Part one, by Michael Carnell
There is a line runs round the world. Place to place, nation to nation, never crossing, never doubling back on itself. No, this isn’t the Equator you are thinking of, or the Tropic of Cancer, or any of those other man-made lines, this is more of a path. A path that has existed for longer than man remembers and grows and changes as each new city emerges or village fades from the map. It connects them all and leads one to another. Some say the beginning lies in Heaven and the end lies in Hell. Others say if you walk the way long enough that it will finally place you back where you began. Where it all began. The rational among us say there is no such line. That it doesn’t exist and never could have existed.
I started walking when I was about 17. Of course I new the way was there for as long as I could remember, but no one else in my family could see it. In fact no one I knew could see it or had any idea what I was talking about. At first they thought I was just seeing shadows or reflections. Then they thought maybe something was wrong with my eyes. But I knew that wasn’t it. How could it be when the line didn’t move with where I was or where I looked. It was like a road that just was – but that only I could see.
It wasn’t until I started walking that I met others like me. Others who could see it too. The first year I just walked like normal. Made believe I was out for a stroll. A few hours a day until I got tired. Then I would find a some water and some food and rest a while. Walk on and then sleep at night. People would nod at me as I passed if it was a friendly spot, or look at me suspiciously and move away if it was a place wary of strangers. But I kept going.
By the second or third year I was walking most all of the day and not stopping until night. I would get up at dawn, eat a little something, fill up my water and go. Maybe as the sun grew high I would take some bread out of my bag and wash it down with the water, but I didn’t really stop. And people didn’t nod as much. Or move out of the way. I would startle them sometimes as they wouldn’t see me until I was up close, but they never said anything. Never offered a hand or a place to stay for the evening.
And then they stopped seeing me at all. I guess that was about the fourth year of my walk. Or maybe it was year five. It is hard to remember back to when I wasn’t on the way. It’s like a stream that runs away with your days and you can kind of see them off in the distance, maybe, but you can’t make out the detail. I think maybe that is what I looked liked to the people I passed too. A memory. Or a shadow. And I kept walking.
When I say I kept walking, I mean just that. I barely stopped to rest at all. Even the night hours were spent putting foot in front of foot. The line was just as plain to see under the stars or evening clouds as it was during the day. Why should the sunlight make any difference to something that wasn’t beholden to the sun for its existence? Do you think that just because you don’t see the great plates that move the earth that they aren’t there? Do the streams that run deep underground, deep below the rock, look different at when the moon is out than they do during the day? Is night and day even relevant at all to those places that only answer to time?
I know what you are wondering. I know you think I am mad, that I am making this up. These lines on the Earth that only a few can see. The paths that we follow without knowing where they lead. But I tell you they are there. And that I have followed this one for most of my life. I have seen the shades that walk beside me, and I have heard the voices of the travelers. I am only pausing now to write this down so that when I fade completely I will not be gone to all.
Part two, by Kate Shrewsday
It was about two days after Ella moved in to the white clapboard cottage by the beach that she began to notice the passers-by. And immediately, she began to regret her choice of summer retreat.
She had wanted, desperately, a place, which was secluded and strange, so she supposed she had asked for this predicament. Her work on water dousing had attracted both ridicule from the world of academics, and a large cult following from that sector of the population she would much rather completely avoid.
This lovely cottage, filled with beach-washed accessories and sea-light, had a desolation she had likened to security.
Her London flat was all but besieged these days with tie-dyed tattooed pilgrims, eager to catch a glimpse of the woman who might at last validate their listless years of believing in the New Age. Ella’s papers for one of the notable city academic institutions seemed to offer just that. She had taken the paranormal and begun, methodically, to prove what scientists had ridiculed. First, she had carried out an extensive study on faith healing, which had yielded unsettlingly solid results. And then, she turned to water dowsing.
The practice of using a piece of wood to lead one to water was an ancient one. It depended on its practitioners recognizing something, which could not possibly be there: detectable ‘currents’, which could lead one to water.
It was an ancient practice, and here on the coast of East Anglia, it had been going on for centuries. This summer, Ella was to carry out a study, which would lift the lid on the practice. She had new instruments to detect the lines, the invisible fields, which led dowsers so very often to the water they sought.
But it was difficult to concentrate on her preparations.
For outside the window they would pass, always alone, in ones: the walkers.
Ella was used enough to seeing and validating the unusual. The walkers carried with them, immediately, an eldritch oddness, a vacancy. They struck her as addicts of something she did not want to visit with one of her studies. Ever.
At the beginning, she would meet their eyes. And they hers. But the cavernous, slavish darkness she met there dictated that, after a couple of days, she went out of her way to avoid them.
Yet on this sunny July day, she could not resist going to sit on the pretty, pale blue bench outside the cottage, surrounded by beautifully planted grasses and sea holly. She grasped her mug of tea and gazed out to the sea’s horizon, where it met the sky, and the walkers were far from her mind. She began to plot her first day’s interaction with the three water dowsers due to arrive on Friday morning at 9am sharp.
And then, somewhere at the very edge of her peripheral vision, the walker appeared.
Ella resisted the insane desire to scramble up and run inside. She was a grown adult and researcher, she reprimanded herself.
But this walker was worse than most. He was haunted. Somehow, he carried a quality of transparency about him. And he was seeking her eyes, she could feel it. Inexorably, he caused Ella, with all her senses, to acknowledge him.
She forced herself to look. And froze.
She knew this walker. She had met him before.
Part three, by Idiosyncratic Eye
That was his name.
A face, a being that belonged in her past.
So what was he doing here in her present?
Their eyes met for the most fleeting of seconds, that was all, and he kept walking. He didn’t acknowledge her; he had no words to say to her, not even recognition flashed in those dark, haunted eyes. His eyes seemed not to see the physical world around them but were lost to some deeper, distant world.
She held her eyes to where his had been for a long time.
He became a distant figure on the shore before she finally blinked.
It was now her eyes that had taken on a distant, haunted look. She knew now why people were so suspicious, so afraid of these walkers, they held a power, a threat that most people just didn’t even want to acknowledge: it could be them.
There wasn’t much difference between them both. She knew that. They were both human after all. They had both grown up in the same village, gone to the same schools but then everything changed. She shivered, an internal cold seem to creep across her skin and she found her eyes drawn to the distant figure, dark, slumped, hollow, getting ever further and ever smaller on the far horizon.
She mentally shook herself and told herself not to think of it, not to look upon the wreck that she could too have become, not to remember that night and all the days that followed it.
But just the briefest sighting of him, Mio, had undone all her years of careful work, her careful, measured training that kept her secure in the present and far away from the memories that she did all she could to suppress.
She could remember.
It was as clear as the sand and sea before her.
And that wasn’t even the most frightening part of it.
No, she knew now how easily that wraith could have been her.
And the guilt seeped slowly in.
And the fear.
A fear so deep that it hurt.
A fear that she hadn’t even let herself whisper in the intervening years.
It could have been her.
It should have been her.
The face that she had tried so hard to hide from herself flashed up before her eyes.
A sweet, young face with tousled hair, braces and laughter, sixteen years old with all the promise of a future.
The one who lost and was lost.
She remembered her parents organising their hasty removal to a new place when the gossip started going around, when the fingers started pointing. She remembered hearing how badly affected Mio had been, young and vulnerable, sensitive and caring, and how he had withdrawn within himself immediately. His family made excuses but then the fear set in, there were whispers and people kept their distance.
This was what had happened.
She had never known.
Never thought of him again.
She’d been able to forge a new life, a new identity almost.
The guilt weighed heavily on her.
They had all been responsible, not just him.
But, cowardly, they had left the blame and the responsibility to him and Mio had seemed willing to accept it. He dealt with the consequences; he spoke with parents and authorities; he faced the ceaseless questioning; he became the scapegoat.
And scapegoats never fared well.
This was what had happened.
It could have been her.
It should have been her.
Part four, by Lexy at Gone for A Walk
Sometimes life gets rough, rocky and steep. Other times it’s easy and clear, a broad path down which you can see for miles and miles. Every choice you make is a small twist in your path – a crossroads down which you chose to go left or right. If every choice you make is a turning point in your own life, then starting down the line that runs round the world is the last choice you will ever make. If choices are what make up a life’s path, then what is a life without them?
Some who travel it have been aware of its presence their entire lives. Like me, they pass it by and think, not this way, not yet. Hopefully, not ever.
Others only discover it when it is time for them to make a terrible choice. Will I remove myself from all choice, past and future? Or will I live with my past choices and carry on with living?
My father always said that a man’s choices define him. The choice is neither good nor bad, it is the intention of the man that decides which side of the scales it lands on. It is you, he would say, as a person, who can shape things for the better or for the worst, with your choices.
He laid down the law about certain things, about certain choices I should definitely not make, not while I lived under his roof, but for the rest of it, he only urged me to make choices for good.
The summer of my sixteenth year, he repeated this speech more often than ever before.
His voice was laden with disappointment the night I came home drunk from a party. He told me I could never take back the harm I did in this life, never make up for the bad.
He was bursting with unexpected pride, the day I called him to help a friend who, when presented with some harmless looking pills, made a different choice than I did. Choices, he said. It’s all about intent.
He brought up choices again, with a solemn air of mystery, when I, blushing, revealed my crush on the girl down the road, her long brown hair and sparkling gray eyes. I remember assuming that, in that case, he was encouraging me to turn down the right branches to get the girl. Now that my entire world consists of my final choice of path, I suspect he was more hopeful that I’d just make the right choices.
She was the kind of person who caught people up in her wake.
I would have followed her down any path she chose to lead us down, and so would the rest of them. I liked to think, though, that it was only me she flashed challenging eyes at when we came to particularly frightening crossroads.
At the old farm out by the highway, the one she had decreed to be haunted and in need of exorcism by fire, I found out how completely I had let go of the reins of my own life.
She pulling the tank of petrol from the back of my car. I asked if this was really such a good idea.
She laughed, leaned over and kissed me.
One kiss and I was lost. If ever there is a turning point in a life, a point that could lead to riches or ruin depending on the choices made, that kiss was mine.
It was harmless, I figured.
I willingly followed her in a laughing lap around the house, air laden with the smell of sloshed fuel.
She led us in chanting an exorcism and passed me the matches. I, the puppet, obliged her.
The fire ran a path around the house before beginning its ascent of the walls, ravenous.
I only just heard the frightened cry over our whoops of excitement. In the flickering light of the fire, I saw with brutal clarity the old pickup truck parked in the shadow of the barn. The random scattering of toys on the grass.
I’d always tried to do good with my choices.
I found myself in the woods, on a trail not of my own choosing, and darkness was closing in.
She led us in a mad rush towards the cars, helpless and terrified of what we’d done.
My father’s words rang in my ears as I came to an abrupt stop beside my car, heat blistering my back. I was rusty at making choices.
She leapt to join one of the other vehicles, decisive in choosing her own path.
I found out that night that making the right choice doesn’t fix the wrong choices. There is no set of scales to balance, no magic to undo what has been done.
I ran back toward the inferno.
It could have been the right path, if I had taken it even an hour earlier. It could have been good. I could have been good.
After that, the other path seemed more appealing somehow. I stayed for a time, but in the end, I chose no choice at all, a straight and endless path with no offshoots. Anything’s better than a life of potentially bad decisions and what-ifs.
I feel as though I’m coming back into focus. I had intended to write of the line, and my time on it, but even starting this brought me further from the darkness. There was a woman. Her eyes pierced the veil, saw right into my own as I walked the path. Familiar. She reminded me of things. Life. I feel more like myself today than I have for years. It’s easier to walk the path without keeping hold of a life that was lost not long after deciding against choice. I prefer to let the past slip backwards in the stream, tumble the sharp edges away into foggy oblivion. The path is all there is, the last choice I ever have to make.
Ella couldn’t remember when friendship blossomed into love. Only that it was one-sided. He looked at her the same, while she saw him in a new light
Cheerful, playful Mio.
He held her hand at the hospital when she’d stupidly tried to impress him with drugs.
He spent that summer chasing after the love of his life. The girl who sparkled with life and excitement, who swept them along in the thrill of being part of it all.
They all followed her, but Ella followed Mio.
Until she didn’t. Just once, she didn’t.
She watched him run as they fled, leaving him.
The old man who’d always lived there, had they bothered to check their facts, died. Smoke inhalation, asthma and a weak heart.
Mio saved the visiting grandson, but that didn’t save him. Not with petrol on his hands, an empty can on the lawn, matches in his pocket. Not with his silence.
It could have been her.
He took all the blame, though it was clear the villagers suspected there was more to the tale.
Ella researched the impossible, now, finding ways to see paths that only some could see. Dowsing rods and shaman magic. If nothing else, this search for elusive truths distracted her from the memories of what could have been, what should have been.
Ella and her family had moved away shortly after the incident. She’d never guessed that he would have gone away too, on another path entirely, one too elusive to be seen with the naked eye.
It should have been her.