Winston clutched his anorak tighter to his trunk as he went down the pathway, acting against a sudden chill breeze which sliced through the trees, managing not to lose his cane in the process. He had been walking for nearly ten minutes and was almost at his first touchstone.
The drive up had been pleasant enough, but as soon as he had got out of the car the sun had disappeared behind graying clouds which had begun to spit. Still, there was no point in just going home. He would make the best of it.
Winston at last reached his first point and stopped. He gazed about and smelt the fresh dewy air, hearing the distant sizzle of the stream.
He closed his eyes and remembered: yes, Mabel had been beautiful. Blonde. Blue-eyed. A slight overbite.
He opened his eyes and looked down on the spot where he had had her.
“Yes,” he said to himself. “It had been a good time…”
On the ground next to the stony path there was a clear puddle in which he caught a reflection of himself: his beard long turned white, his head hair having slowly bled from brown to gunmetal over the past decade. His face was as unappealing as always—like a battered old boot his own mother had often said.
Winston scratched his beard and looked back up the path. In the distance there was a dark figure strolling down. It would be a while before they got to him, but he was already annoyed.
This is supposed to be my time, he thought.
He walked on. It would not be long until he reached his second point.
As he continued, he took the glove off his left hand and dragged the tips of his fingers through the veins of sap on an oak tree. He studied the sticky glue, parted his fingers to make strings, and then feebly wiped them on his trousers. He then looked over his shoulder and saw that the dark figure had come up behind him fast, some twenty-odd feet back.
It was a woman in her thirties, in a long black coat that went down to just below her knees, her legs in brown stockings, her feet in flat-soled shoes not meant for hiking. Her hair was long, fluffed, the colour of tree bark.
Winston increased his pace, and soon he reached his second point.
He stopped and stood above the place where he had had Rita. This was by far his favourite. The trees parted and you could see the whole of the valley. The scent of pine drifted down from the hills.
Rita had been lovely, Winston recalled. Yes, she had put up a fight, but he had subdued her in the end. The skin of her neck had felt so soft, her eyes rolling up and back…
There was a crunch of stone and he broke out of his memories. There stood the following woman, still, poised, her hands held together in front of her.
He smiled at her, and she smiled back.
“Lovely day,” he said, “if not for the spatters, wouldn’t you say?”
She merely nodded.
Winston turned away and began to carry on. As he did an evil thought crossed his mind: maybe her? Did anyone know she was here? Was she expected somewhere? Did she have a family?
No, he thought. Even if I knew all the factors I’m too old now. It’s been too long since the last one…
The path climbed higher and he had to pull himself up. When he reached the top of the slope he looked and saw the woman standing at the bottom, staring up at him.
He smiled again and walked on quicker. It would be a while until he reached the third spot, which was Catherine’s.
He would go there and then turn back.
After another minute he stopped yet again and saw that the woman had also stopped some ten feet behind.
“Can I help you at all?” he asked, barely able to smile anymore.
The woman just maintained her own smile, motionless.
Winston went on, the woman following close. He broke into a half-jog and stumbled on a rock, nearly falling.
“Look!” he grunted at the woman. “Do I know you? I’ve had enough of this!”
She said and did nothing. He had begun to despise her smirk. It was now to him nasty, idiotic, mocking…he never had liked to be the figure of fun.
He decided to abandon his journey to Catherine’s spot, and went to go back around the woman. However, as he moved, the world did not. He seemed to walk on the spot, the woman and the trees remaining stationary. He went to the left and to the right, and then back, but he could not return.
“What is this?” he asked, panicking, but the woman was silent.
Winston turned and started to run, letting his cane drop.
He went up another slope and down. The woman did not appear to be running, but she was still there, right behind him, like he was dragging her along with him.
Winston, stricken with arthritis and a bad hip, could not really run, but he made as fast a move as he could as he left the path and went between the trees. Beating his way through the bush, he tried to pass a pond with steep edges, but slipped on the wet grass and abruptly slid into the water.
Winston cried out. The pond was deeper than it looked.
The woman was now at its edge, her hands together at her front, her face with a neutral expression.
In his fight he floated out to the pond’s centre. He splashed and kicked, but could not recover. It was as though the muddy waters were sucking him in. His feet and then his legs felt heavy. His body chilled, getting colder and colder. He felt his heart and lungs slow as his head went under.
The world retreating, Winston glimpsed through the water’s haze the watching woman break herself apart into a scatter of crows, and then all he could see was a darkness blacker than his own heart.
Harris Coverley has short fiction published or forthcoming in Curiosities, Hypnos, Penumbric Speculative Fiction Magazine, and Horla, amongst many others. He is also a poet, with verse published or forthcoming in California Quarterly, Polu Texni, Star*Line, Spectral Realms, Corvus Review, Better Than Starbucks, The Oddville Press, and elsewhere. He lives in Manchester, England. Bienvenue au Danse, Harris.