The Trees Swallow People: Part 8
We’re supposedly social animals, cooperative, empathetic. I’m not the most exuberant person, but I like to think I’m agreeable and can hold a conversation. I like my own company, apart from Diva’s, of course. But in Dundalk, before I moved up here, I would have met up with the lads, grab a few pints, get chatting. The lads aren’t in the country any more. I’m kind of glad they’re not.
Needless to say, the village has gone anti-social over the last few months. I almost forgot about the trees. Coming up to night, people rush to get home. There used to be a bustle about the place on a Friday or Saturday. Main street used to be alive with girls linking arms, cackling in their soon to be broke stilettos, as they saunter pass the bouncers, and lads looking hard as they grab a table in the beer garden, pretending to know what should have happened in the football on the massive outdoor screens. I never thought I’d miss the shattered remnants of pints on the pavement. Now, from five to half six, amidst the stream of commuters from Blanch and secondary students coming in from Dublin, you can sense the paranoia. Afterwards, it’s dead. The evening dog walkers are gone. The sunset gardeners watering their plants are gone. The cheeky joggers just off work making their way to the shops for a bottle or three of wine are gone. The kids cycling around the estate in infinite loops are gone. Only “They” roam the streets.
If you were to walk around yourself, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was exaggerating, as you would find people going about like normal. But look closely and you’ll be unnerved by how, as you pass them, you notice them following you in the corners of their eyes. You take a turn around a corner or down an alley, only to find those who were watching you, frozen in place moments ago, have suddenly appeared ahead of you. There was talk of neighbours nodding or waving to each other in acknowledgement during the day, trying to be friendly, only to find the other person just standing there, watching them.
I’m still a little unnerved, looking back on everything, but especially by the people who stalked me. It started as I was making my way from the shops. For once, something strange began without Diva being present. I was starting to worry she was becoming a jinx. The local Supervalu was finally back in stock of some leek and cheese pasties I enjoy, so I made a trip over to stockpile on a few boxes. I also treated myself to a nice, moist blueberry muffin.
I swore under my breath at the incessant self-check out machine, barking orders in their little robotic feminine voices. I wondered, as I left, do they make them sound like women because a man’s voice sounds too threatening, or was it because we’re raised most by our mothers and thus are used to hearing orders at that cadence? I amused myself with the idea that some futurist they hired as a consultant for the machines was reading too much Freud at the time, which is why I didn’t notice “them” at first. It wasn’t unusual for people to be walking the same way from the shops; the estate across the road was large enough. I was only really aware once I casually glanced behind me, taking in no greater detail than just someone a few metres away. Once at the traffic lights, as I waited, I noticed the person behind me had stopped just short of outside my peripheral. I panned my head just enough to dart my eyes further left. I had to double take.
Standing still a few metres away, but looking directly at me, was the figure from before. With my full attention this time, I saw they were a man, in a tacky, bright blue wool jumper, with thinning short hair, staring directly at me. He had this strange expression on his face. It wasn’t a smile, and he didn’t sound like he was laughing, but it was as if I had caught him mid chuckle; his mouth was agape, his cheeks were plump and dimpled, and his eyes were wide and dilated. It was like something from the Uncanny Valley, uncomfortably human yet still alien. More jarring, still, was the fact he was not alone.
Behind him was another, taller man wearing a Celtic jersey with runners and tracksuit bottoms from two different brands; ironically he didn’t look the exercise type. He too was staring at me with the same bizarre look. Amazingly, the dopey grin and slowly drying eyeballs were almost identical to each other, as though they were twins.
I stood there, frozen in their hypnotic gaze. It took a moment for sense to seep back into me, reminding myself to blink. I looked around, thinking I was blocking their view of someone else. No. I suddenly became aware that I was alone. This was a pretty busy road on any other day, but here I was, on a Thursday afternoon, alone with four hungry eyes lying in wait. I quickly checked for traffic before I briskly crossed the road, cutting through an opening in a row of hedges, looking over my shoulder back at the two men who were following me again, with their unnerving grins and protuberant eyes.
I tripped stepping onto and off another road, and again as I stepped onto another grass field, taking the desire line cutting through it. I could neither gain nor lose distance from the men. It’s a blur, but I have a hazy recollection, less a memory and more a sense, that they were purposely matching my pace, in step with each one I took. They could easily have caught up with me, but they didn’t. With the house finally in sight, I sprinted, forcing myself not to look back. The drumming sound of them sprinting too in my ears was torturous. I reached the house, got in, and held the door shut, bracing myself for a force that never came.
After I caught my breath and my heart settled, I stood up from my lunge, checking my hands, reddened and worn by the pressure they pressed against the door. They quivered with adrenaline. I looked through the frosted glass set in both the front and porch doors. I couldn’t make out any misshapen shadows or distorted figures on the other side. I went into the front room, thinking I could see clearly through the window. I was right, I could see clearly. I was thrown down and anchored to the floor by the sheer fright of the two men leering in at me from the window.
Once again, I was immobilised; a prey waiting for the kill it couldn’t avoid. But they just stared. Smiling, silent, staring. After what felt like forever, a shape inhale reawakened my senses, sending me scrambling back out into the hall, doubling back to grab the door handle and pull it shut. I rang the guards, though I had to convince myself something productive would actually get done this time.
By the time they arrived, the men had vanished, and I could tell the officers weren’t thrilled they had to deal with the Tree Guy again. They spoke to me with an odd detachedness, as though they were both scared and annoyed with me. I can’t blame them. Between what happened with McGrath, Murphy, Emma, and Sarah, my phone calls were practically omens to them now. It didn’t matter though. They just took down my statement, advised me to stay in populated areas and stay in after sundown. The dull, monotonous delivery was well rehearsed. Once they left, I practically barricaded myself in, locking everything from the front doors, the living room, the back rooms (thankfully the tree still pressing against the garden door saved some effort for me), and then the kitchen, retreating up to the bedrooms. I lived like that for days afterwards.
I tried to avoid going outside for as long as possible, but I was running a little low on food, and everything had been quiet, besides Diva’s whimpers as I forced her to do her business in the house, or her yelps of restless boredom being cooped up inside. Maybe they were gone, I thought. Maybe I could take Diva out for a stroll, suss things out, then go to the shops. The thought of those leek and cheese pasties did cheer me up a little. It was a struggle to put Diva’s leash on, she was that excited. I was cheered up more when an uncontrollable laugh burst out of me because Diva wasted no time planting a nice fat shit in front of the house. It was cloudy (the sky, not the dog faeces), but I didn’t care much. In was feeling normal again. That was until I looked up.
She said hello. That’s what startled me at first. I hadn’t heard her approach, yet she was no less than a metre away from me, standing there, with her hands against her back, and that horrific, demented grin paired with that hungry leer. She repeated her greeting. I took me a second before I went to say hello back, only to be interrupted with another start; who are you?
I was confused, which she must have sensed because she repeated herself. I rebuffed her, asking who she was instead.
Who are you?
That’s all she said.
Who are you?
I tried coaxing an answer out of her, saying I asked her and she was the one on my property.
Who are you?
I threatened her, acting like I would actually follow through. I thought if I got in her face, invading her space, she’d back off. She took a big step forward, just as I was about to, zooming up into my face so quickly I buckled and took a step back.
Who are you?
I gave up, pulling Diva with me, and simply walked around the woman. I loved over my shoulder, half expecting her to follow me like the two men from before, but she didn’t move. She was still standing outside my house. I froze, debating if I should go back and demand she leave. I decided again it. If she was still there when I got back, I could always just phone the guards again, ensuring she didn’t disappear like the men from before. Until then, I was determined to enjoy our walk.
For one wonderful hour, I forgot the world was ending. Kids were scattered throughout the estates, nowhere within sight of their houses, squealing in delight, darting around like a dispersed swarm amongst the toys and the games littering the greens and the chalk figures smiling on the footpath. The odd car sailed slowly past, drifting along a stream of tarmac and exhaust fumes. The parade of houses I pass, a gallery of properties I could never own, inspiring with their unique flourishes hidden in plain sight; welcoming fixtures and adornments in the flowerbeds, the comforting pattern in the bricked driveway shaping rudimentary shapes that now seem exotic, the still hanging Christmas lights along the roof that hark back memories of the warmth and beauty I can look forward to again and again and again. A brook etching its way from the canal, boring under roads and trees, babbling in crevices, sprinkled with fallen leaves, branches, and rocks; a welcomed treat for the heron resting its feet in the water.
We passed the park, only half interested in remembering if we were allowed back inside, but even the glimpses inside were soothing. The grass was coming up in shaggy stalks. The grounds stood peacefully alone, devoid of intrusion or worry. Lapping past the park, we made our way back home, passing cul-de-sacs and that brook again, soaking up the smells of pollen and stewing dinners for later from open kitchen windows. That didn’t sound too bad to me; a nice marinade of broth in the slow cooker. Rice, peas, carrots, something like a Yangzhou or risotto. We turned the corner leading to the house.
Have you ever seen a mass of people? Not a crowd, a mass. In a crowd, people stand close together but comfortably apart. In a mass, a force squeeze people together, rubbing up against each other, body to body. In a crowd, people are autonomous and individual, all capable of looking in different directions. In a mass, like the one right outside my house, people all look in the same direction; in this case, directly at me.
I don’t know what to call this feeling; La Nausea? Sartrean? Agnosthesia? Randomania? It’s the feeling where you know you are looking at something you’re familiar with, only to have it suddenly become alien and abstract. Who knows what a mass of people, all mad in their demented happiness, waiting for you outside your house looks like? Regardless, I knew one thing; no matter what I felt, I would have to walk past them to get home.
Each step was agonisingly laborious. Joints turning and tendons flexing felt rusty and heavy. With every step, the uncanny blurs, inhuman and indiscernible, became clearer, growing grotesque and mocking in how unwelcoming their toothy grins and starving eyes. Even Diva, usually pulling me by the hip to get home, was now cowering, reluctantly following as I pulled the leash. I caught glimpses of neighbours peering out from windows, shielded behind smoke stained lace. Had they been waiting for me? Had they, like me, been caught off guard by the sudden gathering outside my houses?
Like a passage of people, they watched me approach and enter the clearing they made that led to the front door. I had to fight the urge to stop and survey the monstrous absurdity surrounding me to fully appreciate the living walls threatened to descend upon me. I marched on, my eyes locked on the door ahead of me. Diva’s leash was now so short I was nearly tripping over her as she went to rush for the door. I didn’t dare look, but I knew, just from the tension and heat, all eyes were on me. I finally reached the door. I pulled out my keys, calmly placed them in the door, and entered.
Before I could finally give in and erupt in packing gasps with the door closed, I heard a knock at the door. Staring at the ground, I slowly mustered the strength to raise my head and look through the glass set in the doors. Pressed against the front door, like the tree out the back, was the mass of people, overcasting the porch in shadow. I could see a hand rise up, pull back, and knock once more. I just stared, unaware Diva was wildly gnawing her lead to escape. Tens of blurry hands rose into the air, pulled back, and knocked. This time the house itself rang with thuds, from the door to the walls and windows. Again, the knocked, striking my home, now a prison, for a fourth time, reverberating like a kneeling bell.
I was trapped.