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Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Short Story - Homecoming

These days most people who follow my work probably know me as a producer of D&D content over at Loot The Room, but for a long time I was exclusively a fiction writer. I never had any commercial success, but it was something I loved doing and something I think I was getting pretty good at before I stopped.

Years ago I had a short-lived project where I offered to write short stories for people - a story about whatever you wanted, published in a chapbook with a print run of two (one for you, and one for me). I did a couple of them, and I was pretty happy with the stories that I wrote. Then I went to university to study Creative Writing, and pretty much stopped writing fiction.

I've been feeling the urge to get back to fiction recently, so I started going back through my old work to see if I was ever as good as I felt like I was. I wasn't - are we ever? - but I'm still happy with a few of the stories I wrote back then. They're not perfect, and I know I can do better now, but that's a good thing. It means I've grown as a writer.

I think it's a shame that a lot of this stuff never really got read by anyone. I'm not about to start submitting 5-year-old stories to magazines, though, so I figured I'd share some of that work here for anybody who wants to read some of my old work.

The story that follows was the first chapbook that I produced, for a lady called Michelle who was the first person to ever tell me she was a fan of my writing. We've lost touch these days, but I'm still incredibly grateful to her both for her words of support and for being the first person to pay me for a story. In reading it back, there's a lot I like about it, but also a lot I know I'd do differently now. For one thing, it's more of a vignette than an actual story. Still, I enjoyed reading it again after all these years, and I hope you will too.

(I wanted to post the cover for this chapbook along with the story, but I've lost the file somewhere along the way. So, here's a picture of the book instead. If you'd rather not read this in a blog post, you can grab a free PDF of it here.)

Homecoming

by Chris Bissette

1.
"I think it's perfect," Rachel said. They had been driving for maybe an hour, slowly leaving the city behind and passing in to sprawling country and gradually narrowing roads. "I really hope you like it."
"I grew up around here," he had said, and as they passed further into the village he couldn't help but place a memory of his childish self on every street corner. He hadn't been back for nearly fifteen years, since Sarah vanished. It felt wrong to be here with Rachel somehow, though he couldn't place exactly why that was.
"I know," Rachel had said. She threw him a quick look, then, only taking her eyes off the road for a split second, but it was enough. She was wary, not sure how he was going to react to being back. That was fair. Whenever they talked about their separate childhoods he was always quick to change the subject or happy to sit and listen to her reminisce, giving away very little about his own past. One day, he knew, he would tell her about Sarah. He just didn't know when.
They passed the row of shops where he had worked his first job, delivering newspapers in the mornings and working behind the counter on a Saturday afternoon, far too young to be selling booze and tobacco but doing it anyway. Then around the corner, past the small C of E school where he had spent his summers, never attending as a student but wasting long afternoons playing football on the fields or skateboarding on the playground, occasionally climbing up on to the roof with his friends to smoke a crafty cigarette out of sight of any adults.
"This is weird," he muttered. Rachel threw him another one of those looks, but didn't say anything.
The car crested the small hill – there was the corner where Sean had broken his arm falling off his bike, the best part of two decades ago – and as they pulled up on the drive Stephen's stomach lurched.
"We’re here," Rachel announced, her voice cheerful but noticeably strained. "What do you think?"
The house had changed, though not much. The long garage had been converted into another room, a smart bay window replacing the rusted metal door. His father had put up a wall behind that years ago, had turned the garage into an office lined with bowing bookcases. It had been freezing in winter but Stephen had never minded, clambering over the piles of boxed-up books that wouldn't fit on the shelves to dig around for something to read. It was here that he had discovered his favourite authors, science fiction writers whose books were no longer in print, their names lost to the faded front covers of back issues of Asimov's and Analogue.  Now it was a dining room, judging by the glimpses he could get through the blinds. Centrally heated, devoid of books and soul.
"It's nice," he said, climbing out of the car. A gate had been put up across the path into the side garden, high fences running along the edge of the pavement that followed the road down one side of the house to where it ended in a cul-de-sac. When he was a child there had been plans to build more houses there, and in the fields at the back, but they had never come to fruition. This house was still the last one on the street. He could see the tip of the cherry blossom tree he had loved as a child poking up over the top of the fence. That was still here, at least. That was good.
"It'll be quiet," Rachel said. "No traffic going past." She touched a hand to her stomach, briefly. "Safe to play in the street."
"Yeah, very," he said. He remembered summers having water fights out on the tarmac, the ground too hot to stand still on in bare feet, coming running back into the house with melted tar drying between his toes. "I bet the ice cream van doesn't come this far down the road."
Another strange look from Rachel, and she opened her mouth to say something – he didn't know what. The front door of the house opened and they found themselves looking at a small blonde woman wearing a too-big trouser suit and clutching a clip board.
"You found it OK, then," she said, flashing a toothy smile. Rachel nodded and held out her hand, started to make introductions. Stephen went through the motions, the woman's name slipping through his head without making any impression.
Before he knew it he was being ushered in to the house to stand in a living room that had changed beyond recognition. The wall separating it from the kitchen had been torn down, an extension built at the back. His heart flipped at the sight of it. How much of the garden had it taken up? What had they got rid of?
"Let's have a look around upstairs before I show you outside, shall we?"
The woman led them up the stairs. In his childhood they had been bare wood. Every trip up or down had come with the threat of splinters in naked feet. He gave the banister a quick shake on the way up. Solid. As a kid it had always been slightly wobbly, probably a result of his insistence on leaping over it onto the sofa below rather than going all the way to bottom of the stairs like everyone else.
He was glad when the woman took them into the rooms at the front of the house first. He didn't want to look out of the windows at the back, see whether the gate was still at the bottom of the garden. He wasn't quite ready for that, for the memories of Sarah that were crowding around the edges of his mind, desperate to get in but for now being held back. If he saw that gate – or if he didn't, that would be worse, wouldn't it? – they would come rushing in, and he didn't know how he would react to that.
"Are you OK?" Rachel asked, placing a concerned hand on his arm. "Don't you like the house?"
He shook his head. "It's… Later," he said. "I'll tell you later."
They trudged through the bedrooms, the sales spiel of the estate agent muted into a dull drone that Stephen didn't notice. He didn't see the neutrally-painted walls, the tastefully minimal furniture designed to show off the space. He saw the house as he had known it, the faded yellow ducks on the wallpaper of Sarah's room that had never been replaced as she aged, the unused exercise bike in the corner of his parents' room, the rail on the wall in the bathroom for when Nan came to visit.
Before he knew it they were in the back bedroom, the one that had been his. He stayed away from the window, focussed his attention instead on the spot where his bookcases had been, the patch of floor where he had passed out the one time he had been ill with flu, the corner where his box of Lego used to sit.
"It's gorgeous," Rachel said, from the window, then gasped as she looked out across the garden. "Oh, wow.”
The estate agent nodded and smiled, looking for all the world like she had already made the sale. “Gorgeous, isn’t it?”
“You need to see this, Stephen," Rachel said. The gate was still there, then. He couldn't look.
"Shall we go outside and have a proper look?" the estate agent asked, and that was that. They were going outside, to the gate, and he was going to have to tell Rachel now, wasn't he? Before he broke down. Before it all became too much.
"Can you give us a minute?" he asked, turning to the estate agent.
She frowned. "I've got another…"
"Just one minute," he said. "Please. There's something we need to talk about."
She frowned again, but she left them, pulling her phone from her pocket as though the next couple to view the place were already waiting outside, calling to be let in.
"What's the matter?" Rachel asked.
"I've never told you about Sarah, have I?" he said, walking over to the window. The gate was still there at the bottom of the garden, the path of trees still stretching out across the fields at the back of the house. Seeing it was like a kick to the stomach. He turned back to Rachel.
"I used to live here," he said. "I grew up in this house."


2.
For as long as I can remember the gate has stood locked at the end of the garden, tall and dark and twisted with ivy. The fields stretch into the distance behind it, yellow corn scratching the wind. The faerie path carves across them from the gate to the horizon, two rows of bent willows leaning in to bump heads.
When I was young I tried to open the gate, of course. During school times it was just there, a curiosity to wonder about at weekends, but over summer I made it my mission to free the padlock from the thorns and vines and break it open. I never managed it.
I used to play in the farmer's fields with Sarah. We'd hide in the corn or, in the autumn when the harvest had been taken, bundle hay under the oaks that marked the end of our garden. We'd climb, high as we dared, then throw ourselves into the air, bouncing off the hay in fits of giggles.
I hid amongst the willows every time we played, forcing my way between the tangled branches. Each time I went deeper, hoping to find the darkness beyond the gate, until one day I pushed through into clear air. My heart soared until I pulled my head clear and realised I was simply on the other side of the path amongst the crops.
It had been trees all the way through, yet through the gaps in the gate I could see the shadowed walkway I longed to stand on.
I broke my arm when I was eleven, in the summer before I went to high school and started to forget about the path. I scaled the gate slowly, trying to find a grip between the thorns. Eventually I reached the top and lifted myself up so that I was standing tall above the world.
The faerie path stretched out below me, a thick tangle of branches and leaves dotted with flowers. There was no way into it.
I leaned forward, my hands outstretched so that I could crawl across the top of the trees, and the wind caught me. The next thing I knew I was on the ground in my garden with my arm twisted beneath me and pain flooding out of my mouth.
After that I spent the summer indoors trying not to scratch under my cast. Remembering it now I guess that was my last real assault on the path, until the day Sarah vanished. I don't know what happened. Life, maybe. I made other friends at high school, grew too big to throw myself out of trees.
No matter what time of year it was, what the weather was doing, there was always a breeze drifting through the ironwork of the gate. It smelled of honeysuckle and burning, and on some days you could catch the sound of bells ringing in the distance. Sarah and I always used to talk about getting the gate open, running down the path and finding the people with the bells.
One day when I was about fourteen Sarah came running in to my room.
"The key," she said. "I've found it."
I knew what she meant immediately. I could feel the excitement radiating off her, could see the tarnished iron of the key clutched tight in her small fist, the metal matching the gate perfectly.
"Let's go," I said, and we went.
We headed downstairs, and before I knew it we were standing at the gate. I took hold of an exposed bar. The iron was cold and strong. I gave it a tentative shake, but it didn't budge. With care, wary of the thorns, I parted the greenery, peering through into the path beyond. It looked dark and cool, as always.
"Give me the key," I said. The breeze coming through the bars seemed to pick up at my words.
"Do you hear that?" Sarah asked, her voice tiny. I nodded. Bells, louder than ever. I felt something move inside me, some insistent tugging that called to me from down the path. Come, it seemed to say, and the bells had a rhythm to them. Come dance with us.
The padlock was rusted, but the key slipped in with no difficulty, smooth as anything.
“Ready?” I asked, but when I looked at Sarah she was staring past me, her eyes glazed over as she listened to the bells.
The key turned. The lock fell open. The gate swung away from me.
Sarah took off before I could stop her, sprinting up the path beneath the trees with a whoop of delight. The shadows seemed to swallow her up, and even though she hadn’t gone far, even though she was running in a straight line away from me, her form seemed to fade with every passing second, becoming more and more insubstantial.
“Wait!” I shouted, and I ran too. Inside I was screaming with joy at finally getting on to the path, but I couldn’t fully appreciate it. I was gripped with the knowledge that I had to catch up to Sarah, had to protect her from something.
The ground beneath my feet was covered with fallen leaves, and I soon learned that they were masking a rough carpet of rocks. I was only a few yards up the path, maybe fifteen feet at most, when I went sprawling onto the ground. My head bounced off something sharp and I swooned for a second. The key fell from my hand, vanishing beneath the leaves.
At the time I didn’t care about the key. That’s the part I regret most out of everything, I think. At the time I was only aware of the fact that Sarah had vanished up ahead, and that the bells seemed to have stopped ringing. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew that it meant something.
I pulled myself to my feet, head woozy and bloodied, and carried on up the path – though running was beyond me. I don’t know how far I got. Not very, is my guess.
When I woke up I was lying in the field beside the trees of the faerie path. It was night. The sky was clear, the stars winking silently down on me. A freezing layer of frost had settled onto my clothes and face. Somebody was calling my name, somewhere.
That somebody turned out to be my dad, wandering the fields with red eyes and a dying torch, searching for us. When I turned up he clapped a hand on my shoulder and sent me back to the house to get my head tended to, never asking where I had been. I fell asleep that night listening to him shout Sarah’s name in the fields, knowing without knowing how I knew that she would never answer.
The police got involved, obviously, and they unlike my dad asked where we had been. I told them. They didn’t believe me.
The gate was locked, and nobody could find the key – because I had dropped it. And that was that. I’ve never been able to figure it out. Nobody called a locksmith. Nobody took a chainsaw to the trees to get on to the path. Nobody even mentioned following them, seeing where the path came out. It was like they looked at the place where we had played, looked at the leafy road running beneath the trees all the way to the horizon, and failed to make the connection between that twilight place and the disappearance of my sister. Their eyes glazed over whenever I mentioned it, as though my words were simply washing over them without making any impact, like a peddle skimmed across the surface of a lake.
Within a year we had moved away from that house. Nobody ever mentioned Sarah again.


3.
He didn’t say all that, though. He never got a chance.
“We don’t have time for this,” Rachel said, and she left him standing at the window. He watched as she went out into the garden with the estate agent, watched as they peered through the leaves covering the gate into the path beyond, as the nameless blonde woman shook her head. We don’t know where it goes. There isn’t a key.
I wonder if she’ll tell Rachel that a child went missing here? he thought. I wonder if anybody remembers but me.



4.
They were silent on the drive home. He drove this time. Rachel stared out of the passenger window, one hand rubbing her belly.
“What did you want to tell me?” she asked, once they’d returned to the cramped flat they shared. “What was so important that it couldn’t wait?”
He shook his head. “It’s not important,” he said. He wondered if she could tell he was lying.
That night, for the first time in years, he dreamed of bells. He chased Sarah through the house, looking not as it had done earlier in the day but as it had done when he was a child. He could smell the damp in the walls, the must of books, the warm scent of his mother’s ironing downstairs. He realised, dimly, that he had never been able to smell anything in a dream before, and with that realisation came the knowledge that he was dreaming.
He clung on to sleep, desperately trying to hold himself inside the dream. He chased Sarah through the house, and always she led him out of the back door and down the garden towards the gate that was swinging open in the breeze.
He forced his will on the dream, kept pulling it back so that when she ran out of the kitchen the gate would be shut, but the dream was slippery and whenever his attention slipped she was once again rushing past the cold iron and into the glimmering distance.
He chased, and reversed, and chased, and he never caught her. Her face slipped in and out of focus, in and out of memory, and try as he might he couldn’t keep the gate closed.
He woke with his hands outstretched, reaching for a key that they would never touch again, that they should never have touched in the first place, and as the light of day filtered through his eyelids Sarah’s face slipped out of his head and into the shadows one more time.
END.
Grab a PDF of Homecoming here.

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