Once there was a boy in a house. He was alone because his father was out at work, and his mother had run around the corner to the store. Although the boy was only four, he was a reliable child who knew the difference between toys and accidents waiting to happen, and his mother trusted him to be alone for five
The boy was sitting playing in the living room when suddenly he had an odd feeling. He looked around the room, thinking maybe that the cat had walked behind him, gently moving the air. But he wasn't there, and nothing else was out of the ordinary, so the boy went back to what he was doing. He was coloring a picture of a jungle in his coloring book, and he wanted to have it finished before his father got home from work.
Then there was a knock at the door.
The boy stared at the door for a moment. That's what the feeling had been about. He had known there would be a knock at the door, just as he sometimes knew that the phone was going to ring. He knew that it couldn't be his mother, because he'd seen her take the keys. He also knew that he shouldn't open the door to strangers when he was in the house alone. But something made him feel that this didn't count, that this time was different. After all, he'd known about it beforehand. So he got up, and walked slowly over to the door. After a pause, he opened it.
At the time his family were living high up in an apartment house. Outside their door was a balconied walkway which went right around the floor and led to lifts around to the right. It was midmorning, and bright spring sun streamed into the room, the sky a shining splash of white and blue.
On the balcony stood a man. He was a big man, wearing tired jeans and nothing on his feet. His torso was naked except for tiny whorls of hair, and he didn't have a head.
The man stood there on the balcony outside the boy's flat, leaning against the wall. His head and neck had been pulled from his body like a tooth from the gum, and his shoulders had healed over smoothly, with a pronounced dip in the middle where the roots had been.
The boy did not feel afraid, but instead a kind of terrible compassion and loss.
He didn't know what the feelings were in words, of course. He just felt bad for
"Hello?" he said, timidly.
In his head the boy heard a voice.
"Help me," it said.
"Help me," said the voice again, "I can't find my way home."
The boy heard a noise from along the balcony and knew it was the elevator doors opening. His mother was coming back. The man spoke once more, spoke to the boy as if he was the only one who could help him, as if somehow it was his responsibility.
"I want to go back home. Help me."
"Where's your home?"
The voice inside his head said something, and the boy tried to repeat it, but he was young, a child, and couldn't get the word right. He heard footsteps comings toward the nearest corner, and knew they were his mother's."I can't help you," he said. "I can't help you," and he gently closed the door, shutting out the light. He walked stiffly back toward his book and all at once his legs gave way and left him on the floor.
When his mother came in moments later, she found the boy asleep on the carpet, with tears on his face. He woke up when she hugged him, and said that nothing was wrong. He didn't tell her about the dream, and soon forgot all about it.
But later he remembered, and realized it had not been a dream.
Excerpted from Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith. . Excerpted by permission of Spectra, 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.