“I think everything that can be seen … can be seen, if you know how to look. There are layers, parallels. Past, present, future, the roads not taken.”
Five strangers with the ability to see the unseen are drawn together. Darryl, a teenage boy who paints his visions, meets Rian, a teenage girl who can bend people to her will. Together they seek out Jake, a young boy who has dreams of the future and the past, Michael, a man who can see what other people are thinking and Mary, a woman who can see and draw out the potential in people.
They are united by their abilities and by their fear of the burning man, an unknown figure who haunts Jake’s dreams and Darryl’s visions. A figure who appears to be hunting them. As the five explore the extent of their abilities they come across others who can also see including Arnold, who can see the right thing to do and Helen, a woman who can see how the pieces fit together.
After a tragedy pulls the group apart they face a confrontation with the burning man which drags them into a larger fight beyond anything they could imagine.
“Just tell me.”
Those words, in the dark, almost taking him by surprise as he spoke them. His voice sounded strange, underwater, a radio in another room. He’d known the words were there, they’d been echoing round his head for too long a time. It wasn’t necessarily because he wanted to ask but because he needed to, a dull throb it was impossible to ignore. He simply had to ask because he had an absolute surety there was something to tell. Yet whenever he came close to asking something warned him off, a small but powerful voice that said no news was good news, that sleeping dogs were best left lying, a little knowledge could a dangerous thing, la la la, let it go. Yet the longer he didn’t ask the bigger the question became, the louder those words rang, that aching throb getting deeper, demanding release.
Because he’d known. Of course, he’d known. It wasn’t any one big thing or a culmination of little things. The knowledge was not there one moment and then it was, whole and complete. It came when his hand had brushed across her shoulder. She hadn’t flinched, it wasn’t quite that, and she hadn’t shuddered, it wasn’t quite that either, but there had been something, some slight yet distinct pulling away. And he’d known, there and then, all the little unrealised doubts crystallising in that moment. Whatever magic there had been between them – and it had been magic, that finding of someone who just simply fit – was gone. Or if not gone then in a slow sad state of disrepair, sand running out of a fist clenched too tight. He knew then they were gone, as sure as he had known the first time they’d kissed that he was desperately falling for her.
It had been so slow. Not the kiss itself, but the lead-in up to it. They’d talked, one of those free and easy conversations that just rolled on as they put the jigsaw of themselves together. The rest of the party was a distant noise, the other people sat pressed against their hips on the too small sofa barely noticed. It was just him and her and the way she kept looking down and glancing at him through the curtain of her hair, some heat in that gaze. As they talked she pushed her hair behind her ear, uncovering the smooth line of her neck, invitation? Then the talking had stopped, as they moved closer, his lips so close to hers but not quite there, their eyes wide, staring into each other, both knowing but waiting, luxuriating in the weight of it, the promise of it. As their lips finally touched, light, so soft, the hunger and greed coming a little later, he’d known. He’d known right then, in the rabbiting of his heart, that there was something true between them.
He’d known then and he knew just as well now, when she didn’t quite flinch and didn’t quite shudder but did that thing was both and neither, that whatever had been between them was gone. He may not know the details, the ins and outs or the fine print. He didn’t know any of that, but yes, he knew nonetheless. He knew all the important things, the most important thing at least. He knew that, although they were still together, in the only way that really mattered they were irretrievably broken. It was only momentum keeping them from falling apart.
So those words were not a surprise in themselves, strange as they sounded. It was just he hadn’t known he was going to speak them, not right then as she lay next to him in the dark of the room. In the dark of the night a slight crack in the curtains let a ribbon of streetlight cut across the ceiling, sharp in the centre before fading to black. He’d almost asked earlier when one of the silences during dinner had bloated, a rotting corpse, filling the space between them, squeezing out the air. But he hadn’t asked, couldn’t force the words out, the scrape of cutlery across plates preferable, wondering as he lifted the fork to his mouth if it was honestly possible to swallow. The thing that held his tongue was that when those three little words were out, when they were said, the flood of words they were holding back would be released, dyke breached, defences overrun. The desperate truth of it was that as thick and suffocating as that silence was, while it held, they held. Sad and broken as they were, they held. And that still meant something.
Still, here they were, three words hanging in the darkness, a blade opening the crack between them, chasm wide. For a moment he thought she was asleep and he felt a flood of coward’s relief washing the words away, never asked, no need to discuss, let’s move it along, nothing to see. But she wasn’t asleep, of course not. Just taking a moment before her words came, not just three words but also not a flood. The confession, if that’s what it was, didn’t come pouring out. Her voice was too flat for that, monotonous in the telling of the long but familiar tale told untold times across countless broken relationships. Not a flood, but relentless, steady erosion, word by word, gently hollowing him out.
It turns out he actually did know it all, or enough to make no difference. Sometimes you could know someone too well. They’d grown apart, familiarity breeding not contempt but indifference, the slow death of neglect. Whereas Bob, Bob really saw her, really truly saw her, her, and when she was with him …
He listened and waited for the anger to rise, waited for the need to say it wasn’t so, to argue, to fight his corner. But the anger just wasn’t there because it was all true. There was a distance between them, his fault as much as hers, that night on the sofa when the only thing that mattered was her so many lifetimes ago. It had been good, the thing between them, the them. It hadn’t turned sour, it hadn’t gone bad. It had just faded is all, gentle neglect, light bleeding out of the sky as the sun fell and moon rose. Slow decay before the death.
When her telling came to an end there was no dramatic ultimatum or plea for forgiveness, no tears and no expectation, just a silence that fell over them again. Not the oppressive silence of before, the screaming silence of all the words not said, but the empty silence of everything that needed to be shared already spoken. He guessed it was his turn but there wasn’t a single thing he wanted to say. There would be time for that, time for the practicalities of the uncoupling of lives, the deciding who gets what, who stays where. There would be time, later, for the feelings of betrayal, the drunken conversations with friends, rehashing a history they would soon know too well through oft repeated autopsies. There would be time for all of that, later.
But for now, at this time, there were no more words to spill, not a single thing waiting unsaid. He got up, thinking he was just going to the toilet but he had his trousers on before he really realised he was getting dressed. He moved through the room in the dark, so familiar, knowing where things were without needing to know, dully aware of how easy is it to take that for granted. She lay, eyes open, not watching him, just looking at that jag of light on the ceiling. For some reason, he imagined her lying there with a cigarette, smoke curling up, although she’d never smoked in her life.
He was tempted to ask what she was thinking but didn’t quite trust his voice, was unsure how anything would sound, just now, intent misconstrued, unmeant implications and unintended inferences. Would it be a bark? An accusation? A plea? He didn’t know and so he continued to dress. When he was done he almost, almost, the force of habit iron, kissed her forehead before leaving the room. But there was no kiss, he caught himself in time, that catching the most painful thing of it all, that realisation that things had really turned. There was no goodbye, there was no hint of a fond farewell.
He closed the bedroom door gently, without any dramatic slamming of doors or spit curses. He closed the door gently, there was that courtesy. But that was all there was.
It was the strangest thing, streets he had lived in for three years now were familiar but felt alien as he walked, disconnected, the old new. It was such a peculiar thing, walking, one foot in front of the other. He felt new-born, or born into a new world at least. A darker, lonelier place. Although he guessed when home no longer felt like home, when that feeling of belonging slipped and fell, then it wasn’t so unexpected for the world to feel as if it had also slipped, right but somehow wrong. He felt as if he didn’t belong, a tune played just ever so slightly off key, walking in new shoes.
He wasn’t going anywhere in particular, his attention at the very beginning of the replay, testing every interjection he hadn’t made made, the thousand ways the conversation could have spun out. He started to lose himself in the could have should have might have beens, to that nagging wonder of if a different word here or a turn of phrase there could have turned things in a completely different direction. Behind that there was a deeper concern, one he hid even from himself. If he had been able to alter the course, if there had been a magic formula of words that could have changed how things had gone, would he have spoken them?
A car pulled into the drive of a house further along the avenue, opposite side, a neighbour Michael didn’t know. The headlights spilt welcome yellow light over the blue garage door. The man who got out of the car had no feeling Michael was there, no hairs were raised on the back of his neck, his spine was untroubled by chills. All he knows is the day is done and it is good to be home, a nice glass of wine to shake work off, a little TV. There might be talk about the holiday he and his wife want to take but never do. It’s never the right time and there are always better things to spend the money on. Still, the holiday is something they talk about on and off. The Maldives they say, or Cuba. She is for yachting around islands even though the closest they have ever been to a boat is the ferry to Ireland and after that one time they’d sworn never again, both of them desperately breathing in the chill night air to keep the nausea at bay. What’s the point when a plane is quicker, sometimes cheaper? But a yacht would be different, she thinks, has images of wine on the foredeck, white bikini, light linen shirt, a man’s shirt, tied at the waist. He yearns for Cuba, his head filled with images of tiny bars and live music pumping. He imagines being swept along by the energy of the locals, cuba libres flowing free, sweaty dancing, spilling out into the night and into a grand old vintage car, top down, cruising. But in the end, when they do get round to deciding, it will be Greece. It’s always Greece.
Michael envied the man his normalcy, where going home is a simple thing. Whereas he wasn’t going anywhere, had no place be. He wondered at how easy it was to slip out of the known, to fall into the wilderness and become lost to the familiar. He wondered at how fragile and thin the line was between comfort and the other. Before those words he had had a home, a life, a place. And it hadn’t felt like an illusion, hadn’t really been an illusion. It had been true enough, real enough, but how gossamer it must have been to have been so utterly vanquished by those three little words, twisted bookend to the three little words that started it all. It had been early, too soon probably, but he couldn’t help himself, his “I love you” whispered in her ear as once again they had been lying in bed, this time breathless. It had been terrifying walking out on that limb, opening up, vulnerable, dreading a lack of response or “Me too” death knell. There had been no cause for concern. Her kiss, deep and eloquent, told him everything he needed to know.
The early autumn night was cool, just the wrong side of pleasant. He was surrounded by the peaceful quiet of a city taking a breath, deep stretch before the day starts again. A few streets away the occasional car broke the dull silence which was otherwise only punctuated by a discarded can which rattled back and forth whenever the chill wind got high enough to play with it.
Although he had nowhere particular to go Michael couldn’t stop walking. Not hurriedly, he wasn’t trying to escape his thoughts or attempting to run away from the recent past. He rather seemed to be walking further into himself, each step the tick of another thought turning over, another memory added to the pile. Like that day they’d bought their first sofa. They’d had to avoid eye contact to stop themselves falling to pieces over the overly helpful, overly earnest sales assistant and the way he kept saying “comfort and style,” about every damn suite, a trickle of sweat from his left temple glinting under the harsh shop floor light. That phrase had entered their private lexicon, broadly applied to holidays, their first car, jogging bottoms. The challenge was in getting the intonation just right. Ah, but does it provide comfort and style?
It was the loss of that shorthand that cut deepest at the moment, knowing there wasn’t anyone else who would get a certain inference, who would finish a sentence in a particular way. There was no-one else who understood that private language couples develop. It was that more than anything else that made him feel lonely in addition to being alone.
“Watch it!” voice young but strong, startling.
He realised he’d almost stumbled over someone’s legs. It was a girl, eighteen, could be twenty, so hard to tell, sitting against the wall, half in shadow. She wasn’t begging, her clothes looked ok, but there she was nonetheless, sitting in the street as the moon claimed the top of the sky. He mumbled an apology and walked on a few steps, head down, don’t get involved, move it along. He couldn’t do it though, something about her shaking him out of the eye of the storm calm that had settled as soon as he’d said those words, those three insignificant, earth-shattering words. He turned back to look at her again and even though she was still half in shadow it was clear there was no chance she was 18, the confidence brittle. Just some kid who had nowhere to be but this sad strip of pavement.
He took a couple of steps back. “Are you ok?” an honest curiosity.
She didn’t speak again, her hair a shield against the world, although he wondered how effective a shield it was as the wind cut.
And then he was crouching, noticing but ignoring her sudden wariness, the way she drew her shoulders close, ready to run. He wanted to reach out and try a little human contact to let her know it was all ok but something strongly told him not to do that, that if he did, any chance he may have had would be gone.
“You know, I’m having a shit night. Things,” jagged bark of what in another life could have been laughter, “are not turning out as planned.”
She just looked at him, eyes glimpsed behind that shield, still half way to away but at the same time watching him intently, measuring.
“Just let me know. Is there anything I can do to help?”
This time she smiled, a smile he’d never seen before. It wasn’t one born of happiness, or sarcasm. It wasn’t an uncomfortable smile trying to hide embarrassment. It wasn’t sad, or rueful, or mischievous. It was more like the uneasy smile of someone about to take up a great weight, or the guilty smile someone has before they give that weight to someone else. “I guess we’ll see,” that said more to herself than to him. And then this to him, “You want to help me?”
Next was a smear of things happening at once. The first was her leaning forward out of the shadow and when she did she was both there and somehow not there, her lips moving but her words seeming to enter the centre of his brain, no sound, just a deep sickening twist in his mind. There was a hazy image that dissolved almost before it was fully formed accompanied by some familiar rich dark smell on the edge of being sweet. He only had time to realise he was fainting, world greying, when it was already too late, her words not echoing but crashing, the reverberation of gods tossing boulders to make thunderstorms.
“If you want to help, find out who killed me.”