For the first time in nearly nineteen years, I turned onto the street of the house I grew up in. A certain eeriness engulfed my car. The air I was driving into felt thick. Resistant. I was travelling down the very street that I had played in and around as a kid, but there was a difference—a difference with only fleeting detectability.
The street was restful. It felt shorter than I remembered. The majority of the houses remained precisely as my mind’s eye would’ve describe them, albeit with one or two minor alterations: a fresh coat of paint, a new fence, or just different cars parked in the driveways and on the front lawns.
As I neared my childhood home, I searched my brain for the reason why I had driven the two hours to be there, at four in the morning no less. My brain returned no results.
Distracted by my thoughts—or lack of—I almost missed the house. I braked hard and parked my car a little too close to the kerb. I got out and flinched at the crisp air. Everything felt smaller. My old house and those surrounding weren’t the far-spread kingdoms they once were. I remembered the safe isolation I felt as a kid; I thought things were far away, and that if anything wanted to hurt me, whatever it was would have to travel quite a long way and, by the time it reached me, it would be too tired to inflict whatever pain it had planned.
As I walked around the front of my car to get to the footpath, I glanced at the left hand tyre, firmly in the gutter. When it rained heavily, my father used to take me outside and we would send leaves, twigs and icy pole sticks down what to me was a harsh, rushing river. We would watch them until they eventually got sucked down the storm drain a few houses down, like boats falling over a waterfall. My car would’ve been swept away if the force and depth of the water was anything like I remembered.
Outside the house was a For Sale sign with a red Sold sticker slapped on top. I got a flashback to myself earlier that night, browsing the internet. I came across a small news article about the suburb. Something about how the houses had been selling for a significantly large amount of money…or perhaps they had been selling for a significantly small amount of money. Either way, the article had given examples of houses recently sold and, well wouldn’t you know, my childhood home was among them. The house was to be bulldozed to make way for units, and I was naturally filled with nostalgia and the desire to see where I had grown up one last time.
Except that wasn’t it. There was something else. Something…and then I froze. The hair on the back of my neck spiked. My face tingled. I could feel someone standing behind me. Their face was so close to the back of my head that I could feel the tiny breeze caused by the blinking of their eyelids. With a racing heart and a dropped stomach, I counted backwards from three before I turned to face whatever had come to get me.
I was alone.
The large brick house on the opposite side of the street stood intimidating and silent. It looked like the kind of house a kid would draw: square with four large windows, two on the ground floor and two on the top floor; and a door in the middle. Heavy, red velvet curtains hung in all the windows, as they did when I was younger. The curtains were closed, except the ones hanging in the bottom left window.
That was where she used to stand.
We moved when I turned eleven. Had my childhood innocence had more time to dissipate, I would have found it weird that, every time I looked at the house across the street, the woman who lived there would be looking back. From my perspective, she seldom left that window.
Though now the thought was unsettling, I had grown accustomed to it. But now, for the first time in my life, I considered that something connected me and that house—me and that woman. And whatever it was had something to do with why I had returned.
I turned back to my old house. Quite frankly: it looked terrible. The stone fence that separated the front yard from the footpath had been knocked down; the path that led to the front door—formerly long and exciting and full of adventure—was now cracked and worn with time and was the length of only five, maybe six steps. Paint was peeling everywhere and the garden was unkempt. It looked dead.
I took a step onto the property and felt a tug at my feet. My forehead warmed. I swallowed hard. Again, I felt someone behind me. This time, I turned immediately, not giving whomever—or whatever—a chance to flee.
She was standing in the lower left window, close to the glass, her gaze fixed firmly on me. She was short and plump, and wore especially round glasses. She looked exactly as I remembered. Time had been good to her…or it had completely overlooked her.
A memory of the utmost vagueness leaked into existence. I could see a face in the foreground of my old backyard. It was hard to lock onto a name or a specific feeling aside from the pressure building in my chest.
Then, the brick house lurched forward. It heaved itself from its foundations and started to slide ahead, clearing its used-to-be front yard. The entire street shook. The footpath in front of the house went underneath it. The woman was still in the window, unfazed and looking like the captain of a house-shaped ship.
The house slid onto the road with an earth-trembling thud. Shards of brick and road flung into the air. It continued on its path, crashing into my car, quickly turning the sparking debris into metallic dust.
I walked backwards in awe as the oncoming house mounted the footpath and began sliding into my former front yard, flattening the For Sale sign. My body shook and my teeth chattered from the vibrations of the ground.
There was nowhere for me to run: the house was coming for me. The space between the now-mobile home and my childhood home narrowed. I tensed up and pressed myself flat against what was once my front door, convinced of my imminent crushing. At least I would have had an interesting death.
The house got within centimetres of me before it ground to a halt. I looked into the window where the woman still stood, unaffected. I doubt she had taken her eyes off me the entire time.
‘Bring him back to me,’ she said, though I wasn't entirely sure if her mouth moved. Her voice was soft and low and nervous.
I didn’t know exactly who she was talking about, but my forehead felt warmer. My eyes darted to the side momentarily as I tried to think of a reply, but there was no point. When I looked back, the brick house was back where it had always stood. There was no sign of it ever having moved. The woman remained at her post.
Almost instinctively, I opened my old front door, still facing the woman in the window, anxious to see how the years had treated the inside. I also felt that the whereabouts of whomever I was to bring back to the woman in the window was in that general direction.
I stepped backwards into the unlit inside and closed the door. At the tight click of the closing door, I turned around and saw that I was actually outside in the backyard, the house now behind me. I had bypassed the entire length of the house, like it was only a thin façade.
Much like the front of the house, the generously sized backyard was a complete mess. The grass was up to my knees. Plastic outdoor furniture was strewn across the ground. The Hills Hoist was rusted and cobwebbed and looked like the slightest breeze would topple it to the ground with a whine.
In the back left corner stood the sizeable metal shed that used to house cars. The shed ran flush with the fence to the left, but there was a small space between the shed and the back fence: space enough to walk, if you were brave enough. Even in the light of day, Behind The Shed was scary. The space was only about four metres in length, with the left side fence acting as a dead end. As a kid I was sure the path led straight to Hell.
A game played amongst cousins and friends came with one objective: touch the fence at the end…but you had to walk. Whenever anybody made it—a rare event—they would run back as fast as they could, as if they weren’t willing to test their luck walking back a second time.
My head started to throb with heat…and then I remembered him. Briefly. There was a boy. The one who owned the face I had remembered earlier. I wasn’t sure who he was, or who his parents were, but he was never scared like the rest of us. He said it was…no…how? I could hear his voice in my head as clear as anything.
One day, he told me something strange about the space we all feared.
He said it was where he lived.
Goosebumps rose from my skin. My eyes fearfully dampened. My heart beat hard and precise. I felt a pulling at my feet and I knew: I had to go Behind The Shed.
The small walk space was darker than the rest of the backyard. I was face to face with the most terrifying four metres of my childhood, and I knew I had to walk into it, lest it walk into me.
With a trembling hand I reached into my pocket and took out my phone. I switched on the torch. The joys of modern technology. Lit up, the space—filled with leaves and weeds and cobwebs and fear—seemed scarier. There was a safety in ignorance.
Dry leaves crunched under my feet as I took my first few nervous steps forward. My skin felt electric with adrenalin. Being in my thirties didn’t make it any less terrifying and I wondered if my parents were only pretending to be brave when they told me, reassuringly, that I had nothing to worry about when it came to Behind The Shed. If I was a parent, I don’t think I would have been able to lie about the very real feeling of danger that was snaking its way through my body.
Making it halfway was always an achievement to me as a kid, and when I made it to that point this time, a relief came over me. The relief, however, was only short-lived.
I heard a heavy clunking sound ahead of me. The torch on my phone began to flicker. In the strobing light I saw the dead end fence lower into the ground. Behind it stood a large, towering figure. My mouth dried in an instant. The torch stopped working completely and I pocketed the useless piece of technology.
As my eyes adjusted to the dark, the figure ahead of me roared. I froze in my spot.
‘INTRUDER,’ it bellowed. The depth and force of its voice shook the shed. No human could do that without a microphone and a large speaker on full volume. It took two heavy steps forward. The sound of its feet meeting the earth echoed along the ground.
I glanced either side of myself, as if hoping there was someone else, some other person whom the figure deemed an intruder.
‘YOU HAVE BREACHED THE BOUNDARY AND FOR THAT YOU WILL END.’
The words sank in slower than they should have. End? Me? An intruder? But I was put up to this by the woman in the window! She told me to come here and bring him back. If anything it’s she who should be blamed. I mean, I drove myself, and I knew now that I had every intention of being here from the moment I started my car, but…
As I fought to justify to myself that I was within my rights to be spared, the figure sniffed the air. On the verge of a full-blown anxiety attack I needed all the air I could get and it seemed that nearly half of the available air had been vacuumed up by its nostrils.
Then, someone turned on the lights. The sky above where I was standing brightened. Not blue. White. Blinding. And that’s when I saw what was standing ahead of me, what had threatened me.
The beast looked like a super-sized polar bear standing on its hind legs. Instead of white, its fur was red, like a poppy; it shimmered under the harsh light. Atop its head were two large antlers, so densely black that it was difficult to even look at them, to notice them; I couldn’t properly fix my gaze on their shape, nor the space they occupied in the world…but they were there, and they were sharp, like they had been fashioned into harsher weapons than nature (if this was nature) had intended.
Another sniff of the air—leaving none for me—before the bear’s posture relaxed, shrinking it slightly.
‘Oh. It’s you.’ The bear’s voice had become normal, conversational, human.
Adrenalin was still speeding through my body and I was too preoccupied with breathing and trying to calm my body to say anything. I could only stare wide-eyed at this magnificent creature.
‘Come with me then,’ said the bear as it turned and started walking away.
Part of me thought about running, but the bear reached into my mind and crushed those thoughts. My only choice was to follow, and I did, into what should have been the next door neighbour’s backyard, but—as one could by now ascertain—was something else entirely.
Through the fence was what looked like a small, rounded clearing in an otherwise thick, shadowy forest. A slight steamy mist hung in the muggy air. It smelt of old sweat.
To one side, there was what looked like a small office space, with a desk behind which the bear now sat; in the centre was a large circle of wet, bubbling sand; and occupying the majority of the other side was—sitting upon a pile of large, variegated leaves—a tortoise the size of a small car. The tortoise appeared to be sobbing.
The bear gestured to a chair opposite the desk before it started to scribble something onto a piece of paper, its large red paws gripping onto a small black pen. I took the seat offered to me, my back to the crying tortoise, and noticed that there was a name plate on the desk, beside a coffee mug. The lettering on the plate was…foreign, to put it simply.
‘I’m glad you made it. We thought we were going to have to incinerate the deposit. The paperwork that comes with that is a nightmare.’ The bear chuckled, not looking up from its writing.
I heard tiny movements behind me. I looked over my shoulder, over the gurgling sand, and saw a kaleidoscope of butterflies fluttering around the tortoise’s face. Their colours were striking, vibrant. They were paying close attention to the tortoise’s eyes. I looked more intently and saw that the butterflies were drinking the tears as they formed and slid down its green, rounded face.
‘…so just take this and let it sink into the sand…they’ll send the kid back up and you can take him back to his mum,’ said the bear from behind me. I turned back and saw that it had stopped writing and was now holding out a glass tube with a rolled up piece of paper inside.
Everything went quiet, save for the sound of the sand slopping against itself and the whisper of the butterfly wings.
‘Well?’ said the bear, shaking the tube at me.
I turned back to the tortoise. It could barely be seen through the fluttering rainbow.
‘Oh,’ said the bear. ‘That.’ I turned back around. The bear continued. ‘It’s the sodium.’
‘The what?’ It was the first time I had said anything all evening; the words scraped against my dry throat and mouth.
‘The sodium…in her tears…that’s why they’re drinking them.’
I didn’t know how to respond, how to frame my questioning. ‘Why is she crying so much anyway?’ I eventually rushed out.
‘If butterflies were taking your sodium’—the bear stared intently at the tortoise—‘you wouldn’t be too happy either.’
Once more, I had nothing but silence to offer.
‘Anyway,’ said the bear, ‘are you here for him or not?’
My head nodded and I reached for the tube. It was cool to the touch. I stood up and walked over to the rippling sand pit. ‘So I just…’ I bent down and slowly touched the glass to the sand. Within seconds the tube had been consumed, sinking quickly into the sand. The sand gulped.
‘So, can I ask a question?’ I said, standing up, my gaze sticking with the sand.
‘Shoot,’ said the bear.
‘Why do you have this woman’s kid?’
The bear leaned back in its chair. ‘Oh, it’s a bit of a long story…but to shorten it, she met our boss when he decided to…frolic in your plane one night. They met at one of those nightclubs, you know the kind. They had a few drinks, danced a bit…then she, by chance, sang our boss one of his favourite songs in the taxi on the way back to her place and, well, whenever that happens the boss gets…generous. He couldn’t resist bestowing her some powers.’
I thought of the way her whole house had moved earlier in the night, and how that also apparently didn’t happen at all.
‘Powers?’ I said, like I had never heard the word before.
‘Yeah…nothing major. Low level stuff.’ The moving of a house and then the undoing of that seemed major enough to me. ‘Of course she had to make a little deposit. Again, nothing major. Just her second-born child. They usually turn out a bit better.’
The sand heaved against itself. Something, someone, was pushing up in the middle of it.
‘I think I met him…’ I said, remembering the boy who said he had lived behind the shed.
‘Oh, yes…back in those days we were allowed to do that. We thought he might as well play with some other kids instead of hanging around with us all the time…But rules change. Things got…tough. So we just sent you a cat to play with instead and soon you completely forgot about him.’
A thick glob of sand shot out of the pit and landed on my shoe. I tried to kick it away but it stuck. Whatever was rising out of the sand was getting close.
‘But what does this have to do with me?’
‘You were supposed to take him back to his mother when he turned eighteen…that’s how long we were meant to keep him…none of that forever shit…it would cost too much. Anyway he had to be collected by one of you lot…humans, I mean…and once you were assigned as his collector there was no changing the paperwork. Not without a serious effort, that is.’
The tortoise began to sob louder. More butterflies flew into the clearing.
‘Then why didn’t you just ask me?’ I asked, although the answer was already being spoken.
‘After you moved houses we were out of our jurisdiction to contact you. It wouldn’t have been impossible to manage it…of course that is how you eventually made your way here tonight. But if I’m honest it wasn’t really a priority. We had other things to do.
‘But now we’re closing up shop here. We’ve got to get rid of everything we’ve got left over, you see.’
If my parents were still alive I would’ve called them and told them that I was right when I said moving would be a bad idea. I started to feel sorry for the boy…well, for the man, living in this place—wherever this place was—for his entire life. I felt sorry for the woman in the window; I’m sure she had many times over the years wished for some high level powers to right this wrong.
The noticeably non-human thing rising from the sand surfaced completely. It bobbed on top of the sand. It was a box: square and solid and green. I looked down at it, puzzled.
‘There you go then,’ said the bear cheerfully.
‘Isn’t this a mistake? Aren’t I here for the boy…well, the man?’
The bear said nothing. I looked at the tortoise: it was still crying, but only a few butterflies remained…and they, in some peculiar way, looked very nervous.
I picked the box up from the sand, which tried to hang on. The contents of the box rattled. My chest tightened. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears. It felt like someone had set fire to my forehead. Deep down, I knew what was coming, but there’s a difference between knowing something internally and knowing something externally.
Reluctantly, I opened the lid of the box and looked inside. My mouth dropped open.
He hadn’t been as scared as the rest of us, but perhaps he should have been. He really should have been.
I looked up at the bear, its horns blacker than ever.
The bear’s eyes flashed red. ‘We didn’t say we’d keep him alive.’
The tortoise stopped crying and looked at me. She smiled.
Before I could say anything, or do anything, the world around me disappeared and was replaced by the footpath in front of my old house. The woman in the window had become the woman on the opposite footpath, standing under a streetlight. A look of relief washed over her when she saw me. She bounced triumphantly on the spot.
Then she saw my face and the box in my hands, the lid askew, and she would not find relief again until her death.
We met each other in the middle of the road. Whatever emotions we were both feeling were wordless and impossible to properly convey. I handed her the box, the child-sized bones inside rattling against one another. She began to sob. As the tears reached the middle of her cheeks they transformed into butterflies and flew away.
Above, storm clouds gathered. There was a flash of lightning and a crash of thunder before heavy rain started to fall. Trembling, I got in my car and pulled away from the kerb before a rushing river could come and sweep me and my car out to sea.