Tim Lebbon

The May Special Guest Writer is Tim Lebbon

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tim Lebbon

by Tim Lebbon

In many ways, Ruth had never really left. But when she heard about the village being revealed again after six straight years of drought, she knew she had to go back. To see the only place where she had ever belonged. To relive that time when she had become her true self. 

To make sure.


She stood high on the hillside and looked down on the distant remains. She’d prepared herself for the emotions this moment might stir within her, but when the time came she was surprised, because she felt nothing. Not sadness or joy, not fear or delight. Perhaps she was too far away to really see.

She moved down the hillside, looking for somewhere to sit for a while. She found a small stone memorial, one of six that had been built around the valley using stones from the old demolished chapel, and sat on the ground beside it. Someone had left a small bunch of flowers there recently.  Though the petals were shrivelling and turning brown, they were still pretty. There was a card attached with scrawled writing fading to the elements, but she didn’t bother reading it.

From high up, the view across the valley brought back so many memories. She’d spent over twenty years of her life in the little village, most of them happy, the last few much less so, and she’d walked these hillsides many times before. She knew them well. Knew the sweeps and slopes, the streams and small ravines. The places to hide.

“Bloody hell,” she said softly, sighing into her cupped hands. It was getting chilly up here, even though the summer was not yet over, and the drought had sucked all but the final few pools of water from what was once a great reservoir. They said it would fill again, given time. They said it was an unusual occurrence, and one which the village’s exiled residents should not take advantage of to visit their old homes. It was dangerous, there were sinkholes and quicksands, the walls still standing would become unstable once they started drying out. But there were those who’d already vowed to return, and some who said they were looking for lost things. One old residents’ association had promised to remove any remaining structures and rebuild them higher on the hillside, tributes to the drowned village and those who had been forced to move from there. The local news even suggested there were those searching for a legendary hoard of jewellery that had been left behind.

People would be digging.

And that was why Ruth had to come. She could not allow anyone to go digging. Not after three decades of water had worked at the ground, washing it away here, burying it deeper there. Moving stuff around. Nothing was certain now that the tides of time had receded. After all these years had passed she had a whole new life to protect––a job as business manager of a large building firm, a husband, three great kids. She had respect in her London neighbourhood two hundred miles away.  She was growing through her middle age gracefully, and disgrace had no place in her life.

Most of all, she could not let her nightmare become real.

She shivered, but it was little to do with the chill. Standing, leaning back against the stone memorial, she accidentally kicked the bunch of flowers so that it fell over. Petals scattered, and a waft of sweet decay touched her nose.

Mud, must, dampness, the rich smell of muck upturned, her dream is all this, so much more tactile and sensory than is usual in a dream. Many times she wakes and looks around her bedroom, searching for a trace of mud on the sheets or damp footprints on the pale carpet. She laughs at herself afterwards, but for a few seconds after surfacing she is struggling to surface at all. Gerald’s hands are clawed around her shoulders, pulling her back down into the nightmare. She has the sense of a rapid, liquid movement beneath him, washing away his rot, flowing. His eyes are starting to open, bloodshot yellow orbs in the dark brown silt, rolling in their sockets as his face breaks surface and his mouth spews a deluge of foul muck. He cannot speak, but that says it all. 

And then he rises, and this is when she wakes.

“Fuck’s sake!” she said, angry at herself. The dreams never usually bothered her that much anymore, and they were so irregular that she easily forgot about them. Thinking about them now, here in the sunlight of a late Welsh afternoon, was just foolish. She was no fool. “Just concentrate, Ruth!” She shrugged the small rucksack higher on her shoulders and started down into the valley.

The walk down the hillside was surprisingly nostalgic, and while to begin with she did not recognise exact locations, she knew where she was. The lie of the land was familiar, its weight around her, the shape of the sky and the carved ridges separating them. It was as if she’d heaved on an old coat from decades ago and found that it still fitted.

She came across the copse of trees where she’d played with her friends when she was very young. They’d built a tree house, and though the structure itself was long gone, she was amazed to see a trace of decayed nails in the old oak’s trunk. She stared at these scars for a while, actually remembering tall, dreamy Gareth banging them in with a hammer he’d borrowed from his father. They’d had a picnic that same day – cheese sandwiches, lemonade, bitter apples scrumped from Mrs Machen’s garden – then later they’d raced back down the lane into the village. The lane was gone now, overgrown and subsumed into the deep hedgerow between fields. She wondered whether Gareth was gone as well. He and his family had left the village several years before it was flooded to make the new reservoir, having no part in the lengthy legal processes, disputes, and demonstrations, and she hadn’t heard of him since. He could be anywhere. Maybe he was dead.

Further down the hillside was a place that inspired a more complex mix of feelings. The old barn had been a ruin even thirty years before, and it was here that she and Gerald had first made love.  She had been nineteen, him a couple of years older. He’d brought a blanket and a bottle of cider, and under the blazing sun of a day very like today they had their first experience of each other. At the time it had been nice. It had hurt at first, but she had gone back to the village smiling and happy. It had become Their Place, and they’d ventured there another half-dozen times that summer to make love, becoming more and more daring in their explorations.   

The complexity of her feelings were because she only associated this place with good times. Gerald had only ever been loving and gentle here, nice to her, not violent and evil. That had all come later.

“Bastard,” she breathed, looking through a tangle of brambles and ferns at what was left of the barn.  Only one wall still stood, and it was held up by the undergrowth surrounding it. “You bastard.” Ruth was surprised to find tears blurring her vision and she angrily wiped them away.

As she walked further downhill she knew what was to come, but she tried to keep her eyes down, seeing only what was close by. Another field, an overgrown hedge where she had to trample ferns to find the stile, a woodland she could not remember being there, and then she emerged from beneath the shadows of trees and saw the full devastation before her.

The valley was gone, and it took her breath away. In its place was the remnant of the vast reservoir. Thirty feet ahead of her and slightly downhill, the dried reservoir bed began. It stretched right across the valley in every direction, a monochrome splash of nothing upon the rich green palette of the countryside. It was as if someone had come to paint this scene and had yet to finish, leaving only the background tone ready for colours of life, the final scenes, to be painted in. A reservoir, perhaps. Or a village.

Even this close it was all but camouflaged by the layers of silt. It had dried in the sun to a pale grey, though darker patches across the valley floor showed where water was still present. It was the ghost of the place where she had been born and brought up, and which even after so long she still thought of as home.

Despite everything that had happened here, it was still where she belonged.

Ruth started to cry. This time she did not wipe away the tears because they were for all the right reasons. Not Gerald, but everyone and everything else that village had been. Her parents, owners of the small shop for almost fifty years before she and Gerald had taken it over. Her friends, forging a life for themselves in that small community of fifty houses, a school, a chapel, and a corner store. The people whose ancestors had built the village, and whose descendants would only hear about the place on long-forgotten documentaries or obscure YouTube videos. And the village itself, a disorganised collection of buildings that had grown around the small, cheerful stream and the pond that it birthed. Such a happy place now made sad. Sadder still now that it was no longer only in her memory.

With the landscape so altered, it took her a while to figure out where the old shop had stood.  It took a little while longer to make out where the coal shed had been.

She hefted the rucksack, heard the clank of metal tools inside, and took her first step out into the grey.


Ruth stood in the space where she used to live and looked around at what was left. There was more than elsewhere. The shop that had been in her family for generations was no longer recognisable, but the layout was still familiar to her. The end wall had fallen, but front and rear walls still stood, and the top third of the fireplace was visible in the other end wall above the silt. There were even the stubs of shelf brackets still evident between stone joints, though the counter behind which she’d stood for several years had rotted to nothing. The doorway behind the counter, leading into the rest of the house, was half an arch.   

Silt filled the room, feet deep. It clung to everything, painting it greyer than the vaguest of memories.

Gerald had proposed to her in this room, one evening when she was tidying the shop and locking up for her parents. He had first punched her here, too, close to the doorway. The first real punch.

She crouched and ducked through the half-arch, and then she was in the room where she had killed him.

The staircase was gone. The hallway was misshapen, one wall bowed inward to such an extent that she crept carefully back out, certain that it would fall at any moment. She retreated from the remains of the house, and only then did she see the drift of smoothed silt piled against the other side of the wall. 

She stared into that space and remembered what she had done.

He has her pushed against the hardwood staircase, bannisters pressing uncomfortably against her back, the stench of booze about him, hair greasy and stringy where it hangs over his once-handsome face, and it’s all so unfair. Not in this house. This should always have been her happy place. In a way that’s what upsets her more – that he can hurt her here, where her parents were always so kind, where memories were always so fine. He’s marring those memories, and she hates him for it. That, and other things.

“You never would,” he says, stumbling forward. His confidence is his downfall. She does not lower the knife, and his clumsy strike fails to turn it aside.

Ruth gasped and raised a hand to her mouth as she remembered. Seeing the place brought the memory fresher than ever before, with every smell and sight, every sound of flowing blood and dying breaths.

She sobbed, once, and then gathered herself and stood straight once again. It had been a long time ago. The guilt was a faded thing, mellowed by time in the manner of grief. She had never doubted that she’d done the right thing, but for years afterwards she had beat herself up about it, in those long quiet times when she was on her own. He’d cast his evil shadow over her even after his death – in guilt, and fear of being found out – and she hated the fucker even more for that. 

Now she was here to make sure it remained history.

The coal bunker was close to the back of the house, and the small, heavy stone structure had withstood much of what had been thrown against it. The level of silt inside seemed lower than elsewhere, as if the ground itself had sunk away beneath the weight.

Sunk into a void, she thought with a shiver. As she shrugged the rucksack from her back, she had the sudden sense that someone was watching her.

She stood up straight and looked around. Everything had changed without her noticing. It was suddenly quieter, more still, the landscape holding its breath. Even the sunlight seemed flatter than before, a memory of heat. She felt eyes upon her – skin tingling, hairs on the back of her neck standing on end. 

“Hello?” she said, but not too loud. Shouting seemed out of place here, as if the remains of the village were sacred.

If there was someone there, they were intentionally hiding away.

Ruth turned a full circle, seeing no one. But she did see the village as it had been in memory – the heavy bank of trees and bushes at the bottom of her garden, the several houses surrounding hers, the pub, the church spire that had been demolished before the valley was flooded. Some of the bodies in the graveyard had been disinterred and buried elsewhere, others remained where they had rested for a century or more. The gravestones had all been removed and a layer of gravel and concrete poured over the graves, but nothing could hide the fact that hundreds still lay there. 

Hundreds, plus one more that must never be known.

She pieced together the segmented spade, stepped into the roofless coal bunker, and pressed the blade against the dried silt. That first cut into the muddy ground shocked her rigid as –

– the blade opens his skin and slips inside, smooth, meeting little resistance against his hated flesh. Gerald gasps and his eyes go wide. He lashes out at her. She pulls out the knife, shocked at what has happened, terrified at what she has done, and before she can drop it he lunges closer to her, impaling himself again. The metal whispers against flesh, warmth flows across her hand, her husband’s expression shifts from shock to pain.“Ow. Ouch!”

She almost laughs.

He slumps a little, tugging the knife and her hand down with him, his clothes lifting so that she can see the pouting, leaking wounds and the blade still clasped tight between his ribs –

– the spade opened the soil in a fine, dry smile. She pulled back a little, staring at the wound she’d placed in the land. It pouted.

And someone was watching her, she could feel it across very inch of exposed skin, a creeping awareness that she had felt before but never questioned. Sixth sense, some people called it, but she’d never felt the need to put a name to what she knew.

“Who are you?” she shouted. “Where are you?” Her voice echoed across the barren, monotone landscape, the sound flat as if the greyness had stolen its life.

“Ruth Games,” a voice said. She jumped, dropped the spade and turned around, and a man was standing thirty metres from her. 

Gerald, it’s Gerald, and his eyes will be filled with mud!

But that was ridiculous. She barked a nervous laugh and raised a hand in greeting. 

He must have emerged from behind the stone wall standing there, the last remnant of one of the three Franklee Cottages that had once stood along the lane from her home and shop. The wall was clotted with dried mud and shrivelled water plants, and several holes in its upper reach held the rotten remains of roof timbers. “Ruth Games, it really is you.”

“Gareth?” she breathed. He seemed taller than he’d ever been, gaunter, and his rich hair had mostly fallen away, those few fine strands remaining grey as the landscape around them.

He smiled. It should have illuminated his face, but somehow it avoided his eyes.

“It’s so good to see you,” he said.

“It’s been ...”

“Over thirty years.” His smile faded a little, still touching his lips. “Thirty-five? You’re looking good.”

“For my age,” she said, berating herself. Was she really slipping into flirt mode? Here, now? She’d always held a torch for Gareth, even though they’d never been more than teenaged friends. She had often wondered how different her life might have been if she’d tried to turn that torch into a blaze.

“It’s strange being back,” he said. He walked closer, limping slightly. She was shocked that this slight weakness in him upset her. “Especially as it all looks so familiar.”

“Really?” she asked.

“Well ...” He looked around some more, never focussing on one thing for more than a second or two. Even her. “Well, after so long away I can still see things ... still remember ...”

“I found where we built the treehouse.”

“Oh, that old thing.” Gareth’s gaze flickered left and right, and every now and then he looked down at his empty hands.

“Why did you come?” Ruth asked. It suddenly seemed like a very important question.

“I’m looking for something.”

“Me too,” she said. They stood in silence for a while, surrounded by the washed-out remains of the place they’d both once called home. They had a shared history, and in this ruined village where time was blurred it felt so recent. He’d been tall and effortlessly graceful, a twinkle in his eye that all the village girls liked, imbued with a deep-set kindness that Ruth’s mother had once called beautiful. 

“Well ...” this older version of Gareth said. “I’ll keep looking. Others will be here soon, so they reckon. People digging. I want to find it before them.”

“Me too,” she whispered. She was going to ask what he sought, and why, and what he’d been doing for all those years. But suddenly three decades felt like nothing. It was their time in the village that mattered, back then where they were mere kids, and now, when she was here to protect the memory of her past and however much future she had left.

He smiled, turned, started walking away. But she called him back.

“Gareth!” He turned around again. “This evening, will you sit on the hillside with me? We can watch the sun go down on the village, reminisce. I have wine and some food in my car, and I was going to camp. Just like the old days. Will you?”

“Of course,” he said. 

She watched him disappear eventually behind hills of dried mud and tumbled walls, and when she started digging again, she no longer felt eyes on her. 

It must have been him.


Evening fell quickly in the valley. She was deep, but not deep enough. Her husband and children thought she was in Nottingham at a conference, and what would they think of her now? Digging in filth, seeking a corpse, moving herself closer to a secret that was hers alone? She was sweating, uncomfortable, hungry and thirsty, and knew that she needed to rest. There was a heavy sleeping bag in her rucksack, and the green hillside had never been so inviting.

She was covered in dust, as grey and timeless as the village she had returned to.

But she decided to keep digging. With every three spadefuls she removed from the hole, two more slipped back in when the sides collapsed. The fine, dusty silt was still damp this far down, but also fragile and wont to slump at the slightest disturbance. 

They’ll dig, she thought. They’ll come to see what they can find, tourists and historians and old residents of the village. While she was living there, no one had reason to go excavating her garden. Under fifty feet of water, her secret should always have been safe. But now the novelty hunters would come, and the history seekers. She could not risk them finding Gerald down there after all this time, did not want to consider the uproar and the gossip that would ensue. It had been hanging over her forever.

She’d told everyone that Gerald had run away with a student from Cardiff. Those who knew him well had no trouble believing that of him, and those who did not – some of her family, friends, people from other villages – only felt sorry for her. Ruth played the part of the betrayed wife for a while, but then the plans to abandon the village and flood the valley came, and everyone had more important things to think about. Not at all sure she’d got away with it, she shovelled coal, but never let it get so low that she saw the compacted earth floor of the bunker, beneath which lay his shallow grave. 

And sometimes she had those dreams.

His foul mouth that had kissed and bitten her, rotten teeth, peeling skin over mummified flesh, the flow of water somewhere deep beneath him, and the soft, susurrant shhhh as he pushed up from below and grit slipped away from his face, his nose, his open eyes ... and they had always been open, even in his grave. Open, and searching for her.

“Damn it.” She kicked a pile of soil and watched it disintegrate, hearing no whispers.

One more time she pressed the spade in, moving soil, searching for her murdered husband before anyone else came and found him. But she went no deeper.

The lush green hillsides called to her. She went, crying, trying to convince herself it was because she had grit in her eye.


She walked back uphill to where she’d parked her car, taking a head torch from her rucksack for the
last scramble up the steep slope. The back seat of the BWM was tempting, but something about sleeping out under the stars attracted her. 

There was Gareth, too. She didn’t like the idea of him sitting down there waiting for her. She didn’t want to disappoint. Hopefully by this time tomorrow she would be on her way home to her normal, safe, secure life, but for now he was her link to a past she enjoyed remembering. A past before Gerald.

I don’t know him anymore, she thought, thinking of Gareth’s thinning, grey hair and the limp. But though that was true, their old friendship still hung between them. Besides, she could look after herself.

By the time she walked downhill again it was dark, the landscape lit by star and moonlight, her torch splashing her route. She paused several times and turned it off, and the reflection of moonlight from the vast expanse of dried reservoir bed was eerie. It was a silvery colour, dusty, dead. She imagined shapes walking there at night, and she was suddenly pleased that she would have some company.

Gareth called her over when he saw the torch, and she found him standing close to the copse of trees she had visited earlier. He was smiling.

“I found it too,” he said, pointing up into the canopy.

“You hammered your thumb,” she said. “It might have been the only time I heard you swear.”

“Fucking hurt.” He sounded so sad.

“I have a bottle of wine,” she said. “No tent, but you can have my sleeping mat. I’ll just use the sleeping bag. That okay?”

“If that’s okay with you, Ruth.”        

They sat close together, and Gareth spent half an hour building a small fire. They chatted about old times – friends they’d had, incidents, people from the village. Only after a while did their questions and comments involve anything later than the day Gareth and his family had left the village. Initially they didn’t even talk about the compulsory purchase of houses and businesses and the construction of the reservoir. There was no need, because it was not part of a history that linked them.

They passed the bottle back and forth. It grew cold, and they both slipped on warmer clothing. At last their talk brought them closer to the present.

“I hear you married Gerald?”

“Huh. Yeah.”

“Nice bloke.”

“He was a prick.”

“Oh. So what happened?”

“He ran off with a student from Cardiff.” It sounded so false, so ridiculous, that she thought Gareth would laugh in her face. But he said nothing. He stared out over the silvery valley. Something seemed to haunt him, shadowing his features and stealing the life from his eyes.

“What is it?” Ruth asked. “What’s bothering you so much?”           

“This place,” he said. “It’s just ... weird. When we left I never thought I’d see it again. And when I heard about the reservoir drying up and the old place resurfacing, I thought it’d be an opportunity. But I wish I hadn’t come back.”


“It’s not the place it used to be.” He shrugged. He was stating the obvious.  
But later, as Ruth huddled in the sleeping bag and tried to get to sleep, she began to think that he spoke a much deeper truth.


She knew that she was dreaming ...

Gerald stalked from beneath the trees, laughing, cursing, spitting soil from his mouth. He was wearing the clothes she’d buried him in, his body withered and leathery, eyes rolling in their sockets.

“Stupid bitch,” he said, the words he’d spewed on her time and again. “Look at you. Look at you!”  He raised his hand and pointed the knife at her. She’d left it buried in his gut, but now it was in his hand, blade still keen after all these years. 

She was trapped in her slapping bag, unable to move, stand, run. She rolled like a butterfly constrained inside its chrysalis. Perhaps with the knife Gerald would free her.

She screamed, because it was so unfair.

It was the first time she had dreamed of him out of the ground. She knew that she was dreaming.

But still ...

She snapped awake, breathing hard, listening for her screams echoing across the landscape. Birds sang. A gentle breeze muttered between the trees.

She struggled quickly from the sleeping bag and looked around, but she was alone on the hillside.  Gareth was gone. He’d left her a note rolled in the neck of the empty wine bottle, written on an envelope.


I’m going home. I realise I won’t find what I’m looking for here. Maybe you won’t either. Think about it before you go back down there, won’t you? I don’t like that place anymore. It’s not where we used to live and had those great times.

Thanks for remembering them with me. Take care.



She felt sad. She did as Gareth had suggested and thought about it. 

Then she packed her stuff and walked back down towards the old village.


She saw them from far away. They were the only splash of colour on the landscape. Dread filled her as she approached, but her feet took her rapidly closer, puffing up clouds of dust as she drew nearer to her old, fallen home.

There were maybe eight or nine people gathered there. Others were walking around the rest of the village, and Ruth wished that she’d finished her work yesterday. It would be so much harder today. Digging, retrieving, hiding the remains ...

Some of them turned to watch her approach. One shape lifted a hand and waved, and for a moment she thought it was Gareth. But this man was much older, shorter, and his other hand clasped an old woman’s arm. She seemed ready to drop. 

They were gathered around the dangerously leaning wall at the back of her old house.

Her heart hammered. Turn and go, she thought. Get the hell out. Get away

Twenty metres from them she slowed, not wishing to approach the house. 

“What is it?” she asked. But none of them answered, because moments later she saw.

The shape was huddled on top of the wall, exposed for the world to see. The skeleton sat – clothes rotted to scraps, dark hide visible here and there, shreds of dirty hair stuck to its browned skull – as if it had just finished watching the sunrise. It was hunched down, but not so low that she could not see both of its arms bent inwards, both hands resting around the wood-handled knife protruding from its belly.

“Oh, my God,” she whispered. “My God.”

“Quite,” the old man said. 

The slope of silt dried against the wall showed a mess of thin scratch marks, trails perhaps put there by loose skeletal digits. No shoe or footprints. No sign that anyone alive had placed the remains on view.

It seemed to be grinning at her. Staring right at her. Look at you!

Ruth turned away. She was going to walk, but she started to stagger. She did not want to attract attention, but she started to run. Out of the village, up the slope to the point where grey turned to green, still she felt those hollowed eyes watching her go, and heard that hate-filled voice mocking her every step of the way.

She fled her past. But eventually it would catch up.

Tim Lebbon is a New York Times-bestselling writer from South Wales. He’s had over thirty novels published to date, as well as hundreds of novellas and short stories. His latest novel is the thriller The Family Man, and other recent releases include The Silence The Hunt, and The Rage War trilogy. He has won four British Fantasy Awards, a Bram Stoker Award, and a Scribe Award, and has been a finalist for World Fantasy, International Horror Guild and Shirley Jackson Awards.

The movie of his story Pay the Ghost, starring Nicolas Cage, was released Hallowe'en 2015, and several other novels and screenplays are in development.

Find out more about Tim at his website HERE


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