Fiction: Don’t Go Back
By D.P. Vaughan
Thirteen-year old James Martin was determined not to die.
His mother had watched the Friday six o’clock news, and he’d overheard the harrowing bulletin. The murders. A killer on the loose. He jumped every time the house creaked or a door opened.
Both victims had shared his name. The news referred to the killings as the Phonebook Murders despite the police publicly downplaying the connection. The killer had broken into both victims’ homes and strangled them where they felt safest.
James had tried to talk to his mother about the news. A coincidence, she’d said. His name wasn’t in the phonebook, she said. It hadn’t reassured him. He’d begged her to do something, take him somewhere, legally change his name, but she’d told him to grow up. So that became his plan.
James stuffed his backpack with essentials: baked bean tins, a can-opener, apple juice, and the possessions most dear to him: his walkman and a mixtape of favourite songs.
He lugged the musty-scented phonebook from its stand and dumped it into his backpack. He grabbed a street directory, whose plastic cover stuck to his hand, then peeled it off and placed it in his backpack. The two books weighed it down like bricks, but he would be ready for anything.
He crept through the house slowly, ears alert.
A floorboard creaked. He started. It was his own footfall.
James closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Once he felt calmer, he continued.
Raking snores greeted him in the lounge room. His mother was sprawled out on the couch, head tilted back. Pungent, emptied bottles strewn about her. The smell made him gag. The television droned, unwatched.
Should he wake her? Surely he could make her understand. She would protect him. He squeezed the bridge of his nose and blinked back tears, frozen in place. The moment stretched on.
James reached out and raided his mother’s purse. It wasn’t the first time—he couldn’t be blamed for refusing to starve. There wasn’t much in the purse, but the coins would come in handy if he needed to make a phone call.
Not that James had anyone to call.
His father had walked out years ago. He tried not to think about how pathetic he’d been, crying and begging as his father walked to his car and drove off without a backwards glance. He’d tried to forget each birthday and Christmas when he waited expectantly by the door or the phone. He’d tried not to get his hopes up; otherwise, it made his chest ache.
In the years since, his mother had moved them around repeatedly. James didn’t know why. Before his life fell apart he’d had grandparents, aunties and uncles. That was no longer the case. He had no extended family in this town, or even friends. He’d been forced to leave them all behind. His teachers at school thought him a problem child, and the other kids hated him. No one would save him but himself.
James snuck outside and quietly pulled the door shut. The world beyond was dark, no moon even to light his way. The wan glimmer of a streetlight down the road, the sole light source.
Fierce winds whipped about him, and he zipped up his jacket. The world smelled sharp and crisp, but the wind stung his eyes, which watered in protest.
The darkness was intense. The wind powerful and cold. Anyone could be hidden by the dark and the gale.
Should he return to the warmth and familiarity of the house? If he did, he would die. He’d heard the news.
James wasn’t going to die today.
He took off down the street, its houses unlit, everyone in bed.
The wind caused leafless trees to grab at him with branches like gnarled fingers. The victims had been strangled. What a horrible way to die. He touched his neck, then increased his pace.
He felt a surge of adrenaline and looked about. No one. Had the other victims felt like this? His imagination was getting to him. He broke into a jog.
James passed a phone booth and kept moving, rushing headlong through the dark streets. He passed a deserted shopping strip, a video rental store and an arcade. Unnerved, he turned into an alleyway. The wind howled, but the buildings shielded him. James leaned back on the wall and panted.
“James Martin,” the darkness spoke.
Coldness rushed through his chest. He couldn’t speak.
“You must be stopped.” A dishevelled man with hunched shoulders staggered into the alleyway. His head jutted forward from his body like a vulture. His wild eyes flared like a spooked horse’s. The man pointed a twisted finger towards him.
James ran, and the man shuffled after him. A fist took him in the side. Sharp pain flared and James hit the ground, weighed down by his heavy backpack. The man loomed over him, fist ready for another blow.
“Leave me alone!” James screamed.
“No.” The man’s voice was calm but firm, his facial expression crazed.
“I didn’t do anything! Let me go!”
“You must be stopped.”
Gnarled hands wrapped around the boy’s throat. The attacker dragged him to his feet. James grabbed at the rough, vice-like hands, uselessly. In the struggle, his backpack slid off and crashed to the ground. James gagged at the man’s rancid breath.
“You must be stopped …”
Panic flooded his veins. He struggled impotently. Couldn’t fight. Couldn’t breathe. He would die.
With a jerk, James shook free and gasped as he hit the ground. He could breathe!
He rubbed his bruised neck and stared up, confused. His saviour was an old man who grappled with the attacker. James didn’t know him. He crawled backwards to avoid the scuffle and dragged himself to a rotten smelling dumpster. He cowered behind it. Maybe the old man could beat the crazed man or scare him off.
An electric buzz pierced the air, and James covered his ears. Silence returned, disturbed only by the wind. He peeked around the dumpster.
The old man lay on the ground. The crazed man absent.
James shuffled into the open. He retrieved his backpack and slung it over his shoulders. His feet scuffed the ground as he crept towards the old man. The man had red strangulation marks on his neck, too.
Something glinted nearby, a metal cylinder. James picked up the surprisingly weighty object, and his fingers slid into four grooves around it. A grip, maybe? He had no idea what the object was, but it felt cold to the touch.
A moan. James approached the old man whose breathing was laboured. The gray-haired man smiled at him fondly and reached out for him. He whispered plaintively, “Don’t go back!”
James recoiled from the old man’s touch. He glanced around the darkened alley. Where was the attacker? He stole a quick look at the old man, who had a pained expression. James couldn’t meet his eyes. He couldn’t help. The attacker might return.
He bolted into the night, leaving the old man where he lay in the alley. He had to look after himself. No one else would.
He clutched the cold metal object as he ran.
X X X
The man stood unsteadily before the gravesite. He was forty-three years old, but his shoulders slumped like an elderly man’s. A cold breeze blew through the cemetery, fluttering leaves in the trees. The air smelled of freshly disturbed dirt.
He hadn’t attended the funeral. He couldn’t face anyone right now, and they hadn’t been on speaking terms, either.
It didn’t make it hurt any less.
His hands balled into fists and, throat thick, he choked back the tears that threatened. He would remain stoic. He would.
In his pocket, his smartphone vibrated, but he ignored it. He knew why it rang. While he remained at the gravesite, he could bury his troubles under grief. Even though she was dead, he still heard her voice viciously berating him for his most recent stupidity. Cutting remarks and insults.
The man stood, a dark silhouette against the fading twilight, until the rain started. With one final pained wince at the headstone, James Martin stalked away from his mother’s grave.
Cold, heavy raindrops pelted him.
He wouldn’t go back.
The rain intensified.
X X X
James rushed up the apartment complex stairs, his clothes drenched from the rain. He looked about to see if anyone had noticed him. His phone continued to vibrate. It had been doing that all afternoon, but he continued to ignore the calls and messages.
As he went to unlock the door to the apartment, he dropped his keys. He swore and crouched to retrieve them. His fingers ached. He looked around again to make sure no one was watching. The key smoothly slid into the lock this time.
James strode into his apartment and slammed the door shut. His hands shook as he secured it with the bolt and chain lock. He slumped against the door, and his wet back slid down. His face was pallid, covered in rain and sweat. While the outside world smelled distinctively of rain, inside, his soaked hair and clothes stank like wet dog.
James reached into his pocket and grabbed his phone. He squinted while he wiped the rain and sweat out of his eyes. He scrolled through his newsfeed and read the headlines and comments. He checked social media. It was worse than he’d feared.
James let out a sound: a mixture of a laugh and a sob. His life couldn’t possibly worsen. The police would arrive soon. Everything kept piling on, one thing after another, and his chest was so tight as if he could hardly breathe.
He looked around the room. Something was wrong. Drawers and cupboards were open. Chairs turned over. Books and items scattered on the floor. Had they been robbed? He listened carefully. Silence.
“Ash?” James called out. He had been worried for himself, but now he had other concerns. “Are you alright? Did something happen?”
He stalked from room to room. “Ashley?”
James discovered a pattern to the missing items: paperwork, cards, the desktop computer. Specifically, all of Ashley’s possessions. James rushed into the bedroom and opened the wardrobe: Ashley’s side was bare. He rushed back to the apartment entrance. Was there a note? Anything?
His shoulders slumped, and his head fell forward. Nothing. He tried Ashley’s number.
Straight to voicemail.
He tried again.
Worse than he thought. Ashley had blocked his number and moved out.
James slid to the floor and held his knees. His phone fell with a clatter, the glass screen cracked. Normally this would have been the worst thing to happen in his day. He didn’t care.
Everything and everyone in his life: lost. He was on his own. Not that he’d ever had much in the way of family or friends to begin with, and then the past week had happened.
James sobbed loudly.
Such a colossal mess. His mother had been right about him. He was the reverse Midas—everything he touched went wrong.
If only he could have stopped himself from screwing it all up.
James’s head jerked up at the thought. He scrambled to his feet, ran to his wardrobe, pawed through it and threw clothes onto the floor. When it was empty, he knocked on the back and listened intently.
With a creak, James pried the false wall loose. He threw it onto the floor behind him with a clatter. There. The dull grey cylinder. James hefted the device, again surprised by how cold it felt.
He gingerly placed it on his bed. Did he dare? Was there really a choice?
Wracked with indecision, James fetched a multimeter from the cupboard. He placed it on the bed and unfurled the two, needlelike probes. With a flick of his wrist, he adjusted a knob and checked the digital display.
James delicately touched the probes to the cylinder. It wasn’t the first time he’d run tests like these. He held the probes in place and carefully read the digital display.
Would it work? He frowned.
What was the worst that could happen?
It could scramble his brain. He could die. But if those unlikely situations occurred, he wouldn’t be aware of it to care. Besides, nothing could be worse than what he’d already wrought.
James reached for his phone to access its GPS, but groaned and remembered he’d dropped it near the front door. With a cracked touchscreen, it was useless to him.
Maybe there was an old, paper map somewhere? From a road trip many years ago?
James strode into the second bedroom, a spare room filled with cobweb-covered dusty boxes of painful memories. Ashley had always nagged him to clear it out for use as a gym, game room or study, but he’d always found an excuse to put it off until another day.
He clawed through a box that smelled of mildew. Was it here? It shouldn’t be; he really should have thrown it out years ago, but had a habit of hoarding outdated and useless items. Other people never had trouble letting him go, though. He scowled and sat back on his haunches.
James slapped his forehead at a realisation. He kicked the box away in disgust and stalked through the apartment to a black computer bag on the floor in the corner. He’d completely forgotten about it. James grabbed the laptop and took it to the dining room table. His knuckles and finger joints were stiff and sore. He rubbed them while he waited for the laptop to power up.
There was a knock on the apartment’s front door.
He jerked in his seat and stared with widened eyes at the door.
Muffled voices called out, “James Martin, open up!”
James pinched the bridge of his nose and ignored them. No time for the laptop. He raced back to the bedroom and kneeled next to the bed. James stared at the metal cylinder.
He ignored the thumps on the front door to the apartment.
“We know you’re in there.”
No more time. No other options.
James gripped the cylinder. It felt cold. His fingers slid into the grooves as if it were made for them.
“We just want to talk.”
James ignored the voices. He could fix everything, make things right. He squeezed the device.
His mouth was dry and tasted metallic, like blood.
He ignored the old man’s warning not to go back.
James grabbed his head and screamed in pain.
He had to be stopped.
X X X
Marvyn sat outside the cafe. He was an elderly man, and held a newspaper open before him. It was a sunny day with a wispy smattering of clouds. The smell of coffee and baked goods wafted out to him.
The newspaper mentioned the wind would increase through the afternoon and into the night. But the weather hadn’t grabbed his attention. It was another murder report that did.
The news deeply disturbed him. It wasn’t the murder itself. He’d learned to accept that facet of modern life. There was something else about this case that troubled him deeply, nagged at the edge of his consciousness. He couldn’t put his finger on the issue.
Marvyn folded the newspaper under his arm, paid the bill with cash—he didn’t trust banks or credit cards—and strolled onto the sunny path.
A boy on roller blades zipped past, almost knocking Marvyn over. He shook his head angrily. Today’s kids had no respect. If he broke a hip, that would be his end. In his youth, Marvyn would have been at work at this time of day, not a hazard to senior citizens.
He’d had a lengthy career as an electronics engineer. Technology had evolved drastically over the decades, but the fundamentals were all familiar to him. He’d always had a knack for technology. Even with his faulty memory, which had always been so, he had never forgotten how to do his job. The arthritis in his hands had forced retirement upon him.
His doctors had never been able to solve his memory issues. Retrograde amnesia, they called it, but none could identify the cause. Some kind of trauma, they surmised. Half his life was lost to him. That was rare, apparently. Most sufferers couldn’t access the memories leading up to their traumatic event, but kept their younger memories. Marvyn couldn’t remember his childhood—not even his birth name. He’d worked around it and got on with his life, but he didn’t appreciate being treated like a lab rat or medical curiosity. He’d had things to do.
The walk home hurt his knees, but he made sure to do it every day to remain active in body and mind. Marvyn had seen many friends stay home and avoid the outside world, and they always deteriorated rapidly. He was seventy-three years old, or so he suspected, and he didn’t want to fade away as well.
Marvyn waved at the new neighbours. He didn’t remember their names. People came and went in this neighbourhood. He alone remained. A constant. Alone.
Maryvn took out his keys. His hands shook, and he dropped the keys on the ground. He groaned. Laboriously, he kneeled and grabbed them, then heaved himself upright. Short of breath, his face covered in sweat, he puffed.
Maryvn unlocked the door without further incident and entered the cottage.
His home was a chaotic mess. A musty, stale smell pervaded. Old electronic equipment, measurement devices and technical papers were strewn about. He intended to do something with them one day. His medicine cabinet was stocked with the essentials, but he made a mental note to refill his heart medication prescription.
Marvyn shuffled past his record player and vinyl collection. His records were mostly modern music. Despite his advanced age, he felt a resonance with this generation’s music in a strangely nostalgic way. He couldn’t explain it.
He leaned down to his TV and fumbled with a knob on the wood panelling. The large, boxy device whined as it came to life. Static resolved into a blurred, colour image on the curved glass screen. He sighed and stood, eyes cast towards the ceiling. The VHF antenna on the roof must have come loose again. He’d have to get somebody out to look at it another time. For now, it would do. He couldn’t risk going up there himself.
Marvyn limped to his recliner and carefully eased himself down. As the TV droned in the background, he dozed the afternoon away. The newspaper article preyed on his mind. He even dreamed of it but, when he woke, couldn’t remember the details beyond its troubling nature.
When the evening news came on, he shook his head, sat up straighter and watched with rapt attention. The news anchor spoke of another murder. Another James Martin, dead. Two, now. Both apparently killed by the same suspect. Strangled. Bad way to go. He gently touched his throat.
Marvyn frowned into the distance with unfocused eyes. Puzzle pieces he didn’t fully understand fell into place. He squeezed the bridge of his nose as he tried to focus his thoughts into coherency. Two James Martins had been killed. Why did that feel so familiar? Murderers didn’t normally go after people with the same name. The news people were calling them the Phonebook Murders.
He leaped to his feet, struck by an insight. His hips protested, but he ignored them and stumbled into his bedroom. He swore as he kicked his toe against the doorway. Joints creaked as he lowered himself to the floor and reached under his bed. His fingers found the trunk, and he dragged it across the wooden floorboards. He opened it and grabbed the cold object inside.
With the energy of a sprightlier man, he rushed out of the house as quickly as his aching bones would allow. He didn’t even stop to lock the door. His memory wasn’t clear, but he knew where he needed to be.
The night was dark without the moon’s glow. Wind roared about him and he shivered, but Marvyn pressed on through the darkened streets. It was much colder than expected; the rushing air smelled crisp. He pushed his body as fast as it would move. He passed an empty bus stop and a phone booth. He approached the strip mall that he remembered contained a video rental store and an arcade. The wind almost blew him over.
He approached a darkened alleyway, and saw a strange sight.
A man embracing someone. No, attacking someone! A grown man assaulting a child!
The news. The murders. This was why he was here. The child must be another James Martin! The killer wouldn’t stop at three, he’d kill more. How he knew this, he couldn’t explain.
Without personal regard, Marvyn threw himself at the attacker. He forced the man back, grabbed onto him and held him back from his target.
“You!” The madman sneered and pushed him off, easily breaking Marvyn’s grip and lunging at him.
Maryvn tried to dodge but fell as his aching leg gave out. Pain radiated from his tailbone. He stared up in fear as the madman loomed over him, eyes wide and crazed. The madman’s head jutted forward from slumped shoulders.
“No,” Marvyn pleaded quietly.
Gnarled hands wrapped around his throat. Marvyn’s arthritic fingers grasped at the hands that strangled him, but it was useless. The madman crushed his windpipe.
Panic flooded his veins. He struggled impotently. Couldn’t fight. Couldn’t breathe. Throat crushed. Lungs ached.
A hard object thumped into Marvyn’s abdomen. His arms flailed and hit the solid mass, which clanged and slid partially out of the attacker’s pocket.
It glinted. The madman’s pocket was weighed down by the object. Marvyn caught a brief glimpse of it: a metallic cylinder. The madman had one too? Unable to do anything else, he blindly grabbed for the madman’s pocket. His vision darkened. His strength waned.
His fingers found their target and slid into the cold metal cylinder’s grooves. It was like it was made for him. Strength flagging, he squeezed his fingers as hard as they would allow.
Fresh air burst into his lungs. He grabbed at his throat and fell back. Something cracked, and his mouth tasted metallic, but he could breathe.
Silence, now. His arms fell to his side. His breath was laboured and haggard.
The young boy leaned over him. Marvin looked up at his strangely familiar face and smiled.
He’d succeeded. He’d saved the boy’s life. That was the most important thing. He’d sent the madman somewhere he could never harm anyone. The murders would stop. No more James Martins would die. He’d been seriously injured, but it was worth it.
The boy was nervous and jittery. Understandable, given what had transpired. He reached up to reassure him.
Marvyn froze. What was the boy holding?
James held a metal cylinder. Marvyn gasped, his face a mask of horror. He swatted his now empty pocket. It fell out? During the scuffle?
No! Not again!
He remembered everything. He finally understood why he’d always been alone. Why he never had family or loved ones. Why he loved modern music. Why he was so good with electronics. Why the madman had fortuitously possessed the same metallic object that he had. He finally remembered his real name, and it wasn’t Marvyn Jane.
He stared intently at the child. It was too much, he couldn’t even form words. The ground seemed to move under him. An empty sensation of horror yawned within.
He couldn’t let it happen again. He had to get him to listen this time!
“Don’t go back!” he rasped painfully. It was all he could choke out.
The boy looked startled and ran off. No …
The elderly man lay in a heap on the cold, dark concrete. The wind’s roar his only companion. The faint but rotten stench of garbage assaulted his nostrils.
His chest hurt. Not too bad, but enough to keep him down. His eyes darted around. He had to do something. To stop him.
He’d saved him, but not really. It would all keep happening. Would it always keep happening?
He mustn’t go back. No matter what. He mustn’t go back.
But of course he would.
Panic gave way to hollow emptiness. It was all for nought. The boy would grow up, and as a grown man use the device to prevent himself becoming a social pariah. But it wouldn’t work, so he would try to stop his younger self at all costs, forgetting who he was or why. And that would lead him back to this alleyway, where his mind would again be scrambled. He knew this because he’d lived it, but only now, at the end of it all, did he remember.
His breath was shallow. Chest heavy. Tight, as if his shirt were too small. As if it squeezed him. It hurt, a lot more than he’d realised. He couldn’t sit up.
His head was vague and unclear. Thoughts weren’t …
He dry heaved. Cold sweat spread over his skin. The night was already cold, and this made it worse.
He coughed and took short, difficult breaths.
His arms and neck ached. So did his jaw.
Pain spread through his torso like darkly creeping floodwaters.
He hadn’t been able to break the cycle. He hadn’t been able to stop himself from going back. This day had defined his entire life, and he’d failed.
Salty tears flowed down the deep lines on his face.
Don’t go back …
On a Friday evening, seventy-three year old James Martin died.
D.P. Vaughan is an Australian author who writes speculative fiction thrillers for adult readers. His work focuses on marginalised people. He grew up in Townsville, and moved to Brisbane to study music composition and later earned his master's degree as a specialist English teacher. He has an avid interest in history, science and linguistics, and lives with his family in a quiet suburb of Canberra where he teaches English to adult migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.