It was a damn long walk home, he thought to himself as he grasped the edges of his greatcoat and pulled them further around him. What an idiot that man was! Who the hell did he think he was? Did he think he owned the road? Bloody Mercedes drivers! Why drive that recklessly? Typical, thoughtless numpty – late for dinner, probably!
Elis could see it all in his mind’s eye, as he did his best to shut out the cold. It was colder than he had thought, although it was an early December evening. He probably should have expected it really, given the stage of year and the time of day. Still, the cold and the dark pressed closer, crowding round him like a river around an island – only he was the one in motion, not the darkness.
He had been returning from work when the accident happened; the other man’s car had taken that corner way too fast – he obviously wasn’t that familiar with the roads around here, Elis recalled ruefully. And the other driver was unlucky. The verge seemed lush and verdant, but it hid a muddy and loose undersod, so when he took that corner too fast and ended up with two wheels on the grass, well, the car lost traction and span out.
That had given Elis only microseconds to react, and then the other car was smashing into him. If truth were told, he felt like he was the one ploughing into the other car, as it had spun sideways and was skidding crossways down the lane, giving him no time or, crucially, space to take avoiding action. He slammed on the anchors right enough, but it wasn’t enough. Not by a long chalk. The brakes had squealed, the tyres had screeched, and then had come the massive jolt of the smash itself.
And then there was this smell. He wondered if he’d ever get over the smell. People so loved rehashing accidents, didn’t they? – and they always talked about the noise, and they always wanted to know how much pain victims felt – does adrenaline really mask the pain? And what happens afterwards, once the adrenaline goes? Certainly no-one ever thinks about the smell. And that was what would stay with him; it was a bizarre, hazy, musty sort of a smell, with an almost gunpowder tang to it. Very odd, to say the least. Still, although it was unpleasant, Elis supposed it could have been worse.
The pain kicked in quite quickly after the event, but it had subsided somewhat now. There had been an intense flash of agony to start with, and then the adrenaline had started, flooding his system, so the pain had become more manageable. It didn’t feel long afterwards, that the adrenaline leached out of his system, like a watercolour image being washed away but leaving behind the outline of the image itself. And that’s how Elis felt. Still, it had faded a touch more as he walked home; he briefly wondered whether the pain was becoming less intense, or whether the body was doing a good job of protecting him.
Now as he walked he could hear many things around him and the sounds of the night seemed somehow magnified. He’d seen all the hustle and bustle of the professional carers going in and out of both cars, and he’d watched most from a distance, their actions seeming so vital and so precise and ordered. He’d not wanted to approach, the wreck of the cars too intense a memory to come close to, but he had forced himself at the beginning. He’d pulled away as soon as he could though, and it wasn’t as if he was trying to avoid people, but no-one had seemed interested in speaking to him. He tried engaging people in a little conversation, but all he’d got were grunts as people turned their backs and got on with what they needed to do. There was the fact that the other driver and his passenger needed hospitalisation, and Elis looked at their unconscious bodies as they were extracted from the wreckage and wondered how he’d escaped with only cuts and bruises. That had really made him want to keep his distance.
He tried phoning his wife, but there seemed to be no service, which was odd. He thought he’d be needed – for a check-up by a paramedic, or an interview with the officer in charge for his details at the very least, but no-one bothered with him. He felt somewhat detached, rather than angry at this, and he supposed that was the after effects of the accident. But he felt ignored and, whilst he was only injured, he did think he could have at least been acknowledged. He did think someone could have taken an interest. He was the victim after all! But he was too tired to feel too offended, so he decided to walk home instead.
He tried one last time, his sense of civic duty compelling him to find the officer he thought was in charge. He offered to go into the police station the next day to make a statement, but, again, a grunt was all he seemed to get from the officer, who was far more intent on inspecting the debris. Well, if there was no service on his phone, he wasn’t about to get hold of a taxi. He had wondered briefly about whether to ask a police officer for a lift, but found he didn’t really want to see the inside of another car just yet. And no-one had seemed inclined to help him out so far! So the stubborn streak his wife occasionally complained of kicked in and he started the long walk home. They could trace the car reg., and they could find him instead! It was only going to take a matter of about an hour to walk it, surely, and there didn’t seem to be anyone about who minded his going.
It was an unlit wander and the longer it went on the more he was becoming perturbed. Oh, the moon was out and there were only a few clouds scudding across it, so visibility was relatively ok, especially as he was still young enough to have sharp eyes which saw well in the dark. Must remember to thank the missus for all that rabbit food she keeps insisting we eat! he thought to himself as he tried to raise a smile.
But, truth to tell, he didn’t feel much like smiling; he felt more like stopping and lying down. But that stubbornness would not let him. And so he carried on. And on.
He knew the way home blindfolded and he was quite looking forward to the tramp along the lane. He followed it as it wound up onto the moor. He knew there was a good stretch “up on the tops” – as he called it – before he could turn off again as a side road dropped down into a little copse and then out the other side to some houses. Not an estate, but just a few cottages with a nice aspect. And after that then the road opened out a little and he would find himself walking up to his front door, with its welcoming light and its warmth. The warmth of a fire which often blazed away in the log burner in the front room. If Katriona had left the curtains open a little, then he would even see it as he walked down the drive. But there would be the warmth of his welcome as well. Only married for 3 years, the couple were always eager to greet each other each day after work with passionate embraces. Ah, young love – how the heart misses a beat in the excitement of the early days! His father was fond of saying that it would never last, but that it would settle into something deeper and more profound with time, even if it was less energetic! Elis didn’t care about the future – he was enjoying married life; they were in love and the times they shared were the best of his life. Oh, nothing was perfect, but their life was good and carefree and there were precious few times they squabbled.
His feet dragged a little and he stopped for breath. The walk was tiring him beyond his expectations. Maybe he was struggling with the aftermath of the accident more than he thought he would. Maybe it was the slope up to the tops, he told himself. Normally his car made the trip on scant minutes – it was far easier sitting behind the wheel. But the thought of that made him shudder. Still, it was a little better now he’d he reached the moor, where his road home levelled off somewhat. He cheered himself with the prospect of maybe seeing a badger cross the road in the distance, or catching a glimpse of a country fox leaping onto a stone wall… or watching a barn owl quarter the fields as he passed into the copse later. How he loved England with its wildlife!
Suddenly his vision misted and he was glad he’d stopped. He saw his own front room in his mind’s eye, and he saw his wife fall to her knees, tears pouring unchecked down her cheeks. He saw a big man in black lift her gently to her feet, and then he saw her sob into his shoulder. Aghast, he saw still further as she clung onto him like a drowning swimmer clings to a rock. Abruptly, he saw her lift her face off the man’s shoulder and stare right at him – a moment of clarity for them both. And then the vision faded and he was once more atop the moor in the dark. He staggered like a drunk who had been relying on a nearby wall to prop himself up, only to find out it wasn’t as close as he’d thought.
Deeply unsettled, he composed himself as well as he could and began to walk. Faster, this time. Although he knew it was impossible, the vision had seemed so… well, so real. Damn it all, he felt like he’d shared an unspoken conversation with his wife that spoke to the heart of his bond with her! And he wanted to get to her. Right now.
As he stepped off the main lane and onto the side lane, which was even less well-used, he felt quite disconcerted. It was not well-travelled, this section of the moor, but there was normally some traffic. And today he’d spent much longer than the five minutes he normally spent up there. And he’d seen no-one. No-one at all.
He moved down the lane, not bothering to walk on the verge – it was too little a track road for that. Pot-holes and crumbling tarmac were his only companions in the gloom. He could see the spinney in front of him, and he was finding a difficulty focusing on the trees; they seemed so insubstantial and translucent all of a sudden. He concentrated hard, and decided he was imagining things. All would seem better, once he’d got into the trees.
The road wound down and he felt it easier going, but he realised that he must have been walking for more time than he thought. He checked his watch and shook his hand. He loved his watch and the fact that it had stopped working was disappointing. Must’ve happened in the accident! It was all that was left from his grandfather who had passed away last year, and he hoped it wasn’t permanently broken. He shook his head and dismissed the thought. Other matters were more pressing right now.
In spite of the pain he was still feeling, he increased his stride length as the walking got easier. Downhill was definitely better for him at the moment. The road felt familiar and new at the same time. He put that down to the fact that he normally viewed it through a windscreen. He turned and looked at the moon, hanging high in the sky over the fields that were now taking over from the heathery moor. It was strange, but it had turned red – not a deep crimson, but a pale, washed-out blood-red. Strange, he muttered to himself, I thought the moon only turned red close to the horizon. Dust in the atmosphere, or something…
He shook his head to dispel such unwanted musings. Ah, that hurt – but, strangely, not as much as he thought it should have. Concentrate on the positive! Any barn owls hovering over the fields? Or a tawny owl flitting from tree to tree in search of rodents? Or a fox? What about a badger? No, nothing, and yet the sounds he’d been hearing during his walk were becoming louder. He’d realised he’d tuned them out, and he’d managed somehow to ignore them. A sense of unease grew; it had been there for a while, he suddenly understood.
And then he sighed in relief, for there, silhouetted against the moon was a shape that could only be an owl. Funny how something so mundane could make him feel normal again. But… hang on, that didn’t look like an owl. Somehow it seemed bigger and more angular – and… but then it was gone… disappearing into the dark as quickly as it had appeared. Must have been the angle I saw it at; perhaps it was a bat, and just closer than I had thought, he mused.
He strode through the wood, his step sure and true now; he had become purposeful and intent. There were a couple of farms just off the moor and outside of the wood, so there were a couple of tracks that led off the main track he was following down through the wood. So, it must have been a farm dog he’d just heard. Funny that it sounded like a wolf howl. But there aren’t any wolves in northern England, he told himself sternly. It’s just you’re getting jumpy!
But, jumpy or not, there was no getting away from the fact that this trip home was strange. The rustlings he was hearing to his right now were from a big animal, he was sure. Must be a sheep loose, or something, he told himself. It obviously wasn’t climbing the stone wall, so it was still penned in. Yes, that was it, of course. He forced himself to laugh at it, but the sound died quickly.
He hurried on. Past a turning to a farm he knew of, but the rustling continued. Only now it was aggressive and harsher somehow. Something bigger was there. Or somethings. ‘Hello?’ he ventured, but there was no response. Get a grip! Get a bloody grip, Elis! He had stopped to look into the foliage, but he’d seen nothing more than a couple of pinpricks of light, and felt he was foolish trying to see in the dark. Most likely glow worms, anyway! He wasn’t sure if it was the right time of the year for them or even if they lived in these woods, but he couldn’t think of anything else. But he was rattled.
And then there were the eyes. Bloody hell, they weren’t figments of his imagination. Through the trees to his right he could see them light up in the dark. There was no way they were glow worms! Figures approached and they were massive. He stepped backwards in alarm. Shit! What was going on? In the light of the moon, as the trees thinned abruptly, he could suddenly see leathery wings and sharp talons on massive hands as they reached for the stones cresting the wall. A harsh and putrid laugh escaped inky black lips, but nothing crossed the wall.
In the absence of any other sane response, Elis just continued on his way; he had no idea how to react, so he didn’t; he just carried on walking, hoping he was dreaming.
But he knew he was not.
He had definitely seen fangs glint in the moonlight; something was definitely “up”! And he was starting to feel afraid it was his time that was up. As he walked he could see out of the corner of his eye that the shadowy figures on his right kept pace. They were just there, but they didn’t seem to want to interfere with him. He didn’t know who or what the figures really were, but there were some, even further off, that were bigger still. The noises increased. Elis was sure he could hear bone snapping and talon slashing far off. Or was that his imagination? This had got to be some trick, only it didn’t feel like it.
Suddenly he was aware that he didn’t feel afraid, and yet at the same time he was still terrified, deep down – wasn’t he? Wondering in consternation that he was either mad, stupidly brave or kind of hypnotised, he took a few faltering steps towards the figures who had by now halted, mirroring his actions: waiting for him. In the keen moonlight, the one at the front raised a face. It was a strong and intelligent face, but ruthless and cruel at the same time. Somehow, it radiated power and an attractiveness as well. It was darker than Elis’ own features, and a deep bronze hue covered the skin, which was flawless and smooth, but rugged and chiselled at the same time. The jaws opened in a smile, showing a dazzling array of perfect teeth. Perfect, very sharp teeth.
He stretched out an arm, as if to grasp the taloned hand he suddenly realised was being offered to him. If he accepted it, he could feel the power and dominance he would possess. The voice inside that had been screaming at him was very distant somehow now, and the consternation he had felt was fading quickly. He looked down at his own arm he had reached out in front of him, and wondered at it. It had thickened, and wasn’t covered in his shirt and suit jacket any more. It was more muscular than it had ever been, and the nails were lengthening and becoming sharper as he moved forwards.
It was this shock that prompted a step backwards, and as he took another one, his arm started to return to its previous appearance.
‘Aahh,’ came a soft sound from behind him; it was almost a sigh. Standing behind a stone wall on the other side of the track was a woman. What the hell is someone dressed like that doing out here? And at this time? he wondered. But then he realised he didn’t care. She was smiling at him, and she was looking deep into his eyes. Was he drunk? He asked himself the question once, but didn’t wait for an answer. He tried to greet her, but any response was swallowed up by her beauty. Damn it all, he wasn’t some teenager meeting his pop idol! What was he doing getting like this? Just because there was a stunning woman in a white silk dress standing behind a stone wall in a wood looking at him suggestively, didn’t mean he should react this way! Or did it? She shook her shoulder-length blond hair from her face and leaned backwards. He hadn’t noticed the other woman behind, but that was because she was dark-haired and dressed in a deep red dress. The first one leaned into her, never taking her eyes from Elis. Elis too was transfixed, as the second woman put her arm around the waist of the first one.
Elis had taken several steps towards them, before he realised what he was doing. As before, he had started to reach out towards the figures in front of him. This time, however, his arm was bare, and as he stretched out, it became slimmer and the fingers had perfectly manicured nails all of a sudden. And then he realised that his shoulders had shrunk, but parts of his chest were swelling, and the suit had become a deep blue, satin…
What the hell! He’d stumbled backwards into the middle of the road out of shock, feeling back to normal. Normal! Normal? Just what was normal? What on earth was happening? He was perturbed, worried and anxious. The little voice inside him seemed to be loud again right now, but he was concerned it wouldn’t stay that way. Out of the corner of his eyes, he could see massive, aggressive figures looming bulkily over the wall, tempting him to join them; and he knew that he could find fun and satisfaction in the violence he could be a part of. It should have worried him, but perversely he felt attracted by it.
Another kind of satisfaction awaited him on the other side of the road it seemed; certainly there was enough he was hearing from that way as well that seemed equally attractive, and there was also definitely part of him that was keen to go that way. He could see entreating hands, and he could see…
The vision of his wife in tears popped into his head all of a sudden, startling him with its intensity and its clarity. How had he forgotten? Surely…? But…?
His feet had already started on their way before he realised he was moving. The figures kept pace on both sides of him all the way through the wood, but, oddly enough, they had no fascination for him anymore. He thought of the love he shared with his wife and he thought of their life together. It was enough to sustain him.
Not once did he look from side to side. Not once was he tempted to actually stray. Well, not… really. Not now.
It didn’t seem too much longer that the road opened out in front of him and he found himself walking past familiar houses. Oddly, they’d got rather translucent themselves and seemed somehow to be fading from existence. But as he wasn’t looking around him, he didn’t seem to notice. All his eyes were on was his house.
His home. He felt as if nowhere else mattered now and his eyes finally were met with the sight of it. And it was warmer and brighter in the dark than he had remembered it – and more so than he could have dreamed possible. It encompassed all his wishes and desires. As he approached the front door he realised with a start that he was alone, and that everything else was fading from view – all around him. But that didn’t matter. There was a crack of light as the door opened a touch. He could hear voices inside – more voices than he could ever make out. But suddenly there was one he recognised. ‘Nice one, lad! Knew you’d make it!’ What? That sounded like his grandfather! But that wasn’t possible! Was it?
The front door was thrown open fully and light flooded out into the darkness. The inside of his house no longer seemed like his house, but the most fantastic and wonderful place he could only have dreamed of, if his imagination had been good enough. And it seemed to open out into a place so vast he had no concept of. A voice he had never knowingly heard but one that seemed achingly familiar spoke, golden words that washed over him and made him feel contented and satisfied in a way he had never realised was possible.