In the park, there is an area of wild land where nature flourishes, unchecked by the steel blades of the municipal lawn mower or the shovels of the gardeners. There the swampy marsh stretches from the two pools of water- too large for ponds, too small for lakes- to the muddy floor of the ancient woods. Grasses are knee-high and run into the reeds on either side of the slatted wooden path. It’s popular with joggers seeking to lose those extra pounds and with dog-walkers hoping their pet won’t chew the furniture, but very few people there keep their eyes open to the little things around them.
Tobey usually made a point of avoiding the area, it being associated with too many painful memories, but circumstances- a missed bus, a family visit to the cemetery later that evening, a wish to avoid the yobs smoking on the street corner- led him there. Violin case swinging in his long-fingered hand, he found himself cutting along the trail, eyes focused straight ahead. She was everywhere and every footstep seemed to echo on the gravel path as he approached the water, a recrimination. Every rustle of the grass was a hissed insult. His eyes darted around like a frightened animal, a deer aware of a potential hunter.
He hadn’t been there in years, and this area of the park was almost unrecognisable. Where once he had played manhunt with Bee and her friends in the bushes, now the sharp fingers of their branches jutted out over the path and jabbed his legs. Where the girls had made daisy-chains, the flowers not yet killed by autumn winds, now spiky plumes of thistles emerged from the dry grass.
The boy who had walked there, too, was changed. It was a stranger who had walked there that evening. He had gone away, that stranger, when he watched them carry the lifeless body, still clad in half the dressing-up box, from the water. No. Don’t think of that.
As he walked, a strange scent caught his nostrils. Smoke? There were chavs in the wood? He stopped for a second, fiddling with the straps of his bulging rucksack. One of them was held on with parcel tape and faithless prayer. He turned his head, contemplating whether to turn back, before deciding that unknown chavs were better than the alternative. Besides, he’d have to face the park at some point, exorcise these ghosts, to speak. He resumed walking, slower than before.
A slight rustling in the trees caught his attention and he turned his head sharply to stare across the water into the woods. He saw a flash of white. Goose-pimples erupted over his arms as his temperature dropped, and he stepped forward hesitantly.
“Anna?” he whispered, aware of the cliché of his situation, a child, alone, seeing something white and thinking it was a ghost, reflecting in what little part of his mind that was still rational that clichés were surprisingly accurate. It was a student from another school in a white polo shirt. It was a carrier bag caught on a branch. Even as he rationalised it in his mind, his heart told him otherwise. The memories were all around him. It didn’t seem as unreasonable as it would have done only ten minutes beforehand that it could be a ghost, when her presence was already everywhere. If only…
The normal, everyday Tobey and the Tobey of that evening wrestled inside him as he tried to reconcile his cynicism with his desperate need for forgiveness. Guilt is a heavy burden to bear for years. Then, seemingly decided, he dropped his violin case on stones where the board path through the marsh joined it, flung off his rucksack, and begin to run.
He could explain…he could say sorry…he could be forgiven…
He sprinted over the path towards the figure, thudding loudly as he went. It echoed his heartbeat. Thud-thud-thud-thud. There’s no such thing as ghosts he thought to himself, preparing himself for disappointment, but the words seemed hollow. “Anna…”
As he reached the path into the woods, he stumbled over his untied shoelace and, looking up, saw the path was empty. His sister wasn’t there. Of course. Ghosts aren’t real. The loss opened up again, like another hole in his already riddled soul, and the guilt tightened in his stomach. Now, it was coupled with a sense of self-loathing for his hope.
“Pull yourself together,” he told himself severely, pushing the glasses up the bridge of his nose. His usual, sceptical, self reasserted itself, and he looked back, ashamed. He hoped sincerely that nobody saw, taking a quick glance to check. But then, out of the corner of his eye…
A slender figure at the water’s edge turned away as if embarrassed at his emotion, awkward as someone walking in on a crying person. Dark-haired, like him, and dressed oddly. Rags. A tattered apron. Bare feet, slightly muddy from walking outside without shoes.
An echo of the words in his mind: the winter game. A roaring noise. Recognition.
He tried to run forwards but somehow his arms and legs didn’t seem to want to co-operate. Instead, he fell forwards onto his face. It was almost slow-motion, his limp arms by his sides instead of out to catch his fall. The wooden slats rose up to meet him, and he closed his eyes, preparing for the thud of the path against his face. It seemed the only thing he could do.
Suddenly, cool hands from behind him were pulling him from the rising ground. They smelt of wood-smoke, and earth. At the same time, he opened his eyes to see that the girl at the water’s edge was running over to him, hitching up her grubby skirts as she ran.
“I’m not Anna,” she said, somewhat superfluously. As he looked at her more closely, he realised his mistake. Her vaguely ethereal face did not belong to his younger sister, and her eyes seemed to burn with a fearless intensity unlike the girl her remembered. “I’m Art- Aramis, and this is my brother, -Cosmodius.” She pointed behind Tobey, at the owner of the cool hands which were still holding onto his shoulders. He twisted his neck to look but only saw a faint blur out of the corner of his eyes. He turned back to the girl. “We live here.” she added helpfully.
“Bull,” said Tobey, and he vomited all over his shoes.