“So why are we here?”
My tone was light, almost playful. I wasn’t afraid of him back then. We were still in our honeymoon period. I didn’t analyze each sentence, each word, each syllable before I uttered it for fear he would fly into a rage. For three months we’d been happy. We’d laughed a lot. We’d developed what I’d believed was a real bond of friendship, of understanding. Later, despite his behavior on this day that I always think of as Day One, I blamed myself not only for rousing the darkness inside him to life but for actually creating it. I convinced myself that he became angry and violent not through any fault of his own, but because of me, of something in my makeup, of some lethal ingredient I was bringing to the rich, warm stew of our relationship. I was a poisonous mushroom. A chunk of spoiled meat. Without me, with someone else, he would have been happy and loving and well-balanced.
All blinkered, self-deprecating crap, of course. Classic victim mentality. It’s obvious to me now that this day ’Day One’ was the day on which the alarm bells began to ring loud and clear, but that I was simply too flattered to pay them any heed. Flattered by his bringing me here once I’d found out why; by his willingness to confide in me, to share his darkest secret. What happened afterward was not entirely his fault, I suppose. Men are not born evil, they are molded by their experiences, bludgeoned or teased into shape by what happens around them and to them.
I looked at him when he didn’t answer me immediately. I was shocked by what I saw. He looked . . . I don’t know . . . haunted. His features pinched, his skin pallid, his shoulders hunched, his hands clamped on to the steering wheel. The engine was still running, and I half expected him to slam the car into gear and hightail it out of there, gravel spurting from beneath our squealing wheels. I touched his arm. The muscles beneath his fleece jacket were rigid.
“What’s wrong, Matt?” I asked. “What is this place?”
His head made a small, darting turn to the left and for the briefest of instants there was a look in his eyes which dried the words in my mouth and smothered the consoling smile rising to my lips. All at once an understanding smile seemed grossly in- appropriate, as improper as a beatific grin if he’d just told me that his mother had died, or that he had terminal cancer. The look he gave me was one of . . . the only way I can think to describe it is cold contempt, though it was less stark than that, as if he were in a partial trance, and yet all the more disturbing because of it. There was something almost primeval about the way he looked at me.
Silly? Maybe. But how do you describe that moment when the lights go out in someone’s eyes and the darkness takes over? They become something you can’t reason with, something whose conscience you can’t appeal to’like a shark or a machine. They look human, but they’re not. Not in the sense that the majority of us understand anyway. They have no moral code. They become less than human’inadequate, incomplete. And what is missing can make them dangerous, even deadly.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m applying hindsight to what was actually nothing more than a fleeting impression. All I was aware of at the time’and this only peripherally’was that as Matt glanced at me, something slipped free of him, some essence that changed him from the man I had grown to love and trust to . . . to what? An emotional void. It was enough to make me suck in a surprised breath and hold it there, to not release it again until he spoke.
“What does it look like?”
I looked away from him then, tore my gaze away from him, and surveyed the place we’d arrived at. The drive from London to Preston had taken over three hours. Matt had been subdued for most of the ride, but when I’d asked him if he was all right, he’d simply said, “I’m just tired,” or “I’m concentrating, that’s all.” Later, a little awkwardly as if he wasn’t sure how to broach the subject, he’d said, “I want you to know everything about me.”
“Is that why we’re making this trip?” I asked.
“Yes. There’s a place I need to show you.”
“Couldn’t you have described it to me?” He scowled, emotions chasing one another across his face. A touch of exasperation, a hint of anguish. He seemed on the verge of launching into some kind of explanation for his secrecy, but in the end he just shook his head.
“Okay,” I said, settling back, feeling an urge to be flippant. “Magical Mystery Tour it is then.”
I hated (hate) tension’I’d had enough of it at home’and so I was always the first to lighten a dark mood with a joke, to offer the peace pipe in an argument. Sitting in the car outside that place, I wanted to punch Matt playfully on the arm, to say something silly to make him laugh. But I couldn’t. Not because I was afraid of him’not then’but because I was afraid for him. Afraid that, for whatever reason, he was only just holding himself together. And because of this I had to be strong and steady, sensible and composed. So, trying to keep my voice light but neutral, I said, “It’s an old railway station.” He didn’t answer, but continued to stare broodingly at the building in front of us. Then he leaned forward and twisted the ignition key and the car’s engine sighed to silence. Matt sighed, too, shoulders slumping a little as if he had also turned off his internal tension. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, that’s all it is.”
We sat in the car, quiet now except for the clinking of metal as the engine cooled down. The place didn’t look like much, was simply an old branch line out in the sticks, evidently derelict for some considerable time. The car park was strewn with weeds and rubble, the stonework of the long, low station faÃ§ade so black it looked charred. The roof had been stripped of slates like the meat from the back of some vast creature, leaving mottled brown ribs exposed. The building huddled at the bottom of a slight valley, down a side road that time had reduced to little more than a dirt track. It was early October, chilly. Wind moved stealthily through the spindly clumps of grass that were staking a claim to the land, and through the shell of the building itself, whispering secrets.
Before I could ask Matt again what we were doing here, he abruptly opened his door and got out. Although he’d said it was important for him to bring me here, he seemed oblivious now to my presence, as he started striding stiffly toward the station entrance. I considered leaving him to it, but then I got out of the car and followed him. It was obvious that something momentous had happened here. Momentous and bad. I played out a little scene in my mind as I went after Matt, envisaged him telling me of a boyhood game that had got out of hand, of one of his friends’perhaps even his best friend’losing his footing on the platform, falling in front of a train. A tragic accident that Matt had always blamed himself for. A game of Dare with terrible consequences. I was practically rehearsing my words of solace when I finally caught up with him. He was standing just inside the station entrance, in the ticket office, staring at the rusty turnstile that led to the platforms.
“Hey, wait for me,” I said softly, wrapping both my arms around his right one, pressing myself against him. I could feel the back of his hand resting lightly against my pubic bone, but he didn’t react’not to my physical presence anyway. He nodded somberly toward a turnstile and in an oddly hollow voice said, “It’s through there.”
What is? I wanted to know, but decided not to push him, to let him tell me in his own time. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go and see.”
We moved through the ticket office, a square space where journeys long past had begun and ended. There was a ticket booth to the right, the glass’surprisingly still intact’now cloudy as cataracts. The area stank of stale urine despite a breeze, strong enough to ruffle hair, that swooped down on us through the gap where the roof had been. The floor was strewn with cans and bottles and broken glass glittering like a fortune in diamonds dropped by a fleeing thief.
“When did this place close down?” I asked.
Matt shrugged. “It’s always been closed. Ever since I was a kid.”
“So it’s stood like this for what? Twenty, thirty years?”
“I suppose so.”
“Did no one ever think to knock it down, to develop the land?”
“I don’t know,” he snapped, turning on me. “I’m not a fucking expert!”
His anger made me jump’but at that time not through fear, merely surprise. I let go of his arm, which had become rigid with tension again.
“All right,” I said, torn between placation and irritation. “I was only asking. Look, Matt, you’ve got to see this from my point of view. You drag me halfway across the country without any real explanation and then behave as though you don’t really want me here. I mean, it’s hardly what I’d call a fun day out.”
“It’s not supposed to be fun,” he muttered, and then that weird emptiness came into his eyes again and his voice choked.
“It’s not supposed to be fun, you stupid . . .” He took three stumbling steps away from me. Then he did an odd and scary thing. He turned back around to face me, slowly raised his hands, and began to jab the tips of his fingers into his forehead, both hands moving in deliberate unison, reminding me of a machine whose function was to punch holes in sheet metal. He did this at least eight times, and might have gone on indefinitely if I hadn’t lunged forward and grabbed one of his hands, shouting at him to stop. He did stop, though his eyes were still expressionless, his mouth set in a compressed line. He had eight angry circles of red skin on his forehead, a vivid contrast against his otherwise pale flesh, like war paint. “Matt, what’s wrong? Talk to me!” I pleaded.
His eyes jerked up in their sockets and he finally seemed to see me. His mouth opened, but at first no sound came out. Then he murmured, “This is so . . . hard for me.”
“Then don’t do it,” I said soothingly. “You don’t have to, Matt. Let’s go away from here.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Lonely Places by J.M. Morris. Copyright © 2002 by J. M. Morris. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.