Saturday, 5 March 2011

THE PORTAL: a novel (chapters 16 - 27)

Thanksgiving. The weather was picture-postcard perfect. Night had descended and the first snow had arrived, leaving a light sheen across the town. Amelia was returning home from the after-school music club, her gaze on her feet as each step left what seemed like a tiny imprint in the thin layer of white.

Partly in honour of her mom, she had decided to take up the piano again. In the past, it had never really been her bag but for some reason her interest had been reignited and she found that the basics her mom had taught her had put her in good stead. Going to the music club was good for her because it took her mind away from other worries; the only thing to focus on was the piano.

Her worries had multiplied because there had been another incident similar to the one she had experienced in the basement with Jake. Again, she had felt dizzy and seen a disc of light hovering in her room. Again, she had sensed movement inside of it. Whether that hideous face had been there again, though, trying to force its way out into the world, she couldn’t say; Amelia had squeezed her eyes tightly shut so nothing more could be revealed to her.

She was only seeing her therapist once a month now. She hadn’t mentioned the incident at their last meeting and was considering whether she should mention it at the next one. Instinctively, she knew she had to. This was a big thing. (Wasn’t it?) But what would she say? Oh, by the way, I saw this light hovering in the middle of the room and a horrible face trying to push through it like it wanted to be born and that its only reason for living would be to kill me? And whilst I’m at it, I’m not sure I’ve told you about all the dreams I’ve been having. How would that go down? But Amelia knew she had to mention it to someone. She had intimated a lot of things to Jake but still not everything because she was worried what he would think, too. He knew nothing about her suicide attempt – very few people did. As much as her therapist told her there was no shame in what she did – that there was no shame in suffering depression or episodes of mental illness – she was still scared of how it would mark people’s perceptions of her for years to come.

She had gotten physically and mentally stronger since the incident but the anger was still there in her. She didn’t beat herself up with the question of ‘why me?’ She knew terrible things happened to other people (and animals) all across the globe on an hour to hour basis; she wasn’t unique, either, in losing a parent at a relatively young age. But the anger in her remained, bubbling beneath the surface. She felt cheated of her mother but had no one to get angry at other than life itself.

Glancing upwards, Amelia saw that a few light flakes were starting to fall again from the heavy purple sky. She started to scurry a little faster, turning her gaze momentarily back towards her feet…and walked straight into a human wall. She looked up to see Goatee and G-Man baring her way.

“Well, well, well,” Goatee greeted her with, grinning. “If it isn’t our little midget friend.”

“Wow, so original,” Amelia threw back at them sarcastically. “Pity you don’t realise that I’m a bigger person than you two will ever be.”

Goatee turned to G Man and laughed. “Bigger than us? Is it some kind of optical illusion that we’re just not seeing? Or maybe she’s expecting a growth spurt?”

“Yes, so hilarious again. I’m talking about being a bigger person in here and in here,” Amelia replied, touching her head then her heart.

“No, I reckon the G-Man still has bigger titties than you do,” Goatee laughed.

The G-Man offered his guffaws in addition. “Yeah, she has really small ones. Still juicy, though, I reckon.”

“I’m going now.”

“When we let you.”

“Do you bully other people like this?” Amelia accused.

“We’re not bullying you. We’re just conversing with a fellow citizen in the hope of wishing her a pleasant Thanksgiving.”

“Well, you’ve just done that now, so, like I said, I’ll be on my way.”

Amelia moved to barge past them but Goatee snapped out an arm and grabbed her forcefully around the wrist.

“You’re a pathetic little doofus!” Amelia spat at him.

Goatee kept his grip tight on Amelia and turned to the G-Man with a twisted smile. “She ain’t lost any of her feistiness, has she?”

“Uh-uh,” G-Man responded.

“But, then, this wouldn’t be half as much fun if she didn’t put up such a fight.”

Amelia could feel a rage building inside of her. If she could have killed both of them right here and now, she realised it was in her to see it through. She hated the injustice of the moment. It made her squirm to think that they felt they could use her as a play thing at their leisure.

She heard the bike before she saw it. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the mysterious biker pass along the street and pull over ten yards up the road facing the other way. It seemed a little incongruous that he would be out in weather like this. Not only that: he was in his usual garb with no obvious changes to accommodate for the bitingly cold weather.

The words came out before she had time to think. “You two are in for it now. Unless you let me go now he’ll be kicking your ass in the not too distant future.”

Goatee and G-Man looked to where Amelia was gesturing with her eyes.

“Oh, and you think he can take the two of us, do you?” Goatee scoffed.

“He’ll rip your face off.”

“Oo, I’m scared. You scared, too, G?”

“Quaking in my boots,” G-Man said.

“He’s not even looking at us. I bet you don’t even know that dude.”

“Sure I do.”

“Well, I’ve never seen him before. What’s his name, then?”

Amelia opened her mouth as if to speak, though there were no words for her to say. She knew suddenly that she was up shit creek without even the kayak. But then something resembling perfect synchronicity took place: as if on cue, the mysterious stranger suddenly got off his bike and looked towards the three of them. Amelia felt or imagined a shift in the air around her; something almost physical. At the same time she felt the grip on her wrist almost imperceptibly lighten and an air of doubt creep onto the faces of her two tormentors.

Despite the cold, the biker removed his helmet and gloves and continued to lean against his bike. For Amelia, it felt like everything momentarily stopped; even the snow. Then he started to walk their way.

Amelia felt her heart beat quicken, this time through exhilaration as opposed to fear. G-Man and Goatee didn’t stop to see why this leather-clad stranger was heading their way. Goatee relinquished his grip on Amelia and headed in the opposite direction with G-Man scuttling after him.

“I’ll be seeing you real soon, no doubt,” Goatee snarled back at Amelia.

“Frigging A,” G-Man added.

They were gone and out of sight by the time the stranger reached her. Accept he didn’t reach her. The words ‘thank you’ stayed unsaid on the edge of Amelia’s tongue. The stranger just kept on walking by as if oblivious to her presence. Had she imagined that he was coming for her benefit? She kept her gaze on him, the merest tinge of anger and regret clouding her emotions. As he took the corner, going in the opposite direction to her foes, he turned at the very last second and seemed to look straight at her. And was that the merest hint of a smile or had she just imagined it?

Amelia stood routed to the spot momentarily, her thoughts a whirl. Then she pulled her senses together with an air of determination, knowing that she needed to speak to him to find out whether she was imagining things about his intentions. She started to run after him vehemently, paying little attention to the slippery conditions. She skidded her way around the same street corner ready to bellow out to him: ‘wait, I need to speak to you!’ But the stranger was nowhere to be seen.

Saturday afternoon: a cold, still December day. Trent was driving back home having taken Sam for a walk at a park out of town. He pulled up at a set of lights on the edges of Fallswood and saw Fay clamber off the bus up ahead of him laden with shopping bags. From some of the store names on the bags, he suspected that she had been to Stillwater mall about 30 miles south of Fallswood; this bus skirted the city outskirts and this was the closest stop to home. From here it was about a ten minute walk, though the stubborn patches of snow and ice along the route would have made it longer.

Trent waited for the bus to pull away before sliding up alongside Fay at the curb side. “Can I offer a lady a lift? Free of charge today to people in red hats.”

“Well, I qualify on one front at least,” Fay replied, flicking her eyes towards her head wear. She threw Trent a faint smile. “How do I know I can trust you, though?”

“Well, I could say I’m a teacher and thus an upstanding member of the community. On the other hand, I’m a man, so you can’t.”

“Tell me about it. I guess I’ll just have to take the risk anyway”

Fay slipped her bags into the back and herself into the front, saying hello to Sam who wagged her tail furiously at a friendly face.

“Nice of you to be out buying me my Christmas presents, by the way,” Trent joked.”

“I wish. I can barely afford anything for Jacob this year around never mind anyone else. He’s pretty grown up about it, though.”

They chatted amiably for the rest of the minutes it took to pull up outside their homes. As he switched off the engine, Trent found words coming out his mouth before thinking how Fay might interpret the implications behind them: “You want to come in for a coffee or something.”

They had both just discussed about having the house to themselves this weekend because Jake and Amelia were both away on overnight school trips. There was a long awkward silence and Trent felt compelled to back-track and try and fill it. “Sorry, that must have sounded like I was asking you in for… well –”

“Coffee?” Both of them laughed. “Don’t sweat it. I know you weren’t asking me in to jump my bones.” She looked directly at him with those large, brown eyes of hers. “Though, actually, I think on some level, you probably were.”

“I –”

“Can I be honest with you, Trent?”

“Sure,” Trent replied a little sheepishly.

“You’re a lovely guy. And I’m gonna put myself on the line here and admit that I am attracted to you and that for some reason – god knows why – I think you’re a little bit attracted to me.”

“Hey, don’t undersell yourself. Most men would –”

“Let me finish,” Fay interrupted softly. “In some ways – in many ways - I think it would be more than nice to just go inside now and climb into bed with you. Not even for the sex. Just to feel some warm, human interaction again - to have someone hug me who would actually genuinely want to. But we’d be doing it for all the wrong reasons. For different reasons both of us are a little bit lost; a little bit damaged. But what would be good for me – and for you, too, I’m guessing - would be to have a really reliable and caring friend who wasn’t a million miles away when you needed them. I’d rather be that to you instead of a guilty lover.” She leaned and kissed Trent on the cheek. “With that out in the open, I’d still love to come in for coffee if the invite is still available?”

“It most certainly is.”

The two of them hugged then got out of the car and headed towards the front door, Trent carrying Fay’s shopping.

Trent leant into her and completely deadpan said: “So let me just clarify here. I’m about to have coffee and not sex, right?”

Fay gave him a playful nudge in the ribs. “Asshole.”

Amelia caught her reflection in the mirror and was momentarily taken aback: it was like looking at someone else. She conceded that the girl looking back at her appeared quite pretty but also a little aloof and awkward. The dress and the shoes just weren’t her; she wished she was here in her jeans, t-shirt and sneakers. It felt a little bit like she was playing dress-up.

Amelia was attending the school Christmas ball, stood in the gym which had been decorated with ornate mirrors, lights, decorations and a number of fake Christmas trees. Today, however, was also Jake’s fifteenth birthday, so she felt more inclined to believe that everyone was here to celebrate that.

As she stood there, trying to fake insouciance with a plastic champagne flute of non-alcoholic punch in her grip, it seemed that everyone else around her was perfectly at ease with the situation and their extravagant clothing. Sure, some of the boys still looked like little boys to her but most of the girls had a very adult-like presence about them. Instinctually, she knew she couldn’t be the only person here who felt like they were just playing grown-ups but it was proving to be of little comfort.

“You are Amelia Jane Karras,” she whispered under her breath, making herself stand tall. “You are as good and as strong as anyone in this room. Stronger, in fact.”

“You talking to yourself again, Miss Karras?”

She already knew from the voice that it was Jake as she spun around to face him. When she did, though, it took a brief moment to register that it was actually him. He wasn’t wearing his spectacles, his curly hair was slicked back with gel and he was wearing a tuxedo that didn’t look entirely like fancy-dress on him. “Wowsers, check you out,” she said to him. “You look great.”



“Thanks. You look, great, too. As always. Erm… beautiful, in fact.”

“Nah,” Amelia replied, looking down sheepishly, “but thanks, anyway. Actually, I feel a little bit uncomfortable in this get up; a little bit out of place.”

Jake seemed genuinely surprised. “Out of place? You? Get out of here. You’re a match for any girl here. Where’s that Karras confidence?”

“I think you were the only one that ever thought that existed.”

He put his hands on the top of her arms - bare but for the straps of her dress – and gently eased her shoulders back. Then he softly raised her chin with a solitary finger whilst turning her towards one of the decorative mirrors. “Tell me you don’t look amazing.”

She stared back at herself again. “I look ok, I suppose. It’s just this dress and these heals – they just aren’t me.”

“They are tonight. Ditto for me in this tux. Tonight, you’re a super model and I’m James Bond.”

Amelia laughed. “I like the sound of that. It sounds like all the self-confidence you think I have is suddenly with you tonight.”

“What can I say? I’m fifteen, baby. This is the new Jake Carroll.” He leant in close to her. “I’m still scared all the way to crap city, though, to be honest. So let’s go find Becky Johnson whilst I can still pretend I’m the man.”

An hour later, Amelia was watching the party go on around her, sat off against one of the walls, unable to shake the aura of self-consciousness. A lot of fellow students said hello as they passed by and she did her upmost to act happy and be friendly back. She wondered, though, whether she wasn’t giving off a vibe that said ‘I really just want to be on my own right now’. She wished Christa was here but she had phoned earlier to say she was sick and wasn’t attending.

Across the hall, she suddenly saw Jake chatting to a group of girls. He looked a touch nervous but his tuxedo-confidence seemed to be generally holding out. Looking closer, she realised that he was actually only focussing his attention on just one of the girls: Becky Johnson. Her two friends were loitering with a slight air of ‘can we go now’. Accept Becky looked like she didn’t want to go anywhere, that she was genuinely engaged in talking to Jake. Finally, her friends gave their apologies and started to drift away. As Becky turned her attention briefly to her departing friends, Amelia caught Jake throwing a brief, excited and guilty look in the direction of Becky’s chest. They were conspicuous even when she was dressed at her most demure; in the dress she was wearing tonight, Amelia realised it would be a feat of endurance for any teenage boy here – the gay ones included - not to throw them at the very least a surreptitious glance. Amelia would have been happy with half of what Becky appeared to have on show.

“You’re a naughty boy, Jacob Carroll,” Amelia whispered under her breath. “Go reel her in, tiger.”

Amelia got to her feet, realising that she needed to go use the facilities. She weaved her way through the throng of people in the gym and out into the corridor towards one of the bathrooms.

She entered as a gaggle of girls were exiting, finding herself alone with her thoughts, the room silent bar the distant hum of the party. She was only half-way through doing what she needed to do when the lights went out.

“Shit,” she whispered to herself.

She presumed the lights must have gone out everywhere because there were whoops coming from the hall: no doubt a mixture of excitement and fear.

Amelia finished what she had to do and got to her feet. She panicked slightly when she realised she felt a little woozy but she closed her eyes and fought it back. She reached out and fumbled open the cubicle door. There was no point waiting for her eyes to adjust because there were no windows in here. The bathroom was going to remain pitch black however long she stayed.

“Anyone else here?” she asked the room, pretty sure she already knew the answer. No reply came her way.

Then something moved in the darkness.

The flush of fear spread across Amelia’s cheeks. It was instinctive. Here she was, vulnerable, blind and no longer alone. Was she just imagining it? After recent experiences, she hoped that she might be.

Her heart was quickening but she told herself to stay calm. Washing her hands would have to go out of the window for once. She closed her eyes and concentrated on visualising where the exit was.

She had come in and out of this bathroom many times before. She knew that directly out of the cubicle that the wash basins were off to the left and that the partially mirrored wall was directly in front of her. And then from there, it was a right turn along a short alleyway to the entry / exit door on the left. Here and now, though, slowly shuffling through the blackness with her hands in front of her face, it felt like the world could have been changed around her. She realised how easy it was to be overcome with doubt. She knew the wall was only a few yards in front of her but she was already starting to doubt herself. She understood why people died in fires when the smoke disorientated and blinded them.

Amelia was reminded of her dream where she was being pursued through that awful cold and dark tunnel. She remembered the sensation of running into a wall and her arms crumpling and sending her body crashing to the ground. She remembered how her brain had so perfectly replicated the sensation of pain.

Now something brushed past her in the dark.

Amelia exhaled a breathless gasp, unable to find her voice to yell out for help. Then something touched her cheek. She tried to scream but something knocked the sound from her lungs: a rush of movement right next to her, millimetres from her skin, a powerful force hammering into whatever had been touching her. It was followed by a crashing impact on the floor and the sounds of violent struggle. The noises sounded barely human.

Terrified, Amelia continued moving forward, quickening her pace, having enough clarity of mind to hold out her palms and bend her elbows. She finally reached the wall, her palms sensing the cold smoothness of one of the mirrors. She turned right and moved quickly down the wall, sliding and pressing her arm against it. Again, it seemed to take way too long to get where she wanted to go but she ultimately connected with the door handle. She ignored the pain, sheer adrenaline getting her through. She grabbed the handle, turned it vigorously and yanked the door open. She spilled out into the corridor without looking back.

Out here, the lights were still off but moonlight was partially lighting the way through the windows. There were also a great number of students illuminating their immediate vicinity with their mobile phones and Amelia could see that a couple of teachers had flash lights. If this had been a dumb horror movie, Amelia realised, she would now be heading away from the crowd and getting lost in the dark again only to be pursued by her killer. She headed into the crowd to find safety in numbers.

Reaching the gym, there was still a cacophony of noise with people chatting away on adrenaline highs. The mood, though, was more excitement than fear now. As she scanned the room looking for Jake, she even saw that some were taking the opportunity to have a secret kissing session in darkened corners.

Amelia knew she needed to be out of here and needed to call her dad to come and get her. She had no cell phone with her. She looked for the nearest well-known face in her immediate vicinity and asked if she could borrow theirs to call her dad.

As the phone rang, she did her best to compose herself. She didn’t want to worry him and have him driving over here in a rushed panic. When he answered, she explained to him as calmly as she could about the electrics going out and could she please come and get him.

Amelia made her way towards the main exit where a lot of the other pupils seemed to have gathered with the notion of also being picked up. Many were even willing to brave the wait outside in the cold. After what she thought was an appropriate length of time, Amelia headed outside to look for her dad arriving. She hugged her shawl tight to herself, the cold snapping around her body like anti-armour.

She made her way through the array of cars and people. Reaching the last of the vehicles, she still couldn’t see Trent. With not having a watch, she wondered if she had given him enough time to drive from home to the school. She stood and looked back across the cars just to be certain that she hadn’t missed him. As she did so, she saw a figure clamber out from a side window of the school and run off at high speed into the darkness. This person wasn’t dressed for a school dance. He was dressed in leathers. She couldn’t be one hundred percent certain but instinct told her it was her mysterious stranger. A chill shot through Amelia’s body: she wasn’t sure whether it was from elation or fear. It seemed a fair deduction that he had been in the bathroom with her; but had he been there as her protector or foe?

Dreamily, Amelia became aware that someone was saying her name; shouting it. She turned towards the sound and saw her dad leaning his head out of the window of the jeep. She ran to him. Once inside, she practically launched herself at him, hugging him with all the strength she had left, the floodgate of her tears suddenly opening up.

Amelia was overcome with a great rush of relief tinged with something bordering on total exhaustion. She slumped down in the sofa and rubbed at her eyes, partially to avoid looking at Jake.

The two of them were down in their basement getaway. It was the morning after the Christmas ball. Amelia had started by telling Jake what had happened to her last night. She had followed this by explaining more about her moments of sickness and the visions of light and horrible faces. It had come out of her in a mad and garbled rush – or had appeared to – with Jake sat opposite her in thoughtful silence. He remained in this pose right now.

“Aren’t you, um, going to say something?” Amelia put to him cautiously.

“It’s a lot to take in,” he replied contemplatively.

“You believe me, though, right?” Amelia wanted this to sound more like a statement than a question.

“Sure I do.”

“Really? You’re not just saying that?”

“Of course not. You know I believe in you.”

Amelia let out an involuntary sigh. “Good. That’s important to me.”

“I understand why it might have been difficult for you to tell me all this but…well, what were you worried about? This is me, right?”

Amelia fidgeted in her seat. She got up and went across to the mini fridge to get some juice. She stood there slowly and carefully pouring it. “I was worried what you might think of me.”

“I wouldn’t ever think badly of you, Amelia,” Jake told her.

“I just didn’t want you or anyone else thinking I was a fruit loop.”

“Why the hell would they think that?”

“Well, seeing lights and hovering scary faces and maybe or maybe not being attacked in a school bathroom…they’re just not your usual anecdotes of a fourteen year old, are they.”

“Well, no, but…but people see weird stuff all the time that isn’t really there. I mean, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night and think I see things in the shadows. But it’s all just a trick of the mind.”

“And you know that for certain?”

“Well…yeah…I suppose.”

“You can’t prove that those things you see aren’t real,” Amelia argued.

“There’s a lot of crap I can’t prove.”

“There you go, then.”

“So what’s your point?”

Amelia managed to raise a smile. “I’m not sure I had one…There is another reason, though, why I didn’t want to tell you or dad or my therapist about any of –”

“Your therapist?”

“Yes, my therapist,” Amelia said tentatively.

“Is that something else you want to tell me about?”

Amelia looked away. “Like I said, I didn’t want people judging me.”

“I’m not people,” Jake replied.

Amelia paced for a moment, still not looking at Jake as she continued. “You remember I told you that we moved to Fallswood because of my dad’s job. Well, that’s true. But the reason he looked for that new job and wanted to leave New York was mainly because of me.” She looked back at Jake now, trying to gage his demeanour.

“I’m still listening,” he said kindly. “I’m sure you can’t have done anything that was –”

“I tried to kill myself,” Amelia interrupted.

Maybe it was just Amelia’s perception but an invisible fog seemed to fill the room; sound and movement were stodgy and difficult. Jake didn’t say anything. He slowly got to his feet and Amelia was certain he was about to leave. Instead, he headed over to her and put his arms around her without saying a word. He had hugged her only twice previously but it had always been in an awkward, teenager-imitating-adult kind of fashion. This time it felt genuine and she let the anxious rigidity of her body slip away into the warmth of Jake’s embrace.

He finally stepped back from her with his hands still touching her shoulders. He pulled the handkerchief from his pocket – the only boy she knew who carried one – and dabbed the tears from her eyes.

“Want to talk about it?” Jake asked.

Amelia nodded madly. Jake led her to the sofa and sat opposite. Amelia let the words spill out of her. It was cathartic not having to censor herself or worry about being judged. She felt she could tell Jake pretty much anything and everything now: all the pain of her mom getting ill and ultimately dying and what that had done to both her and her dad.

Jake never interrupted once throughout. He just sat and listened to her stream of consciousness. When she was done, her exhaustion seemed to deepen.

“Jeez, that was a lot of stuff you’ve been bottling up inside of you. I’m glad you’ve finally let it all out.”

“Thanks. But how do you feel knowing about all this stuff now?” Amelia needed to know.

“It just makes me feel closer to you. That I know you even better.”

“That’s good to know.”

Jake gave her a what-are-friends-for kind of shrug. “I know it’s nowhere near what you’ve been through with your mom’s death but I think I understand some of the feelings you went through that led you to try to…you know. My dad might be still physically alive for me but he feels – well, not dead – but a bit like a ghost to me.”

“Yeah, I know you’ve been through a lot of kaka yourself. I think that’s why we understand one another.”

“I think so, too,” Jake concurred.

“What about all the other things I’ve told you that have happened since?”

Jake shrugged. “Not sure. What I do know, though, is that most adults would just try and explain it all away. But there has to be something in all of this stuff. Let’s suppose it’s just supernatural.”


“Why not?”

“I…I don’t know. No reason.”

“The world is pretty supernatural to begin with, right?”

“I guess.” Amelia let out a nervous laugh. “So do you think our mysterious biker stranger is supernatural, then?”

Jake shrugged again. “No idea. He could be your guardian angel.”

Amelia couldn’t help but smile at this notion. “You think?”

“Well, no, not really, but…well, there’s one way of maybe finding out.”

“How?” Amelia wanted to know.

“Let’s just track him down and ask him.”
TK diary entry Sunday 18 December
Perhaps as a parent the worrying is always there to some degree or another. Picking Amelia up from the Christmas dance is still playing on my mind. The way she burst into tears when I picked her up – the way she needed my comfort – there was more to it than just the lights going out. She told me it was nothing to worry about, that it was just a succession of little things that brought out that emotion in her. I’m not quite sure I believe that but I can’t force the information out of her.

Well, anyway, here we are with Christmas just one week away. Once again, a year of my life seems to have disappeared into history with alarming alacrity. But that’s the nature of the beast: winning the lottery of life also comes with the small print that death wins out at the end of it. God, I sound so maudlin. I remember what my granddad used to say to my grandma when she bemoaned how quickly she seemed to be getting older: it’s the day you stop getting older that you really have to worry about.

I had a dream last night about junior league. Well, it was a re-run (what Hollywood would call a re-imagining) of a real game from my youth. In the dream, I was last man in. I was in Yankee Stadium. I needed a home run to win the team the game; anything else would be failure. The crowd were on their feet, cheering my name. The players I were facing were all adults – professionals from different periods of the game – but I was still a little kid in my junior league uniform. Nolan Ryan in his prime was facing me down from the plate. The ball came in like a bullet…I swung at it on instinct…hit it sweetly…and smashed it out of the ground. I trotted around the diamond with the roar of my name echoing in my ears. Kar-ras, Kar-ras, Kar-ras!

As for the junior high game that took place in reality, the same situation applied in that we still needed just one run to win. It was a championship decider and a draw meant the away team retained their title by default. I was the second to last man in: Robbie Jones – the fastest kid in the school never mind the team – was on second. All I really had to do was just stay in the game, not even hit the ball, maybe just scuff it along the ground – whatever - and the game probably would have been ours and I would have been the big hero. But those three strikes sailed past me in what seemed like a matter of seconds and all I could hear was the moans and boos cascading through the cheers of the away team. Sport was never my thing. During junior high, I tried out for teams and got on the periphery of squads just by sheer dogged determination. That baseball game, however, was the last I ever played.

The point is this: it got me to thinking how that game seems like such a brief period of time ago. I still remember who that kid was – what his hopes, dreams and fears were – like it was yesterday. And here I am quite a few years into adulthood, a widow and a father of a teenage daughter; a man on the verge of turning 40. (And, yes, having a birthday two days after Christmas still sucks!)

My birthday is something I haven’t particularly broadcast at work or the other circles I move in. (Hey, they’re pretty small circles these days!) And I haven’t kept quiet out of embarrassment because I’m one of these people who looks a lot older (or younger) than my years. I can’t complain: genetics have kept away the grey hairs but the lines on my face certainly won’t let me pass for thirty anymore. The truth is that I’m keeping quiet because turning 40 just sounds a little bit scary.

Maybe I’m just in a bit of a lonely phase the last few weeks (lonelier). I think this is partly amplified by the house looking so homely with the tree and the Christmas decorations. It’s only for Amelia’s sake that I still bother. Putting up the tree and decorations was always Sara’s job, with Amelia acting as her enthusiastic assistant. I’d chip in here and there but my real pleasure came from watching the two of them happily go about their task.

This year, at least Christmas day / dinner won’t be spent alone. Fay – with Jake’s blessing – has invited us next door. Amelia and I will get up and have breakfast together, take Sam for a walk, then we’re gonna take our presents next door and the four of us will open them all together. I haven’t gone crazy with Amelia this year and I’ve made sure that she and Jake have about the same amount of presents to open. Fay has been ok with me buying Jake a couple of inexpensive gifts to even up the numbers.

Since our little chat, Fay and I have been getting along great: I consider her to be a truly good friend. I can’t deny that I still find her attractive…and yet I don’t. It’s like a part of my brain has accepted that there will never be anything physical between us. Having that off the agenda has been good for us both.

Ella is a different matter. The more I tell myself to keep my distance, the more I am drawn in. That flirtatious element of her personality is very alluring and maybe I kid myself a little bit that she has some feelings towards me.

I’ve spoken to Fay about Ella a few times. Nothing wrong with a bit of flirting, she said to me. To cross the line whilst she still has a partner, though, would be inappropriate. There didn’t seem to be any hint of jealousy in her telling me this, with us discussing my attraction to another woman. She seemed to tell me as a friend…and as someone with experience of having a partner who has cheated on them.

Don’t cross the line, hey? Thing is, I might have already done that slightly. I haven’t told Fay about the work Christmas meal. Post meal turned into a few drinks: cokes and OJ for me. But seeing Ella a little drunk and becoming increasingly flirtatious was enough to keep my attention. By the end of the evening, there were only three of us left: Claude (a French teacher), me and Ella. When Claude made his move for a taxi, I concurred that it was a good time to call it a night. I didn’t want to be seen to be left alone with Ella, either. Ella reluctantly agreed to wrap things up, too. It made sense for her to share a cab with Claude considering that they lived relatively close to one another. She let Claude slip into the cab first before loitering momentarily to wish me goodnight. Her kiss, though – out of Claude’s view – wasn’t just a peck on the check or even just a peck on the lips. It was a passionate kiss, an exploratory kiss, her full lips searching mine…and I allowed myself to be found. And then she was gone, slipping into the cab, not looking at me, flashing me a last second wink as the cab pulled away.

I can still sense her mouth on mine, the slight wetness of her lip gloss, her breath intertwining with the scent of her perfume; it still seems to be lingering in my nostrils. I just need to be strong and stay away…don’t I?

Amelia was in the company of Jake on Fallswood’s village green. The setting resembled a picture postcard winter wonderland and was covered with a plethora of other kids and a smattering of adults. The place was a beehive of noise and excitement, with people having snow ball fights or building snow men or creating angels in the snow; elsewhere, grinning dogs bounded through the soft white blanket.

The mood was partly governed by the fact it was Christmas Eve; Amelia could palpably feel a buzz in the air. She could see the uncensored joy in the faces of the people around her, even the most cynical of the older teenagers. She guessed she was close to being one of those unadulterated cynical teenagers herself. But who could be cynical on the Eve of Christmas in a beautiful setting like this, Amelia considered. She always loved this time of year or at least had done so in the past. The last two Christmases without her mom had been incredibly difficult; this year, though, she had a sense of hope. She was genuinely looking forward to spending Christmas as some sort of family again even if that family was a makeshift one in the form of Jake and his mom.

“You realise tomorrow we’ll be practically like brother and sister,” Amelia thought out loud to Jake who was in the process of putting the finishing touches to his snowman.

“Erm. Yeah. Suppose,” Jake replied flatly.

“Hey, don’t sound so excited about it,” Amelia responded with a hint of good-natured sarcasm. “You said you always wished you had a brother or a sister.”

“Well, yeah, but not you because –”

“Gee. Thanks.”

“No, what I mean is that I wouldn’t want you as my sister because…well, you’re already my friend, aren’t you - my best friend.”

She smiled and gave him a soft, knowing punch on the arm. “Brothers and sisters can be friends, too, you know. Though to be honest,” Amelia continued deadpan, gesturing Jake’s snowman, “I think I like this dude more than I’ll ever like you.”

“Oh, ha-ha, is that so? Well, you’re welcome to him. See if you still like him better than me when he starts melting over you. Consider our friendship on hold.”

“Ok, consider this a peace pact, then.” Amelia grabbed up a handful of snow and forced some of it down Jake’s back, running off before he had time to retaliate. He pursued her, the two of them running wildly through the snow, letting off steam by bombarding one another with snowballs. Amelia hid behind another abandoned snowman and started to form a pile of ammunition. She was about to launch her assault but stopped when she saw the change of expression on Jake’s face. She followed his line of vision and saw Goatee and G-Man.

“Shit,” she whispered under her breath, the word slipping out on auto-pilot.

The two of them were with a couple of other guys: Grim and Grimmer, Amelia instantly dubbed them. They hadn’t spotted either Amelia or Jake but they were making nuisances of themselves. No parents or adults nearby did anything to correct their behaviour: they were either wary or just put their antics down to high spirits. Amelia, though, knew them enough to see that there was an aggressive undercurrent to some of their snowball antics. They seemed to be specifically targeting kids who were here without any adult or parental supervision, without making it too blatant just in case they made a mistake or crossed the line with someone.

“Let’s go,” Amelia said to Jake regretfully. He didn’t have to be asked twice.

As quickly as the snow would allow, they started to trudge their way from the village green in the opposite direction to Goatee, G-Man and their cohorts.

“Why do we have to keep running from them?” Amelia questioned, thinking out loud, anger in her voice.

“Because they’re assholes and bullies from crap city, that’s why,” Jake replied.

She saw him turn his head back and his body seemed to instantly stiffen.

“What is it?” Amelia asked.

“Don’t look back. Just keep going. I think they just spotted us.”


The two of them quickened their pace, having to fight through the thick virgin snow that lay across parts of the village green. This then turned into the quickest run they could muster. From the green, they headed for Main Street, struggling to keep their feet in the icy conditions. They took a corner, heading in the direction of home…and almost collided with Jeannie May shuffling the other way. Both Amelia and Jake let out a startled gasp.

Both of them quickly re-set their footing and moved to go around her. But Jeannie May shot out a hand at a speed that belied her years and grabbed hold of Amelia’s wrist. Her hand was rough and withered like old leather, her grip surprisingly strong despite her delicate bone structure.

“Let go of her!” Jake snapped.

Jeannie May ignored him, her eyes exploring Amelia’s. Amelia noticed how her eyes didn’t seem to match her weathered face: they glistened with health and alertness and were probably the bluest Amelia had ever seen.

“Don’t be scared of me,” Jeannie May told Amelia.

“Sorry, but I am.”

“I’m not the enemy. But I’ve sensed for awhile that danger is coming your way.”

Amelia flicked a glance back towards the corner she and Jake had just taken. “Tell me about it.”

“It’s all still a fog in my head but it’s not all bleak. I see hope, too. But the danger is coming, all the same. Mark my word on that one. But I’ll do my best for you.”

“If you don’t let me go now right now, that danger will be here sooner than you know.”

Jeannie May seemed lost in other thoughts. “I’ll do my best for you,” she repeated, dreamily, letting go of Amelia’s wrist just as Goatee and his crew skidded around the corner.

“Well, well, well – what do we have here, then?” Goatee goaded. “You two pansies taken to hanging out with the town fruit cake, have you?”

Jeannie May seemed oblivious to it all. She started to head away from Amelia and Jake and through the crowd of boys like they weren’t even there. Goatee and his cohorts jeered and mocked her but she didn’t react. Only at the very last second did she stop and turn back to them. A serious expression took hold of her features and she looked at the four boys each in turn. Amelia found herself slightly mesmerised by it.

“There is hope for some here. Only for some, though. Others might perish, I fear. And soon unless paths are changed.”

“What’re you bleating on about, you withered old bag?” Goatee asked her.

She stared directly into his eyes. “Peter. Your name is Peter. Just like in the Bible. My mind is a fog. Change your path, Peter.”

With that, Jeannie May continued on her way, her demeanour returning to a state of solipsism. The attention of the boys turned instantly back to Amelia and Jake.

“Let’s turn them into living snowmen,” Grim suggested.

“I think maybe we should just bury them alive in the snow,” Goatee replied.

“Didn’t you hear what she said, Peter?” Amelia half-mocked and half-pleaded. “You need to change your ways or bad things are coming your way.”

“Did you tell her my name?” he asked her, his eyes narrowing.

“I don’t even know your name, Goatee. She knows your name because she’s psychic. And because she’s psychic she knows bad things are gonna happen to you unless you do something about it.”

“Yeah, whatever,” he threw back, feigning indifference. Amelia could see the flash of doubt in his eyes, though. “Right. Burying time.”

He grabbed Amelia and forced her down roughly onto the ground. She was vaguely aware that the same was being done to Jake. She fought against Goatee the best she could, kicking and scratching, forcing him to kneel across her arms and drop snow onto her face.

Both she and Jake were shouting for help but the boys around them were whooping it up even louder. If anyone was passing, they probably wouldn’t even consider that something untoward was taking place. They’d probably think it was merely exuberant pre-Christmas high-jinks. After awhile, Amelia decided that yelling was no good. The snow that Goatee was dropping on her was just going into her mouth and making it difficult to breathe. She felt hopeless, unable to lash or kick out with one of the others sat across her legs.

Suddenly, through the din, she became aware of a familiar sound: an engine. Instinctively, Amelia knew what that sound entailed. And yet she started to doubt herself when the torment seemed to go on and on, hands and knees digging into her flesh, making her feel like a helpless victim.

And then another voice cut through the mêlée, calm and flat, almost without emotion and without any discernible accent: “It is time to stop that.”

Everything did stop. No sounds came from this former microcosm of chaos. The only noises were the distant ones of Fallswood. Amelia felt movement, limbs digging painfully into her again as her attackers pushed up off of her. She frantically wiped the snow from her eyes and face, coughing to get her breath back. One of the guys was still holding down Jake; the other three were stood to face their opponent. Amelia shifted her line of view. The mysterious biker was stood there facing the others, dressed in his leathers, looking much shorter than his adversaries especially from the fact that he was stood in the road as opposed to the sidewalk.

“You talking to us?” Goatee put to the biker.

“I am,” he replied.

Grim flicked a reassuring glance amongst his companions before piping up. “What the hell has this got to do with you?”

“It just does,” the biker replied, still no emotion in his voice.

“And what’re you gonna do about it?” Goatee wondered.

“I would like to do nothing. I would like you to just walk away.”

Grim laughed. “Check this dude, out.” Grimmer and G-Man snorted laughter in reply. Goatee gave away nothing.

“And what if we don’t walk away?” Goatee wanted to know. “You think you can take us all?”

“Take you?” the biker replied, the merest hint of confusion.

Grimmer snorted laughter again. “I think this guy’s some kind of moron.”

“I want you to walk away,” the biker stated calmly. “I want you to please do it now.”

No movement. Goatee’s three comrades all laughed again but Amelia could palpably sense the shift of mood in the air. She looked towards Jake who was also staring directly at the biker, fascinated. The air was still. The biker stepped up onto the sidewalk and leant towards Amelia, offering her his hand. As Amelia reached up, Goatee stepped across to block the transaction.

“She leaves when I say,” Goatee said. His eyes were like slits.

“Sir, this is your last chance to step aside,” the biker said, his voice still devoid of emotion or accent.

Grim chuckled. “Sir, he says. Christ, listen to this dude.”

The biker extended his hand again to Amelia. “Come with me.” He turned to Jake. “You, also.”

Goatee snarled; erupted. “I said they leave when I say.” He moved forward quickly, positioning a leg behind the biker whilst half-pushing and half-elbowing him in the face, trying to force him to the ground. It didn’t quite work. As the biker stepped back, though, he slipped in the snow and the desired effect took place.

Sat there on the ground, Amelia saw that there was no shock or dismay on the biker’s face. He touched the spot where he had been elbowed in the face. “Pain,” he whispered. Amelia and Jake’s attackers laughed heartily, Goatee finally joining in.

“There’s a lot more where that came from,” Grimmer announced.

“Gentlemen, this is my last invite for you to walk away.”

“What’s with the way this dude speaks? What a grade-A douche bag,” Grim said.

For the first time, Amelia saw the merest flicker in biker’s face; something close to emotion. It was gone so quickly, though, Amelia wondered if she had imagined it. What came next was a blur. The biker sprang athletically to his feet and started moving forward in one swift action. With what seemed like the minimum of movement and effort, the four teenagers were on the floor. Amelia didn’t see him throw a punch or even really raise his arms. The others flailed at him but he just seemed to twist and duck and spill each of them to the snowy ground. Then he pulled Amelia and Jake to their feet and walked them towards his bike.

He jumped on and effortlessly started the engine. “Get on.”

Amelia did it without thinking. Jake looked at her.

“Amelia, what are you doing? It’s not safe. You don’t even have a helmet.”

“You will be safe,” the biker stated.

Jake heard movement behind him: the four teenagers getting to their feet.

“Get on the bike,” Amelia told Jake. This time he did as instructed.

Amelia awoke to a desolate world, cold and naked. Her immediate vista stretched as far as the eye could see; it was scarred and ravaged, scorched and blackened with smoke and ash drifting in a grey sky. Everything in this world appeared dead.

She got to her feet and covered herself as best she could. There was nothing here to use to cover her body and shelter herself from the elements.

Suddenly, a soft whisper came to her, the wind carrying her name: “Amelia.” She turned and saw the biker striding out through the smoke towards her. She kept herself covered up but she somehow didn’t feel so exposed in his presence. He had a blanket in his arms. When he reached her, she let her arms drop to her side, naked in front of him even though his eyes remained fixed on hers. The world was silent but for her own racing heartbeat. Then he wrapped the blanket around her and she fell into his arms.

Amelia awoke into the real world this time, whatever that might be anymore. A brief moment of disorientation passed to show that she was cosy in her bed, her body experiencing sensations so different to her dream.

She remembered it was Christmas morning and felt a pang of child-like excitement. Part of this was to do with the day and who she would be spending it with; her excitement was also tinged with thoughts of the biker. Yesterday, he had dropped both Amelia and Jake off back at home. They had tried to ask him questions, none of which he had answered. “I will return soon,” is all he had said.

Amelia lay there replaying the scenes of yesterday over in her head, trying to pick out every nuance from the second she had heard the engine of his bike. She tried to remember the words he had spoken and how he had said them. The memories were like a ghost, drifting and ephemeral. And what did he mean about returning? Would he reveal anything? Amelia imagined what it might be like to have his hands on her skin; his mouth on hers.

The thoughts and images kept twisting through her brain: a bitter-sweet concoction. Unable to sleep, she got out of bed, slipped on her dressing gown and padded downstairs where Sam greeted her with a yawn, a stretch and a swish of her tail.

Amelia slipped on her boots and wrapped her dad’s long, thick winter coat over her dressing gown. She also pulled on his gloves and hat before letting Sam out into the back yard and joining her. It wasn’t yet light, the sky a patchy network of black and dark purple. She breathed in the invigorating cold air and watched Sam sniff and slowly explore the snow, her breath like plumes of dragon smoke.
The day went well. Amelia showered, dressed, ate a light breakfast and watched TV with Sam at her side whilst she waited for the day to break. It seemed like an age before her dad finally got up but they were on time in heading next door at 11 am as planned. It felt homely and right, the four of them taking it in turns to open up their presents. Even Sam seemed to happily settle in his next door environment.

Then the four of them ate their Christmas meal, turkey with all the trimmings followed by dessert. Amelia was enjoying the day but was still half-consumed with thoughts of yesterday. She could see it on Jake’s face, too. After they ate, they went upstairs, using the excuse of wanting to examine their presents more thoroughly.

“How you feeling?” Amelia asked Jake.

“Well, a little bit weird still,” he answered.

“Who do you think he is?” Amelia said, half thinking out loud.

“What do I think he is is probably more the question.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Don’t you think there’s something just a little bit odd about him?” Jake put to Amelia.

“How’d you mean?”

“Well, just the way he dealt with those idiots yesterday. And the way he speaks – did you hear him?”

“Sure. I thought it was kind of cute.”

“Right. I see,” Jake sighed. Amelia seemed certain now that he was a little bit jealous of her feelings towards the biker. “And then there’s the fact that he just showed up as if right on cue. Fallswood is small but it’s not that small. I still think there’s something, you know, weird about all this. Like I said, maybe even supernatural.”

“You really think that, don’t you.”

“Why not? You’ve experienced some pretty weird crap of late, don’t you think?”

“I guess.”

“So who’s not to say that we can’t describe all this as ‘supernatural’? Whatever that means, anyway.”

Amelia’s response was a shrug.

“Well, we can ask him when he –” Jake stopped dead. He was sat next to his window, looking down onto the street.

“What is it?” Amelia wanted to know. Jake didn’t respond. He just gestured with a movement of his neck for Amelia to come stand next to him. She did as asked and looked out through the window. The biker was parked across the street on his bike. Her heart dropped, her cheeks flushed and a rush of adrenaline surged through her body. “Oh.”

“See what I mean about him turning up on cue. The neighbours will probably call the cops if they see him just sat outside there on his bike for awhile. He looks a bit menacing.”

“Yeah, he does, doesn’t he,” Amelia concurred, a hint of a smile on her face. Jake rolled his eyes. “You think we should go down and talk to him?”

“How would we explain that to my mom and your dad? I mean –” Jake stopped again. The decision was taken away. The biker revved his engine and slowly rolled out of sight through the snow.

They both strained for a position at the window but he had already driven off out of sight. They went and sat on the bed, neither of them saying anything, Jake finally pontificating that maybe it was better that they stay away from him, that maybe he was a little bit dangerous.

“What’s that sound?” Amelia interjected with.

“I can’t hear anything.”

“I just heard something up on the –”

Both of them let out simultaneous shocked gasps. Terrifyingly, there was a face at the window, peering in. It took a moment to realise that the face belonged to the biker and that he was the one who had been on the roof.

“Jesus Christ, what’s he doing out there?”

“I don’t know. But go and let him in,” Amelia said, her voice wavering.

“No way.”

“He might fall.”

“He was the one who got himself up there in the first place.”

“I’ll do it, then.” Scared and excited, Amelia went across and opened the window. An icy blast of cold air greeted her from outside, rushing in to rage war with the heat of the room. She instantly shuffled backwards across the room towards Jake, instinctively grabbing his arm. The biker jumped gracefully into the room and closed the window behind him.

He strode towards them, not saying anything, stopping a few yards from the bed. “I have come to talk to you as I said I would,” the biker announced. Amelia and Jake involuntarily shuffled back on the bed until their backs were against the wall. “Please do not be afraid of me.”

“We don’t want to be,” Amelia admitted. “But you’ve just climbed in through Jake’s window which isn’t exactly normal.”

“Everything about you isn’t normal,” Jake chipped in. “The way you dress and speak and act. No offence.”

“I am…not from around here,” the biker replied.

“No shit.”

“You have questions.” It was a statement.

“No shit,” Jake repeated.

“Who are you?” Amelia asked.

“Call me Kai. Before we continue, I think Jake should leave. The less people this concerns the better.”

“Whoa there - no way. This is my room. And Amelia is my friend. Besides, I’m in on this all the way.”

Amelia flicked a glance between the two of them. “He’s my best friend. Jake stays.” Amelia saw Jake turn and look at her when she said this.

“Ok. Continue.”

“Where are you from?” Amelia asked.

“Difficult to describe.”


“Not here. Somewhere different. What you might call another dimension.”

Amelia and Jake looked at one another and started to exhale simultaneous nervous laughter. “I knew there was something supernatural about all this crap,” Jake expressed.

“How did you get here, then?” Amelia asked. “How do you travel from your dimension to ours?”

“Through a door,” Kai answered. Amelia and Jake laughed at this, too. Kai gestured the exit. “Not a door like this one. You might call it a window or a portal.” He looked directly at Amelia in a way that made her feel exposed. “But it was you who opened it.”


“You opened a door between your reality and mine,” Kai explained.

“Space time continuum crap!” Jake exclaimed, half thinking out loud. “I’ve read about this stuff.”

Amelia continued looking at Kai. “How did I open it?”

“When you died,” Kai said. Amelia was aware of Jake turning towards her. “You died briefly and opened the door. Like what you might call an after death experience. It happens rarely and usually the door is open only for a length of time so short you could not even measure it. With you, it was different.”

“How, though? And why me?”

“That we do not know.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” Jake wanted to know.

“My people. Where I come from.”

“Are there others that have come through with you?”

“No. It is not that simple. The door has remained but it is not open perpetually. It is in flux. The fact that it remains at all is still puzzling.”

Amelia shook her head and laughed again. “This is all totally mad.”

“I know it is difficult to comprehend.”

“Can you just come and go as you please, then? Between the two worlds?”

“I am one of the few who can. Not many have my skills. But it is still difficult. Even for me. Timing is everything. It is also painful. Like dying.”

“So why are you here?” Amelia asked.

“To conquer the world,” Jake said, his tone suggesting he wasn’t entirely joking.

Kai looked at Jake. “I am here only to observe.”

“So you’re like ET, then, as opposed to The Thing?” Jake tried to clarify.

“This I do not understand.”

“You don’t mean us any harm, he means,” Amelia explained.

“My people are peaceful.”

“So you’re here to observe me, then? To find out how this happened?”


“You said no one else had come through with you.”


“Then who attacked me at the school?”

Amelia and Jake were startled by a sudden knock on the bedroom door. It was followed by Fay’s voice. “We’re gonna head out for a walk in five minutes, guys. Work off some of this Christmas pig-out.”

“Ok, mom. We’ll be down in a second.”

“Time for me leave,” Kai whispered.

“Will you answer my question before you –?”

With incredible speed, Kai was already at the window and gone.

“Howdy, partner.”

“What is it we’re doing here?”

“Don’t quote me on this but it looks like we’re dancing,” Ella replied.

“Right. I see,” Trent threw back. “I was thinking more about the bigger picture.”

“Yes, you always are. Sometimes you have to forget about the bigger picture and just concentrate on the details at hand. Sometimes you just have to live in the moment and let the future take care of itself.”

“Well, it’s a philosophy I’ve always admired, but…but why doesn’t this feel right?”

“It feels right to me. It feels good - being moved slowly around the dance floor with you whispering sweet nothings into my ear.”

“I’m doing no such –”

“Ha – got ya.”

“This is all just a bit of a game to you, isn’t it?”

Ella seemed genuinely hurt by the comment. “If you think I’m just playing with you - using you - then you don’t know me that well.”

“Sorry, that was a bit of a cheap shot, I –”

“You don’t need to apologise. I can understand why you might think that. Thing is, I think we should treat life like a game more often. I know from experience that life will kick you in the behind every so often without a hint of remorse.”
* * *

Amelia was out walking Sam, Jake by her side. Her dad was out for the evening and Fay had offered to allow her to stay over. Her thoughts brought a sudden burst of snorted laughter.

“What is it?” Jake asked her.

“Everything. Everything feel’s different, don’t you think? A bit weird.”

“How’d you mean?”

“Knowing what we know. Knowing stuff like…well, that Kai is from another dimension. It seems nuts.”

“Loads of people believe in God, don’t they? What’s the difference? Isn’t believing in heaven and hell just like believing in other dimensions? Though we still don’t know that Kai is actually telling the truth.”

“I think I do.”

“Because he’s your boyfriend?” Jake scoffed.

“No! I just feel…I feel that he’s truthful…I can’t explain it. And I don’t know why you’re so jealous of him.”

“I’m not jealous of him. I’m just looking out for you, is all. I don’t mind admitting that I’m a bit scared shitless by all this.”

“Tell me about it.”
* * *

“Thing is, all we ever really have is the moment,” Ella continued with Trent.

“Well, yes, that’s true but…but it’s also just a little bit too convenient. Society would be in chaos if everyone just followed their whims of enjoying themselves in every given moment. There are other people’s feelings at stake.”

“What if I told you that I think Mike and I don’t have a future together? Would that put a different spin on things?”

“Is that true?”

“Answer the question.”

“If you were single my doubts about this – about us - would be a lot less.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Sorry, I don’t mean to sound so clinical but…but the fact is you are in a relationship. And I haven’t started one for a long, long time.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“What makes you think that you and Mike might not have a future together? You love him, don’t you?”

“Well, sure, I like the guy a great deal –”


“Ok, love, then. Whatever that is. I don’t know. What is love?”

“Ask Howard Jones.”


“Doesn’t matter. Bad joke. All I can say is that if it was love, you’d know about it.”

“Would I?”

* * *
Amelia and Jake continued to walk in silence with Sam, circling their block, not straying too far from home. Even Sam seemed to pick up on their reflective mood, padding along slowly with her head down, turning occasionally to look at them both with big, sad brown eyes. Suddenly, though, it was as if a switch had been flicked. Sam’s body tensed, her hair standing on end, a low growl starting to slip from her jaws.

Amelia was a little bit freaked out by Sam’s sudden change in demeanour and did her best to placate her. “Good job, Sam. It’s ok now, though, you’ve scared them off. Good job.”

That’s when the street lights suddenly died and seemingly the rest of Fallswood’s electricity with it.

“Crap,” Jake whispered.

* * *
“I guess I’m just not sure of myself,” Ella admitted.

“Is that what I am, then - a test?”

“No, of course not. You know that I like you.”

“Do I?”

“Well, if you don’t, I’m telling you officially right now that I like you.” Ella sighed as if the cliché of a great weight had just been removed from her shoulders. “Wow, I’ve actually said it out loud.”

“If I said to you right now you could never lay eyes on Mike again, what would you say?”

Ella stumbled for words, “I’d…I’d be upset, of course, because –”

“Wrong answer.”

Ella seemed taken aback. “What do you mean, ‘wrong answer’?”

“You should be devastated.”

* * *
Amelia and Jake’s world was momentarily pitch black. They had to wait to adjust to the only light on offer: the stars and a full moon. Up ahead, something seemed to dart quickly across their line of vision, ripping through a slice of the shadowy darkness.

“What the -?” Jake half-asked but didn’t really want to know.

Amelia had no answers but Sam was suddenly growling - viciously - in a manner that she had never experienced before. She started to pull on her leash to the point where Amelia wasn’t sure that she could hold on for much longer. She was a trained and obedient dog but something out there in the night was overriding her usual nature. And then something else moved through the blackness…and Sam was gone, breaking away from Amelia’s grip.

Instinctively, Amelia started to run after Sam and Jake was processing the same instinct within less than a second. She could feel her heart pounding viciously in her chest; she felt scared of the situation but also terrified that something was going to happen to Sam. Her legs just kept moving on pure adrenaline; she could hear her voice yelling Sam’s name but it seemed somehow detached from her.
* * *
“Sorry, I’m messing with your head, aren’t I?” Ella put to Trent. “I can see that look on your face.”

“Actually, that’s more to do with…I suddenly felt a little bit sick, like a wave of nausea or something.”

“You want to sit down?”

“I think maybe I should just go.” Trent saw the disappointment in Ella’s face. “Sorry, I’m not trying to play games with you, either.”


“Perhaps you need time alone to truly think about what it is you want, then.”

“And what If I wanted you?”

The question seemed to snap out of the blue, surprising both of them. “Please don’t even say that just yet. I don’t want that idea anywhere near my thoughts if you don’t mean it. I mean, I can’t even make any guarantees to you. I still don’t know where my head and heart are at. I know I have strong feelings towards you but I’m not willing to let my guard down just to be a bit of fun on the side.”
* * *
How long had they been running? It was difficult to tell. Sam was nowhere to be seen and Amelia was getting increasingly panicked. Maybe it was just the lack of light but Fallswood seemed unfamiliar and intimidating.

They continued and Amelia felt a leap in her chest when she saw Sam in the distance in front of a chain link fence that blocked the entrance to a driveway. She was digging frantically at the earth, seemingly trying to claw her way under. Whatever the drive led to was obscured by high walls and surrounding trees.

Amelia suddenly realised where they were; that this was the old Carlton Gate house. Amelia realised she had been driven past this spot a number of times without ever really paying much attention to it. Jake had told her about the place. Town folklore – which Amelia had put down as a bogeyman type parent thing to keep kids in check - was that the owner had gone mad and that the place had been abandoned. The adage to the folklore was that it was a dangerous place and maybe even haunted. Jake had told Amelia that kids – him included – used to dare one another to break into the place. For the last five years or so, he’d told her, the driveway had been blocked off and getting over the wall and through the unkempt vegetation had become virtually impossible.

Sam suddenly disappeared under the fence before Amelia and Jake could reach her. Amelia instantly went to follow.

“You going in there?” Jake asked her, trepidation in his voice.

“I’m not leaving Sam. I’m going whether you come or not.”

“I think you already know where I’m going, then.”

She gave him the best smile she could muster and then scrambled through the gap under the fence. Jake followed.
* * *
“If you’re not feeling well don’t drive back to Fallswood. You said Amelia was staying over with the neighbour, right?”


“So why don’t you just stay over at mine, then. Mike’s away, so –”

“I don’t think that’s a good –”

“In the spare room. No monkey business.”

Trent cracked a smile; couldn’t resist. “Monkey business, hey? Who’s been telling you about my peccadilloes?”

She smiled back. “See, that’s the Trent we know and love.”

“Ok. Spare room it is, then.”

She offered him her hand and he took it, the skin warm and soft and inviting. Even though he felt a little nauseous in his stomach, it felt good to be sharing the simple intimacy of holding her hand. As they walked towards his car to take the short drive to Ella’s place, thoughts of Amelia came into his head. He had the strangest feeling and had a strong desire to call her to make sure she was ok. But he pushed aside his instincts to be the overbearing parent.

He handed the keys to Ella. “Home, Jeeves,” he said.

Amelia and Jake scrambled their way up the winding driveway of Carlton Gate house, the wind seeming to whisper through the trees. It felt like a warning to stay away. They finally reached the front of the brooding, quasi-gothic structure that seemed out of place in a town like Fallswood. It wasn’t quite mansion size, more like Graceland size but without any of the maintained grandeur. The stonework was dark and discoloured, paintwork untouched, windows broken and the garden unkempt and overgrown. Even in these moments, despite all that was happening, Amelia couldn’t help but momentarily think how sad it was that all this had been left to happen.

They reached the porch of the house and suddenly heard Sam’s barks reverberating from inside. Amelia put a hand on the door knob of the main entrance door that was already slightly ajar but did not instantly push it any wider. “I’m scared,” she told Jake, barely able to speak, her throat raw and dry from yelling Sam’s name.

“Me, too. Wanting a crap scared,” Jake responded as eloquently as the situation would allow, his body shaking. “But let’s do this, anyway.”

Jake was the brave one this time. He reached and pushed open the buckled and warped wooden door which scraped and squeaked across the floor in true cinematic fashion. It would have been standard fair in a horror movie; here in real life it was terrifying. Amelia tried to shout Sam’s name but all that came out was a hoarse whisper. Jake stepped in and shouted for her. When he did, Sam’s barking stopped and a cloying silence filled the air.
After he’d showered and brushed his teeth, Trent went to bid Ella goodnight before heading to bed. “I think I’m gonna hit the hay,” he told her.

“Sure,” she said, reaching out to him from the sofa. “Do I get a good night kiss first?”

Trent stepped across to Ella, leaning down to give her a peck on the cheek. Before he could pull away, her hand was on his neck, pulling his mouth towards his own. He wanted to be strong, to pull away from her, but the touch and the smell of her was too alluring. He started to kiss her back, giving into the moment. Before he could lose himself, though, the mood was broken by the sound of a ringing phone: Trent’s.

“Don’t answer it,” Ella whispered, her lips brushing against his ear as she spoke.

Trent pulled away from her slightly. “Let me just see if it’s Amelia.” Trent leaned across towards his phone on the coffee table. The screen revealed the caller’s name: Fay. “I should get this.”

Trent answered the phone and Fay was already in mid-flow before he had chance to say hello. She told him about the blackout in Fallswood and that the kids were out with Sam and that they should have returned by now. “I’m worried, Trent,” Fay admitted. He told her that he was on his way.

“Looks like you’re leaving,” Ella said regretfully, Trent already in the process of getting dressed. He explained the situation. “I’m coming with you,” she told him.
The house smelled like…if not like death then somewhere without life, Amelia thought to herself. Outside was cold but in here the temperature seemed to bite even harder, digging into her flesh with its uninviting touch. Ahead of them was a bare and barren reception area with a wooden staircase sweeping up to the second floor, Jake illuminating their movements with the light from his phone.

The only furnishings were the cobwebs and the dust that their feet kicked up with each step forward. Again, Jake called out for Sam, involuntarily holding himself back, frightened of what attention he might attract in such a foreboding setting. That’s when they heard Sam’s whimper coming from upstairs. Amelia and Jake symbiotically looked at one another with the knowledge that they had to climb those stairs and climb them now.

They started to ascend the stripped wooden staircase, each creak like a howl echoing around this shell of a house. “Sam,” Jake said again, pleading.

They reached the top of the stairs and saw Sam down the end of the corridor to their left, nosing and scratching at the door. They ran towards her just as the door clicked open followed by Sam entering the room. Amelia and Jake reached the open doorway. The darkness seemed to be a physical presence, thick like fog, the light from Jake’s phone barely cutting into it: there were no visible windows to let in the moonlight from outside. Together, they stepped into the unknown.
Both Trent and Ella could see that Fallswood lay in almost perpetual darkness as they drove into town. Only when they moved through the streets did they see that some lights were still on, probably from personal generators or candles. Quite a few people were out investigating the situation with flashlights. This scene of normal human activity put Trent’s mind at ease. This was a blackout in sleepy Fallswood and not the depths of the inner city, after all.

“They’ll be fine,” Ella said to him, reaching to touch his knee. It was a sentiment he wanted to believe and felt more inclined to do so now.

They drove to the house and went straight to see Fay. Introductions were made. Was it Trent’s imagination or did he feel a slight frisson between the two women. In his head, it was as if these two people knew one another and were friends because both were so entwined in his current life. It suddenly dawned on him they both knew of the other but had never actually met before. Their exchange loitered in his mind for a moment: ‘Trent has told me so much about you,’ Fay said. ‘Likewise,’ had been Ella’s response.

Fay explained that the walk with Sam had only supposed to be around the block which would have only taken them about ten to fifteen minutes. It was now well over an hour since they had gone walkabout. Amelia had no phone and Jake’s had been tripping to voicemail. Their plan was to go out and look for them.
Amelia could feel the gooseflesh cover her skin and a cold rush flushing her cheeks. She was holding Jake’s hand which was both clammy and ice cold. She tried to call Sam’s name but her voice remained hoarse, the word a strangled whisper slipping from her sore throat. Jake said the words for her but there was no response and no movement. It felt almost impossible to gage how big the room was but she knew it had to have limits: didn’t it?

Suddenly a low growl cut through the silence. This was followed by movement across the floorboards accompanied by a rush of cold air. What sounded like impact stopped Sam’s growling and she whimpered in pain.

“Bastards!” Amelia tried to yell. “I’ll kill you!” She was surprised at her own emotions, tears welling in her eyes. She was aware that Jake was yelling, too; petrified. He swung his arms in a wild effort to defend them from what might be out there. The light of his phone swung with him. In the darkness, Amelia saw something against a back wall: three human figures stood there, their heads hairless and bowed to the ground, their faces obscured. Amelia grabbed Jake’s arm and turned to the light back to what she thought she had seen.

She stared and Jake stared with her, fighting for breath at what they were seeing. And then that newly familiar sickness came over her and a circle of light was born into the darkness. ‘Fight it’, was the mantra in her head. The waves of nausea made her knees weak but she grabbed onto Jake’s arm for support to ride the sickness out.

The circle of light started to pulse; there was movement inside of it. Then a face started to appear. Amelia realised how hypnotic the sight was and forced her and Jake to look away. She grabbed his wrist and started to move his phone to scour the room for Sam. She saw a glimpse of the figures on the back wall. In unison, she saw all three of them raise their lumbering heads to reveal human-esque faces, almost demonic, their white expressionless eyes staring into the darkness. Amelia screamed a silent scream.
Trent’s stomach was churning as he and Ella drove slowly around the darkness of Fallswood. Neither of them spoke. What was there to say? A part of him suspected that Ella thought they were overreacting to the situation but he sensed that something was wrong. He felt helpless but at least this was better than doing nothing. Fay was in her car, taking other routes. The deal was to phone one another if they spotted anything.
Suddenly, as if answering her inner prayers, Sam was suddenly at Amelia’s side. She looked tired and submissive, her previous fight drained out of her. Amelia grabbed the leash with one hand and Jake with her other. Then she turned to run, the erratic light from Jake’s phone guiding them out of the room, down the corridor and down the staircase.

The whole situation had a dream-like quality to it but a terrifying one. For Amelia, it was as if her body were being controlled by a third party. Her legs were propelling her forward but she wasn’t quite sure how. She started to feel that all her terrible dreams had been a premonition to a nightmare more based in her reality, whatever form that reality might now be taking. It felt like all the old rules were out of the window now.

They reached the gate. Amelia gestured for Jake to scramble under first and then passed him the leash to drag a tired Sam through. Amelia followed but got herself snagged. She started to panic, unable to think straight, convinced that something was going to grab her and pull her back towards the house. Something did reach and touch her but it was Jake, freeing her clothing from its snag and dragging her through to join them.

They sat there exhausted, trying to get their breath back. The world was silent again bar the noise of the wind intermingling with their heavy breathing. That’s when they heard Jake’s phone start to ring.

Amelia woke up in darkness under a canopy of twisted trees that seemed to be questioning why she was here in such a god forsaken environment. And then the trees started to wilt away into nothingness like the earth was dying. Instead of being in a forest she was in a room: a cellar; cold and stark. And those horrible, lumbering figures were lined up against the bricks. Amelia awoke in a panic.

She reached for her phone and called Jake. “We need to tell them,” was all she said when she answered.

Yesterday evening, after being picked up by her dad, Fay and Ella, there had been a flurry of questions but both she and Jake had been too emotionally and physically drained to answer any of them. Amelia could see how much worry they were causing but what could they say? After a sleep, as restless as it was, Amelia felt they had to share the burden whether it was believed or not. She wasn’t even sure what to believe herself.
She convened her dad, Jake and Fay almost like she was having a press conference. Where do I begin, she wondered? I guess I just start talking. She directed most of her conversation at the floor. She told them about the dreams and the incident at the school and about Kai and finally what had happened at the old Carlton House. Jake chipped in with all the things he could corroborate. Both Trent and Fay did not say anything whilst she was talking.

Washed out, Amelia slumped down on the floor next to Sam, stroking her, her eyes still fixed on the floor. It was Jake who seemed agitated and needed a response from the adults present in the room.

“What do you think?” Jake put to both his mother and Trent.

“It’s a lot to take it, Jacob,” Fay answered.

“You don’t believe us?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I think we believe that you believe it, kiddo,” Trent added.

“You should have seen how Sam reacted up at the Carlton House and she’s the most placid dog I’ve ever met. She was freaked out and scared. I was freaked out and scared. Crap your pants scared. I still am. You would be, too, if you’d seen what we did up there. I’d tell you to go and take a look for yourself but…well, no way would I really suggest that because something totally wrong is happening up there. I suppose Kai could convince you, though.” Jake said this whilst turning to Amelia for support.

Trent turned to his daughter, too. “You mentioned this Kai character. Who is he exactly?”

“Like I said, we don’t really know.” Amelia laughed at what she was about to say; how ridiculous it would sound. “Just someone we know from another dimension.”

“Is that what you really believe?”

She shrugged. “It seems possible to me after everything that’s happened.”

“Kai could convince them,” Jake reiterated.

“We don’t exactly have his phone number.”

“True. But whenever you’re around, he’s usually not too far away.”

Later. After dark. Both Amelia and Jake were in their respective beds and Trent was around at Fay’s. Trent expressed his concerns for his daughter. He didn’t go as far as telling Fay that Amelia had tried to kill herself but he did hint that she had been through more trauma than just watching her mother die.

“How do you know they’re not telling the truth?” Fay put to Trent.

Trent laughed involuntarily. He looked at Fay and saw that she wasn’t joking. “You mean, that they think they’re telling the truth.”

“Isn’t your job as a teacher to keep an open mind?”

“My job as a teacher is to teach kids facts.”

“Sometimes facts aren’t set in stone. I know my son, Trent. He’s a little bit of a dreamer – I used to be that way at his age, believe it or not – but he’s honest as the day is long. I saw how genuinely scared he was earlier on.

“I’ve gotten to know Amelia pretty well, too, and she strikes me as a girl who has her head screwed on. She might have been through some troubles but she seems like a girl with a lot of resilience. And I believe them. Maybe they’ve gotten it all wrong about what’s been happening but it’s definitely something that’s deeply troubling them both.

“Sure, talk of other dimensions just sounds like silly teenage fancy but…well, we believe in God, don’t we?”

“I live in hope,” Trent interjected.

“So we can’t have it both ways. I’m not saying belief in God leaves me open to anything-is-possible. Believe me, I have a cynical streak in me a mile wide,” Fay snorted, “and not just because of my asshole husband. But I keep an open mind. I try to, anyhow.”

“So what now?”

“I don’t know. I guess we just look out for them the best we know how to.”

A rhythmical tapping brought Amelia out of her shallow sleep. Her heart dived in her chest when she realised the noise was coming from her bedroom window. Her first instinct was to run; to hide. But where? This fear was replaced by anger. This was her home – her bedroom – and no one (or thing) had the right to violate that. She grabbed the claw hammer that she had recently started to keep in her bedside cabinet. Then she went towards the window without thinking, her body carried on instinct.

She could feel the violent, quickening pulse of her blood. She could feel the sweat on her skin and the claw hammer wanting to exit her grip. Amelia stood as far back as she could whilst still being able to reach her drapes. She yanked them open. That’s when she screamed.

There was a figure out there on her roof, staring in through her window. It took a moment for her to realise that it was Kai. She quickly moved to open the window but she heard movement from within the house: she suspected it was her dad coming to see that she was ok, possibly awakened by her scream. Amelia gestured for Kai to stay put and closed the drapes. Then she moved as quickly and quietly as she possibly could to get back into bed.

There was brief, soft rap at her door followed by her father’s voice: “Amelia?”

“Hi, dad. Sorry I woke you. Just a dream.”

“Can I come in?”


Trent popped his head around the door. “You gave me a bit of a scare.”

“I gave myself one. It’s fine now, though. I’m ok.”

He came and sat on the bed, brushing the hair from her face. He suddenly looked concerned. “You’re sweating like you have a fever.”

“It was just the dream. Honestly, I’m ok.”

“Well, you know where I am if you need anything.”


Trent kissed her forehead then got up, forlornly leaving the room. That look was like a fist around Amelia’s heart. She waited a few moments after he had left the room, consumed momentarily by a deep sadness. Then she shuffled back to the window to let Kai in.

She was startled to suddenly realise what kind of state he was in: battered and bloodied. She led him to the chair at her desk and eased him in.

“What the hell happened to you?” The words came out Amelia’s mouth in a mad flurry. Kai had to ask her to repeat again; English wasn’t exactly his first language, he explained.

“Does not matter what happened to me. It is more important what might happen to you. I think I need to take you away from here.”


“If not right this second then soon.”

“I can’t just up and leave, I –”

“I think you are in grave danger.”

“You need to explain more than that.” She put a hand on his cheek. “Tell me what happened to you.”

He reached and gently removed her hand, holding it momentarily, his usually blank expression suddenly quizzical. “I am not used to this.”

“Not used to what?”

“The sensation of touch. The sensation of pain. We’re not the same as you.” He looked down at his arms, turning them, his expression like that of an amputee whose arms had re-grown overnight. “We are not physical creatures in the sense that you would understand. I am not a shape shifter but here – in this world - this is my body. At home, it would not be.”

“Tell me what happened to you,” Amelia reiterated.

He took a breath and composed himself. “I went to the house. They have found a way to get through the portal on a more sustained basis.”

“What will they do?”

“Perhaps they just want to experience the pleasures of the flesh in this world.”

“Is that so bad?”

“There would be more. They are not here for a pleasant visit.”

“They want to do us harm?”



“It is their way.”

“They’d hurt me especially?”

“They will not kill you. But they will take you and study you. Find out why you are the key. Hurt you in the process.”

Amelia felt the sadness well up inside of her, visions of going on the run floating into her head. When she spoke, her voice was distant and dreamy. “So you’re like the Terminator to my Sarah Connor?”

“I do not understand.”

“Doesn’t matter…I don’t want to run, Kai. I can’t leave my dad.”

“You have no choice.”

“I’m too tired to run.”

“You will find the strength.”

The door suddenly crashed open. Amelia turned, expecting the worse. It was her father stood in the doorway, cast in silhouette from the light from the hallway. There was something heavy in his hand. He flicked on the light and she saw the look on his face: a look of grim determination that frightened her slightly.

“Please, dad, it’s ok. This is Kai.”

“Well, I think Kai made a mistake coming here.” Trent looked towards the open window. “I think he might be leaving the same way he came in.”

“Kai is here to help me.”

Trent stepped forward then seemed to soften when he saw the battered state that Kai was in. “What happened to you, son?”

“Long story.”

“Try me.”

TK diary entry Wednesday 1 February
February already? What did January go? Wasn’t it Christmas just a couple of days ago? This month brings a lot of conflicting emotions: Amelia’s birthday and the second anniversary of Sara’s passing. Ella’s birthday also falls in this month.

It’s the early hours of the morning; I can’t sleep. Outside, though, the world goes on inexorably as normal, seemingly at ease with itself, wrapped in a thick white blanket of snow. Most people will be asleep, lost in the dreams. Others – the early risers – might be going on about their daily business of showering or making coffee or reading the Sunday papers in bed or perhaps even making love. I envy all of those people and the simplicity of their desires for the day.

The way I feel this morning is like the way I felt when Sara was in her sickest days in the weeks leading up to her death, the weeks when my tactic of denial would no longer work. Some part of my head had always known that she would get better – I mean, how ludicrous to think that she could actually die and go leave me and Amelia alone – but this, of course, was nothing more than a psychological smoke screen to help me get through the days. It’s not a tactic that continues to work when someone you love is literally crumbling away right there in front of you, drifting away from you like gold dust slipping through a beggar’s fingers in a storm. And the more you try to hold onto this precious thing, the more it kills you inside to know that your efforts are futile.

So this is how I feel. It doesn’t quite match those barren feelings from the hours and days and weeks after her death because that I can’t even put into words. But my feelings certainly match that time leading up to her death.

So the world goes on as normal, like I said; the things I’ve recently been told have turned my head upside down. The things that Kai told me last night – actually just a few hours ago – sounded like utter teenage nonsense. And yet I find myself leaning towards having to believe them. I have always been open to the idea of the mystical and the fantastical, to religion – call it what you will – but the intellect in me always won out; my intellect always sneered at it. But that young man had an air about him that just wasn’t quite…human? It gave his bizarre story an air of plausibility. And it wasn’t just the way he spoke. And it wasn’t just the way he leapt down off the roof from Amelia’s window when he seemed barely fit to crawl. It was deeper than that, some ineffable quality that made me believe him.

So what now? How do I protect my daughter? For what it’s worth, I’ll try to do it until my final breath.

THE PORTAL: a novel (chapters 1 - 15)

This was a terrible place to die but a location designed for death.

Time and space seemed irrelevant here. Was she up or down, was she falling or being dragged by an unseen force? All she sensed is that she was hurtling towards something. Oblivion? Either way, she had no sense of when this had started or when it would end.

Her speed of movement was verging on the unbearable and intensifying with each passing second, whipping violently against her flesh and slowly shredding the clothing from her body until she was left naked and exposed. She was desperate to force down her arms to cover herself but the intensity was greater than she could fight against.

The velocity also made it difficult for her to keep her eyes fully closed, forcing her brain to process a haze of quick-cut images. It might have been a black hole she was falling through or a building of leviathan proportions or a cavern of indeterminate size. Its edges looked black and decaying, a twisted amalgam of flesh and metal: a suppurating and oozing landscape.

There were other sights, too; either that or her mind was playing tricks on her. She was sure she saw entities moving in the periphery of her vision, flitting between the shadows. Some looked like demons; others looked like black-garbed angels. She was terrified and wanted to bury her head and deny that any of this was happening. But there was nowhere to escape to. It felt as if the only way out was death itself… and that death is where she was heading to.

She could feel herself getting weaker, the speed at which she was travelling increasing to a point where she felt she could no longer stay conscious. She looked down at her nakedness, her limbs and flesh being stretched to breaking point, her skin starting to tear and split, blood seeping to the surface. She felt an agonizing pain and a horrible, squelching ripping noise inside of her. Looking down, she saw with horror that dark, viscous blood was spilling from between her legs.

She thought of her family and her friends…and wept at the knowledge that she would never see them again.

Surely I’m too young to die, she thought to herself…just as everything turned black…then exploded with light like time itself had just been born.

Is this what it felt like to be born? Who knew; who could ever remember their own birth?

To Amelia, it felt like gravity was dragging her down a pitch-black slide in a nightmarish theme park with a glimmer of brilliant white light in the distance. And then suddenly the light was everywhere, enveloping her, sucking her out and throwing her down on to a cold, hard surface.

Oddly, Amelia realised she felt no pain from her impact. There was only a sense of disorientation. Abruptly, her focus returned and she realised she was displaced from her body, starting to float out and above it. Was this one of those out-of-body experiences, she thought to herself? Without eyes, she was looking down on her fourteen year old body slumped on the bathroom floor of the Manhattan apartment that she shared with her dad. It was odd to see herself like this – is that really how I look, she thought - so pale and small, garbed in her childish knee-length pyjama T-shirt?

She could see the dark, viscous blood oozing from the self inflicted wound on her left wrist. And next to this was the glistening razor blade. Amelia understood that she must have passed out before she was able to continue with her plan to slice open her opposite wrist. What she couldn’t quite understand was the dark, blood-like stain where her T-shirt was stuck to the V of her groin.

Amelia was distracted by a faint, distant sound. Without ears, she strained to listen: it seemed to be the barely audible sound of something banging against the wood of the bathroom door over the soundtrack of a yelling baritone voice: a fist? It was the sound of someone (or something) trying to break down the bolted bathroom door, though it was as if Amelia was listening to it on the other side of an invisible, sound-proofed bubble.

Finally, the cheap lock gave way and the door spewed violently open. From above, Amelia saw a shape enter the bathroom in cinematic slow-motion: a man. Up until this moment, she had felt totally disconnected from the scene she was viewing, as if she were watching a dream sequence in a movie. Only when she saw the man looking down at her body on the floor with an expression of horror did the reality of it all come rushing into her. Slow-motion was replaced by the mad blur of real-time and the near-silence was replaced by the deafening, horrified roar of her father, Trent, calling out her name as Amelia balanced on the precipice of life and death.

TK diary entry Sunday 20 March.
New York –- Manhattan especially –- how many people has this city bewitched and enthralled? On a day like today you can understand why. From the back window of the apartment where I’m sitting, I can see the rising sun glinting off the Chrysler Building. Out on the street below, all is early-morning quiet. Last week’s cold snap is evident within the snow, laying a carpet of beauty across the concrete.

For all this, though, the time has come to move on and leave New York behind; to evolve. I remember my first time in this city, how I felt it belonged to me, how I wanted to drink in every intoxicating drop. I haven’t fallen out of love with the place but she has become like a beautiful, needy mistress who I need to extricate myself from.

Today is the third anniversary to the day of Sara’s diagnosis and close to a year since her death; the culmination of a long, difficult time. It seems fitting that I should be putting my decision down in writing today. This might sound overly dramatic but I truly believe that things have to change if I and Amelia are to survive.

The two of us need to get strong again and I don’t think that can happen with my current lifestyle or our current location. I need to downsize, change jobs and get out of this apartment…and this city. This is the decision I have made. I feel it is the right one and pray my instincts prove right.

Amelia stepped into the bath and eased herself down into the water, letting the heat and the suds envelope her body. A month had passed since the ‘incident’ but she still felt exhausted most of the time. Baths felt like soothing gloves wrapping themselves across her flesh.

Lying there, her mind drifted to the future. She tried to imagine what kind of grown-up she would make. Would her suicide attempt mark and formulate her forever or would find strength from it and joke about it at those dinner parties sophisticated people went to. Well, I can rule that out, she smiled to herself; I’ll never be sophisticated enough to be wearing dresses and sipping cocktails at parties. Thank god.

Her therapist had talked about just concentrating on one day at a time. Don’t be worrying too much about what might or might not occur down the line, she had said; let the future take care of itself. That was easier said than done, of course. Big changes were looming at the moment. She knew her Dad had been looking to move and was applying for jobs out of town and she felt guilty that she was the reason for forcing him out the city and his job. She realised why this city and this apartment would have ghosts for him but she didn’t want him changing his life on her account.

Amelia closed her eyes and tried to conjure up good memories; images that would calm her. It was a technique her therapist had suggested. She thought of times of her childhood, times spent with her parents, learning to ride her friend’s horse, trips to Florida, being on her father’s shoulders in Central Park and feeling like a giant. She used anything to keep away the dark thoughts and dreams. She thought of all those impatient times she had spent learning the piano with her mom. She loved spending time with her, sharing her passion and wished she had tried harder. Both of them knew, though, that Amelia was too much of an out-doors-tom-boy to ever devote the time to being a pianist

Counter to this, Amelia loved music and loved to sing; singing was especially therapeutic when she felt that the darkness was starting to roll in on her, a darkness that had threatened to swallow her whole a month ago. The medication was effective but made her feel slightly embarrassed and nervous about its long term effects; singing provided a natural high. When she felt the world starting to close in on her, she would pick one of her favourite songs and random and let herself go. Here, in the bath, she was safe in the knowledge that the sound proofing was good and that she could sing as loud as she wanted and that the only person likely to hear her was her father.

She started to sing ‘Roll To Me’ by Del Amitri, a band she had discovered through her mother who seemed to have knowledge of every musician, artist and writer under the sun. Despite the seemingly downbeat lyrics, it was a raucous little ditty. “And I don’t think I have ever seen a soul so in despair. So if you want to talk the night through, guess who will be there…?” Amelia continued to sing out the rest of the song, grabbing up a shampoo bottle to imitate a microphone.

With the water starting to cool, Amelia leant forward to reach for the hot tap. As she did so, she suddenly noticed that the blue, soapy water had taken on a reddish tint. A moment of confusion was followed with the horrible realisation that there was blood in the bath. She jumped to her feet, panicking, wondering what the hell was happening to her. She looked down and saw tiny rivulets of blood streaking down her thigh.

She half-leapt from the tub, grabbing a towel, blood soaking into the whiteness as soon as she started to dry herself. Suddenly, realisation kicked in. Amelia realised she was having her first period.

Trent glanced towards his daughter. She was short like her mother – shorter at fourteen - but looked tiny and vulnerable hunched up in the passenger seat, leaning against the door, hugging her childhood cuddly bear tight to her body, the seatbelt hooked around both of them. “We’re almost there, kiddo.”

Amelia snapped her head towards her father, broken from her thoughts. “What you say?” she asked. It came out as if it were one word: watusay?

“I was just saying that we’re almost there. And to check that you’re ok – you’ve been very quiet over there.”

“I’m fine, dad. Totally. I was just taking in the sights. Bit spooky out there, don’t you think? Even Sam seems a little freaked out.”

Trent gave a quick glance to their chocolate brown Labrador in the back of the SUV. She was no longer calmly laid down but sat bolt upright and starring out into the woods that flew by them on both sides of the highway.

It was a sunny day in late June. Or at least it had been five minutes ago; from here, there was little evidence that the sky and the elements still existed. The dense trees seemed to stand like brooding guardians along the roadside, their branches and foliage stretching to meet in the middle, creating a canopy, as if light was an enemy of the ground below.

Sat looking forward now, Amelia became aware of her father’s gaze flicking intermittently towards her, feeling the weight of his concern. “Honestly, Dad, I’m fine,” she told him.

“Sorry. Can’t help it,” Trent told her. “Part of my job description.”

“Yeah, I know. And I love you for it but –”

“But you’re saying give you a little space to breathe?”

“Something like that.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Thanks. Hey, if I was in your shoes, I’d be wrapping me in cotton wool, too. If I had a kid who – you know – well…” Amelia let the thought drift into silence. “But I feel a lot better now. Really I do. And I just want this move to Fallswood to be a fresh start for us both, you know. The good thing is that people here won’t know anything about what happened and won’t already be pre-judging me as loony tunes.”

“Don’t say that. No one thinks that about you.”


“You don’t have to apologise, either.”

“I know.” Amelia saw her father throw a surreptitious glance towards her left wrist, the fading scar covered by a wrist band. “All I’m saying is that in Fallswood, I can be a blank page to all the new people I meet. Both of us can be.”

“A blank page sounds good to me,” Trent replied.

Amelia smiled at her father, “Good because being blank shouldn’t be too difficult for you.”

“Ha-ha, very funny.”

“Like father like daughter.”

“Your mum was the joker in the pack. I’m the serious intellectual one, remember.”

“Yeah, right,” Amelia scoffed.

“Hey, I can always make you walk.”

“I can live with that. Your sat-nav thingy says I can handle walking the rest of the journey.”

“I thought you didn’t do technology.”

“Oh, you know - when it suits.”

Finally, they came out from the avenue of trees, the sun momentarily blinding after the gloom. And there right in front of them was the sign for the city limit. ‘The City of Fallswood Welcomes You’, it announced: population 15246.

The place had the look of quintessential, tourist-brochure small town America, much of it resembling a throw-back to a bygone age with its family run diners and barbers and hardware stores.

“So. What are your first impressions?” Trent put to his daughter.

“Quaint,” Amelia replied. “And no chains, either, which is nice. I haven’t seen a single McDonalds or Starbucks yet.”

“Well, amen to that.”

“Not a lot of people out, either. You think maybe they’re all at home sacrificing goats or something?”

“They only sacrifice surly teenagers in this part of the world.”

* * *
They reached their new abode five minutes later. It was located on the outskirts of the city: a small, two-storey Dutch colonial style house in the middle of an unassuming street of similar houses. Out the back, there was a fenced yard with a lawn and a single tree. Beyond the yard lay open land that led towards a dense forest in the distance. It almost blotted out the horizon.

“Looks like a postcard,” Amelia said to her father, the two of them surveying the scene from the rear of the house.

“Not quite Norman Rockwell but certainly very different to New York, that’s for sure.”
* * *
That night, Amelia lay on her makeshift airbed in her virtually empty room. The removals van wasn’t due to be with them until the following morning. A light breeze swayed the branches of the tree outside, the moonlight slicing through them in ever-changing shards.

She felt alone and slightly scared but gave herself an internal pep talk: that her feelings were understandable and that they would pass. Moving to a new house in a new town would make most people feel displaced and she knew the unfamiliarity would fade with each passing day; she just had to get through tonight and then tomorrow she would be able to busy herself in assisting with unloading the removals truck and getting the house sorted. Right now, though, feeling exhausted but unable to sleep, the morning seemed a long way off.

She sat up and reached across for Mr Cuddles, her childhood bear who had sat with her for the journey. She told herself that she only kept him around for the sake of ironic nostalgia. Tonight, though, the truth was that she needed him. She pulled him under the covers and held him tight.

“Everything’s gonna be ok,” she whispered to Mr Cuddles. “I mean, I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to you and you wouldn’t let anything bad happen to me, right? Ok, fine. Enough said.”

It was another hour before she finally slipped into the realm of sleep; a restless state blighted by nightmares. She dreamt of falling again and landing hard on sodden ground in the middle of a brooding forest. She realised she was naked and cold and that something was watching her from the depths of the woods. She knew instinctively that she had to run or die. So run she did, her pursuer crashing through the trees behind her and seeming to gain with each passing step. The moment she felt something clawing at her back was the moment she screamed…and the moment she woke to find herself in her temporary new bed drenched in sweat.

Amelia half-sat down, half collapsed onto the front lawn and tied back her spillage of shoulder-length chestnut hair. She was exhausted from lack of sleep and from helping unload the removals truck. Sam was tied up to the tree out front on a long leash, staying in the shade. Now, though, she padded over to say hi. Amelia gave her a hug.

“Don’t worry, Sam,” she comforted her with. “It’ll feel like home soon enough.”

Taking a breather, she continued to watch her dad and the two removal guys going about their business. One of them (Pete) was in his early twenties, the son of the older man. He was tall and lean and tanned, his hair cut to the bone; in truth, he looked a little bit scary. Amelia had barely heard him say a word all day but she felt this gave him a mysterious edge. In truth, she guessed he probably just didn’t have much to say for himself but this didn’t tie in with the little scenario she was toying with inside her head. Either way, she liked the way his muscles worked, accentuated by the vest her was wearing.

Coming back out of the house now, Pete caught her gaze and offered the merest of smiles. Amelia smiled back, trying to feign a detached coolness but feeling her pale cheeks suddenly burning red. She turned her attention back to Sam, not wanting to give her emotions away. She was aware that her feelings towards the opposite sex had suddenly intensified in the last few months. She had worried previously because many of her peers had seemed to have strong feelings for boys for what seemed like a long time ago. Now she was experiencing those emotions first hand.

Amelia aimlessly took in her environment, glancing both ways down the street. Turning from right to left, she realised that someone was watching her from the house one up from hers. It was a teenage boy, probably about her age, stood on the porch. As soon as Amelia spotted him, he turned away and pretended to act as indifferently as she had just tried to do: though a lot less convincingly. She was sure it was the same kid she had seen earlier heading up and down the street on his bike, checking out all the activity of the house move. Amelia decided to be brave and threw a wave towards the teenage boy on the porch. Even from here, Amelia could see him going redder than she had gone only moments ago. He toyed nervously with his spectacles before scurrying into the house.

“Well, that’s the end of that friendship,” Amelia thought out loud to herself. Sam seemed to look up at her and grin.

She closed her eyes and laid her head back into the sun, trying to block out everything else around her. She tried to drag up an image of her mother; sometimes it wasn’t that easy. Amelia could visualise lots of things she and her mom had done together but sometimes conjuring a clear image of her face proved problematic. Sometimes she had to pull out a photo of her just to get a fix on what she looked like.

Amelia’s mother had always seemed like a whirlwind of flamboyance, the perfect antidote to Trent’s steadfast nature and unassuming charm. Many of Amelia’s memories of her mother involved watching her paint, her fiery red hair often streaming as she danced around a canvas. She remembered one incident of secretly watching her mom being interviewed by a journalist who was desperate to know what made Sara Karras ‘tick?’ She had gone up to him - slowly – laying a hand delicately across his chest before leaning in to kiss him full on the mouth. At the very last moment she had pulled away laughing. “It’s arousing emotions like the ones you just felt that make me tick,” she had told him.

Amelia was broken from her thoughts by a low-threat woof from Sam. This was followed by a faint whirring noise followed by something nudging into her leg. She looked down and saw that there was a remote control car at her side. It had a note attached to it along with a pen held there with tape. The note read: ‘You look thirsty. Need a drink? We have Pepsi, Gatorade and Mountain Dew. All Diet, though, I’m afraid. Or perhaps water or juice? Your neighbour – Jake.’

Amelia glanced down the street and saw that her neighbour - her teenage voyeur - was skulking on his porch with what she guessed was a remote control in his hands. Amelia smiled and proffered a little wave. Tentatively, her neighbour waved back. Amelia took the note and pen and wrote the following: ‘Jake - Diet Pepsi would be great, thank you.’ She purposely didn’t write her own name. She replaced the pen and note and gestured to show that she was done. A moment later, the remote controlled car was whizzing back to its owner.

Amelia watched as Jake read her note and then quickly ran back into the house. About thirty seconds later, he spilled back onto the porch. A few seconds after that, with Sam watching it all the way, the remote controlled car was returned to Amelia with a can of ice-cold Diet Pepsi attached. She took it, opened it and gestured ‘cheers’ towards Jake before taking a mouthful of soda. Had a drink ever tasted so good, she wondered? She got to her feet. Then she untied Sam, put her on her leash and started to head over towards next door.

Getting close, she could see her neighbour looking edgy. “Thanks for the drink,” Amelia said to him a few yards from the porch.

“No probs,” he shyly replied.

“You’re Jake, right?” He nodded. “I’m Amelia. And the chocolate one here is Sam.”

She moved closer to Jake, remaining at the foot of the porch but leaning to offer her hand. He was thin, with short curly black hair, maybe five-seven – which still made him five inches taller than her (ok, five and a half). For a moment, she wondered if the humble handshake was alien to teenagers in these parts. It took awhile for Jake to finally take her hand – briefly – before looking away shyly again.

“Soft hands,” Jake said almost under his breath, going a little red again as if he had just been caught thinking out loud his most personal thoughts.

“You, too,” Amelia countered, jokily, sending Jake’s gaze down to his sneakers.

There was a moment of silence between them which Amelia deliberately didn’t move to break. Nervously, Jake was the one who eventually re-opened dialogue. “Is he friendly?” he asked, gesturing Sam.

“She. And, yes, she’s very friendly. Well, until I tell her not to be, that is.”

“I see,” Jake replied, looking a little unsure.

“You can come and stroke her if you like. She’d like that.”

Jake came down the steps cautiously, finally leaning over to give Sam a stroke. He started to get into it when Sam responded favourably to the attention. Amelia told him that he was now in Sam’s good books for life.

“So how many of you are moving in?” Jake asked.

“Oh, you know, just the ten of us,” Amelia responded deadpan, enjoying the look of horror on her neighbour’s face.

“Ten of you? I’m not sure these houses are really big enough for -”

“It’s ok because most of the troupe are dwarves. Not just shorties like me but proper dwarves. I’m massive compared the others so we don’t take up a lot of room. We’re a circus clan, you see.”

“Jeez,” Jake said, dreamily thinking out loud. “Wait till my mom hears about this.”

“Does she like animals?”

“Erm, she likes dogs.”

“What about monkeys, though? We’ll be keeping a bunch of them in the back yard.”


Amelia considered keeping up the act but felt a strong pang of sympathy for the look of abject worry on her neighbour’s face. She started laughing. “I’m sorry, Jake; I’m just pulling your pisser.”

“You are?”

“Yeah, sorry. It’s really just me and my dad moving in.”


“I didn’t mean to tease you.”

“It’s ok. Everyone says I’m a bit gullible.”

“Hey, at our age, better to have a little bit of gullibility – a bit of wonder - than to wrap ourselves in a cloak of cynicism, right?”

“I like that. Who said it?”

Amelia pretended to look for someone stood behind her before pointing at herself proudly. “It was me. Amelia Jane Karras.”

“A would-be philosopher.”

“Nope, not me. I struggle working stuff out for myself never mind for anyone else…So, anyway – what’s a kid do around here for kicks? I don’t want a long, lonely summer ahead of me.”

“You don’t have to spend it alone,” Jake tentatively offered.

“You offering to show me the delights of Fallswood?”

“Yeah, I could, erm, show you around, if you like,” Jake offered hesitantly. “When?”

“Well, I need to help finish unpacking today but -”


Amelia held out her hand again. This time Jake was a little quicker off the mark in taking her offer. “Deal.”

TK diary entry Sunday 3 July.
Fallswood seems abuzz in anticipation of tomorrow’s Independence Day celebrations. All week, preparative work has been taking place with city officials and volunteers setting up a stage on the town green. They’ve also been erecting lights and banners and a launch pad for the fireworks along Main Street. I’ve always enjoyed the 4th of July and I’m doing my best to spark that enthusiasm in me right now. In truth, though, I think I’ll be glad when it’s all done and dusted.

I should see it as a networking opportunity, to introduce myself to a few more of the townsfolk. After all, I’ll be teaching some of their kids come the fall. However, I’m still not quite ready to be Mr Sociable. Thankfully, the neighbours have been pleasant – people you can say hi to – without being too obtrusive.

One great thing on the neighbours’ front is that Amelia seems to have made a friend with the kid next door: Jake. Under normal circumstances, I think I might have been a little nervous at the idea of Amelia spending a lot of time with a teenage boy. Jake, though – poor kid – can only be described as harmless. I shouldn’t knock it – he seems good natured enough – and I have some empathy for him. Let’s face it; I have some personal experience of what geeky and un-cool feels like at his age.

Jake’s mother, Fay, also seems nice enough: easy-going and well mannered like her son, also with a hint of her son’s shyness. I’ve been keeping my distance to a degree but at least I know Amelia isn’t falling under dubious influences when she’s next door. Amelia and Jake probably feel an extra connection because they are both the only child in a single parent household. From what Amelia tells me, Jake’s father is no longer on the scene; he just upped and left.

So what else? Well, the weather’s been glorious, so no complaints on that front. In truth, though, I’m looking forward to September rolling around so I can start my job in earnest. There’s a fair bit of prep work to keep me busy, of course – hell, I haven’t taught in over seven years – but I’m itching to get started again.

It’s not only been tough re-immersing into the mind set of being a teacher again; it’s also been difficult getting back into the world of reading. Since I gave up teaching, it strikes me how little I have read in that time. Sure, I always have a book on the go but I don’t devour them like I used to. Sara always found me a contradiction in terms: this person with a great flair and love for words and language who would rather be putting up shelves or messing about under a car. I never saw the incongruity, though. I am no writer, no story-teller and novels are generally not my first choice of reading material. I see words as technical - part of a puzzle – and teaching English Language to be about making the pieces fit like you would when fixing an engine or fitting a door. I just hope I can still make the pieces fit when I start teaching again in September.

I am nervous and excited about the future. As I said, though, a part of me would like to jump the summer and sink my teeth into the new job right now. Counter to this, I don’t want to be wishing my life away. And thankfully, along with the prep work, there are plenty of tasks to be keeping me occupied around the house. The previous owners – an elderly couple – clearly weren’t too much into decoration or renovation. Which is fine by me: not only did I get a good deal on the house, I can also put my own stamp on the place.

The bottom line is this: I need to stay positive. I’m not getting carried away but there are signs for optimism on the horizon. And I can maybe make those signs a reality with a little bit of effort and positive thinking.

Jake and Amelia were occupying the den they had spent a bulk of the previous week constructing. It was in the heart of the local wood at the edge of the town green, locally referred to as Witches Wood. Today was the 4th of July and the daytime celebrations had been a blast. Now it was mid-afternoon and a slight lull in proceedings had descended across the town whilst people awaited the night time fireworks display to commence.

They had been quiet for some time, the two of them happy to watch the flickering flames of the little fire they had built. Jake idly stirred the beans he was cooking and finally broke the stillness. “I bet this is all a little bit boring for a city slicker like you.”

“Nope. I told you, I’m a country girl at heart. More like my dad, I guess. Mom was the real city slicker.”

“You don’t talk about her much.”

Amelia stared into the flames, not answering immediately. “No, I guess I don’t…But then who else would be interested?”


“Oh. Right. What do you want to know?”

Jake shrugged. “Dunno. Tell me what you want to tell me. What was she like?”

Amelia thought on this awhile. It suddenly struck her now that she really didn’t talk about her mother. She thought about her a lot but never got to express her feelings out loud, not even very often with her dad. Perhaps the wound of losing her was still just too raw. Talking to Jake, though, seemed easy enough. He could be shy at times but he was a good listener. Thoughts of her mom right now brought an involuntary smile to her lips. “I guess you could say she was a little bit crazy, really.”


“In a good way, that is. I don’t mean she was literally loony tunes. She was an artist.”

“Was she a good one?” Jake wondered.

“I think so. She was a little bit famous, too,” Amelia revealed.

“What kind of stuff did she do?”

“Oh, you know - mainly paintings and stuff. Some photography as well. She once did this video installation thing, too, but I was too young at the time so was never allowed to see it.” Amelia leant in close to Jake conspiratorially. “I’ve seen it since, though. It had all these people talking about the horrors of war…in Japanese… naked.”

Jake laughed, slightly embarrassed. “My dad might have actually liked that. Well, naked women, anyway. I don’t think he cared for art too much. I once got him to take me to a gallery in Providence as part of a school assignment and he was mumbling under his breath the whole time about how it was all just a bunch of crap. The only painting he liked was of some guy hunting with his dog.”

“You still see your dad?”

Jake’s gaze slithered away to the ground. “Haven’t seen him in almost two years.”

“You miss him?”

“I used to. I mean, I still miss not having a dad around but I just don’t miss having a dad around who doesn’t really care about me. Who would?”

“No one, I guess,” Amelia agreed. “Do you know where he is?”

“California. Living with another woman. Some floozy, as my mom puts it.”


“I feel bad for my mom more than myself, really. I think she gets lonely sometimes. She doesn’t let on but I’ll catch her sometimes when she doesn’t know I’m there with this look on her face like she’s about to cry.”

“Maybe she’s better off without him,” Amelia suggested.

“Yeah, but love is a funny thing. Logic doesn’t apply a lot of the time. So I’m told.”

Amelia laughed at this, giving Jake a good natured punch in the arm. “Wowsers, listen to you. Jake Carroll – love expert.”

“Hey, I am fourteen, you know.”

Amelia continued to laugh: “Oh, absolutely. A man of the world.”

“Well, not quite, but –”

“Being all grown up and knowing about love, I’m guessing you love yourself?”

Jake seemed puzzled by the question. “Well, yeah, I –”

“And where do you love yourself the most?”

“I –”

“Do you love yourself most in the shower or in bed?”

It took a moment for Jake’s changing expression to confirm to her that he had finally cottoned on. “I’m not telling you that!”

Amelia had to hold her stomach to stop the laughter hurting. “I’m just pulling your pisser…or rather you are.”

“Shut up!” Jake was laughing, too, now. “I bet you love yourself.”

“A lady would never tell.”

“A lady might not but what’s stopping you?”

“Ha, ha – funny man.” Amelia gave Jake another playful punch on the arm.

As she continued to laugh, Amelia saw the joy suddenly slide from Jake’s expression like play dough features under a hot sun.

“Did you hear that?” Jake questioned.

“The bogeyman?”

“No, seriously, I –”

Suddenly, two pairs of booted legs appeared in the entrance to the den attached to two guys in their late teens. “Hello, kids,” one of them said, an air of arrogant menace in his voice. “So what have we here, then?”

“Nothing,” Amelia responded, suddenly noticing that the two of them were carrying bottles in brown paper bags. The smell strongly suggested it was alcohol.

“It doesn’t look like nothing.”

“It’s our den,” Amelia replied.

“Oh, your den, you say? That’s interesting because this is actually communal land. So when you say it’s your den, what I think you mean to say is that it’s everyone’s den. And everyone would include me and the G-Man here, no?

Amelia gave a glance towards Jake, wondering if his expression might give something away about the two characters in front of them. He looked nervous but not overly concerned just yet.

“I’ll take your silence as a ‘yes’.” This was the tall one still speaking, his long and lithe face accentuated by his goatee. The ‘G-Man’ was still giving nothing away: Amelia thought he looked like a clichéd idiotic jock with his stocky build and crew cut hair.

“We were just going, anyway,” Amelia told them.

“But you’ll upset the G-Man if you don’t have a drink with us.”

The ‘G-Man’ nodded, taking a mouthful from his brown-bagged bottle.

“We’re a bit too young to be drinking,” Amelia explained calmly, even though her heartbeat was racing.

“So just hang out and chat with us, then,” Goatee replied.

“I don’t think we’d have much in common to talk about.”

“Well, then, just hang around and don’t say anything.” He gave Amelia a wink. “We’re happy to just have something pretty to look at.” He reached and stroked her hair.

Jake stepped forward now, taking Amelia by the hand. She was impressed by his sudden determination. “Thanks all the same but we really have to go now.”

Goatee barred Jake’s progress. “Whoa, easy, tiger. That isn’t very friendly just to up and leave considering it’s the 4th of July and all. And you still have your beans to eat.”

“Do you get off on scaring people?” Amelia snapped back.

Goatee considered this with mock-earnestness. “Mmm. Hadn’t really thought about it,” he replied before turning to his companion. “You?” G-Man grinned. Goatee continued. “Tell you what; I’m a reasonable kinda dude. Just have a quick drink with us and we’ll let you be on your way.”

“No,” Amelia said.

“’No’, isn’t an option,” Goatee replied, grabbing Amelia’s wrist.

His touch forced an involuntary reaction from Amelia. She kicked out at him, yelling ‘no’. Goatee’s calm was momentarily broken, the kicks to his legs visibly hurting him. Goatee grabbed at her T-shirt just below the neck and yanked her to an inch from his face. “You’re really not being very friendly, are you? Please don’t kick me again.”

“Why can’t you just let us go?” Jake pleaded, his voice wavering.

“Because you haven’t toasted the 4th of July with us yet,” Goatee answered.

“Ok, we’ll do it but then you better honour your word and let us go.” Amelia grabbed the bottle from Goatee and took a mouthful of whatever fluid was in the bottle. It felt like fire sliding down her throat. She handed it to Jake who did the same with equal spluttering results. “Can we go now?”

“Jesus, you’re a real feisty one, aren’t you, shorty,” Goatee grinned. “I admire that. Tell you what, two more hearty mouthfuls each and then your time here is done.”

Amelia took two mouthfuls, Goatee tipping the bottle to ‘assist’ her. Then she handed the bottle to Jake to do the same. Done, Amelia took the bottle back from Jake and thrust it in the direction of Goatee before starting to march out of the woods whilst pulling Jake with her. Neither G-Man nor Goatee barred their away as Amelia barged past, flailing her spare hand at them, their laughter ringing in her ears.

“See you around, kiddies,” Goatee shouted after them.

Crashing back out of the woods, the effect of the booze suddenly hit Amelia like a wave. She realised that her vision was hazy and that her legs were not entirely under her own control: one foot seemed to plant itself in front of the other on erratic autopilot. Her arm was stretched behind her; she could only presume she was still pulling Jake along because she couldn’t feel the weight of him.

As she ran, Amelia was sure she could see movement in the periphery of her vision: dark shapes at the edges of a world that appeared to be caving in on her. It reminded her of the hallucinations she had experienced when she had tried to kill herself. She desperately wanted to be away from this situation, curled up safe in bed with her father stroking her hair. But there was no escape; the dark enemy of the woods was an endless foe.

Amelia became aware of noise behind her. She had to concentrate hard to focus in on it…finally realising it was Jake’s voice. “I think we’re going the wrong way,” he was saying to, his voice sounding slurred.

She stopped now, turned, then gestured for Jake to lead. Her gaze was fixed firmly on where Jake was putting his feet and not on anything that might be moving through the trees. They’re not there, was the mantra running through her head, there’s nothing really there.

Finally, they came crashing out of the woods, the sunlight streaming down onto the open town green and dazzling Amelia’s eyes. She flicked a glance back towards the woods; if anything had been pursuing them, it didn’t venture beyond the density of woodland.

They raced towards home, keeping away from a route that would take them close to too many 4th of July revellers. Once they were back on their street, Jake asked Amelia if she wanted to come inside and lay low for awhile whilst they sobered up.

“I just want my own bed,” she replied. “I don’t feel so good.”

“I don’t feel so good, either,” Jake concurred. “I’ll call for you later for the fireworks if I feel any better.”

“Sure but don’t count on it.”

Amelia headed inside and could feel the sickness rise inside her. She just managed to get to the bathroom before throwing up. She stayed there clinging to the bowl, indifferent to its cleanliness, the waves of sickness moving through her body and clutching at her guts. After being sick a second time, the waves of nausea seemed to subside a little. With her head throbbing, she flushed the toilet and pushed herself to her feet. She cursorily washed her hands and face before heading to her room to slump on her bed, grabbing Mr Cuddles in the process. She was asleep within minutes but her sleep was shallow and tormented by the darkest of dreams.

Amelia didn’t know why or how she was here but she was here all the same, thrown into the scenario mid-scene like an expandable character from a horror movie, her legs moving her body at high speed. Her location was a circular metal tunnel just high enough for her to run through without stooping. Wires hung like spiders’ legs from the ceiling whilst intermittent cracks in the metal threw down washed-out light and icy cascades of water. She sensed she was running because her life depended upon it, dragging her bare feet through the cold water, her tattered and wet clothing slowing her down. As she ran, rat-like creatures screeched and scurried from her path, their eye-less faceless contorted with pain or fury. Behind her, she could hear the noise of whatever was pursuing her: a terrible roar reverberating through the metal of the tunnel and the nerves in her teeth. It was the sound of hatred.

It was a dream – how could it be anything else? And yet it retained a sharp reality about it. Dream or no dream she could still feel the biting wind tearing at her skin as it swept down the tunnel.

She reached a junction now and went instantly to her right purely on instinct; there was no time to procrastinate because she knew in her heart that the thing pursuing her would not stop until she was dead.

As she continued, the cracks in the roof started to diminish and the light with it. Finally, Amelia was in a world of absolute darkness and running blind, flailing her arms out in front of her in case anything barred her way. She couldn’t afford to slow down because the noise of her pursuer seemed to be gaining.

Then the worst case scenario: Amelia ran out of tunnel. She knew this because her arms connected with metal and crumpled, sending her crashing to the floor in agony. She tried to drag herself away through the freezing water but her arms were in no state to respond. As she lay there, she felt something move across her, insect-esque, its thin limbs investigating her skin. It made Amelia want to vomit.

The terrible noise was close now, deafening in her ears and she knew it was only a matter of time.

“Bastard!” Amelia screamed into the void. Profanity didn’t pass her lips very often but now was appropriate even if she couldn’t actually hear her own words over the din. Then, suddenly, the roar ceased.

Amelia could feel the creature’s breath; she could sense its bulk hovering over her. Even though its death cry had come to an end, Amelia realised she was not in a world of silence. She could hear a rhythmic beat above her head: it sounded like marching, a wave of boots crunching across the earth above. It sounded like an army going to war. What was this terrible place, Amelia wanted to know?

Something wet and flesh-like touched the corner of Amelia’s mouth.
* * *
Amelia clawed her way into the light; there was still fear but no pain. Or was it just a case that adrenaline was masking what she felt?

“It’s just a dream, kiddo. Everything’s ok.”

Amelia realised it was her father’s comforting tone. She realised she was in her bed in her room with her dad sat beside her, dabbing her forehead with a cold cloth. Her racing heartbeat started to settle.

“You were mumbling in your sleep and shouting. I came in and it felt like you were burning up. I wasn’t sure whether I should wake you or not. Bad dream, huh?”


“Sounded like it. You’re probably still getting yesterday’s sickness out of your system. You didn’t look very well at all last night.”

“Did I even see you last night?” Amelia questioned.

“You don’t remember?”

“Um. Nope.”

“I came back looking for you to go to the fireworks but you were already holed up in bed.”

Memories of the woods and the booze and Goatee and G-Man came flooding back to her. “Did you go to the fireworks, then?”

“I just watched them from the back yard,” Trent told her. “I wasn’t going to leave you on your own when you were sick, was I?”

“I guess not. Sorry you couldn’t get to see the show properly.”

Trent reached and brushed a strand of hair away from Amelia’s face. “You can’t help being sick, kiddo.”

“Well, I feel a lot better now.”

“Glad to hear it.”
* * *
An hour later, seemingly convinced that Amelia was on the mend, Trent came and told his daughter that he needed to go out for awhile and that he would be taking Sam with him. Not long after he left, Amelia called Jake.

“Hi. It’s me. How you feeling?”

“Better,” Jake croaked. “How about you?”

“Ok. Ish. Had some really horrible dreams, though.”

“What about?”

“Your face,” Amelia joked.

“Oh, I see your sense of humour is still intact.”


“So what now?” Jake wondered.

“We live happily ever after? What do you mean ‘what now’?”

“Do we tell anyone about what happened?”

“What good would it do? Hopefully, we’ll just never see those two doofus’ again. They probably won’t even remember what we look like, anyway. To them, we were just a couple of nobody kids in the woods to have a little fun with. They’re not worth our worry.”

“So what if we cross their paths again and they do remember us?” Jake wanted to know.

“Like I said, they probably won’t or they’ll have moved onto the next random...However, if they do bother us again, we’ll find some way of paying them back.”

Jake laughed but Amelia sensed an air of trepidation in his voice. “Jeez, I’m glad you’re on my side. You can sound pretty fierce sometimes.”

Trent was sat in the opulent study of Karl Bannerman with a glass of soda clutched in his right hand. He had managed to extricate himself from the offer of a brandy without it sounding too definitive. Even though it wasn’t an officially recognised policy – at least in some part of his brain - Trent effectively didn’t drink anymore. Not after what happened.

Karl was the Dean of Hawksbridge: the school where Trent would be teaching when the new academic year commenced in September. This was the first time they had met since the interview. Karl lived on the edges of Province City which was a thirty minute freeway drive north of Fallswood, at least when the traffic was moving unhindered.

“So, Trent,” Karl began to ask, perching his tall and solid frame over by the large bay window, smoothing back his thick, grey mane of hair whilst swilling the ice around in his glass. “How are you settling in with the locals in Fallswood?”

“Oh, you know, slowly but surely,” Trent replied, feeling somewhat encompassed by the huge leather swivel chair he was sat in. He was doing his best to look at ease but felt oddly nervous.

“Yes, it’s never easy setting up in a new town, is it? Must be doubly hard when you’ve moved from big city America to small town America, no? Fallswood isn’t exactly New York.”

“True. Sometimes change is what we need, though, right? I feel settled enough. It was the right time to move on.”

“Your wife,” Karl said, not elaborating, blinking against the sun that was spilling through the window.

“Sara,” Trent found himself saying out loud. He had never discussed his wife with anyone connected with the school but it didn’t surprise Trent that the Dean knew about her.

“Your previous employer mentioned what you had been through…when I chased for your reference. I hope you don’t think I was snooping. Please don’t think they told me anything out of turns, either, because they didn’t. They were very gracious. And also very sorry to see you go.”

“It’s not that I mind people knowing, it’s just...”

“That you don’t want the fuss.”

“Something like that.”

“Fuss is something I can do without, too. I know about loss myself – we all do eventually, I suppose - and that people mean well, but...we just have to find our own way to deal with it, don’t we?”

“What happened?” Trent found himself asking on auto-pilot. The question seemed to hang their tritely and Trent suddenly wished he hadn’t raised the matter. “Not that you have to –”

“Quid pro quo, I suppose. It was my son, Elias. A car crash four years ago. Senseless.”

“A parent losing a child must be…” Trent had a flash of Amelia sprawled in her own blood on the bathroom floor.

“It was, Trent. It really was.” Karl’s gaze seemed to disappear into the distance. “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question? If you don’t wish to answer then please don’t feel that you -”

“It’s ok. Go ahead.”

“Did it make you question your faith?”

Trent deliberately paused before answering, taking a sip of his drink to buy thinking time. He knew the Dean was a Christian and that the ethics of the school were governed to a large extent by that faith. At the interview – on questions of faith - Trent had worried that they might have thought he was telling them what he thought they wanted to hear. The truth was that the faith he had been brought up with – whatever it may or may not be – had been questioned from the moment he was old enough to question anything. Sara’s death had not pushed him any deeper towards non-belief. He had always found it difficult to accept that people with an ounce of intelligence could not have fundamental doubts about the validity of their religion, their faith and their God’s existence.

“My faith remains as it was,” Trent answered diplomatically.

“I see,” Karl pondered. “For me, it made me question my faith to its core. But it never wavered. A part of me is still angry at him, of course.”

“Your son?”

Karl’s eyes flicked towards the ceiling. “No, with Him. Not that He isn’t up to the challenge of my anger and a billion others on top if need be.”

“Perhaps so.”

Karl seemed to drift out of the moment again. He finally broke from his trance and threw the remainder of his drink down his throat. “Top up? A proper drink?”

“No, no, I’m still finishing this one. Thank you, anyway.”

“So,” Karl continued, moving from the window to make himself another drink. “Tell me about –”

The question was never finished, the Dean distracted by a sudden rap on his study door which was followed by its opening and a head popping around it a moment later. It was a woman, possibly late twenties or early thirties Trent thought, fresh faced and wearing no make-up, her blonde hair cut into a neat but feminine bob.

“Oh, hi,” she said to Karl, doing a bit of a double-take when she saw Trent. “Sorry, I didn’t realise you had company. I just wanted to tell you that I was heading off.”

“Ella, before you rush out, let me introduce you to Trent here. He’ll be teaching English with us in September. Trent, this is my daughter, Ella.”

Ella was already stepping into the study, flashing Trent a smile as she headed over. She was dressed for tennis, about 5’ 6”, shapely and athletic; Trent could make out bare and tanned legs from the periphery of his vision but he was cautious not look any more closely. She offered her hand which he shook: her grip was firm but not overly so like she was trying to prove anything. Her skin was still femininely soft.

“Nice to meet you, Trent.”

“You, too.”

“Has daddy been boring you with his golfing stories?”

“I haven’t mentioned golf once, thank you very much, young lady,” Karl replied well naturedly.

“Must be a first.” She turned her gaze back to Trent. “Just be careful he doesn’t make you stay for dinner. Escape whilst you still can. Well, have to run. See you tomorrow, daddy. And I guess I’ll see you, Trent, in a few weeks time. Bye now.”

Before Trent had time to question what Ella meant, she was bounding out of the room. Trent found his eyes darting momentarily to the muscles moving in her tanned calves as she sashayed from the room.

“Ella is a teacher at Hawksbridge, too. She teaches math. That’s what she meant about seeing you in a few weeks time,” Karl explained.

“She lives here with you?”

“No, no, she shares an apartment in the city with her partner.”

“I see,” Trent replied, noticing his pang of regret. It made him feel guilty. “She seems very nice.”

“Awful woman,” Karl replied totally deadpan. “Don’t even get me started.” Trent was momentarily unsure. Karl waited a few seconds before offering the merest of smiles. “Sorry, I’m joking. But I would have to say that I think I had you there.”

“You did.”

“Counter to popular belief, I do actually have a sense of humour. A rather black one, of course, but it’s there all the same, lurking under the surface…No, obviously I’m biased, but Ella truly is the bees’ knees. A little manic at times – always on the move doing something – but she gets that from her mother. Life, so many people don’t seem to understand, is for living slowly.

“Another drink?” Karl enquired. Trent glanced down and saw the Karl had somehow managed to finish his second.

Amelia awoke to find a shadowy figure stood at the foot of her bed. She grabbed at her covers, recoiling backwards, a dry gasp slipping from her mouth. But the terror was gone before it had time to fully-form. Superstition was quashed by the weight of reality as she realised this was merely the hinterland between the sleeping world and the waking one, the aftermath of a restless, shallow sleep brought on by the nerves of having to start school this morning. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she realised there was no shadowy figure in the room; it was merely a trick of the mind and the adjustment to light giving presence to her dressing gown hanging from the back of the door.

She turned towards her clock. It was another hour before she needed to get up to ready herself for school. There was a sudden pang of regret in her heart that the summer was over. She thought back on the last few weeks and wished she could rewind her life to one those days. She already felt nostalgic and wondered if she had made the most of her time, whether she had taken her days of summer too much for granted. She thought of Jake and smiled. What would the summer have been without her goofy new friend?

Fifteen minutes later, restless and unable to get back to sleep, Amelia slid out of bed, her nerves sending her directly to the toilet. She showered and dressed then stood looking at herself in the mirror in her room, doing a bit of a twirl, checking that her uniform hung properly from her body. This was more a survival tactic than vanity; she wanted to blend into the crowd and was looking for anything that might bring her undue attention. She realised that had started to put on a little bit of her previous weight over the summer but was still on the skinny side.

She was glad that Hawksbridge required its pupils to wear a uniform. It meant she didn’t have to worry about what was fashionable this season or not. At her last school, she had become a little tired of the preening prima donnas trying to outdo one another with their displays of surface cool. Everyone had to play the game to some extent but she always suspected that the ones trying to climb the cool tree were the ones with the most layers to their masks; they all seemed to be trying too hard to project something that wasn’t them.

Amelia was distracted from her thoughts by sounds of her dad moving around downstairs. She realised that it was a big day for him, too, with it being his first day at work. Ever since she learnt about his job, she had considered if it would be odd to have him teaching at the same school where she was studying. Either way, they had made a pact that they wouldn’t behave like father and daughter if they saw one another during the course of the day. Amelia gave herself one last glance in the mirror, took a deep breath, and then went to join Trent for breakfast.

“Morning, kiddo,” he said to her as she stepped into the kitchen. “Sleep ok?”

“Well, not especially,” Amelia replied, shuffling across sleepily to her father to give him a hug and receive a kiss on the head. “I guess I’m…well, feeling a little bit nervous.”

“That’s only natural. For what it’s worth, I feel nervous, too.”

“You don’t look it.”

“Oh, I hide things well.”

“Too well.”

Trent sighed, smiled and reached to put both his hands on his daughter’s cheeks. He was momentarily overwhelmed with feelings of pride and sadness. His daughter was growing up and Sara wasn’t around to share that and guide Amelia through it. “Look, give it a few days and you’ll wonder what all your worry was about. I know Jake isn’t in the same classes as you but at least you have a friendly face there for you. I’m sure you’ll recognise some of the other faces, too; kids that you’ve bumped into over the summer. You’ll be fine.”

“I guess…Just remember our pact, that’s all.”

“I wouldn’t dare forget.” Trent smiled. “Even if you’re hanging from the edge of the school roof, I’ll just keep on walking like I’ve never met you before.”

Even though she knew her Dad was joking, Trent’s comment made Amelia feel a little bit sad. “Well, saving me from a life threatening situation is acceptable.”

“Ah, you see, now you’re blurring the rules for me.”


“Why, thank you.” Trent gave his daughter another quick hug. “Honestly, believe me, you’ll be fine.”

“Sure I will. Thanks, Dad.”

“Another satisfied customer.”
* * *
The registration and first lessons seemed to fly by in a blur for Amelia. She managed to pass pleasantries with a few of the people in her classes though it was too early to say if any friendships were in the early stages of being forged. At least no one had been unpleasant to her. She was grateful for lunch and the chance to seek out a familiar face in Jake.

After they had eaten, they headed out into the school yard together. The place was a cacophony of noise with kids running, yelling and playing games.

“Hawksbridge zoo,” Amelia thought out loud whilst purveying the scene.

“I’m not sure anyone would want to pay to see the exhibits, though,” Jake countered.

“Yeah, sometimes I’m not too sure I like the world of kids very much…not that I’m in any great rush to be part of the grown-up world, either.” Amelia laughed. “Not sure where that leaves me.”

“I’m quite happy to stay as a kid for now.”

“That’s because you’re the biggest kid in the world.”

“Jeez – thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Someone walking past them both suddenly stopped dead and did a double take. He turned slowly and looked down at Amelia and Jake sitting on the floor. Amelia didn’t recognise the tall, wiry male in front of her and started to laugh out of nervous embarrassment. She turned to Jake with a ‘have-you-seen-this-guy’ kind of look on her face…and saw the concern in Jake’s own expression. It was only then that the penny dropped: she realised it was Goatee from the ‘incident’ in the woods. Accept he no longer had his goatee. It made him look younger – as did the school uniform - but no less menacing.

“Hello again, kids,” Goatee said with faux-pleasantry.

“Hello, Goatee,” Amelia threw back at him.

Goatee stroked his chin. “Goatee? I don’t - ah, right, that’s what you decided to call me, is it? I’m sure it’s not a term of endearment. Nor is it particularly accurate anymore.”

“You’ll always be Goatee to us,” Amelia continued. “You can carry on walking now, thanks.”

Goatee smiled and turned to Jake. “Like I said before, your little girlfriend here is a feisty one.”

“Amelia isn’t my girl–-”

“Oh, right. I bet you’d like her to be, though, right? I wouldn’t blame you, either.” He looked Amelia up and down. “She’s quite a cutey. For a midget.”

“Shut up,” Jake told him.

A flash of anger cut across Goatee’s calm expression. “What was that?”

“He just wants you to go away,” Amelia told him. “Ditto for me…Goatee.”

The anger intensified on Goatee’s face. “My name is -”

“We don’t really care what your real name is,” Amelia interrupted with. “We just want you to go away and leave us alone. But seeing that you won’t, we’ll go away from you.”

Amelia got up and offered her hand to pull up Jake. When the two of them started to walk away, though, Goatee stepped across their path. His anger had been replaced again with his de-rigueur too-cool-for-school exterior. “Bye for now, kids. Just be cautious what you say to me in future, that’s all. Seeing me angry isn’t something I would recommend to you. I’ll be seeing you around.”

Amelia and Jake continued on their way, only talking again when they were a good few metres away. “I’ve never even seen him at this school before,” Jake said.

“Perhaps he’s just transferred here like I have or something,” Amelia pondered.

“Suppose. At least the other idiot isn’t here.”

“I think maybe you spoke too soon.” Amelia gestured with her eyes for Jake to see where Goatee had wandered off to. He was stood talking to the monosyllabic G-Man; at him.

TK diary entry Friday 9 September.
They say that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Well, I must be stronger because I’ve survived my first week at Hawksbridge; a week that has gone as smoothly as can be expected. Sure, some of the pupils are a little challenging – where aren’t they - but it’s not like some inner city hell hole having to check kids for guns and knives as they enter.

Ella seems to have made it unscathed through her first week, too. When we first moved here, I was worried for her. Over the summer, though, she seems to have gotten a little more robust, sometimes a little too robust. I worry sometimes that she might be overcompensating and hiding her fragility, often in bursts of anger.

I don’t want to play too heavy-handed with her. Obviously, I want her to get strong again and to be able to stand up for herself and deal with the rigours of day to day life. Counter to that, I don’t want to miss signs that she might be floundering. I’ll just have to keep a subtle eye on her.

Work, at least, keeps my mind busy. It keeps my thoughts away from worrying about Amelia too much or dwelling on Sara or contemplating the future too far in advance. The future, I’ve learned, can bite you on the ass. You can plan all you want, dream about spending the rest of your life with someone…but the future has its own rules. All I can hope for is to get through one week to the next as happily as possible and do the best for my daughter along the way.

I continue to feel more settled at home, too. I am starting to feel less displaced living in Fallswood; starting to feel that I am part of a community, getting to know some of my neighbours, if only to say hello to. It’s especially nice to have someone directly next door you feel you can trust. I wouldn’t say I have gotten close to Jake’s mom – she remains a little guarded, perhaps after the breakdown of her marriage – but I like her and Amelia reports back nice things about her, too.

So, anyway, here’s to the future. The immediate future, at least.

It felt like a landscape of raw meat. Amelia’s bare feet carried her across a terrain more akin to flesh than rock and earth, something wet and viscous splashing up her legs with each step.

Heavy, choking smoke barred her vision, keeping her gaze from whatever was creating the sounds of warfare echoing in the distance. She heard a high pitched noise coming towards her followed by a nearby explosion which threw Amelia to the ground. She crawled forward, trying to escape the burning flames behind her; her path, however, was blocked by two pairs of booted feet. She looked up pleadingly…only to find Goatee and G-Man staring down at her with grinning, maniacal faces.
* * *
The nightmare played on a loop through the movie screen of Amelia’s mind for much of her day at school. Sometimes dreams drifted into the ether as soon as they were dreamt, whereas others like this one left a long-term imprint on the brain.

With the school day over, she had agreed to meet up with Jake to go see a movie. She was stood near the school gates, waiting for Jake to show up. Whereas she had changed out of her uniform with minimum fuss, she thought to herself that Jake was no doubt taking an age over the process.

As she waited, she stood and day-dreamed and let her eyes wander over her nearby environment. It was interesting to people-watch and consider all the human interaction, especially the pupils being picked up by fussy, over-protective parents. As she scanned the faces, one face seemed to not quite fit. The face belonged to an old lady in bedraggled clothes, her expression seemingly filled with the legacy of generations of misery. Even though she knew it couldn’t be, the woman seemed to be starring straight at Amelia. Her body seemed to be as frozen as her gaze. Amelia realised how spooked she was, a chill running through her body and flushing her cheeks.

Feeling slightly uncomfortable, Amelia started to shift away from the gate, sauntering slowly down the edge of the school’s boundary fence. As she did, she continued to peruse the scene around her, her eyes falling on a young man leaning against a motorbike about twenty yards down the road adjacent to the school boundary. He looked like a throwback to the fifties, Brando-esque in his leather jacket, boots and jeans, with floppy jet-black hair and a cigarette hanging from the corner his mouth. The rebellious look was only thrown somewhat by the fact that he was reading a book.

Still inside the school grounds, occasionally glancing back to look out for Jake, Amelia wandered along the edges of the boundary fence in the direction of the young biker, trying to feign an air of indifference as she did so. She stopped at one of the trees about five yards from being directly opposite him. She leant against it, flicking surreptitious glances in his direction.

She could see now that he was about 5’ 9”, thin but toned, his tight white T-shirt accentuating his shape. His face was tan and clean-shaven with a defined chin and cheekbones. She saw also now that it was a lollipop hanging from the corner of his mouth and not a cigarette. She thought it was a cute touch.

She glanced back and noticed that Jake was exiting the school and heading towards the front gates. Here next to the tree, Amelia suspected Jake wouldn’t see her but she didn’t want to start yelling out for him. She gave her mysterious stranger one last glance through the slats in the fence. The instant she did this, he looked up from his book, turned left then right…before appearing to look directly at her. Amelia’s heart skipped a beat and her eyes involuntarily widened. As inconspicuously as she could, Amelia turned away and slipped out of view to the other side of the tree. Aware that her heart was racing, she gave herself a few seconds to calm down before slowly heading towards Jake.

“You trying to hide from me?” Jake put to Amelia as she came striding over.

“Nope. Just taking in the sights,” Amelia replied.

Jake surveyed where Amelia had been and nodded his understanding. “Oh, right, the dude on the bike?”

“Nope,” Amelia replied again, a little too adamantly, aware that the high pitch of her voice had maybe given her away.

“Yeah, whatever.”

“You don’t know anything.”

“I know you like that guy over there,” Jake teased.

“I don’t even know him.”

“You’d like to, I bet.”

“Why, do you know him?” Amelia asked as indifferently as she could muster.

“Oh, so you are interested, then?”

“No, I’m just -”

“Ah, so it all comes out now - Amelia likes bad boys.”

“How do you know he’s bad? Goatee and G-Man are bad boys. Little bad boys. I don’t like them. Anyway, what do you care about who I like or don’t like?”

“I don’t.”

“Good, so let’s drop it, then.”

“Fine by me.”

They walked for a few yards in silence. Amelia tried to stop herself but couldn’t. “So do you know him?”

Jake laughed and shook his head. “I knew it. No, sorry, I’ve never seen him before.”

“Ok. Forget it. Let’s go see this movie. What is it again?”

“Things Explosions Part Five.”

“Wowsers. My kind of movie.” Amelia looped her arm through Jake’s as they reached the front gate. Thankfully, she saw that the old woman had gone. Out through the gate, she threw a final glance down the road. The mysterious young man was back on his bike and starting it up. Moments later, the distance was swallowing him.

Sunday morning; the breaking dawn: a sudden explosion of fiery red and orange spilling out across the horizon.

Trent was out walking Sam, enjoying the spectacle of the sunrise and the start of a new day. Watching, he could understand why previous ages of man might have fallen to their knees and prayed: what could they have thought of this giant ball of fire bestowing them with a new day - a new start – after the dark, frightening blanket of night? Every so often, when he had the energy for it, Trent loved to experience the early morning, enjoying the world whilst the rest of it appeared to sleep. Not so easy to do in New York but Fallswood was made for it. On peaceful, still mornings like this one, it was difficult to believe that terrible things were happening across the globe.

Trent was half-thinking about Jake’s mother, Fay. As good a neighbour as she had become, that’s all she had been so far. Yesterday, though, he had been returning home late. Fay had simply been out on the porch putting out the trash, dressed in clothes that she was probably used to lounging around the house in: shorts and T-shirt, her dark, curly hair tied back for practicality. But something about her attire and the way she seemed at ease with herself had surprisingly and abruptly reminded Trent that he was still a red-bloodied male. He had said hello but hadn’t stuck around to shoot the breeze: he had been concerned that his piqued interest – and the guilt that came with it - would be writ all over his face.

Trent continued his walk parallel to Witches Wood, out towards the blazing horizon, his shades shielding him from the intensity of the light. It felt good to be on the move, his body working, blood pumping through his veins, feeling the warmth on his face whilst Sam darted in and out of the woods up ahead. She constantly flicked her gaze back towards Trent to make sure ‘dad’ was still close at hand.

They finally reached the small lake on the outskirts of the city, Trent calling Sam away from the waters edge. He had seen archive pictures of it in its glory years. Now it had fallen somewhat into disrepair, with litter and debris in and around the water. These days it was more infamous as a teenage hang-out. A real shame, Trent thought to himself, though he’d heard a rumour that the council had plans to give the place a make-over and return it to a family orientated hang-out. Money, of course - as with most things in life - was the stumbling issue to getting this project in motion.

By the time Trent decided to turn back towards home, a few more people had shown there presence in the world: all dog walkers and joggers. Trent stopped on occasion to chat with his fellow doggy compatriots, many of whom he had become acquainted with through previous dog walking sojourns. Owning a dog in a new town was a great way to meet new people because it always meant you had an obvious shared interest to kick start a conversation.

Fifty yards or so up ahead, a female jogger came to an abrupt halt. She offered Trent a little wave before semi-collapsing forward, hands on thighs, sucking in what appeared to be much needed oxygen. It was only as he continued on his way towards her that he realised it was Ella.

“Small world, hey?” Ella put to Trent breathlessly once he was in earshot.


Ella was dressed in calf-length leggings and a running top, her face flushed and covered by a light layer of sweat, loose strands of hair spilling from her head band. She finally straightened herself back up, her breathing returning to normal.

“You realise I only stopped because I thought you were a scout from a model agency and I wanted you to see me at my best.”

“Well, consider yourself hired,” Trent threw back at her.

“What – for the sweaty ‘before’ model on some anti-perspirant ad?”

“I think you do yourself a disservice,” Trent replied. “I’d describe your appearance more like radiant than sweaty.”

“Radiating more like it,” Ella countered. She bent down to fuss Sam, Sam’s tail wagging furiously in response. “You never told me you were the doggy type.”

“International man of mystery me.”

“Oh, I bet. So what’s your little chocolate friend called?”


“Hello there, Sam,” Ella said, squatting down to fuss her even more, her tail-wagging intensifying. “She’s adorable. We have a dog, too. A Dalmatian called Brian.”


“I like Family Guy.”

“A woman of taste. Ditto,” Trent told her.

“Who knew we had so much in common, hey?” Ella replied jokily. “Actually, when I say we have a dog, I actually mean I have a dog. Mike just allows him to lodge with us. So if you ever want to double-dog-date, just let me know.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“So how are things? Everything ok at work? I don’t really get chance to talk to you much there. Actually, scrap that, I shouldn’t be talking shop with you on a weekend.”

“It’s okay,” Trent replied. “Yeah, work is going fine, thank you. Better than fine. I’m really glad I made the plunge to come back to teaching.”

“Good. Well, anyway, I suppose I best shoot before the old legs seize up.” She touched one for emphasis, giving Trent the excuse to glance down and secretly admire them. “I guess I’ll see you around, Mr Karras.”

“You, too, Miss Bannerman.”

Ella did a little shuffle on her feet, seemingly readying herself to head off running again. “Oh, by the way - and I know it’s quite short notice so feel free to decline - but there’s a little soiree over at daddy’s place this afternoon. Starts about two. Won’t go on too late. Just trying to make use of the garden in the last vestiges of summer. It was also the old coot’s birthday recently which he pretends he doesn’t like celebrating anymore. You can bring your daughter along, too, if you like.”
Trent arrived at Karl’s garden party just after 2.30 pm. There was already a gathered throng with the light hum of music and chat filling the air. There was a small marquee housing a buffet and drinks and also a separate barbecue that was wafting tantalising aromas on the light early fall breeze. He had a strong sense of déjà vu and realised he was simply remembering a similar event he had attended with Sara about five years ago at a similar house with similar grounds. He half-expected to turn and find her charming her way through the crowd in the startling yellow dress she had been wearing that day.

Instead he turned and caught the Dean’s attention. Karl strode over to welcome them into the fold, apologising profusely for not having invited them himself in the first place. He impelled them to make themselves at home and help themselves to whatever food and drink was on offer, joking with Amelia not to get too drunk.

After partaking in some of the food and drink on offer – Trent sticking to orange juice – he amiably chatted to some of the guests, some of whom were colleagues from school. Amelia kept close by, finally asking if she could help herself to ‘just one’ small glass of champagne. Trent reluctantly agreed. A few sips seemed to free her up slightly. She got talking to another slightly older girl who mentioned that some of the ‘kids’ were going off to play on the quad bikes. Trent made sure there was going to be adult supervision before consenting for her to go.

Trent had been at the party just under an hour before Ella made an appearance, heading out from the house with a Dalmatian. Trent presumed this had to be Brian; despite not being on a leash, he remained attentively at her side. This was the first time he had seen her out of sports wear or work clothes. She looked beautiful, dressy but not in an overly flamboyant way, with sensible flat shoes but a lilac coloured knee length dress that hugged her figure. She nodded and said hi to a few people as she made her way through the crowd towards a man in his late twenties or possibly early thirties. From the manner of their greeting, Trent deducted that it had to be her partner, Mike. He was good-looking in a generic kind of way, Trent thought to himself.

It was another twenty minutes before Trent got the chance to speak to Ella. He tried to deny it but he realised he had been slowly making his way through the crowd towards her, stopping himself from getting too heavily embroiled in any of his conversations with the other guests. He couldn’t quite fathom what his own motives were. Finally, he saw her chatting with the person manning the barbecue and used it as an excuse to go get another burger. He realised he was a bundle of emotions as he walked towards her. He was undeniably attracted to her but was overcome with the usual guilty feelings: guilt that was entirely related to betraying Sara on some level; it had nothing to do, he realised worryingly, with the fact that Ella had a partner.

As Trent helped himself to another burger, he exchanged pleasantries with Ella who in turn introduced him to her Uncle who was overseeing the barbecue.

“Aren’t you partaking with one of your Uncle’s burgers?” Trent put to Ella, taking in a mouthful of his own.

“Bean gang member,” she replied.

“A what now?”


“Oh. Right.”

“Don’t worry,” Ella smiled. “I won’t hold your carnivorous nature against you. As long as you won’t hold my bean loving against me.”

Trent laughed at Ella’s turn of phrase. “No, no, not at all - my wife was a veggie. Ditto for Amelia. I guess I’m still in my Neanderthal stage.”

“Neanderthals have their purpose, I suppose,” Ella joked. “Where is Amelia, by the way? I can’t believe you would’ve left your daughter at home?”

“No, she’s around somewhere. There was talk of quad bikes?”

“Oh, daddy has a couple. Doesn’t ride them himself anymore but he likes others to be entertained when they come over. They’ll be over on the other side of the house. You rode one before?”

“I haven’t, no.”

“Want to go have a quick play? We shouldn’t let the kids have all the fun now should we?”

Trent followed Ella towards the back of the house, watching her throw a little wave to her partner as she did so. Around the back of the house a group of four kids – Amelia amongst them – were taking turns on the two quad bikes under the supervision of a young man who was just about old enough to qualify as an adult supervisor. After a bit of negotiation, Ella managed to persuade the kids to give them a brief turn. After a quick demonstration of how to ride one, Trent following Ella’s lead to cut into the patch of woodland that made up part of Karl’s extensive grounds.

“Aren’t you worried about messing up your dress?” Trent put to Ella, his eyes moving to the sight of her hiking it up her thighs so she could sit on the quad bike more comfortably.

“It’ll wash.”

Trent was reminded of Sara. Physically, they were very different but elements of their personality were the same. Both were clearly beautiful and could make themselves look glamorous but weren’t precious or prissy about getting stuck in and getting a bit of dirt (or paint) on them.

Ella came to a halt in the middle of the woodland with the sounds of the party floating in the distance. She laughed at the sight of her legs, leaning forward to wipe off some of the mud. “Mike is such a lucky guy to be with someone so classy.”

“I concur.”

Ella looked up from cleaning her legs, fixing Trent with a quizzical stare. “I can’t tell if you’re joking or not.”

“Oh, I never joke with anyone,” Trent replied, poker face intact. “Ever. No, I mean it – he’s the luckiest guy on the planet to be with you.”

“Well, obviously. Though, of course, you have no proof that I’m not a monster behind closed doors.”

“I’m a good judge of character.”

“Is that so?”

“It is.”

There was a pause in the conversation, Ella holding Trent with that quizzical look again. It was a look she didn’t break. Trent finally felt compelled to be the first to look away, pretending to wipe mud from his jeans.

“Perhaps we should make our way back to the kids before we cause a riot?” Trent suggested.

“Why, is it making you nervous being all alone with me here in the woods?”

“Should I be?”

Again there was that deliberate pause. “No, I think you’re safe.”

“Good. So, shall we head back?”

“Lead the way, Mr Karras. Lead the way.”

Amelia was at the checkout of her local grocery store, purchasing milk and bread. As she paid, she heard the roar of an engine and turned to see her mysterious biking stranger pulling up into the small parking lot outside.

Amelia pocketed her change but carried her bag to the magazine rack instead of heading directly for the exit. She loitered there, pretending to browse through some of the publications, using her vantage point near the window to keep an eye on the young man outside. He switched off the engine and removed his gloves and helmet but kept sitting astride his machine. He turned his face towards the sun and raised his hands to smooth down his wild black main of hair.

Finally, he dismounted, nonchalantly leaving his helmet and gloves on the seat before heading towards the entrance of the grocery store. Amelia could feel her heart start to race as he stepped towards the door, snatching up the magazine directly in front of her as a prop to psychologically hide behind. It didn’t register for a few seconds that it was a copy of Guns and Ammo.

Inside the store, the stranger headed towards the aisle where Amelia was stood. Her pounding heart seemed to rise in to her throat; for a moment, she was convinced he was heading directly towards her. Instead, he stopped at the other end of the magazine rack. Even though he was only about 5’ 9”, Amelia felt he was looming over her and that she was shrinking back into herself. From the periphery of her vision, she was also aware that he was looking directly at her.

Time moved at an awkward pace. Amelia found it almost unbearable being stood next to him with him looking at her. Ultimately, she couldn’t help herself: she felt inexorably compelled to turn and face him…and instantly realised her mistake. His gaze wasn’t on her but was scouring the various magazines shelved just beyond her. He, however, seemed to realise that she was now looking at him and shifted his gaze to Amelia. His eyes were piercingly blue – the kind Amelia had read about in throwaway romance novels – and then he smiled to reveal movie-star perfect teeth. And then he was gone, moving past her down the aisle, lightly brushing against her. She caught his scent: something sweet intertwined with the odour of something much earthier.
* * *
It was later that same afternoon. Amelia was down in the basement of her home with Jake. After the incident in the wood with Goatee and G-Man, this had become their new den. They knew as the fall made its inexorable journey towards winter that a den in the woods would become far from practical, anyway.

Trent had given them free reign (within reason) to do what they wanted with the basement and to make it their own. When Amelia and Trent had first moved in, the basement they had inherited was a drab, dreary environment filled with little more than junk, dust and cobwebs. Trent had agreed to pay for getting new lights fitted in return for Amelia and Jake putting in the graft to make it habitable.

With a deal struck, Amelia and Jake had gone about putting in numerous hours on evenings and weekends tidying the place up. They had removed all the detritus: paint tins, cardboard boxes, old magazines, rusted tools, old lawnmower parts and so on and so on. This had been followed by seemingly endless dusting, brushing, scrubbing and cleaning. Then, with new lights fitted, they had gone about giving the place a paint job before covering it with posters and bits of Amelia’s mother’s art. They had also managed to get their hands on some cheap (and free) second hand furniture as well as a pool table. The finishing touch had been to kit the place out with games, books, a hi-fi, a TV and a blu-ray player.

Of late, Amelia and Jake weren’t seeing as much of one another. Not only were both of them busy with school and homework, Amelia had started to meet and socialise with other people at school. It wasn’t that Jake was a loner and didn’t have other people to hang around with but he was naturally shyer than Amelia. Also, Amelia had recently found out that Jake’s best friend and his family had moved away – emigrated – only last April and that he was still reeling from it and was reluctant to open himself up fully to too many people.

“Do you know who this is?” Amelia asked Jake, showing him a picture she had taken on her somewhat reluctantly owned cell phone. It was a picture of the mad old woman she had first seen outside the school gates. Amelia had seen her on a number of occasions since and had gotten the spooky sense that the woman was watching her.

“That’s Jeannie-May,” Jake told her matter-of-factly.


“She’s like, erm, the town oddball? A nut job but harmless. Lives with a load of cats. I hear rumours that she’s psychic.”

“She gives me the creeps.”

“Why did you take a photo of her?” Jake asked.

“Because I keep seeing her around like she’s following me.”

“I think everyone thinks that about her. I wouldn’t worry about it.” Jake headed over to the DVD and blu-ray collection, seemingly looking to pick out something for them to watch. With his back to Amelia, he asked: “Have you invited Christa over to see the den?”

There was nothing in Jake’s tone but it suddenly occurred to Amelia that he might be a little bit jealous. Christa was a girl who shared a lot of Amelia’s classes and the two of them had become relatively close recently.

“Oh, you know, she’s been over a couple of times. That’s ok with you, isn’t it? I know this is our place but –”

“Hey, it’s your home, Amelia.”

“Sure, I know, but we did this room together and I don’t want you to…I just want you to be ok with stuff.”

“It’s fine. Christa seems nice enough. She’s not just hair and teeth like a lot of the girls at school.” Jake finally turned to Amelia and offered a brief laugh. “You just have to promise me that you won’t invite any assholes over, though.”

“You have my word,” Amelia replied. “I should never have brought it up. It’s just that you’ve seemed a little bit quiet since you came over.”

“Sorry,” Jake sighed.

“You don’t have to apologise.”

“No, it’s true, my mind’s been somewhere else. I’ve been thinking about my dad. It’s his birthday today.”

“Right. How is he?”

Jake thought on this before replying. “Well, I called him to see if he’d received the card I mailed him and…well, it was like he didn’t really want to speak to me. Not really. It was like I was inconveniencing him by calling him.”

“That can’t have been very nice,” Amelia said, trying to soothe him.

“It made me feel like crap city to be honest.”

Amelia got up and moved across to her friend, placing a consoling arm around him. “Grown ups can be real assholes sometimes.”

“Tell me about it.”

She gave him one last squeeze before giving him a light punch on the arm. “Hey, here’s something that will cheer you up. I was gonna keep this until later but what the hell. I know a girl who likes you.” Amelia could instantly see that Jake’s interest was pricked despite his attempts to play nonchalance.

“You making this up?”


“Who is it, then?” Jake wanted to know.

“Me,” Amelia said, holding for a dramatic pause before saying she was joking. There was a look on Jake’s face that she couldn’t quite interpret. “No, not me - Becky Johnson.”

“Becky Johnson? I don’t believe you. How would you know anyway?”

“She told me.”

“Why would she tell you? No offence but it’s not like you’re friends or that you even talk to her.”

“Well, no, but…Ok, I admit that she didn’t tell me to my face…I overheard her saying it to someone else.”

“Saying what?” Jake asked, still failing to play it cool.

“That she thinks you’re cute.”

“Cute?” Jake thought on this, his expression a mixture of pleasure and disappointment. He appeared to think out loud: “Do I want girls to think I’m cute?”

“What? Of course you do!” Amelia told him.

“Surely I want girls to think I’m sexy, don’t I? That I’m mean and moody or something.”

Amelia rolled her eyes. “Oh, please. Just be happy with cute, ok? Girls do like nice guys, you know.”

“You don’t!”

“Sure I do. I like you, don’t I?”

“Well, sure, but not like…well, not in that way.”

“Well, of course not in that way. You’re my friend.”

“Yeah, but if I wasn’t your friend, I still wouldn’t be your type, though, would I?”

Amelia rolled her eyes again. “Some hypothetical questions just aren’t worth answering. This is one of them. Be happy that Becky Johnson likes you.”

“I guess I should be. She’s quite…ok looking, I suppose.” A devilish, coy smile slipped across Jake’s expression. “And she has big boobies.”


“Can’t help it. So who do you like at school?” Jake put to Amelia.

“No one,” she replied. “Most guys at school are just silly little boys really.”

“You’re after someone more mature.”

“Something like that.”

“Like motorcycle guy?”

“Not at all.”

“Yeah, right.”

“I actually saw him at the grocery store the other day,” Amelia revealed.

“And did you go all weak at the knees?”

“I could barely walk,” she replied deadpan.

“Maybe he wants you.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Why else would he be always be hanging around where you are?” Jake questioned.

“I’ve only seen him twice.”

“So you say.”

“Enough now, funny boy,” Amelia said, getting to her feet and heading across towards the DVD / blu-ray library. “Choose something to watch or I’ll do it for you.”

“How about the latest Star Trek movie?”

“Don’t be such a geek, geeky. How about we watch –” Amelia didn’t get to finish. She suddenly felt woozy, her legs unsteady. She slipped down to one knee, her stomach churning and her vision blurring. She was aware of Jake rushing to be at her side, concernedly asking her what was wrong. As he helped her back to her feet, Amelia saw something in front of her. It was a ball of light hovering and pulsating in the middle of the room. It seemed to open and close like a fist, like a beating heart, revealing blackness at its centre. There seemed to be movement within it. It was as if reality was nothing more than a paper screen with images projected across it and that someone had torn a hole into it.

As she continued to stare at the light – mesmerised – there was continued movement within it. And then abruptly there was something pushing out of the light and into the room: a hideous, sub-human face, hairless and scarred. It looked like it was being born, its features twisted with pain and its wide, white eyes starring directly at Amelia.

And then it was gone; all of it: the light and the face. Perhaps another trick of the mind, Amelia considered. But she still felt cold and anxious even though the dizziness and sickness were starting to subside.

“What happened?” Jake asked her again.

“I’m - I’m not sure. I just came over all dizzy and sick. Did you see that?”

“See what?”

“That horrible face in the light,” Amelia said.

“No…no, I didn’t see anything, Amelia.”

“Not even the ball of light? It was right there.” She pointed to the spot.


“But it was right there!” Amelia reiterated, the emotion rising within her. Tears started to form and spill from her eyes.

“I think you need to come and sit down,” Jake told her, leading her back to her seat, aware that she was shaking.

“Just my mind playing tricks with me, that’s all,” Amelia mumbled mainly to herself as Jake eased her onto the couch. Her words came out without any air of conviction.

TK diary entry Sunday 20 November.
The old cliché remains. The older you get, they say (whoever they are), the quicker that time seems to drag the years from under you; this year has truly flown. The dark, cold nights have drawn in and summer seems like a distant memory. I know that some people don’t care for the long, dark nights but it’s not something that bothers me. I always enjoyed the cosiness of being indoors on a fall / winter night, especially with the approach of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not that cosy nights in have been on my agenda without Sara.

One of the most painful things about losing her – on some level – is realising how much I took her for granted until she got sick. It’s human nature perhaps. Don’t get me wrong, I loved her to bits and told her so on many occasions and I made great efforts with our relationship…but a part of me just always expected her to be there. I can never make up for the time before she got sick; I can never make that time better. And that hurts. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself but it’s a nagging feeling that won’t quite leave me alone.

You don’t know something’s open till it shuts: a line from a song I remember. It might be a crass analogy but it’s the same with people. You don’t realise how much someone is embedded into the very fabric of your life until they are removed from it. It’s all those tiny little things two people share together that suddenly amount to an empty cavern in your world when they are all taken away. What do I miss apart from everything? Holding her hand, watching her paint, the funny way she walked, her smell, the way she would perch her reading glasses on the end of her nose, watching her sleep and so on and so on. Sure, I miss the sex, too, but I can just about live with that scenario. As I say, it’s the intimacy I can’t replace.

Ok, I’m lying. The lack of sex is something I am struggling with. I was invited to a party just over a week ago and found myself getting progressively friendlier with someone I met there. She wasn’t really my type – whatever that is – but she was chatty and flirty and I was flattered by her interest in me. Most sexual interest is pretty flattering to be honest when you’re a single man (not that I consider myself a single man). By about one in the morning, I found myself being dragged off into one of the bedrooms. I realised I was very likely about to have sex with someone and the feeling was unbelievably exciting…and also just a little bit terrifying. (It’s been a long time since I’ve had sex and god knows how long with another woman.) My emotions were also laced with my good old underlying guilt that seems to be with me every time I even look at another woman.

The bottom line is that I didn’t get the chance to see it through. In the room, on the bed, getting ourselves half-naked, I realised just how drunk she was; barely coherent. As much as she mumbled to me that she was fine and that she wanted me, I knew she wasn’t really in the best mental condition to make those decisions. Let’s just lay here and hold one another for awhile, I told her. Not long after this, she literally fell asleep in my arms. I lay there with her, brushing the hair from her eyes, sharing the heat of her body if not sex or intimacy…all whilst waiting for my hard-on to go away! Such is life.

Ella has invited me to a couple of parties, too, but I have politely declined. I found myself thinking about her a lot after Karl’s garden party a couple of months back and I knew it wasn’t healthy for me. As I say, it’s always flattering when you feel someone is interested in you. Though, in truth, she actually isn’t. Ella just happens to have a very open, confident and friendly manner about her which perhaps could be regarded as low level flirting. Either way, she has a partner. I still see her at work, of course, and shoot the breeze with her for a few minutes here and there…but it’s best I just keep it at that.

But the world of women, I realise, retains its allure. I have considered that it might be nice to go on a few dates if the opportunity arose (I don’t mean with Ella). Would that be so bad? What if a little bit of sex was involved along the way, too? I know Sara would want me to move one – and would tell me to screw my guilt – but I can’t help the way I feel. There are also Amelia’s feelings to consider. I’m not sure how she’d feel about me seeing other women. I half considered inviting Fay around for dinner just for a bit of female company and conversation…but I was worried how either of the kids would take it. Maybe it’s something I should discuss with Amelia before I do anything else.

Anyway, it’s late and I need to sleep. This is me signing off.