Scrabbling down the rock strewn ravine, he moved as fast as he possibly dared. Desperately he tried to combine an element of stealth with the need for speed. Each hastily placed foot dislodged a small shower of stones despite his deliberate efforts to keep the noise to a minimum. The repeated cascades of loose gravel sounding ever so loud in the night’s stillness.
Weak moonlight shone on the steep slope as he hurried downwards. His rapid breaths marked the dark with plumes of white cloud that hung momentarily in the air before dispersing. Straining to see, he cursed silently to himself at the lack of light, there being only just enough to make out his immediate surroundings, the finer details lost to darkness.
His calves burned with the exertion, as he struggled to stay upright on the treacherously crumbly surface. Though sharp stones dug into the soft soles of his hide shoes, the uncomfortable sensation barely registered in his panic driven state.
Glimpsing the outlines of a few larger boulders he had an idea and changed course. Jumping from one to another, his journey downwards continued, only now the noisy tell-tale signs of his descent were considerably reduced. With his progress down the slope now quicker and quieter, he was just about to congratulate himself on making such a tactically good decision, when one of the rocks he’d landed on broke loose.
Without warning he found himself sailing through the air, his legs ripped from underneath him. Instinctively curling into a ball and wrapping his arms around his head, he hit the ground hard. The multiple impacts as he tumbled down towards the base of the incline were so fast and so many they blurred into one continuous pounding. At one point a particularly severe jolt caused him to somersault into the air, a blindingly sharp pain took his breath away as he hit the ground again. His left shoulder, which received the full brunt of the landing, quickly turned numb as he carried on with the wildly, out of control descent.
After what seemed like an eternity in free fall, he finally slowed, ending up in an untidy heap. Coming to rest where the ground levelled off, he forced himself onto his hands and knees. Giddy with a stomach churning light- headedness, he crawled as fast as he could into the protective leafy undergrowth of the valley floor.
Moving as quickly as his battered body would allow, he edged further into the dark foliage. Feeling safer, sure that he was hidden, he stopped and rolled over onto his back. Laying there in the pitch blackness his rapid, trembling breathing calmed. The sudden silence made the pounding of his heart sound alarmingly loud as the small respite gave him the chance to gather his thoughts.
He’d lost his fur cloak during the fall down the slope, leaving him exposed to the coldness of the night.
Beginning to shiver, he regretted the loss of such a precious piece of clothing. It would be a long time before he’d be able to get his hands on such an item as rare as that.
His animal skin jerkin and trousers must have been torn in at least several places, as he could feel the cool dampness of the earth against his bare skin. It wasn’t unpleasant; the soft moistness had an almost soothing sensation on his battered body.
He breathed a sigh of relief when a quick internal survey confirmed that he appeared to have sustained no major damage. Expecting to have a few injuries after such a fall he was surprised to find that all he had were a couple of minor aches and pains. Feeling momentarily safe, lying there in the earthy smelling darkness, the throbbing in his temples dissipated as his breathing slowly returned to normal.
He now had a choice to make.
To stay where he was and hope they wouldn’t find him or keep moving. The indecision gnawing at him was abruptly interrupted by a sudden noise.
Drifting on the cool night air he heard the distant and dreadfully familiar sounds of dislodged stones. The very same noises he’d made with his own descent down the rocky slope just moments ago. The sound grew as multiple unseen pursuers arrived on the hill above him and made steady progress downwards towards his hiding place. With the decision whether to stay or not pretty much made for him, he struggled to his feet and started off through the mass of vegetation. Keeping hunched over in order to use the plants as cover and travelling as fast as possible, he moved hurriedly in the opposite direction from the approaching sound.
In the safety of the village and in broad daylight, the solo hunting trip had seemed like such a great idea. The lands beyond the tribe’s own hunting grounds were strictly forbidden, and with good reason. What lived in those lands was something best left alone. But with food in such short supply, the rich abundance of animals in the surrounding off limit areas had seemed like the perfect solution.
So at first light, with spear in hand, he’d left the village and travelled out into the promise filled day. His heart full to bursting with thoughts of the awaiting adventure and the grateful adoration that would surely be forthcoming on his return.
The faint, but steadily rising sounds of movement from the hillside behind brought him quickly back from his wandering thoughts. At least the fact they were still on the slope and not in the undergrowth gave him some reassurance that they hadn’t as yet found his trail.
Keeping his sense of direction while travelling through the densely packed plants was extremely hard. A glance up at the clear night sky would have told him if he was still on course for the village and safety. Except he couldn’t risk poking his head above the foliage, such an action would be a sure fire way to give himself away.
The strain of maintaining such an awkward posture was beginning to take its toll on his already abused back. This however was quickly forgotten when he realised he could no longer hear the sounds of shifting stones.
Once again panic prickled afresh through him. The absence of the noise meant only one of two things. They were either stationary on the hillside or they were in the undergrowth. Praying silently that it was the first of the two scenarios, he urged himself to move faster.
The ground was definitely becoming softer, with each step his hide shoes sank further into the earth. Ice cold moisture seeped freely through the leather bindings securing the animal skins to his feet.
Now a feeling of dread mixed with the growing panic. He understood quite clearly what this change in ground conditions signified and wishing he was wrong wouldn’t alter the inevitable outcome.
Suddenly he emerged from the sheltering cover of the plants. The rich mineral smell on the fresh breeze, like the softening ground, having informed him before his eyes could confirm the truth. His heart sank as he crouched down and stared out at the vast expanse of lake before him. Moonlight sparkled on the small ripples that lapped at the water’s edge. The ominous waters looked blacker than the night itself.
He was miles off course, groaning silently to himself he stared out at the relatively calm surface.
Large stretches of water were dangerous in daylight, at night they were a definite no go area.
Desperately racking his brains he weighed up his options. He could scout the water’s edge and try to evade detection or swim for it. Both options held little scope for success. Although if he did swim for it and cut directly across the lake, he would shorten the distance to his village quite considerably.
Summoning up his courage and before he could talk himself out of it, he crawled forward into the gently rippling darkness. His bare forearms being the first to enter were instantly frozen as the frigid waters swirled around them. Trying to make as little noise as possible and avoid splashing, he dug his fingers into the silty lake bed and pulled himself forwards. As his whole body slowly slid in, the enveloping coldness robbed him of breath and for a few panic stricken seconds he felt his heart beat falter. Slowly he managed to get himself under some semblance of control, even if his short rapid breathing did sound awfully loud in the stillness of the night.
Now floating in the water and shaking so badly his teeth clattered, he again used the soft, weed choked lake bottom to drag himself further out. Eventually he was far out enough so that his clutching hands no longer touched the lake’s floor. Then with slow deliberate strokes he began to make his way out into deeper waters.
Strange warmth spread through his body, replacing the numbing coldness. Initially he welcomed the new sensation, deep down though he knew the feeling wasn’t a good sign. He’d come across this before, this false sense of warmth meant that his own body’s heat was being leached dangerously away. He had to hurry before his extremities started to fail him and become too cold to function. Keeping his eyes locked firmly on the opposite shoreline and trying to stay calm, he pushed onwards.
Aware now that he was rapidly coming to the middle of the lake, his stomach tightened as his already over worked nerves heightened. As far as he could tell he hadn’t heard any sounds of pursuit (apart from his laboured breathing), all was quiet. Glancing over his shoulder, straining to see out to the pitch blackness of the lake’s far edge, he was unable to make out much of anything.
Due to the numbness of his limbs, at first he dismissed the subtle sensation coming from beneath him. It was only after the second or third time he became truly aware of the sudden swirling motion of the currents from below.
Instantly he stopped swimming, spreading out his arms and legs in an attempt to float. Panic now turned to icy fear as a particularly strong surge passed underneath his immobile body.
Mere metres from him, like a gigantic dark mountain, the smooth glistening back of some unspeakable leviathan rose from the water’s surface. A ridge of curved segmented fins, silhouetted in the moonlight, ran down the creature’s huge expanse of back. The sight struck him with such terror that if he wasn’t already motionless, he’d have been paralysed with fear. A panicky gasp led to him sucking in a mouthful of ice cold lake water. Retching uncontrollably, he tried to breathe, only managing to swallow more as he flailed around helplessly. Fighting to control the rising terror, he struggled to regain his composure. Coughing and spluttering, knowing that his repeated panicky movements meant certain death, he once again shakily stretched out his arms and legs. With an immense effort he managed to regain his motionless position once more.
Through terrified eyes he watched, utterly mesmerized as the colossal hump slid back beneath the rippling blackness, the wake left behind buffeting him.
He’d heard the stories of the things that lived in the depths of the great lakes. Frightening horrors that could swallow a man whole. His mother had told him many a tale around the fire. Believing that’s all they really were, just tales to frighten youngsters, he’d nevertheless grown up with a healthy respect for any large stretches of water around his village.
As a boy he remembered wading out into the shallows of this very lake. Seeing the awe in the other boy’s faces as they watched from the shoreline. None of them quite brave enough to follow, even as he openly jeered at them. He’d even laughed at them for their gullible natures.
A high piercing scream suddenly echoed across the lake, followed by the sound of frantic splashing. The noises brought his drifting mind back to the present like a slap in the face. The scream rang out even louder the second time, only to be cut abruptly short. Coming from a different part of the lake, another animal cry of terror and pain floated through the night.
This was his chance; he had to make a move whilst the demons of the deep were occupied elsewhere.
More screams filled the air.
Frozen with fear, his limbs at first wouldn’t obey his commands. With a monumental effort he forced himself to reach an arm outwards, it felt as responsive as a block of wood. Fighting the suffocating urge to stay still and remain undetectable, his survival instinct took over as he pulled slowly at the dark water. Blanking his mind to the dangers from below and from behind, he concentrated on moving one arm after the other. Slowly he began to edge towards the beckoning safety of the far bank.
The screams abruptly ceased, leaving only the softer sound of pitiful whimpering. It wasn’t until the opposite shoreline came closer into view that he realised it was him making the noise. Stilling his lips over his chattering teeth, he forced himself into silence.
The blessed relief he felt when a knee hit the silty ground of the lake’s bottom was almost indescribable. Scrabbling to get a firmer purchase on the soft mud, he quickly waded out of the freezing water.
He no longer worried about the splashes he made, he felt too over joyed to be out. He stumbled as weeds at the water’s edge clung to his tired legs, only keeping his balance with sheer determination and luck.
Forcing his utterly exhausted body on, he ran through the now familiar shrubbery. The village was only a short distance away, the fact giving him an added boost as he pushed himself harder.
Hearing the sounds of multiple splashes from directly behind him, fear pumped through his system afresh. Dismissing the screeching pain coming from his frozen, leaden limbs, he stretched his strides even further. With breath raw in his throat and lungs that felt like they were going to burst, he increased his speed.
One more ridge and he’d see his village he told himself as a chorus of harsh laboured breathing suddenly came from close behind. Too scared to turn his head for fear of what he’d see, he breasted the small hill and caught his first glimpse of the surrounding walls of his home. He’d never been so happy in his whole life to see the rows of ten foot tree trunks. Each one topped with razor sharp points, lined up together, making an impregnable circular shield around his village.
The combined noises of ragged breathing and the pursuers” progress grew louder as they crashed through the bushes behind him.
Still keeping his eyes firmly locked on the great wall and with what felt like the last dregs of his strength, he sprinted towards the gate. His desperate shouts for help, sounded like nothing more than stifled croaks. His second attempt sounded no better, just a throaty gasp no louder than a wheeze.
Feelings of bitter defeat swept through him, to be so close to safety and yet be thwarted at the very last hurdle. With protection only yards from him now, it seemed so unfair. To have made it this far only to meet his end within sight of salvation.
Hope suddenly ignited as he realised the gate was open; in the darkness he hadn’t see the small gap between the large solid trunks. With renewed vigour he accelerated towards the opening. Being grabbed from behind fleetingly crossed his mind as dove through the slim breach. But he passed through the gap unmolested. Landing on the hard earth, he heard the solid thud and bangs of the heavy gates being closed and secured. The relief he felt at the familiar sounds was beyond description.
Terry opened his eyes; at first he felt only bewilderment as he looked around at his unfamiliar surroundings.
It wasn’t just the strange room, but also the dream, it had been so real, so tangible, even on waking he could still feel the relief the individual had felt upon reaching safety.
He’d never had a dream as realistic as that one.
Looking round the room again, the fog of sleep slowly lifted, allowing Terry to remember where he was.
Sunnyvale Retirement Home.
The name made it sound like some sort of holiday resort, conjuring up images of a place that was light and airy.
The reality however was somewhat different.
Far from dilapidated, the building was however in need of a little care and attention. From what Terry had seen in the three days he’d been here, he’d got the distinct impression that keeping costs down was the main item on this place’s agenda. The furnishings, not only in this room, but also throughout, looked tired and for the most part had seen better days. The chairs in the communal lounge especially seemed to be throw backs to some bygone era. A mixture of different styles, their threadbare coverings left the room looking like a rundown second-hand furniture shop. The whole place in Terry’s opinion could do with a good lick of paint and a bit of tender loving care.
On the other hand the staff were polite and efficient. In his short time here he’d struck up quite a rapport with one in particular.
Appearing to be the home’s general dogsbody, Claire always seemed busy. Whereas the other members of staff seemed to have allotted jobs, she would flit from one task to the next. Always with a smile on her face and never too caught up in what she was doing to chat.
Standing at about five foot three, the drab grey nurse-like uniform hung unflatteringly on her. Roughly in her mid-thirties, her slender frame gave the impression of weakness. However the gusto and energy with which she carried out her many jobs belied that notion. Terry had seen Claire on a few occasions, helping to lift a number of the home’s residents in an out of their chairs. Where other staff struggled, she did it with apparent ease.
Not pretty in the usual sense (she wore no make-up, and her rather plain features were doubly disadvantaged by a pair of coke bottle bottom glasses that magnified her eyes into nearly comic proportions), she nevertheless had a kind face. Despite her physical shortcomings, the warmth and kindness of her personality shone through, and like Sunnyvale itself, Terry thought that with a little attention she could look quite attractive.
Lying there in his bed, Terry mulled over the strange dream. The details of which were already beginning to fade, as all dreams naturally do in the cold light of day.
Now fully awake, and with the dream no longer dominating his thoughts, the real reason for his disrupted slumber pushed itself to the forefront. Waves of pressure signalled that his bladder needed emptying; the feeling being almost painful in its urgency.
Reaching out Terry grabbed the handle of his walking stick. He kept it always within easy reach, which meant that it was currently propped up against his bedside table. Struggling his way out from under the covers, and several minutes later, with what felt like a herculean effort he awkwardly stood. Swaying only slightly, he supported himself on his trusty cane.
The stroke had been over a year ago now, and his recovery so far had been quite remarkable. The strength had nearly fully returned to the left side of his body, leaving just a hint of lingering weakness that only showed first thing in the morning and last thing at night when he became tired. His speech was pretty much back to normal too, again only slurring slightly when he became over anxious.
Walking stiffly into the small, dreary on-suite bathroom, he took care of business, sighing with relief as his bladder’s clamouring slowly eased. Flushing the toilet he stopped on his way out to look at himself in the small, tarnished mirror above the sink.
Sadness crept over him as he gazed at the man staring back. Only in his early seventies, he’d always felt that he’d kept some small vestige of his once handsome looks. Now though the face he saw in the mirror was that of a haggard and tired old man. Deep wrinkles etched the contours of his features. The once barely noticeable wattles underneath his chin, now hung down like something reminiscent of a turkey’s neck. But it was his eyes that really showed the ravaging progression of time.
His late wife use to say that his eyes were his best feature, often telling him they were what first attracted her to him. He remembered laughing, when on their second date she’d described them as dazzling sapphires.
Gone was the rich bright blue, now they looked dull, as if their iridescence had somehow been leached by the passage of so many years. Turning from the disheartening reflection, Terry made his way back into the bedroom.
The few fixtures that comprised the room’s furnishings looked cheap and well past their prime. The pine chest of drawers and the wardrobe were so badly battered that they appeared to have been liberated from some godforsaken war zone. A tatty arm chair sat in one corner, its vivid, orange upholstery rather than brightening up the place only seemed to draw attention to the drabness of its surroundings.
The misery at his recent predicament seemed to magnify as he stared at his surroundings. The now familiar pangs of homesickness were beginning to feel like an ever present companion.
Not in the least bit hungry, he knew that if he didn’t make an appearance in the dining room for breakfast, he would have to face a barrage of questions. He’d missed it yesterday and it had felt like being on the wrong end of the Spanish Inquisition. He really didn’t feel like he could face breakfast, though the thought of the consequences were even less appealing.
Mindful that time was marching on, it was already a quarter past nine and the dining room closed at ten for lunch preparations, Terry got dressed as quickly as his minor incapacities would allow.
Closing the bedroom door behind him he used the lift mid-way down the hall to reach the ground floor. Slow and rickety, the dank smelling metal box shook alarmingly throughout the short trip. Its dented doors taking forever to open once it had come to a halt.
If he hadn’t already felt depressed, then the sight that greeted him on entering the dining area would surely have encouraged such a melancholy feeling. Seated around five circular tables were a number of the homes residents. Dressed in the sombre colours one comes to expect of the elderly, they sat in silence. Apart from the odd cough and chink of cutlery the room was deathly quiet.
Spying a table with a few empty chairs, Terry headed towards it. The oppressive atmosphere in the room made him feel scared to make even the slightest noise as he sat down.
In the middle of the table sat a large white serving bowl of what presumably was porridge. Just the sight of it turned his stomach; he didn’t need to ladle any of it into the empty bowl waiting in front of him to know it would be congealed and tasteless. The only other alternative to the sorry looking sludge was a few rounds of toast propped up in a couple of slotted holders. Taking a slice, he nibbled on the cold, overdone bread. Struggling to swallow the dry clump, he took a gulp from the small glass of orange juice by his side and wasn’t surprised when it tasted overly watered down.
Sharing the table with him was an elderly woman. Sitting directly opposite him, head bent, she worked at her porridge. Terry watched the woman’s slow deliberate movements as she shakily transferred the unappetising paste from bowl to mouth. Becoming aware of his gaze, the spoon stopped mid-way and she looked up.
Age had not been kind to her; her wrinkled skin had an unhealthy grey sheen to it. Excess lipstick couldn’t hide the fact her lips were painfully thin and the blue eye-shadow did little to disguise how sunken her eyes were.
Terry smiled at her and received a tentative smile back. He opened his mouth to introduce himself, only to close it again as the woman, obviously uninterested in conversation quickly switched her attention back to the porridge.
Sitting in silence, he pushed the remaining piece of uneaten toast away. It was a relief when five minutes later, as if by some unheard signal, the residents began to get up from the tables.
With a clamour of scraping chairs, creaking staff propelled wheelchairs and clanking Zimmer frames, the whole group headed to the communal lounge. Following behind, Terry leaned heavily on his walking stick. It always took a few minutes after getting up for his legs to lose their stiffness.
The room quickly filled up, but he managed to find an empty chair by the window. Slightly musty smelling, the seats upholstery looked even more threadbare up close. Despite appearances it turned out to be quite comfortable.
One of the staff members appeared in the doorway with a trolley and immediately began handing out cups of tea. Terry felt a little disappointed it wasn’t Claire. He would really have appreciated some of her friendly banter; it might have helped lift his low spirits.
When it was his turn to be served, he accepted the mug of steaming tea, thanking the disinterested looking server, before taking a cautious sip. Expecting the worst, he was pleasantly surprised to find it actually tasted alright. A bundle of daily newspapers piled next to the mugs and tea urn caught his eye. As a lifelong fan of The Telegraph he would have preferred the more familiar read to the selection before him of what he deemed lesser papers. Picking up one of the least objectionable ones before the trolley trundled on; he sat back in the chair to flick through it. As he’d feared, it was full of mindless celebrity gossip and sport. Folding the disappointing paper in half, he placed it and his now empty mug on a small wooden coffee table beside his seat.
Gazing round the room, he saw nothing different from what he’d seen the last few days here. Everybody seemed to be in their own little world. The only other two men in the room were hidden behind their respective newspapers with no sign of coming out from underneath them any time soon.
Making up the majority in the room, (like most residential homes) were the women, who either knitted and watched the small wall mounted television or just slept. Nobody looked his way, which by now Terry was becoming quite accustomed to. If anyone did accidentally make eye contact with him, they’d immediately look away. He wasn’t sure if this was the norm in these places, or they were just an anti-social bunch here.
The view from the window was equally uninspiring. The home being situated on a quiet housing estate meant all that could be seen were several house fronts. Apart from one or two mothers pushing prams down the street, and the odd car, there was little else to see.
Leaning back into the chair, closing his eyes, only meaning to rest his eyes for a moment, his mind began to drift…
…thick smoke filled the hut, the crackling sound coming from the well-stocked fire was almost as comforting as the heat that warded off the early morning chill.
Kren peeked from underneath his animal hide coverings, watching his mother through the smoky haze as she went about her morning rituals.
Unaware she was being observed; she knelt by the fire as she busily set to grinding a small pile of seeds. Crushing them between two stones, a large flat one and a smaller hand held one. Every now and again she’d sprinkle water from a leather skin pouch onto the small powdery pile. Once happy with the resulting pulp she’d deftly mould it into a ball, before patting it flat and positioning it by the fire to bake.
Kren had seen his mother doing this exact same thing so many times it barely even registered with him anymore. Today as he observed her diligent preparations for the family’s breakfast he felt an overriding shame at the danger he’d wrought, not just on her and his family, but on the whole village.
Lying there, watching his mother, he repeatedly tried to justify the reasons behind his most recent folly.
The ill-fated excursion into the forbidden lands.
Of course he’d wanted to help the village by bringing back some much needed food. Deep down he’d known the real reason behind the foolish stunt.
He’d just wanted to see a look of pride on his father’s face, rather than the fixed frown of disappointment he constantly wore whenever in Kren’s presence.
His father was the tribe’s chief and as such was looked up to by everyone. And being part of the highest ranking family meant expectations were high for its male members as well. With hunting and tracking being at the forefront of the basic skills with which men of the village were judged.
Kren’s older brother and next in line to be chief was blessed with an abundance of natural abilities. Their father could often be heard singing the praises of his eldest son, whose own hunts always seemed to be successful.
Unlike Kren’s own miserable hunting efforts, this generally turned out the exact opposite. He could only look on with feelings of jealousy as his brother accomplished every given task with apparent ease.
Kren tried so hard, whatever he did, it was never good enough. Every attempt to win his father’s approval ended in failure. Sometimes he’d wonder if he’d ever be able to make him proud.
His already dark feelings of dejection deepened as he became aware of a subtle difference around him. The hut appeared lighter than normal. Early morning sun shone through the numerous gaps in the interwoven sticks, mud and moss that comprised the materials of the domed structure. Stacked around its circular perimeter was the paraphernalia that made up their everyday belongings. Spears, stone axes, animal skin containers and spare items of clothing could clearly be seen because of the unfamiliar brightness. Unfamiliar, because light was a thing not to be wasted.
The first rays of dawn meant the many chores that were needed for the tribe’s day to day survival should already have been underway. Foraging, hunting, collecting water, gathering firewood, hut and barricade maintenance, these were only a few of the endless things that had to be done daily in order to ensure the very existence of the village.
Not utilising every scrap of the precious light was unheard of, lying around inside your hut while daylight burned was practically criminal.
Kren looked over to where his brother and father slept. Nothing could be seen of them, only two heaped mounds of rawhide coverings. The sound of guttural snoring came from the larger of the two. Watching the steady rise and fall of the bundle containing his father, a feeling of dread began to grow at the thought of what he would do when he awoke. Kren knew the reason they were still asleep and not up and about, was all down to him.
He remembered only small broken snatches of last night’s events. Utterly exhausted, he’d leaned heavily on his mother as she’d guided him to their hut, where once inside he’d instantly collapsed. While she’d fussed around him he’d clearly heard the sound of his father’s gruff voice, loudly barking orders over the panicked shouts of others. Even as the chaos raged outside sleep overtook him, the noises of the terrified village following him down into an oblivious slumber.
With the fractured memories of last night still fresh in his mind, he pushed back the pelts and struggled to stand. His body literally singing with the aches and pains from all it had endured yesterday.
Unlike the handful of other huts dotted around the inside of the village enclosure, Kren’s home was large enough to stand up in. The general design and purpose of these wooden igloo-like shelters was for sleeping in, nothing more. All the others were a lot smaller in comparison, except this being the chief’s home meant its dimensions were meant to convey the importance of its occupants.
His mother looked up from where she knelt, an expression of concern on her face.
“How’re you feeling?” she asked, stopping what she was doing.
“Alright,” he croaked his mouth and throat dry.
“Here, eat something,” she offered him one of the small freshly baked seed cakes as well as a spare water skin. Stepping forwards, he gratefully accepted both, not realising until that moment how utterly famished he was.
Quickly tucking into the food, he felt relief at the fact his mother wasn’t bringing up the subject of his recent actions. Obviously she was leaving that for his father. To say he wasn’t looking forward to that prospect was an understatement to say the least.
Seeing that he’d finished his cake she wordlessly handed him another. He watched her delicate hands skilfully flipping the remaining ones lined up around the fire’s edge.
Although an integral member of the tribe, Kren’s mother lacked their innate appearance of toughness. Nearly everyone else in the tribe exhibited the same physical characteristics of strength. And as with the shared similarity of their powerful bodies, so they all seemed to have the same heavy features, blunt noses, large prominent lips and dull brown eyes underneath wide protruding brows. Both sexes having more than a passing resemblance to each other.
The exception to all this was Kren’s mother. Born into the tribe from parents who were both long established members, there wasn’t really any explanation for her distinct differences.
Her slim willowy frame was unique; its slenderness exaggerated even more when compared with her bulkier, more muscular female counterparts. Her facial features were smoother, appearing more refined, her hair, shades lighter than the usual coarse dark brown of the others. But it was her eyes that truly made her stand out from everyone else. Brightest blue, they shone with a sparkling radiance totally foreign to a people familiar only with sombre brown.
It had been these attributes that set her aside from the rest and what first attracted his father to her. While at the same time it was these self-same inherited traits that had led to Kren’s father’s barely disguised disappointment in him.
Kren’s brother had quite clearly taken after their father. His toned thickset body, (mirroring that of the tribal chief’s), practically exuding strength. A muscular manly frame, mixed with the effortless way he mastered the necessary skills of manhood, made him an undeniably excellent package for his father to lavish his affections on.
All these things only seemed to emphasize Kren’s obvious shortcomings.
Sharing his mother’s freakish blue eyes wasn’t so bad, even the less defined brow and softer features of his face didn’t overly bother him. The scrawny, gangly and uncoordinated body was another matter altogether. Kren’s physical weakness and lack of dexterity hindered his every attempt to learn even the most rudimentary of skills. His last effort at proving his worth to the village was just another failure in a long line of disasters.
Feeling utterly dejected, he swallowed the remaining piece of seed cake. Chasing it with a long swig from the water skin, he gave the now half full container back to his mother. Accepting it, she offered him another cake.
Holding one hand up and patting his stomach with the other, he shook his head and smiled.
She smiled back before turning away and continuing with her task.
Leaving her to finish making breakfast, he moved around the fire and towards the hut’s entrance. Pushing back the large section of hide that sealed the doorway he shuddered at the blast of frosty morning air. He was just about to return to his bed space and retrieve his cloak when he remembered that it had been lost the night before.
Stepping outside the cold instantly seeped through his clothes. The tears from the previous night’s escapades exposing even more flesh for the freezing air to chill.
Mindful to replace the hide door he took his time smoothing it down to seal the opening. Satisfied it covered the entrance securely; he turned his attention to the rest of the village.
He’d never seen it so quiet. Of the ten or so huts, merely a handful had the tell-tale plumes of smoke issuing from the small rents in their roofs. The rising columns of swirling grey clouds being the only sign the place wasn’t totally deserted. The lack of hustle and bustle, constant murmur of conversations, friendly shouts and general good natured banter was eerie in its absence.
Once again it brought home how exhausting the preceding night must have been for everyone. The evidence for this was literally everywhere, the normally well-kept area inside the wooden barricade being a total mess. Extinguished torches carelessly discarded, wicker seed containers overturned their spilt contents lying in the dirt. One of wooden frames used for curing the precious meat was knocked over and broken, its contents scattered all about.
Walking through the chaos, the sight of each fresh piece of panic driven devastation seemed to increase the mounting burden of guilt he already carried. How could he ever look these people in the eyes again?
The recently eaten food churned sickeningly inside him as he fretted about what the villager’s reaction might be.
He’d been walking with no clear destination, just automatically moving his legs, his mind a whirl of self-pity and remorse. Eventually he found himself standing by the barricade. It was a part of the log wall that had one of the many permanently attached ladders, (used mainly for checking the all clear before the gates were opened); its sturdy construction of thick branches, lashed together with tough reed ropes, made it strong and secure.
Scaling the ladder with well-practised ease Kren quickly reached the top and peered out at the surrounding landscape.
Behind the logs he’d been shielded from the early morning breeze, up here the cold wind made his eyes water. The air smelt fresh and sweet. The constant rich tapestry of smells from the village below with its wood smoke, cooking and general various odours of people as they lived their daily lives was blissfully absent.
He took a deep breath.
Taking a second lungful, he tilted his face upwards, letting the growing warmth of the sun bathe his cold skin. Squinting slightly he gazed outwards at the light blue sky, only the merest hints of white wispy clouds marred its flawlessness. The distant sounds of birdsong carried clearly on the cold winds.
Underneath the practically clear sky, like a green ocean, a vast forest stretched out as far as the eye could see. It looked both incredibly calm and peaceful. Kren knew that the deceptively tranquil looking blanket of colour contained all manner of dangers. The distant tree line and start of the great woodland was quite a way off and hidden within its depths were the forbidden lands.
The village’s immediate surroundings had been cleared of trees many years ago. Now scrub land, the only thing that grew there were small bushes and ferns. It had been on that very land he had come so close to being seized last night.
Although not visible from his position the lake was still able to dominate the area; it covered the grounds with a thick layer of mist. An involuntarily shudder rippled through him at the ominous atmosphere created by the dense smothering whiteness.
Kren was about to retrace his steps back down the ladder when a flash of movement caught his eye. Scanning the mist laden foliage he saw more subtle stirrings. At first he tried to dismiss what he was seeing, blaming the disturbance on the strong morning breeze. Deep down he knew the truth.
His pursuers from the forbidden lands hadn’t retreated back where they belonged, they were still here.
The log barricade had been erected for protection against the odd straggler wandering into the tribe’s territory. By the look of it there was a lot more than one moving about in the undergrowth. It wasn’t an attack on the village’s fortifications that filled him with dread. Kren felt sure the people would be safe behind the wooden wall, even with the unknown number of assailants down there. What really made him feel uneasy was the thought of how long they might stay.
Without access to the outside, there was no more food apart from what was already stored. Even more importantly it meant there was no way to get to the lake, which meant no water.
All this was entirely his fault, in his foolhardy attempt to help the village he’d now put it and the tribe in mortal danger.
Because of him they were all now effectively under siege.
Turning his gaze away, he looked over at the cluster of huts containing members of his family, friends and others. All ignorant of the fact that at this very moment their lives might well hang in the balance.
The brown leather hide of his home’s doorway suddenly flipped open revealing the large head and shoulders of his father.
A huge bull of a man, he barely fitted through the entrance as he stepped outside. Standing still, his eyes instantly locked onto those of his son’s.
Even from Kren’s lofty position the sour expression on the tribal chief’s broad face was clearly evident.
Terry awoke with a jolt, startled and confused he looked round at his surroundings. At first his eyes seemed unable to focus on the drab room and its sleeping occupants. The vivid imagery of the recent landscape still lingered, obscuring the present like the white rolling mists of his dream.
The clarity and coherency of his dozing mind’s wanderings seemed so real, so unlike anything he’d ever experienced before.
He’d felt somehow physically linked to the primitive young man.
Kren – yes, that had been his name.
It was almost as if he’d been inside this person’s head. Sharing the youngster’s emotions, his memories, his private fears and feelings, his very aspirations.
It must be the stress of everything happening to him. It was the only logical explanation for these strangely realistic visions.
Terry couldn’t recall ever feeling so mentally drained and bewildered as he did now. Rather than feeling rested from the morning nap, he felt totally exhausted.
The disorientation he felt, slowly disappeared as the dream lost its hold on him and the reality of where he was hit him just like it had earlier that morning.
He instantly regretted the panicked, jerky movements he’d made upon waking as a dull pain lanced through him. He sucked in a large breath, his neck, back and shoulders practically burning.
That’ll teach me to fall asleep in a chair, he thought, while he tried to shift into a slightly more comfortable position. A few deep breaths and awkward shuffles later, the pain subsided making way for the less painful, though still unpleasant feeling of pins and needles.
His performance seemed to have gone unnoticed by everyone else in the room. The reason for this wasn’t Sunnyvale’s residents continuing anti-social behaviour or their apparent preoccupation with keeping themselves to themselves. They were simply all asleep.
Apart from the quiet burbling of the unwatched television in the corner the only sounds to be heard were that of the occasional soft snore.
Of the other men in the lounge, beside himself, both were still hidden behind their newspapers. Only the papers weren’t held out in front, now they rested on their chests and faces obscuring them. Looking from the men’s paper veils as they slowly rose and fell, Terry was struck by how everybody seemed to have fallen asleep in the middle of whatever activity they’d previously been engaged in. It reminded Terry somewhat of young children, who tired from playing, had just dropped off to sleep where they sat, their toys still clutched in their hands. The only difference here being the toys were replaced with books and bundles of knitting.
A great sadness swept over him as he stared at the sleeping residents of Sunnyvale. He’d observed this same scene every day for the last three days. And as he looked from one person to another a feeling of injustice began to build. These people weren’t children; they were adults and deserved to be treated as such. Stuck in this dowdy room, only moving to the dining area for meals and then returning back here to doze again until it was time for bed. It felt to Terry as if they were nothing more than an elderly flock of sheep, herded from place to place.
Feelings of injustice mingled with anger at the thought of not just the loss of freedom, but also dignity.
Sunnyvale. If whoever named this home was trying to be funny, then he wasn’t laughing.
A month ago he’d never even heard of Sunnyvale, let alone had thoughts about moving to a place like this. He’d been happy in his own home. Just a small two bedroom bungalow, nothing fancy, more than spacious enough for his relatively modest needs.
For the last five years, he’d become used to living on his own after the sudden passing of his wife. The cancer that had taken her was of a particularly voracious type, the speed at which it had spread taking him, as well as her doctors, completely by surprise. When the end came, which it did in the space of just a few months, it had been mercifully quick, and she’d hardly suffered at all.
A few close friends remarked on the courage and fortitude he’d shown in the face of being dealt such a devastating blow. Saying he was inspirational in the way he carried on, despite life’s unfairness.
None of them, though, suspected the truth behind his apparent upbeat spirit.
His wife’s death wasn’t a cause for misery. If anything it was a relief, not only for her, but more importantly for him. Up to that point he could easily sum up his life by the phase, don’t rock the boat. These four little words seemed to be the running theme of his unhappy life and marriage.
To outsiders she’d appeared to be a doting, loyal partner and caring mother. A pillar of the local community she was the paragon of compassion, never too busy to help with fund raisers and charity events.
Behind the closed doors of the family home and unseen by her friends she reverted to her true nature. Disappointed with how her life had turned out and convinced she’d married beneath herself she was relentless in her criticisms of her husband. Nothing he did was ever good enough for her. The main bone of contention being money and how he didn’t earn enough for her to have the lifestyle she deserved. He didn’t want to rock the proverbial boat by stating the fact that they owned their own home and that her wardrobe would probably be the envy of most women. Or that they holidayed abroad twice a year in some very exotic places and as far as he could see she wanted for nothing.
Fledgling thoughts of leaving her were quashed when their loveless union produced a child. Now trapped and with even greater pressures on the family finances Terry had to work even longer hours to try and satisfy his wife’s never ending demands. This in itself was no sacrifice, more time away from home meant less time living in the continual background noise of nagging and complaining.
The one and only time when he stood up to her and put himself first was when he wanted to convert the garden shed into a small carpentry studio.
From right back in his school days Terry had loved woodwork class. Just the smell of the pine, mahogany and oak brought back so many good memories of much happier times.
And though he did eventually win and get to have his sanctum, he knew the only reason she’d allowed him this one small victory was because she knew it would keep him out of the house.
All that aside when it came to the child she was totally different. While a bitter and spiteful wife, he did have to admit that on that account, she was a doting and caring mother. She’d done a great job in bringing up Jake, moulding him into the strong, independent and successful person he was today. At least in that one respect he’d felt some small measure of affection towards her.
Never having the closest of relationships with the now adult Jake, it was no great surprise when his son’s sporadic visits in the years after his wife’s death pretty much dried up. Obviously his mother’s boy, Terry struggled to relate to his only child. On the rare occasions when he did come round the atmosphere felt strained. Without his wife to mediate, conversation quickly became an uncomfortable slog.
It wasn’t the boy’s fault; Terry had spent the majority of his son’s life working. Those precious years of childhood when he could have bonded with his son had been lost to the books and ledgers of nameless accounting firms. Which was probably just how his wife had wanted it.
Time inevitably marched on and the child was now a man, leaving both father and son virtual strangers. No amount of regret on Terry’s behalf could change that fact.
It was on one of those rare visits from his estranged son that a retirement home was first mentioned. Terry had listened quietly, not even interrupting when Jake inaccurately made his stroke sound far worse than it actually had been. Clearly obvious that Terry had made a remarkable recovery, Jake still talked as if he was practically an invalid and unable to look after himself.
Then to Terry’s utter shock and amazement Jake announced that with everything considered it would be best if the house was sold and a more suitable place found which better catered for his needs.
Terry’s indignant refusal to do any such thing was quickly brushed aside. Jake in a very matter of fact way informed him that before her death his mother had signed over the powers of attorney regarding the house’s ownership. His son appeared oblivious to his father’s mounting anger saying he wasn’t prepared to argue about validity of the signatures required for something like that. And as far as he was concerned everything was legal and above board.
Terry watched impotently in the days after his son’s visit as his life was turned upside down and consumed in a chaotic whirlwind of change. It was like a nightmare, one from which he was unable to wake.
A for sale sign went up, streams of prying strangers wandered around his home, the wording on the for sale sign turning to sold. More strangers, this time possessing their own keys, letting themselves in to poke and measure, pausing only to make notes on their clipboards or tablets. All this occurring around him as if he wasn’t there, like he didn’t even exist.
All attempts to halt the process proved futile. No one seemed either willing or able intercede on his behalf. Both Citizens Advice and a local solicitor upon seeing the relevant paperwork told him, sorry, but legally there’s nothing we can do to help. Even the police didn’t want to get involved, stating that as far as they could see no laws were actually being broken. When Terry insisted that his signatures on the forms were forgeries, so yes a crime had been committed, they reluctantly rang his son. It was quite evident from his treatment by the officer who made the call that Jake had convinced the policeman his father was suffering from senility.
So that was how he’d found himself only a few short days ago, sitting in a taxi, two pre-packed suitcases in the boot and on his way to Sunnyvale Retirement Home.
The daze of memories was interrupted when a prickling sensation of being watched crawled over him. Shaken out of his reverie, he turned to focus on the place where the feelings of being scrutinised emanated.
Standing nonchalantly in the doorway was a mountain of a man. As wide as he was tall, he practically filled the room’s entrance and he was staring directly at Terry
To say this man was fat was an understatement; he was of a size beyond any normal realms of the most clinically obese. His unbelievably huge girth was covered in what appeared to be a very expensive looking grey suit. Terry thought the material needed to make the said suit must have cost a small fortune in its own right. Expertly tailored, it fitted the man’s massive frame in such a way that it actually looked stylish and not in the least bit frumpy.
Numerous chins spilled out over the collar while the face above this avalanche of pasty white flesh was actually startlingly young. Terry guessed the man to be little more than in his mid-twenties at most. Even through the soft doughy features he still managed to cling onto the remnants of what could once have been a handsome face.
Smiling the man lumbered further into the room. Both thighs so large that to move forwards he was forced to use a kind of ungainly swinging gait. One gargantuan leg swivelled outwards, hardly bending at the knee at all; it would be placed firmly on the ground before the other huge leg followed in a similar arc.
As he made his way across the room the sound of his laboured breathing increasing almost alarmingly until the giant of a man was standing directly in front of Terry.
“Hello, you must be Terry Fletcher. Pleased to meet you,” his voice had a deep and silky, smooth quality. The clipped lilt of his upper class accent sounding almost exaggerated in its preciseness “ I’m Harold … Harold Trent, the proprietor of this fine establishment,” he breathed heavily as if just having greatly over exerted himself, sweat glistening on his forehead darkening the edges of his immaculately cut hair.
Terry was just about to respond when he noticed that the smile didn’t touch Harold’s eyes. The friendliness expressed by the wide upturned corners of his mouth seemed so at odds with the obvious hostility of his gaze. It left Terry too shaken to reply.
“I hope everything is to your satisfaction,” Harold went on as if totally unaware of the uncomfortable silence between them “we do so try our hardest to make our residents feel at home.”
Reaching out Harold placed his hand on Terry’s shoulder. At first the gesture appeared reassuring, the pressure of sausage-like fingers soon made it apparent that there was nothing friendly in it.
Terry winced as the grip tightened. Dull signals of discomfort soon turned into sharp, stabbing daggers of pain.
Grabbing hold of Harold’s chubby wrist tightly Terry forced the offending hand off with a sharp yank. Rearing up from his chair, he then proceeded to tell Harold in no uncertain terms that that sort of behaviour was unacceptable.
Terry saw himself doing this, envisioning the sudden surprise on the fat man’s face. In reality he simply sat there in paralysed numbness as the images conjured in his mind’s eye evaporated.
It just wasn’t in him to react in such a way. Any sort of confrontation generally left him feeling physically ill; he preferred to shy away from the problem, choosing avoidance rather than conflict. It was the reason he’d never really contemplated divorce, the reason he was now here and not sitting in his own chair in his own home. He was fully aware of how he’d allowed the authorities to fob him off so easily, when he should have dug his heels in and fought for what was rightfully his.
The shock of this unprovoked assault left him speechless. Feeling both frightened and powerless Terry desperately looked round the room help. He caught the eye of his recent breakfast partner, she quickly turned her overly made up face towards the murmuring television. This reaction to his plight, her pretence that nothing untoward was happening made him even more afraid.
Pleadingly he looked up into the smiling, round moon of his tormentor face and opening his mouth tried to beg him to stop. The only thing that emerged was a weak, wretched sounding groan. Not only did he feel totally defenceless, he now felt shame at the pathetic picture he knew he was openly presenting. And to add insult to injury he felt a tear spill down his face as he lowered his head.
“If you have any problems, any problems at all, don’t hesitate to bring it to my attention, or to that of my staff’s,” Harold continued with his one sided conversation, still smiling cheerfully. Electric bolts of pain shot down Terry’s arm and chest as his shoulder was given a final squeeze before being released.
“Well I’d love to stay and chat a little longer, but…” his attention drifted to his sleeve, the smile faltered and his features clouded at the offending blemish he saw there. Terry now apparently forgotten as Harold’s brow furrowed in concentration while he briskly brushed at the arm of his suit.
It wasn’t until Harold raised his head that the growing panic truly overwhelmed Terry.
Harold’s face was blank.
The insincere smile and hostility of his stare were bad enough, but this new façade, this total absence of anything was downright terrifying. The hairs on the back of Terry’s neck stood on end as an icy chill crawled down his spine. Harold’s face was totally devoid of any emotions, false or otherwise, it was like looking at a corpse. There wasn’t the slightest recognition in the frozen eyes as they stared down and right through him.
At least when Terry had looked into Harold’s face before he’d seen something. Something underneath, something unpleasant, intimidating, sadistic even, now there was only an inhuman nothingness.
“Please…” Terry croaked desperately, not really sure what he was going to say, “Please don’t.” No longer caring now how pathetic he looked or sounded he just wanted this to end, whatever this was.
Then as suddenly as it descended the veil of blankness lifted.
Sitting there with his shoulder throbbing Terry watched Harold’s features reanimate. It was like a magic trick, one minute he was wearing a death mask then abracadabra and it was all false smiles and deceptive good humour again.
“Busy, busy, busy,” Harold chirped, grinning down at Terry, “the devil makes work for idle hands.”
Still not touching his eyes, Harold’s smile stretched across his round face as he turned to leave. Lumbering away he stopped by the small group of women with knitting in their laps. He leaned down to pass a few murmured words with one unfortunate woman who looked to have just woken up. Although Terry was unable to hear the conversation, it was quite apparent from the woman’s openly cringing demeanour that she wasn’t happy with the attention. The conversation lasted for a few moments before Harold straightened up and carried on with his unwieldly gait towards the exit.
He left the room without as much as a backwards glance.
Fumbling for his walking stick Terry levered himself upwards out of the chair, his joints protested loudly at the abrupt exertion after sitting for so long in one position. Palming the wetness from his cheeks and wobbling slightly on shaky legs he walked out of the communal living room with as much dignity as he could muster.
Not wanting to make eye contact with any of the residents and see their expressions of sympathy or even worse contempt for the tears that still moistened his face, he was careful not to look anywhere except at the room’s door as he made his slow painful way out into the hallway.
He heard a chorus of muffled noises coming from behind the closed doors of the dining room. The sharp, ringing, clatter of cutlery and chink of plates signalled the preparations for lunch. Otherwise the rest of hallway was deserted. It was only a quick ride back up in the rickety old lift and a short walk before was once again standing in the depressing surroundings of his room.
Placing his walking cane carefully against his bedside table Terry awkwardly lowered himself onto the bed. His aching shoulder immediately sang out so he had to adjust his position into one that didn’t put too much pressure on the abused joint. Lying on his side and curling into a semi-foetal form, Terry closed his eyes.
The ever present blanket of despair which had been with him since his son’s first fateful visit had pre-empted all this, felt like it was now suffocating him. The weight of it bearing down on him was practically crushing him in its claustrophobic embrace.
The sobs racked his body as the tears began to flow in earnest.
Lying on his bed Terry floated in a realm somewhere between dreams and reality. His wandering mind felt like a rudderless ship cast adrift on a sea of misery.
The realisation that the life he’d once known had come to an end filled him with such a feeling of cloying depression it was almost overwhelming. Mired in this all absorbing self-pity he didn’t hear the gentle knock at his bedroom door. It was only after the third and slightly more insistent rapping that the sound broke through his melancholy state.
“Come in,” Terry called as he adjusting himself awkwardly onto his back and into more of a seated position.
The door opened and Claire’s concerned face appeared around its edge.
“Are you alright?” the overly magnified lenses of her glasses making her eyes almost pop out as she gazed down at him.
“Fine, I’m fine.”
Moving all the way into the room she closed the door behind herself. She held a small cellophane covered plate of sandwiches which she placed onto the bedside table beside Terry. Balanced on the top of the wrapped rounds of bread was a small carton of orange juice.
“You missed lunch,” Claire said still sporting the same worried expression, “so I brought you a little something encase you were hungry.”
“That’s very kind of you, but I’m fine…really.” He tried to produce a smile in an effort to reassure her.
The tears had stopped a while ago so at least his face was relatively dry. Thank God for small mercies he thought to himself. Otherwise he’d have had to suffer the indignity of looking like a blubbering idiot. The last thing he wanted was Claire’s pity, she was the only friendly face in here and he didn’t want her thinking of him as some senile old fool.
His attempted reassurances didn’t seem to placate her “I heard you met the owner…Harold,” her eyes still full of compassion, searched his face as she spoke.
“He…hurt me…” he didn’t realise he was going to confess to her what had happened until the words fell from his lips as if by a will of their own. Now that he’d spoken those few words he felt a great weight suddenly lift from his shoulders. Hope sprang forth like a lighthouse beam lighting up the previously dark gloominess he’d been immersed in only moments before.
Claire would help, she’ll report the abuse. She would go to the authorities and get everything sorted.
“I’m sorry Terry…I can’t get involved…I need my job…I have a family to support…” she trailed off, her eyes fixed firmly on the floor.
His feelings of relief only seconds before were so savagely crushed that he felt like he’d been physically punched.
“But he’s not right, there’s something wrong with him, something very wrong,” he pleaded, still trying to recover from the sudden dashing of his hopes.
Claire tried a different tack; telling Terry what a good man Harold was, how he was a man of great social standing in the local community. When Terry persisted in disputing the fact, albeit in an increasingly subdued manner, Claire changed her approach again. This time she brought up how the move here and all the changes and stress involved might cause Terry to become unsettled and exhibit different aspects of himself. She said all these things in a kindly way, however her inability to meet his eyes told Terry more than he needed to know. She knew the truth about Harold, but wasn’t about to upset the apple cart.
“Thank you for the sandwiches,” he finally said when it appeared they’d both reached an impasse in the conversation. His attempts to elevate his tone only succeeding in making the words sound false. He regretted how ungrateful he sounded as he watched the sadness on Claire’s face grow. He wanted to blame her for not wanting to get involved, though deep down he understood her motives for not doing so. It was a hard world out there, jobs were not easy things to come by nowadays. And as caring as she obviously was, her own family came first.
“I’ll let you get some rest then,” she said dejectedly before turning away and letting herself out. She uttered a last apologetic sorry before closing the door.
Once more the veil of darkness descended over him as he shifted back onto his side, closed his eyes and curled into a loose ball. There were no more tears this time just an uneasy acceptance that he was on his own. He was going to have to sort this problem out by himself, only confrontation wasn’t something he’d ever been particularly good at. Even the recent conversation with Claire had left him shaken and feeling just a little sick.
The only other option was to do as he’d always done, take it on the chin and pretend everything was fine, after all he was an expert at not rocking the boat.
There was also third option, an option he’d sub-consciously been contemplating ever since this whole sorry mess had started. He could either suffer this situation while he waited for the inevitable end or he could hurry things up a bit. Mulling it over properly for the first time, Terry found the idea not as frightening as he thought it would be. Looking around at the tired, drably decorated room that now represented his future, the thought of suicide felt strangely comforting. Calmness descended over him, his body relaxed and his mind drifted as the tension of the last few days released its grip on him. As each rhythmic breath deepened, sleep took him into its welcoming embrace.
In the dapple shaded cover of the forest, Kren hunkered down against the base of a tree. His face glistened with moisture from tears that carved pale lines down his dirty cheeks before dripping unnoticed from his chin.
Pulling the fur cloak further up around his shoulders, his unfocused gazed was locked firmly on the leafy forest floor. He didn’t need the warmth of the cloak as the weather had turned milder; the feel of it however lent him a different type of comfort. In its soft folds he could still smell the unmistakable scent of his mother.
It had scarcely been half a day since he’d awoken in the safety of his home. The images of the morning’s recent events which had led to him ending up here were still fresh in his mind. He’d known he was in trouble right from the onset, the tension in the village air being almost palatable as the elders broke from their hastily mustered meeting. His father being the head of the community announced the verdict, his deep voice ringing clearly across the compound.
This was to be Kren’s punishment for bringing the village into danger with his misguided if well-meaning actions. His father’s features impassively portrayed nothing of his feelings as he relayed the news to everyone.
He could still see with crystal clear clarity the anguish in his mother’s face as she thrust the precious garment (the one he now wrapped around himself) into his hands. He saw his father and brother as they watched dispassionately while his mother covered his face with kisses, her own tears already overflowing. Obviously embarrassed by the unrestrained outpourings of emotion from a family member they both turned away.
Gesturing to the expectant villagers the chef waved his stocky arm to everyone gathered at the other end of the surrounding wall. At the signal they yelled, hit sticks against the walls or threw rocks, making a great commotion. The diversion now in full swing his father turned back to him and ordered him up the waiting ladder. Slinging the cloak over his shoulder and with one last look at his weeping mother he began to climb.
Holding his head in his hands Kren’s shoulders shook with heavy, body racking sobs as he remembered his mother’s face.
Terry looked down at the boy sitting against the tree trunk. Watching as the outburst of emotion shook the huddled figure’s whole frame, he felt an overwhelming sense of pity for the youngster.
In addition to his feelings for the poor boy he also marvelled at the strange realistic nature of the dream he once again inhabited. The almost enchanted quality of it felt like a natural antidote to the traumatic influences of Sunnyvale.
Everything about it was just so tangible. Everything he saw, smelt or felt had such an aura of physical authenticity about it. He couldn’t ever recall having had dreams anything like these before.
Momentarily taking in his surroundings Terry was struck by the tranquil beauty of the scene. Sunlight broke through the forest canopy, its golden shafts casting multiple spotlights over the shaded floor. In the shade small clouds of tiny flying insects swirled lazily in the air. Lush vegetation sprouted everywhere, their abundant rich foliage startlingly green against the dark rough, brown bark of the huge trees. Stretching upwards these monolithic, vine encrusted giants towered to unbelievably heady heights above him.
He even felt the gentle insistent pressure of forest breeze. Scents of rich damp earth and vegetation carried on its warm breath.
As captivating as all this was, it was the boy Kren who really fascinated Terry. He appeared just as real as the rest of the dream, except there seemed to be something more. Somehow Terry felt connected to him. Obviously he could see Kren was upset; only now he also found himself experiencing the youngster’s sorrow. As well as sharing his feelings he also saw his thoughts and memories. Even now as Terry once again looked down on the forlorn figure he could sense the turmoil of jumbled emotions emanating through him.
Terry’s heart went out to the poor wretch, the boy’s feelings of being lost, totally alone and abandoned, so mirrored Terry’s own feelings he couldn’t help wanting to reach out and comfort him.
Instinctively and without any real thought behind the action he tried to place a reassuring hand on the other’s shoulder. The arm he reached out with looked barely there. The ethereal appearance of the extended limb took him a little by surprise. The boy temporarily forgotten, Terry turned his arm this way and that, fascinated with the ghostly apparition before him. Staring down at himself he discovered that his entire body also had a similar faded quality. The feeling of watching his ill-defined form shimmering in and out of focus was slightly disconcerting.
In an effort to quell the rising tides of anxiety he had to quickly remind himself that this was just a dream after all. A strange and very realistic dream, but a dream nevertheless.
Standing here in this form he also realised had no need of his trusty cane for assistance as he wasn’t relying on his legs for support, he appeared to stand and move as if by will alone. It seemed that his body wasn’t a requirement for existence in this place.
The subject of how he looked in his own dreams was not something he’d ever consciously thought about before. His strange appearance might be perfectly normal. And as for the strangely liberating feeling of moving without any physical effort, that was something he could quite easily get used to. Even as he tried to rationalise all of this, a small part of him felt that it wasn’t usual.
His introverted scrutiny was abruptly interrupted by the feeling of being watched as he realised Kren no longer had his head in his hands. He’d taken his hands from his face and was now looking directly at him.
Wiping the wetness from his cheeks with the back of his arm Kren watched the translucent figure as it stood over him. At one point it had almost looked to be gesturing at him, because of the indistinctness of its form it was hard to tell for sure.
As a smaller child he’d always been enthralled by these phantoms. They could often be seen wandering through the lands in and around his village. Their drifting, unhurried progress across the landscape totally unhindered by any obstacle. Even the dangerous hazards of the surrounding lakes were no barrier, as the ghostly forms simply floated over the water’s surface.
The people of the village referred to them as spirits of the forest. Considering them to be as much part of the natural order of things as the changing of the seasons. Seemingly content with just watching, never interacting directly, these benign beings were for the most part ignored. In time Kren also came to view them in a similar fashion. His fascination with the ever-present wraths fading with the inevitable end of childhood.
Sitting here now staring at the spirit he had the distinct impression there was something unusual about it. Clutching his mother’s cloak firmly around his shoulders he got up and stood face to face with the entity.
It had been many years since Kren had really taken a proper look at these spirits. Looking again at this one he was struck by the utter lack of details. More outline than anything else it stood roughly a head smaller than him and apart from its hazy man shaped form there wasn’t much more to it.
As a child he’d soon learned that any attempt at communication with the spirits was a totally pointless exercise. His many endeavours to do so, always fruitless.
This time he sensed there was something different about this particular one.
“Hello…” Kren felt instantly foolish as his hesitant greeting broke the silence of his serene surroundings.
Terry wasn’t sure what he expected to see on the boy’s face as he watched him stand up and confront him. Given the fact the youngster was face to face with what must certainly appear to him to be a ghost; he showed no signs of fear. If anything he only looked curious.
Suddenly images of similar looking figures drifting over different stretches of terrain filled Terry’s head. Visions of a younger version of Kren tentatively reaching out to touch one of these indistinct shapes, grabbing nothing just thin air.
Spirits of the Forest.
The name echoed inside Terry’s mind as Kren’s thoughts and memories merged with his.
Understanding dawned of what he must represent to the boy, a sort of harmless nonentity, some kind of natural occurrence, just like the clouds in the sky. Terry could now see why his present form held no fear for the young man.
A clipped guttural sound broke into Terry’s thoughts, cutting short the connected recollections. Though the vocal utterance at first appeared to be nothing but nonsense, Terry clearly understood and deciphered the meaning of it as a form of greeting. This grunting dialect sounded exactly the same as the primitive language he’d heard both Kren and his mother speaking. He hadn’t realised until just this moment how easily he’d been able to interpret these crude noises. If it wasn’t for the fact that this was all a dream he would probably have been more inclined to question his strange ability to translate gibberish.
Putting aside this train of thought for a second, Terry returned his attention to the matter in hand. His first attempts at a response to Kren’s initial greeting amounted to nothing. Repeated efforts to reply using a vocal method quickly dried up when it became apparent to Terry that due to his current translucent state he was unable to produce sound. Gesticulating to try and indicate his intentions of friendliness also met with little success.
The only reward for Terry’s animated mime show was a perplexed expression on Kren’s face.
Terry was just on the verge of giving up when inspiration struck by way of the confused and puzzled emotions being broadcast to him. With mounting excitement he realised that if he was receiving these thoughts from Kren, then it stood to reason he might be able to transmit his own back.
After all anything’s possible in a dream.
Kren felt a little self-conscious as he stood in front of the motionless entity. He didn’t really know what he’d expected to happen. If there was one thing all those childhood experiences should’ve taught him, it was that the spirits never acknowledged anyone. Let alone responded to them.
Confusion mixed with self-derision at his actions moments before. Scorning himself, he knew better than to revert to such childish antics. A fleeting image of his father’s face swept into his mind. An expression of such unmistakable disappointment clouded its features that it instantly brought on the familiar and ever present feeling of shame Kren always felt in the man’s presence. Suppressing the idea that this spirit might have been somehow different to all the many hundreds of others, he was about to turn away when it began to move. It wasn’t the fact of its moving that caught Kren’s attention, after all they all did. It was how it moved.
Unlike the slow, lethargic actions synonymous with others of its kind. This one’s was more energetic, its incandescent limbs seeming to move with some sort of intention as opposed to the drifting aimlessness of its brethren.
Transfixed by the strange undulating movements of the form Kren stayed put. Eventually it halted whatever it was doing and once again resumed its motionless state. Mystified Kren watched the now still figure. He couldn’t recall ever seeing any of them act in such a way, nevertheless he was still none the wiser to its motives.
“HELLO!” the word erupted inside his head. The noise reverberated like a shockwave, its pitch resonated so loudly, Kren double over in pain. The essence of the word lost, becoming just an anonymous noise.
Kren’s alarming reaction to Terry’s attempt at contact took him by surprise on two counts. Firstly by the young lad’s obviously agonised response and secondly and most surprisingly that it appeared to have worked.
He hadn’t expected to succeed, evidently he just had. Pausing to allow both Kren and himself time to recover Terry considered his next move.
With a buzz of excitement and anticipation he decided to try again. Only this time he would have to hold back the intensity of his focus and ease down the force with which he mentally projected his next words.
This time the word resonated softy inside his head. Recovering from the initial verbal blast and still a little wary of another high volume assault, Kren reluctantly lowered his slightly shaky hands from their previously protective position over his ears.
He looked on in wonder at the shimmering form standing in front of him.
The spirit had spoken to him.
If Terry’s body clock was to be trusted it was early dawn. The pale light shining through the thin curtains of the room’s only window seemed to support this assumption. His wristwatch was currently sitting on top of the chest of drawers on the other side of the room. For a few seconds he contemplated getting up to fetch it and find out the correct time. He was quite comfortable lying where he was and considering the effort he’d have to undertake, just to get out of bed, he decided against it. Besides if it was as early as he thought it was, he’d have plenty of time to make it down stairs for breakfast. Snuggled under the covers his mind began to drift.
If there had been anyone in the room at that particular moment and if that observer had been asked what they thought about the old man presently lying in the bed before them. They would probably have said “there lay one extremely happy fellow.” They might also be smiling while they conveyed this information, due to the infectious grin currently plastered over the face of the subject in question. As to what might make this man appear so blissfully content they could only guess, whatever it was it looked to be something wonderful.
To put it simply Terry felt euphoric.
This state of exhilaration seemed to have saturated the very fibres of his being. All the gloomy thoughts of yesterday had been washed away, leaving only feelings of elation in its wake. Recent contemplations of suicide, now abruptly pushed aside and forgotten in the light of this new frame of mind.
And the reason for this sudden emotional turnaround.
Last night’s dream had been without doubt one of the strangest of his entire life. Even now as lay there in his bed he still resisted the notion that it could be anything else. On some deeper level he didn’t quite understand, he knew it was something much more.
He’d always been a very practical man and he’d be the first to admit he was quite lacking in even the most rudimentary qualities needed for a working imagination. That’s why being an accountant had suited him so perfectly. There was never any need for conjecture or speculation. Two add two always made four, you didn’t have to guess. Numbers could be relied upon to be exactly what they were. There were no surprises when it came to how they functioned.
That’s why there was such a monumental struggle going on inside Terry. Unlike his beloved dependable figures this new experience couldn’t be quantified so easily, for him it was a journey into unknown realms.
He so desperately wanted to dismiss it all simply as a dream. How could something that touched him so deeply, something so real in every aspect, be written off as merely a nocturnal flight of fancy. In the jumble of confused thoughts currently racing through his mind an idea kept surfacing. Totally alien to his typical thought processes, the absurd notion repeatedly bullied its way to the forefront.
What if it wasn’t a dream, what if it was somehow real? He couldn’t help chuckling out loud as the logical part of him baulked at the concept.
What if he’d actually travelled to this land?
What if? What if?
His head whirled dizzyingly with, what ifs, when another thought struck him. Although it was more a desire than a thought. He suddenly found himself yearning to go back. This powerful longing unleashed a torrent of recent memories from last night’s encounter.
The very moment he’d established the connection he felt the link which had given him access to Kren’s mind break. It was almost physical in its wrenching disappearance and he was quite surprised at the sense of loss he felt at the severing of the bond. As they were now able to talk, so to speak, he didn’t need the intimate window into the boy’s head. Reasoning that the abrupt ending of his ability was something to do with the new link he’d just made, Terry felt its finishing was somehow right. The act of looking into the youngsters mind would be more like trespassing now that it wasn’t needed.
The conversation with Kren had been stilted at first as Terry struggled to maintain just the right level of focus to communicate. As for Kren he was obviously totally overwhelmed by the fact that the spectral being was even conversing at all. After the initial hesitant greetings were taken care of and both parties became slightly more comfortable in each other’s presence the exchange started to flow more easily.
It was Terry’s initial introduction that really broke the ice. He found the response he received from the act of stating his name to be quite confusing. Kren only grinned and shook his head. Terry tried a few other approaches in relaying his name only to be met with more shakes of the head and out and out laughter. Terry decided to stop and wait for Kren to compose himself. When the laughter finally dried up the boy explained with obvious delight that of all the names he’d ever imaged the forest spirits having, being named after a man’s dangly bits wasn’t one of them.
Apart from that hiccup, which even Terry had to admit was quite funny; for the most part there weren’t too many problems with the translations between them. With a few minor exceptions the interaction seemed almost effortless. The ease of the conversation between them made the already surreal quality of the situation seem even weirder.
Kren’s blunt refusal to accept Terry’s explanation that he was just a man, nothing else, was a slight sticking point, but given the circumstances understandable. If their places were reversed Terry supposed he’d be just as obstinate in refusing the claims of an apparent apparition as it floated before him.
He also found it hard to describe, with any real accuracy the place he called home. How do you convey to someone what the modern world is like, when that person has no concept of even the most simplistic things that you take for granted? Things so basic like metal, plastic and rubber, even these everyday things would be totally alien to him. Let alone how you would be able to express to him what electricity is, or a computer or even a car for that matter. Terry’s attempts at trying to do so only left the youngster in a state of total confusion.
On the other hand Terry found Kren’s side in the now relaxed and enjoyable chat much easier to follow. Curtesy of the visions Terry had experienced previously he knew some of what Kren was telling him already, though remained quiet and let him speak.
Hunkered back down against the tree he appeared quite happy to talk about his life, friends and family. His mother was obviously of paramount importance to him and he spent some time on the subject. His father however was mentioned only fleetingly and the whole topic quickly sidestepped. If Terry had not already known of the uneasy relationship, then the pain exhibited on the boy’s face would have been enough to enlighten him.
On the matter of his banishment he was also less forthcoming. When Terry pressed him about the things that’d chased him from the woods. The things he’d not been able to see in his first visitation here, Kren clammed up totally. Terry quickly changed the subject when it became obvious from the boy’s body language the question had upset him. He seemed to visibly shrink into himself, his eyes downcast as his whole demeanour lost its former vitality. For a split second, Terry thought he saw fear flicker across the boy’s face. But it was quite clear that that part of the conversation was over, the wretched look on the boy’s face was enough to tell him so.
Careful to steer clear of the topic, Terry kick-started the dialogue with a few lighter questions, mainly concerning the boy’s friends and family. Before long the youngster came round and was once again his chatty self.
Every now and then the two would drift into moments of silence, but they were comfortable and unstrained ones. Terry felt no need to force the conversation, being content to just be in the other’s company. Without realising it was happening Terry felt a bond growing between them. Standing in this strange forest looking down at the primitive boy he felt the stirrings of an almost fatherly protectiveness grip him. It was an emotion he’d never felt towards his own son, one which now seemed to flourish naturally.
The brightening room stirred Terry from his reflections. Still cocooned in the warm embrace of contentment Terry eased himself from the comfortable bed. Even a twinge from his abused shoulder didn’t dampen his emotional high.
The first thing on his agenda after manoeuvring (with the aid of his trusty cane) into a standing position was to find out the correct time. Stiffly making his way over to the chest of draws he gathered up his wristwatch.
Eight thirty five.
Less than half an hour to go before breakfast was served, his stomach rumbled with the thought of food. A quick mental calculation led him to the surprising realisation that it had been nearly twenty four hours since he’d last eaten. He glanced over at the small plate of shrink-wrapped sandwiches still residing on his bedside table. His mouth watered and the noise coming from his stomach turned from a low rumble into a growl. Shuffling back to the head of the bed he slowly sat down next to yesterday’s touching offering from Claire. Taking the single serving of orange juice he fumbled to release the fixed straw before inserting it into the carton. As the slightly warm liquid slid down his throat Terry marvelled at it refreshing, sweet taste. Uncovering the sandwiches and biting into them and was again struck by the burst of flavours, the mixture of ham, bread and butter was practically exquisite.
He recognised that it was his joyful mood that was colouring his perception of the food so dramatically. Nevertheless he still enjoyed how the simple meal tasted so amazing.
He managed to carry this feeling of elation with him while he got washed and dressed. Floating on a cloud of happiness he exited his room and rode the rickety lift down to the lower floor. He smiled to himself as he wondered what type of fare would greet him on today’s breakfast table, he made a light hearted promise that he’d make the best of it, whatever it was.
His euphoric mood evaporated the instant the lift doors slowly wheezed apart. Barely ten feet from him and blocking half the corridor stood the gargantuan bulk of Sunnyvale’s owner. The sight of him wrought such an abrupt emotion change; it was akin to an unexpected eclipse of the sun. Its warm nourishing light suddenly vanished only to be replaced by a dark, cold emptiness.
Dressed in jeans and white shirt with a salmon pink jumper causally draped over both shoulders, he was evidently trying for a preppy upper class look. Unlike yesterday’s well-tailored suit these clothes were unable to disguise the vastness of his girth. The material bulged and the seams strained under what looked to be immense pressures.
Harold seemed unaware of Terry’s presence, for the time being his full attention was occupied by one of the homes residents. Terry vaguely recalled seeing the woman a few times in the communal lounge, she was one of the members of the knitting brigade.
Leaning heavily on a white, badly scuffed walking frame the unfortunate elderly woman looked like a rabbit caught in the beam of a headlight. The reason for this became apparent when Harold shifted slightly and revealed a large fat hand currently clamped firmly over the other’s thin fragile looking wrist. Terry knew from first-hand experience the strength that pudgy hand contained and winced inwardly. Harold’s colossal bulk shifted again obscuring his actions as he leaned over her in a menacing way. His softly murmured words didn’t carry to where Terry stood frozen like a statue, but the poor woman’s sudden gasp and moans of pain were clear enough.
A surge of indignation and anger coursed through Terry. As the impotent rage blossomed, three words suddenly rang out, echoing in the confined space.
“LEAVE HER ALONE!”
Harold’s body juddered, his numerous chins wobbling as he whipped his head in Terry’s direction. The look of startled amazement on his face mirrored the shock Terry felt at actually having shouted out. Terry instantly regretted the outburst; an instant feeling of nausea gripped him as his timid nature quickly reasserted itself. This sick feeling increased as the stunned expression on Harold’s face melted away to be replaced by outrage. This new openly hostile look was quickly swapped for a more jovial, albeit falsely friendly one.
“Now Mary, why don’t you go on into the dining room and get yourself a table by the window,” he said turning back to her, his grin practically splitting his face in two. “It’s not quite breakfast time yet, but I’ll get someone to bring you a nice cup of tea while you’re waiting.” His clipped upper class accent resonated with good cheer as he stepped back to allow her room to pass.
It was only the briefest of glances, however Terry caught the elderly woman’s look of gratitude. She was visibly shaken and struggled to manoeuvre her walking frame with just one arm, cradling the injured one against her chest. It was a pitiful sight and one which brought on another fresh wave of anger, anger that Terry used to bolster what little resolve he had as he watched the huge man lumber towards him.
“What on earth seems to be the matter?” raising his eyebrows quizzically his gargantuan gut pressed against Terry unpleasantly as he loomed over him. Terry tried for some sort of a retort, opening and closing his mouth several times though nothing came out.
“My dear chap, try not to upset yourself so.”
Harold sounded like the very epitome of a concerned carer. The fretful, compassionate face falsely portrayed just the right amount of worry to be almost believable.
“I saw what you were doing to that woman,” Terry said shakily as he finally found his voice “I’m going to report you to the…”
“Who are you going to report me to Terry…” he chuckled as he spoke though no hint of humour touched his eyes, “I’m highly thought of around these parts, who do you think people will believe. Some crazy old geriatric or me an upstanding member of the community, whose father was the Chief Superintendent.”
Terry felt sick, really sick. He’d woken up this morning so happy, practically bursting with a new found vitality, now that marvellous feeling had been swept away.
What had he been thinking, to confront this man, this animal. The last vestiges of anger depleted his beleaguered mind grasped desperately for a response to Harold’s words.
“I…I could go to the papers.”
All pretence of false emotion slipped from Harold’s features leaving something darker in its place, “The dead don’t tell tails.” The words were spoken so softly and flatly it took a few seconds for their meaning to fully sink in.
Terry’s legs turned to jelly, he felt like he was about to collapse. Gripping tightly onto his cane he struggled to stay upright as his whole body trembled.
Could this man be serious?
Could he be capable of carrying out such a threat? Looking into those dead eyes he saw the truth, the reality behind the mask.
Harold wasn’t just some sort of sadistic animal.
He was insane!
The very blood running through Terry’s veins turned to ice with the paralysing realisation. He finally understood why the home’s residents acted as they did, why they were so introverted and withdrawn. Sunnyvale was being run by a bullying madman, a terrorising psychopath.
“Well you have a good day.” Harold chirped, a wide smile stretching across his face. Once again a cloak of false friendliness and good-natured temperament descended to conceal the truth.
Frozen in place Terry watched the mountainous man turn and waddle away to the lounge room door before squeezing through the entrance. What should have been relief at being out of the man’s presence’s, however briefly curdled.
The small hallway suddenly felt like it was shrinking. It was as if the walls themselves were moving inwards and closing in on him. His chest constricted and he struggle to breathe as the horror of the situation he’d found himself in fully sank home. Panic engulfed him making his whole body tremble uncontrollably. Terry clutched at his chest as a dull pain shot agonisingly through the centre of his ribcage. His laboured breathing stopped altogether and stars bloomed, clouding his vision.
The smell of damp earth and vegetation suddenly wafted over him. As if carried by some unseen breeze it drifted around him, enclosing him in its rich and welcomingly familiar embrace. The harshness of the overhead florescent lighting dimmed and the distant sound of birdsong filled his ears. The plain walls of the hallway briefly seemed to vanish, in their place stood the towering tree trunks from last night’s forest. The momentary illusion only lasted seconds, disappearing just as suddenly as it had appeared. Only the fleeting imagery had had a profound effect on Terry. As the forest lost its validity and the hallway with its smell of disinfectant reasserted itself, he was left with an overwhelming feeling of calm. Residues of anxiety still lingered, except the rising tide of panic had lessened and subsided into more manageable feelings of apprehension. Without realising it his breathing had returned to normal and the chest pains had miraculously ceased.
Whatever had just happened, Terry wasn’t sure. Dream or reality he didn’t know. One thing he did know for certain he was that he was glad he was now aware of the mysterious place. It was something he could cling to, something good in his life when there seemed to be so much of the opposite. He still struggled to rationalise its existence, only now surprisingly he wished more than ever for it to be real. Because if it was then maybe, just maybe there might be some way out his present predicament. And as fanciful as the idea of escaping to some strange land and surviving there as a kind of disembodied spirt was, the benefits in doing so seemed to far outweighed the realities of staying right here.
When Terry finally got going he headed towards the dining room entrance. Keeping his eyes firmly fixed forwards, he deliberately didn’t look into the lounge as he passed. He forced his shaky legs to move as fast as possible, the fear of another confrontation with Harold spurring on his efforts as he hurriedly entered the dining area.
The tables were already laid out in preparation for breakfast. Today’s theme was obviously cereal, indicated by the absence of the usually large serving bowls of porridge and racks of toast. The selection of cereals provided was quite basic, value cornflakes or bran flakes. A box of each choice sat in the centre of every table together with a pitcher of milk. Breakfast bowls, spoons, tea cups and a large metal tea pot finished off the settings.
The only occupant currently in the room was Mary; she’d picked a table by the window and was staring out of it at the passing traffic. He walked over to where she sat before stopping a few feet from her.
“May I join you?” Terry enquired his only slightly out of breath voice disturbing the silence. She turned towards him startled, her features quickly eased into a less fearful expression as she recognised him.
“Please,” she indicated to the chair beside her while smiling warmly at him. Terry sat, returning the smile with one of his own.
Sitting right next to her Terry was able to get a better look at her than when he’d first seen her in the hallway.
Grey hair done up in a tight bun, rosy cheeks and bright, kind eyes, she looked like everyone’s stereotypical grandmother, the infectious smile playing on her lips only adding to the image. The underlying impression was marred however by the all too evident signs of stress. Dark circles under her clear eyes and deep creases etching a look of worry onto the otherwise cheery appearance.
Terry nodded pushing the empty cup in front of him over to her. Picking up the tea pot she filled the proffered cup, adding a splash of milk automatically before pushing it back to him. He took a cautious sip from the steaming brew and was once again surprised at how good it tasted.
“You really shouldn’t have intervened just now…but thank you,” she spoke quietly, tugging the cuff of her blouse down in an attempt to cover the redness on her wrist.
The sight of the marks on her frail arm brought his anger surging back. “He needs to be stopped!” It took a great effort on Terry’s part just to keep from shouting as his emotions bubbled over. “It’s not right!”
Mary looked over his shoulder, alarm evident on her face as she gestured frantically for him to keep his voice down.
“Why doesn’t somebody report him?” Terry said, keeping his words softer this time.
“Some have tried,” she said turning away and lowering her gaze at the same time.
“What happened?” he prodded when she didn’t say anything more. Her eyes downcast, studying the table as if she saw something interesting on its plain wooden surface.
“Let’s just say their stay here ended prematurely,” the mix of fear and sadness on her face when she finally looked back up at him spoke more clearly than any words could.
An involuntary shudder rippled through Terry as an icy feeling crawled once again down his spine. The matter of fact way the horrifying information was expressed only adding to his unease. Not knowing how to respond, Terry opted for a sip of his tea instead. He was saved further from trying to fumble a reply by the appearance of a couple of the home’s residents. As soon as the two were seated more began to shuffle through the doorway. Accompanying a few of the less mobile and wheelchair users was a female member of staff. She stayed to assist those who were unable to help themselves, pouring tea and filling their breakfast bowls.
Terry felt it would be unwise to carry on with the same topic and so reverted to small talk. The relief on Mary’s face was quite obvious as the conversation took a different path. She instantly brightened and was very forthcoming about her old life.
She’d been a primary teacher for over forty years and though never having married or had children of her own had nevertheless felt like a mother to all of the kids who passed through her school. Well-travelled she’d seen a lot of the world and had some amusing stories that even had Terry chuckling at one point.
Terry managed to sidestep most of Mary’s questions about his marriage and son, only giving the briefest of accounts of either. It wasn’t until the mention of his purpose built woodworking shed at the bottom of his garden that he really livened up. Whether she was actually interested or was just humouring him he couldn’t tell, she listened intently and appeared to be genuinely impressed at his knowledge. Terry couldn’t help warming to Mary, she was very easy to talk to, but it was her smile that really captivated him, it seemed to light up her whole face. Like some inner radiance it shone through to steal years from her face and reveal a glimpse of the woman from years past.
It was only when the subject of how Mary had ended up here of all places that the brightness dimmed. He could see from her pained expression it caused her distress to talk about it.
It was a familiar story, an unknown correspondent from overseas, falling for the charms of said correspondent. Ever increasing and more desperate pleas for money no matter how much was sent and then eventually as realisation finally dawned she understood that it was all a con.
She wasn’t bitter just embarrassed, the police tried, but in the end hadn’t been able to do anything. So with all of her savings gone and no money left she’d moved in here.
After a brief pause she changed the conversation to lighter matters and the easy flow of chatter carried on as before. Time passed too quickly and before Terry knew it breakfast was over and the migration to the lounge was already underway.
Grabbing his cane and using the table for added support Terry awkwardly stood. The stiffness in his legs meant that for a few seconds he was frozen in place. He had to reassure a concerned looking Mary that he was fine “Just need to start moving to get these old bones working,” he told her. She seemed to understand he didn’t want to be fussed over and using her walker made her own way out.
Forcing his unyielding legs into action Terry started the task of breathing life back into the unresponsive limbs. His walking quickly eased in to more fluid rhythm, only with his mind being so preoccupied with thoughts of Mary he still leaned heavily on his cane as if unaware of the fact.
The time spent in her company had been pleasant enough, only marred by the subject of Harold; his presence seeming to hang over them like a dark, menacing cloud.
Stopping just outside the dining room, Terry glanced to his left at the lift and stairway. In the opposite direction was the building’s main door. Indecision burned inside him as he looked one way then the other. Abruptly turning to his right he walked with deliberate determination towards the exit. Grasping the tarnished handle he pushed downwards and pulled. The scuffed wooden door stuck slightly, then with only the smallest of protests from its creaking hinges, swung inwards.
This was the first time in at least the last three days, Terry had looked upon the outside world without being separated from it by the panes of a window. His gaze shifted down one side of the nondescript street to the other as the cold breeze quickly leached the warmth from his body. Two cars in quick succession zipped past, their engines sounding startlingly loud to Terry after the quite of the home.
The surprise he’d felt as the door opened still gripped him. Fully expecting it to have been locked, the fact that it wasn’t seemed to fly in the face of everything he’d come to associate with this place. Just for an instant he contemplated stepping over the threshold and escaping. As the nearly irresistible thought tugged at him an internal voice quickly rose up to silence it.
Escape to what?
He had no money, nowhere to go and didn’t know anyone who would help him.
Stepping back Terry reluctantly closed the door.
A building didn’t need to lock its doors in order to be a prison. There were more subtle ways in which to achieve the desired effect he’d now discovered.
Burdened by this newly acquired and depressing piece of knowledge he turned away from the exit. Not really wanting to face the desolate atmosphere of the lounge or risk bumping into Harold he made for the lift.
Besides there was somewhere else he’d much rather be. A place that’d been constantly circling the edge of his thoughts the moment he’d woken. If pressed Terry couldn’t have explained it, just the idea of it produced an instant feeling of calm, it was almost like a suit of armour protecting him against anything Sunnyvale could dish out.
Standing in the creaking and shuddering box as it slowly moved upwards he realised he felt a little peckish. He’d been so engrossed in Mary’s company that he’d not eaten any breakfast. At least the sandwiches from earlier had filled a small gap, without them he’d have been ravenous. He consoled himself with the thought that lunch would be served in just a few short hours.
Once inside his room and after removing his shoes Terry climbed onto the bed. Stretching out, he closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Trying to relax both his mind and body he attempted to wish himself back to Kren’s land.
Before the first tendrils of doubt even had a chance to creep into his mind, it happened.
Cupping his hand over his brow in an attempt to shade his eyes (an empty gesture for someone whose body and limbs were now translucent) he blinked rapidly in the suddenly dazzling sunshine. It took a few seconds for his vision to adjust to the brightness, while his other senses quickly adapted to the new sounds and smells. His ears filled with the distantly interlacing waves of birdsong. And the freshness of the air after the stuffiness of his room felt like an ambrosial explosion, clearing his head of its staleness and making him feeling instantly revitalised.
As his senses adjusted so his mind followed.
Even now it was incredibly hard for him accept this new world. The logical part of him, the part of him that held sway for nearly eighty years still struggled to believe. That side of him now no longer seemed so dominant, so firm and unwavering. Like the gears of a reliable bike, slipping from one cog to another, so Terry’s mind slipped from denial into acceptance with the practiced ease of a well-oiled piece of machinery.
He stopped trying to rationalise and started to accept.
He found himself on the edge of a forest in a large clearing. The dense cluster of trees behind him gave way to sparsely dotted, dwarf bushes and clumps of long grass. The scrub land, on which he now stood, sloped gently downwards ending at the edge of a vast lake. In the distance he could see the rolling green hills of the opposite shoreline. He squinted in an attempt to make out more, the huge size of the lake meant that he was unable see much detail.
Changing his scrutiny to that of his more immediate surroundings his vision was drawn towards a small outcrop of rock a little way down the slope. It wasn’t until he stepped closer that he saw it wasn’t in fact rock, but the back of a crouching figure. The dusty brown material of the fur cloak draped over it had given it the appearance of a large boulder.
As if alerted to Terry’s presence the mound abruptly twisted in his direction. A hooded face came into view, a familiar smile etched onto its dirty features.
Terry smiled back as an instantaneous wave of affection swept through him at the sight of Kren.
“Hi…Terry,” amusement clearly evident in the youngster’s eyes as he uttered Terry’s name. It’s meaning in his own language obviously still tickling him.
Moving closer Terry could now see what Kren was doing there sitting by the lake. The long piece of branch he was obviously using as a fishing rod was about two metres in length with what looked like a strip of vine stalk tied to its end. Terry watched as Kren turned his attention back to the job at hand, lowering and raising the stick in slow undulating movements he made the vine bob up and down in the calm, blue waters.
“Caught anything?” Terry asked as he moved closer.
The boy pushed his cloak aside to reveal two plump foot long fishes, both glistening freshly as they lay beside one of his outstretched thighs.
Terry didn’t know much about fish and what lay on the sandy earth appeared to be nothing unusual. He was quite partial to trout and these fish were pretty similar in shape, size and colour. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected, however the very ordinariness of them felt somehow comforting. Their very familiarity seemed to speak to him on a deeper level, reassuring him that as strange as this place was there was still something recognizable, something almost encouragingly normal about all of it.
Terry’s contemplation on the ordinariness of the fish was interrupted as Kren lunched the make-shift fishing rod into the lake, gathered up his morning’s catch and made his way towards the trees. Terry trailed after the boy as he walked into the shade of the forest. Letting Kren lead him deeper and deeper into cool, gloominess Terry nearly walked straight into the back of him when he abruptly stopped in the middle of a small glade.
Terry silently watched as the youngster quickly set about preparing the fish. With an air of practiced ease Kren gutted, descaled and speared them together on a stick. Wedging one end of this stick into the ground he promptly propped the other end of it up with another piece of branch to create a triangle. Both bits of stick fitted so well together and were so perfect for the job it was clearly evident that Kren must have selected them previously for this purpose. Terry realised that the boy must be using this place as a base. He watched him pick a handful of broken sticks from a small pile of discreetly hidden braches that he hadn’t notice when he’d first arrived. Kren then proceeded to build a little mound underneath the wooden construction. And with a few strikes from a couple of pieces of flint he’d produced from inside his leather tunic, set it alight. Once happy with the nearly smokeless fire he moved away and sat against the base of the nearest tree.
Both remained quiet as they watched the small fire crackle and pop, its small flames dancing before them in an almost mesmerising way. During the lull, Terry found himself brooding on recent events.
It occurred to him that whatever this was, whatever was happening, was happening for a reason. The mysteries of the universe were beyond him and probably always would be. If there was something at work behind everything, then maybe that something had a plan.
Terry was again struck with how relaxed he felt in Kren’s presence. He’d only known this boy fleetingly and within that short period of time he’d felt a greater bond between them than he’d ever felt with anyone else, even between the members of his own family. That must mean something; all this couldn’t be just merely accidental.
Maybe this was a second chance for him, a chance to be a sort of father figure, to guide and to be there for him in all the ways he’d failed to be there for his own son.
Buoyed by these new and exhilarating thoughts and emotions, Terry tried not to get carried away. Not wanting his eagerness to betray his true feelings, he took a mental breath and tried to swallow the rising tide of exciting hope filled possibilities.
The seed of a plan to help Kren regain the respect of not just his village, but also that of his father had germinated and been growing in Terry since last night’s visit. He felt sure that its success would ultimately lead to the boy being allowed back home. This plan of Terry’s revolved around the defence and protection of the youngster’s people. Defence and protection from the unseen creatures that had pursued Kren and which now surrounded their village.
Terry didn’t want to broach the subject of the creatures straight away; he thought it would be better to build up to it slowly. The last time the topic of conversation had turned to them the reaction he’d received had been quite a negative one. So with this in mind he decided to start with a question he hoped wouldn’t unsettle Kren.
“I thought the lakes were dangerous?”
“They are…especially at night,” picking up a nearby stick he poked at the fire’s base, “The shallows are fairly safe, it’s only further out that isn’t.”
“The first time I saw you…I don’t know if you even saw me… you were being chased and swam across a lake.”
“I did see you,” Kren stopped prodding the fire and looked up at him.
“Well I just wanted say that you’re very brave.”
The youngster shrugged and turned his attention back to the fire. Terry could see that the praise had obviously made him feel uncomfortable, nevertheless he ploughed on.
“I bet if your family and friends could see how brave you are they wouldn’t be so quick to reject you. I bet they would welcome you back.”
“You don’t understand…I can never go back,” he spoke flatly, his head bowed as he addressed the forest soil, “I’ve put everyone in danger. Even if some escaped by going over the wall like I did when I was banished, it would mean leaving behind those who weren’t fast enough to out run what would be waiting for them outside. If they did try to make a break for it, the young ones and elders would be left to die.”
“So you see it doesn’t matter what you think… I can’t go back.” Still not raising his head Kren rubbed his eyes and nose with the back of his forearm, the childlike act tugged at Terry’s heartstrings.
Although the telepathic link to the boy had been severed, he didn’t need it to be able to feel the hurt emanating from the hunched figure before him. Terry desperately wanted to reach out and place a consoling hand on the poor boy’s shoulder. It was the same instinctual action he’d felt pull at him the last time he’d seen Kren in such pain. Only he knew from previous experience the gesture would be a futile one. A hand made of light couldn’t possibly relay the compassion he felt for him, he’d have to rely on his words to dispense some comfort.
“What if there was a way to fight back, a way to get rid of these things that plague your people?”
Leaving the question hanging in the air, Terry watched as Kren became still. Though he didn’t look up it was clear from his stillness that the youngster was listening.
“I know you are uncomfortable discussing the subject, these…creatures…are they flesh and blood.”
Kren finally looked up and staring solemnly at Terry he nodded.
“What if I show you how to build a weapon that you could use from the safety of the village ramparts? Weapons more powerful and accurate than the spears you have now and with just a handful of them you need never fear those things again.”
Hope seeped into the boy’s glum features, the change encouraged Terry to continue.
“You would no longer be the boy who put your village in danger. You’d be its saviour… you’d be the hero who banished the danger once and for all.”
It was clear from his enthusiastically animated reaction that Kren thought the idea was a good one. Instantly brimming over with excitement he sprang to his feet.
“Show me!” he said his face lighting up with excited anticipation.
“What about your breakfast?” Terry enquired as he glanced down at the skewered fish. The flesh looked barely cooked, but that didn’t stop Kren from gobbling them down at an alarming rate. Terry winced inwardly as he watched both fish disappear in only a few scarcely chewed bites. The sound of crunching was exaggerated in the stillness of the forest air as each fish in its entirety was quickly consumed. Only after licking the palms of each hand and sucking his fingers clean did he once again look up at Terry with eager expectation.
Terry’s idea to help Kren had seemed a simple one. And as with many good plans what appeared to be at first glance quite easy and straight forward sometimes turned out to be a little more difficult to realise. The difference between conception and execution of his idea was going to take some careful consideration.
Handicapped by the fact that he didn’t possess a physical form, he would have to rely totally on the youngsters own abilities. With a little luck and precise and clear direction he hoped it would be enough to see the plan through to fruition.
To Terry’s delight for the most part it worked. It helped that Kren had an innate understanding of his own land and was able to select just the right materials for the job. It was also handy that the boy was quite skilled when it came to working with wood. There were only a few minor hiccups, caused when Terry used unfamiliar terminology; though it was easily rectified with more simplified descriptions.
Terry couldn’t help but admire the boy as he set about each part of the construction. The expert way he handled his flint knife as he carefully whittled and carved. His brow furrowed in concentration, his tongue permanently poking out from the side of his mouth. He worked without complaint even though the collection of cuts and scrapes (some deep enough to bleed quite freely) over his arm and hands multiplied with each hour that passed.
By the time Kren finally finished the light had started to dim considerably, signalling the approach of evening. In the lengthening shadows of the surround trees he stood holding his days labour, his face a mask of dejection.
Looking at what the boy had achieved and the miserably confused expression he now wore, Terry instantly understood the boy’s bewilderment. Only before he was able to explain the boy’s anger erupted.
“Sticks!” he said furiously as he held out the pieces of wood for Terry to look at, “You made me work the whole day and this is all I have to show for it.”
He made as if to throw the offending items into the forest until Terry froze him with a shout.
“You haven’t finished. Cut a thin strip from the bottom of your cloak,” Terry ordered, ignoring the petulant glower he received. Rather than explain, he would let Kren see for himself what he’d made.
For a few moments it looked as if Kren was about to follow through with his first impulse and toss the whole lot away anyway. Obviously resentful he reconsidered and sullenly placed the crafted sticks down before retrieving his flint knife and doing as he was told.
“Tie one end of the strip to the end of the longer pole,” Terry said, watching as the boy followed his instruction. “Now do the same with the other end, only this time pull it tight until the pole begins to curve.”
Both strip and wooden rod creaked loudly as Kren strained to tie off the now taut band of hide. Studying his handy work the youngster again looked wholly unimpressed.
In Terry’s eyes however it looked like it had the makings of something formidable. The boy’s skill in how he’d worked the wood, given the primitive flint tool he’d used was astounding. And Kren’s choice of wood, (although unfamiliar to Terry as it was obviously native to this land) appeared to be truly inspiring in its pliable and resilient qualities. Following Terry’s directions to the letter he’d managed to create an incredibly professional and lethal looking weapon.
“Take hold of the middle…like this,” Terry demonstrated by holding out one arm. Kren held the weapon out in front of him. “Pick up the smaller stick and place its notched end against the leather band.”
Mimicking Terry’s actions Kren mirrored his every movement exactly. Remaining silent throughout a look of interest now mingled with his sullen expression.
“That’s good Kren,” he encouraged, “Now keep the outstretched arm still and pull firmly back with your other hand…that’s right the one still holding the notched end of the stick. Bring that hand towards your face.”
Kren grunted and the muscles of his thin arms stood out with the effort needed to fully pull the strip back. As both the wood and leather protested with loud creaks, Terry could see the potential power that dwelt in its curved frame. Like a deadly snake ready to strike, the weapon looked poised to explode with its stored force.
“Release the strip.”
The leather band tore out of Kren’s hand, the bow instantly snapped straight and the arrow flew into the air at an amazing speed. The twang of the bow and whistle of the arrow as it sailed through the dimming night was quickly halted as it imbedded into a nearby tree with a mighty crack.
A look of astonishment transformed Kren’s face as he turned to Terry. His eyes wide with excitement as the possibilities of what he’d just witnessed slowly dawned on him. He looked as if he was about to speak, only to remain silent, apparently lost for words. His attention returned to the bow, holding it out in front of him he studied it as if seeing it for the first time.
“With this,” he said in an almost reverent tone, “We will never have to fear our enemies again.”
“I’m sorry for how I acted before…” his voice full of remorse as he once again looked at Terry, “I shouldn’t have been so disrespectful.”
Shrugging off the apology Terry reassured him that all was fine. He felt a growing sense of fondness and pride as he watched Kren examining the bow. He didn’t need the ability to read the youngster’s mind to know his thoughts. From the exuberant expression on his face it was obvious he was already envisioning his triumphant return to his village with his new powerful weapon.
Gazing at the tired, though undeniably happy boy in the failing light of the now rapidly darkening forest, Terry was surprised by the unexpected jolt of jealously he suddenly felt. He knew Kren had to eventually go back home to his village and to where he belonged. Only he still couldn’t help the fact that he felt resentful at the thought of him back with his father. Even one as blind to the needs of his son as Kren’s father clearly was.
“Will I see you again?”
The question interrupted Terry’s internal struggle, snatching him from his private thoughts.
“Of course…if that’s what you want?” he answered hopefully.
“I do. I wasn’t sure if this…” he gestured to the bow, “…was the reason you were here and now you’ve helped me, I thought it might mean you’ll be…leaving.”
Looking at the boy’s anxious face it took a moment for Terry to fully understand Kren’s fretfulness. He’d been so wrapped up with simple pleasures of being in the youngsters company that he’d entirely forgotten the reality of the situation. Kren’s words brought him quickly back with a thump. As much as Terry desired to be a friend or even a father figure to him, in the boy’s eyes he was a phantom, a ghostly presence. A benign being that gave help and guidance, nevertheless still only a spirit. Though the sudden truth caused Terry a twinge of pain he swallowed the feeling and offered reassurances that he would visit whenever he could. The obvious relief and delight that stole over the boy’s features went some way to soothing Terry’s inner turmoil.
Not wanting to dwell on his insecurities and more as a distraction than anything else, he was just about to suggest retrieving the arrow and having another go with the bow, when the world abruptly lurched and seesawed around him.
Blinking rapidly Terry was shocked to discover he was back in his room. Lying on his side on top of the covers of his bed he faced the window. The curtains were undrawn allowing moonlight to shine through the smudged panes, the pale rays painted Terry’s surroundings in multiple ghostly shades.
The light seemed stronger in the bedroom than it had been in the forest, making Terry wonder at the differences between the two places. Maybe in Kren’s world time moved at a different pace, or maybe it was the moon itself, its light weaker somehow.
He quickly realised the reason for the altered brightness. It wasn’t time or even the moon that had changed. It was simply the absence of a forest canopy, without the hampering effects of a leafy awing the light appeared brighter.
Now that little puzzle had been cleared up he turned his attention to his sudden appearance in his room. The previous transitions between this place and Kren’s had been smooth, almost fluid. It was as if he’d slipped from one to the other with such ease that the switch barely registered. This time however it had felt like he’d been pulled away, tugged roughly back by some unseen hand.
The hairs on the back of his neck and arms stood on edge as a prickling sensation of being watched slowly crept over him. The feeling of a definite presence in the room only intensified the sensation.
Lying motionless, his eyes fixed firmly onto the moon lit window he to tried deny what he felt and calm his growing nerves and for a few seconds it worked.
He inwardly scolded himself for allowing such silly ideas to get the better of him. These misleading feelings were obviously just the result of everything he’d gone through in the last few days. No one could experience what he had and not come through it totally unscathed. Who could blame him for becoming a little bit paranoid after what he’d endured.
All these comforting appeasements abruptly evaporated and Terry’s stomach turned ice cold as a faint noise emanated from the opposite corner of the room. The soft swishing sound of material moving on material as the now undeniable presence in the room moved position and their clothing rustled.
His mouth felt dry as goose bumps instantly rose over the backs of his neck and arms.
Terry held his breath listening, there were no more sounds. There was now also no way he could carry on with his denial of the room’s other occupant. Scenario after scenario raced through his mind. Each one a desperate grasp at a reason for this silent watchers presence. He’d been in his room for the best part of the day; maybe one of the home’s staff was here, just keeping an eye on him. Maybe Claire had decided to go to the authorities after all and the person watching over him was a member of the social services or the police. It could even be his son, waiting patiently for him to wake.
He could go on fooling himself with more and more speculations. But deep down he knew he was deceiving himself as he desperately tried to use each new conjecture as a delaying tactic. The ominous atmosphere of the room he’d felt upon his return from the forest, and had only just now acknowledged was enough to dash all his falsely built hopes. The threatening feeling permeating the very air he was breathing enlightening him to the truth.
Knowing he would inevitably have to confront the intruder sent involuntary shivers through his body. Fighting the overwhelming impulse to just carry on lying where he was and keep on denying what he already knew, Terry forced himself to turn over.
Or rather he tried to.
He must have been lying in that same position for quite some time as his body and limbs at first refused to work properly. His stiff body sang out in a cacophony of aches and pains as he forced himself to move. Pins and needles coursed through his arms and legs as the effort caused fresh blood to circulate in them.
Finally he managed to turn onto his opposite side, his eyes instantly confirming what he’d feared.
In the corner of the bedroom, bathed in the weak moonlight sat Harold. His immense bulk practically blotted out the whole of the bright orange chair he currently occupied. He still wore the same clothes Terry had seen him in earlier that day in the hallway, only now they looked a little worse for wear. Great circular patches of sweat were visible under each arm with a large one adorning his chest like a bib. His whole appearance was one of dishevelled, scruffiness, so at odds with the smart and stylish person Terry had observed in previous encounters.
It wasn’t just the fact Harold was sitting in his room staring directly at him that sent an arctic blast of fear through his already overloaded system. It was the expression (or total lack of it) that really crystallised the fear into outright terror. Even in the reduced details of the pale light Terry could see the utter blank, emotionless look he’d so recently witnessed only a day before.
Terry desperately fought to summon some sort of coherent thought as to what to do next, all the while Harold’s unfaltering gaze never wavered from his. Awash with fear and confusion his mind filled with questions.
What was Harold doing here?
What did he want?
Should he call out for help or would it be best to stay quiet and not antagonise the obviously already unstable person sitting opposite him. All these thoughts and many more jumbled together leaving him mired in a swirling pit of bewilderment and indecision.
“I think you should leave.” The words sprang from Terry before he had any idea he was going to speak. Disturbing the quiet of the room, the hoarse words surprised Terry with their confidence and calmness. They seemed to come from somewhere deep inside, a place he hadn’t known existed before, a part of him only now accessible due to his recent experiences.
Harold didn’t appear to have heard, even less acknowledge Terry’s request. Remaining silent he continued watching him from the corner of the room, his face still devoid of any emotion.
Terry was on the verge of repeating himself when he saw a flicker of movement in Harold’s eyes. Like a thin layer of rocky crust cracked and torn by the flow of lava from beneath, Harold’s features shifted and changing to reveal his true personality. The blankness slowly melted away and with no need to replace it with the false mask he used in public the hidden monster inside was free to shine through.
Terry was face to face with the real Harold.
A swirling mix of rage and fury replaced his usual sham façade, contorting his features into a nightmarish embodiment of evil. A vision of barely restrained violence seemed to simmer just under this seething surface of anger.
“Hate…” Harold’s abruptly spoken almost whispered word hung in the shadows between them like a menacing stray balloon.
“Hate…it’s a word used quite casually these days. It’s lost its power to arouse any real reaction. People hate their jobs, the weather, Monday mornings, boring television programs,” the upper class lilt had entirely disappeared, his words now had a more common sounding edge to them.
“Hate has become just another overused word to describe everyone’s everyday disgruntlements at life’s minor inconveniences. Why am I telling you this you ask yourself…it’s so you understand that when I use the word I use it in its full context, in its true unadulterated form.” Shifting his immense bulk in an obvious attempt to get more comfortable in the restricted confines of the chair, his gaze left Terry’s and wandered around the room.
“This place…this home, its residents…especially its residents, I hate it all,” a bitter laugh suddenly erupted from him in a harsh braying burst.
“My inheritance, what a joke! I bet they’re both looking down at me now laughing,” he craned his neck upwards to glare balefully at the ceiling before once again returning his gaze to his surroundings and continuing on with his anger fuelled rant.
“Oh how I hate this place. I suppose I could have made something of it if it hadn’t been for the residents.”
Terry took a small measure of comfort from the fact that for the moment he seemed to have been forgotten. Harold’s tirade appeared to be directed at the room and its contents more than at him personally. That consolation was short lived as Harold’s words became harsher and more threatening.
“Their constant complaining is never ending; nothing is ever good enough, no matter how hard I try. Oh I hate them most of all!” his wandering eyes locked onto Terry’s.
“I thought you might be different. You were nice and quiet, kept yourself to yourself when you first arrived. Then you became like all the rest, interfering in matters that don’t concern you,” his volume rose as his words became increasingly heated.
“I saw you with Mary, sitting there at breakfast. Both of you thick as thieves, conspiring against me. She’s another one of those trouble makers!”
Harold shifted his massive frame again, only this time not in an effort to get more comfortable, but to get up.
“I know you’ve only been with us for a few days and I think you’ll agree that you’re not really fitting in. So it’ll probably be in everyone’s best interests if your stay here was cut short…so to speak,” his voice had returned to its previous levels as he continued to extract himself from the chair. After what looked like a great deal of effort he eventually stood up.
Even in the weak light Terry could clearly see the insanity and murderous intentions in Harold’s eyes as he began to waddle towards him.
Watching the huge man lumbering closer Terry expected to be literally paralysed with fear. After all he was witnessing the approaching harbinger of his own death.
He was shocked to discover though he felt nothing of the sort. The dread he’d first felt with the realisation that he wasn’t alone in the room had mysteriously evaporated. A peace descended over him, so strangely at odds with his current situation it almost felt like he was having an out of body experience. Feeling somewhat like a detached and remote onlooker the sensation of serenity freed his mind from the freezing fear, allowing him to view the unfolding events while giving him the ability to now entertain other previously suppressed thoughts.
Closing his eyes on the advancing behemoth, Terry submitted to the tranquil feelings, letting his mind drift. The act sparked something in his sub-conscious, triggering an awareness in him that had always been there, but until just now he’d only partly acknowledged. It was a yearning, an intense longing that although simple in itself, might be somewhat more complicated to achieve.
He had grown to love Kren like the son he’d wished he had. And now that he’d opened himself up fully to his deepest desire he knew he had to be with him, no matter how improbable that idea was. His mind reeled at the unfathomable practicalities of such an undertaking. The multitude of unknowable problems that came with inhabiting Kren’s world permanently, swam dizzyingly around his head. Questions like how would he cope with never having a physical body again? Would the fact that he would essentially be a ghost for the rest of his life drive him insane? And would he exist in Kren’s world, even in spirit form once his body ceased to live in this one?
Confusion threatened to overwhelm him until he made a conscious effort to quell the rising tide of uncertainties and relax.
He quickly came to realise it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter because his whole life before now contained only regrets and sadness and even if this adventure was short lived it would have at least been something of note in an otherwise humdrum existence. It didn’t matter because the only thing that did was Kren. And most of all it didn’t matter because he’d already made his mind up, whatever the outcome was.
Concentrating as hard as he’d ever done in his entire and unremarkable life Terry pictured Kren’s smiling face. He imagined himself standing in the lush, green forest and felt the surface of the bed noticeably change as its solidness ebbed away. The last thing he felt before leaving this world was a pair of soft and at the same time strong hands as they encircled his throat.
At first there was nothing, not even darkness. If there had been darkness then at least that would have been something. This void, this absolute zero of everything, this nothing defied rational thought.
His awareness of self was all that remained in the hollow abyss. It hurt Terry’s mind to contemplate the very existence of something that didn’t exist, imprisoned as he was inside this emptiness. Although the concept of emptiness was inaccurate in that the word itself implied a cavity waiting to be filled which would in itself be something.
Apart from his mind none of his other senses were functioning, despite this he found that he didn’t feel any disorientation. The simple truth was that it was exactly because of this lack of external stimulus that he was spared the discomfort. Without a perceptible point of reference and minus a tangible body there couldn’t be an up and down or left and right, so there couldn’t be any disorientation.
Enclosed in his own perfect cocoon of consciousness he felt neither alarm nor fear at his current predicament. In fact he felt very little, it was as if an emotional numbness now surrounded him. Even the possibility that maybe what he now endured was actually death, didn’t arouse any response. His lack of feelings mirrored the lack of connection between his actual body and his mind. This physical severing seemed to somehow hamper his ability to experience emotions.
His ability to judge time seemed in some way to be hindered as well, his disembodied state also appeared to mean that even guessing its passage was impossible. Hours, days or maybe weeks could be rolling by and he would have been none the wiser.
So when it all finally ended and he was ripped violently from its infinite embrace the shock was totally overwhelming.
The abrupt blast of sensory input saturating his previously serene mind led to what he could only describe as a complete overload. All five senses came instantly flooding back in one explosive union that it felt to Terry like he was being swamped by a tsunami of sights, sounds and textures. And just when he thought he couldn’t take any more, that his mind would surely break under the sheer pressure of it all, the wave receded just as suddenly as it had occurred, leaving only serenity in its wake.
As the process of recombining his conscious and physical identity stabilised, he slowly became more aware of his immediate surroundings.
The surface directly underneath him was hard and unyielding. Its coldness seeped into his body, leaching the warmth from him as he lay motionless on his back. Tentatively he opened his eyes; a dreary cloud choked sky greeted his unfocused, but rapidly clearing gaze. He felt the whispering fingers of a gentle breeze against his face. It would have been welcoming if not for the foul stench that accompanied it. Terry thought the rich cloying smell reminiscent of badly spoiled meat. Wrinkling his nose in disgust he forced himself into a sitting position. Turning his head from side to side he stared out in unblinking dismay at where he’d ended up. Grey rock as far as the eye could see, stretching out ceaselessly in every direction. The ground shared the same colour as the sky above which meant they both merged together to create an optical illusion of there being no horizon, just a continuous rolling greyness without end. Dotted haphazardly around were boulders of varying shapes and sizes. Some little more than large pebbles, while others were the size of houses.
Gazing out at this moon-like landscape Terry felt a great wave of despair wash over him.
This wasn’t Kren’s home.
He tried to convince himself that maybe this was some other part of it, only deep down he knew it wasn’t, it just didn’t feel right. The feeling that he was in another place altogether was reinforced not only by the stark difference between the two landscapes, but more importantly by one very simple and undeniable fact. Looking down at himself the evidence was quite literally under his nose. The one constant thing, the common denominator so to speak linking every one of his other out of world experiences was his physical form or to be more precise the lack of it. Staring at himself, it was obvious his appearance wasn’t the least bit spirit-like. And thanks to still being dressed in the same clothes he’d originally been wearing whilst lying on the bed, his solid, very real exterior looked all the more mundane. This fact above all others was what really confirmed the place’s wrongness.
Closing his eyes on the surrounding endless grey, he filled his mind once again with pictures of Kren and his home. Like a drowning man fanatically reaching for a distant shoreline, Terry struggled to concentrate, grasping with desperate hope for deliverance from this colourless world.
There was no need to open his eyes to verify that it hadn’t worked, one breath of the stale air was proof enough. A feeling of total dejection quickly settled over Terry following the failure. He was lost and alone, marooned god knows where, without even the slightest idea where to go from here. The probable chances of future happiness with Kren seemingly evaporated into thin air right before his very eyes.
Bowing his head he surrendered to his growing depression, letting it engulf him. Mired in this state, time passed unnoticed. At one point a single tear ran down one cheek scoring a line in the fine dust accumulating over him.
Carried on the fetid breeze the dust coated everything it touched, covering man and rocks in grey drabness so that they both became part of the landscape. So fine was the dust it neither caused irritation to eyes or breathing and was instantly shed upon any vigorous movement.
He probably would have continued sitting there for a great deal longer if it wasn’t for the fact that his back and hips were starting to ache from the ground’s cold hardness. Moving forwards Terry eased himself onto his knees, from that kneeling position he then struggled awkwardly up onto his feet. Because of the time spent sitting on the unforgiving surface his familiar aches and pains felt greatly amplified. His hip and knee joints cried out in a chorus of throbbing soreness as he started walking.
He had no destination in mind as he set off, the uniformity of the landscape meant that he was unable to pick out any clear landmarks with which to use as a point of reference. He was basically just walking for the sake of it and for a little while it did seem to help ease his troubled mind.
He was hindered however by the lack of shoes; he’d taken them off before getting onto the bed in what felt like an eternity ago. And as he’d appeared here in just what he’d been wearing while on the bed, he was now clad only in socks. Luckily for him he’d put on his thick ones this morning so now only the sharpest pebbles presented any real problems.
As well as missing his shoes, he was also missing his trusty walking stick. This caused him slightly more difficulty as he had to try and compensate for the absence of its support by walking slower and taking more care with each step. Moving through the stark scenery he constantly scanned the ground looking for anything he could use as a substitute cane, there was very little except for the never ending abundance of assorted boulders.
Although the grey clouds above lent an autumnal feel to his dreary surroundings, it was actually quite mild. If it hadn’t been for the constant wafts of bad smells blowing over him it would have been relatively pleasant. It surprised him to realise how complacent, even relaxed he had become as he ambled along at his leisurely pace. His mind wandered, his thoughts drifting to other things, not least the astonishingly fantastic predicament he now found himself in. Staring at the strange monotonous scene spread out before him he marvelled at the how his once so dull, normal life had been completely turned on its head in the last few days.
As he carefully picked his way over the ground he found that the initial anxiety he’d felt on appearing here was even now edged with excitement at what might possibly lie ahead. And for a while he coasted along, submerged in this private bubble of contemplations until more pressing matters clambered to the surface demanding his attention.
Being that he’d left his watch back in his bedroom he had no way of knowing how long he’d been here or what time it was. But the one thing he was sure of was that he’d not had anything to eat or drink for a considerable while.
He wasn’t overly hungry; however he was thirsty, very thirsty in fact. Licking his dry lips Terry made a mental note to keep an eye out for water. He’d seen no sign of it or anything resembling plant life, not even a hint of lichens on the rocks. The fine, grey dust that covered everything, including him, seemed to have a smothering effect.
Deciding it might be a good idea to conserve his strength and take it a little easier. Terry sat himself down on the first boulder that looked like the right height to be comfortable.
That was when he saw her.
He must have been so totally wrapped up in his own little world not have noticed her before, only there she was, large as life. He hadn’t realised until just this moment how alone he’d felt and a sense of relief washed over him as he watched her make her way towards him. Staying seated so as not to appear in any way confrontational he raised a hand in greeting.
The approaching woman didn’t respond, only continued to advance. The closer she got the clearer it became to Terry that something was wrong. Even thought she was caked in dust from head to toe it was still evident that she was quite young. Guessing her age to be anything from late teens to mid twenty’s he could clearly see that she’d been in some sort of accident.
Her shoulder length hair was a mess and what looked like dried blood matted half of it into a solid clump totally obscuring one side of her face. An alarmingly large diagonal gash on her left knee opened and closed as her knee flexed with each step. The wound looked like it should be agony, but the girl seemed oblivious, even as fresh blood pumped freely from it to coat her lower leg. Other numerous cuts and abrasions covered the parts of her arms and legs exposed by her short, shabby dress.
Her movements were stiff almost robot-like as she walked up to and then passed Terry without even the slightest indication of seeing him. He got a good look at her slack, expressionless face; slivers of drool hung ignored from the open mouth. Her one uncovered eye staring fixedly forwards showing no awareness, no spark of anything, just a blank nothingness.
He watched her in stupefied bewilderment as she moved further away, stumbling once to her knees she quickly righted herself before walking onwards.
It fleetingly crossed his mind that maybe he should go to her aid. Except what could he really do, how could he help her when he wasn’t sure he could even help himself. He slowly lowered the hand that’d been frozen in a gesture of greeting and carried on watching until she became nothing more than a speck on the horizon.
Terry tried to decide what to do next; he had to consciously supress the part of him wanting to go after the girl. The lack of fluid was already beginning to make him feel weak and he knew he didn’t have the energy to go chasing after her. He had to find water first, maybe then he could help her.
Standing up he tried to convince himself that the reason his legs were trembling so badly was because of the recent encounter and not through dehydration. Taking a deep breath he forced his shaking legs to move. His head swam with stars as a sudden wave of faintness swept over him.
Grabbing onto a nearby rock for support he felt dismayed at just how that small exertion had affected him.
Well aware he wasn’t a young man and no longer able to cope with the harsher tolls on his body, he still felt he could dig a little deeper. He hadn’t come this far only to be thwarted by mere thirst. This thought seemed to bolster his resolve, quashing the sense of helpless and stopping any panic before it could take hold.
Besides there were now two puzzles to solve, he not only had to find out where he was. There was also the young woman and all the unanswered questions her presence raised.
Using these mysteries as motivation he push himself away from the supporting rock and forced his shaky legs into one faltering step after another. Though a lot harder physically than before, the slow and repetitive amble was almost therapeutic. Breathing deeply through parched lips he felt sure he was getting his second wind. So he was taken totally by surprise when he abruptly keeled over in a dead faint.
The noise of water dripping onto water was at first soothing. Deadened as if coming from very far away, its rhythmic, muffled sound grew steadily sharper and more intrusive as he regained consciousness.
Opening his eyes Terry struggled to focus on his dimly lit surroundings. Slowly his senses adapted to their new environment, improving faster as the fog of sleep gradually lifted.
More than a little confused he looked around at the shadowy cave he now inhabited.
How had he gotten here?
It was an intriguing question, one that yelled out for an answer, for now though wariness eased it effortlessly aside. To contemplate such a puzzle seemed to Terry to require more energy than he felt he could currently spare.
Propped into a sitting position, his back rested comfortably against the rough texture of one of its walls, his location allowing him to see the cave in its entirety.
Defused daylight leaked into the cave’s confines from an opening a short distance from where he sat. Weak though the light was it was enough for him to see everything quite adequately. Only a few metres in diameter it was quite a small space and from floor to ceiling Terry guessed it to be little more than half that in height again. If he was to stand up he would have to stoop for fear of hitting his head on the low roof.
As caves go it was pretty nondescript and unexciting, that was until his eyes caught sight of something sparkling in the centre of the shadowy floor.
Terry stared with rapt elation at the source of the noises that’d previously disturbed him and which he’d then promptly disregarded.
A puddle, its surface rippled with droplets coming from the ceiling above. Concealed in the gloom, the unseen drips made the water dance and shimmer. The sight revived his thirst with a vengeance and ignoring the multiple protests from his stiff joints he simultaneously scrambled forwards and drove his mouth into its beckoning promise of relief.
Sucking in great gulps he rejoiced in the sensation of pleasure as his body soaked up the cool liquid like a dry sponge. The water was so refreshing that even its gritty taste did nothing to distract Terry from its welcome delight.
Sitting back again against the cave’s wall he inadvertently released a large belch which echoed loudly.
“How you doing old timer?” the words though softy spoken rang out in the confines of the cave making Terry jump with surprise.
Crouched just inside the entrance Terry could see the dark shape of a man. He couldn’t make out much more than the outline as the light was coming from directly behind. He felt no fear as the stooped figure moved forwards into the cave, immediately followed by two more. His lack of anxiety was partly due to the non-threatening way they acted upon entering the cave and also the fact that he could sense they meant him no harm.
The man sat next to Terry while his companions settled down opposite. Their combined smell quickly filled the small space. The heady mixture of unwashed clothes and sour body odour was at first overpowering, but grew less so as Terry rapidly became accustomed to it. If anything it was at least a change from the rancid breeze that pervaded the air outside.
Now unrestricted by the new arrivals the cave’s entrance was once again free to illuminate its interior. The two figures in front of him turned out to be a woman and a child. They both sat staring at him, the infant with its arms latched tightly around the woman’s waist its head resting against her side. The woman hugged the child back just as firmly, her arms enfolding it in a protective embrace.
Looking at each of them in turn Terry couldn’t help noticing their dishevelled appearance. Totally covered from head to foot in the ever present dust, the tattered, shabbiness of their clothes was startlingly apparent. The man appeared to be wearing the remnants of a three piece suit, while the other two looked to be dressed in nightwear.
Only the whites of their eyes stared out from grey plastered masks, the rest of their features obscured. All three wore similarly haggard expressions, visible even under the thick grime.
“Don’t be afraid,” the man sitting beside him said speaking again in the same hushed tones as before, his voice had a dry, rasping quality to it. “I found you out there…and brought you inside.”
Relieved to have finally found someone, someone who at least appeared to be normal and coherent, Terry struggled for something to say. Confused and still a little dazed from earlier events he found that he couldn’t come up with anything and the more he tried to think of something the more his mind just seemed to freeze. He ended up saying nothing only staring back in moronic silence.
Unperturbed by Terry’s muteness the man introduced himself, “I’m Richard. And this is Tracy and Kate.” He said pointing first to the woman and then the child.
Terry nodded in their direction; the woman mirrored his action yet neither of the two spoke.
After an initial wheezing croak, Terry finally managed to utter his name. Richard may have smiled in encouragement, only with his features so thoroughly covered in a thick veneer of dirt it was hard to tell for sure.
“Are you hungry?” Richard asked thrusting a hand into one of the slightly less ripped pockets of his suit before bringing it out clenched and moving it in front of Terry. Carefully opening his hand he offered the contents up for inspection.
“They don’t taste as bad as they look,” he said sounding more or less sincere.
In the middle of his grubby palm were three cocktail sausage sized maggots. Segmented and blotchy pink, their bodies looked obscenely bloated. Their mottled colouring made Terry think of scalded skin. One twitched, its ends curling as it flexed before lying still once more. The mere thought of putting one of those things in his mouth, let alone eating it, killed any hints of hunger dead in their tracts.
“They’re at least edible, in adult form they look much like a centipede and you don’t want to try eating one of those,” Richard’s features contorted in what could have been a look of disgust, as he visible shuddered. “The grubs are quite easy to find though,” he carried on after a brief pause. “Lift up any rock out there and you’ll probably find one…”
“No really I’m fine, thanks anyway,” Terry said feeling relief when Richard popped them back in his pocket and they were finally out of sight. “Can I ask you something?” Terry asked, not just because of the questions burning inside him, but also to change the subject from that of the disgusting maggots to something a little less repellent.
“Do you know where we are?”
“Well that is the million dollar question isn’t it,” he said and shifted himself slightly until his head rested against the cave wall as he continued to look at Terry “I’ve been here for…I’m not sure how long… a long time, longer than these two anyway.” He nodded at Tracy and Kate. “I don’t know where we are, but I do have my own ideas as to why we’re here.”
Scratching at the short tangle of dirty beard, he appeared to gathering his thoughts before proceeding.
All of a sudden Terry wished he could take back the question, he found that he didn’t want to hear whatever Richard was about to tell him. He felt the atmosphere in the cave grow decidedly uneasy as he waited with a sense of apprehension for him to continue.
“There’s something else alive out there…besides the bugs and us.”
Terry watched as the woman and child hugged each other even tighter.
“Have you ever heard of the angler fish?”
“I don’t understand…” Terry’s confused response to the conversational tangent was quickly halted when Richard held up a hushing hand.
“Bear with me a minute.” He lowered his hand as he carried on. “The angler fish hunts by luring its prey in with a fin shaped like an attractive morsel of food. It lies on the bottom of the ocean and just waits for its unsuspecting victims to swim by and take a fancy to what it falsely has on offer. By the time they realise the deception it’s too late.”
Terry couldn’t see where this description of the hunting methods of the angler fish was heading and was just about to say so when Richard held his hand up to hush him once more.
“Each of us here has had a dream, a dream so real, so all-consuming that it took over our very lives,” he looked in turn at each person in the cave, it was obvious from Tracy’s and Kate’s reaction that he spoke the truth. “Each dream was different, tailor made to obtain just the right reaction from its participant. It called out to our very deepest need, our yearning desire for something missing from our lives… And just like that fish, the thing out there uses our own desires as bait and its hunting grounds are our dreams.”
Listening to Richard’s dismaying words in numb silence Terry found himself retreating into a state of reflection.
In such a short period of time he’d been through so much and had to contend with so many utterly incredible experiences. Losing his home and ending up in a virtual prison run by a psychotic madman. That nightmare compensated by weird, though oddly realistic dreams. Bizarre in its subject matter, though the glimpse into the primitive world was nevertheless strangely compelling. These dreams had reawakened unexpected longings; longings that until just recently he’d never even knew he had.
And now finding out that those dreams were nothing more than some manufactured net with which to ensnare him and bring him here.
It was all just too much.
Terry felt exhausted, he’d never been so tired, and not just physically, but emotionally as well. He was tired of being scared, tired of the constant uncertainty of not knowing what was going to happen to him from one moment to the next.
He also felt as if his very sanity had been put under so much pressure that it might snap at any time.
He found himself suddenly wishing for an end to all these fear and anxieties. He also wished he didn’t have to listen to any more of Richard’s words, even as withdrawn as he was he could still hear him. He lost some of the finer details due to his inner distractions, and yet couldn’t help hearing the majority of what was being said.
Richard had never actually set eyes on the thing outside the cave, merely felt its presence. But he had witnessed several of its victims after contact with the unknown entity. Outwardly they appeared unhurt; externally they still lived, breathed and moved as before. Except there was one substantial difference, something missing. Call it what you will, their life force, spirit, call it their soul if you like. Whatever you want to call it, it was gone. They were shells, just empty husks that gave the appearance of life though nothing of that person’s essence remained. Whatever lurked outside this cave drained it from them.
Images flickered through Terry’s mind of the zombie like girl he’d encountered not so long ago. He remembered seeing her eyes and how they’d stared through him with not even the slightest hint of awareness in them. Feelings of pity for her instantly arose with the memory, doomed as she was to carry on with her purposeless trek until her body finally gave up.
Strangely though he also felt envy, her body might not know it yet, only for her the suffering was over.
Without realising it he’d suddenly reached a decision, it was the kind of decision that should have filled him with terror and not this calm almost serene sense of acceptance that now flowed through him. For the first time in days he felt truly at peace.
He shuffled forwards and using the cave wall as purchase struggled to get up.
Richard who’d been rambling on about the other bolt holes that he used to evade and hide stopped to watch him as he got to his feet.
“What are you doing?” he asked sounding puzzled as Terry moved towards the cave’s opening.
“I’m going outside.”
“You can’t…it’s not safe,” he reached out to stop him, “Please you mustn’t.”
Turning back Terry felt only sorrow for them as they sat there staring at him. Their pitiful appearance brought to mind images he’d seen on the television of the haunted and desperate looking refugees fleeing from one war torn country or another. And though his aching joints were aggravated by his hunched posture he knew he had to at least try and say something of comfort to them before he went. He owed them that much for the kindness they’d shown him in their attempt to help him.
“If there is a way out of this god forsaken place then you’re just the type of resourceful man to find it.”
In his heart he felt no such faith in Richard’s abilities or the possibilities of escape, however he tried to speak the words with conviction. “I myself am too tired to try and would only be a burden…besides I have nothing to go back for anyway,” he quickly added the last bit in order to cut Richard’s protests short. Spoken with sincerity the evident truth in them seemed to silence him.
Bidding them farewell he turned his back on Richard and his two silent companions and made his way out of the cave.
It was such a relief to be outside that for a few moments Terry just stood where he was and enjoyed the open space. Even the rotten smell of the gentle breeze washing over him seemed less offensive after the cloying odours of the cave.
Turning slowly Terry surveyed his surroundings. The familiar desolate rock strewn landscape stretched out before him, even the daylight coming through the cloud choked sky appeared to be the same. His mind’s absent wonderings on the subject of nightfall were quickly dismissed as inconsequential. What did it really matter if it was day or night, whatever was out here would eventually find him with or without the aid of light.
It only took a few paces before the cave’s entrance was hidden from view. Camouflaged as it was by the rocky terrain, it wouldn’t take many more steps before finding it again would become difficult, if not impossible.
Terry paused, waiting for the feeling of alarm at the prospect of losing his only means of protection. It never materialised, instead the sense of calm that’d descended over him in the cave only seemed to grow.
Fortified by this new strength Terry made his way further out into the endless sea of stones.
Progress was slow, only with no destination in mind and in no particular hurry that suited Terry just fine. He had to stop a couple of times to rest and rub at the soles of his feet. He still hadn’t found anything suitable to use as a cane so the stops were become more frequent and prolonged.
It was on one of these rest spites as he sat on a boulder that he felt the stirrings of something in his gut. Dismissed at first as hunger pangs it quickly escalated into an altogether different feeling. Like the sensation felt upon missing a step on the way down a flight of stairs Terry’s stomach lurched alarmingly. Reminded of Richard’s comment about being able to sense the thing’s presence when it came near, Terry closed his eyes and waited.
Fear now tinged the edges of his thoughts; it grew in strength alongside the strange tension twisting his insides. Despite this though the comforting ever-present calmness didn’t leave him, it seemed to shield him, even as his awareness increased of the approaching presence.
Finally it stood before him; with his eyes still closed it was his intuition that told him so. Taking a deep breath both physically and mentally he opened them.
A first he couldn’t believe what his eyes where telling him, he blinked hard, even rubbing them and still the sight held fast.
It was Kren.
Kren was standing directly in front of him with a massive grin plastered on his face. Terry was so overwhelmed with joy that he was struck dumb. Questions of how this could possibly be happening clamoured for answers, he brushed them all aside, just the mere fact that the boy was here was enough for now.
Terry’s mind filled with multiple colourful images, trees bathed in dappled light, sunshine glinting off the gentle ripples of a large clear blue lake.
He recognised them as scenes from the boy’s world; somehow the telepathic link had been re-established.
Before he had time to query why, more images flooded in, this time they were from the outside of Kren’s fortified village.
Dotted around the wooden fence’s perimeter were the remains of many strange bodies. Lying partly submerged in the long grass Terry could just make them out. Their appearance resembled that of a heavily built Rottweiler; only their tawny pelts were scaly and covered in vicious looking foot long spikes.
One of the creatures was still alive; its side moved halting up and down as it sucking in its last few ragged breaths. Each time it inhaled its hide changed, merging its colour to match that of the surrounding grass. This chameleon ability was so effective as to render it practically invisible. As its last breath left its body it reverted back to its original yellowish- brown colouring and stayed that way.
Terry could easily see how these animals could frighten the villagers so, they were scary enough in their initial form and with their added talent they would be downright terrifying to encounter.
Terry suddenly understood why he was witnessing these last images. Too caught up with the bizarre nature of the beasts, he’d missed one small but very important detail. At least several arrows stuck out from each one of the chameleon dog-like creatures.
Kren was using the scene to show that he was once again part of his beloved village and back where he belonged. And as Terry had hoped, the bow and arrow had done the trick in helping to put him there. He felt a rush of almost paternal pride.
There was part of Terry that knew all this was rubbish, he recognized the fact that Kren standing here, right now, made no sense at all. There was also part of him that knew the images in his mind were merely the continuing fragments of a concocted deception whose sole purpose was to trap him here. However that part of him was small and its cries were easily ignored.
Holding out both arms in an obvious gesture of embrace Kren stepped towards him. Sensing nothing except Kren’s affection and his wish to show his thankfulness, Terry responded in kind.
As they both folded their arms around each other Kren entire body visibly appeared to fade before becoming solid again. It was almost instantaneous and if Terry had blinked he would have missed it.
Except he didn’t blink, he saw exactly what was revealed.
It looked ancient. Its grey parchment skin gave the impression of being wafer thin as it hung loosely from its shrunken, emaciated skeletal frame. Large festering sores covered its humanoid form; weeping openly they oozed glistening streams of watery pus which coated its naked body.
And if its lower extremities weren’t horrific enough, then its face was on whole different level. What once might have passed for human now looked utterly ravaged. Prominent veins crisscrossed the blistered bald scalp, where its eyes and nose should have been only wet, gaping holes stared out. The lower half of its face was taken up by its huge yawning cavernous mouth. Stretched to nearly incomprehensible proportions it appeared to be locked in a silent, perpetual scream.
The instant it was revealed to him, he finally understood the source of the putrid stench carried on the breeze. Also in that same instant he received an insight into its exposed thoughts.
Hunger. Relentless, overwhelming and insatiable hunger.
This time that small part of himself didn’t simply cry out, it screamed out in horror. And as before, he crushed it, refusing to listen to its warnings and only hugged Kren even tighter.
Closing his eyes he hoped for just two things, that there wouldn’t be too much pain and it would all be finally over.
Burning with irritation Harold stared down at the old man lying there so serenely on the bed before him. Rather than a man awaiting his imminent demise, he gave the appearance of one dozing contently without a care in the world. The relaxed and unconcerned way in which he’d acted to his approaching end had been unsettling at first, now it was just down right infuriating.
Harold always enjoyed the last few moments, the pleading and crying could sometimes be more satisfying than the actual act itself. The old man’s calmness had robbed him of that pleasure, his peaceful acceptance of his fate felt like a slap in the face, triggering the first spikes of anger.
He could have sworn he’d seen fear when their eyes had first met, except now he thought that maybe it had been the poor light playing tricks on him.
Even now as he stood silently over him there was no sign of distress, just the faintest hint of a smile on his lips. The elderly resident’s indifference and obvious disregard for his authority sent Harold’s into an instant rage.
His previously simmering anger boiled over as he reached down with both hands and grasped the old man firmly by the neck. As his fingers sank into the loose wrinkled flesh, shivers of revulsion shuddered through him. Tightening his grip around the slack skin and ignoring his disgust at the repellent feeling, his excitement grew in eager anticipation of finally seeing the inevitable terror in the man’s eyes.
Failing to get what he wanted right away he applied more pressure in an effort to extract the desired response.
As a rule he generally didn’t need to use much force and tried to restrain himself from over doing it. Bruising could usually be explained away with tales of bad falls and the odd strategically placed piece of furniture, a broken neck though would arouse too much unwanted suspicion.
Mindful not to get too carried away he slowly increased the tension. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth when he saw a twitch flicker across the still closed eyelids. Excitement coursed through as he tightened his hands even further.
Suddenly his hands were empty.
The abrupt disappearance of the neck they were locked around caused Harold to fall forwards onto the bed. Pushing himself upwards with a wheezing grunt he stared in open mouthed amazement at the rumpled, unoccupied sheets of the bed. Staggering back, he quickly turned in a panicky circle surveying the room. The bedroom was just as empty as was the bed.
Confused and frightened Harold blundered towards the closed door and fumbled for the handle, all the while scanning the room in shocked amazement. As his questing fingers curled around the cold metal he couldn’t help take one last lingering look at the vacant bed.
The sooner he was out of this room the better he thought to himself as he turned the handle. He only got so far as opening the door a crack before a sensation of pressure blossomed in the centre of his chest. As he massaged the mounting tightness building in his ribcage all thoughts of his immediate flight was lost in the fog of pain. His breathing became laboured as his knees buckled and he slid to the floor. In doing so his body pushed the door shut, sealing him once again inside the room.
The alarming certainty that he was having a heart attack raced through his panic-stricken mind.
Knowing that he needed help and fast he called out and was dismayed when little more than a soft croak left his trembling lips. Although it caused the pain in his chest to intensify he tried again and only succeeded in making a marginally louder rasping noise.
He was just on the verge of trying again when he remembered one small, but very important piece of information he’d previously overlooked. He always made it a rule that on nights like these he alone handled the late shift. And with most if not all the sleeping residents either hard of hearing or relying on hearing aids, nothing short of a bomb going off would rouse them.
There would be no help; he was completely on his own.
He was just about to panic when he realised the pain in his chest had subsided. And as the panicked confusion lifted, so his breathing became less laboured.
Notions of a possible heart attack vanished with the dawning realisation of what he’d just witnessed. The symptoms he’d felt weren’t the onset of some sort of coronary seizure; they were a reawakening of his true self, an epiphany so physically overwhelming it had taken his very breath away.
What he’d seen was a miracle.
It was a sign!
As the thought swept the last lingering wisps of anxiety from him, a euphoric sense of validation took its place. He’d always had to hide his true nature, only freeing that part of himself occasionally and then only under the cover of darkness. Always at the back of his mind the constant worry of forgetting himself and leaving evidence that could alert the authorities.
This sign, it was a message from something far higher than those petty authorities he feared. This sign meant his worries of discovery would now disappear, the same as any evidence of his wrongdoings.
Overriding happiness rather than the pain of a few moments ago swelled his chest and smiling intensely despite the huge effort it took to get to his feet, Harold opened the bedroom door.
Tonight was going to be a very busy night. He could think of a couple of residents who were in need of his special attention. Who was he kidding they all deserved it, he laughed happily to himself.
With lightness in his step that belied his size, Harold practically skipped into the hallway and over to the first closed door. Brimming with nearly uncontainable joy he reached for the handle.
Terry Fletcher was Sunnyvale Retirement Home’s newest arrival. To him it wasn’t just the end of his old life, but the end of the road. That was before the dreams began. The ensuing strange and compelling visions soon reawaken suppressed longings. Ones so deeply buried, not even Terry was aware of their existence. Once roused these powerful yearnings will push him into realms beyond anything he could ever have imagined in the dull and unadventurous life he led before. Anything is possible. Wish hard enough and sometimes dreams can come true. And depending on how much you’re willing to strive for it you might just be able to realise your heart’s desire. However the journey to get there may cost you a lot more than you bargained for.