I could say this began back in the old days when I committed my first murder. I could say it began more than fifty years ago when I started spending my time in the park close to Azalea Drive. I could even say it began when I died. But I think saying any of that would be a lie.
This began when I met Hayley.
The woman entered the park at half past five that evening, exactly as I’d known she would. For the last three days, she’d approached from the entrance on Bedford Avenue at around the same time and jogged through the green in four complete circuits. Dennis and I watched her from a wide cluster of oak trees in the centre, sitting up there on the high branches to study her speed, her grace. She was no older than thirty, tall, thin and had the look of a woman who didn’t take much pleasure in exercise. She wore those dangling wires in her ears, the ones that connect to a device playing music. After watching her complete her jog that first night, I’d wondered about speaking through the wires in her ears, whispering right into her head.
That wasn’t my style, though. I’m not a fan of modern technology. Instead, the situation called for something a little more old-fashioned.
On the third night, a Wednesday, Dennis and I watched and waited until she drew closer before asking Dennis to keep an eye out. While he wasn’t particularly happy with my plan (a cautious fellow, Dennis), he agreed to keep watch.
The woman passed our trees on her second circuit and I swooped down, letting her see me from the corner of her eye.
She turned but all she made out was her long shadow, trailing off into the bushes and gravel that formed a curving trail around the pathways. There was no reason she should think anyone was in those bushes; if someone had been behind her, they couldn’t possibly have made it out of sight so quickly. She jogged on; I followed, keeping to the spiky leaves, slipping through them and ignoring their stupid mutterings that I should leave, that I wasn’t welcome there. What little intelligence living in the greenery and trees had never cared for me, and had spent much of the previous fifty plus years moaning on the wind for me to leave.
The woman and I went around the park for another moment, passing a group of teenage boys who shouted unpleasant comments to the woman, then level with a sleeping man who gripped a bottle of cider while spittle soaked into his matted beard, before we hit an empty section of path. It was perfect.
I shot from the bushes, streaked behind her and crashed into half a dozen weeping willows directly level with her.
She heard nothing, but did see the tremors in the long branches several feet above, despite the lack of wind. She came to a jerking halt, panting hard and staring at the nearest tree. By this time, I’d moved to float right behind her. Her thoughts sped in a blur of images: a bird hitting the tree trunk, a falling branch, conkers (which made no sense since it was late May and the willows were obviously the wrong type of tree), or an animal in the bushes.
For a second, her mind froze. I leaned in closer and caught a thought that wasn’t much more than a flashing image.
She wiped her mouth while perspiration on her forehead and neck cooled rapidly and her thinking kicked back into life. Snakes. Stupid idea. No snakes in the park. Even if there were, they’d be grass snakes. Small. Frightened of human noise. Stupid idea.
Interesting, I mused, although it wasn’t with much surprise. Homing in on someone’s weak spot has always been a strength of mine.
The woman took a final look in all directions and resumed jogging. Dennis had followed and waved at me from the willows, his little face pinched and strained.
Are we alone? I called to him and he nodded, still clearly not happy with my minor haunting. To be honest, I knew it was risky. I hadn’t remained on Earth for so long by causing trouble or giving myself away, but sometimes, old habits do indeed die hard.
I waved back to Dennis and followed the woman. She’d barely covered any distance before I brushed against her shin.
She let out a frightened shout and fell, tripping over her own feet. Hitting the ground hard, she rolled to the earthy flowerbeds and held her knees, panting and struggling not to weep. Blood ran in thin streams from cuts on both her knees, and her mouth trembled more in shock than pain. Her eyes rested on the spot I occupied on the other side of the path; she squinted and in the shadows cast by the trees and bushes, she saw the suggestion of my shape. Despite it being only for a moment, it was long enough. She gave a tiny squeak and one hand blocked her mouth as if wanting to keep any noise inside.
I remained still, letting my energy return. Gliding and floating took a fair bit of effort. Walking was easier but not quite as effective when it came to this sort of thing.
Enjoying yourself? Dennis asked and while the woman couldn’t hear his exact words, she caught something in the breeze, something she instinctively recognised as unpleasant – like a bad smell from miles away, blown in by a gust of wind. Still, her eyes didn’t move from the area I filled. She was sure something was there, sure of it but unable to see it.
As always, I replied and Dennis’s worry travelled through the trees.
Don’t get carried away, he warned.
The woman stood, still watching for me. Wincing she took her hand from her wounded knee; dirt and earth spread over the grazes, turning the white of her skin into a grubby red. She glanced down the pathway to the brighter area not overhung by the old branches. Her feelings were clear: she didn’t want to be here. Not right here on this section of path, but in the park at all. She wanted to be at home with the television on loud and the curtains closed against the approaching night.
“Snakes,” I said to her.
She froze. Her eyes were stuck to the flowerbeds opposite. I flapped at the greenery; it shook slightly, creating a whisper in the stillness.
She couldn’t hear my word as Dennis would have and that didn’t make a bit of difference. She sensed it and there may even have been a bit of her mind, some part she no longer needed to use, that knew what had spoken to her.
The breeze freshened abruptly which was superb timing for me. The fine hairs on her forearms rose; she hugged her arms across her breasts and limped a few steps away. As soon as her eyes were off me, I breathed to her ears.
Her focus flew back to the bushes across the path. She saw them shake, and saw the first snake slither from the earth. It didn’t matter that there was nothing there. She saw it.
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