Project #3 – This is my latest book idea, a psychological thriller that wades through a boy’s life, each chapter surrounding a certain age that something happens… The Obituary of Stephen Hill.
Sand has this tendency to get everywhere. It was in his shoes, not simply working its way between the lightly worn insoles and no-brand socks, but grinding against his skin. It was in his socks, between his toes, under his nails and in every crevice. It wasn’t just his feet either – his body lay flat, slightly sunk into the wet sand that had been kissed by the tide only a few minutes before. Each lap of the waves drove a million grains into the individual fibres of his patched blue jumper, clung itself to his tailored dark grey jeans like a thousand tiny animals fleeing from the grasps of the sea.
The invasion of his clothing wasn’t what woke him. Instead it was the feel of the manmade beach sand that crunched itself across his face, scratched at his eyes and worked its way between his teeth, now dry from sucking coastal air through his lips for god knows how long. His jaw ached, and as he tried to work out what muscles still worked, his brain was only just coming to the realisation that his mouth was full of stuff that shouldn’t have been there. After a split second of feeling the sand grind between his molars, his body desperately tried to react. All it could managed was a pitiful spitting motion followed by a light cough, achieving little more than sucking in more sediment filled seawater. He spluttered in his helpless state and succeeded in rolling over onto his back with what small reserves of energy he found deep in his chilled core.
He managed to open his dull blue eyes invaded by bloodshot capillaries, and the sunlight tore through his vision. His face became a map of creases and he managed a cracked groan. It felt as though he had never used his voice before. With a hand slowly lifted above his face he peeled open his eyelids once more. The sun was filtering through a mass of overcast clouds above, threatening neither blistering heat nor a brisk chill on the horizon. The clouds weren’t even moving, and he noticed the air was still. He hadn’t yet made the link that the wind speed should be up this close to the ocean.
After a few passing minutes the waves lapped up his back, bringing itself further up his spine, striking off more nerve endings the higher it came. He needed to pick himself up, or at least crawl further inland before the ocean slowly dragged him in with the tide. With the extra weight of saltwater soaked clothes, he turned over to his left, revealing nothing but more empty beach. He put his small free hand down and heaved his dainty upper body, then managed to spread his weight on both arms. Can I stand? He thought. His arms were already twitching and shaking from the strain, so he pulled both knees up from under his body and tried to lean back. His vision filled with stars and he thought he might go blind. With no sense of direction or balance he very nearly toppled to the side until his heart pumped just enough blood to his brain for him to steady himself.
After a few moments to gather himself, he slowly crept up onto his feet hoping not to repeat what happened. He stood just a few feet tall, body swaying like an oak tree in a gentle breeze, and turned his face to see where the beach originated from. He hadn’t thought what to expect – would it be the maw of a jungle with its dense trees looming overhead? A broad expanse of desert behind dunes kissed with spots of foliage? What he saw didn’t surprise him somehow, but he still felt like everything was wrong. The beach was only a few dozen feet wide, and merged seamlessly into a concrete barrier which evolved and spilled into a small onlooking town. Instead of the vast array of pastel coloured house-fronts and doors adorned with quirky knockers and numbers, the place was devoid of imagination. Everything was a mix of greys and eroded browns. The houses were short and dinky, the streets were wide and completely empty, and where entertainers and novelty sellers should have been peddling their knock-off hats and glasses, only the still quiet filled the space.
He glanced up and down the town’s seafront for any sign of life, even danger – what kind he didn’t know, but his eyes were met with nothing but the same lifeless scene. His teeth began a rhythmic chatter and his back and chest started to shake. His body knew it was cold but he almost couldn’t feel the dip in temperature. It was as if his mind was disconnected and his body was doing all it could by its own devices. He had to find somewhere warm and find some dry clothes, or at least a big soft towel like the one mum wrapped and shook him in after bath time. Slowly putting one foot in front of the other, he made his way to the nearest ramp in the concrete walkway that separated this faux-nature from twenty first century industry. He still heard the lapping of the ocean in his ears behind him – aside from the squelching of his sodden white trainers it was the only sound that made it to his brain.
He waddled up the ramp, taking care with each step as he left small wet footprints in the light scatterings of sand that had creeped its way to some form of freedom. He had his arms hugged around his body in hopes of creating some warmth for himself, achieving only discomfort as the soggy sand patches rubbed against his palms. This is where we dust off our feet and put our socks back on. He thought back in his memory, remembering the few times his parents had taken him on a family day out to a real beach, with warm sand and a brisk ocean. He remembered the sticky feeling of that nasty sun lotion his mum forced him to wear – it made his clothes cling in a way he hated and the sand hang on him in clumps where he hadn’t let her rub it in properly. He looked down at his trainers, still leaking water and utterly caked in escapee grains from the beach. I won’t be able to rub you off. He shuddered in discomfort at the thought of taking his socks off only to have to scrape them back over his toes.
This isn’t a nice holiday.
He strolled across the street, looking either way for oncoming cars. There wasn’t a single vehicle in sight, moving or parked. Heading straight towards the first set of bungalows with a sea view, he tried to peer inside the front windows for signs of people. Just getting a glance of a TV in full motion would have given him some sense of safety, but every place he peered into gave no such gift. They were all filled with the usual trappings of furniture, mostly beige and green sofas and chairs with the odd antique dresser. Each one reminded him of grandma’s house, looking like a portal back in time to when she was young and avocado bathtubs were the modern thing. Despite the town’s abandoned state, every building and street was untouched. There wasn’t a single flake of paint peeling away from the window frames, no tyre marks or the things called potholes dad yelled about on the way to work.
It must be a new estate. Mum had told him about those on the outskirts of his home town, mainly to moan about how it brought more traffic and that we didn’t need that. She said the builders made these houses all at once, made new roads and planted gardens, then when they were all finished people started moving in. Before that though, they were like ghost towns, with the odd house that looked like a looming skeleton, all the rest waiting for it to be finished so they could be bought by families and out-of-town businessmen. Yes, that was it. It made perfect sense. But why did they leave me here?
His belly felt sick with worry, like the inside was being tickled and twisted by some invading force. Then he felt a sudden sense of realisation. It was the exact feeling he had felt… right before I got here. Something in his head wouldn’t let him remember what had happened, it was blocking all the immediate past. Suddenly his attention returned to his current state. Cold, wet, scratchy. He turned to the closest house he’d peeked into and slunk towards the front entrance. Pulling a cold and achy hand from under his armpit he wrapped as hard as he could on the door, the impact sending painful vibrations up his chilled arm. He waited a few moments and knocked a few more times, this time more rapidly, ignoring the tingles. After just a few seconds he grew impatient. He ran across to the next house, pumping his balled fist against the door. Nothing. Next house. Nothing. His hand hot with pain and his mind in a panic he grabbed the door handle and thrust it down, not expecting it to open and send him reeling forward into the hallway. He managed to put his arms forward to prevent his head from hitting the ground, but his shoulders screamed at the sudden jolt.
The carpet was every bit as dated as the interior. It was thick and felt new despite the mucky brown swirly pattern. It lacked all the fade marks and stains Grandma’s had, many of which were caused by his carelessness with a plate or cup. She had been the first to trust him with a beaker instead of a sippy cup, and despite his best efforts to make her proud, it took only a few minutes before its contents was soaked up by the shaggy floor. He huffed and pulled himself up, nervous that the people who lived here might come thundering down the stairs to discover who had rudely burst into their house. He didn’t know what had come over him, but there was no person in sight, no sound of movement upstairs or down.
“Mum?” he whispered.
He didn’t have any sensible reason why she should be in here, but it was the only person he could think of to cry out for, the only person he wanted more than anything. She’d explain everything. She’d dry him off and get the sand from between his toes. Dad would probably just get angry that he’d wandered off.
There was no answer besides the faint reverberation of his echo, bouncing around the hall and staircase for a split moment. At the end of the hallway there was a thin framed door made up mostly of single glazed window panes, and it had been left wide open to reveal most of the kitchen and what little light managed to break in. It had that plastic floor that grandma said made cleaning up spills easier, and old cupboards that were veneered to look like real wood. Grandad said they were lighter and hollow, made of some cheap material that was ground up wood. He’d had to screw their hinges on a number of times after they tore themselves out. There were two other doors leading from the hallway; one to his left that he assumed went to the living room where he found his grandparents sitting most of the time, watching some old war movie, and the other was an under stair cupboard. Theirs had been filled with old contraptions resembling hoovers and all manner of electric bits grandad had collected over the years. Grandma hated it, and harped on at him to clear it out. That had been going on for some years.
He tip toed as best he could towards the door to his left, placing his head against the cool white paint. He scrunched his eyes and listened his hardest, but he couldn’t make out a single sound. He put his hand on the old brass handle and twisted slowly, holding his breath so the only sound was the spring inside coiling around as it turned. With a light click the door released itself a few millimetres. He slowly opened the door.
He still didn’t understand why he thought they might be here. This wasn’t their town, and this most definitely wasn’t his grandparents’ house. He was clinging on to any hope that there might be some familiarity in this place but none ever came.
He popped his head around the door and peered into a room decorated with old floral patterns, dusky brown felt furniture and china plates adorning the walls. He let out a sigh of relief. Nobody’s here he thought. Old people got terribly angry at him when he was where he wasn’t supposed to be. He wheeled around to walk back into the hallway when he heard a light tap on the ceiling above. He froze rigid with his heart suddenly exploding in his chest, hand still firmly holding the handle of the living room door in its twisted position. If I let go they’ll hear the spring. He could feel the thuds on his chest; now realising he needed to start breathing again. What if they hear my breaths? He tried his best to release the air in his lungs as quietly as possible. As he counted the seconds go by while he tried his best to breath normally, he turned his attention to the door handle. His hand was white from squeezing so hard to stop the latch snapping back in place. He twisted his hand in the opposite direction, shaking slightly as the loose handle rattled in its hinges. Even a mouse wouldn’t have heard the noise, but to him it was like a thunderous siren to whoever might be lurking upstairs.
All he wanted to do was run out the front door and scream. He was terrified and needed to hide. But there’s nobody to help me here. There was no soul in sight outside, and if he yelled for help the thing upstairs might hear him, might be the only thing to answer his calls for aid. He had no idea how long he’d stood there completely frozen in time. He hadn’t moved a muscle, eyes fixed on the empty landing up the stairs as if expecting some kind of movement. As if against his own will and sensibility he began creeping towards the stairs. Before he could stop himself he was already two steps up, placing both feet on each step before ascending the next. When his parents were awake downstairs when it was his bed time, he used to crawl up and down the stairs on his hands and knees, carefully avoiding the floorboards that creaked the loudest. Mum had always heard him, caught him out and taken him back to bed. Who knew what might happen if he was caught this time.