Eloise couldn’t help but wonder how a town as odd as Alp Curie could possibly feel even slightly comforting. Maybe it’s because of Betsy, she thought.
She was the only passenger in the bus and even though it was quite frightening, Eloise found the strength to relax and look out of the window. She had expected the bus to go as fast as a monorail, since it already looked like one, but it didn’t. A lot of realizations hit her psyche like bullets as she stared out of the window – there was absolutely no traffic on the road, no signals, no bumps, no uphills, and no downhills. The roads were straight as a line. The town looked like it was fading away. The bright colors were getting darker, the quirky shapes were getting banal and the overall landscape shifted from being pleasing, to sour. A little while later, barren land on either side of a perfectly paved road was all Eloise could see. And then the bus stopped. Eloise’s heartbeat shot up.
“Why are you stopping in the middle of nowhere?” she shouted at the bus driver and a chill went down her spine.
“Relax, lady,” the driver laughed, “I’ve only stopped to pick another passenger.”
Relaxing was the last thing Eloise was capable of while in this town. A really thin figure with closely cropped head boarded the bus after a few seconds. The figure stood and talked to the bus driver and from the voice, Eloise deduced it was a woman. She was wearing a trench coat and carried a very lady-like purse. The bus had started moving again but the woman and the bus driver were still talking. Eloise closed her eyes and rested her head against the window. She took a deep breath and imagined what her life as an artist would be like. She visualized the art gallery she had not yet seen, and an exhibition of her art. She pictured Bree and herself, standing side by side, with wine glasses in their hands, laughing over something trivial. Eloise had dreamed of this since she was in high school, had been sketching and painting since, but had never thought of it as a profession. Growing up with Dali and Munch and Magritte, all Eloise ever wanted was to be recognized for what she was good at and for the longest time only a few friends took interest in her work and she was thankful for them. But everything was about to change for Eloise. Perhaps not in the way she had imagined it to be, but a change was about to materialize nevertheless.
She slowly opened her eyes. What she saw on the window, where she rested her head a few seconds ago, sent shivers down her spine, fierce enough for her to jump up. The window bore the reflection of the face of the woman who had been talking to the bus driver. The woman had an average sized oval shaped face with full lips and a sharp nose. Her eyes, however, were precariously, unusually, big, and she was looking right at Eloise with them. She turned to look at the woman directly. That was probably the most uncomfortable gaze Eloise had ever been at the receiving end of. In a hasty attempt to maintain her distance, Eloise hit her head on the window.
The strange woman’s straight face gave way to a smile.
“Err, hi! I – I’m Eloise!”
The woman leaned her face closer to Eloise’s without a word.
Eloise swiftly stood up.
“If you could, err, excuse me; that would be –” Eloise picked up her portfolio and briskly made her way through the woman’s perfect long legs, to the front of the bus. She couldn’t help but wonder why the woman chose to sit next to Eloise when the entire bus was blatantly empty.
“What’s wrong, lady?” The bus driver asked.
“Could I just stand here for the rest of the ride? I feel kind of queasy sitting down.”
“Sure, suit yourself.”
“How much time until we’re there?” Eloise bent to look outside the window.
“We’ll be there in a heartbeat.”
And indeed, they were. The bus stopped under a vintage lamp post where a woman stood with an umbrella in her hand, waiting to get on the bus. It looked like it had rained in that part of the town.
“Oh, hello there! I love your dress.” The woman said to Eloise, as she descended from the steps.
“Thank you, ma’am. And thanks to you too, sir,” she said, over her shoulder, to the bus driver.”
The driver smiled, and so did the woman with the umbrella. The strange woman with the big eyes never got off the bus and within a minute or so, the bus was on its way to wherever it was going.
Eloise stood underneath the damp lamp post and looked around. Betsy was right. She did like this part of town better. It wasn’t over-the-top quirky or unnaturally different; it was normal, slightly vintage, but normal. There were people in the streets, walking and laughing and talking. She started walking in the opposite direction of from where the bus came. The sidewalk was wet and people were walking on the roads once the bus had left. There were no cars or bikes or cycles in sight. A middle-aged man stood behind a kiosk on the sidewalk, handing out free popsicles to the people passing by. Eloise stared at him, contemplating if approaching him would be worth it. The next minute, she walked up to him. The man wore a hat with visible droplets of water on it, a three piece suit, and a very wide but genuine grin.
“Hello, young lady!” He greeted Eloise, handing her a pop. “Hope you’re having a lovely evening.”
“Err, no, thanks,” Eloise stammered, “I – I was wondering if you could help me look for a place.”
“Why, sure!” The man said, putting the pop back in the ice box. “Where is it that you wish to go?”
“I need to see Gavin at the House – ”
“Oh! Say no more!” He stepped out from behind his kiosk and limped towards where Eloise stood, with his hand pointing east.
Eloise stared down at the man’s legs while he continued to speak, “Go as far straight as you can until you reach the carmine colored factory tower – very noticeable – there should be no trouble finding that. Take a left when you’re facing the tower and you’ll find a dark alley in your way, the graveyard alley, and once you’re out of the graveyard alley, the art gallery’s huge neon sign will undoubtedly attract you to itself.”
“Thank you, sir. Thanks a lot. If you don’t mind me asking, what’s wrong with your leg?”
The man lifted up his trouser to reveal a tin leg, “I lost it in the war.”
“Oh, I’m really sorry. I’m sure the war story you have to tell must be an intriguing one. Anyway, thank you for the directions,” Eloise smiled and prepared to walk away.
“Perhaps someday I will tell you it. After all, the Vietnam War was full of flashing tales.”
“I’m sorry, did you say Vietnam War?” Eloise asked, turning around to look at the man in the hat.
“Yeah, why?” he asked with a smile.
“How old were you during the war?”
“Let’s see, the year was 1968,” the man clearly gave it a genuine thought, “therefore I must have been 22.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Eloise stared at the man. “If you were 22 in 1968, you should’ve been 71 by now, but you honestly don’t look a day older than 45. And I don’t mean to sound flattering, I’m honestly wondering how it’s possible for you to have served in the Vietnam War.”
The smile had vanished from the man’s face. “Listen, lady! I am one of the oldest inhabitants of this town. Just because I sell popsicles for free doesn’t mean you can say whatever bullcrap you feel like to me.”
“I bet you are, sir, but that gives you no right to lie about serving in one of the most important wars in the entirety of history as we know it,” Eloise had started walking again.
“I’m not lying! I have medals to prove it!” the man shouted in his adenoidal voice but Eloise paid no heed and continued walking in disbelief, shaking her head.
The pain in her legs was stronger than ever. Even though in the morning Eloise had no idea she would have to do an excessive amount of walking, she had put on her pair of fairly comfortable boots. Her decision of the same paid off for almost the whole day, but it had started to get dark, and her legs were gradually giving up. She kept walking on the sidewalk, vowing to not stop until she reached the carmine building the old man selling popsicles told her about.
It wasn’t a very long walk – Eloise realized when she finally stopped in front of the tower that was a slightly faded shade of carmine. The place looked abandoned, but a very sweet smell exuded from the area. She stood there a while, closed her eyes, and effortlessly breathed in the familiar scent, trying to recall where exactly she crossed paths with it. When she opened her eyes, she felt a little drowsy but almost immediately realized that she had an important place to pursue and should not be wasting any more time. It was growing darker by the second. She remembered the old man’s words and took a left while facing the tower. Gradually, she entered the dark, lifeless alley the old man called the ‘graveyard alley’. The path was narrow, and felt like it had been waiting just for Eloise. As she came closer to the tall graveyard gate, she picked up her pace. All she wanted was to be done with this alley as soon as possible. Two long strides and Eloise’s foot hit something. She looked down at a soccer ball that went rolling towards the opposite side of the graveyard’s entry. She fixed her gaze at the soccer ball, quivering with a certain indistinct fear.
“Sorry, excuse me!” A small figure brushed past her and Eloise let out a little scream. It was a little girl wearing a blue frock and a matching headband over her black shoulder length hair with bangs on her forehead. The girl picked up the soccer ball and took a nice and long look at Eloise, whose heart was beating out of her chest like she had stopped running halfway in a marathon she never wanted to run in the first place.
“Excuse me, miss? Are you okay? Are you new here? You look like you’re new,” the girl said in her sweet voice.
“I – I’m just, I don’t know. Yeah, I guess. This is my first time in this town.”
The little girl’s eyes beamed, “Wow! Do you like it so far?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Eloise said, clutching the strap of her sling bag at irregular intervals.
The little girl smiled at her and walked past her to the entry of the graveyard.
“You know, I would ask why you’re going into the graveyard, or why you even came out of there, but I’m going to guess the kids of this town are simply, weird.”
The girl stopped walking and turned around to face Eloise. Her face fell.
“Weird? I’ve never been called that,” the girl said in a low voice.
All of a sudden, Eloise realized what she had done.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. I didn’t mean it like that. What’s your name?”
“Charlotte”, the girl replied, her face still a little sullen.
“So erm – ” Eloise prepared herself for a small talk, “why are you playing in the graveyard?”
“That’s where we live,” the little girl replied.
Eloise either gasped or sighed upon hearing that, or let out something similar to a gasp or a sigh, but whatever it was, didn’t help much with the chill running down her spine.
“Where are your parents?” Eloise asked, inches away from giving up on the child and walking away in disdain.
“I used to live with my mother in a really small town, smaller than this,” she sat down on the concrete and continued. “After the fire, both of us moved here, my mother and I. And ever since, she has been working directly with the authorities and I’ve been living here with the rest of the kids.”
Before Eloise could speak, a boy came out of the graveyard screaming Charlotte’s name.
“I’m here, I’m here, I’m here!” She shouted and stood up to face the boy. He was only a tad taller than Charlotte, but must’ve been of the same age.
“How many times have we told you not to chat with the newcomers?” the boy whispered to Charlotte just loud enough for the entire empty alley to hear.
“Really, Dan, it’s not a big deal. Look at her, she’s just lost and scared.”
“Yeah, and not our problem to deal with.”
Might as well just ask them, Eloise thought to herself.
“Kids, I can hear you! Sorry for the lousy interruption during your playtime, but tell me something, are you ghosts? Why do you live in the graveyard?”
Charlotte opened her mouth to say something but the words flew faster out of Dan’s mouth – “We’re all ghosts, here. We’re all ghosts.”
He put his hands on Charlotte’s shoulders and took her back inside the graveyard. Neither of the two kids turned around for a last look at Eloise who was now standing in the middle of the dark alley, cold, and befuddled.
Eloise had started to feel a bit under the weather, but she continued walking towards the end of the alley, where she could faintly see a clearing. Once out of the alley, Eloise heaved a sigh of relief. She could finally see the place she had been meaning to reach since morning – The House for Art Gallery. It was a small building, its neon sign flashing the name ‘House for Art’ in a rather grandiose fashion. It was pitch dark inside the building but Eloise tried her luck with the door anyway. She didn’t want to accept that the door to the gallery was indeed locked. Frustration had settled inside Eloise’s gut, rendering her incapable of letting it out. She looked around, with tears rolling down her cheeks. All for nothing, she thought. She then spotted a cozy little bar, wiped her tears off her face and walked towards the bar with the open, welcoming gate.
There was no one in the bar – no bartenders, no kids, no spiders or clowns or witches – Eloise was all alone. She sat herself down at one of the tables, lit a cigarette, her second since morning, closed her eyes, and took as long a drag as she could muster. The gallery was closed. Her chance was gone. All she wanted then, was to go back home. And so she thought to herself –
How the hell do I get home?
Stay tuned for Part IV.