James had been dropped into many parties like a baby chucked in water and expected to swim. With average looks, limited charm and enough confidence to half fill a thimble, he always struggled. Hovering on the edge, plastic cup in hand, watching fun be had around him, waiting for a time he could sneak out unnoticed. Slinking off to the relative safety of his bed.
With a pat on the shoulder from George, he stepped into this party expecting the same, or worse. Here was a dig filled with longtime friends, neighbours and families, and James stood out like a severed finger in a tin of soup. Eyes flicked to him. Shoulders turned. Then –
A hand was thrust towards him, a smiling face offering name and introduction. James took both, traded his own. Another hand, name and introduction. Then another, and another. They descended on him like the small town folk in the horror movies he used to watch, but with different intentions. These folk wanted not to tear his skin from his bones and cannibalise him, but make him feel welcome. Part of their swarming, village-wide family.
Here was Bob Christie, who ran the pharmacy down the road, happy to meet him. Linda Richards, everyone’s favourite landlady, hoping to see him at the local soon. Sharon Grant, serial babysitter, wanting to know every damn thing about him, and being interested in the answers. Claire Donnelly, mother of George’s grandchild, Charlie, and wearing a green dress similar to, but shorter than, her mother-in-law’s.
The warmth they showed was like a drug, lifting his spirits as helium lifts a balloon, and a table full of booze helped the confidence shortage. He felt the smile grow fast as the giant beanstalk on his face and decided he could stay an hour, maybe even two.
He blinked, and the night disappeared. The encroaching darkness consuming the minutes as a lion consumes a gazelle until the people began to float away like driftwood, departing for warm beds, buoyed by an evening of good food, drink and company. George and Christina stood by the door for the first dropouts, kissing cheeks and shaking hands. Then George left to run lifts, and Christina was alone until Emma reappeared. The bickering kicked off again, and mother dragged daughter, and the fight, into the privacy of the house.
Through dwindling bodies, James examined the garden. It had been left in a decent state. Most the empty glasses and paper plates were piled high on the covered table brought out for the occasion. Three bin bags dotted about the garden, each fit to burst. James considered looking for more, to help clear the table, but if he was caught rummaging through kitchen cupboards without permission… some might call that meddlesome.
Instead, he stepped from the debris left in the wake of any good night, through the sliding doors and kitchen, into the living room.
By the front door, a group gathered, rustling coats the backing track to laughter and banter. James hovered in the living room, a flash of shyness overcoming him. Waited as a crude joke was told and the group moved outside, shutting the door with a soft click.
Silence. He would wait until they cleared a little up the street, then follow. Retracing his earlier steps, coming into the village. Were it quiet enough, it would be like resuming his stroll, as though the distraction brought by a collapsing curb had never happened.
As he waited, his eyes once again found the perfect family, staring at him from above the mantlepiece. Mother, father, brother, all smiling at the room, showing their delight at the decor. Emma giving him the same appraising look she had when dishing out medicine.
Stepping towards it he again lifted a finger, running it along the tear.
No family, he supposed, was perfect.
Nearby a car door slammed like a clap from his conscience, waking him from this intrusion into the Barnes’ lives. Withdrawing his hand and stepping from the picture he took in those faces in the gloom and found they did not look quite right.
Paranoia. He had always been prone to it, and there was the running water again, crashing against a bank somewhere in the past.
Too fast, he left the room, sweeping into the hall, flinging open the door and colliding with someone coming the other direction.
The girl took a quick step back, put her foot down bad, rolled it, and went into an aggressive bush on the front lawn.
Oh my god, I’m so sorry. Let me help you.
The right words came to his mind without prompt, accompanied by the action of him extending a hand and helping her up, but the connection between brain and body was down, and he stood half inside, half out, watching her.
“No, no, please, don’t worry about me,” she said, rolling so she was facing him. Now he moved to her, but she slapped his hand away and tugged herself up.
“More fool me,” she said, ”walking towards a door. Should have expected I’d be tackled to the ground, but there was no sign. Beware the pit bull – arghh.”
She had put the rolled foot down and found it in no fit state to hold her weight. At the shock of pain, her hand shot out and grabbed his shoulder. His arm came out and grabbed her side.
“Oh, now you help.”
“Course,” through gritted teeth, though it wasn’t that. Gripping hard as she was would have hurt on a good day, but she’d grabbed his bad shoulder. The pain made him reach to grab her, much as placing her bad foot down had made her grab him.
They stood that way a while, her unable to move and James transfixed by a level of beauty he was not sure he’d seen outside a film star. Even with her dress twisted and hair messed by the fall her perfect features, slender figure and gorgeous blue eyes were enough to render him as breathless as if he’d been propelled into space with the suit.
“You’re hurt,” he said. A stupid, pointless comment, but anything was better than staring at her for the next ninety minutes.
“Something like that,” she confessed. “Probably nothing, I just need to -“ she tried the foot again, cried out, and doubled down on gripping his shoulder. “Yep, that’s no good.”
“Snap,” he managed, pointing to his shoulder, then the curb. “I fell earlier. Hit the concrete.”
“Sorry,” she said, taking her hand away and collapsing backwards. His own shot out and, to his surprise, caught her.
“Don’t worry,” he said, twisting so she could grab his other shoulder. She smiled.
“You ruined the aesthetic of our perfect village?”
“Beware the lynch mob. I’ll find you tomorrow, swinging from a tree between the postman who was pinching people’s mail and the guy who drove too fast by the school. What’s your name?”
“James,” he said, aware he was pushing the word through a ridiculous smile. He couldn’t help it. There was something so wonderful about the girl he could barely stand it.
“Megan. I’m looking for my man. Mark. He here?”
She nodded. He was confused.
“But you’re not Claire?”
“No. What is this, you trying to prove you’re different to most men, cause you listen? Maybe I’ll test you on the name thing in a few days time, see if that’s true.”
“I just thought, cause Claire is Charlie’s mum and Charlie is Christina’s grandchild and -“
“Ahhh.” Comprehension dawned. “Cause you’re new. Well no, Mark is Charlie’s uncle and my boyfriend. Charlie’s dad is… not around.”
James thought of the family photo. That tear down the side, amputating Emma’s shoulder and arm. Charlie’s dad was not around. In more ways than one, it would seem.
Tiredness seemed to sweep over him all at once, and the idea of leaving the village became more appealing than ever.
“Mark’s not in,” he said. “Went a while ago. Hardly anyone left now.”
“Course not,” Megan said. “That’d be too easy.”
“Yeah.” Conflict ruling him. Wanting to leave as fast as possible but stay with this girl forever. He could kidnap her but… “it was lovely to meet you. I hope you find Mark.”
Afraid of the gravitational pull of her beauty, James averted his eyes and tried to shift, hoping she would remove her arm.
She did not.
“I don’t think so. You created this damsel in distress situation tackling me into the bush -“ he tried to protest the phrasing, but she halted him with a hand – “you created it, now you’ve got to play knight in shining armour and get me home. Got it?”
James began to dissent, then closed his eyes in resignation. Hours ago he had failed to tell Emma ‘no’, and just because Megan couldn’t walk away, didn’t make this any different. After all, she was right. It was his fault she couldn’t stand.
“Come on then,” he said.
“Excellent. Just a pity you’ve got no noble steed. Nothing for me to ride -“ and off his look – “hey, none of that. Eyes in front soldier. Let’s go.”
“So tell me, James. Was everyone excited to meet you? I know I am.”
His heart skipped like a girl at playtime. He tried to keep his cool under the duress of her eyes, her arm around his shoulder, her hip against his.
“No,” he said. “Should they be?”
Her smile was like a tanning lamp on his skin, and she seemed to pull closer as he spoke. Telling himself this was a practical measure, to assist her hopping down the curb, did nothing to still the charge of his giddy heart. Classic James. A pretty girl’s smile and the touch of her skin were all it took to chuck him in love. He told himself to be strong and knew it wouldn’t happen.
“Because you’re proof,” she said, showing her smile in her tone, and only a hint of the pain that haunted her every step.
“Life beyond this village.”
His smile seemed to ignore his nerves, coming from somewhere else. Still, it embarrassed him, that idiot’s grin, and he turned from her, taking in the dark row of houses to his left. It seemed to be these moving, rather than the other way around, passing the injured duo as though on a slow-moving travelator.
“You’re laughing at me,” she said, catching his smile without losing her own.
“I think you’re funny.”
“You think I’m joking.”
She looked at the same row of houses he had. Above them, past them, as though seeking a barrier which blocked the village from the rest of the world. James thought of Under the Dome by Stephen King, but Megan used another reference.
“Have you seen The Village, by the guy who did Sixth Sense?”
He shook his head.
“Well it’s -“ she paused, pointing next left. They began making the slow, painful turn. “It’s about these people who live in this tiny village back in the fifteen hundreds or whatever, surrounded by woods, and they believe monsters are living in these trees that’ll kill them if they try to leave the village. Right here.”
Another turn, only James took it funny and almost imitated Megan by rolling his ankle, which would have left them crawling. Steadying himself he held Megan a little tighter, and they went on.
“Only it turns out the monsters aren’t monsters,” Megan continued. “It’s the village elders or something, killing anyone who tries to leave. Cause it turns out beyond the woods, there’s something else. Something they don’t want their people to see. Guess what it is?”
“What?” he asked, and she rolled her eyes.
“What kind of guess is that? Well, fine, I’ll tell you. Beyond the trees is the modern world. I mean they’re living in the past, and there’s a McDonalds fifty feet away.”
Right again. The pain from the last turn had faded, and his shoulder felt much better. Might have been the paracetamol but he doubted it. More likely it was Megan’s touch, her soft voice and stunning smile. The antidote to any ills.
“So, that’s this village, is it?”
“Yeah. Well, mostly. Actually, we have a McDonalds, and the murder rate is super low. No one stops you leaving, but that’s worse, in a way.”
“Sounds bad, right?” She thought it over, searching for the right words like a tourist thumbing through a phrase book. “It’s like there’s this malaise. Like we’re born with something that tricks us into thinking there’s no outside world. Or a force from above is making us think that. Yeah, like the Truman Show. But it’s not one person who’s unaware. It’s everyone. We’re all Jim Carrey. Can you imagine?”
“A village of Jim Carrey’s,” he asked, laughing a little. “Sounds awful.”
She gave him a playful hit on the arm, but a smile still lit her face brighter than the moon. James returned it, starting to hope this journey would never end.
“You’re making fun of me again. You tackle me to the ground then you make fun of me. That what you’re about, Mr Outsider?”
“I’d never make fun of you,” he said. “This town is a cross between The Village and The Truman Show. I get that.”
He did get it. This village, cut off from the world. Only Megan made it sound awful. To James, it seemed perfect. He saw himself at a dinner table, chatting to mum and dad, sister one side, brother the other. Girlfriend down the road, friends a stone’s throw away. All of them together and protected from the outside as surely as if the Great Wall of China enclosed them.
After all, the wider world offered nothing to write home about.
They clambered another curb as though it were a small mountain and reached the edge of the village. A line of trees stretched off in either direction, just like The Village. Beyond these lay the darkness of the woods. They skirted this on the light side, flattening trimmed grass, Megan still holding him, although her footing had become surer, and she looked at him as they went.
“So, come on then,” she said.
“I told you. You’re exciting. I’ve grown up seeing the same faces every day. You know how many people live here? A giant’s handful. Then you come crashing onto my patch like an alien. You’ve got to hold up your end of the bargain, Mr Outsider. Tell me exciting stories about the outside world. Is it true there are more coffee shops than people?”
That made him laugh. A long, happy laugh that felt like a stranger on his lips.
“Lot’s of coffee shops,” he said and wished he had something more to offer. Though the truth was, “there’s not much interesting about the outside world.”
“Tell me about you then,” she pressed, now dragging him from the trees back into the nest of homes. “How was your childhood?”
“Unhappy,” and the sheer honesty of that surprised and stopped him in his tracks. He coughed as though it wasn’t too late to do over his word, and tried to move on, only to be tugged back by Megan.
He saw concern in her eyes and tried a reassuring smile that died fast on his lips. He had never been good at faking emotions and now was no time to start.
“I started with my mother,” he said, wondering why he was going on. “She didn’t tell dad she was pregnant. Not until she got sick of putting up with a crying brat and dumped me on him. A man I’d never met.”
“That must have been hard,” she said, and her free hand took his, squeezing it.
“It was okay. We made it work. Got harder when she returned, and they got back together. That never worked. All sorts went on before…”
He could see the latter days. The screaming, the fighting. That last argument between him and mum. The look in his father’s eyes when he said goodbye. Blood on the carpet.
“I had to get away,” he said, unable to delve any further into it. “Haven’t seen either of them in years.”
Another hand squeeze. They sped up a little, and when James saw the look of pity in Megan’s eyes, he shoved the conversation in another direction.
“Why don’t you go?”
The question took her by surprise.
“Away,” he said. “Leave the village.”
They stopped. She stared at her shoes and James thought of Dorothy in reverse. Like Megan might tap her heels and say “there’s no place like not home, there’s no place like not home, there’s no place like not home.”
This time he squeezed her hand, and she looked to him as they resumed their walk.
“Mark, I suppose.”
He tensed at those words. Hoped she didn’t feel it through his hand as she continued.
“I always planned to leave. Then we got together. Been together ever since. He’d never leave.”
Eyes back to her shoes. Over her shoulder, James saw a light flicker off. The last on the street. No surprise as the clock counted off the final minutes before midnight.
“He wouldn’t leave his mother,” she said, and he could almost the taste the bitterness of her words. “Who would make his decisions for him? If not for Christina we wouldn’t be together. She was our cupid, how’s that for a laugh?”
“Doesn’t sound so weird,” James said. “She tried to get Emma and me together earlier.”
“I’m not sure you’re Emma’s type.”
James wasn’t sure how to take that, so didn’t respond. They stopped once more, and Megan dropped her arm from his shoulder, testing her ankle.
“Feels much better,” she said. “Could probably walk unassisted.”
The words were a slash to his heart, but he tried to keep his cool. He wasn’t ready to let her go, but how pathetic would it be to try hold on?
“Come on,” she said, offering a hand. “We’re not far now. You can walk me the rest, all gentleman like.”
He took her hand as though it were a precious artefact he was terrified of breaking. Already she had laced her hand through his, but this was different. That was a move of sympathy. This was holding hands. He tried to keep his smile in check. Failed.
A couple of minutes later they reached the end of a cul de sac. Megan pointed to a semi-detached house next to a darkened alleyway. The journey was over. The stop like a weight around his heart, dragging it into his stomach. He looked at Megan and had no idea what to say, so was shocked when the words slipped out.
“Are you happy?”
She assessed him with curious eyes. He didn’t know if he’d asked because those eyes had seemed so sad since their talk about Mark and Christina and never escaping the village, or because of what Mark had said to Emma, about the lie to his girlfriend.
“Sometimes,” she said. “I should be, shouldn’t I? Nice home. Job I don’t hate. Good looking boyfriend who brings in decent money and isn’t a drug addict. He’s good to me. Safe.”
“Doesn’t work like that,” James said, the words coming on their own now, tumbling like a rockslide.
“I’ve enjoyed our walk, Mr Outsider. Let’s not ruin it, eh?”
“Sorry,” promising himself he’d say no more then going on. “I’d love to know you were happy though, cause we’ve only known each other half an hour, but already I know you’re kind and quirky, and you make me smile. I don’t smile that often. Less than you’d probably think.”
A good recovery, but still he might have blown it. Then she raised a hand and squeezed his arm.
“You’re a nice guy, Mr Outsider.”
“That’s my problem.”
“I don’t think it’s a problem.”
Her voice was soft, almost a whisper, and she’d stepped closer. Her chest an inch from touching his. If it did, it would stop his heart, like an anti-defibrillator.
“Mark and I are solid,” she said, as though trying to convince herself. “I’m angry because he said he was out with his family when he was with those animals, Shaw and Georgie, cause he thinks he can help them but he can’t, and those stupid names aren’t the worst thing about them.
“Well, that’s part of it. Maybe it’s also that he’s kept me here. That’s he got no ambition beyond this tiny village. Maybe I’m angry solid is all I’ve got. Think that might be right, Mr Outsider?”
“Maybe,” he said. It was all he could manage. Again she was closer, touching him, and all his focus was on staying upright. Her head tilted as it moved towards him, her lips parted. He moved in, thinking if their lips touched it would be the best moment of his life, or he’d explode.
Pounding feet. James saw a flash of Mark’s rage and spun, almost knocking Megan to the ground. He saw her. A girl with tears streaming her face barrelling out of the small pathway between Megan’s place and the house next door. She was facing them but wasn’t seeing, so smashed into James’ pained shoulder then disappeared down the street.
Reclaiming his balance, James rushed to Megan, ignoring his throbbing shoulder. Focusing on her beauty even in her state of shock. A swell of rage bubbled within him as he realised what had happened.
That girl, whoever she was, had ruined the moment.
And that was when Megan saw the body.