One night I dreamt I was in the building where I grew up, visiting a family of neighbours. There was something not right about the feel of the place. It felt larger than it should be and not completely real. This story followed.
There was a swallow on my doorstep this morning. A swallow on the last floor of a five-floor apartment building. In November.
If I’d known the bird was the first sign of events that would turn my world upside down I would still not have believed it and so I would have done what I did. I stared at the bird and the object on the floor next to it. But let me introduce myself.
My name is Callum. Callum Tomlinson. I’m writing this because… Well, because my neighbour, Vanessa, disappeared and she left me something that I’m not sure what to do with. I’m afraid her disappearance is permanent.
Vanessa lives in the flat right below mine. We’re not particularly close but we do chat sometimes. We just move in very different circles. She’s some big shot journalist and I’m, well, I’m a writer. Only what has happened to her goes beyond anything I could ever imagine. Probably because I’m not big on fantasy or science fiction or anything like that. I write crime stories. And I’m prone to digressions, as you can already see.
The reason I’m writing this down is because I’m afraid I might end up disappearing as well. In fact I believe my disappearance is much closer to certainty than “might.” And I’m not really afraid, I just used this as a figure of speech. I’m blabbering. Here’s what happened.
A week ago, Vanessa dropped by one evening to tell me that she was working on an investigation into some cult. I tried to ask what this has to do with me but she never gave me a chance to open my mouth. She said if she’s not at my door by Wednesday, same time, I should call the police.
Today is Wednesday and it’s ten past seven. She wasn’t at my door but I didn’t call the police because of what I found this morning next to the swallow. A memory stick in an envelope with “Listen to this” written on it. Not typed, written. I was sure it was from Vanessa, so I listened to it. I was a bit worried for her before I listened to the file. After that… After that “worried” didn’t come close to what I felt.
I’ll try to make as complete a transcript of the recording here, so even if I disappear, there will be evidence of what happened although who’d find it and how I don’t know. Perhaps I want to leave a trace, as simple as that. Even though I’m still not too sure what happened. I was thinking of recording a video but… No. Text is better.
Nessa’s recording begins with her stating that she is investigating reports of a mysterious cult—shrouded in mystery is the cliché she uses—that by pure coincidence seems to have its headquarters on the street where she grew up. She says it would be a visit to the past. The introduction over, the recording stops and starts again after she’s already there. I remember her telling me that Wednesday that she always records her thoughts when digging into a story. It made it easier to write it afterwards, she said.
Here’s the transcript.
“It’s a bit depressing how things here haven’t changed in all these years. Twenty, perhaps. I grew up here and coming back now is like going back in time. Seriously, nothing has changed on Fanshawe Lane. Or almost nothing. The house we used to live in has been repainted in some sickly shade of yellow but that’s about it. And the house I’m going into is a very familiar one: it’s the next-door house, where my best childhood friend Georgie used to live.”
The recording stops again, probably while she walks up to the door and restarts when she’s inside the house. I can’t know for sure how long she needed to get them to agree to the recording but by the sound of it, it wasn’t much. Here’s what she’s recorded.
“Believe it or not, Georgie still lives here, now with his wife and two children. [Laughter in the background] And that’s not all. It’s Georgie’s house that is the HQ of the cult. [Male voice says: Oh, come on, Nessa!] I’m sorry, Georgie, that’s what people are calling you, and that’s why I’m here – to hear the story from you. [Same voice says: I’m not sure we want it to go public, Ness, I’m sorry. We can have a chat and all but…] I understand, Georgie. What if I promised I won’t make any of this public? [George: Turn off your recorder.] Okay. Turning it off.”
So here she turns off the recorder and she only turns it back on much later, as far as I can understand, because she is no longer in the cult’s HQ, or shrine, or whatever they call it. House. No, she’s somewhere much quieter and she is no longer her usual chatty self. She sounds like she’s had a shock. I can understand why, so I suppose it was a few hours before she recorded the bigger part of the file I’m now listening to for the third time. Here’s what she says.
“Well, I can say for sure that I did not expect this. I expected another stupid cult, people trying to make some money off the gullible but it’s nothing like that and I’m very happy to say it. I really loved Georgie, he was my only friend back then. Anyway, the Bakers don’t lead a cult. They just have a well in their garden. “Just” is not the right word, though. It’s not “just” a well. [laughs] It’s—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—it’s a magic well!” [giggles]
Of course, my first thought was that she was high. I’m still not sure she wasn’t when she recorded this. But I have reason to doubt it after I saw what I saw this morning, which is what made me put this on paper. For future generations, as it were. Or maybe not since I live alone and my place is full of paper and my computer of various ramblings, so if I disappear they will probably just throw everything away.
“I know how this sounds, I know. It’s not a magic well from a fairy tale but they told me that it can heal. Damn, this whole story sounds like something from The Sun but I know it’s not. I know because they showed me how it works. I’m getting ahead of myself.
“So. I sat down with George and his wife, Elly, and they told me how the well just sprung last year while George was digging holes for the cypress trees Elly had bought at a nearby nursery. The cypresses were apparently in bad shape and the nursery had set them aside for destruction, but she took pity on them.
“George struck water in the last hole, near the left-hand corner of the garden. They showed me. There’s a neat little well there now and there’s the cypress tree next to it. The tree is huge and so are the other two, like they’re a hundred years old, I guess, though I’m not that good with trees.”
That’s true – Nessa once told me she’d have a hard time telling the difference between green onions and green garlic when they’re still in the ground. She could easily take a 10-year-old tree for a much older one. And, of course, the family could have just as easily lied about the age of the trees. That’s what I thought at first. That’s what any sane person would think. But it wasn’t just the trees.
“So, okay, I thought they’re lying, of course, because it sounded ridiculous and I told them. George and Elly agreed it sounded that way but, they said, it wasn’t just the trees. The water from that well had healed George’s ulcer. Again, Sun material. I knowww. I admit I was starting to think my old childhood friend had developed a sad drug habit or had really gone religious in a funny way. But then they showed me what else the water could do.”
By this point I was sure Nessa was high. They probably had coffee. How hard would it be to slip her something with the coffee? Not very, I thought the first time I listened to the recording.
“We went back to the house and Elly called their daughter, Sam. Lovely girl, by the way, the spitting image of her mother, all blond curls and blue eyes. About 12, I guess. She came down to the kitchen and her parents introduced us. Sam looked a bit shy, which I guess is normal for 12-year-olds, or at least most of them. I tried to be friendly, asked her how she’s doing but I was nervous because I’ve never been good with kids. I don’t know how to talk to them.
“Also, I was getting nervous because I couldn’t figure out what the hell they’d called her for. She looked perfectly normal, so I guessed the well had cured her of something awful and Elly will show me “Before” pictures to convince me of the well’s healing powers. Now I wish she had done that. But she didn’t. She asked her daughter to show me what she can do. That’s exactly what she said. “Show Nessa what you can do. It’s okay, she’s with us.”
I’ve listened to the recording three times now and I still can’t believe Nessa didn’t notice the “she’s with us” part. She’s quick on the uptake, I know this, because it’s her job to be quick on the uptake. But not this time. Not this time.
“Little Sam made a face as if her mother was embarrassing her beyond any reasonable limit and I laughed. She smiled and started taking off her clothes. I was horrified, of course, but I couldn’t move. I guess I was so stunned I couldn’t make my legs carry me out and away, which is what I was thinking about. But no. I stayed in my chair and I saw little Sam turn into a cat. There, I said it. The 12-year-old girl stripped naked and became a cat.”
How would you react to something like this coming from somebody you know? Somebody you’ve always thought was a sane, rational person? I first laughed. I thought this was all a big practical joke. Or, back to my my first version, Nessa was high. I remember her mocking a few years ago the CGI-ed wolves in the Twilight movies, which she went to see with her girlfriends, she told me, and had a very good laugh. And now she said she saw a girl turn into a cat. Of course I laughed! The first time.
“I don’t know if I can describe what happened. It sounds ridiculous when I say it but it did happen and I wasn’t high. I know I wasn’t high because I didn’t eat or drink anything in the house. Well, that’s not true because I did ask for a glass of water, from the tap, and I saw how Georgie personally filled it. So there was no way, I thought, that they’d slipped me anything. I’m not an idiot. Who would think of asking where the tap water came from? No one.”
Okay, so she drank from the well and she saw a girl turn into a cat. Clever Georgie, I thought, spike the well water and have fun watching your guests hallucinate. People are weird. They amuse themselves in strange ways.
“I don’t know how much time I have left but I’ll try to describe what I saw and I’ll save this file on a USB, and send it to Callum. Just in case. So, Sam stood there, naked, for a couple of seconds, and then she took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Her body started trembling and soon got all blurry from the vibration. I was staring at her and I think my mouth was hanging open but I’m not sure. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Sam became blurrier and she started shrinking.
“That was terrifying. She was shrinking like – I don’t know – like a fruit, an apple, no, an orange that someone’s squeezing. Next thing I saw was a tabby, sitting on her haunches, looking up at me. I remember blinking, like I was trying to get something out of my eye. The cat meowed.”
I try to imagine what that must have felt. It sounds like some special effect in a movie. I guess I don’t have the right kind of imagination. I have the kind that creates different versions of events and by this point in the recording I’d come up with another version of what had happened: Vanessa had just gone mad, as simple as that. I know people don’t just go mad in an instant, even in a day but with hallucinogenic drugs anything’s possible, I thought. I was also kind of jealous – I wish I could have a hallucination like that. I mean, I wished.
“Elly asked me how I was feeling. I could hardly hear her at first. I was still staring at the cat, like stupid characters in comedies stare when something surprises them. I said I was okay. No, I actually croaked it. George passed me my glass of water and then it struck me that the water may be coming from the well. I didn’t have to say anything – it was enough to see George’s grin.
“He got up and picked up the cat, which meowed again. It sounded kind of annoyed. I imagine her parents asking her to perform this transformation every damn time they have guests, like other parents make their children play the piano or recite, or whatever parents do to show off their children and embarrass them in the process. George told me I could stroke the cat if I wanted. That somehow made everything even more unreal. I managed to say it was fine, I didn’t want to stroke her. He let the cat go and she ran out of the kitchen.”
Nessa doesn’t say it but I think she, too, suspected they’d drugged her. Any sane person would question their perceptions after seeing a girl turn into a cat anywhere other than on the screen.
“I tried to pull myself together, though I felt like screaming “Did you see this?!” I knew they’d seen it, and not for the first time. I tried to play it cool and professional, so I asked if they all turned into cats. They said no – everyone turned into a different animal and they didn’t know why. Elly turned into a wolf, though there’s nothing wolfish about her. George turned into a stork, he said, though I would have bet money he would be a bear. But that’s the most obvious, I guess – he is a big man.
“I had trouble believing this was happening and I told them. They were very understanding – I wasn’t the first one, they said and looked at each other. They were having fun with all this and that was really annoying but I waited. Elly said that one of their neighbors turned into a crow and made a scene about it – he disliked crows. So, I asked them how many people had drunk from the well. Most of the people on the street, Elly said. As I listened, my vision started blurring and I nearly flipped, thinking here comes some awful transformation. I drank the water, I was bound to transform.”
There’s just a couple of more minutes left of the recording. I know how it ends and it’s not a big surprise but it still fascinates me. I may even write a book about this story – fiction, of course. I don’t want to harm these people in any way. I don’t want to harm Vanessa.
Okay, I have a thing for her. I’m in love with her. I knew it would never work, before. Now I’m not so sure about this, either. I’ve lost a lot of my convictions after listening to this recording.
“George and Elly both chuckled when I screamed and jumped from my seat. Elly came and hugged me and said that the change doesn’t happen immediately. It takes time for the water to work, that’s how she put it. I said I couldn’t see – well, I sobbed, really, I admit – and George asked if I still wore contacts. He knew I wore contacts because I got my first glasses when I was six and still lived on that street. I galloped through dioptres for most of my adolescence and I’m at minus 11 currently, or I was till I drank their water. I hated my eyes. Now I don’t.
“I took out the lenses and – I don’t think anyone with good eyes would understand but the feeling that the world is in focus and I don’t need prosthetics to see it was a real shock. I could see clearly without my -10 lenses for the first time in as long as I can remember. My first thought was “Bite me, Lasic.” I know, lame and stupid but there it was. I’d never managed to get over my fear that something will go wrong if I had the surgery so I stuck to my contacts. And now, after one glass of water, I didn’t need them anymore.
“God, it was like a shot of cocaine, I felt so new and perfect. I felt perfect. I know you would understand, Cal. I can’t explain why, but I know you would. I believed everything. I believed what I saw was real and I believed the water in that well was magic. I don’t care how lame it sounds, I really don’t. I didn’t need my contacts.”
I do understand even though I was a bit surprised she mentioned me a second time and in this way. It made me feel I was important to her – something I would never have guessed. I never made a move on her and she never suggested in any way she might have any interest in me.
She dropped by when she expected a delivery and she couldn’t wait for it, for example. Or we met in the hall and chatted for a couple of minutes, all very casual. Once she invited me to a New Year’s Eve party at her place, which I thought she did out of politeness. I went to the party and had a good time even though I never gathered the courage to tell her how I felt about her. But I knew how she hated wearing contacts and glasses. She’d mentioned it more than once.
“I asked George and Elly how long this will last, how long I will have this perfect sight and they said it’s permanent. I didn’t believe them – they’d only had the well for a year, right? But George said he’s certain about it. He couldn’t explain it and I didn’t press. Why not just assume it’s really permanent? I decided to give myself a break and assume. But I had another question: what would I turn into? I mean, anyone would ask that, right? But they said they didn’t know. Of course. I didn’t really expect anything else.
“The only thing they did tell me was that it takes between three days and a week for the first turn. That’s how they called it. Did it matter how much water someone drinks? No, they said. Even a sip would trigger the change, which is what happened to Sam – she’d taken a sip before anyone else and a week later her mother had found a cat in her bed. Elly said it almost gave her a heart attack. I believe her. I’m kind of excited now. I want to see what I turn into.
“It doesn’t hurt, George told me. It feels like you want to throw up and then it’s done. You throw yourself up into an animal. Doesn’t sound very pleasant but I don’t care. Funny how I went from total disbelief to accepting what’s happened as a fact. I guess we have to believe our eyes. But there’s one thing that’s scary. Sometimes, George said, you can’t turn back. They don’t know how it happens but it happened to that crow neighbor. One day he turned and he couldn’t turn back.
“I asked what happened to him. Elly said that he attacked Sam and they had to put him down. That’s the word she used. They put him down. So, I suppose that’s it. I’ll wait and see what happens and if what happens is irreversible, at least I’ve recorded the story and you can do something with it, Cal. I know you can. By the way, how come you never asked me out?”
I was too scared of rejection. I always have been. That’s why I ghostwrite crime stories instead of putting my name on my work and trying to get it published on my own. That’s why I only date girls that approach me rather than approaching the ones I really like. But not anymore. Not after this recording. It came with the woman who made it, after all. I didn’t know it when I opened my door this morning, of course. I was just shocked to see a swallow in the building, on my doorstep.
Right now, Nessa is sleeping off her first turn in my bed. She’s human, so that’s one less thing to worry about for now. I think I’ll save this file to My Documents with a boring, ignorable name and we’ll disappear together. It will be funny to see if anyone finds it. They won’t believe it, of course, but would you?
By that time, we’ll be far away and if all goes well, some day I’ll write a book and put my name on it. It will be a fantasy book. Urban fantasy. A story about wells that spring here and there and can heal people and turn them into animals. And every word in it will be fact.
You see, I’m afraid I haven’t been entirely honest in my account of events. I’ll have to find a way to tell Nessa that what happened to her at George’s did not surprise me in the least. I have been drinking the water all my life. Almost.
There are many wells like the one in her old neighbourhood. My family had one in our backyard. After my father died a year ago the well dried up. I sold the house. Maybe the water will come back, maybe it won’t. It depends on the family and how much it needs it.
What surprised me was that George and his family had been so open about the water to Nessa. That they had given her some. You don’t do that. You don’t talk about the water. You drink it and live a long life. Of course there is a risk. Take my mother – she simply got bored with being a human and left us to live in the forest in her fox form. My father never got over this, so he killed himself.
Not all about this water is good but I’ll wait for a more suitable time to tell Nessa. I need to take her away from here first, before the Council steps in to take care of George and his family. Nobody likes it but we can’t let the world know about the water. It’s way too early. Or too late, if you like.