Photo by Pedro Ribeiro Simoes, unaltered, shared under Creative Commons License Attribution 2.0 Generic
The pressure built in Leslie’s head as he clenched his jaw, pressed his teeth so hard together his gums ached. The white coffee cup with its green logo rattled about in his grip, spilling droplets of hot black over the back of his hand. He ignored the prickling heat of it, marched toward his office on Pitlair’s dreary high street.
His phone had gone all night. A prick of a client got his personal number, pleading that he couldn’t live without access to his kids.
Leslie couldn’t abide the weak. Everyone who came to him for legal counsel had the same lowlife problems. Didn’t try hard enough at school. World’s against them from the start. Blah, blah, blah. When he sat opposite them, all he wanted to do was scream, tell them to work harder, screw the nut.
The morning autumn light started heating up the dusty concrete. As he approached the cave-like alcove to get into his office, he set his hand into the back pocket of his chinos, brought out his keys. He was always the first here. It was his name above the door, after all. Leslie Bowers, Your Solicitor for Crime and Family Law. It was written in gold. People flocked to gold in this miserable part of Scotland.
He dropped his keys that clattered to the hard ground. Someone was bundled up in sleeping bags outside his office. Her liquor and sweat stench filled the shadowy space.
“Get up,” he said.
“Wha?” said a meek, shivery voice.
The way the bundle of shiny sleeping bags shifted made him think of a pulsing maggot – a maggot he wanted to stomp on. How dare they mar the image of his place of work by sleeping here.
He flicked off the plastic lid of his cup, threw the remaining coffee at the sleeping thing. The bitter steam of it hit his nostrils as he waited for her to jerk about, scream out a complaint. She only shifted, giving him a puzzled, hazed look over the top of her sleeping bag.
“Get away from my shop, you absolute waste of oxygen,” he said, stepping closer. “What were you thinking, eh? Shift it.”
“I… I’m awful sorry. I wasn’t thinking and—”
“You lot never think. That’s your problem. Just expect everyone else to look after you. And then it’s one thoughtless act after another. Then you wonder why you end up on the street?” His voice seemed to build and rebound in the small space as he sucked in a breath. “Aw, diddums? What’s wrong? You gonna cry? Your folks no longer agreeing to fork over their hard earned cash to support your habit?”
“Calm it, mister. Jeez, I—”
“They stop agreeing to give you hand outs, thinking they could save you? Thinking that maybe this time you’ll screw the nut, go back to nursing at college and work your way into a decent person? Cause you had every chance. Every single chance we gave you, and…” His shoulders slumped. “You should go now. Don’t come back. And tell that to all your chums.”
She didn’t look him in the eye as she collected her stuff, shuffled away.
He picked up his keys, went to open the door. The small alcove grew darker. The breeze cut off. Silence fell. The itch of someone’s burning attention dotted his back.
“Didn’t mean to go off on one,” he said over his shoulder. “But, this is my—”
The leaden reek of the air made him close his mouth. The air changed, made the hairs on the crown of his head shift as if a static balloon was held above him.
Slow nightmare sludge lodged in his throat when he turned.
A slab of a man stood in the entrance to the alcove, blocking most of the morning’s light. His broad jaw was caked with dirt and flakes of dried skin. A tattered army jacket hung off his huge shoulders.
It was the eyes that struck Leslie like a physical blow. The golden, swirling irises were ringed by bloodshot lighting bolts. Those eyes were ancient and all-knowing.
The voice was barely a whisper, yet it burned at the centre of Leslie’s brain.
He felt as if his soul was being ripped apart and put back together again, atom by atom.
The man raised a dirty, knobbly finger, pointing at Leslie’s chest.
“Leslie,” the man said with ghostly urgency.
“W-Was that woman your friend? Didn’t mean to go off on her like that. She looked—”
Leslie stopped the thought by pushing the fingernail of his thumb into the side of his index finger. A red line of blood welled, complained at the cool air.
The man turned like a boulder shifting. Without looking back, he moved up the high street and out of sight.
Leslie went about his morning, unable to shake the image of the man’s sad eyes. The feeling that something awful was about to happen coiled in his gut, waiting. Whenever Martha came into his office, he’d flinch, drop papers, spill coffee.
His phone chirped in his pocket and he nearly fell off his cheap office chair. The message was from an unknown number, but he knew who it was.
Got your number saved big bro. That wife got you givin up the golf yet? Anyhoo… I need help. Big time. Dont ignor me like lasttime.
He chucked the phone. It clomped atop his wooden desk. He got up, stared out a small window that looked down at the high street from the second floor.
Anna was at him again for money. It infuriated him how they came from the same house, the same skint family, but he was able to screw the nut, save, work hard, make something of himself. Anna didn’t have that in her. She sent their mum to an early grave with grey worry. Falling in with the wrong people. Leaving home. Drugs. Money issues.
He stood so close to the window, cold radiated from the glass on his forehead. Was there always that many homeless people roaming the high street? Every shop entrance, every alleyway he could see, littered with human garbage. Was Anna among them?
The homeless people glared up at him as one, as if sensing his hate.
He felt the urge to open the window, scream down at them all to go die somewhere hidden. No one would miss them. What purpose did they serve by hanging on?
“Martha?” he called through to his assistant in the other office. “Cancel my day, would you? I’m… I’m done.”
Outside, the salt and pastry of sausage rolls from the bakers mingled with dusty concrete. Leslie clutched at his tweed jacket, trying to keep the cold out. As soon as he’d stepped out of his office, he felt their eyes settle on him. From each shadowed shop entrance, each alleyway, they watched. Where were they all coming from? No one else seemed to notice, just bustled about their day.
Any faster and he’d be jogging, but he couldn’t help it. He wanted to be with his wife, safe in the confines of the home they’d built. Their slice of heaven.
As he passed the homeless figures, they stood, shuffled after him like a collection of zombies. There were so many figures forming behind him that shoppers had to slalom through the crowd.
Dread grew in his bones. Each set of eyes burrowed into his back, made him want to stop and scream at them, tell them to—
He crashed into something immovable. When his knee hit the pavement, he let out a strangled yelp. The sun flared above the towering figure. Every instinct told him to get up, flee, escape the horde circling him.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Leslie pushed himself to his feet, patting the street dust from his chinos. He tried to meet the eye of a regular shopper who just ducked his head, moved around the growing crowd. “They’ve got me trapped. Hey! Don’t you see me? I’m Leslie Bowers. I’m one of you. Help me.”
His name dusted out of the figure, blotting out the sun. That voice made Leslie’s knees weak. Made the blood in the lower half of his face turn to ice.
“Who are you?” said Leslie.
“They call me the Keeper. This is your chance to make amends. Heal the pain from your venom words.”
A grunted assent trickled through the crowd. They were so close he could feel their collective body heat. The odour of their unwashed skin. Their desperation.
Leslie turned, spat his shaky anger at the shifting mass. “How many people have been put through hell because of your refusal to work? How many of your folks bailed you out time and time again? Look at yourselves. You couldn’t make it back to the real world, even if you wanted to. No one to blame but yourself. You never listen. Never listen, no matter how hard I tried.”
“Apologise,” Keeper hissed, sorrow aching in his golden eyes.
Leslie aimed his fury at the big man. “You can all circle me like a bunch of tattered druids all you want, but it doesn’t change the problem. And that problem is you. All of you are a stain. Think if I killed you now, the police would do anything? They’d pat me on the back for killing you… you… non-people.”
Leslie had never been in a fight all his life. He prayed the jackals surrounding him wouldn’t pounce.
The molten gold swirl of Keeper’s hurt eyes kept his attention. He was under a telescope, being judged by something not quite human.
Street dirt scraped under Keeper’s boots, making a sound like sandpaper as he stepped aside.
“T-Thank you,” said Leslie, marching past.
“Don’t forget,” Keeper called. “This is the path you chose. We’ll see you on the other side of things.”
The other side of things? The words stewed inside Leslie’s head as he paced down the narrow high street.
Figures still watched from each doorway. Eyes followed him like still paintings in old houses. When Leslie gathered the courage to look at one of them, his vision seemed to blur.
“What’s happening to me?” he said, blinking the dizzy sensation away.
He panicked, almost tripped over his clumsy feet when he ran into an alleyway that looked empty. He shoved his back against the pebbly wall so hard it hurt.
Anna’s sallow face came to him as he gathered his breath, eyed the entrance, prayed the homeless didn’t follow him here.
“Are you with them, sis?” he said. “After all we tried to do for you, is this where you ended up?”
He swivelled his head about, ignoring the ammonia tang of pish that wanted to shove its fingers up his nostrils. He’d gotten himself in a bad situation here. They could box him in, chase him down from either end of this shadow encased alley.
Three figures danced about at the other end of the walkway and doom settled about Leslie’s shoulders like a cloak.
Relief giggled out of his chest as he saw it was just three teenage boys mucking about. They shoved, tried to trip each other up, swore. They burst with life in their white trainers, rows of clean teeth.
A greeting was about to bubble its way from Leslie’s mouth when they set on him. Quick as hyenas, they knocked him to the ground.
“Hey!” Leslie shouted. “You can’t—”
His front teeth ached as they shoved his head into the hard concrete. One kicked at his head. One sat on his back. One rummaged in his back pocket, taking his wallet, his keys.
“Stop! Help!” he called out.
An agony like a lightning strike in his back blotted out all thought, made him seethe in a breath. An electric chill spread from his lower back, jarring up his spine into his brain.
The one sitting on him slipped the knife into Leslie’s back again and again.
He tried to shout, but all that came out was a pathetic whine. Fiery blood trickled down his sides, collected in the broken concrete below.
“Stickered him right good,” one boy hooted.
“The red, the red.”
“You’re pure dead, man. Like, dead dead. For realsies.”
The knife silvered in and out of him as the hyenas cackled and danced around him, taking turns.
When they skittered away like they’d done no more than drop an empty crisp packet, Leslie summoned the last of his strength, army crawled to where the alley met the high street.
The weak sunlight marking the street danced over him, prickled his skin.
An elderly lady shuffled closer, leaned down to look at Leslie’s quivering form, sighed. She got out her phone, pushed buttons, told emergency services about ‘rascals that had wired in about someone’.
When she was done, she leaned down again, clucked her tongue, then walked on as if the whole thing had been an affront to her day.
Leslie tried to lift his head. The tendons in his neck shook with the effort of it. As the darkness crept in around his vision, he saw her. Anna. His sister standing among the collected non-people watching his demise. Her eyes were filled with longing.
He wanted to call her name, wanted to say he was sorry.
The darkness came.
Leslie sat bolt upright, sucked in great gulps of air. He patted himself down. There was no blood. The phantom pain of the stab wounds ebbed away to nothing. He hadn’t died. He was still on the high street. Had he made the whole thing up?
The pain the knife caused had been all consuming. The ghost of it clouded his thoughts.
He stared at the sleeping bag he was wrapped up in. Unreality washed over him as he stared up from where he sat. He was in a dark alcove. Wrapped in a sleeping bag. Smelled like he’d gone three weeks without a drop of water on his face.
He kicked the sweaty sleeping bag off, stood. He was in the entrance of Greggs the baker. Pitlair high street was dark and dead.
A heavy anorak hung limp and stinking as rotten skin over his shoulders. The dirt wouldn’t come out of his crusted jeans, no matter how hard he hit it. He reeked like a soppy food bag left out too long on the kitchen counter.
“What is this?” he said to himself.
He walked out into the open, eyeing the closed, barricaded shops. Dark pinpricks like stars gazed at him from shadows, following him. The non-people watched.
Keeper’s booming voice stopped him. “Don’t panic.”
Leslie turned, looked up at the figure who’d just appeared out of nowhere. Despite it being dark, gold constellations swirled in his sad eyes.
“W-What’s happening?” said Leslie, staring his strange, baggy clothes.
“This is the other side of things.”
“You did this to me? Had those kids knock me out, and then you… what? Stole my clothes? This your idea of a joke?”
He waited for Keeper to say something, anything, but he just stared at him with his shadow haunted eyes.
“I’ll get the police down here and firebomb all you bastards.”
“You belong with us now.”
Leslie had never run so fast. Through Pitlair and into the nice, quiet part of Balekerin where he lived with his wife, Teresa. He laid a hand against the wall next to the front door, caught his breath. Behind him, he saw old Mrs. Rutger peek out from behind her blinds. When he waved at her, she shot back into the room like he’d just levelled a shotgun.
He turned his attention to the front door. Walk in. Scoop Teresa into a big squish. Plant her with a kiss like they were in their twenties. Then a scalding shower. Scrub the dirt away until his skin was scratched and red.
He smelled the homely aroma of his wife’s bolognese seep through the door before noticing it was open a crack. He pushed the door open, let the smell fill his heart. Teresa’s cooking made this house a home. Without it, his world would be thin and grey.
“Teresa?” he called. “It’s me. I… I had some issues. Don’t be judging me for the stench, alright? I’ll just grab a quick shower, if—”
Something solid and invisible kept him outside. He pressed a hand against it, pushed with all his might.
It felt like he laid his hand on a block of ice. The cold got into his bones, made him shiver.
“T? You there? I can’t get in.”
She hummed gently to herself, holding the handle of a large pot of steaming pasta. When she saw him at the door, she shrieked, let go of the pot, stepped away. The pot clanged, spilling spaghetti and whitened water over the wooden floor.
“I’m calling the police,” she said. “You get away now.”
“Teresa, it’s me. It’s—”
She stepped over the pasta, marched toward him, slammed the door closed. Locks clicked into place. He’d never seen such a look of terror on her face. Like she was one step away from heart failure.
“Honey, it’s me.” Leslie knocked on the door. “I’ve had such a strange day. You need to help me. Teresa? You there?”
“Police on their way.” Her voice drifted through the heavy door. “We don’t take to your kind here. Leave.”
All the neighbours were curtain twitching as he turned around. He wanted to scream that he belonged here. That his name was Leslie. He was one of them.
The sound of his wife sobbing in fright was what made him move along.
Back to the full dark high street. He slumped to the cold floor by the door to his practice, put his head in his hands. “What am I going to do?”
“One of us.”
Leslie’s head jerked up so fast his neck twinged with pain. “You!” He got to his feet. “You did this to me.”
The giant figure of Keeper stood over the entrance like a stone about to block him in.
The baritone rumble of his voice bothered at Leslie’s stomach. “You did this to yourself.”
“You’ve cast some kind of dirty spell.”
“You’re on the other side of things now.”
“How dare you take it all from me? My wife. She didn’t even recognise me. Stop this game right now.”
“We play no game. This is trapped. Payment, you might say.”
“You’re making no sense. How is this even possible?”
“Kill yourself. Maybe then, you’ll see.”
The suggestion turned Leslie’s blood cold, made the hand tugging at his hair pause midway. “What?”
“One of us.”
“W-Why are there so many of you?” Behind Keeper, he saw the twinkling eyes of many as they gathered like a collection of quiet ghosts. “Where did you all come from?”
“We are the trapped ones. We were human, once.”
“End yourself. It is necessary.”
Keeper reached into his coat pocket. Pills rattled against plastic as he took out a small bottle. The noise they made was like collected teeth as he set the bottle on the ground between them. When he straightened, there was an aching in his otherworldly eyes.
“Do it,” said Keeper. “End yourself.”
Long days went by. None of the real people saw Leslie. He’d phased through to some other dimension, stuck in his place on the high street as life went on. He’d tried his house again and again, never able to get in, even when he smashed the glass on the patio doors. The unseen barrier stopped him.
And all the time, the orange bottle of pills stood where Keeper had left them. It was like they called out to him, begged to smooth their way down his throat, into his gut, cushion him in a chemical embrace.
“No one deserves this,” he said, shivering as he brought his knees closer to his chest.
He tried to throw himself at the mercy of the police when they appeared. They shooed him off like a bothersome fly, never seeming to take in his presence.
Before he knew what he was doing, he unscrewed the lid of the pills, his palm absorbing the juddering pops as he undid the child-proof cap.
It was as if the homeless sensed what was about to happen. They came to watch. The hundreds that massed outside his alcove all had the same sadness in their eyes.
“You come to send me off?” he said, hating how petty he sounded.
He felt the chemical burn roll through him as the drugs took hold. Felt it spreading through his chest with every heart beat. It clamped his jaw. Froze his eyes open. Everything seemed to slow, become more vibrant, pulsating with colour.
“I’m sorry,” he said through clenched teeth. “I… I’m sorry.”
He sat bolt upright, wheezing in a panicked lungful of air. His hands reached for the side of him like he’d been pushed underwater and he was resurfacing from somewhere cold. He was alive. Alive. He placed a hand on his chest, relishing the rhythm of his heart.
As he closed his eyes, the familiar scents of slept-in clothes and sweaty sleeping bag flooded his senses. The concrete dirt smell of his skin. The grit filled wind.
He felt the presence of Keeper. The look in his golden eyes was not unkind. Instead of lurking in the doorway, he came into the alcove, ducking his head before sitting cross-legged opposite him.
Panic started bubbling up from Leslie’s gut. He knew then he was in the company of some deity. Some being not of this world.
Keeper nodded his large head sombrely.
“I… I’m on the other side of things,” said Leslie, the realisation making his blood sludgy in his veins. “Those boys. They killed me, didn’t they? And this…”
He looked at the high street coming to life in the early morning. The gathered others who waited. All eyeing him like they wanted to come hug him. Ease his burden.
This was his purgatory for being such an arsehole, he knew. It was why Keeper’s eyes were filled with tears. They fell silently down his unshaven face, silvered in the meek light that shone into the alcove.
“We come here after a life of regrets,” said Keeper. “It’s our forever place. You see now?”
“Am I trapped?”
“We have each other. And that is all.”
His sister’s face came to him as a tear warmed his cheek. Every argument, every shouting match where he’d told her to screw the nut. That he couldn’t deal with her being a waste. And now, he was doomed to walk the high street unnoticed. His soul trapped.
In the shadowy space beneath the gold letters of the life he’d built, he watched the shoppers go by.
Paul O’Neill is an award-winning short story writer from Fife, Scotland. As an Internal Communications professional, he fights the demon of corporate-speak on a daily basis. His works have been published in Crystal Lake’s Shallow Waters, Eerie River’s It Calls From The Doors anthology, the NoSleep podcast, Scare Street’s Night Terrors series, The Horror Tree, and many other publications. You can find him sharing his love of short stories on twitter @PaulOn1984.