Crawley Creeps, Vol.11

The kettle clicked and Troy busied himself making cups of tea. Marcus sat at the kitchenette table, dozing. Hitesh sat opposite flicking through a dog-eared health and safety manual.

‘I saw a documentary about some cargo trains in China,’ Troy said, putting a cup of tea in front of Hitesh.

‘You still going on about this?’

Hitesh cupped the piping tea and glanced at the electric radiator panel. The orange light was on but Hitesh had yet to feel any heat.

‘Yeah. Of course. I get scared thinking about it. It was huge. I’ve never seen anything like it before.’

‘All kinds of companies run trains up and down the track.’

Troy shook his head and slumped in a plastic chair. Marcus plucked his mug from the table. They drank their teas and went through a brief plan. When they were finished they cleaned their mugs and headed back out into the cold.

Marcus stuck a key in the lock of a large storage container, opened the doors and flicked on the light. A dull bulb eeked yellow and stained the space with shadows. Marcus pulled out a generator and wheeled it outside.

‘It’s fucking freezing,’ Troy said. He rubbed at his arms and jogged on the spot.

‘Let’s get working then.’

They rummaged and pulled out two work-lights from the racking and headed out. The generator stood in the weak glow beyond the doors.

‘Where’s Marcus?’ Troy asked. Hitesh looked over to the toilet cabin. There was no light on. He turned and looked down the sides of the container whilst Troy looked through the kitchenette window. ‘Not in there.’

Hitesh cupped his mouth. ‘Marcus!’

Only the sway of the unseen trees and wind brushing against the small compound answered. Troy walked over.

‘Maybe he’s taking a piss.’

‘Marcus!’ Hitesh called again.

‘Or playing a prank.’

Hitesh doubted it. Marcus wasn’t a joker. He was grumpy to the point of morose and the only time Hitesh had known Marcus to laugh was when his ex-wife asked for a divorce.

‘There,’ Troy said, pointing to the mass of shadows that was the treeline. Marcus’ orange clad form could just be seen slipping between the trees, away and up the steep incline.

‘Marcus! What the hell are you doing?’ Hitesh called.

‘We can see you, you bellend!’ Troy shouted through laughter. Hitesh wasn’t laughing. The orange form didn’t turn. Didn’t react. Just trudged upwards. The darkness swallowed him a few seconds later. Hitesh pulled his torch from his pocket and clicked it on.

‘He’s just pranking us,’ Troy said.

Hitesh’s beam caught something moving. Another. And another. Everywhere he pointed the beam was another one. A man carrying a dog lead and clad in a heavy wax jacket. Another man in pyjama shorts and a T-Shirt. A woman wearing a nightie turned transparent by rain. An old lady with a bend at the top of her spine pushing her almost double stomped the ground as she ascended.

‘Jesus fucking Christ,’ Troy whispered.

All the people were heading toward the top of the ridge.

Muse

The world is cheering. Air parted by clapping hands and screams of joy. I stand in the middle of the field along with so many others and stare as Muse soars for the celestial heavens.

A handful curse the ascent. A preacher has materialised from the wood work and is running a sermon on heresy. She’s got a crowd and they cluster round her like iron filings caught in a magnets grasp. Anyone who turns their eyes to the sky would see this was mans pinnacle achievement. Disbelievers be damned.

The Muse vessel is pushed by a billowing snake of hydrogen surging the ship into the sky and through the atmosphere. It was as if mankind had awakened some elemental being, born from the baked earth but destined to transcend.

A local production company had erected a huge screen in the middle of the field. It shows the Chosen Ones. Sixteen hundred colonisers sitting in rows. Cheers and smiles can be made out through faceplates. Tears of happiness and fear. Some raise their hands treating it like the single biggest and most expensive roller coaster ride the world had ever seen. Which, of course, it is. And why not? They have a ticket into the history books, they are going to have statues erected in their honour in every country on earth.

The first colonisers.

Lucy clasps my hand. Her eyes are skyward, her face a mask of anxious hope. Her sister, Freiya, is a Chosen One. Her name had been chewed over by the Muse mission databanks and ejected at the lottery. She had the right “genetic qualifications”. No history of hereditary disease in the family, no psychiatric problems. Good blood. Her father a Ghanaian athlete, her mother a diplomat for the Australian government. Mixed. Strong. My wife could have be one of them but they didn’t allow more than one member of any family.

Good.

I can’t imagine watching Lucy being shot away from me. To experience the frightful nothingness of space and to start anew on Tierron whilst I died here on Earth.

Muse is in its final arch. I can’t make out the vessel from this far down so I watch the new image on the screen. A zoom shot of the outside of the vessel. Sun shattering against the external mounted solar panels, friction scorching the outer hull. A diamond in the blue sky. My wife squeezes harder, the breath catches in my throat and I feel tears stinging behind my eyes. A voice comes over the loudspeakers.

‘Ladies and gentlemen. The Muse Project has le-‘

Explosion. Highly volatile fuel burns white across miles of airspace as if a star has erupted into being within our atmosphere. Stunned silence. A hiss of static from the dead camera feeds. A thud in my finger. Broken. But the pain is distant, as if it had happened to someone else.

I turn to Lucy. Tears tumble down her cheeks. I can see the quick intake of breath fill her chest before she screams. The sound is pure agony. I move to hold her but she drops to her knees.

Above, debris shoots to all points of the compass.

The screen changes. A face. Everyone knows him. He’s crying. His voice is coarse with pain.

‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ People’s screams and pleas and sobs ebb away as they turn to the screen, wrenching their eyes from the flower of debris descending back to earth. Lucy doesn’t look. She stays on the floor and screams into the dust.

‘The Muse Project…has failed.’ A hush blankets the crowd, a few whimpers that sound like wounded animals. The preacher on the far side doesn’t miss a beat and fills the stunned silence with a screech of laughter. I glance over, someone is moving toward her, shoulders hunched. I don’t care. I don’t feel anything. I turn back to the screen.

‘It is with a heavy heart…that I tell you now that this project was humanity’s last hope at survival.’

A ripple of confusion, a few exchanged glances.

‘You were told this was to be the biggest colonial effort that mankind has ever attempted, the next big step as humanity reaches into the galaxy. You have been told a lie. The Muse Project was an arc mission. A mission to send survivors to Tierron. A last ditch attempt to save humanity’s future…away from earth.’

A woman screams. A man next to her plucks up a camping chair and hurls it at a bank of electrical equipment. Everyone ducks as gunshots fire out. Pockmarks pepper the crying man’s face. He keeps talking.

‘The Agriculture Initiative has failed. The last remaining stocks—‘

Another man kickd the generator and the screen goes blank. I wrap my arms around Lucy’s waist and pull her to her feet.

We run for the treeline.

The world is about to tear itself apart.

Crawley Creeps, Vol. 10

Nora chased after Melissa. Pins of rain stung her eyes and pricked at her face but she kept on.

Melissa had never been faster than Nora. Through school Nora had been the athlete. High jump, hundred metre dash, Nora was always grabbing gold or silver (even when no one was counting but her) and yet Melissa was outstripping her.

But Nora was sure that the woman she was chasing wasn’t Melissa.

A glimpse of movement up ahead caught Nora’s eye.

A woman was being attacked by a dog who was yanking at her leg. Second by second Nora’s day was getting stranger.

The woman tripped and went down. Nora watched horrified as Melissa kicked the woman clean in the face. Even from this far back Nora could see the ribbon of blood twist up into the air.

Melissa didn’t stop. Didn’t even skip a beat. Just kept on running.

As Nora reached the woman on the ground she saw the true mess of her face. The pleading look in her eyes. Almost childlike confusion. Nora stopped. She couldn’t catch up with Melissa anyway. Her sister was too far ahead and still gaining speed.

Nora watched her disappear around a bend in the path and she was gone.

‘What the fuck is going on?’ the woman on the floor whimpered.

The woman’s face was a mess. Her nose had been pushed to the left and was pissing blood across her mouth and chin. Her dog, a small terrier, was standing off to the side near a bunch of ferns, trembling and uncertain.

‘Are you okay?’ Nora asked.

The woman wiped at her face and seethed. Stared in shock at the blood smeared on her hand.

‘What the hell was that?’

‘My sister. I’m sorry. Something’s wrong with her.’

The woman pushed herself onto her backside. Spat blood onto the path. Nora knelt down. ‘Come on. Let me give you a hand.’ The woman looked at Nora uncertainly before letting holding out an arm.

Nora heaved the woman up.

‘You…you said something was wrong with her.’

‘Yeah. Look, are you okay?’

‘What’s wrong with her?’ the woman asked aggressively.

Nora didn’t know what to say. She gawped at the woman. The stranger she had tried to help and who was now bearing her teeth, eyes wild. In that stunned silence, the truth bubbled up from the depths of her subconscious and burbled out.

‘I…she felt something.’

The woman blinked. Scratched the back of her head. ‘She felt it too.’

So peaceful. So quiet.

The oars break the water sending the boat limping across the lake. The creaking of old wood under stress and the lap of water are the only sounds.

‘I can’t believe we were here only last month,’ I whisper. ‘It wasn’t as quiet then, but it was peaceful. Relaxing. It was so good to get away from home for a bit. To clear our heads.’

I look about. Autumn reds and browns of soon-to-be-dead leaves just visible through wispy cotton-like air.

‘I didn’t want to go back to the city. I wanted to stay and just huddle up with you by the wood burner in that lovely little cabin you rented. I bet you paid a lot of money for that place. Lakeside. All the romantic trimmings.’

I give a small chuckle before snot fills my throat. I spit it over the side. Watch it dollop into the lake.

‘You shouldn’t have paid so much. We could barely afford our hole back in the city. But I loved it.’ The memory is sweet but it burns like acid after vomit. ‘But, back home we had to go. I’m surprised we made it to work the next day after those bloody train delays.

‘And what was the point? Why did we even try? Work was shit. Yawning in meetings. Not even taking part in the usual gossip in the canteen. Those bickering hens seem so far away now. Whispering all their secrets and theories over coffee and sandwiches. I know, I can’t lay blame. I used to do it too. We all used to go quiet when someone we were talking about entered the room, used to watch them from the corner of our eyes and the whole time make out as if we were talking about something completely different.’

I stop rowing, stick my hand in the canvas bag and pull out a bottle of water. I take a sip and it’s freezing. I savour the pang of cold hitting my teeth. I take a few more gulps and put the bottle back in the bag.

‘I bet it must have played on people’s minds. To have people talking about them, glancing in their direction. Come to think of it I don’t think anyone was free from gossip. I never noticed anyone talking about me though. I guess that’s the point. It doesn’t matter.

‘When I got home to you that night you were already asleep on the couch. I watched you for a while. And then we got Chinese. Ate in like fatties.’

I look to the shore and pull on the oars. My arms hurt. I’m getting pangs in my shoulders.

‘I noticed something was different that night. The man who dropped off the Chinese was shivering. He kept glancing over his shoulder as if he had been chased to our apartment. When he left I thought nothing of it. Probably had a bunch of deliveries to do. Just wanted to get on and get them done. And then the next day. We ate toast and watched the news. Break-ins and attacks across the city. A bunch of talk about a possible riot.

‘So, the next day, off we went to work. Parting at Clapham like we always did. Another thing I miss: you walking off with a paper under your arm and a coffee in your hand. I don’t think you knew I always watched you walk to the platform. I bet I pissed off a whole bunch of commuters when I did that, standing still and getting in their way.’

I look north. My eyes roam over the trees. The deep colours would be beautiful, in a different life.

‘That day…two people didn’t show for work. I needed Dennis there, something I never would have heard myself say, you know how much of a pain in the arse he is, but I needed him for the presentation. And Claire, three desks down, didn’t show up either.

‘At lunch time, people were looking over their shoulders or jumping at every little sound. Everyone was on edge as if expecting the world to explode under their feet at any moment. I called you. You said people hadn’t shown up either. I was worried then. Not because of the people…I heard something in your voice. You were always so strong…so sure. The only thing that scared you was that bloody great big spider on the kitchen counter the time you moved the bread bin.’

I laugh. A bark of weary muscles making a sound like a branch snapping under heavy snow. It spreads across the lake. Echoes and dies and suddenly I’m crying with the memory of Jake jumping around the kitchen like the floor was on fire, eyes wide and backpedalling toward the door.

I let down the oars with a splash and run my fingers through my hair. I take a moment to pull myself together and wipe cold tears from tepid cheeks. A twig snap. I turn to the north bank once more and watch a man walk from the woods. I make out a heavy knitted jumper and what I think are fishing trousers. Suspenders ‘n’ all. He’s missing a boot but he doesn’t seem to notice. He just stares out at the boat.

‘I hoped we would have this place to ourselves.’

I take a deep shuddering breath and pick up the oars. I feel the cold slipping into my limbs threatening to make me stiff. Movement is the only option. Just keep moving.

‘When I got home you called me over to the couch. You were watching T.V and you looked… well, I don’t know. You took my hand. Held it a little too tight. They were reporting on the rainfall that had hit London whilst we were here. Missed it by a few hours. And then people acting strange.

‘And then you showed me the video on Youtube. Some guy testing water samples in the sewers. Finding some unknown bacteria and the guy talking about rats going berserk. We barely slept at all that night. Woke up to the sound of screams twice and ran to the window. People leaving houses. A few of them were running. That one family… I remember the slaps of that kids feet on the road. You locked both deadbolts on the front door and wedged it with a chair under the handle like something out of an old movie. I always wondered if that worked. We never did find out.’

I look over to the man on the north shore. He is walking parallel to the boat. He just keeps looking out. I notice a shock of white hair. I can’t make out much of his face. His gaze feels like a weight on my neck.

‘They’re strange aren’t they? They disappear. Come back like that. Spreads even after the rain.’

I look about and wonder if it is in the air. In the mist. I don’t know. There is nothing I could do about it now anyway.

‘The next morning the video of the man in the sewers was taken down. Screams filled the street outside. Sirens went off every half a minute. In two days the entire city was at a standstill and there were talks on the news about it being widespread. They warned us not to drink the water. Since coming back all we had had was bottled water, teas and coffees at the office. So strange to think our shitty work schedule saved us.

‘So we left. Hit the road. Tried to go somewhere safe until it all blew over. Tried to come back here. You said there were fewer people up here. It would be better to go where there were fewer people. I agreed with you then. I agree with you now.’

The man on the bank stumbles. I watch as he pushes himself up, the whole time staring out at the boat. Like a leech when it smells blood. Just following the scent. I keep rowing. I want to stop. A lead weight is building between my shoulder blades but I can’t stop. I will never stop moving.

‘We made it most of the way here. And then we got to that fucking service station. All we wanted was a sandwich. Maybe a packet of crisps. We took our time didn’t we? Circled the car park three times and didn’t see anyone… Honked the horn. I thought that was good practise. A sure way of bringing them out… Why didn’t it work? The electricity was still running. The doors still worked. Maybe they waited. Do you think that was it? They waited? Maybe they are smarter than we thought Jake. Maybe that’s why no one knows how it’s spread. They wait and watch…’

I pull in a breath of frigid air. My arms pull and the oars break water, slap back down.

‘You wanted to use the toilet.’

I pull. Up, down, splash.

‘And when you came out of the toilets.’

Pull. Up. Down. Splash.

‘Ridiculous. Bloody, stupid…’

My body shakes once more with sobs but this time I let loose. I spit and shout and hope my words would shatter the day apart and wake me from this nightmare. The man on the bank has stopped. He watches, head cocked.

‘I hate you! I hate you! You took him from me! He was all I wanted! All I had and you had to take him from me! Why? Why? Why?’

I’m standing. The boat is rocking but I don’t care. Part of me wants to fall and succumb to the cold. Let the water slip into my nostrils and down my throat and fill me so that I don’t have to feel this burning hatred.

‘You made me do this! You made me do this to him!’ I scream, pointing into the hull of the boat where John lays dead and staring into oblivion.

The last time I had seen those eyes alive he had walked back out of the toilets. His mind lost. They had got to him in there. Something had got to him. I was crying when he ran at me. I was crying when I picked up a barrier post and swung it into his temple.

‘Please forgive me baby. I never wanted this. I never wanted this for you. I never wanted this for us. I thought we could make it out here. Where there is nothing. In the last place we were happy and free.’

I push my palms into my eyes and try to squeeze away tears.

‘This is the best I can do. I don’t want to bury you. It doesn’t seem right. You said you loved it here. ‘“I would love to see what’s under the waters here. They are so calm.”’ You remember saying that?’

His eyes stare at the grey sky.

‘I love you. Jake, I love you. I’m sorry.’ I move over and stick my hands under his armpits. I take a breath tinged with the smell of piss and shit from Jake’s death-voided bowels. I grunt as I lift Jake’s dead weight and try not to think of him walking away with a paper under his arm and a coffee in his hand. I try not to think of him holding me in bed. Pushing me against the wall as we make love. The thing that I am unceremoniously pushing over the lip of the boat is not Jake. I keep telling myself that but it doesn’t help.

His head and shoulders splash into the lake. With one last sob and a scream which ripped at my throat I push the rest of him over the side. He rolls in the freezing water. For one moment I think he would stay face up and staring at the sky, vacated blue eyes watching but he mercifully rolls over and stares into the depths.

I look up to the bank. At the spectator. He is leaning his head back as if beckoning me over.

‘No. No you are not getting me.’

I slump back and watch Jake float like a piece of trash. Arms and legs splayed. I watch for a long time until the weight of his clothes finally pulls him under. I watch white flesh disappear into black water and the whole time I cry and I want him back.

I look up to the man on the north shore still standing there. Still beckoning me over with his head back and staring.

Crawley Creeps, Vol.9

Diane ran as fast as she could. She wasn’t getting the kind of speed she got in her Nike’s. In her Nike’s she could sprint and pound pavement and dust, music pounding in her ears willing her to go faster. Or just keep going.

Instead her feet slipped around inside her wellies. Her running was gangly and awkward but she kept going, putting as much distance between herself and the man as possible.

Stanley ran by her side. He kept looking back. Diane couldn’t bring herself to do the same. The image of the man with the faraway gaze chasing her flooded her mind and kept her running instead. Time spent looking back was time he could gain another metre.

What was wrong with the man?

She couldn’t help but think of him stepping from the trees. Dark skin. Almond eyes. Slack mouth. That gaping mouth.

She felt the shiver run up her spine and she wanted to puke. Stanley barked and stopped. Diane took a few more steps before she looked back. Stanley was still. Diane glanced back the way they had come but the man wasn’t chasing her. There was no one back there. She slowed and stopped. Her body was slick with panic-sweat. Cold air stung her lungs and nostrils.

She took a few seconds to get her breath back. ‘Stanley, here.’

Stanley barked in defiance.

‘Stanley, come here.’

Stanley whined. Padded his feet. Barked. Why was he stopping?

Diane looked down the path and saw what Stanley had seen before her. What she had failed to see through fear-induced tunnel-vision.

A woman standing on the path ahead. She wore a green padded raincoat. Hood down. Her arms were hanging loose at her sides. Even at a distance of over a hundred metres, Diane could tell that the woman’s head was cocked, and her mouth hung open.

Diane tried to take a breath but it caught in her throat. Stanley barked. The sound came from some other place.

The cold rock of fear in Diane’s chest only shifted when another woman in a yellow jacket broke from the treeline to the side of the path. She ran over to the slack-jawed woman, grabbed her by the shoulders and screamed in her face. Diane couldn’t make out the words but the urgency was crystal clear.

The slack-jawed woman was unresponsive. She just looked straight on. At Diane. Through her. Diane felt like her body was being seen through. Bones, organs and mind laid out like an unravelled blueprint.

The slack-jawed woman made a jerking move forward. The other woman went sprawling.

Diane’s body spasmed in fear. The woman ran at her and she was gaining speed. Diane felt trapped. She looked behind her but the man in his underwear was nowhere to be seen. Stanley barked and slowly retreated into the ferns.

A warmth bloomed at the base of Diane’s skull. A strange tingling sensation. Unnatural but as welcome as sleep after a long, tiring day.

Stanley ran forward and sunk his teeth into Diane’s ankle. The tingle in her skull disappeared as a wave of pain shot up her leg. Stanley was small but he bucked back and pulled Diane with him. She screamed and toppled awkwardly onto her side. A moment later a boot collided with her face and everything went black.

Crawley Creeps, Vol.8

Hitesh stomped his feet and blew into his cupped hands. The wind was as fierce as it was the night before. He had checked the weather report and a chirpy middle-aged weather lady told him that tonight was going to be “another blustery one.”

It didn’t feel blustery. It felt like the wind was doing its best to pierce his clothes and reach through to his bones.

He had received the call only a few hours ago that they had been taken off the Gatwick track and were instead working the stretch just north of Balcombe Tunnel. They were also only working a 12-4 shift. Half the hours, same pay. If he got back at a decent time that he could snatch a few hours of sleep next to Denise, for once.

Lights danced over him and he looked up to see Troy bring the van to a stop on the side of the road, hazards pulsing. Marcus was in the back eyes closed and dozing. Hitesh was jealous at the mans ability to fall asleep almost anywhere on a whim.

Hitesh jumped in and Troy took them up through Broadfield and out toward Pease Pottage. Troy was in a good mood. He tapped the steering wheel to the beat of some awful dance compilation.

They reached the Pease Pottage roundabout and left on the exit toward Pease Pottage services.

‘Anyone need food?’ Troy called out.

‘Nah.’

Marcus opened his eyes long enough to snort before falling back asleep.

They passed the services. At the next roundabout they could go right to Pease Pottage village, straight to Handcross or left down Parish Lane toward the train tracks. They turned left.

Parish Lane ran between far land on both sides until half way down when the trees of Tilgate Forest became thicker and eventually turned into a wall on their left. The last building they passed was a large manor house to their right. There were no lights on.

The road changed from tarmac to rough aggregate. The van hit a pothole and Marcus woke with a growl. ‘Why have they not surfaced the damn road?’

Troy chuckled. They all held on as the van jumped and dropped. A minute or two passed before they reached the bottom of Parish Lane.

Ahead was a metal pedestrian bridge leading over the railway tracks and into the forest of Balcombe Woods on the far side. To the right was a large double gate leading to a track-side operating area. It was chained closed.

Troy passed Hitesh the keys for the padlock. ‘Your turn.’

Hitesh snatched the keys and got out the van. The breeze rippled his hair and bit at his ears. He stuffed his chin as far into his collar as it would go and jogged over to the gate. He fumbled the lock with cold hands and finally managed to work it free. The sound of chain slipping between metal bars rang out and set his teeth on edge.

Hitesh opened the gate and stood to the side as Troy brought the van through. Hitesh closed the gate and wove the chain back through the fence. He could barely see his own hands in the van’s rear lights.

He locked the gate and headed back to the van when a crunch made him turn back. Hitesh looked past the fence. He could only just make out the shapes of trees in the weak red glow.

‘Come on, Hitesh,’ Troy shouted. He was hanging out the driver-side window. ‘The sooner we get sorted the sooner we go home.’

Hitesh headed for the van but felt the sixth sense prickle of being watched spread across his neck.

They made their way down a small road that ran parallel to the train tracks, nothing separating them but dark, to a gaggle of buildings. A small green standby light glowed above one of the doors to a container canteen.

The trio exited the van and headed over to the hut. Marcus clicked on a torch and held out a hand to Hitesh.

‘What?’

‘Keys,’ Marcus said, groggily.

‘It’s a keypad.’

Marcus did a double take, shook his head and flicked open the key pad.

‘I looked up a bunch of trains this morning,’ Troy said. ‘Nothing comes close to the one we saw last night.’

‘It was just aggregate train,’ Marcus said. He caught his finger in the catch and hissed. Hitesh reached over Marcus’ shoulder, jabbed in the code and flicked the latch.

‘They stick sometimes,’ Hitesh said. Marcus shrugged and they all went inside. Troy moved straight across to the kitchenette and rummaged for tea.

‘It wasn’t an aggregate train. The one we saw last night was more like a double decker. They had pictures of double deckers online.’

‘Who gives a shit anyway?’ Marcus asked as he slumped into a seat at the small table. He pulled out his phone. ‘No signal.’

‘Well it’s weird,’ Troy went on. ‘All the lights go out and a train rolls past. That’s weird right?’

Hitesh shrugged. ‘Maybe. Or just a coincidence.’

Troy wondered on that for a moment. ‘Nah.’

The roar of the kettle drowned them out. It clicked off and Troy made them all drinks. They sat at the table cradling teas.

‘Wish we had biscuits,’ Hitesh said.

‘There was a photo of a military train from China that-‘

Marcus cut him off with a fake snore.

Crawley Creeps, Vol.7

Melissa felt the cold in her bones. Her muscles felt like they were locked in cramp, her breaths were short and awkward. Her leg itched and she wondered if she would need to go to the hospital.

They had been walking since the early hours of the morning. For over four hours they had made their way through the forest using only the cones of their LED flashlights. Dense clusters of wet skeletal trees and the onslaught of rain drowning out all other sound had left Melissa feeling disorientated and claustrophobic.

The light of day had come slowly, the sky above moving sluggishly through shades of grey until Melissa and Nora no longer needed their flashlights. It was just as well. They had been stupid enough to leave the pack of batteries in the house.

‘We need coffee. Something warm,’ Nora said. Melissa looked over to her sister. She looked like hell. Melissa guessed she looked the same.

‘I’m going to keep looking,’ Melissa said.

‘No you’re not. You’re coming to get a drink.’

‘Nora—‘

‘Bollocks. You’re coming with me. I’m freezing Melissa. I’m so cold, I can barely concentrate. We’ll get a coffee, grab a snack and come straight back in. We can go to Smith and Western. They’re open for breakfast.’

Melissa looked around. Trees and more trees. The sound of the motorway was dull here, the sound broken by the forest. She wanted to keep looking. Needed to find her husband and needed him back home where she could make sure he was safe and not running around in the dark, alone and out of his mind.

‘Don’t cry,’ Nora said. She came over and wrapped her arms around Melissa’s shoulders. Before she knew it, Melissa was bawling into her sister’s shoulder. David had left once before and they had found him hours later in the hospital. He had been standing on the side of a building debating whether or not to jump when someone had intervened. He had run off into the woods with a knife.

‘I can’t stop thinking of him sitting at the trunk of a tree somewhere with his wrists cut open and…and just bleeding out.’

Nora stepped back, grabbed Melissa by the shoulders. ‘Don’t you dare think that. You said yourself that he wasn’t in his right mind. He’s been taking his medication. He said he heard something. Has he ever acted like that before?’

Melissa shook her head.

‘Exactly. He’s not come out here to kill himself. He came out here for a completely different reason. He cut you, Melissa.’

‘It was—‘

‘I know it was an accident. But even if it was an accident, if he was in his right mind he would have stopped and helped. He was out of his mind. He has walked off in his sleep before. And what happened?’

‘He came back.’

‘Exactly. Right now we need to drink something. Eat something. Whatever. It’ll take us twenty minutes to get there, ten minutes to get food and twenty minutes to get back. We’ll keep looking. If we can’t find him we’ll call the police.’

‘If we tell them he has a knife they’ll arrest him.’

‘Then we don’t tell them about the knife. Chances are he dropped it when he woke up and realised he was in the bloody woods. For all we know he’s on his way back home and he’ll call any minute. Now come on. We need something to warm us up.’

‘Okay,’ Melissa said. She dried her eyes, nodded to herself. ‘Okay.’

They knew Tilgate Park well enough to know the general direction of Smith and Western. They traipsed through the trees, across mud and moss and through puddles when they reached a clearing. Firs lined the space, green needled branches reducing the sound of the motorway to a distant hiss.

They were halfway across the space when Melissa stopped.

‘What’s up?’ Nora asked. Melissa’s head oscillated one way, then the other. She turned round and repeated the motion. ‘Melissa. Are you okay?’

Melissa felt a tingle at the base of her skull. A tickle that turned to something warm and strange. She looked left. Right. There. There it was. Coming from over there. She took a step forward and was rewarded with a flush of heat.

Nora felt her heart thumping in her throat. Her sister was shuffling. Stumbling. ‘Melissa what the hell’s wrong with you,’ Nora said, stepping forward and taking her sister by the arm. Melissa whirled, eyes searching wildly but looking straight through her sister.

‘Can you hear it?’