Erin screwed the buds into her ears, scrolled through the screen on her phone and clicked on her favourite podcast.
There wasn’t a day that went by that she didn’t thank the gods, and especially Steve Jobs, for technology. The burble it delivered helped her zone out and get through the twice-daily ritual of strap hanging, personal space invasion and pungent reminders of what other people had for dinner the night before. The train was a necessary evil - a quicker, cheaper and less stressful commute than driving across the city and searching for a space to park that wouldn’t cost her an expensive fee or a fine. It was just a shame that so many other people had to be in the carriage with her.
She took a last gulp of fresh air and stepped onto the escalator that carried her down into the bowels of the earth. All around her, people scurried about like ants in a panic after a boot smashes their nest. Everyone had the same frantic zombie vibe. Some days – usually when she’d slept less than the average fruit fly – she could almost see a Hieronymus Bosch painting with her fellow commuters as the tortured damned in the Underworld. Whether they were suited and booted for business, made-up to the nines, fresh from the bed they’d dragged themselves from, or gym-ready in sweats and leggings, they all had the same air of weary urgency.
And, of course, eye contact was strictly taboo. Only crazy people look you in the eye when you’re underground.
One of the crazies was waiting for Erin as she reached the bottom of the escalator. Mad George was one of those uninvited reminders of the ever-widening holes in society’s safety net that pricked her conscience every time she saw him. She couldn’t remember when she’d first noticed his rambling, shambling presence. She guessed he’d always been there, part of the army of invisibles who reminded ‘ordinary’ folk like her of what might be if they strayed too far. Broken but harmless, he was enough of a jolt to her normality to make her feel uncomfortable. Guilty. Enough to prompt a mumbled “Morning, George” before handing over a few coins from her pocket, but not enough to look him in his red-rimmed eyes. She always focused her gaze somewhere just above the bridge of his broken nose.
Erin started the pantomime of searching her pockets and grimacing an apology for having no spare change. But George held up his hand to stop her. He reached out his index finger, its chewed nails blackened with neglect, and poked her on the shoulder. The shock of the uninvited touch from a street bum who’d waved goodbye to sanity years ago gave her a physical jolt. Like being pushed aside in her own body.
“Tag,” said George in a voice like the rasp of a key turning in a rusty lock, stiff from lack of use. “You’re It.”
He smiled, nodded to himself, turned and walked away.
Erin stopped for a heartbeat, watching him, before being shoved along with an angry grunt by the lady behind her. They swept through the turnstile, swiped their tickets, and were washed up onto the platform.
Screwing her earbuds back in, Erin sighed and shook her head at George’s latest eccentricity. She tapped her phone’s screen and prepared to tune into the dulcet and oh-so-eloquent tones of Stephen Fry.
“Woah! What the…?” a voice that was most definitely not Stephen Fry’s rang through her head. “How the…? Where I am? What’s happening?”
Erin ripped the buds from her ears and looked at her phone. The screen was blank. No battery. Odd. She’d charged it overnight.
The voice continued even though her earbuds were now dangling from her hand: “And who the hell are you? Where’s George?”
She looked up and down the crowded platform. No-one else showed any sign of having heard the shout.
“Oi! You! Yes, you. Answer me. What happened to George?”
Erin looked around, started to stutter an answer…
“Not out loud, you ninny. You want people to think you’re a nutter?”
Erin clapped a hand over her mouth, twirling round and looking up and down the platform for whoever was talking to her.
“In your head. Answer in your head. I’m inside you.”
“In your head. Answer in your head. I’m inside you.”
Omygod, thought Erin. It’s finally happened. I’ve flipped. All downhill from here. Before you know it, I’ll be wheeling a shopping trolley around filled with old shoes and shouting at passers-by about cats in space ships.
“Don’t be so daft. You’re as sane as I am,” said the voice.
Hardly the most reassuring thing I’ve heard this year, thought Erin.
“Oi, cheeky cow. Enough of that.”
With a whoosh of stale air, the train slid into the station. Its doors opened, a wave of people got out and Erin joined the wave that replaced them. She grabbed the pole, leant her forehead against its cool metal and willed the voice to shut up and go away.
“I’m not going anywhere, darlin’. Can’t. Not yet. You’ve gotta help me.”
Tentatively, and still worried about her grip on reality, she tried answering the voice – inside her head.
“Help you? How? If I’m not going mad, then what is all this?”
“Calm down. It’s nothing to worry about.”
Erin felt about as calm as a hedgehog in a tumble dryer. “Really? So, suddenly hearing random voices inside my head is perfectly normal, is it?”
“Well, not normal, I’ll admit that. But I’ve sussed out what’s happened. You’ve been tagged.”
“Tagged. You know. You’re ‘It’. Like when we were kids in the school yard.”
“Yes, we. I went to school too, you know. Probably round about the same time as you. George tagged you, so I’m inside you – for now. Hitching a ride, I suppose. And I really, really need your help. I gotta get home. Please. Help me.”
Erin wanted to run… or faint… or scream… anything to get away. But squashed between an old lady clutching a bag of meagre groceries and a 30-something bloke who thought it was a good idea to go straight from the gym to the office – without taking a shower – was hardly the best place for it. If she was lucky, she’d be ignored, the subject of stony-faced embarrassment. At worst, she’d been thrown off the train and collected by station security.
She shook her head, tried to clear the madness. Then she listened, carefully… Good. Nothing but the rocking of the train, beeps and nasal announcements from the speakers, and the chatter of the group of schoolkids in the corner. Seems she’d been imagining things after all.
She screwed her earbuds back in and checked her phone. Oh yeah, dead. Great. Oh well, just enjoy the silence.
“Well? You gonna help me? You’ve got to help me.”
The voice hadn’t gone anywhere. It had been biding its time. Maybe giving her time to recover from the shock. It hadn’t been enough.
“You’re just my imagination. What I get for eating too much cheese at night, or maybe that tuna I had was past its sell-by date. Or not enough coffee this morning. Or something. Anything that makes sense.”
“No. I’m real, alright.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m still trying to deal with it myself. It was only last night that…”
“Well, not to make too fine a point of it, that I was walking around just like you. You know, in my body. Had a laugh with my mates. A few drinks, maybe a few too many. And on way home… bham! One minute there I was… and then… Next thing I know, I’m inside this mad old geezer dossing in a doorway, looking through his eyes at blue flashing lights and an ambulance crew scooping me up off the road.
“Been walking around in George’s head ever since. Well, til he tagged you… Didn’t know he could do that, but I’m glad he did. Feels much better inside your head. His is a right mess, poor old bugger.”
Erin let out a sigh and shook her head. “All right, let’s say I’ll help you. How am I supposed to do that?”
“Just get me home. To Jessie, my girl. Wife actually. We got married a month ago. I can’t bear the thought of life – or the afterlife, I s’pose – without her. Not quite yet. I know I can’t stay forever but just a little bit more… that’s all. It all happened so quick. I’ve got to get to her. Be with her. Even if it’s just for a little while…”
The voice cracked a little. A sniff, and a heavy sigh. Almost as if it was crying. But can you cry without a body?
The train rattled into the station and the doors slid open. Erin stepped out and mounted the escalator.
“Hang on. How’d you know to get out here? I never told you.”
“I always get out here. It’s my stop.”
“Well, well. Seems like George knew what he was doing, after all.”
“I seriously doubt that.”
“Well, I dunno, the fates or something. This is exactly where I need to be. You know that little park by the station?”
Erin nodded. She walked past it every day on the way to work.
“Jess takes the dog for a walk there every morning, round about this time. Daft mongrel she got from the shelter. Called him Spike… stupid name for a dog… but she’s nuts about him. No matter what, even with me dead, she won’t miss taking Spike for his morning walk.”
“But what am I supposed to do?” asked Erin, trudging up the last steps to daylight.
“Tag her, of course.”
“Oh, so I just walk up to some poor woman who’s just lost her husband and poke her? I don’t think she’ll thank me, you know.”
“You’ll work out the way. I can tell from in here that you’ve got a way with people.”
The gate to the park creaked as Erin pushed it open and looked around. An ordinary inner city park. Kids dragging their feet on their way to school, a man in a high vis vest raking leaves into a pile, swings and a climbing frame sitting empty on a bouncy rubber floor, bins overflowing with plastic bottles and fast food wrappers…
A bag lady in a rainbow bobble hat waddled past, dragging a suitcase bulging with newspapers. The council worker had stopped his raking for a sneaky smoke. A woman in a business suit and running shoes was power-walking across the grass.
“There she is!”
“There. On the bench, over there. That’s my Jess. That’s my girl.”
Half hidden by the trunk of an oak tree, a young woman with dirty blonde hair scraped back into a messy ponytail was slumped on the seat. Her shoulders were heaving with soundless sobs and a scruffy grey dog was nuzzling her face, trying to lick the tears away.
“Go on. What are you waiting for? Go to her!” The voice was frantic.
“And do what?”
“I dunno, ask if she’s alright. Give her a hug or something.”
Erin shook her head. She may be a people person, but giving hugs to crying strangers was not her style. As she approached the bench, she heard Jess mumbling under her breath: “Oh Spike, what’m I gonna do? He’s gone. I’m all alone.”
The voice was urgent now. “Do it!”
Erin shyly approached the girl. “Um, are you alright, love? Do you need help?”
Jess took her hands from her face and raised red-rimmed eyes to look at Erin. She wiped her tears and sniffed back a bubble of snot, but there was no hiding her heart-ripped-to-shreds grief.
“Bet I look a sight,” she mumbled. “Thanks, but you can’t do anything. I’ve just got to carry on... …but …but …I don’t know how.”
Erin sat down next to her, saying nothing. What could she say? She just sat. And waited.
“Jon, my husband, was hit by a drunk driver last night. Died on the spot, even before the ambulance got there. The driver did a runner and of course his mates didn’t get the number… I told him not to go out with Darren… bloody idiot. He’s left me all alone, and I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
She flung her arms the dog and sobbed into its grey-specked fur.
“Now! Do it now,” hissed Jon. “You saw what George did. Just a touch. Put you hand on her shoulder or something. You’re a sympathetic stranger, it’s only natural.”
Tentatively, Erin reached out and patted the green wool of Jessie’s coat.
“Do you want go for a cup of tea or something?”
Jess looked up. “Tea? I’ve had enough tea to sink a battleship since the police knocked on my door last night. But thanks, anyway. You’re a good person. But I’ve just got to get used to him not being around anymore, haven’t I?”
Erin sat, awkwardly, unsure what to do next. Had she tagged Jess? Was Jon gone?
“Oh, for fu… I don’t bloody believe it. I didn’t work.”
He was still there.
“You must have done it wrong. Tag her again, harder this time.”
Jess got to her feet and gave a small sad smile. Erin took a step towards her, wondering how to touch her again without seeming creepy.
“Thanks for asking, but I’ll be alright,” sniffed Jessie. “I’ve got to be, haven’t I?”
Erin reached out and touched her elbow, probably more forcefully than necessary. Jessie didn’t notice a thing.
“Shit,” cursed Jon. “Still nothing.”
“I’ll come back tomorrow,” Erin told him. “Try again.”
Jess picked up Spike’s lead, and beckoned the dog. But it backed away and jumped up at Erin, who ruffled the rough hairs on its head and held his muzzle with its slobbering tongue at arm’s length.
Everything went quiet, no birds tweeting in the trees. Not even the roar of distant traffic. Then the moment was gone. Spike’s ears pricked up, he dropped to the ground and bounded to Jessie…
Jon didn’t know what had hit him. It was like he’d been shoved aside and sucked through a vacuum. He wasn’t in Erin anymore. He was somewhere else. It was warm, familiar… and slightly smelly.
He tried talking to his new host, but there were no words. Just feeling. Pure and simple. He looked up at Jessie’s tear-stained face and panted.
Erin watched, open-mouthed, not quite believing her eyes. Spike let out a series of yaps and happy whimpers, as Jess bent to his clip the lead onto his collar. She froze and looked deep into the mutt’s button bright eyes.
“I’m not alone,” she half-cried, half-laughed. “I’ve got you, haven’t I, boy? I’ll always have you.”
Silence reigned inside Erin’s head. “Jon has left the building,” she thought to herself with an inner smile.
He was back where he belonged. He was home.