The grass was scary, on account of how it might have rats sequestered there amongst the blades and ready to leap out and attack. And the word ‘blades’: as if the grass might suddenly turn sharp as knives and slice any child who was creeping through it. And the purple-sceptre heads of the thistles: taller than her, and she knew for a fact that they were sharp and spiny. Buried hedgehogs. Bees. Spiders.
Tanya bit her lip. She didn’t want to. She looked down at her open sandals, her bare toes, her bare arms. She didn’t want to. She was scared.
But then she was afraid of everything. Or so the other kids delighted in telling her and telling each other. Finding little ways to make her squeal or cry or run away. She thought: so why do I want to be friends with them anyway? But she did, she couldn’t help it. Or at least she wanted to be neutral to them, to blend in amongst them like her mum and dad’s carpet against the wallpaper against the long sofa. Blend in and be just another kid.
And so when they shoved her, when they said, “go on!” and laughed their mean, ignorant heads off, she had turned to them and said, “fine!” and walked through the rusty gate and into the overgrown garden as if she owned the place, and she wasn’t a bit afraid.
Liar, liar, liar, her head told her.
Are those pants on fire?
Shut up, she told herself, since she really did have to do this, having come this far, and with all of them standing on the (safety of) the footpath, necks craning, eyes wide, mouths chattering with speculation and taunts.
The rumour was that he was a murderer. An insane one. That he’d been too sick for jail so he’d ended up in a hospital, and then one day they’d let him out, and he’d ended up in this abandoned house, and there he still was, the blood still dry on his hands, the violence still in his soul, the evil still deep in his veins. Went after little children, so they said, killed them and cut off their heads and buried them, so people said.
“Bet you can’t get right up there and look at him.”
Tanya swallowed a great breath. Turned out she could. But she didn’t want to. She so didn’t want to. She didn’t want the murderer to see her, to follow her, to murder her whole family in their beds while they slept. But she was here, through the maze of overgrowth and windblown rubbish, just a few feet away from the window.
Only need to peek in, only need to get a glance at him. That’s all.
The window was broken, and the sunset was doing a trick that made the jagged edges look like trickles of blood. Tanya crept up to just below the sill, and she wrapped her hands over the ledge, using them to pull her standing. She blinked a couple of times to re-align her vision. And there he was.
The Temwing Valley Murderer was asleep on the floor in that empty, dusty, neglected room. And he looked like… a man. …. A troll….? A child….? She’d told herself to take only a quick, quick glance, but now she was standing there, transfixed, staring at this mysterious figure.
He lay on the floor, half under a blanket, with scars along his bare shoulder. His hair was scrappy, mostly short and iron-grey and in tufts; his face was hairless, and a tattoo of an apple sprang up off his cheek, red with a little green leaf still clinging to a stalk. There were imprints in the dust where he’d moved around, places where he’d laid his body before. And beside him were laid out the little trinkets: a cigarette lighter, a bar of soap, some twigs, a piece of chocolate, a stubby little knife, a candle in a little glass cup. He looked to be asleep at first, but he wasn’t, not quite, his eyes were open just slits, just flickers, and he seemed to look at an opposite wall, squinting at it, changing it with the way his eyes focused.
Enough though. She’d done it. She turned around and bolted for the gate. The grass and rats and thistles didn’t seem so scary. She scrambled to the gate and shoved her way through before the others could open it for her.
She stood in front of them. “He’s sleeping under a tartan rug, and he’s got a tattoo on his face, and no shirt on. He’s got a knife next to him.” They had no way of knowing if that was true or not, and she realised they weren’t going to go verify. You’re all too scared to. You can’t do it.
They walked on home, talking about the rumours, about the evil things he was supposed to have done. There were so many of them, and embellished with such bizarre details; she started to wonder how he’d ever had time to do all this – and hadn’t he been in hospital for the last ten years? So how could Ben Lockard claim to have seen him at the rubbish dump eating a whole dead possum, fur, skin and all?
Tanya did something weird a couple of days later. She went back there.
It hadn’t been her plan. And she wasn’t with the other kids, and she wasn’t being dared or jostled or bullied. There was just something that she felt drawing her back. She crept up to the window and peered in again. He was there. He was sitting now, with the blanket crumpled around his hips, and he’d lit the candle. He sat there staring at the flame as if it were the most amazing thing he had ever seen.
She realised: somebody should be looking after him.
But nobody was.
She didn’t know why she thought it was a good idea. But she saved one of her sandwiches from lunch the next day, and she wrapped it firmly in the baking paper, then she left it on the windowsill, and hurried away. She got a look at him, lying on his back, staring upwards, with such very blank eyes. He was seeing the world in such very different ways. And she started to imagine what his life must be like, what the worlds he saw must be like. She sat in class some days, trying to picture what went on before his eyes, so different, whatever it was, from what was really there. And what must it be like, seeing those things, not understanding how the rest of the world didn’t? Like trying to walk on two paths at once, and when they went in opposite ways….
But why did he kill somebody?
She couldn’t see meanness in him when she watched him through the window. It was hard to know what she could see, almost like he was an animal; a possum, or a rat, or a stray cat having found a lair and made it their own.
A few days later when she left him a cupcake, she saw that he was sitting on the floor and using a stick to draw pictures in the dust.
The next day she brought him her old colouring books, and some crayons. Things that had mattered to her when she was six, but which she was far too old and mature now to care about. Maybe he could use them. And a two-dollar book she found at a second-hand store. A grown-up book, because he was a grown-up man, and she didn’t mean to imply that he wasn’t with the colouring books and crayons. She didn’t know what he’d like to read, she chose the book mostly at random, inspired by the bright cover, and figuring he was lonely, bored, that he might want something to do.
She left them on the windowsill, watched for a few minutes as he lay there not quite sleeping, and then rushed off to find her way home. She didn’t think about the others any more, it didn’t really matter whether or not she impressed them. And come to think of it, nobody seemed to have bothered her, or tested her, or laughed when they saw her walk past, in the last week or so. She had her cloak of invisibility now, just like she’d wanted. She could walk around safely.
And yet she chose to come here. She chose to come here and watch a murderer live sadly, and feel sorry for him.
She went back the next day, hoping to peer inside and see him drawing beautiful murals with the crayons, or maybe sitting cross-legged on the floorboards, engrossed in that book she’d bought. But instead, she was crept up to the window, stood up, and saw him right there. He was standing right there in front of her, just inches away from her face. Just standing, with his arms at his side. And when she stood up, she was looking right into his eyes, she was seeing how dark they were, and how hollow, that there was a strangeness about his face, something that was old, and yet at the same time half-formed, as if he were newly created out of clay.
Tanya screamed. She didn’t mean to scream. The sound just pushed its way past her lips. Her heart was jabbing her rib cage as she ran for the gate, not closing it behind her, as she ran all the way home, his face, right next to hers, the only thing she could picture in her mind. And what if he’d followed her, what if he’d figured out where she went and he was coming for her? Walking slowly, maybe taking days, but eventually standing on her doorstep in just the same way he’d been standing at the that window? What then? What then? She had to warn her parents, she had to tell them; but she couldn’t. She just couldn’t find the words. She had a sudden feeling that what she’d been doing was actually really bad, that her parents would be angry with her for doing it, ashamed of her, despairing of her for not knowing better than she had.
And so she slept on her fear and guilt for the next four days, not sure what to do with herself, walking a different way to and from school, always looking for him, always tilting and twisting her head trying to see if he was walking behind her or skulking somewhere, maybe getting ready to strike like a snake.
On the fourth day she knew she’d have to go back there. Maybe she could explain herself. Maybe she could apologise to him and that would make everything okay. She pulled her cardigan tight around her chest as she walked towards the house. But she found that she was not the first person there, there was a small crowd gathered, and there was a police car, and an ambulance. She lingered at the edges, listening to the gossip. “He’s dead” “… must have been dead for nearly a week…” “never should have been there…” “… dangerous to let him out…” “…. Cruel…”
Tanya threaded her way up to where she could look through the open doorway. And she saw that he was there, lying in his place, limp and empty. There was something about his face that confirmed what they were saying. He had died. And she could smell…
She was small, and she’d learnt her invisibility. She found a spot where the weeds and untamed plants were thickest, and she crouched there, staring at him. He was dead. But he still chose to talk to her.
He said, “Thank you for visiting me.”
She whispered, “but I wasn’t visiting. I was spying.”
“You left me presents.”
“I don’t know why.”
“I liked them. Nobody’s done that. Not for very long.”
“Why did you kill somebody?”
“I don’t remember. I can’t remember killing someone. They all just told me I did.”
“But you believed them?”
“Yes. It was all true. It was in the papers.”
“Are you scared now?”
“I think so.”
There was nobody listening in on them. Of course: she was in his world right now, in his view and sight of things. And he was whole in that view, his hair was smooth and dark brown, he was clean and calm, almost a little handsome. And all the flowers were in bloom all over the place.
“I have to go home,” she said.
“I know. But I wanted to thank you.”
“I didn’t get time to finish the book.”
She said, ‘Well, it was a long book.”
But the flowers were fading, and the body in the abandoned house was limp and greyish and clearly untouched by any life. They were covering it up in a sheet and preparing a stretcher to take it away. Tanya watched as they went. She wondered where the Temwing Murderer was right now. Really. She wondered what his name had been. She guessed she should have asked when she had the chance.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work.