They used to call it cairn season when the leaves began to turn. Never understood why. Didn’t care why.
I couldn’t have been much shy of twenty that year. It was an age where I thought I had it all figured out and that life would stay the same for me from that point. I guess this stuff had been going on for a while at that point, but none of it had ever bothered me enough to be actively aware of it. When things are a certain way in your surrounds for your whole life, you’re want of awareness.
Sometimes the settling sounds of houses more closely resembled a sharply drawn in breath. Footsteps could be heard where no foot fell. But from what I knew, and what I read, and what I’d been told, these were all symptomatic of an overactive imagination.
Maybe that’s why it’s taken me these years to commit what happened to that week to memory in such a public way. When you’ve been told your whole life that you see things that aren’t there, well, you get to believe that’s the truth.
Besides, the doctors say this will help me to come to terms with what happened. To accept the things I can’t change.
I know something came for us that week. Like the old song used to say, sooner or later God will cut you down.
I wasn’t grown back then, not even close. I still had those lofty dreams of the way things were going to work out for me; as if I was the only girl who’d ever picked up a guitar and recorded themselves singing songs about girls. But that was who I was then. The dreamer in me is long dead and gone now, though.
I had one friend in those days. Jon. We’d dated at fourteen, before I knew I was gay. Our friendship had survived longer than our teenage “romance”. I’d never been much good at making new friends. I was especially bad at keeping friends once I had them. I was too much and not enough all at once for most of my life. But Jon stuck around.
He sat across from me at the new KFC in town, running his thumb and forefinger over his moustache – a nervous habit he’d had since growing the thing out in the first place. His other nervous habit was endlessly spinning his phone around on a table. He’d put a sticker of a spiral on the back, which made an impressive visual effect when in motion.
Jon’s blue eyes – they’d always reminded me of kerosene – were trained on something I could not see – not a what, a who.
So often when I saw Jon we were far away from each other. In hindsight, I think we used each other primarily for the express purpose of having a forum in which we could spill our anxieties out onto someone else.
But that day, we’d met for a specific reason. I’d been invited to house sit with him for the week, starting the following day.
“Mum’s left us money,” Jon remarked, his eyes still not meeting mine. “There’s beer and whatever, too. Dad took care of that.”
“I suppose Barb is still adamant we’re getting married one day?” I replied with a smile creeping along my lips.
It was a futile attempt to bring Jon back to the real world. He smiled, but not with his eyes.
“Grace invited me out this weekend,” Jon told me, “I’ll still come home but I thought I’d let you know.”
“Is this the same Grace that blows you off every other weekend?”
Jon said nothing and his eyes went cold. I knew before I’d said it that I would end up overstepping a boundary. I was no better – the only difference was that I didn’t have a girlfriend. I took that as an excuse to be a cunt to anyone who did.
I like to tell myself we’re all like that at that age. Hell bent on being loved, so often accepting so much less to quell the voices in our heads.
I arrived long after Jon’s parents had left by design. I’d found in that year that even familiar people made me painfully nervous. I couldn’t pin why, but social interactions got under my skin. Jon sat on the deck above me, a cigarette precariously held in one hand with his phone in the other. His parents didn’t know he was a smoker – another mark of still being in the firm grip of adolescence.
Jon’s house was relatively isolated; it was a property surrounded by bushland that crawled out around a mountain side. As kids, we’d been told not to stray too far out amongst the trees. It was because of the cliff faces and blind drops that plagued the bush. One simply could not trust their footing there.
Within the hour, under a rapidly greying sky, I watched Jon get ready for his night out with Grace while I played video games in the lounge. He nervously paced around the lounge, trying to kill time so he didn’t appear too interested.
I felt the familiar knot tugging and tightening within me. For as badly as Grace treated Jon, I maintained in my adolescent stupor the same useless mantra. At least he had a girlfriend. At least he could get a girlfriend.
He left with a sharp goodbye, the last sign of him being the thud of the heavy front door closing behind him and his tyres crackling the gravel beneath them as he drove away. I was alone. And I regretted the things I’d said to Jon the day before.
The sky eventually went full dark, and outside there were no other signs of civilisation. No other house lights met me as I gazed out the window. I moved around the house aimlessly, nursing beers and searching for something to occupy the hours of my evening. I had finished my game and no longer felt much like playing anything. I felt compelled to explore the recesses of the house, to study how these people lived.
I had the uncanny feeling every time I turned a corner, entered a room, or flipped a light switch, that I was going to find someone staring back at me. My stomach twisted, but not with the jealousy from before. Rather, it was the feeling of being watched. Hairs stood on end on my arm, and I checked my shoulder over and over again. With every check, I became more and more sure that I was going to be met with another set of eyes.
It was around midnight that the first cracks of lightning began to rage overhead. And it was as I settled onto the couch and closed my eyes in an effort to sleep that the house started to really come alive.
The light overhead filtered through my eyelids to be a pink colour. I felt myself drifting off – the lightness of limbs, the distancing of sound – and then it came. Three soft taps against wood. I opened my eyes slowly, trying to focus. Again, three soft taps.
A blind in the wind, I told myself. Hitting the window sill.
Tap, tap, tap.
The branches of a tree brushing against a window.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
My heart raced, pounding in my ears. In a split second, along with a violent bolt of lightning, the power cut out. I stared up at the ceiling, my rapid breath seeming far away from me as I watched shadows move around with every succeeding crack of lightning. Thunder rumbled all around me, sounding like some large being was running around the house. The rain pelted the house with an otherworldly ferocity.
Amidst the cacophony of sounds I heard whispers in the wind, my name being called distantly, and my heart pounding uncontrollably. I was frozen in place, unable to look around. Or perhaps too afraid to find out what the source of those shadows along the ceiling were. Distorted figures, that looked barely human to me.
Then it all stopped.
The storm, the rain, the taps, the footsteps – everything. But it hadn’t passed – lightning continued to illuminate the room around me, and I could still see branches among the other shadows whipping violently in the wind. No – it seemed as though sound itself had been sucked out of the world – taken to another place.
I was somewhere else.
Then it came – this time, from inside my head.
Thump. Thump. Thump.