Darkness Comes To Woodford Bridge

Darkness Comes To Woodford Bridge

By Rich Wilson

Note: This series is my tribute and homage to all the movies that inspired me as a kid and which I love to this day. Films like Sam Raimi’s ‘The Evil Dead’, Carpenter’s classic chillers ‘Halloween’, ‘The Fog’ and ‘The Thing’, Romero’s ‘Dead’ trilogy, Dario Argento’s brace of Italian giallo masterpieces ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Inferno’, Hammer films, The Twilight Zone and many more. My intention is to release a new chapter on the first Sunday of each month, with each preceeding chapter being left on a cliffhanger ending. Hopefully this will make it more exciting for the
reader and also give me a deadline to work for, as I always perform better under pressure. Anyway, that’s the deal and I’ll do my best to keep my end of the bargain. Like much of my stuff this series is more based in plot than sex. Of course there are sexual situations (I’ve been around long enough to know the CSSA rules) but if you’re looking for a quick fix then this is the wrong story to read. There are plenty of fine authors doing that stuff better than I ever could. But thanks for taking the time to read this, and I hope you enjoy it – RW.

Part One – A Good Day

My life changed forever on a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of June. I’d never expected anything to happen and truthfully never thought that it would. I was just tripping along in my own little existence without too many problems and without a great deal of ambition. I was doing all right, and that was enough as far as I was concerned. But then without warning, two things happened. The first was that I met a girl. A beautiful sweet girl who turned my head and made my eyes water with lust and longing. There’s nothing too unusual about that. It’s the kind of event that happens every day to tens of thousands of people. However, the second thing was a little more unusual.

The world came to an end.

Let me start at the beginning, and maybe you’ll be able to make some sense of the whole thing. It’s a pretty amazing story, and I don’t want to miss anything…

***************

It was yet another scorching hot day, just like it had been for the past few weeks. Constant heat and scorching glare from an unrelenting sun that just wasn’t about to be obscured by clouds. The sky was a deep blue, almost ultramarine, and so clear that it seemed if you reached out you could touch it, send ripples running to the horizon. Plants were dying, trees were wilted, water was fading fast. The earth was crying out for some relief.

I was grateful that I’d had the good sense to complete what work I’d had early in the morning; sitting infront of a drawing board would have been miserable. I’d e-mailed my plans before Eleven and had been out under the shade of the willow tree that bowed it’s branches at the top end of my garden ever since. It didn’t take much for me to be lazy at the best of times but on a day like this it was justified. For the last few hours I’d been re-reading Moby Dick, but as the late-afternoon drew closer my eyes started to get heavy and I dropped Melville’s tale of revenge and absolution down by the side of my lounger and let out a lazy yawn. I flicked a gnat away and glanced at my watch. Ten minutes after four. I leant back and closed my eyes, listened to the far-off sound of someone mowing a lawn.

When I awoke the shadows had lengthened around my backyard and the orange ball of sticky fire had dropped lower on the horizon. It was almost Five. I stretched like a cat and thought about getting something to eat. There was a mild stiffness in my back where I’d lay awkwardly, and I felt it as I swung my legs to the ground and reached for my book. I yawned again and stepped from the shade into the still hot sunlight, and the air felt heavy around me as I walked. There was a cold beer in the refrigerator with my name on it, and I could visualize the condensation dribbling down the edge of the bottle. And that was when I saw her.

I stopped immediately, my hand on the latch of the backdoor, and watched her move slowly around the well-maintained garden next to my own. On the far edge of the lawn were a collection of trees that put my own solitary willow to shame, with a collection of wildflowers growing beneath, and I watched as the girl ran her small hand carefully over the delicate petals and bent her head to breathe the scent of them here and there. A dazzling white summer dress worked it’s way around her slender body, flaring out below the waist to reveal lightly tanned skin on her thighs and calves. I could see her bare feet sinking into the lawn as she walked. Her dark hair was long and fell loose across her shoulders, and she tucked a loose strand behind one ear as she continued to walk aimlessly and with her head lowered.

She must have sensed my staring, and she looked up quickly and directly at me. Although I must have been a good twenty feet away it was easy to see just how beautiful she was. Her eyes were deep and dark, set in flawless skin that was framed by ringlets of that auburn hair. She frowned at me for just a moment and then smiled, raised a hand in my direction. I offered a sheepish grin in return; I’d been busted watching her and I think she knew it. I was about to wave back and disappear indoors, but then she spoke and started walking towards the low fence that separated the two properties. I dropped my hand from the door and wandered over to meet her. Her hips swayed gently as she walked and the smile stayed on her full lips. A thin chain of silver lay on her throat, the sunlight glinting from it.

‘Hi,’ she said, in a voice that was a gorgeous as the rest of her. ‘I’m Natalie.’

‘I’m David,’ I replied. ‘Nice to meet you.’

‘You too. I saw you earlier but you were-‘ she motioned to where my lounger rested in the shade.

Great. First impression had been of my lazy carcass asleep beneath the tree. ‘Yeah,’ I muttered. ‘You know.’

‘Tough day?’

I thought about lying and then thought better of it. ‘Not really, if I’m honest.’

She laughed quietly. ‘I respect that. I intend to spend plenty of time doing the same thing.’

I frowned. ‘What, being honest?’

‘Well, sure, but what I really meant was sleeping the afternoon away.’

‘Just recently it’s been to hot to do anything but,’ I said, making an attempt to justify myself and then quickly steer the conversation away from my idleness. ‘Have you just moved into the old Edgecome place?’

‘I got here really late last night,’ she replied, brushing a strand of hair back behind her ear in a gesture that I was already starting to find appealing, ‘and I’ve spent most of the day in bed.’ She smiled once again. ‘See, sleeping just like you. I just took a shower and decided to have a little explore. I’m just renting the place for a couple of weeks while life is quiet and I don’t have anything on. It’s been pretty tough recently and I need to unwind.’

‘You came to the right place then. There’s not a great deal to do here except wait for the changing of the seasons.’

‘That why you’re here?’

‘I moved here just over three years ago. It was meant to just be nothing more than a stop-off on the road to somewhere else. Then one day I discovered that I never wanted to leave.’ I paused for a moment and thought. ‘A lot of people say that about the Bridge. It gets under your skin.’

‘Well it sounds just perfect for me then. All I want to do is lay around, listen to music, read a thousand books and not hear the sound of the city.’

‘New York?’

‘That obvious?’

‘Your accent gives you away, that’s all. Believe me, you may as well be on another planet here compared to that Metropolis, never mind over a thousand miles away.’

‘That’s the idea.’

Our eyes locked and although I couldn’t swear to it, and let’s face it with my track record I’m no expert, I was sure that something passed between us for a moment. Some kind of recognition from a situation we’d both been in. Even better, maybe some attraction. There certainly was from me. Natalie was already starting to intrigue me, and not just from her obvious beauty, and it had been a while since that had happened. And she was also strangely familiar to me as well; I felt as if I already knew her. One thing was for sure though, I didn’t want this introduction to end, and I swallowed my nervousness before I spoke again.

‘I was just thinking about fixing myself something to eat,’ I said. ‘If you’re hungry you could join me?’

Her smile didn’t fade and she didn’t look away, but I thought I saw a flicker in her eyes, as if that was the kind of question she was trying to get away from on her two-week vacation. And a girl like her probably got that kind of offer all the time, and inevitably from better prospects than myself. ‘It’s kind of you to offer,’ she replied, ‘but I really should get all my stuff unpacked and get some windows open in the house and let the place air through.’

‘Sure. I understand.’

‘Perhaps some other time?’

I nodded and tried to keep the disappointment out of my voice. ‘You bet. I’d like that. See you later.’

I turned away from the fence quickly and walked up the three steps that led to my back door, noticing that my pots of herbs were near death due to the unrelenting heat. The doorhandle was hot to the touch as I started to make my way inside.

‘Hey, Dave?’

I looked around at where Natalie stood in the middle of the lawn, her skin glowing gold in the light, her hair a soft sheen.

‘Too late to change my mind?’

‘Course not.’

She grinned. ‘Okay, give me just a few minutes to get freshened up, and I’ll be with you. Need me to bring anything?’

‘Only yourself.’

She gave me a little wave and walked quickly back towards the bleached brick and wooden porch that made up the rear of Jim and Martha Edgecome’s well-preserved old house. The couple had been kind to me when I’d moved to Woodford; Jim helping me with various repairs to my property and his wife making me a series of delicious pies that had kept me alive in the early days. They’d taken early retirement and moved to a neat little beachfront place last Winter. I’d had a couple of cards from them, they were doing well. Their house had stood empty since then. Until today. I watched Natalie close the screen door behind her and disappear into the shadows, and then made my own way inside.

Despite the fact I had fans running and all the windows open the interior of my house was still stale and oppressive. The only air-conditioning unit I had was a cheap and nasty little box that I’d been keeping in the bedroom to make sleep that little more comfortable. When I opened the fridge door I was hit with a blast of chilled air that made me gasp, and for a moment I fantasized about just clearing out all the food, grabbing a beer and sitting inside it. For now the beer would have to do, and I popped the cap from what I hoped would turn into several and drank half of it down straight.

It wasn’t like we’d never had a heatwave before, but never one that was quite so intense. The thermometer on the wall read thirty-one degrees, and it had been three weeks since the temperature had dropped below twenty-eight during the day. I’d spoken to my Father at the weekend and we’d reminisced about a summer during my childhood, the year of which neither of us could really recall, but had been what locals always called a scorcher. Back then it seemed as if the whole world was roasting alive, and I’d spent that summer in the garden shading behind a fallen tree and building intricate landscapes for my toy trucks in the parched earth, my Mother insisting that I wear a hat and apply yet more oil to my deeply browned arms. That had been as warm as I could remember, yet as I’d said to Dad, surely this year had surpassed all expectations.

I found a couple of decent tuna steaks and seasoned them with salt, black pepper and lemon juice and threw them under the grill, then grabbed greens, tomatoes and peppers and started to fix a salad. I had no idea what Natalie ate but fish and salad were always a pretty safe bet. Anyway, it was to hot to start messing with pans and the like. As I sliced the vegetables I thought about the how she’d walked towards her house. Easy and graceful, her hair tumbling down her back, beautiful. Two weeks of a girl like that living next door to me wasn’t exactly an upsetting prospect. Maybe this summer would have some highlights after all.

I turned the heat down on the tuna and did a quick spin through the living room, straightening here and kicking things out of sight there, before running upstairs to the bathroom. Brushed my teeth and ran my fingers through my hair, making some shape out of the usual mess. After that kicked off my shorts in the bedroom and pulled on a pair of linen trousers that were loose and cool, and found a short-sleeved white shirt that was less creased than everything else. I allowed myself a glance in the mirror as I buttoned the shirt. My constant dedication to idle afternoons had ensured that my skin was bronzed from continual sessions of reading and sleeping in the back yard, and my commitment to healthy eating over the last few months had meant I’d lost the small gut I’d developed in the winter. I was looking okay. Better if Cassie’s name wasn’t still tattooed on my shoulder, but you couldn’t have everything. I left my feet bare as before and made my way back to the kitchen.

I’d knocked together a quick dressing for the salad and was just lifting the steaks out onto a plate when there was a polite knock, and I wiped my hands and went to the door, noticing how my heart was beating just that little bit quicker. Natalie stood on the second step looking up at me. She hadn’t changed but her hair was now tied back, strands of curls still framing her face. She held a bottle of wine in one hand and a pie in the other. I held the door open for her and she stepped inside. She was now wearing sandals and the heels clicked on the tiled floor of my kitchen.

‘You didn’t have to bring anything with you,’ I said, taking the bottle and the pie and finding space for them in the fridge. ‘Thankyou though, this smells delicious. Lemon?’

She nodded. ‘I didn’t make it myself, just bought a load of stuff at the store before I got here last night. What are we having?

‘Nothing fancy. Just a salad, and I’ve grilled some tuna steaks. Got some good fresh bread, too.’

She looked apologetic. ‘I’m really sorry, Dave, I should have told you before, but I’m vegetarian.’

‘No, it’s okay, I should have asked. Let me fix you something else,’ I said, having absolutely no idea what else I would fix.

‘The salad looks just fine,’ she replied, ‘and there’s more than enough. Truth is I’m not all that hungry.’ She tapped her finger against the half-empty bottle of beer that I’d left on the worktop. ‘I’d love a drink, though.’

‘Sure,’ I said, opening the fridge door and once more savoring the cold air. ‘You want a glass of this wine?’

‘A beer is fine.’

‘Cool.’ I took two bottles out and popped the caps. ‘Glass?’ She shook her head no and I handed the cold Miller to her which she took with a smile. She raised the bottle toward me and we touched necks, the glass chiming dully in the quiet air of the kitchen. We drank, and I watched the rim touch her mouth, her throat working as she swallowed, her eyes close for a moment as she savored the beer, and the way she used the back of her hand to delicately wipe the moisture from her lips. I forced my attention back to the food.

‘If you grab those plates,’ I said, ‘I’ll bring the rest.’

Natalie took both of the beers and the cutlery and plates I’d laid out and headed out of the backdoor, and I juggled the food and followed her out into the yard. It was now approaching six and the sun had dropped sufficiently for the burn to ease off the day. A light breeze blew now and again, cool air welcome against the back of my neck. There was the far calling of geese and I looked up to see a formation of birds flying in a perfect V towards the horizon.

I had a small wooden table with two battered but comfortable chairs that I kept in the shade of the house, and it had been here that I’d eaten throughout the last few weeks, the radio on and sometimes a magazine for company. It felt good to have someone to share a meal with, no matter how quickly it had been thrown together. Natalie arranged the crockery and I spread out the food, what there was of it. I made sure to keep the tuna steaks on my side as we sat down and once again took simultaneous mouthfuls of the cold beer.

‘Are you okay if I eat the fish?’ I said, as Natalie piled a generous serving of salad on her plate and reached for a chunk of the bread. She looked up and grinned.

‘Of course, don’t waste it. I’m not offended, I just don’t choose to eat meat, that’s all. Haven’t since I was a little kid.’ She paused and took a mouthful of the salad before continuing. ‘Thankyou for being considerate though. And this dressing is gorgeous, by the way. What’s in it?’

‘Little mustard, lemon juice, oil and vinegar, the usual really.’

‘You cook a lot?’

I nodded. ‘Yeah. I don’t really have a choice. There’s only me here, and I do enjoy it. Besides, you try getting a pizza delivered out this way. No chance.’

She speared a cherry tomato. ‘I think the kitchen in my apartment was the last thing to be designed,’ she said. ‘There’s just about room for a coffee machine and a toaster.’

‘You don’t really need to cook in New York, do you?’

‘No. You’ve got the choice of just about anything twenty-four hours a day. This is really nice though, thanks for inviting me Dave. I didn’t think I’d be having dinner with my new neighbour tonight.’

For the next few minutes we ate more than talked, but any gaps in the conversation didn’t feel unnatural or awkward. The food was simple yet good, and we both cleaned our plates. Natalie insisted that I sat while she took the dishes indoors, and a moment later she returned with the lemon pie and two more bottles of beer. She cut us both generous slices of pie, cold and full of zest, and we ate and washed it down with the beer. Natalie used her napkin to wipe her mouth and then leant contentedly back into her chair with a sigh. She looked up at the sky that was deepening blue with the onset of the evening and then at me.

‘That was good. I think I really needed that.’

‘I thought you said you weren’t that hungry?’

‘I guess I was. I haven’t had a thing all day, and my trip last night really took it out of me.’

‘D’you mind if I put some music on?’

She shook her head and I reached down to where my ancient stereo sat on the slabs and hit play. I had a compilation tape in the deck and a moment later Jeff Buckley came on. I dialed the volume down to a low level and left it as background sounds. Natalie listened to the tune for a few seconds and once more looked at me with her soulful eyes.

‘So, if it’s not too personal a question,’ she asked softly, ‘what’s a young guy like you doing living alone in house in a quiet place like this? I mean, what are you, twenty-six, twenty-seven? I thought you’d be searching out the bright lights.’

I smiled. ‘I’m twenty-eight next month. And I’ve done all that. Like I told you before, this village got under my skin.’

‘Well that I can understand.’ She drank deeply and placed the empty bottle back on the table. ‘But it surprises me you’re on your own. You’re a nice guy.’

‘Thankyou,’ I said, hoping that the one word answer would put an end to her questions. It wasn’t that I didn’t like talking about myself – I had no problem with it. It just always seemed to me that everyone else had something more exciting to say. But the way she was looking at me in the early evening haze suggested she was genuinely interested. I sighed.

‘I was married, briefly. We were too young and it happened far too quickly.’ I had a drink and looked away to the fields that bordered the rear of my garden, and the lines of trees thick with summer foliage. I could still feel Natalie’s eyes on me and I started talking. It was strange how comfortable I felt with her. I told her how I’d met Cassandra when we were barely out of college, and how a quick romance had been based on lust more than love, yet we were too dumb to realize it. Our relationship had been short but the consequences long; a separation and then a messy divorce had cost time and money. It had nearly cost me my sanity as well, not least because living with the knowledge that you’ve been married and divorced before you’ve even reached twenty-five is a hard thing to accept. I’d started drinking but luckily stopped after a few months, before it had gotten serious. I’d also been prescribed anti-depressents, and although I still occasionally took one it was now an exception rather than the rule.

‘So that’s why you’re in Woodford Bridge?’ said Natalie. She now had her legs tucked up on the chair and was hugging her knees to her chest as she listened to me.

‘Our apartment was sold and I had some money, not much but just a little. I needed to get away from everything that had gone before me so I moved out here. My intention was to stay maybe six months, perhaps a year at most, and then make a break for the West Coast. But I fell in love with the house, and the place, and here I am.’ I finished my beer and wished that I had another. ‘Anyway, I’m talking too much.’

‘That’s okay. I’m a pretty good listener.’

‘You are. But what about you? It’s great to have someone round for dinner, especially a girl.’ She smiled at that, warm and genuine, and it felt good to see it. ‘But if I was going on vacation I’d be heading for the ocean and a beach, not a sleepy hollow like this.’

‘I suppose. But it’s like I told you before, I just need to relax and unwind. My life has been pretty crazy over the last twelve months, it’s good to be able to breathe for a while.’

‘Must be difficult to get any privacy, being a famous actress.’

She grinned and looked up quizzically. ‘I didn’t think you’d recognized me?’

I returned the grin. ‘I didn’t, not at first. Your face was familiar but I didn’t truthfully guess who you were until we were eating.’ And that was the truth, I hadn’t worked out that the beautiful girl sitting at my table and eating my salad was Natalie Portman until just a few minutes ago. I think if I had recognized her as soon as we’d met I’d probably felt awkward and embarrassed, well at least more than usual anyway. But in the last hour or so I’d got to know her, and really like her, it didn’t seem a problem. ‘I thought you appreciate it if I didn’t make a big deal out of it.’

‘I do,’ she replied, and put her hand on my forearm. Her touch was soft. ‘You ever wish you could just go someplace where no-one knew you, and for a little while you could be whatever you wanted to be?’

‘I’m sorry I ruined that for you.’

‘You didn’t. You actually made it better.’ She gave my arm a gentle squeeze, and didn’t move her hand away as we continued to talk on while the sun began it’s slow summer decent towards the horizon and the shadows lengthened around us. I talked a little more about myself and my family, and Natalie told me about her friends in New York and gave me some brief details about a relationship that had finished in the spring with an actor I had only vaguely heard of. She didn’t talk about her work or fame and I never asked, not that I wasn’t interested, because I was, but because it was obvious she needed a break from that part of her life. I found myself relaxing back into my chair, and I was laughing and making her laugh, and that was something I thought I’d forgotten I could do. Once her hand left my arm for her beer, but she returned it and this time I felt her fingers wrap themselves around my own. I brushed my thumb in her palm as we casually held hands.

Natalie asked if she could use the bathroom, and after I’d shown her where it was I took the chance to clear the dishes from outside and dump them in the sink, then took the bottle of wine from the fridge and two glasses back to the table. It was still humid and not yet dark, and I was surprised when I saw the time was after Nine. We’d been talking for hours yet it had seemed like minutes. The music had long since finished and I flipped the tape for side B and got David Bowie. Ziggy was playing guitar and telling me about the Spiders From Mars when Natalie reappeared. When she got to the table she didn’t sit down but stretched her arms above her head and yawned, then apologized.

‘You okay?’ I said. ‘Tired?’

She stifled another yawn with the back of her hand. ‘Yeah, pretty much.’

‘Do you want to go home?’

‘Not really, unless you want me to?’

‘No, of course I don’t’

She smiled. ‘Good. I won’t have anything else to drink though, or you’ll be carrying me home,’ she said, pointing at the bottle on the table. ‘Wine knocks me out faster than anything. Save it for another day.’

‘Take it back with you. I hate drinking on my own.’ I shrugged. ‘Well, at least nowadays I do.’

Natalie reached down and grabbed my hand, pulled me out of the chair and to my feet. ‘You won’t have to,’ she replied. I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant by that but it sounded pretty good. Before I had a chance to ask she spoke again. ‘Show me the rest of your place.’

The lawn was cool on my bare feet as we crossed the grass and headed for the far end of the garden. A long hedge ran down the right hand side, the side separating me from the Edgecombe house, and the left had a long line of pines and willows like the one I’d been sleeping under that afternoon. The garden was well-maintained when I’d arrived, which was just as well as groundwork was the last thing I was interested in. A lush green lawn and mature trees meant I was happy and had no reason to change it. We reached the fence at the bottom of the garden and looked out over the fields that lay beyond. I was in a good position where no other properties overlooked me, just acres of pasture land that got no busier than a tractor working them. A main road was perhaps a mile away across the valley, but it was far enough that you had to strain to hear traffic, even in the day.

‘This is really beautiful you know,’ Natalie said. ‘You’re lucky to live here.’ She still had her hand in mine, just as it had been as we’d wandered down to the fence.

‘I know I am,’ I said, and meant it. The sky was now a deep purple with the sun a golden memory behind the far-off hills, and a light wind tickled my skin and played with the foliage of the trees. Away to my right a dog let out a quick volley of barks and then was silent. I could still just make out the music playing back up towards the house.

We stood and watched the world in silence for a couple of minutes, but my attention was diverted from a sight I’d seen many times to one that I’d only recently discovered. I looked at Natalie out of the corner of my eye; at the edge of her jawline, her slender neck, ringlets of hair around a small ear. A tiny mole on her cheek. For the second time that day she caught me looking at her, and turned to face me fully.

‘I’m glad you decided to take a trip here, and nowhere else,’ I said. My heart was beating just that little bit faster in my chest. She didn’t answer, just continued to look up at me, her mouth slightly parted, her fingers gripping my own.

‘I really want to kiss you,’ I continued, ‘but I’m just not sure how you’d feel about it.’

Her hand slid up to my forearm, and even though her face was in shadow I saw her delicately bite her lip. ‘I think I feel okay about it,’ she whispered.

I leant down, feeling my eyes close automatically as I did so, felt the edge of my nose graze against hers, then my mouth touch against her. A small pressure, her mouth slightly open as our lips came together. Her sweet taste and her freshness on me as we kissed slowly and carefully with the excitement and trepidation that a first kiss brings. And then we were apart again, and when I opened my eyes Natalie was looking back at me. She hadn’t moved away and I took that as I sign that what we’d just done could be repeated. God, she was beautiful.

For the next few minutes we continued to kiss and to touch and hold one another. I slid my hands across the small of her back while she rested her fingers on my hips, then lifted her arms and placed them around my neck. I leant back slightly and pulled her close, and her body felt soft and warm against me. When I kissed her ear she shuddered, and her breasts pushed against me. She moved her mouth against my throat and spotted little kisses against my adam’s apple, up over my chin and then back to my lips, and this time I felt her tongue on mine as our kiss became more stronger, more intimate. And then I felt her shudder again, only this time it wasn’t just from my touch. A sharp blast of wind, a rarity in the last few weeks, chose to hit us, and I felt Natalie shiver under my hands. It broke the small spell we’d just created, and also broke our kiss.

‘You alright?’ I said.

‘Yeah, just gone cold that’s all.’ She shivered again, and hugged herself against me. ‘I’m not really wearing all that much.’

‘Do you want to go inside?’

She kissed my cheek and nodded, and I took her hand and we walked back down towards the house. The wind blew again, this time strong enough to move the branches on the trees and toss a strand of Natalie’s hair across her face. I took a look back over my shoulder at the horizon, wondering if we were finally about to get the storm that would break the heat, but the dark skies were still free of cloud and littered with stars.

Inside the house was still warm, and we moved into my small and simply decorated living room. My furniture was shapes in the gloom, illuminated only by the streetlight that stood at the end of my driveway and shone a weak and hazy yellow light through the window. I reached for the lamp near the TV but Natalie stopped me, took my arm and pulled me down onto the couch. We sank into the cushions and she hugged herself up against me. Her skin felt cold and I wrapped my arms around her, buried my face in her sweet hair and then moved to kiss her once more. She responded, moving with me as slouched down on the couch and half-pulled her onto me. Her hand rubbed against the cotton on my shirt and tickled bare skin on my stomach, in return I traced my fingers down her back and over the swell of her butt and back up over her ribs as our lips stayed locked together. Natalie rubbed her leg up over my thigh and in the dark I could imagine her legs parted and me pushing between them. I felt myself grow quickly hard and didn’t make an attempt to disguise it. Lying on my chest I could feel her breasts against me, nipples stiff, and from the smooth feel of her back I knew she wasn’t wearing a bra. I moved my hand around to her side, felt the gentle swell of her breasts, then her body shift slightly to allow my thumb to stroke her. I moved it in circles, felt it catch against a hard bump and tasted her hot breath in my mouth as she gasped. I pressed harder, kissed her deeper, my erection a solid lump in my pants and her hand still on my abdomen, not far away. I wanted to touch and kiss every part of her, lose myself in her, make love to her. And then her kissing stopped.

‘Just give me a minute,’ She whispered with no hint of anger in her voice. Her face was a dark shadow above me, and then at that moment there was the purr of a passing vehicle and an arc of light swept across the room, and for a second Natalie was in brightness, and I saw her brown eyes shining and a smile on her face. Her cheeks were flushed, and I wondered if I looked the same. Or though to be honest, I don’t think anything had ever looked as good as she did in that moment.

‘Is everything okay?’ I said, running my hand along her jawline. ‘Something I’ve done?’

‘No, of course not.’ She was back in darkness now, but I knew she was still smiling. ‘Nothing you’ve done at all. I just can’t… I can’t go this fast with you.’ She paused but made no attempt to move off me, still had her hand on my skin, her legs wrapped around mine. ‘It’s not that I don’t want to do this, I do. You believe me don’t you?’

‘Yes, of course I do.’

‘But if we sleep together tonight, I’ll regret it. I rushed into something once before and it went so horribly wrong. I don’t want that to happen with us.’ She giggled quietly. ‘What would you think if I jumped your bones on our first date?’

I had to mull that over in my mind for a second. ‘If I’m honest with you, part of me thinks that would be amazing.’ She laughed again, and brushed the hair from around my face. ‘Although I feel so nervous that another part of me would probably only disappoint you.’

She turned and looked down at my body, and although we were in the gloom my erection must still have been visible. ‘I think you’d have been all right,’ she said, and then I was thankful for the darkness as my face was flushing red. ‘I just wouldn’t want you to think I was all about some sex.’

‘I wouldn’t. I don’t.’

‘Truth is Dave I came here to be alone and relax. I’ve got stress in my life at the moment and I want to get away from it. I need to get away from it. The last thing I planned on was some kind of holiday romance.’

‘Well, look. If you want to stop this right now I’ll-‘

She interrupted me with a kiss that was long and lingering. ‘I don’t. I said I didn’t plan a romance, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want one. I like you a lot. You’re funny and sweet and slightly strange and I can tell you’ve got some deep sadness about something that I’d like to know about, maybe help with if I can. But if we’re going to do it, I want to do it properly. D’you understand?’

I raised my head and kissed her, hoped that she would be able to realize that I was into more than quick sex too, no matter how good it would have been. ‘We can just take it slow,’ I said. ‘It’ll be good just to spend some time together over the next few days. If that’s want you want?’

‘It is, I’d like that very much,’ she replied, and we kissed again. This time I kept my hands in all the neutral places as we spent the next few minutes making out on the couch. Eventually our kissing slowed and we held each other close, started talking quietly. After a while that too slowed, until we were virtually laying there silently in the warm darkness of the summer night. I was just starting to think how sleepy I was feeling when Natalie yawned. I stroked her hair.

‘You tired?’

She lifted her head from my chest and nodded. ‘Exhausted. It’s been a long day.’

‘Me too. Come on, I’ll take you home. Otherwise we’ll both wake up here in the morning.’

We stood up and I turned the lamp on. In the light Natalie looked incredible, even with her hair slightly messed up and her dress a little creased, and the way she watched me as I pulled on my old sneakers made me feel lightheaded. We left my house by the front door and with her arm through mine we walked down my driveway to the street and around to her rental house. As we walked I promised to show her around the little village that was Woodford Bridge the next day, not that it would take that long.

‘That’s a deal,’ she said, as we stood on her front porch under a bell-shaped night light that I could remember Jim Edgecome fixing up two winters ago. ‘As long as you let me cook you breakfast first.’

‘How can I refuse that. What time do you want me?’

‘Say around eight-thirty.’ She kissed me on the tip of my nose. ‘Give me time for a lie in.’

‘Okay. Thanks for a great day, Natalie.’

‘No, I should thankyou. For everything.’

Our hands slipped apart as I started to step of the porch and she moved into the house. We said goodnight and I started to turn away down the whitewashed front steps.

‘David?’

I turned back and she was right by me, her hands on my face and her lips pressed to mine. Her breath was as fresh as the ocean as she kissed me, before spinning around and going back through the open front door, closing it behind her without looking back. I watched her shadowy figure move through the frosted glass, saw it move up the staircase, and then the hallway was in darkness as she killed the light.

I walked slowly back to my house, stopping and looking up and down the mainstreet that my place was built. At the best of times the road was quiet, but at eleven-thirty on a Tuesday night it was deserted. A cat ran from behind the huge oak that dominated the far side of the street and dashed across the blacktop, safe in the knowledge that nothing was coming. I could hear crickets, and the dog that had barked earlier gave it another go, but without much meaning. High in the sky away to the East the moon hung like a silver medallion. When it was quiet the world was a beautiful place to be, although I suspected that my sudden inner peace and harmony had a lot to do with the girl who I had just said goodnight to.

Back indoors I shut the lights off and fetched the things that Natalie and I had left outside on the table, dumped the dishes in the sink and then locked the backdoor and drew the blinds. I threw my keys into a little china dish that I kept ontop of the fridge and went upstairs, yawning loudly as I did so. I debated a shower and couldn’t be bothered, just brushed my teeth, threw my clothes into the washbasket and climbed between the cool sheets.

I lay on my back looking up at the ceiling, but in reality I was looking into the memories of my mind, and all I kept seeing was Natalie, and how she looked the first time I’d seen her that afternoon, walking without a care through the garden and smiling at me when she knew I was staring at her. My life hadn’t been that good for the last couple of years. It wasn’t a disaster zone, but nothing had really happened that I’d remember for a long time. But now, who knew? Although the thought was already in the back of my mind that in two weeks she’d be back in New York, the next few days held real promise with someone who I already knew I had feelings for. It was exciting, and I wanted to lay awake for as long as possible to enjoy it. And with that, I promptly fell into a deep sleep.

***************

I’m what you’d call a morning person, always have been ever since I was a kid. It’s rare that I need and alarm to wake me, usually only if I’m stopping in a foreign country where the time difference has screwed up my internal mechanisms. Even then after a day or two I’m back to normal. My habit of waking up with the dawn used to cause havoc when I lived with Cassandra. With my early morning cheer and her early morning misery arguments often ensued, usually culminating in her throwing objects and abuse at me in equal measure. She stated this as one of the main reasons for packing her stuff one evening and walking out of my life. I stated that the main reason was that she was fucking someone else, a statement that I soon discovered to be one hundred percent accurate.

I like getting on with my day before others are moving. In the summer I’ll occasionally rise around five and get my boots on before trawling for a couple of miles through the meadows that surround the village. I’ll kick patterns through the fresh dew and take in good lungfuls of air, clear my thoughts for the day ahead. I find it particularly useful if I’m struggling for inspiration on a new design project, and often walking by the river back to my house the ideas will come. I’ll eat breakfast at my drawing board or at the PC, dropping toast crumbs around me as I work. Starting early keeps my mind fresh, and that hopefully transfers to fresh ideas on the job I’m doing.

That morning was different. The first thing I became aware of as I rolled into consciousness was a nagging pain in my left thigh which felt like the knot of a cramped muscle. I rubbed the area hard and opened my eyes as I did so, closing them again as the bright sunlight came through the open drapes and hit my starved pupils. What time was it? I stretched my arm out from the protective womb of the sheet and found my watch. Almost eight. I should have been up well before that. I wanted to get myself cleaned up and needed to iron a shirt before breakfast with Natalie, and that was only a half-hour away.

I swung my legs out of bed and into my tattered sweatpants. The pain was still there and I stood, flexed my thigh a few times and felt the knot disappear, but the ache remained as I went to the bathroom and peed. I washed my face in cold water and scrubbed my teeth, then took a slightly disappointing look at my reflection and frowned at my unkempt hair and the dark circles under my slightly bloodshot eyes. It looked like I’d drunk a hell of a lot more than the three bottles of beer that I’d had. My head felt musty, reminding me of hangovers from the past that I hoped would never resurface.

Downstairs the tiles below the front door held no mail, which was annoying as I’d been expecting an invoice from a slow-paying company for the last few days, and after a agitated call yesterday I’d been assured that I would have it for the morning. Post was always early, usually before seven, so it looked as if I’d be calling again later in the day.

The kitchen was hot and stale, and I pulled the blinds and opened the windows wide. Freak heat continuing yet again, the weather was almost getting dull now with it’s constant regularity. I found the juice from the fridge and poured a generous glassful, and leant with my back against the sink and looked up at the framed photograph of myself and my Father, a picture that had been taken the previous summer on a fishing trip. My Dad was grinning and holding a large fish up for the camera; I couldn’t even tell you what breed it was. I was smiling too, not because I love fishing, which is something I couldn’t really care less about, not that I’d tell that to my Father. I was smiling because I was spending time with him, which is something that we rarely got to do these days. For three days we ate barbecue, drank a few beers, slept under canvas and caught up on each other’s lives. Catching the fish was just a bonus. Not that I actually caught any, I just held the net. We were due to go again in a month and I was looking forward to it.

But thinking about time made my thoughts inevitably turn to Natalie. I’d thought my dreams would have been filled with her during the night but if they were I remembered nothing. I couldn’t believe I’d woken up feeling like hell when I was due to meet the first girl I’d gotten close to in a long time. I needed to get on if I was going to make breakfast at half-eight. The stereo I’d bought in from outside the night before sat on the shelf and I grabbed it to take to the bathroom with me, hear the news while I was in the shower. I snapped the on button and was met with nothing but a burst of static.

I stopped in the doorway to the living room and twisted the tuning dial. It was possible that the weather had interfered with the reception. I worked the dial watched as the needle moved slowly up through the FM bandwidth, but all I heard was raw, harsh static occasionally interspersed with a crackle or a squelch. It was possible that the batteries were running low, but when I started the tape and heard a wailing guitar solo I knew that wasn’t the case. Anyway, I’d only just bought new ones. I went back to the radio but still nothing. Nothing intelligible of any kind.

I dropped the radio on the worktop and went into the front, found the remote for the television and turned on. Nothing. After a couple of attempts I threw the remote onto the couch and tried the manual control on the side of the set, and nothing happened to the twenty-five inches of blackness infront of me. The box was dead.

A thought struck me, and I returned to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. Inside remained in gray shadow as I swung the door wide, no light came on to flood the contents. Indeed, the only thing that was flooding was a small pool of water at the base of the fridge, a couple of small onions lying uselessly in the pool. I could already smell some of the foodstuffs starting to perish, and I closed the door quickly to keep heat out and any remaining cold in. I hadn’t noticed it before, but then there was no reason that I would. Opening the fridge door was an action that I performed on autopilot.

As if to confirm what I already knew I moved to the light switch and flipped it up and down several times and watched disappointedly as the bulbs failed to illuminate. So, the power was obviously off, but what about the radio. The thing was battery powered, and I couldn’t work out why I wasn’t getting a reception, especially as there was a decent sweep of local stations around us that broadcast clear as crystal. Even in the worse depths of winter I can get a good signal, and although the weather was unnaturally hot I had never heard of radio waves being upset by heat. I turned the set on again and was greeted with the static, then pushed the volume as high as possible, the kitchen filling with white noise as I listened for even the faintest signal. Again, nothing.

It was only when I had returned the room to silence that I noticed it. I hadn’t picked up on it at first, probably because I’m so used to my early morning peace. But this wasn’t early morning, my watch said 8.10am. Even when I stood by the open window, hot air baking my face, it still wasn’t there. I leant against the frame and strained my ears, but try as I might I couldn’t hear.

Outside, there wasn’t a sound.

I opened the backdoor and stepped out into the yard, slabs warm against the souls of my feet. The sky was the colour of blue neon used in a barsign, there was the usual lack of cloud cover, and the sun blazed it’s path of brilliant destruction high and proud on the horizon. This was the same view that had greeted me and everyone else for the past few weeks. Except on this morning something was different.

There really was no sound, and I mean it was real silence, not just that it was quiet. I couldn’t hear any distant traffic, or a farm vehicle in a far-off field, or the humming of an aircraft in that relentless sky. There wasn’t a wind, so no rustling of branches or leaves, but I couldn’t hear any birds, or even the barking of the dog I’d heard a couple of times last night. And I couldn’t hear people, even though at this time of day folks were heading off for work, or taking the kids to school. Woodford was a gentle place, and as I’ve said it was quiet at the best of times, but silent? No. There wasn’t one single sound in the air.

I walked quickly to the end of my garden, past the pines and the willows to the same spot where I’d stood with Natalie last night, overlooking the fields. I looked towards the main road that was away across the valley, I road which I struggled to hear but could see clearly, especially on clear mornings. It’s a highway that connects two of the larger towns which span my small community. At any time the road remains busy, but in the morning it’s heavy with commuters and truck-drivers. I get a good view of it from my office window and I can look out and always see a vehicle on it of some kind. But although I stood for longer than a minute, my hands gripping the fence and my eyes unblinking, I never saw anything move on the road at all.

Just then a sharp and unwanted stab of panic hit me in the gut and I returned quickly back towards the house in a half-jog, picked up pace as I went through the kitchen and living room and almost burst through my front door. Everything seemed to be in order. My motorcycle was parked at the top of the driveway and the front lawn was a deep green rectangle surrounded with bushes. The front wall, carefully built from reconditioned bricks that I had paid a good sum of money for stood separating my garden from the sidewalk and the street. A street in which no traffic passed and no one moved.

I ran down the drive and into the middle of the street, sweating now and not just from the heat, my sweatpants sticky against my legs. I shielded my eyes from the glare and looked left and right along the main road that ran through Woodford Bridge. I looked at the other houses that stood just like my own; neat, tidy, an almost perfect picture of suburban calm that I occasionally felt out of place in but that you can see in small towns and villages across the entire country. Everything was in place, except that I could neither see nor hear anyone.

It was only as I was knocking sharply on the front door of the Edgecome house that I realized I was half-naked and frankly looked like shit, but I didn’t care. I just needed to see that Natalie was okay, and then I could wake up from this confusing and scary dream and have a good day with her. There was no reply, and I twisted the doorhandle but it was locked. Of course it was, Natalie was in a strange place and a strange house, and a girl from New York City knew better than to leave her doors open. They had double locks on everything back there.

Doing my best to keep calm I walked quickly around the house, sharp gravel digging into my feet, and tried the back door. That too was locked, and there wasn’t any sign of her when I looked through the windows into the kitchen. The room was neat, there were some dry groceries on the table that I guessed she must have bought, and some wildflowers in a vase on the windowsill that probably came from the garden. The house hadn’t been lived in for a long time, and now it had signs of life. That confirmed that at least I hadn’t imagined a beautiful actress moving in next door to me and kissing me on my couch last night. Except where the hell was she now? She’d said breakfast at 8.30, at that time was fast approaching. She’d at least be up, and probably in the kitchen. But it seemed that just like everyone else in the idyllic place where I lived she had disappeared, Everyone was gone, except for me. What the in the name of God was going on?

I returned to the main street, which was still silent. If a dozen or so of my neighbours were to suddenly look up I was going to feel like the world’s biggest fool, but I didn’t care anymore. If I had to move from embarrassment I would, but I had to do it. The panic had now risen to my throat and a headache was pounding in my temples. So I shouted, loudly, and my voice sounded hollow and dead in the silence and the stillness of the air.

I waited for a reply. Nothing. Still I waited, holding my breath and feeling the blood pound in my veins. I opened my mouth to shout again.

‘David!’

My breath shot out of me in a strangled cry as I jumped at the voice to the right of me, a voice that sounded as scared as mine but one I still recognized. ‘Holy Christ,’ I gasped.

Natalie threw herself into my arms and I swear that I have never been so glad to see anyone in my entire life. She gripped me tightly as we hugged and a trail of sweat ran down into my eyes. Her hands were hot against the bare skin on my back. ‘I’m glad to see you,’ I said, shocked at how my voice trembled so badly as I spoke.

‘You are?’ She said against my chest, and then looked up at me. I could see the fear in her eyes and that scared me too. Up until that moment I would have been able to convince myself that this was a dream, but seeing Natalie confirmed that this was really happening. At least I wasn’t alone anymore.

‘Where have you been?’ she said ‘I came to your house to find you, and when you weren’t there I was so worried.’

‘I’ve been there. Just in the backyard and then I was looking for you at your place. When did you come around?’

‘About an hour ago. I banged on your door, even shouted your name a few times.’ She reached up and kissed me softly. ‘I thought I was going out of my mind.’

I frowned. ‘I was in bed, I overslept. Can’t believe you didn’t wake me up.’

‘I thought you’d gone, just like everyone else.’ She moved out of our embrace but still held tightly to my hand. I could feel her fingers trembling slightly, and my heart went out to her as I realized just how scared she must have been.

‘No, I’m right here,’ I said. This morning she now wore jeans and a white vest-shirt, and even though she looked angry and confused she was still gorgeous. ‘It’s going to be okay.’

‘The phone is dead in the house,’ she said, ‘and there’s no signal or connection on my cellphone.’

I hadn’t thought to check the phone but I could guess the situation. ‘The power is down as well. I haven’t got a clue what’s going on, Natalie. Something is very wrong.’

She laughed, nervous and without humour. ‘No shit. It’s not everyday I wake up thinking I’m the last person on Earth.’ She looked along the length of the deserted street. ‘I’m scared, Dave. Really scared.’

‘I know, so am I. This was not the kind of morning I was expecting to have.’

We both wandered out into the middle of the road. An avenue of trees lined the hot blacktop to the right, leading away and into the centre of the village. To the left the houses on either side filtered out as Woodford came to an end, and the road disappeared around a long, sweeping curve. We strained our eyes in the direction of the village, and although I saw the same houses and parked cars as I always did, I saw no sign of life.

‘I’ve taken a walk up there, and there’s nothing,’ Natalie said. ‘I went as far as the store and then turned around and came back, and that’s when I found you.’

‘And you saw no-one, no life at all?’

She shook her head. ‘There’s nothing there,’ she answered, her voice sounding very small. ‘So what do we do now?’

‘I don’t know. I feel like we’re on one of those home video shows. You know, the kind where a trick is played on someone and just as they’re losing their temper someone leaps from behind a tree to surprise them.’

‘Great, let someone leap,’ she said, ‘and as soon as I see them I’m gonna punch them in the mouth.’

I stared at her for a second, and she smiled at me. ‘Sorry, I’m not usually overcome with violent intentions. It’s just that I’m hot and confused and scared and I want to know what’s going on.’

‘It’s all right,’ I said, and kissed her forehead. ‘Believe me, I’m feeling the same way.’

We both stood silently for a few moments and I continued to look around, peering at houses to see if a face would appear at a window, a dog would run across the street, even a bird land on a tree branch. I saw nothing, only a regular street that happened to be completely deserted except for me and Natalie.

‘We just can’t be the only two people here,’ I whispered. ‘It’s impossible.’

‘Is it? There’s no-one down there.’ She pointed to the street. ‘No adults, children, nothing. It’s quarter to Nine. This place should be alive with people now, shouldn’t it? And it’s not just people you live with. Have you seen a paperboy? Or even a single car passing through on it’s way to-‘

‘Okay, I get it,’ I snapped, panic rising once again. This time it took longer to control. I swallowed, feeling a lump in my throat like a pebble in a shoe. ‘I’m sorry, honey. It’s just I’m the kind of person that needs logical answers to logical questions, and right now I can’t come up with anything.’

‘So what now?’

‘Well, if you’ve been down to the store then you’ve walked pretty much the whole length of this place,’ I said. ‘So if no-one will come to us we’ll just have to go to someone.’

I led her by the hand up my drive towards the house. ‘Just let me get something better on and we’ll take a trip along the road until we find something. The nearest town is Shelby, and it’s only five miles away.’

I ran inside the house and upstairs, and found jeans and a shirt plus a pair of oilskin boots. Within a minute I was closing the front door behind me and walking back towards Natalie, where she stood looking small and beautiful against my Bike. ‘You don’t mind riding pillion?’ I said.

She shook her head. ‘No. I’ve been on a motorcycle a couple of times. In the desert out in Israel.’

‘Sounds like good fun.’

She shook her head slightly, as if to clear her thoughts, and looked at me. ‘It is. More fun than I’m having at the moment.’

‘I’m sure there’s some logical explanation,’ I said gently, ‘and after we’ve found it I’m going to bring you back here and cook you the best breakfast you’ve ever had.’

She kissed me, her mouth open and her tongue between my lips. ‘When we get back here I’m taking your shirt back off and I’m getting naked with you for the rest of the day,’ she whispered. ‘You can forget breakfast.’

I eased my leg across the Harley and slid into the warm leather of the seat. The motor rumbled into life on the first turn of the key, the deep throb of valves and cylinders making a noise that was comforting. It was something I was used to, and the way things had been shaping up since I’d been awake I needed all the normality I could get.

‘Get on,’ I motioned with a nod, ‘and let’s go find some answers.’

Natalie straddled the bike behind me and settled into the seat. Her thighs gripped against me and her chest pushed into my back, her hands slid around my waist. She kissed the back of my neck, and the thought of us making love later that day was a thought I needed to hang on to. I took a deep breath and kicked the bike off the stand, balanced the weight and slotted the machine into first gear. I eased out of the drive onto the deserted street and turned left, headed East as we had agreed, out of the village into the open countryside that separated Woodford Bridge from Shelby. We’d find something this way, it was inevitable.

We did find something. And to this day I still can’t really believe it.

To be continued next month…

***************

Love it or hate it, feedback is always appreciated

rich_wilson@btopenworld.com

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