and the earlier vision in the toilets. That my timeline is off and I’ve somehow got that moment confused with later events.

In any case, my next clear memory comes some time later. I hadn’t been able to reach Russell, so I’d apparently decided I was going to walk home. Again I have no idea what made me decide to do that, particularly if I really did see that reflection in the phone box. I think I was just desperate to get home. The route was pretty straightforward, up Mill Street, down Wealden Road and into south Loughborough Road. Straightforward, but not exactly short—four miles in total, most of that via a busy route into the town through sprawling fields. To get there I needed to cross back over to the other side of Mill Street, but I believe I didn’t do so immediately, probably due to the trees that still lined that end of the road. After a short while those trees gave way to terraced houses and I think I must have crossed over there, and again I’m not sure if this is my imagination screwing up my recall, but I have a strong mental image of the lights being out in the houses I passed.

Further on the road inclined steeply then levelled out, and my next clear recollection comes from there. I know I was nervous and walking quickly, and I was also bursting for a piss so I must have drunk the water. I passed tall hedgerows, then a low guard rail, a sheer grassy slope on the other side. The slope cast a deep shadow over the new housing development at its base—if it wasn’t for the dim light coming from behind closed curtains you’d never have known it was there. To my mind those dark, squat houses looked ominous, like the colony of some alien species. I remember a security light suddenly flashing on outside one of them, and I paused to look. I saw no sign of movement below, no indication of what caused the light to trigger. Feeling highly conspicuous at the top of that hill, I started walking again.

Thankfully more hedges obscured the view from that point, and I started to see signs of life again. A couple of cars went by, and I saw someone walking by the houses on the other side of the street. I think he must have come from or across Wealden Road, and I remember my relief at seeing another human being lasted only until he got closer to me. The man—the figure’s build made me certain it was a man—was wearing a dark-coloured jacket and scruffy, dirty-looking jeans and trainers. The jacket had a fleece-lined hood which he’d pulled up, and his head was low so I couldn’t see his face. I remember looking straight ahead but watching him from the corner of my eyes, feeling thoroughly intimidated. As he got closer still I’m sure I saw the hood twitch almost imperceptibly in my direction, and he slowed. But he didn’t stop, and to my immense relief he soon passed me. I walked a little further, then turned and waited until I saw him disappear down the incline. I waited a few more seconds, then I carried on.

Eventually I reached the point where Mill Street and Wealden Road crossed over each-other. I remember the old three-story houses that lined the roads in all directions, except of course the one going east, which was bordered with yet more trees. And which unfortunately was the route I needed to take. I know I stood at the intersection for a while, debating my options. I don’t know if I was just coming to my senses or not, but after the encounter with the hooded figure I remember the thought of walking home through that road had become a lot less appealing. I’d had good reason to feel apprehensive here anyway, since this area was a well-known accident black spot—a man had been killed in a crash only a couple of years before. Predictably, local legend had it he still haunted the scene. That night I could well have believed it. As I stood there I saw a flash in the corner of my eye, and I turned to see a car approaching from the opposite direction. The driver was moving at a ridiculously high-speed, and instinctively I backed up, my stomach tightening as I worried the lunatic would lose control and veer off the road into me, and then he was gone. I watched him drive away, breathing heavily, and as the yellow glow of his tail lights faded I realized just how dark it was there, and looked up to see the street lamp next to me flicker on.

That was enough for me—I don’t know if I thought that was some kind of sign or omen or what, but I decided I definitely would not be walking home. Instead I was going to give Russell one more try, and if he didn’t answer I was going to go back to the factory and wait for the minibus, no matter how long it took. I started walking back the way I came, keeping a wary eye out for the man in the hooded jacket as I hurried past the grassy hill and down the sloping street, crossing over to the shops at the bottom and going back to the phone box. I saw no sign of the man in the hood, and I  avoided looking at the windows as I entered the phone box, though whether that was a conscious decision on my part I couldn’t tell you. I rang Russell’s number and this time he was in. After some persuasion he grudgingly agreed to come and pick me up.

I told Russell to look for me outside Merton’s the newsagent at the bottom of the road, then I hung up and went to lean against the wall next to the shop door to wait for him. Russell took his sweet time getting there, and I was getting more anxious by the minute. I remember my head was absolutely pounding, my hands were numb, and my stomach was doing somersaults. I can’t truthfully say why I was so on edge but I was, and I think I had been since the start of my shift. Maybe half an hour passed with no sign of Russell’s old Vauxhall Corsa when the lights in the newsagent suddenly went out. I remember thinking it was a little early for him to close up for the night, then I heard the dingle of a bell as a shop door opened, and looked further down the road to see the man in the hooded jacket leaving the off-license I’d passed earlier. He sauntered up the road towards me, his pace deliberate, his hands in his bulging jacket pockets and his hood now held up, the shadowy, faceless interior aimed right at me, and I tensed as he drew closer—

And nearly jumped out of my skin as I heard Russell calling my name.

He’d stopped at the curb just a few feet away, and I wasted no time getting into the car. Russell pulled away and I relaxed, still a little jittery but relieved that I was finally going home. Russell had to drive a little further down Mill Street before he could turn around, and as he drove back up past the shops I noticed the man with the hood had vanished again. I remember Russell was moaning about having to come out to fetch me, complaining that he’d just got in and was dog-tired, and we traded insults as the car limped uphill. We reached Wealden Road, and Russell took a break from the verbal abuse to check the road for oncoming traffic. I was leaning back in the passenger seat with my eyes closed, and opened them in time to see the backlight of the car radio go off. Then Russell pulled out, far too quickly for my liking, so I looked up through the windscreen to make double sure the road was clear only to catch sight of my ghostly, emotionless alter-ego glaring back at me . . .

That’s the last memory I have of that night—I woke up in a hospital bed the next day. I learned from my parents that we’d been hit by an oncoming car doing 60mph. I’d suffered a severe concussion, cracked ribs, several fractures to the vertebrae in my back—injuries that have never fully healed—and lacerations to my upper body that were so severe I was lucky not to bleed to death. Russell was not so lucky—he was killed instantly. The other driver escaped with a few cuts and bruises. My recovery has been arduous to say the least. I have chronic back pain which has left me unable to work, and as a result of the concussion I suffer from migraines so intense I feel nauseous. I have trouble sleeping, I have real difficulty focussing (which made writing this a challenge), and my memory is terrible. I’ve been told my personality has changed too, and not for the better. I’ve tried various tablets to ease the pain and the depression, as well as a few less conventional substances, but none have helped. I get so miserable sometimes the only thing that stops me ending it all is the thought of what that would do to my Mum and Dad.

The truly strange thing is, apart from the back pain, all of these symptoms have appeared recently, since I started putting together the events of that night. I was so much better, so much happier when I didn’t remember anything. I was optimistic, I was determined, and even my physical symptoms felt less intense. Everything went to hell when I started pursuing those fractured memories, when I started trying to figure out what happened that cold December night, and it’s slowly gotten worse since. I wish so badly that I’d left them alone! That’s why I’ve chosen not to delve any deeper into that vision in the phone box, because I’m terrified of what I might do if I were to find out that it was real. If I were to know for sure that I really did see that apparition of myself from just a few hours in the future, and that it was not my mind confusing an unrelated incident with my last moments of consciousness in that crumpled car, my friend a bloody mess beside me, my own blood gushing from the wound in my throat as the edges of my vision darkened, leaving me aware only of the shards of broken glass lying on the dashboard with my own face reflected in them, my accusatory doppelgänger multiplied and calling back to me.

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Reflection by Jake Kale is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.