Project #3 – Chapter 1: Age 7 Pt3

Project #3 – Here’s the final part of the first Chapter and the end of our time with Stephen as a 7 year old. Next up we’ll dive into another part of Stephen’s life, and hit up the teenage years. Dana is bound to crop up somewhere, probably uninvited.

To read the last entry, go here: https://exceptionallyaverageman.wordpress.com/2016/10/19/project-3-chapter-1-age-7-pt2/

To read from the beginning, go here: https://exceptionallyaverageman.wordpress.com/2016/10/17/project-3-chapter-1-age-7/

***

There was so much light. Bare bulbs of  deep dark reds were interweaved with glowing warm yellows, each one dimming just slightly as if dancing to a silent tune. The walls were clad in thick silky wallpapers from times of old, stripy reds and whites here, entire feature wall-sized murals of play parks hand painted along an entire length of the room. The room itself was gargantuan, not separated by walls or cubicles, but sectioned into a million themes by machines and booths arranged in clumps of individual magic. For once, Stephen finally felt warm. He stood there stunned, even as Dana shot off down a haphazard aisle, weaving between machines and vacant chairs like some kind of jet pilot.

“It’s this way Stephen!” She shouted back at him, bringing him back to this bizarre reality.

But there’s so much here to do.

As if answering his thoughts Dana gave him the same old reason. “We don’t have time to do it all. You can come back later.” He couldn’t distinguish where her voice was echoing from.

Come back from where?

Within moments she bared down on him from the side, throwing an arm around his waist. She was fast, and she must have known the place like no other. She slid her arm from his waist, down his arm, this time holding his hand more gracefully, without any semblance of threat.

“Come on. We’ll get you a matching one of these” She held up her ball in the palm of her hand. Stephen hadn’t remembered giving it back, or where she might have stored it. He was too lost in wonderment to care.

“OK.” For the first time Stephen couldn’t help but offer her a genuine smile of excitement.

They meandered down the room through the aisle that Dana had steamed down earlier, this time at a pace that felt more calming. He didn’t spend a single second looking down the path they were travelling, instead allowing his gaze to wander and soak in everything around him. Booths stood tall and taut, their entrances beckoning them in with promise of fortune and fun. There were balls and theatrical hammers, makeshift futuristic guns of brass that probably fired dried peas, hoops and rods. It was truly a fair from a time long before he was born, but he didn’t mind. It was as though this place had sucked the entire colour and life from the entire town and offered it in a torrential downpour to any fortunate enough to breach its doors.

Dana pulled him around a corner made of tall brass machines demanding change for the chance to offer a price of some description – None explicitly mentioned what. In front of him laid a group of five booths, all identical in form. Each of them had cages and nets full of the same cloud filled balls that Dana had been slamming against the bedroom wall when he had arrived. There were more than just grey ones, there were stripes and dots, ones with swirls that were see-through, and even plain ones ingrained with sparkling glitter. None of them were manned by anyone, yet each one had been perfectly set up as if never touched for centuries. Stephen looked around; there was nobody here but the two of them. He wondered if Dana had simply taken hers by force somehow, but couldn’t see a way to unlock the cages or reach the nets. She tugged him closer to the tent-like structure, and it offered a small raised wooden platform for its shorter visitors. It was well worn unlike the others, as if it had been eroded away by an excessive amount of visitors. Dana pulled him up next to her, and he immediately saw the rules of the game.

There were nine coconuts of varying sizes, each with numbers painted on them. Across to one side read a sign:

Score Fifty

Get Something Nifty!

The words made him cringe; it was something his mum would have used to describe a tool that made scrubbing dishes faster. He already knew the prizes, what concerned him more was the unlikelihood of winning. There was a single coconut on a large plunger, pinned into the ground upside down. It was tiny, and happened to be the one marked 50. Surrounding it were eight others of different sizes, the six largest marked 10 were already about to fall off their preposterously sized platforms. Between these were the two deceivingly average ones, each marked 25. Dad had always told him these games were made to make winning nearly impossible without tremendous luck. Stephen looked across at Dana’s hand, still clutching hers in a balled fist. If she had won one, surely he could.

But she’s weirdly strong.

As if by some unknown prompt Dana reached over and swatted at a button in the centre of the desk in front of them. There was a winding and grinding behind the scenes and then six soft balls rolled their way down a small set of rails to their right, rolling onto the desk and stopping precisely in front of where wear marks on the floor lay.

“You get six throws.” Dana flashed a suspicious grin, as if she were in on the whole thing.

Stephen glanced back from her to the balls that lay in front of him. They looked like American baseballs, only without the red stitching or writing. He picked one up, weighed it in his palm and passed it between his hands. It felt dense, but there was a certain hollow nature to them. He looked back over to the smallest target. Can’t be that hard… He brimmed with over confidence for just a moment, before becoming a little nervous in his stomach as he prepared a throw. He suddenly considered that he might miss; he didn’t want to look stupid in front of Dana. She already spoke down to him and he wanted to prove her wrong.

Then I’ll show her that stupid grin.

He gripped the ball more tightly, wound back his arm, and then arched the ball over his head as if he were a bowler playing cricket. He hoped the high angle trajectory would be severe enough to knock his target straight off. It careened through the air a lot faster than he imagined, and in the brief moments it flew he rubbed his arm that now yelled at him for overexertion. He could see it was a perfect throw, and like a ballistic missile it pounded on the winning coconut with a heavy bonk.

The ball however simply bounced off like the hail pinged off the family car windshield. The coconut rolled around in its throne as if shifting in its sleep. Feeling immediate defeat, Stephen looked down towards Dana expecting some lengthy diatribe about how she was better. She merely curled her lips inward in hidden amusement before straightening her face.

“Try the easier ones. You can still do it with five.” This time she sounded a little more genuine.

His pride battered, he picked up another ball and simply tossed it half-heartedly at the ten-pointer on the far left. With a gentle knock it fell over, and he felt like a cloud of hope had washed over him again. He quickly composed himself, not wanting to jinx his chances on the next throw. One after another the next three large coconuts dropped like flies, and after the third one crashed to the floor he let out a gritted “Yiss!” through his teeth, punching his aching arm through the air. Throughout his performance Dana simply stood there looking onwards in careful consideration. He kept looking to her for some kind of response, whether it was admiration or jealousy, he didn’t care at this point. He wished she’d show something. The thought of her unnerved him despite his success. He just didn’t understand her, and within those brief moments the charade of fun this place had swarmed him with melted away. He was still lost, still alone.

He tossed the final ball in the air back into his hand in a cocky fashion, and tossed it as hard as he could. He winced in pain as a sharpness prodded its way through his shoulder at the last moment, sending his final ball off into the back of the canvas booth. Stephen stood there, eyes ablaze, body confused that he’d just failed after his amazing performance. He darted his eyes across to see how Dana would respond. Her face was already waiting for him, a dark maniacal grin as though it had been her plan all along. Stephen was about to burst, accuse her of setting up the whole thing, streaming a thousand excuses of why it was her fault that all this had gone the way it had.

He would have, at least, if she hadn’t held out her hand, grey swirling sphere outstretched towards him.

“Try the fifty now.” Her eyes bled through his skull.

She has such deep eyes.

As if possessed, he agreed to her curious offer, plucking the small bouncy ball out of her hand and lining himself up for the most troublesome target of all.

“Isn’t this cheating…” he wandered off as he pelted the tiny coconut with what was left with his might.

It hit its mark, shattering a piece of the outer shell off and sending the elastic projectile on a lightning speed trajectory headed straight for Dana. Before he could move an inch towards her or shout a warning, she pulled up both hands and caught it in both her cupped hands, without even the slightest flinch in her stature. He was about to ask her if she was OK before another set of mechanical gears began winding and clinking together. One of the upper cages opened by some imaginary force, releasing just a single identical ball to the one Dana had handed him. It bounced and weaved across the floor inside the small tent, hitting corners and scooting here and there before tumbling out past them and into the main floor of the Arcade. As if in a trance Dana immediately dived after it, scooting off to try and catch his prize.

Stephen turned back to the booth for a final look before going in search of his curious female friend, only to find the booth reset. The coconuts all lay back in their original positions, the smallest one he had decimated now in perfect condition. The numbers simply stared back at him in earnest disbelief that they had ever been knocked down. A wooden sign slammed down from above with a sharp clack!

You Lose!

“Stupid thing… I-“

Another sign slammed down from above it.

You Cheated!

His heart stopped.

Give it back little boy.

He screamed.

It wasn’t words, it wasn’t a name, he just yelled out in a high pitch terror. As if in answer, the Arcade switched off all its lights, all but the red ones. The entire contents of the massive building took on a dark red glow. It no longer had colour, it no longer held the promise of fun. Instead every machine, every booth, every word stared at him in a scarlet anger. He turned to run but the brass machines he and Dana walked past to get here were laid out in a line in front of him. They weren’t here to take his money for a prize. They were here to take him for not playing by the rules.

She made me do it.

He couldn’t reason with the machines, reason with the building. It wouldn’t understand. Dana was nowhere to be found. Had she tricked him into this? Had she tricked everyone in this town into giving themselves up to the maw of the Arcade? He didn’t understand any of it. I just want to go home. I need to hide under the quilt. I need to shut my eyes.

The moment he shut his eyes, blacking out the looming, angry machines, a voice commanded him from the side.

“We need to get out of here now. You have to go back.” It was Dana, no fear or worry in her voice, just this strong commanding presence.

He turned his head in her general direction, and opened his eyes, revealing her stern brow and piercing eyes in the red hue. She stood between a number of kiosks to one side and he bolted over to her no daring to look back at what might bare down on him. He was the one who reached out for her hand this time, begging her to drag him away from here as she did before. With their hands clasped together she led him on a path much like a maze, weaving in and out of the blur. It was hard to make anything out in this light. It singed away all the finer details of everything that surrounded him, making it either reflect that murderous glow, or absorb all the colours into blackness.

Within moments they were at the entrance, and with no sign of stopping or slowing Dana burst open the doors with a kick. In that moment time stopped. In that moment there was nothing. Just Stephen, Dana, and black.

“You’re going back now.” For the first time she smiled at him softly, in earnest.

“Back where?”

“I’ll see you again. I think you’ll be back. I’ll always be here to protect you.” She opened her palm and handed him his prize.

“You caught it…”

***

“Caught what Stephen?”

It was a voice. An older voice, from an adult, but it didn’t belong to Mum or Dad.

The light here is bright; I can feel it behind my eyelids. There’s a mask on my face. I’m in bed. It’s not my bed. At least it’s not there.

“Can you tell me if you remember what happened Stephen?” The older voice continued to quiz him, this time placing a finger on his eyelids, pulling one open.

It’s a doctor. There’s somebody else next to the bed. I can see her hands. It’s mum!

“Hey little man, are you feeling OK?” She was hiding a lump in her throat, she had been stood there as he stirred and was trying her hardest to contain the deluge of emotion.

“Now Stephen…” The doctor again. “…Can you tell me the last thing you remember in the playground?”

I was at school. It was break time. I remember now but I didn’t before… Laura Allen was playing kiss-chase with me… she always ran after me…

“A girl in my class was chasing me…”

“Did she hit you? Where did she hit you Stephen? I’ll call the school-“ His mother was growing frantic in an instant, failing to hold back the tide.

“She didn’t hurt me.” His voice felt a little coarse, but he felt so much safer already. “She just kissed me… it was a game…” He felt embarrassed. He looked at his mother, her cheeks were already flush and he could tell she was stifling a smirk, all panic stripped from her face.

“Well I think uh… that’s all we’ll need from your for now Stephen.” The doctor turned to his mother and started talking in a lower tone. “We’ll need to get these tests back to the lab for testing… could be a fit…” Stephen stopped paying attention when he noticed something clenched in one of his mum’s hands.

“…sounded like convulsions…”

He could barely make it out, but it was grey.

“…especially concerning for him to be comatose for several days…”

There was a pattern to it, with white running through it.

“…erratic brain function…”

It was a small ball, almost identical to the one from the Arcade.

His mother caught his staring eyes. “Oh, I got you this from a bric-a-brac shop. It’s a bouncy ball. I used to have some when I was younger and it always sent my mother in a state…”

He had stopped listening when she fully opened her hand, his eyes simply glared. It wasn’t the one that belonged to Dana, it had a different pattern, but it was the same colour. No, this was the one the Arcade claimed he stole from it, in a game stacked against him. He had won that ball unfairly, in a game built to be unfair, and Dana had helped him do it.

And now it was here. Not in his head, but in his safe place, his world.

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Project #3 – Chapter 1: Age 7 Pt2

Project #3 – Here we find out what was waiting for our little man beyond the halls upstairs. Prepare for masses of exposition, cheesy toddler-esque dialogue and some world building for our creepy grey beachside town. Somebody’s going to the Arcade.

Read from the start here: https://exceptionallyaverageman.wordpress.com/2016/10/17/project-3-chapter-1-age-7/

***

By the time he made it to the top step and onto the landing the silence was broken with yet another tap, this time more forceful. He gripped a hold of the bright white bannister after getting an uncontrollable feeling that he might fall backwards down the stairs. His head barely came to the height of the handrail, so he stretched up on his tiptoes and peered over the edge. He held his breath hoping to overhear some clue as to where the noise was originating from. What the noise was originating from. He glanced around the first floor; all doors closed save for one. There was one to his left, a light glow emanating from beneath the crack at the bottom of the door. At the end of the hall there was nothing but shadow beyond the other. To his right, the door was ajar. He saw a small chunk of plain pink wallpaper, and a light switch of the old kind, made of brass and with a knobbly bit at the end. He looked deeper at the shapes on the wall, unaware how long it had been since his body had managed to suck in air.

There was a natural light coming in, casting faint shadows across the small piece of wall he could see. He stared intently at the shadows for any sign of movement. He was certain he could make out two shapes. The big one looks like a box, some drawers maybe? The second melded into the side of it, it was thinner, taller, it almost looked like a thin mountain. Wider in the middle, it goes up, then flows inward to a smaller top… like… hair. Before he filly realised he was staring at the shadow of a long-haired thing sat bolt upright, the shadow of an arm flung out and lashed in one swift action. This time a heavy thud reverberated through the wall, and he caught his breath in his throat. He let out a muffled shriek, at the same the shadow disappeared from view, launching itself to one side. He flung his body around, let go of the handrail and thundered down the stairs as fast as his legs would allow. He couldn’t catch his breath, he’d held it for too long, and before he knew it his feet lost their purchase. In a moment he was tumbling through the air, waiting for the inevitable connection of his body on a corner of step.

His vision went black, and although he felt his body crash against a number of surfaces, he didn’t feel the pain he thought was inevitable. With his face flat on the hallway floor once more, he noticed a figure out of the corner of his blurry tear filled eyes. It stood there, halfway down the stairs, as if appearing from nowhere without a sound. He saw the long black locks of hair, the little blue dress, and those silly socks the girls wore at school with the frills around the ankle. She couldn’t have been much older than him. He couldn’t make out any features, and his head screamed for immediate sleep. This is what passing out feels like, the movies make it look so quick and gentle.

“Stephen? Why did you run?” She stood there, asking in an inquisitive tone, a marble textured bouncy ball in her hand. There was something beneath the curiosity. Her voice sounds so frightening.

 

***

It felt soft, whatever he was lying on. It felt like safety.

Thunk

His head searched his body for pain. There was none.

Thunk

There was a little drool from his mouth stuck to the pillow. Pillow. I’m in a bed.

Thunk

I’m home. It was a bad dream. Mummy will be-

Thunk

What is that noise?

Nothing. It stopped. There was somebody there, right next to him.

“You’re awake Stephen!” That quaint little English voice pierced the air.

God no, not that voice again. I don’t like her, she’s wrong. I shouldn’t be here.

Like a giddy child she leapt up from the bed, one far too large for any normal child to need. She tumbled across his body and brought her face right up to his, chin resting on both her hands as she stared.

“Open your eyes silly, I carried you up the stairs to my room. You fell asleep, but don’t worry, I looked after you while you slept.” She was far too jolly, almost excitable even.

I just fell down the stairs. Why is she so excited? How did she carry me up the stairs?

He peeled his eyes open slowly; weary of what horror might meet his gaze.

To his surprise, it was the polar opposite of horror that sat inches from his face. Her black hair was wavy, and flopped around her faces in tufts like a droopy hound. Her skin was pale but flawless, and her brown eyes were dark and deep. She had a small round face, cheeks dented with dimples. She had a small and rounded nose, and the daintiest little ears that barely showed themselves beneath her mane of night. As if in response to his mental flattery, she smiled a gap-tooth grin. She had one of her big teeth on the way, and like an involuntary tick she poked at it with her tongue until it burst through the gap and she giggled.

“Come on, up up up! We don’t have much time!” She put her arms around his body and heaved him up so he was propped against the headboard of the bed. She’s stronger than she looks. She carried on staring blankly at him, mouth still ear to ear in a forced smile.

He managed a croak. “Why? Why don’t we have time?” Still unsure of his new “keeper’s” intentions.

“I think you’re going back soon.” She muttered, gazing off out the window to the grey haze outside. She swiftly changed the subject, giving him no time to ask where am I going back?

“We can do all sorts, the place is all ours Stephen!”

“How do you know my name? Who are you?” His curiosity rolled in his head, wondering if she meant this whole town is ours.

“Because we’ve met before. I’m Dana.” She put a hand on his shoulder to assure him that was most definitely her name.

It didn’t ring a bell in his head. “Met where?”

“Silly Stephen! When we were born of course! We were born at the same time. Don’t you remember? I certainly do.”

Who remembers anything from when they’re born?

Before he could ask any more questions she leapt up from the bed and tossed her bouncy ball across at a wall. Thunk. After a single bounce-and-catch she tossed it up in the air towards him. He caught it awkwardly, his reflexes still not quite awake. He opened one hand and let it loll about. It was a murky sphere of grey swirls and white streams, barely a scuff despite its heavy abuse from Dana. It felt remarkably warm, probably from incubating in her hand for all these hours.

Hours?

How long have I been asleep?

Seeing his eyes trail off she seized the moment to distract him from his thoughts.

“I won it at the Arcades. They have tonnes of cool stuff down there. Let’s go there now!” Dana had this way of stating things in such a proper Oh don’t you know British manner. Stephen already knew it was her way or… well, he wasn’t sure there was any other way. He expected her to turn into some evil witch girl at the slightest hint of boyish insolence. For now it might be safer to follow her lead, she said herself he wouldn’t be here long. Whether he was leaving to go home was something he hoped to find out sooner rather than later.

She bounded towards the door of the bedroom and slipped out without so much as a glance back to see if Stephen was following at half her pace. He rubbed his sleep filled eyes and leaned out of bed. He had to admit it was blissfully comfy and wouldn’t mind coming back later to wait for “soon”. He wandered towards the door taking a quick peek at the things that filled Dana’s room, if it even was hers. The pinkish wallpaper indicated it did at least belong to a girl or lady. The bed was covered in rough white and red patchwork covers, with fluffy cushions and the odd bear strewn about the place. It still had his rough body outline creased into one side. There was little in the way of belongings. He spotted a tall and thin wardrobe, but it was shut perfectly unlike mum’s one at home. Her doors would barely close, and there was always a skirt or a top poking out the crack. There was a dark, old oak dresser too. It looked ancient but showed no signs of wear or use, and not a single slip of material made it out the sides. He wondered if there was anything at all in here. It was all bare, as if it were constructed and decorated for nothing but a movie set.

He closed the door on the way out, not wanting to look back and see any more moving shadows and strange noises following him along the landing. Dana was stood at the top of the stairs waiting for him. As soon as they caught one another’s eyes, she turned and pranced down the stairs like a new born foal. Once Stephen made it to the stairs, he stopped to look down where he had fallen only a few moments (hours?) before. There was no sign of his tumble. No blood, not a single scrape or scuff in the wood, paint or carpet. The bottom of the staircase loomed in his vision. He took a deep breath and went to put a foot down on the first step.

“Come on mister!” she yelled up the stairs, causing Stephen to flinch and almost fall backwards in surprise. Anything she did could panic him; she was just so lively. Her voice sounded like she was shouting from outside the house already. She’s in such a rush… It occurred to him that Dana seemed oblivious that they were the only people in sight, potentially in the entire town. She might know why.

He composed himself as best he could, nerves still shot, desperately trying to control the shaking in his body from fright. He plodded down the steps double time, worried that there might be someone else upstairs. He made it to the bottom to the sight of Dana stood at the front door looking out onto the seafront. He walked slowly towards the door being careful not to make any noise in case somebody might be lurking. As if sensing his presence she whirled around on one heel sending the bottom of her dress in a floating twister. This time she pulled a cheeky grin across her face, leapt forward and grabbed hold of his hand.

“The Arcade’s this way Stephen! Quick, you’ve not got much time!” She dragged him out the front door, leaving the desolate house wide open for everybody, or nobody, so see inside.

She charged ahead down the road in a frantic sprint, dragging him along so fast he could barely keep himself from falling over. He tripped up on his own feet but managed to keep his balance, briefly lifting his head and stealing a glance at what they were headed for. He remembered the arcades on holiday, ones filled with claw machines that never worked, boxes full of sliding shelves crammed with pennies and prizes, mini bowling and the odd video-game machine. Those ones were bright and full over colours, plastered in flashing lights and oozing the smells of hot sea-side food and stale sun lotion. What they were running towards lacked everything. It had no smells, no people, and no lights. He was painfully aware of the silence as well. There were no bingo callers shouting out words that rhymed with numbers for reasons he never understood, and it lacked the plinks and plonks of music that looped around on the different machines. It was grey and lifeless like the rest of the place, and looked like what an Arcade would have been when old people were children.

Dana’s apparent idea of fun filled him with more distrust as he was yanked and tugged towards the first set of looming steps. He wasn’t sure where she was taking him, but the huge double doors at the top of the steps looked like something straight out of one of the old original colour films mum and dad used to swoon over on a Sunday afternoon. They were both out of breath as they ascended the dozen or so steps, Dana’s smile not wavering a millimetre, Stephen’s face growing ever more frightened. Dana shot a glance at him, the smile merging into a theatrical scowl.

“Don’t be so scaredy. It looks boring on the outside but you’ll love the inside. Come on little boy, I’ll keep you safe.” This time the bounce had left her voice, and she reverted to a brattish know-it-all tone. It was the way his older sister used to warble at him when he wasn’t doing what she wanted him to. He was hit with a sudden pang of regret. He’d do anything his sister asked him to if he could just get away from this. Need to get away from her.

In moment’s notice she wiped the frown from her face, plastered on her best polite look and grabbed him by the wrist once more. She threw open one of the swinging doors with such force it banged against the inner wall and rattle in its sockets. Just before the door came swinging back into Stephen’s face she thrust him through the doors and into a daydream of old fashioned fantasy. Suddenly the greys turned into something very different.

Project #3 – Chapter 1: Age 7

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.

“Grandma?”

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.