Hellraiser

Lisa Tuttle has been writing since the dawn of time, or so it feels to her.  Since winning the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Science Fiction Writer in 1974, she went on to write an SF novel (WINDHAVEN) in collaboration with George R. R. Martin, followed by a horror novel, a novel of psychological suspense, then another SF novel, another weird horror novel...and so on, in addition to at least 100 short stories.  Her most recently published book is a contemporary fantasy with dark mythic undertones: THE SILVER BOUGH, published by Jo Fletcher Books.  The first chapter follows below.

Links:  www.lisatuttle.co.uk 
 https://www.facebook.com/lisatuttlewriter?ref=hl
www.jofletcherbooks.com

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Chapter One

Ashley Kaldis leaned her head against the cool glass and gazed through the bus window at the Glasgow streets.  Although this was her first foreign city, she couldn’t get excited about it; she just didn’t feel she was really here.  Something about the quality of the milky light, the greyness of the streets, reminded her of old black and white movies made long before she was born -- before her own parents were born -- from a vanished, untouchable era.  She looked at it all as if from a very great distance, and wondered if what she felt – or didn’t feel – was simply the effect of exhaustion and jet-lag.

It was late September.  At home, it was still summer, with everyone wearing shorts and T-shirts or bright summer dresses, but here it looked like winter already, with people on the streets all bundled up in coats and jackets.  The chilly air carried the scent of rain mixed in with traffic exhaust and fuel smells.

She sank a little further into her seat and shut her eyes as the bus grumbled and shuddered and made its slow, complaining way from one traffic light to another through the teeming city streets.  She’d made it to the last leg of her journey and there was nothing else she had to do, nothing to worry about for the next four hours and fifteen minutes until the bus delivered her to her final destination.  She should sleep.

But after so long awake – she’d been too excited and anxious to get much rest the night before she left, and too uncomfortable on the plane, sandwiched between two strangers – sleep seemed like a skill she’d lost.  Her nerves were jangling and her heart pounding, probably from that horrible coffee she’d had in the bus station, forcing herself to drink in an attempt to keep herself warm and alert while she waited. 

With a sigh, she sat up again and dug into her rucksack for some distraction.  She missed her phone; its absence emphasized how far she was from everything she’d ever known, in a foreign country where it wouldn’t work.  She reminded herself that it was only for six weeks; not worth changing to a more expensive contract.  And, anyway, who was she going to call? Her best friend was dead, and she’d split up with her boyfriend.  Her parents wanted her to check in with them, but if she did that too often, they might start thinking she was lonely or something.  

She pulled out the cute, old-fashioned travel diary which had been a present from her mother.  So far, she’d only noted down her itinerary, and a few details about the long-lost relatives she was going to visit:  Shona Walker (Daddy’s first cousin; daughter of Phemie’s brother), her husband Graeme, their children:  Jade (6),  Ewan (10),  Callum (12).   She wondered what they were like, and if she’d be expected to baby-sit.  She had their home address, and two telephone numbers in case some unforeseen emergency kept them from meeting her at the village bus stop as planned.  Also in her bag was her purse with five hundred dollars in traveller’s checks, a credit card linked to her father’s account (for emergency use only), an AT&T International Calling Card,and The Rough Guide to Scotland.   She’d be fine; nobody who knew her could doubt it.  She could take care of herself.

But the thought of her own self-sufficiency made her feel a little bleak. She put the diary away and turned her attention back to the passing scene.  They’d left the downtown area and were now in the suburbs, which looked oddly crushed and miniaturized to eyes that took Texas landscapes as the default setting.  She gazed at row upon row of nearly identical houses with front lawns the size of doormats, bijoux shops,  filling stations, a supermarket, a car dealership and, finally, the first appearance of open space:  bits and scraps of empty land, vacant lots, and something that looked like a long-abandoned factory with a sign advertising a unique site available for redevelopment. 

The bus continued to trundle along slowly, muttering under its breath, air brakes squealing every time it was forced to stop.  She looked down on the cars in the next lane and saw a man with a ponytail behind the wheel of a small, red car, nodding his head and smiling to unheard music.  It felt strange to have such an elevated and detached view. She was used to going everywhere by car, and had flown half-a-dozen times, but bus travel was weirdly exotic.  It was something old-fashioned, a routine from another age,  like travelling by train or steamer.  Apart from a few school field-trips – and there was no glamour in thirty kids packed into a yellow school bus to be ferried across town – she’d been on one other bus journey in her life.

The memory of that trip to San Antonio gave the empty seat beside her a sinister aspect.  Freya should have been sitting there.  But, no, that was wrong, because if Freya were still alive, neither of them would be on this bus; they’d both be back at school in Dallas, planning their great escape to France.  France was where they’d wanted to go;  France or Italy.  Scotland was never in the running.  Freya had no great opinion of the home of oatmeal and bagpipes and men in plaid.  The fact that Ashley was one-quarter Scottish was of no more significance than Freya’s half-Swedish heritage.  Their long-dreamed-of, long-discussed trip abroad had nothing to do with “finding their roots” – an urge which, she believed, did not strike normal people until middle-age – but with fun and adventure, the desire to see lots of great art and sit in sidewalk cafes sipping cappuccino and flirting with the local talent.

She turned her face back to the window, watching urban wasteland give way to open countryside, feeling the bus pick up speed on the empty road.  No art museums, no famous landmarks, no sidewalk cafes, no best friend, and nobody so far worth a flirtatious second glance; nothing to see but rolling fields dotted with grazing sheep, the gentle hills a luminous green beneath the milky sky.  This was Phemie’s country;  this was the land her grandmother had departed more than half a century ago, left behind so utterly that she’d never had a word – good or bad – to say about it.   

Ashley was here because Phemie and Freya were dead, although neither of them would have wanted her to go to Scotland. Really, this should have been her father’s journey.

Since his mother’s death, Jesse Kaldis had been trying to find out where he came from.  He knew a fair amount about his father’s family, which combined Greek and German stock, but about his mother’s origins he knew very little.   When she was alive, she’d discouraged his interest.  The past was past, she’d say, and hers was not very interesting.  She claimed her parents had been dead for years, and gave vague and contradictory answers to questions about exactly when, why and how she’d come to America.  He knew that his father had met her in California and married her in 1952.  She’d acquired American citizenship and what was sometimes taken for a Canadian accent by the time Jesse was born.   He knew that “Phemie” – which everyone called her – was short for Euphemia; that her maiden name was MacFarlane, and that she’d been born somewhere in Scotland in 1931.   It wasn’t a lot to go on, but within six months of her death he’d discovered that one Euphemia MacFarlane, born in 1931, had disappeared from her hometown of Appleton, on the west coast of Scotland, in the autumn of 1950, and that people still remembered her there.

Phemie’s parents were long dead – although nothing like as long as long as she’d always implied.  Her mother had survived until 1975, never knowing she had a grandson in America.  Phemie’s older brother, Hugh, had died three years ago, but his three children were all alive and well, with families of their own.  One was in England, one in Australia, but the third, Shona, had remained in Appleton.  She was married to a man called Graeme Walker who worked as a postman and turned out to have a passion for local history.  He was even more thrilled than his wife to learn what had become of Phemie, and no sooner had Jesse made contact with Graeme than he’d been invited to visit Appleton, and offered free accommodation and introductions to the town’s oldest inhabitants, some of whom could surely tell him more about his mother’s early life.

Jesse meant to do it – but now was not a good time for him to be away from work. (It never was, thought Ashley.)   Maybe next year, he said.  Strangely, as the quest lost its urgency for her father, Ashley became more interested.  She’d loved her grandmother Phemie, but she’d never been especially curious about her, taking her for granted the way kids did. She hadn’t even realized that “Phemie” was short for “Euphemia” – she’d thought it was a peculiar family variant on “Granny”,  like Freya’s grandmothers being known as “Gaga” and “Mimi”.   To Ashley it had come as a shock to learn that the sweet, rather dull old lady she had known and loved had once been an impulsive, smouldering young beauty whose flight had made a deep and permanent impact on her local community.

She remembered telling Freya about it shortly before Christmas, as they sat together in her room wrapping presents.

“Nobody had any idea she was planning to leave; they all thought she was perfectly happy.  Everybody liked her, and she was engaged to be married to the richest guy in town.”

“Rich isn’t everything.  Maybe he was a creep,” Freya suggested, pausing in her ribbon-curling to examine the small, black and white photograph Ashley had borrowed from her father.  It showed Phemie as a vibrant young mother in the early fifties,  holding up her baby boy and laughing, her hair hanging in dark, lustrous waves around her face, looking at once glamorous and maternal.  She nodded slowly, approving. “She was gorgeous.  What about the guy she left?”

“I don’t know.  Dad didn’t say much about him. I think he was older than she was… anyway, it sounds like he was pretty shattered when she dumped him; he left town himself within a couple of months, and the family business went to pot without him.  That was bad news – it was a major employer. From what my dad’s cousin says, it was the beginning of the end for the town.  Local economy in ruins, all on account of this one girl deciding to run off.  Although, of course, they didn’t know for sure that she had  run off – some people thought she’d been done away with.  Maybe that’s why her fiancé left – too many suspicious looks, like they all thought he’d killed her and buried her in the woods and was just pretending to be heart-broken.”

“Well, it usually is the boyfriend – although, of course, Phemie wasn’t murdered!  But who knows what might have happened if she stayed?”  Freya looked thoughtful.  “Could it have been like an arranged marriage? You know, she was supposed to save the town by keeping him there and giving him an heir or whatever?  So she couldn’t see any other way of getting out of it?  And even though he was rich, he was maybe a lot older than her, and really awful, but she had to do it because the families insisted?”

Ashley frowned, uncertain.  “Could Scotland have been that feudal in 1950?”

“Not an official arranged marriage, then.  Maybe more like a done deal between him and her dad. Women didn’t have that many options back then.  And there must have been some reason why Phemie wouldn’t talk about where she came from.  Seems like she was scared of something, even after she was married to somebody else.  She didn’t want to be found.  Because she knew they’d never forgive her, and the town would rise up and take revenge, no matter how much time had passed.”

Freya laughed suddenly, and rested her warm hand on Ashley’s.  “Ooh, or maybe her dad abused her, and she wiped it all from her memory.  Or maybe… maybe I just watch too much TV!  Probably it was just a really dull, boring place, and she felt guilty about dumping her fiancé, so she just decided she’d pretend none of it had ever happened.  Did your Phemie seem to you like somebody hiding a deep, dark secret?”

“Not really.  But she never would talk about her past – nothing about her family, or anything that happened before she met Grampa.”

Freya shrugged.  “Still… now she’s gone, I bet she wouldn’t mind your dad finding his relatives.  It’s made him feel better.  He’s made some new friends and he’s got a project.  It’s always good to have a project.  Takes your mind off being unhappy.”  She spoke, as she sometimes did, with absolute assurance, like someone wiser than her years.  Two weeks later, she was dead after losing control of the dark green Camry she was accustomed to drive so fast and skilfully around the crowded, chaotic Houston freeways.

They’d been best friends since they were eleven.  Losing her was like losing her soul, or half her brain, Ashley thought despairingly.  She couldn’t believe she was still alive, left alone.  Nothing made sense anymore.  But she remembered Freya’s comment about having a project, so she went back to school two days after the funeral, because at least there she would have something to do. Teachers were understanding, everyone was sympathetic, but without Freya she was just the ghost of herself. She experimented a bit with drugs and sex, trying to jump-start her life.  When that failed, she threw herself into school-work, attended every class and lecture, took copious notes, did extra reading, and turned in every assignment on time.  She also acquired a steady boyfriend, Brandon, to occupy the hours when she couldn’t work, but well before the end of the semester she knew it wasn’t working, that it couldn’t work.  More than willpower was required.  She needed a change.

On the last day of classes, she’d arranged to meet Brandon at four o’clock in the sandwich bar –  it was a crummy little place with few customers except at lunch-time,  conveniently located halfway between her place and his.  He was resigned, if not happily, to the fact that they’d be spending the summer apart, and wanted to talk about getting together over the fourth of July weekend.

She ignored this opening gambit, and plunged in with her news without pausing for a sip of her usual Diet Coke.

“I’m not coming back to school in the fall.  I can’t take business studies anymore; I just can’t think in those terms.  Nobody knows what’s going to happen; I always thought I could be practical and plan things out, but it’s impossible.  How can I take five-year plans seriously when I don’t know what’s going to happen in five years?  When nobody knows?”

He looked pained.  “Ash, it’s just work.  You can’t take it personally.  It’s not meant to be applied to your personal life.”

“I want to take it personally.  I want to learn something that matters to me.”

“Like what?”

How could he not know?   “Art.”

He looked even more pained.  “Drawing pictures?  Painting?”

“I’ve always liked…”

“I know that,” he jumped in. “Your drawings are good. But I thought it was more like a hobby.  You never said anything about doing it professionally.  Can you make a living from drawing?”

She shrugged impatiently.  She wasn’t ready for a big discussion about career possibilities, but it was her own fault for starting it.  “I like looking at art, too, so maybe I should learn more about it.  I could see myself maybe working in a gallery or something.”  She imagined spending her days surrounded by beauty, saw herself moving confidently through a large, well-lit space, the white walls hung with paintings.

“You want to be an art major?”   His eyes flickered; she imagined him consulting a mental data-base of all the colleges in the area.  “Where would you go for that?  SMU?  That’s good, I think, but pricey.   Could your parents afford it?  Could you get in there?”

“I don’t know.”  Majoring in art was something she’d decided against in high school, on practical grounds.   Leaving aside the whole question of talent (if she could), she didn’t have the right temperament for an artist or a teacher.  There were other possibilities, which she’d discussed with Freya, but she felt no need to rehearse them with him.  “I need time to think. That’s why I’m going to take a year off.  I can get a job and live at home.”

“Thanks for telling me.”

“What do you mean?  I am telling you.”

“But you made up your mind without talking to me.”

“I’m sorry.”  She sighed heavily, bored and guilty. “But it’s my life, my problem, and I have to solve it.”

 “I thought I was part of your life.”

There was nothing she could say to that.  He had been a part of her life for almost four months, but really only in the way that a bandage or a wound dressing is after a major accident.  It doesn’t replace the missing part, and eventually has to be peeled away and discarded.  He was a nice guy and he deserved better, but knowing that made her no less cold. “I need time to think.  I need to get away from everything for awhile.”

“Including me.  I see.”  His shoulders sagged; he looked as if he would crumple and fall forward, grabbing on to her for support, but he stood up, steadying himself by resting his knuckles against the table where their two drinks waited, still untouched and sweating onto the pale formica.   “If it’d been me who’d died, I bet you wouldn’t have dumped your best friend like this.”

She caught her breath.  “She  wouldn’t have tried to make me feel guilty if I needed to leave.”

“So I make you feel guilty?”  He groaned.  “Is that supposed to make me feel worse, or better?  I can’t win, can I?”

“No, you can’t.  I’m sorry, Brandon.”

She’d expected to have a much harder time getting her parents to accept her decision; they’d always been so firm about the importance of college. For the first month she was home she worked hard at two jobs, at Kinko’s in the daytime and in the evenings as a waitress at Chili’s, and scarcely had time to talk to her parents.  When it finally came out that she didn’t intend to return to school in the fall, she was surprised by how calmly they took it.

“Only for a year,” she said quickly.  “I just want a year off, to think about things and… well, I’d like to do some painting.  Maybe I could take an art course somewhere.”

“You were thinking of staying here?” asked her mother.

“Yeah… if that’s all right.  I mean, you weren’t planning to rent out my room, were you?”

“The thought crossed our minds,” said her dad with a straight face. “But then I thought of how much it would cost to put all your things in storage and decided against it.  But wouldn’t you rather go somewhere else?  Travel?”

She stared at him in surprise.  “Well…yes.  That’s kind of what I’m saving up for…”

“I’ve got enough Air Miles to get you to Scotland.”

She wasn’t sure she’d heard right.  “To get me to Scotland?”

“You’d like to see where your grandmother grew up, wouldn’t you?  You could take pictures.  Maybe even solve the mystery of why she left.”

“Paint the Scottish landscape,” suggested her mother.

“The Walkers would be happy to put you up.  After you’ve tasted the delights of Appleton you could check out the museums and galleries in Glasgow and Edinburgh.”

“You can be our advance scout.  Tell us what to see and what to avoid – because we are definitely going next year.”

It was completely unexpected, and, unexpectedly, she decided it was perfect:  exactly what she needed.  A complete break from the world she knew, yet with relatives to provide a link. Investigating her grandmother’s past would give her a project to work on, supplying a reason to be there instead of somewhere else.

Now she gazed out the window at the famously beautiful Loch Lomond. She remembered learning a song about it in elementary school: a lifetime ago, in another century.  The scenery beyond the bus window belonged to an even more distant past; it looked like something in a movie, and she felt rather as if she was watching one now, as if this bus was a theme park ride, and everything outside created to give pleasure.  It was even her favourite kind of weather, cool, cloudy and mysterious, with the tops of the hills – or were they mountains? – hidden in low cloud.

The road narrowed and began to wind through the craggy heights.  The bus slowed and grumbled with effort.  Her ears popped.

Some of the slopes were barren landscapes, the huge boulders jutting out of the thin soil reminding her of an illustration from a geology text-book.  She decided they were definitely too steep to be hills, so must be mountains, the first she’d ever seen in real life.   Hardy shrubs and tough grasses sprouted between the rocks and were nibbled by big-horned, bedraggled-looking sheep or goats.   Some of them looked up as the bus lumbered past, to stare across the distance from slotted, yellow devil’s eyes.  Veils of mist shivered and parted, floating away like ghostly spirits.  At any moment, she thought, a couple of animatronic skeletons should lurch out at them, clanking and moaning to give the passengers a pleasurable fright.

Finally, the bus stopped labouring so hard as the road levelled out, but then, almost immediately, it began winding downwards in a long, slow descent.   She looked down at a mountainside covered in dark green pines like a pelt of thick fur, and up at a glittering, roaring cascade of water which tumbled steeply down over rocks.  There were no buildings anywhere.  It was all wilderness, with nothing man-made in sight but the long and winding road.

Except for the traffic, there was nothing to fix you to a particular era.  The scene was magically timeless.  Wander off across that rocky meadow, or into the shelter of that dark forest, far enough to lose the sight and sound of the highway, and you might find yourself in another century, meeting some hunky, shaggy, kilted Highlander…

The fantasy was barely taking shape when she noticed the solitary figure of a man walking by the roadside ahead of the bus.  He had a purposeful stride, like a man who had been walking a long time with a clear aim in view, yet he wasn’t dressed like a recreational hiker.  He wasn’t wearing a rucksack or a brightly coloured windbreaker or hiking boots.  His clothes were nondescript, but wrong for the setting; like his leather slip-ons, they belonged to an indoor life. He might have dashed out like that to pick up a pizza, but what was he doing out here in the mountains?  Where was his car?

She leaned forward, pressing her face close to the window, wondering if he’d  signal to the bus-driver to pick him up.  Sure enough, she saw him stop and half-turn, looking up at the noisy approach.  But his look was not for the driver.  Instead, it skated across the passenger windows until it found hers.

The feeling–

Later, trying to describe it to herself, she compared it to the description in one of the Harry Potter books of the effect of the magical Portkey.  She remembered Harry’s feeling that a hook just behind his navel had been yanked to pull him forward – yes, it was like that, something at once magical and visceral, although for herself the location of the hook was somewhat lower down.

It happened in an instant, when his eyes met hers, and it was over almost as quickly – and unlike the fictional Portkey, it did not carry her out of the bus and to another place.  It couldn’t have lasted, that connection, more than a second or two, because by then the bus had roared past, and although she twisted around in her seat to keep him in view, in a matter of moments, tilting vertiginously, the bus swept around another bend, and the walking man was out of sight.

She fell back in her seat and tried to breathe normally.  She felt herself throbbing all over.  What the hell was that?

But she knew, all right.

Lust.  Pure lust.

She put her hand on the empty seat beside her, imagining Freya’s raucous laughter.  Get over it!  He was a hunk, so what?  Do you think he spoke English?  There’ll be another one along in about fifteen minutes, if you can wait that long.    

Maybe this was another product of jet-lag and sleep deprivation, an emotion out of the same stable as the remote detachment with which she’d viewed Glasgow.  It was movie-time again, where a single, sexually-charged look between strangers turned into the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

Or maybe… maybe it hadn’t happened at all.  Maybe she’d been asleep and dreaming.

Frowning, she sat up straighter.  Now that was ridiculous.  She would know if she’d been asleep.  He had been real.  She remembered a pair of dark, rather narrow eyes, and how they’d found hers.  Like an after-shock, she felt the power of his look again:  the feeling had been mutual. 

Yet, although she remembered how the sight of him, and his look, had affected her, she found it oddly difficult to recall what he had looked like.  How would she describe him to someone?  How would she draw him? 

A stranger, she thought.  She felt sure he wasn’t Scottish – not with that dark, almost honey-coloured skin and those faintly slanting eyes – but she’d be hard-pressed to assign him to any particular race.  Maybe he was an American drop-out, hitch-hiking around the world; maybe he was one of the Romany, heading for his people’s encampment down some hidden byway;  maybe he was an asylum-seeker fleeing an oppressive foreign regime, a romantic exile…

She closed her eyes, and took herself back to her first sighting of the solitary figure, determined to know more.  She saw his back, wide shoulders in a drab-coloured shirt worn over a dark-coloured T-shirt and straight-legged, khaki pants.  No hat; short, thick, straight black hair.  Loafers on his feet.

He stopped and turned as the bus approached and looked up, giving her a perfectly clear view of his face in the moment before his eyes burned into hers.

*

“Inverary.  Fifteen minutes. Public toilets located directly ahead, across from the paper shop.  No chips or other fried foods on the bus.  Departing promptly in fifteen minutes.  Thank you.”

She woke when the throb of the bus engine cut out, in time to hear the driver’s announcement, and saw and felt the people around her getting up and moving slowly towards the door.  She yawned, blinked and stretched, disoriented.  How long had she slept?  She remembered the solitary hiker she’d seen on the road, and shivered with desire even as she wondered if he’d ever been anything more than a dream.

The bus had emptied out.  She noticed that most people had left behind something to mark their seats:  a newspaper, a scarf, a book, even handbags and one portable CD player, as if they’d just strolled out of their own living rooms, and there was no danger of theft.  She didn’t feel confident enough to do the same, and took her small rucksack with her as she made her way off the empty bus.

Outside the air was chillier than she’d expected, and it was raining.   The bus was parked beside a small shelter where several passengers were huddled, smoking cigarettes; others made their way towards the white-washed concrete block of public conveniences.   Zipping up the front of her brushed cotton jacket and pulling up the hood against the rain, she stepped out onto soggy grass and strolled toward the water’s edge.  She walked just long enough to stretch some of the kinks out of her legs, but by the time she got back to the bus her jacket was soaked through.  The rain was not heavy, but it was unrelenting.

The cool air and brief exercise woke her up for the rest of the journey.  She was glad she didn’t suffer from motion-sickness, because after Inverary the bus never stopped swaying from side to side.  Although they had left the mountains behind,  the road ahead unfurled like a wandering river, never running straight, and full of switch-backs as it followed the natural line of the rugged coast, always taking the route of least resistance -- going around lakes and the rockiest hills, never over or through them.  Obviously, when this road was built, bridges and tunnels had not been budgeted for.   It was narrow, too, not made with any large vehicles in mind.  On occasion it ran along a narrow ledge, close to a rise of solid rock, with a drop down to the water on the other, and very little in the way of verge or guard-rails.  She wondered what would happen if they happened to meet another bus going in the other direction on one of those bends, and hoped she would not have to find out.

The bus made about a dozen stops along the way to let people on or off; usually in tiny villages, once at a ferry terminus, and once to let a man off in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere:  no house in view, not even a bus shelter or a sign to indicate that there was any reason to stop.  At first all the land between the villages looked like uninhabited wilderness: steep hills, empty rocky moor lands, or stretches of thick, dark conifer forest on the side of the road not bordered by the sea.  But at some point this changed.  The land became more obviously arable, and the rolling green fields were  dotted with grazing sheep or cattle – including some long-horned, long-haired, ginger-coloured shaggy beasts like a cartoonist’s notion of cows suitable for a cold climate – all looking rather miserable in churned, muddy fields beneath lashing rain.

Although it still hugged the coast, the road became straighter and flatter for a short while.  Then, about fifteen minutes before they were due to arrive in Appleton the bus began to labour up another hill, shuddering slightly as it geared down and wobbled around yet another tight bend. 

Ashley felt her stomach lurch as she looked out at the precipitous drop to the sea below, lashed by rain that now fell in torrents,  foaming and churning around the rough teeth of sharp rocks.  More tall, jagged rock thrust up on the other side of the road in the narrowest hairpin bend she’d ever seen.  Water gushed from a crack in the hillside,  spurting down to splash against the side of the bus, and she flinched and shut her eyes, feeling that the journey had become just a little too much like a theme park ride: “Will the stage-coach make it through to Dodge City?”

She didn’t open her eyes again until she could tell from the movement of the bus that it was again travelling a relatively straight and level path.  They were back amid  homely-looking farmland, with a few houses dotted here and there among the sodden green fields, a glitter of grey sea in the distance, but no sign of those weird rock formations.

She sighed in relief and checked her watch again: Not long now.

They passed what was obviously a working farm, big white house standing foursquare among a system of barns and sheds, and a strong smell of manure hanging in the air.   Someone wrapped in bright yellow raingear was leading a weary-looking grey horse across a field.  Across the road, two black and white dogs and a man on a quad-bike were herding sheep.

A row of multicoloured cottages: pink, blue and white.  A very suburban-looking redbrick bungalow, with a garage beside it, a swing-set and bicycles in the front yard.   An abandoned stone house, the windows boarded over.  A sign saying Private Road  and then a gatepost with the name Orchard House.   Then there was something that looked like an abandoned factory, and then the sign:  Welcome to Appleton on top, and below a line of foreign text: “failte a innis ubhall.”

The road descended.  Appleton was in a sheltered valley, with high hills looming around it, but she saw them for only a few moments, for then she was in the town and the buildings, although none were more than three storeys high, blocked them out.  It was beginning to grow dark, and rain was falling harder than ever.  The streets were empty of pedestrians, and the shops all seemed to be closed although it was only just five o’clock.  In general, the impression was of a deserted and rather miserable town hunched in on itself, not offering anything to the visitor, and yet her heart began to beat faster as the bus carried her deeper into the narrow streets, and a tingling warmth spread throughout her body as if she’d been looking for something all her life and had just recognized the place where it might be found.       
  

 

(C) Lisa Tuttle 2013

 

 

© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.