The Small Town of Slate
By Molly Dunn
I wake up in a graveyard.
Stars pepper the night sky, the sun has long since tucked itself beneath the horizon and give way to the silvery light of the moon. Its shape is scythe-like, distorted by the thin film of grey smoke choking the air.
Bleary-eyed, I push up into a sitting position, running a hand down the aching protrusions of my spine. The uneven grave dirt has bitten into the soft flesh of my back. Smoke, rot and freshly tilled earth fill my nostrils.
My head snaps up, heart clamors into an uncertain rhythm.
He looms over me, clothes rumpled and soot-stained, his once bronzed skin turned grey. “Are you okay?”
Leo looks around, gaze lost somewhere over my shoulder. His black hair is all snarls, tangled around his head like a dark halo. “I think—I think I’m okay,” he says, accent lilting—a remnant of his Spanish heritage. “Mel, do you remember anything?”
My eyes don’t stray from his face as I push weakly to my feet. Only once I’m standing do I realize I’m leaning on a headstone. I rattle my brain, trying to remember how I got here, what the last thing I did was. The only thing I can dredge up is blackness. “No,” I whisper. My voice is hoarse, scratchy from disuse. “I don’t remember a thing.”
“I don’t either.”
The dark bags under his eyes look even darker in the dim light. His shadow stretches behind him, long and gaunt. “And my head, Mel. It hurts.” Leo brings a fingertip to his temple, the touch feather light.
I rush towards him, an arm around his middle before he can fold. Nausea lashes through me, but I cling on anyway. “Hey,” I say softly. I smile a wobbly smile. “Stay with me. We’ll figure this all out. I just need to get you home.”
My best friend smiles back. He’s clearly unwell, sweating despite the starlit winter night. He stares out at the distorted horizon, at the pollution of town lights not far into the distance. “It’s all smoky,” he says.
I’m trying not to gag. All I can taste is metal and smoke. “Where do you think it’s come from?”
“I’m sure it’s nothing serious, Mel. Probably just a bonfire.”
I disagree but don’t say so.
Leo was always a sucker for a happy ending.
The small town of Slate is nestled within the curve of the River Thames. It sits within its meander as though perched within a trap half-closed. Centuries ago, when the first settlers moved to Slate, it was with the hope that the river would prove a deterrent to potential invaders. Nowadays of course, invaders aren’t a concern, but the town remains: immovable and unchanging.
Despite its name, Slate is not usually grey. The haze shrouding the town as we approach it is a result of the aberrant smoke and the fog rolling in off of the hills in the near distance.
These are all things I undeniably know to be true, and yet I have no recollection of the circumstances under which I learnt them. I test my truths in my head, probing them for weaknesses: My name is Melanie Mills. My father is an astrophysicist, he likes stars and secrets. His heart is in science, but his mind is in music. He learned to play the piano before he learned to write. My mother is a baker, she likes dancing and daydreams, silliness and sweet things.
That is why she never liked me.
Something about the thought startles me. I lose my footing and tumble to the cold, ice-hardened ground, dragging Leo with me. He grunts, landing knees first. We lie there together for a moment, heavy breaths pluming white. I’m exhausted. I think Leo’s exhausted too. We woke up in a graveyard. We remember nothing. I know I should be scared, but instead I feel numb.
“We really need to get back,” Leo says. He’s somehow already standing, one hand held out in offering. I stare up into the shadows of his face. Leo. My best friend. My only friend. He hauls me up; he has the brawn of someone who might be able to do damage, but on the inside, he’s soft as mush.
I whisper. “Thank you,” I grab his hand, as though it’s the only thing keeping me tethered.
When we take off this time, Leo’s the one holding me up.
The town is deathly quiet as we navigate its streets though the fog has blessedly lessened. It’s like a negative photograph here: image inverted, colours all wrong. I’m surprised to find that Slate—immutable, monotonous Slate—has changed. Granted, the changes are small: the bakery has a different name, a new house has risen on the corner of Drab Street. The Coleman’s house has changed from green to deep red. But it’s not as I expect it to be.
As we turn onto Glum Lane, we pass the Workman residence. Save for one lamp in the attic window, the house is dark. A girl stands in the yellowy light, framed by patterned drapes. She’s staring out at the street, black hair dripping over one shoulder. I recognize her—I went to school with her—but her face is older than I remember. I turn to Leo. His face is smooth and soft, faint laugh lines curling around the corners of his mouth. I can’t recall his last birthday, but I know he’s seventeen.
She has changed. We have not.
I lift my hand to wave, but she doesn’t wave back.
“Come on,” Leo leads me past the Workman’s house, stopping at the porch of number forty-eight.
I ascend the porch steps, fishing out the key my parents always leave in the plant pot. I ease the door open quietly, eager not to wake anyone, feeling for the steady heat of Leo behind me. He switches on the light as we enter the living room, flopping down onto the sofa and stretching his lanky form out along the cushions, eyes flickering tiredly. His eyelids are a purplish bruise.
I go to follow him, but a photograph atop the fireplace catches my attention.
I move towards it, staring at the picture, the frame gilded with bright gold. In the image, Leo and I are grinning, arms slung over shoulders. I reach for it, my hand passing straight through the frame, as though it’s made of nothing more than air. I stare blankly for a moment. “I can’t touch it,” I say to Leo. I claw desperately at the glass encasing the photograph, fingers finding nothing but empty air. “Why can’t I touch—”
For a fleeting second, I feel the frame beneath my fingers. A barrage of images assault me: a white rabbit and a cracked skull and a totaled car. I throw the picture to the floor. It hits the wood with a clatter, glass cracking.
My panicked stare strays to the sofa. Leo looks half-asleep now—and sicker than ever. His hair looks wet. I think he might be bleeding. “Leo,” I say, then stop at the sound of footsteps pounding down the staircase.
Moments later, the door swings inward. My mother and father stand there, silhouetted by the moonlight streaming in from outside. Dad’s clutching a baseball bat clumsily in both hands, wild eyes searching the room.
“Mum,” I say. “Dad.” She is light where he is dark, and grey is seeping steadily into the roots of their hair. They look older, wearier, wrinkled. “Mum?” I try again.
Neither of their gazes stray to me; it’s like they don’t hear me at all.
I turn to Leo, but he’s fallen asleep, knees tucked up to his chin.
Mum approaches me as I approach her, her body moving past me without a single glance spared in my direction. She kneels down to inspect the shattered frame. “Oh, Jay,” she whispers to Dad, picking through the glass. A shard nicks her finger. She doesn’t seem to notice. “It’s Melanie.” She says my name like she mourns it, dragging out the vowels.
“What do you mean?”
“I think she’s here again. You know she always comes back this time of year.”
Dad stares out of the window, searching for the stars through the fog. He smiles. It’s a similar smile, but on a different face. Everything about him seems different, every soft edge gone, as though he’s been worn away to something sharp and jagged. “I know,” he whispers. “Our little girl has come home.”
Those words—come home—jolt something within me. My mouth curves around the words, as if I wish to say them. I reach for Mum, but she’s already moving away, like smoke in a breeze. “Dad, please. Please look at me.”
They don’t hear me. No one hears me.
“She’ll never really come home though, will she?” Mum whispers.
This time, the words dislodge the memories free entirely. I fall to my knees before the fireplace, hands coming to my head as I scream.
I’m throwing my necessities into a bag: clothes, money, passport, toothbrush. Leo sits on the edge of the bed, nibbling anxiously at his nails. “Are you sure you want to do this, Mel?”
“I’m sure,” I bite out. The school called earlier to inform Mum of my third absence this week. We fought—badly. She told me to get out of her sight.
I’ll get out of her sight alright.
“Come on,” I zip up the bag hurriedly, catching the keys that Leo throws my way.
“I swiped them from your Mum’s coat, just like you said,” he tells me, shifting on the balls of his feet. Leo hates breaking the rules.
I reach for Leo’s hand and tug him down the stairs. We tiptoe past Dad’s closed office door and through into the garage. I unlock Mum’s car and slide into the driver’s seat, shoving the keys into the ignition.
Laughing a little, Leo and I drive out of Slate.
It’s just shy of six, but the sky is already dark. Fog lingers at the treeline as we drive past the Forest of Bleak. The ground is slick with ice. The trees reach skeletal hands towards the night sky, their jagged canopies making blades of the moonlight.
My phone rings in my pack. I fish it out, one hand still on the wheel. It’s from Mum. Come home, it reads. I’m sorry. I love you. Come home.
“Mel!” Leo yells.
I glance up. A rabbit sits in the middle of the road, staring into the headlights fearfully. My hands tug instinctively on the wheel as I jerk to avoid it. The tyres are worn; they skid on the ice and out of my control. We hit the tree at the edge of the Forest of Bleak hard, airbags exploding. I hear Leo’s head crack against the window.
I scream, reaching for him.
It’s too late.
The fuel tank ruptures and the gasoline sparks.
We burn alive.
When I come to, I’m choking on long-ago smoke. Mum and Dad are perched on the sofa across from Leo, almost as though they know he’s there. Now that I remember everything, I can see Leo more clearly. He’s sleeping softly. Being here is clearly taking its toll. His skin is wan as he cradles his head in one hand.
I can see now that it’s bleeding.
Mum looks up, but she’s staring right through me. “I wonder where she goes when she’s not here,” she says.
“So do I,” I reply, even though I know they can’t hear me.
“I wonder why she comes back,” Dad says.
“I think I’m in Hell,” I tell them. “I think that’s why they make me come back.”
“Happy birthday, Mellie. We miss you,” Mum whispers.
She turns out the light as she leaves, plunging us into darkness.