The Never After

Here is an excerpt from my new book ‘The Never After’ which has been released today, exclusively on Amazon. It follows the story of Felicity James, who sets out on a journey to unlock the mysteries surrounding her own life after she suffers an unimaginable tragedy. She must work together with her friends in order to put the pieces back together, before it is too late and other people are hurt.

THE NEVER AFTER

Prologue

My name is Felicity James, and I am broken – some may even say that I’m a little crazy. It didn’t happen overnight however, it snuck up on me unexpectedly over time; like a cat that prowls slowly through the house, into your room and then suddenly jumps onto your bed in the middle of the night. I used to have a cat who would do that. Her name was Lucy. She would jump on my bed, nestle beneath the covers under my arm; then the second I moved she would scuttle, like a startled crab, out of the room. 

She’s dead now. Just like my parents and most of my friends – or so I thought. Actually, I’m still not sure – but I’d like to think that they’re not.

Growing up I was classified as normal; even a little boring or banal. I could always walk down the street without eliciting any attention. I was an expert at blending into the background. It’s not that I’m ugly, or that my personality is particularly flawed; it’s more that I never wanted to be the center of attention. I didn’t want to be the one that everyone stared at when I walked into the room. 

Now, however, I feel conspicuous. People whisper to each other and I know they are all talking about me – talking about my misfortune; talking about the cataclysmic events that almost took my life and the lives of others.

Anyway, I’m not telling you this story for any sympathy or for you to like me. To be honest I’m not a likeable character and I know it. And I’m okay with that – I hope you are too. I am telling this story because I have a message. I don’t want other people to end up like me; torn apart, chaotic. 

This is my story.

When we sleep, we are in our own little world of introspection; A creation of our own subconscious.

Chapter One

It was a dark day; so dark and cold that I’m certain it caused even the staunchest of global warming supporters to question their beliefs. I had hoped that it wasn’t an ominous sign of the day to come; I was on my way to have brunch with my best friend Jonah and his ‘new’ girlfriend Gretchen. It wasn’t the thought of seeing him that had caused my apprehension – I was actually looking forward to catching up with him – it was the fact that it was the first time I would be meeting her. 

They had been together for five months and having been away on an extended overseas trip, I had managed to avoid meeting Gretchen until that day. It was not as though I didn’t want to meet her – quite the contrary, I was interested to see the woman who had captivated Jonah for so long compared to his previous track record. The problem was however that I’m not necessarily comfortable around new people and being jet lagged wasn’t going to improve my usually flagging affability. 

Jonah and I had known each other for over twenty years and throughout that time he had never managed to keep a girlfriend long term. He could always find a reason not to stay with them. His longest effort prior to Gretchen was about 5 years ago; back when we were both 25 years old. 

He started seeing the most beautiful woman that I had ever laid my eyes upon. She had flowing blonde hair, startling blue eyes, the most captivating figure and she was smart – she was the entire package. They seemed made for each other; she complemented his handsome features perfectly and if I didn’t know them, I would have thought that they were models or even movie stars. I went out for dinner with them once and found that wherever we went, all eyes were on them, and that suited me just fine.

Their relationship lasted for three months and by the time he had ended it, he had such an aversion to her that he said he couldn’t even bear to look at her anymore. When I quizzed him on his reasons, it took a little while for me to coax it out of him, but when I did, he told me he couldn’t stand the way that her nostrils flared – all the time. According to him, they never stopped; and it is not as though she had a big nose. They were just there, in his face, flaring like the nostrils of a fast-galloping horse. 

I never noticed it – even after he told me about it. To be fair though, if I needed a reason to break up with her, for me the deal breaker would have been the fact that she swore like a sailor – constantly – maybe to keep in time with her nostrils, I don’t know. But even then, I would have thought that her other assets were enough to cancel that out. 

Anyway, the point is, five months for Jonah was most certainly getting serious and so I had to perform my best friend duties and give him the approval he was after.

My invitation to brunch had arrived two days earlier in the form of card, in a package that was adorned with a big, red bow. I had flown back into Melbourne and when I arrived home late that night, I had found the package sitting in my letter box. When I opened it, it contained the most fantastic blue watch. The face was big, round and a beautiful shade of light blue, and the numbers were represented by lines of silver. The card attached included an early birthday greeting – the reason for the present – and the invitation to this brunch at Jonah and my favourite café, the Old Bootleg. 

I knew the intention of the invitation straight away – to finally meet this mystery woman – and I had toyed briefly with the idea of rescheduling. However, I had been away for such a long time and Jonah had been such a great friend over the years that I couldn’t bring myself to cancel. I had managed to drag myself out of bed that morning, brush my teeth and my hair – not with the same brush luckily – and trudge wearily to the bus stop; even after my second night home of interrupted, if not, non-existent sleep.

I studied my new, blue watch which was now sitting comfortably upon my wrist as I stood waiting for the bus. It was such a thoughtful gift and it reminded me of how much I had missed Jonah whilst I had been away. Although he was hopeless with women and sometimes a little superficial, he had always been like a big brother to me – loyal almost to a fault. 

I had wished at the time I was leaving that he could have come with me, but his ‘Jack of all Trades’ business was just taking off and he couldn’t afford to leave at such a crucial time in starting up his own venture. I, on the other hand, needed to be free, needed to travel; needed to see the world and so I went to study in the UK for some time and then travelled through Eastern Europe. I had just returned from Romania and it was such a contrast coming back home. Everything seemed a little newer here, cleaner somehow.   

I checked my watch. My bus was late, and I knew I was already going to struggle to make it to the café on time. I was meant to be meeting them at 10:30am and my watch told me that it was already ten. In effect, I had thirty minutes to make a forty-minute journey.

The old lady standing next to me at the bus stop – who seemed to appear out of nowhere – started to huff and puff at the tardiness of the bus. It was as if she thought she had somewhere more important to be than everybody else. Or more correctly, that she thought she was more important than everybody else. 

I remember distinctly that she smelled like a mix of moth balls and tuna. I was sure the tuna was due to the vast number of cats she most probably had living with her. This was also evidenced by the fact that her ragged, black skirt was covered in what looked to be a thousand small, white, animalistic, hairs. 

In the gusty wind her long, straggly, grey hair blew around her face and shoulders, looking wild and as though it had never felt the bristles of a brush. Her weather-beaten face made her look as though she was a thousand years old and she could potentially turn to dust in even the slightest breeze. I passed the time studying the deep crevices lining her face, which reminded me of a dried-up, old apple I had once found in the bottom my old school bag after it had languished there for at least a month. 

The bus finally arrived, and with the opening of the doors the elderly lady surged forward and almost knocked me to the ground just so she could be the first person to board. She staggered past the driver, clicking her tongue at him as she got on. At the time her rudeness, although uncalled for, didn’t exactly surprise me. 

It has been my experience, especially in recent times, that with age, manners do not necessarily follow.  If you think about it, pricks and cows get old too. My most recent encounter of this phenomenon – prior to this – occurred earlier in the year, when I was still in the UK. 

I was lining up at the register in a pharmacy and in front of me was the sweetest looking, old, grandmother type, dressed in her Sunday best. In front of her was a heavily pregnant lady who was speaking to the pharmacist about safe substitutes for Pepto-Bismol during such a late stage in her pregnancy. We could overhear the pharmacist saying that he had a particular herbal concoction, which was very safe for pregnant women to take, and that it was his lucky last bottle. 

The elderly woman in front of me, in her sweetest old lady voice chimed in and said: “Excuse me Miss, but that was what I was here for, I can’t take any of those chemical filled ones. Would you be so kind as to let an old lady have this one? I mean you are obviously so close to having the baby anyway, it couldn’t hurt.”

The pregnant lady said in a friendly tone and with a smile on her face: “Sorry dear, but it’s the quick or the dead around here; maybe you can order some in.” 

The next thing we knew, the elderly lady lunged at the counter, and tried unsuccessfully to grab the bottle. I think it was the element of surprise that she was counting on, as she was so short that her arms weren’t long enough to ever really be in danger of grasping it. 

The pharmacist quickly handed the bottle to the pregnant lady and said: “Pay me next time you’re in, I’ll handle this.”

As the pregnant lady hurried out of the store, with the spoils of her victory tucked safely under her arm, the so-called sweet, little, old, lady ran to the door in hot pursuit and screeched into the street, as loudly as she could: “I hope you slip on the ice and shatter your coccyx, and your baby chokes on the pieces too. I’ll show you the quick or the dead, you fat cow.” 

I was so shocked I dropped my coffee, which just added to the chaos. Looking back on it now, although it was extremely inappropriate, I can still see the comical side of it all – despite the anatomical impossibility of the old lady’s declaration. 

Ever since, this story has served to remind me that you can’t always trust someone based on how they present themselves and also – the point I am making here – that with age, manners and respectability are not always a given. 

Recovering from my trampling, I stepped on the bus, paid the driver my fare and looked around for a seat. The bus was relatively empty, so I sat in my usual group of four seats right next to the back door. I always did this so I could alight quickly and easily when the time came. I was thankful for any time saving measures at this point as I was starting to be beyond fashionably late.

I sat back in the hard chair, as my bus journey began with a jolt, shifting my weight in an effort to get comfortable. I found that these particular bus seats were never quite wide enough to fit my particular body shape and this one was no exception. Some would say I was pear shaped, but I would just say I had a couple of extra apples in the saddle bags.

I looked at my umbrella thoughtfully before placing it on the seat next to me. It was a large umbrella, with wedges of every colour of the rainbow on it. It wasn’t actually my umbrella though – I wasn’t really the type to go out and purchase one myself – it was one I had somehow accumulated. Thinking about it, I had most likely acquired it from my parents, when I moved out of home for the first time, just like the iron, some plates, pots and pans, and a clothes horse. I guess they all represented cheap, little heir looms or mementos of my years living at home.

I had also never been the type to carry an umbrella. That was until I experienced the previous winter in England, which had been especially cold and wet. I had always thought a bit of rain couldn’t hurt and that clothes and hair eventually dried. However, after a number of days arriving back home, feeling and looking I supposed like a drowned rat, I had finally built up a habit of packing an umbrella anytime the weather appeared threatening. 

Looking at the tempestuous sky that particular morning before I had left home, encouraged me to grab the umbrella on the way out the door. 

You know, it may not seem like much, but I have often wondered since that day whether things would have turned out differently had I not picked up the umbrella that morning. If I had just ran past it and left it leaning in the corner in its usual nook, next to the front door. I guess that is something I will never know – and in reality, maybe I’m being unreasonable, I mean how much can an umbrella be responsible for? It’s an inanimate object after all, a non-magical shield from the barrage we regularly receive from the sky. 

The bus continued on, toiling up a gradual hill which was to bring me to the halfway point of my journey. The engine droned reaching a crescendo that could only be relieved by the shifting of the gears. The lights in the cabin of the bus were so bright in contrast to the darkness of the day. It was a white light, like being in the emergency room of a hospital. 

A light at the back of the bus began to flicker. I closed my eyes. I could hear the flickering bulb buzzing – like the zapping sound made by an out-of-control live wire whipping around a power pole. I breathed in deeply, as the warmth of the heater brought me some relief from the iciness of the day. 

I opened my eyes and studied my reflection in the window. I felt unrecognisable – but there I was staring back at myself. My fair hair was tied back neatly into a bun, which was the best I could do with the time I had to get ready earlier that morning. My petite nose and cheeks had a reddish hue due to the cold, which actually gave me what appeared to be a healthy-looking glow. My angular jaw looked strong; and although I was not classically beautiful by any means, I certainly wasn’t plain either. 

My most unique feature however was my eyes. They had a habit of changing colour, varying on a scale between green and grey, depending on the colour of the clothes I was wearing at the time. I had always wondered why this phenomenon occurred. The most logical explanation coming from my high school physics teacher when he likened it to the same reason that the ocean appears blue – it’s all reflective. My mirror image showed me that this day my eyes were closer to the grey end of the scale; most likely due to the purple pullover that I was wearing.

The only hint to my tiredness was revealed by the rings around my eyes. I hadn’t slept well at all since I had returned, and I had the feeling that everything was a little surreal; you know that feeling you get when you have a fever or haven’t slept – as I hadn’t. I was looking tired and feeling exhausted. I looked beyond my reflection and began staring out at the tree lined avenues as we sailed along. 

My eyelids were getting heavier and heavier and although I hadn’t been sleeping well, the bus was most definitely not the place to start. I was determined not to fall asleep and as my eyes sank closed, I felt a sudden surge of resistance. 

As my eyes sprung open, winning me the battle against impending slumber, I almost jumped through the roof in reaction to what lay before me. There, sitting in silence, directly in front of me, was an oddly pale and sullen looking woman. I had no idea where she had come from and I was almost certain that she hadn’t been sitting there before.

She had long, smooth, black, hair which fell delicately down past her petite shoulders and she was dressed all in white – which was disconcerting next to her very pallid complexion. Her eyes were a brilliant shade of green and although she was looking out of the window, I could see them clearly. I wondered for a moment whether her eyes changed colour sometimes too, although I held myself back from asking.

I sat there intently looking at her as she gazed out of the window until suddenly something caught her attention inside the bus. I had yet to take my eyes off her, when without warning our eyes met. It was only for a few fleeting seconds but in that time, I could see that within the depths of her eyes there lay an element of sorrow; I could see she was troubled. I wasn’t absolutely sure, but it appeared as if she wanted or more like needed to tell me something.

I was completely drawn in. I wanted to say something to her, ask her what the matter was, but I was unable to find the words in that moment. Frustrated with myself, I broke away from her stare and turned my gaze to the bus window in order to study her further through her reflection. It was something I did sometimes, so I could continue to look at someone without being thought of as being a bit of a weirdo. 

As I looked at the window in search of her reflection, I realized to my astonishment that there wasn’t one. All I could see in the window was a reflection of the empty seats that were facing me. Maybe my recent insomnia had begun to take its toll and I was hallucinating. I could think of worse hallucinations.

I looked one more time at her – the physical, tangible her – to make sure she was still there and then turned once again to look at her reflection, or lack thereof.  My mind started to fill with the most preposterous explanations; that I was drunk, or she was a ghost, or maybe even a vampire. I was certain the first was not true, as I knew for a fact I hadn’t had a drink that morning. I guessed it could make sense that she was a vampire – being so beautiful, pale and without reflection. But then again how could someone without a soul, have so much pain and sadness in their eyes? And in reality, who believes in vampires and ghosts anyway.

She shifted her position in her seat, which brought my thoughts back to the situation which was unfolding right there in front of my eyes. Again, I looked at her and this time she was sodden. Her smooth, black hair was dishevelled and her white blouse had become stained by what appeared to be a mixture of mud and blood. She raised her arm up slowly and pointed at me. As she did the sleeve of her blouse slid down her forearm towards her elbow, revealing dark, purplish bruising around her wrist. Murky drops of liquid dripped from the strands of black hair that now lay strewn and entangled across her face. Her brilliant eyes had dulled and appeared bloodshot and sunken; dark rings encircled them like blackened trenches. 

I was a mixture of frightened and confused. On the one hand I didn’t know what was happening to her and I wanted to help her and on the other I just wanted her to go away and leave me alone. It was as though I had stumbled onto the set of one of those Japanese horror films – you know the ones, where the black- haired girl slides out of the television or slithers up from beneath your own bed sheets with the sole intention to scare you to death.

She opened her mouth as if to say something, but the only sound to emerge was a gurgling almost choking sound, as an oil-like substance came oozing out of her mouth; thick, gluggy, black oil spewing everywhere. 

Her eyes widened and she covered her mouth, as if trying to stem the tide of the stream of sludge pouring from her mouth. As she did, it started to shoot out of her nose and drip from her eyes. It was as if her head would explode if she were to plug all the outlets of this endless torrent. 

I retched. 

With her hands covered in this black goo, she turned to the window and started to write something using this sickening substance on the window. As she wrote, I retched once again. I couldn’t help myself. At this point the floor was swimming and there was an acrid smell smothering my every breath.  

Her head shot around to look at me and as if on cue, she thrust herself forward; throwing herself at me with her bruised and battered arms outstretched. It was as if she suddenly wanted to strangle me – the whites of her eyes shimmering desperately in the light. My survival instincts kicked in and I threw myself violently backwards. As I was falling to the floor, I saw what she had written. ‘HELP ME’ was scrawled across the window.

************

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