Half Way House
By Tipp Hex
Dusk tightening its grip. Normality drained away with the lengthening shadows and vanished. From within the smothering darkness, there came cries...
'Steve, stop it, I don't like it, no, NO! Don't you dare come near me…'
Natalie couldn't help laugh; frightened, yet delighted by Steve's portrayal of a monster from the depths of Hell.
Steve ignored her and began to roar in his best strangulated terror-voice. Natalie turned on her heels, and ran as fast as she could. He took after her, arms waving theatrically, face covered in a blood-streaked Halloween mask. Nearby, young children dressed up in cloaks and masks clung a little tighter to their mothers as they stared at the two teenagers racing across the park. Older kids whooped with crude insults or crass encouragement.
Steve was gaining on her but the mask was making it difficult to see. He slowed, pushing it over his head. Natalie was still running and looking back over her shoulder, her face beaming with delight at the race.
'I'm gona get ya!' Steve shouted, launching himself after her.
Shrieking in laughter, Natalie ran harder but was no match for the turn of speed that Steve could command. Just as Steve caught up, he saw the danger. Saw what Natalie, her face turned back in laughter, could not.
'NO!' Natalie shouted, still laughing, still running, not noticing the change of tone in Steve's voice.
Fuelled by horror, Steve legs pounded at the ground, trying to move him forward, yet feeling as if he were running through quick-sand. Time slowed. Things sharpened into fine details.
Natalie's face turned towards him, unaware. Her smile crinkling the skin around sparkling eyes that were busy building as yet invisible laughter lines, her hair swirling in the air around her head, the light of the low-setting sun painting golden warmth on skin patterned by freckles. That sweet smile fading as she registered his grim, determined expression – and a split second later, the bus bearing down upon her.
Steve shook the blackness from his mind and looked down at Natalie who was underneath his body blinking back up at him. They both turned to look at the bus which had screeched to a stop sixty feet down the road.
'Shit, you ok?'
Natalie nodded back a little uncertain. Then, realising the position and weight of his body pressing down upon her, blushed in embarrassment. Steve climbed to his feet and pulled Natalie up.
'Sorry about that.'
'No, that's ok. Steve, don't you know what you did? You just saved my life!'
'Did I? Hey, maybe I did at that. Major points for me, huh? I guess this means I get a reward, huh?'
'Maybe. But don't push your luck.'
'Yeah, yeah, ok. Look, lets get out of here, it's embarrassing with all these people staring.'
They both looked around at the small crowd who had gathered with the commotion.
'Yeah, we were pretty stupid.'
'Speak for yourself, I'm the hero here. Ouch! Hey! Why'd you hit me?'
'“Hero's” don't say “ouch” when a girl pokes them.'
'Depends on the girl… Ouch! Hey! Ok, ok, lets head over to the hillside cafe, get a drink, it's not too far to walk, come on.'
As they began walking, Natalie slipped her hand into his and smiled.
'How old are these buildings, Steve?'
'Dunno, Victorian I guess. Big aren't they?'
Natalie tried peering without being too obvious into each house they passed, but the large bay-fronted windows kept their secrets behind heavy curtains within their small and neatly trimmed front gardens. The colour of the gardens contrasted with walls black with the grime and soot from countless chimneys.
'Yeah, big. But they should clean them up, they're filthy.'
'Yeah, back then Nat, they used coal fires to heat houses.'
'Oh, you know everything, don't you Steve.'
'Not everything. My Grandma told me when she were alive,' Steve grinned. 'It's all the smoke that's made them black. She used to go on and on about the “old days”. That house over there. Look! There's smoke coming from its chimney. It looks a real dump. Funny, never noticed the place before. Let's go have a look.'
'Well, I don't like it much,' Natalie said, wrinkling her nose at the rusted iron gate, hanging half-open to a weed covered path leading to the front door. 'And MY Granddad used to say he hated the old days. And I can see why now.'
'Naw, this place got real character this has.'
'You just said it was a dump.'
'Changed my mind.'
'Hmm, I think you were right the first time. Where you going?'
'Get a closer look. Come on,' Steve said, giving her no option as he dragged her behind him into the garden. 'It's dark now, no one will notice us.'
They were half way down the path when the front door opened.
Natalie grabbed Steve's arm and hid behind him, whispering urgently into his ear: 'You said no one would notice!'
'Can I help you?'
The woman at the door, dressed as if she were appearing in a Victorian melodrama, waited patiently for a reply.
'Well, say something hero!' Natalie whispered to Steve.
'Erm, we were just, err, admiring your house.' He announced unconvincingly.
'Admiring her house? Really?' Natalie hissed into his ear while pinching him.
'I beg your pardon, what was that?' The woman asked.
Natalie sighed and stepped forward.
'What he, what Steve was trying to say is that he, I mean we, just liked the look of your house. Very, err, Victorian like. Isn't it?
'Well, yes, I suppose you could say that, it having been built during the reign of our good Queen Victoria. Can't say I've ever heard that phrase however. Very odd. Would you like a cup of tea?'
'No, that's very kind, but no than…'
'Yes, we'd love a cup of tea, thank you,' Steve cut in.
'Sorry, err, my shoes are hurting me, sorry.'
'They are? Oh, well, why don't you come in… Steve wasn't it? And Natalie. I'm Mrs Glendale. Do please come inside.'
'How'd she know my name?' Natalie whispered.
'Maybe I mentioned it, I dunno, come on, just stop pinching me will you!' Steve hissed back, as they walked inside the house.
'Do please go into the drawing room, make yourself comfortable and I'll be with you shortly, ' Mrs Glendale told them.
'This is something else, this is!' Steve said, bouncing on an over-stuffed settee and looking around.
'Looks like a museum to me, full of junk.'
'Yeah, you know, it's just like my Grandma's house, she loved filling her place with stuff everywhere. You couldn't move for crap.'
'Yeah, my Granddad's place was a bit like this too, I suppose.' Natalie said, examining a set of diminishing porcelain ducks.
'Here you are, two cups of tea, I do so enjoy meeting new arrivals at Half-Way house.'
'New arrivals?' Natalie asked.
'Yes dear, new people. Always interesting, don't you think?'
Natalie and Steve exchanged glances and shrugged.
'Half-Way House?' Is that the name of this place then?' Steve asked.
'Yes, dear, it is.'
'Funny, I've lived in this town all my life and never noticed it before'.
'Oh, it's always been here, dear. Different people see it differently I suppose. And at different times of course.'
Natalie moved to where Steve was sitting, taking his hand in her own.
'Steve, I don't like this. I think want to go. Now. Please.'
Steve didn't answer, he was staring at the door the woman had just left through.
'Yeah Nat, I think you're right. This is getting seriously weird. See that mirror by the door.'
'Tell me what you see when she comes back into the room.'
'Just that… she walked past and I swear I didn't see her. In the mirror I mean. It must be a trick of the light. Mustn't it? Just watch to see her reflection, that's all. When she comes back.'
'Oh, I get it. Your trying to scare me, right?' This being halloween and all.'
Steve looked at her blankly, then smiled. 'Yeah, you got me. Shh, she's back…'
'My dears, there's someone here who'd like to meet you both. I nearly said they're dying to meet you, silly me. Oh! Are you all right? You both look like you've seen a ghost!'
Steve and Natalie couldn't speak, staring first at Mrs Glendale and then at the vision of their long dead Grandparents standing next to her.
'Hello my darling boy,' said Steve's Grandma. 'I'm so proud of you, always have been. And you so very nearly managed to save Natalie's life. So brave! You really are hero, you know. To everyone.'
'Ouch,' said Steve, as Natalie pinched him for the very last time.