All his mates had already reached their stops by the time Tom finally got off the bus. No one else got off with him, but it was past midnight and the only other passenger had been a drunk who was passed out in his seat.
Tom stepped onto the silent street and turned his collar up against the cold march air. Frost was already sparkling on the pavement in the unnatural orange light of the streetlamps. The shadows between the lights were as black as obsidian, hiding all evidence that anything existed there at all. Tom shivered, maybe from cold, he shoved his hands into his jacket pockets and turned towards home.
It had been a good night. They had gone to a club, Chandra had tried to chat up some girl and got a drink thrown over him. Tom chuckled as he remembered. After that they'd given up trying to pull and just got drunk.
Tom didn't feel drunk now. The cold air must have sobered him up. He left the main road and headed through the estate towards his block. The night was dark, in the distance he heard the thumping of some kid's car stereo system pumping out the latest dance track.
Tom wished he could afford a car. He wished he could afford to move off the estate. He'd lived there all of his twenty-five years but harboured dreams of getting out of that dump. So far things weren't going to plan. He should probably stop wasting money on alcohol and cigarettes and nights on the town, he reasoned, knowing full well he'd be out again come the next weekend.
There was no one else about, out on the main road a police car siren screeched into life and faded again. The other tower blocks loomed high overhead, a few lights were still visible in some of the windows, he could hear a baby crying from somewhere and the angry shouts of people arguing. The usual sounds of life on the estate, night or day, hundreds of lives being lived out, one on top of the other, hundreds of people dreaming of better things without any real hope of escape.
The towers were like giant black monoliths against the ever present orange glare from the city lights beyond. It was even darker on the path between the towers, and they channelled the icy wind, cutting at Tom's ears like razor blades. He walked faster.
He started at a sound ahead of him. Probably just kids messing about, or could be a mugger, maybe a drunk looking for trouble. Tom wasn't afraid, he could handle himself in a fight, he'd just rather avoid one right now. He just wanted to get home and put the TV on. No way was he going to turn tail and take the long way round. He sighed in irritation and felt his adrenalin surge as he walked forward purposefully.
He rounded some bins, his hands bunched into fists ready. There was nothing there. He laughed at himself. Jumping at shadows now, good job his mates weren't here, he'd never live it down. He carried on walking. The security light in the front entrance to his flats was visible now and he cut across a worn patch of grass to get there quicker.
The sound of music reached his ears, not unusual, except it wasn't the blaring dance or pop music you usually heard on the estate. It was a strange, gentle kind of music, like the sound of the wind when it blew a gale round the towers. But there was no gale tonight.
Ahead of him, in the dark of the alley beside the building something moved. Tom's heart pounded. Idiot, he told himself, it's just a fox, or a rat. Why was he so jumpy tonight? It was probably those stories going about, even the tabloids had latched onto it. Some psychic weirdo had claimed that every seven years someone mysteriously vanished from the estate.
Stupid. People were always coming and going from estates like these. Most didn't leave a forwarding address. Tom felt irritated. Other people might leave, but he was stuck here, at least for now and he wasn't going to be afraid. He strode towards the door.
Before he reached the entrance his attention was once more on the dark alley. A tiny glimmer of light like a fag end or a pen light was flickering in the darkness. OK, so it wasn't the local wildlife, Tom thought, more like the local nightlife, probably a druggie out for a smoke. The music seemed to be coming from the alley too; it was faint, like the half-heard music from someone else's headphones.
For some reason Tom found himself striding towards the alley. What are you doing, he asked himself, you're gonna get yourself killed. But another side of him was determined to face the fear that had so unsettled him.
The light kept blinking on and off and jumping about making light trails in the air. Then another appeared, and another. Tom decided it wasn't worth getting his head kicked in and tried to turn back to the door, but like a runaway train, he found he no longer had any choice; his feet carried him inexorably towards the alley.
The lights vanished as Tom stepped into the shadow of the building yet he continued forward, still propelled by that inexplicable momentum. He was blinded by the darkness. Everything around him was black. Not even the glow of the streetlights penetrated this alley. He felt sure that every step would send him sprawling over rubbish bags or abandoned shopping trolleys.
Then a light reappeared, closer now but still tiny. Tom found himself looking down at a tiny glowing shape. It had the same glow as the neon lights from the club, but it was coming from a creature. Tom blinked and stared down at it. It was only the size of a rat, but it had the shape of a man. A small glowing humanoid figure. That'll teach me to mix beer and spirits, Tom told himself.
The figure was dancing in a strange fluid motion, slowly stepping forward with each beat of the music in a shuffling writhing dance. More lights reappeared and Tom saw that each one was another tiny figure. They faded out of the darkness, lighting up like a string of fairy lights leading away down the alley. Each figure was slightly different, yet all were uncanny. They danced in line, the same strange slow dance of that first creature, and Tom found himself caught up in the hypnotic movements until he too was dancing.
Though the dance was slow, and the stride of the dancers infinitesimal, Tom felt as if they were moving at great speed, if not through space, then maybe though time. The dark tower blocks melted away until Tom looked up through a silhouetted canopy of branches and leaves to see the twinkling stars beyond.
Tom couldn't remember the last time he had seen the stars, you couldn't see them for the light pollution in the city. But he saw them clearly now, a great river of them running from horizon to horizon, clear against the midnight blue of the sky.
The moon rose and set, rose and set, rose and set. Tom lost count of how many times. The procession of dancers led him on. He never saw the sun.
The full moon rose high once more and the dance slowed. Tom found himself at the centre as the creatures began to dance round and round him. The light from the moon lit upon the landscape showing him he was in a clearing of an ancient forest. Oaks with massive wrinkled trunks, tall and stately beech, alder, elm and more stretched as far as the eye could see in the crisp moonlight.
Is this the past or the future, Tom wondered. He was surprised when his unvoiced question was answered.
"It is the past and the future" said the newcomer. Another being of shining light was approaching the ring of fairy dancers from out of the forest. Once Tom could see past the glare of the creatures glow he was surprised to see what seemed to be an ordinary woman. Ordinary apart from the fact she was clothed in leaves and her eyes were as wild as the wood about them. Ordinary except for she was the most beautiful and elegant woman Tom had ever seen.
"What do you want with me?" Tom asked.
"We are the wood," The woman said and her voice was the breeze through leaves. "We once were, we are, and we will be again. Every seven years we may take back a piece of what was once ours. It is our memorial that all you humans do will decay and in time the land will always be restored to us."
"But what do you want with me! I didn't concrete over your wood; I didn't chop down the trees, that was centuries ago before I was even born!" Tom protested.
"You too were once of the wood, now you will be again." The woman raised her hands and the tiny dancing creatures, who had never stopped their slow revolutions around Tom, joined their voices to the music as they danced. The dance got faster and faster and the voices became louder and louder until Tom felt like he was at the centre of a hurricane. The dancing beings blurred into each other so that all Tom could see of them was a line of light flashing past him.
Tom tried to step out of the ring but to his alarm he found his feet were rooted to the spot. His whole body began to feel heavy and stiff, and he felt wet soil around his feet, seeping into his trainers. The light grew brighter until it was blinding, until at last he had to shut his eyes, and even then he could not block out the light.
And for a time, Tom knew nothing at all.
It was like coming out of a deep, deep sleep when Tom finally opened his eyes. He hoped very much that he would find himself in his bed, with a hangover and that last night had all been a dream.
But as he opened his eyes he knew it had not been a dream. The woman, the creature whatever she was, was standing before him still. She looked pale now and he realised he could see the dawn light through her form. He could see the tower blocks again too, grey in the pre-dawn light.
"You won't be able to move once the sun comes up." The woman told him.
Tom found he could hardly move even now. He managed to move his head enough to take a look around. He was standing at the edge of the estate where the scrub the council neglected to clear was slowly encroaching on the buildings. Tom remembered messing about among these trees when he was a kid, scaring the local grannies. He'd smoked his first cigarette behind one of these bushes.
"What have you done to me?" Tom asked his voice no more than a raspy whisper.
"Once a mighty oak stood on this spot, one day it will do so again." The woman said smiling, her eyes full of that radiant light even as the rest of her shape shimmered like mist. "But you have many years to grow before then young sapling."
Tom looked down at his feet, but to his horror he did not see feet. Instead he saw a slender trunk and roots reaching into the cold damp earth. He looked up and saw his branches reaching above, young green leaves fluttering in the breeze eager to catch the first light of the day.
The last thing Tom saw was the rays of the rising sun piercing the woman's ethereal body as it dissolved in the morning light. Then Tom was Tom no more, only a young oak sapling had appeared on the edge of the estate and around its trunk was a perfect ring of tiny mushrooms.