ON AND OFF by Regina Clarke

I wonder most, now, about the bus driver, letting me off at the last stop in the middle of nowhere the way he did. He could have taken me back with him. I was too proud to ask him to do that, but I think he ought to have said something.

“So how do I get to St. Vincent’s Close from here?” I asked, instead.

“Over there.” He gestured across the road. “Path takes you right into the center of town.”

“Fine,” I said. And I wish you a bloody good night, too, I thought. I could handle a short walk at night in the woods. To hell with him. A quick rage filled me and then faded. I never let it last for long.

In that odd, familiar way it does in England, the night sky reflected what light shone upward from circling villages to cast a muted pale, creamy pink on the wide path. On its borders the forest stood, and perhaps it was a trick of the eye, but it seemed to me that the trees leaned back a little, as if to reassure me that nothing would intrude upon me as I passed by.

My pulse had quickened at first, but I felt the rushing sound of blood in my ears slow down. Some night flower left its fragrance, light and sweet, honeysuckle. I could smell wild raspberries, and the musty, damp earth.

It seemed to me I must be nearing the end. It grew narrower, that pale pink ribbon I walked on. At one point I could see very little and wanted to stretch my arms out in front of me to feel my way. I think now if I had done that real fear would have entered me, and it might have changed everything. I don’t know. Instead, I took out the kitchen knife I always carry. One never knows, after all.

Through the trees off to the left at last I caught glimpses of light, like fireflies. The lights of St. Vincent’s Close. I walked along more quickly. Beyond the next curve, the path rose at a slight angle. On the other side must be the stone walk leading out into Herring Road and beyond that, the post office and Aaron’s Tavern. That seemed right. There was no sound at all.

Then I saw him. The man appeared ahead of me, in the forest, between the dark and the light.

He was facing me and, like me, stopped walking and began to size things up.

There is a single moment, a space between thought and action, where things are and are not, at the same time. I read once that matter pulses on and off, and someone has suggested that when a tiny particle of matter is off it has entered another universe. Yet, the first universe doesn’t cease to exist. Between the two places lies an infinite series of probabilities. That’s something similar to what I mean. That single point where we don’t know what we’ll do, but we exist at the same time inside more than one choice.

He came down the incline quickly, his breathing suddenly audible and heavy in the still night air. If I could have, I would have shut off the pulse, like a winking star, and claimed another universe. But the moment passed. We entered what followed together, at the same time, though with different motivations.

To the constable and district authorities, it was an unsolved murder, without apparent motive. I’d have thought my footprints and the broken heel of my shoe that I left behind might have meant something, but perhaps it was their choice to ignore the evidence. I even left the knife there, barely wiping it against the leaf mold on the side of the path. My incisions were blunt and reckless. I know the man was scared before I finished. But it all happened so fast, the rage filling me that he would dare to try to bring me to harm. I don’t remember all of it, but I remember the curious strength that filled me that night, coming from some ancient, forgotten place that was, until that moment, unknown. Like a switch, on and off, changing everything.

It’s almost dark outside. So quickly it comes now, with winter approaching. The bus driver won’t pass my stop for almost an hour yet. I’ll wait for him.

Regina Clarke’s stories have appeared in Thrice Fiction, Kzine, NewMyths, and T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog. Her novel MARI was a finalist in the ListenUp Audiobooks competition. A dark story “Calliope” was featured on The Strange Recital podcast in Woodstock, NY. You can see her books and story page: www.regina-clarke.com.

Copyright © 2018 Regina Clarke. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited.