Kevin McDevitt is a Galway-based writer, and originally hails from Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. This short story is his first publication with An Áit Eile. When he’s not dabbling in fiction he enjoys writing plays (and sometimes he invites his friends over to act them out in his kitchen when they’ve been drafted!) He is involved with The Theatre Room, Galway. He is also partial to vegetarian dinners and long walks on the beach. An Áit Eile is proud to present his short story ‘The Next Town Over’ below. Check it out!

  It seems that everyone is afraid of me. In this little town
   From the moment I open the door in the morning, before I am even able to plant
my feet on the paving stones, they all scatter – throwing themselves over walls,
commando style, crashing through hedges and shimmying up lampposts. Or just
piling haphazardly into one another’s houses. All in a desperate attempt to get
away.
  While I am forced to idle on the doorstep, waiting for things to settle down, and
give the stragglers enough time to untangle their limbs and limp away. I suppose I
am expected to ignore the ones, who having frozen at the vital moment, are now
cowering behind post boxes or lying face down in piles of rubbish from
overturned wheelie bins, that they have thrown over themselves in a pathetic
attempt at camouflage.
  As I stroll past them, I do my best to assume a casual indifference, slipping my
hands into my pockets and striking up a cheerful whistle. But they only throw their
hands over their ears, rocking back and forth, as if this is the most unbearable
sound ever to descend upon human consciousness.
  Because it’s not just fear that I encounter there every day on the street. It’s terror.
If it was only fear then it might not be so bad. The fear such as one feels for a local
mob boss or a corrupt official. I imagine that kind of fear, I might even be able to
enjoy it. But alas no. It’s pure, white-eyeballed terror. And it seems to be getting
worse.
  Perhaps there was something I could have done in the beginning. When they
were only avoiding my eyes, or crossing quickly to the opposite footpath when
they saw me coming up the street. But it happened so fast. And to be honest at first
I was not all together put out by it. I never really had much time for the banal
pleasantries of these simple country folk. Don’t get me wrong, I’m from the town
myself. Or least I’ve lived here for as long as I can remember. But I never felt like I
belonged the same as the rest of them.
  For the life of me I cannot figure out what it is that they are so afraid of. I am not
a big man. Not imposing at all, with my short, narrow frame and small, feminine
hands. My eyes are pale and watery, not penetrating or deep. My voice is thin and
ragged. I have a shuffling, nervous gait and even a slight limp from the time that I
was hit by a cyclist when I was a boy.
  Yet even from a distance they are able to recognize me, dropping everything in
that instant and racing off in the opposite direction. Nor do disguises fool them.
No matter how I change my clothes, or wear my hat, they always know me
immediately.
  What could it be? I ask myself, trudging alone up and down the empty streets,
listening to the screams fading into the distance. I have not changed my cologne or
my shampoo. Every morning I eat the same breakfast cereal that I always have,
and in the same manner, pouring the milk in first and then adding the flakes
scattershot so as to avoid sogginess. I never have more than one glass of wine at
night. I have not been sleepwalking. When I look in the mirror I see a man,
painfully unremarkable, but hardly grotesque. And only a little older than the last
time I checked. My nails are decently pared. I am always clean-shaven.
  Believe me. On this matter I have racked my brains to confusion. Evening after
evening, poring over the dreary, dust-clogged album of my memories. Searching
for some misdeed that might have caused my character to be blackened, finding
nothing. There have been no confrontations. I have never run afoul of the law. And
I have taken great care to exclude myself from the many poisonous disputes and
smouldering resentments that inevitably build up over years in a place such as this.
Like the fetid humours of the bog. Indeed I can think of not a single encounter that
has ended with anything other the usual humdrum conformities. The empty, wind-
snatched syllables of any small, mostly forgotten town.
  But still it continues. Now even when I have the good grace to stay at home. All
day long and all night, helicopters clatter across the sky above my house, flying so
low as to make the windows rattle. It really is absurd. After all, it must be costing the
town a fortune to keep an eye on me in this way, and meanwhile there are potholes
on the main street the size of rugby balls, and broken bottles beneath the swings in the
playground. Plus the helicopters make it impossible for me to get any sleep. I have
to show myself out in the garden if I want to steer them away, jumping up and
down on the lawn in my pajamas, waving my arms. Then they content themselves
with patrolling in a wide circle out around the edges of the town for a while, but as
soon as I go back inside there they return, buzzing overhead, sweeping their
searchlights back and forth over the neighbourhood. There have been times when I
have ended up sleeping out there just to get some peace and quiet.
  However, I should say that my situation is not entirely miserable. I can go
anywhere I want. No door is ever barred against me. What a pleasure it is to
complete my daily regiment of laps at the hotel swimming pool undisturbed. Or to
put my feet up in an empty cinema and watch a film in peace. No more screeching
children doing cannonballs, or popcorn munchers drowning out the dialogue. It’s
heaven really.
  And there are no more queues lying about the place to ensnare me with delays. At
the post office, or the butcher shop. When I am in need of groceries I simply take
what I need from the store; the best, most unblemished produce laid out before
me, making sure to leave the money clearly in view on top of the counter, or if I’m
lacking the correct change I’ll call out in a loud, indifferent voice “I’m coming over
to the other side now!” giving whomever is hiding behind a chance to scurry away
to safety. And once they’ve gone I can take what I need from the open till. I always
try to be scrupulously honest in this regard, ringing up all the items and filling out
I.O.Us if necessary, and if i do, on occasion take a few cents extra here and there,
who could blame me? After the way I’ve been treated.
  Because it does get to you in the end. The loneliness. And the endless reproach.
Lately I find myself acting more and more strangely, at times wholly absorbed in
the dutiful commission of bizarre fantasies, often in full view of the town. I might
pretend I’m an outlaw. Like in an old western, marching up and down the deserted
main street, twirling an imaginary six shooter in either hand and shouting for the
town sheriff to come out and face me like a man.
  “Come on out, you yeller bellied rat” I’ll scream. In a voice like John Wayne
choking on a whistle. Then with my index finger extended and my thumb cocked,
I’ll swing my gaze around in a long, slow circle, watching the faces at the windows
fall away like dominoes, and I get such a kick out of it, I really do.
  And I have started leaving threatening notices about the place, on telephone
poles, in shop windows, smiling in the most unhinged manner as I do it. I’ll post a
note that says THERE SHOULD BE A BICYCLE RACK ON THIS CORNER, OR
ELSE! Or when I’m leaving the cinema NEXT TIME A PLATTER OF FRESH
FRUIT MUST BE PLACED NEXT TO SEAT 21B BEFORE THE 8 O’CLOCK
SHOW. FURTHERMORE ALL ADVERTS WILL BE REMOVED FROM THE
FILM REEL. NO EXCEPTIONS! Or I’ll just slip little pieces of paper into the
church bulletin that read FAILURE TO COMPLY WITH ANY OF THE
DIRECTIVES WILL RESULT IN DIRE CONSEQUENCES FOR ALL!
  It really worries me, this behaviour. It isn’t like me at all, and naturally it only
serves to make the situation worse. Still I can’t seem to help myself. I am afraid that
I am becoming permanently transformed by my experiences here, and in the
worst possible way. Even more disturbing are the thoughts that come seeping,
from the black borders of my mind, at night when I am trying to sleep, listening to
the helicopters circle endlessly overhead; thoughts that I can hardly believe to be
the products of my own, up until this point limited imagination. Even of that light
swallowing, un-landscaped underworld that is said to lurk always beneath the
bright crescent of our waking minds. That people call the unconscious. Dark,
torturous thoughts, that nevertheless set my pulse to racing and send shivers of
nervous anticipation to the root of my skull. The worst of which, is that lately, I
have begun to imagine, to actually entertain the possibility of frightening
someone, one of those poor cowering wretches that so revile me, even up to the
point of death.
  It would amount to murder I know, and though it horrifies me I cannot escape
the sense of inevitability and relief that washes over me as I imagine myself
walking casually up towards one of those hunched trembling figures, placing my
hand gently on his shoulder and slowly tightening my grip, feeling the first spasms
loosening muscle from flesh, and then the building cataclysm of bones unknitting
and blood vessels burned up like fuses to the rattling ordinance of his collapsing
heart…
  What is happening to me? Have I become the same monster that the townspeople
fear me to be? Do I really deserve their reprobation? Perhaps, but I hope that I’m
am not yet beyond repair, and in any case there is no more time to be hanging
around, waiting for solutions to present themselves. Not with the chance that I
might, at any moment, be unable to prevent myself from doing something
unspeakable. This is the reason that I have decided to leave town forever.
I have decided to head for the next town over, I think it should be no more than a
good day’s walk. I have heard that in the next town over there is a McDonald’s
restaurant and, in the swimming pool, a jacuzzi and a steam room, and even a gym
overlooking the pool. Their cinema, which they lavish with the opulent title of
‘Omniplex’ is said to contain eight screens instead of one, and the bells in their church
tower are the size of hay bales, and the earth shakes when they ring. The next town
over is almost twice the size of this one. There, the people are strangers to one
another, and do their business without concern for the contents of each other’s
lives or who your grandparents were, and you can pass them in the street without a
word or even a nod, and you might never see them again for the whole of your
life.
  I hope that in the next town over I can finally find some peace. How I long to feel
the mechanical curiosity of glances that slide, and never catch, and the cold
shoulder of the man at the bus stop. Where nobody knows your name, and the
traffic is louder than your most outraged thought. Where you can feel yourself
fading with every mad howl, tossed vagrant against the overhanging night, and
every indifferent siren that passes like delirious laughter beneath your window.
And nobody is afraid of anything but their own reflection in the mirror, and when
you step from your doorway nothing happens at all but the click of the lock, and
the traffic beyond still moving.

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