Authors: Alex North
Tags: #Thriller, #Horror, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult
“I hope so,” I said.
And I felt that warm feeling in my chest again as I watched her walk to the door. A small light in the shadows. It was like a candle flame I wanted to cup with my hands, blow on gently, and bring to brighter life. But, of course, there was always a danger when you did that.
Always a risk you would blow it out instead.
Do something about it.
Jenny’s words remained with me the next morning, and as I showered in the small beige stall in the old bathroom, I decided she was right.
Oh God, it’s in the house, Paul.
It’s in the fucking house!
Whatever my mother meant when she said it was in the house, it was probably nothing. There was nothing to be afraid of here, and I thought that before I finally did leave this place forever, I needed to find out for certain. When I turned the shower off and began drying myself, it felt like the silence in the house was humming.
I had been attempting to do some work in my old bedroom, and my laptop was set up on the desk there. After I was dressed, I walked in and moved it to one side. Then I picked up the box of my teenage belongings and emptied the contents methodically onto the desk, one item at a time.
The notebooks and dream diary.
The writing magazine.
The slim hardback book.
Each item brought a flash of recognition. They felt like magical artifacts that, together, told a kind of story. I picked up the magazine, the old pages coarse and stiff against my fingers, and saw the cover—
The Writing Life
—then turned it over and read the back, feeling the years slipping away from me. I put it down again. Despite my fresh resolve, the narrative told by these things was not one I was prepared to follow through from beginning to end just yet. And despite what I’d suggested to Jenny, while my mother had clearly been looking through the box, I wasn’t convinced it was this she had been referring to.
So what was it?
Until now, I’d spent much of my time in the house tidying: wiping down the surfaces in the kitchen; removing the blankets from the front room and storing them in the wardrobe; sweeping and polishing. But rather than being productive, it had felt like procrastination. Now I steeled myself and set about trying to answer the question my mother’s words had set for me. I opened drawers and cabinets, rattling through the contents. I pulled out clothes and scattered them, and lifted cushions and piled them on the floor. After days of approaching the house with care, I dedicated myself to the opposite now: grabbing it and pulling out its stuffing, searching for anything that might explain what she’d said.
Or at least, nothing that helped. But there were memories here, fluttering out of the seams of the house like dust. Working through my mother’s clothes, I recognized items I remembered her wearing: old jeans, worn through over the years and patched at the knees and the side of the hips; the flimsy black coat she’d always managed with in winter; a bag full of shoes, paired upside down and pressed so flat they seemed glued together.
And alongside the memories were mysteries: artifacts of a life I knew little of. In a small jewelry box I discovered rings and bracelets, and a locket on a chain that, when I clipped it open, revealed an oval
black-and-white photo of a woman I didn’t recognize. My grandmother, perhaps, but it was impossible to tell, as even the parts of my past I hadn’t chosen to forget were shrouded in mist. It occurred to me that, when my mother died, I would be all that was left of a family I hadn’t known, and for a moment all my adult confidence evaporated and I was left feeling lost and unmoored.
But the strangest thing was the photographs, which I found gathered haphazardly in a shoebox, filling it to the brim. I emptied it onto the bed and then spread the photos out, forming an overlapping mosaic on the sheets. There was no order to it. Different points in the past mingled freely, resting above and below each other; people and places from separate ages sat side by side.
I was there.
I picked up a photograph of me as a baby, cradled in my mother’s arms. I was crying, but while she looked exhausted, she was smiling. There was one of me on the driveway, maybe about three or four years old, toddling along and grinning happily at someone outside of the frame. Six years old, riding a bike with training wheels. A school photo at eight or nine, my home-cut hair slightly ragged and my cheeks dotted with freckles. My eleventh birthday, with my hands thrust in my pockets, my thin shoulders a coat hanger for my clothes, standing awkwardly beside the cake she had made for me.
And she was there too.
It wasn’t the ones with me in them that caught my eye so much as the older photographs: images so faded it was like the paper they were printed on was forgetting them. There was a black-and-white photo of my mother as a little girl, lying down in the grass and smiling shyly at the camera, a book splayed open before her. In another, she was a little older, standing outside a house I didn’t know, shielding her eyes against the sun.
But it was the shots of her as a teenager that struck me the most. She had been beautiful, and the photographs caught her in un
guarded moments, her face unlined, a whole life ahead of her, her eyes sparkling as she laughed. I found a staged group shot of five people sitting on steps. I didn’t recognize three of them, but my mother was on the right, next to a teenage boy I realized with a jolt was a young Carl Dawson—a boy who would eventually grow up to marry Eileen and become James’s stepfather.
In the photo, he was turned to her. My mother’s hands were on her knees and her face was frozen in an expression of wild delight, halfway between shock and laughter, as though he’d deliberately said something outrageous just as the picture was taken.
You can do so much better, you know?
I blinked, then gathered the photographs together and put them back in the box. When I thought of my mother, it was always as a presence—a role, almost—and it was strange to be faced with a truth that should have been obvious: that she had been someone with her own dreams and aspirations, who had felt the same as I had, and who had once had a life that existed entirely outside of her relationship to me.
None of which got me any closer to what I needed to know.
It’s in the house.
I walked out into the hallway and rubbed my forehead. Perhaps there should have been a sense of relief that I hadn’t found anything, but having committed to the enterprise, I felt frustrated. Absence of evidence was not evidence of absence. The fact that I hadn’t found anything didn’t mean there was nothing to find, only that I would never be sure.
The silence was still humming.
Come on, house,
I’m trying here. Meet me halfway.
But of course the house said nothing.
The window here faced out onto the backyard and the face of the Shadows. I stared out for a time, looking at the trees that stretched upward, forming a wall of fractured foliage that seemed to go halfway to the sky.
And then I looked up a little farther. Directly above me, I saw the thin outline of a hatch in the ceiling.
The humming in the house intensified a little.
In my mother’s present condition, there was obviously no way she could have gotten up there, but I had no idea when her physical health had started to fail, or how quickly it had deteriorated. And while I didn’t relish the prospect, the attic was the one area of the house I hadn’t searched.
So I reached up and pressed the edge of the hatch.
It lifted a little. There was a faint click, and when I moved my hand down, the hatch came with it. I expected to be showered with dust and cobwebs, but there was nothing. The space above was pitch-black, but I could hear a faint rush of air.
The ladder was built into the edge. I reached up again and rolled it out over the gap, then unfolded it down with a clatter, wedging its feet into the carpet. I’d been up in the attic a few times as a child, but as I climbed now, the metal seemed flimsy and far more insubstantial than I remembered. As I moved up into the darkness by increments, each rung bent precariously beneath my weight.
The air in the attic was musty and cool—full of the smell of old clothes and luggage and dampness. I put my hands on the rough wood of the first beam, then levered myself up. Once I was standing, I stepped forward, teetering slightly, suddenly conscious of height and distance. The hatch behind me looked tiny, and the sunlit hallway down there seemed to be miles below me rather than feet. It felt like I was in a different world from the rest of the house.
I reached out to the right and found the cord for the light.
I was surrounded by a flock of bright red birds.
The sight was so overwhelming that I took a step back, my heart
leaping, and I almost fell through the hatch. But then the vision around me resolved into what it really was. Not birds at all. Instead, the eaves of the attic were covered with crimson handprints. There were hundreds of them, pressed onto the wood at angles, the red paint overlapping in places, the splayed thumbs and fingers giving an approximation of wings.
They were all the same size. All small enough to be my mother’s. I pictured her coming up here, back when she was still able, flitting across the beams like a ghost, pressing her dripping palms against the eaves. And I noticed a different smell to the air up here, and a different feeling too.
It was like I was standing inside madness.
With my heart beating too rapidly, I looked away from the handprints, toward the far end of the attic. When I saw what was there, the world seemed to freeze.
It’s in the house, Paul.
Because I thought I’d found it.
A week after the experiment with dream diaries began, I remember heading down the stairs to Room C5b, with James following behind me. He was dragging his heels a little, and I could tell he was nervous.
It was obvious he wasn’t. Even if he didn’t want to admit it, I could guess the most likely reason why. That lunchtime, we were supposed to be going over our efforts with the dream diaries, and it was clear from James’s anxious manner that he was worried about disappointing Charlie. The realization brought a pang of irritation. It shouldn’t have mattered to him so much.
“The whole thing’s fucking stupid,” I said.
“Did it work for you?”
The thing was, it had worked for me—at least to an extent. Each morning that week, I’d had increasing success recalling my dreams from the night before, and last night I’d had a dream I recognized. I hadn’t been in the dark market, but somewhere roughly equivalent: a cramped, maze-like place where I was lost, unable to find my way out, with the sensation of being hunted by something.
The fear from the dream had lingered upon waking. But there had also been a thrill of recognition. It felt as though I’d been given a strange kind of insight into myself: a glance at the cogs turning below the surface of my mind.
Charlie had been right.
Not that I would admit it to him, of course.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “None of this matters.”
When we walked into the room, Charlie was in his usual seat at the far end. Billy was sitting in one of the comfier chairs nearby, holding an old year planner, presumably repurposed for the experiment. When James got his diary out, I saw it was just a bunch of sheets of paper, folded in half and stapled at the crease. Charlie’s dream diary was on the table in front of him. It was a black notebook, exactly the same as the ones I used for my stories and the one I had started to use to record my own dreams. For some reason, this made it feel as though there were some kind of unspoken battle going on between the two of us.
“Okay,” Charlie said. “Who wants to start? James?”
James shuffled awkwardly in his seat.
Pull yourself together, mate
. I didn’t know whether I wanted to reassure him or shake him. But it turned out I didn’t need to worry about doing either, because there was no way Billy was going to let James steal his rightful position as Charlie’s second-in-command.
“I had a lucid dream.” Billy smiled, pleased with himself. “It really worked—it was just like you said. One night, I dreamed I was in my dad’s workshop, and then I dreamed the same thing the night after. And that time, it was like a switch flicked or something. I totally woke up in my dream. It was amazing. I used the nose trick and everything.”
“What’s the nose trick?” I said.
“We’ll come to that.” Charlie didn’t look at me. “Billy, I’m so pleased.”
Billy beamed quietly.
“How long did you dream lucidly for?” Charlie said.
“Not long. I woke up almost straightaway. It was the shock of it.”
“So you didn’t use the environment technique?”
“No, I didn’t remember.”
Charlie looked disappointed, and Billy stopped smiling, looking sheepish now instead. For my own part, I was just trying to keep up. Glancing to one side, I could tell that James was feeling as bewildered as I was. The way Charlie was talking, it was like we’d been set a test without being given the classes to prepare for it.
“What the fuck is
the environment technique
?” I said.
“I said I’d explain.” Charlie turned to me. “What about you, Paul? How did you do?”
I hadn’t actually decided for certain whether I was going to talk about the success I’d had, but I didn’t like the way Charlie phrased that right then.
How did you do?
As though I had to prove myself to him.
“Nothing at all,” I said.
“Maybe if I’d have known about
the nose trick
Charlie ignored the jibe and simply nodded, as though it was what he’d been expecting. With me, there was none of the disappointment there had been with Billy. He moved on.
“What about you, James?”
James pressed the stapled papers down onto his lap and looked awkward.
For fuck’s sake,
I wanted to tell him.
It doesn’t matter.
“Nothing,” James said miserably. “Just like Paul.”
The words stung a little, but it was the tone of his voice that hurt the most. He made it sound as though being like me was such a failure.
“You didn’t notice any patterns?” Charlie said.
“Nothing at all. It was all just a random jumble.”
“That’s fine. It just takes practice and experience. Give it another week or so, and you’ll get there. You’ve done well just for trying.”
James gave Charlie a nervous smile.
Billy looked at him. “So what
James glanced down at what passed for his notebook. “Nothing interesting.”
“No, go on.” Billy leaned forward and made to take the dream diary away from James. “Maybe we can find some patterns there even if you can’t.”
James leaned away from him. “Don’t.”
“Just tell us, then.”
“Well … last night, I dreamed about the woods.” James glanced at me. “The ones behind our town. The Shadows.”
He looked slightly guilty. Perhaps that was because, after all of the weekend expeditions the four of us had done, the town and the woods no longer felt like
anymore. It might have been where James and I had grown up, but it was Charlie who had started taking us into the woods and making up stories about ghosts.
“Go on,” Charlie said.
“It was dark in the dream. I was standing in my yard, at the edge of the trees, looking out into the woods.”
“Was anyone else there?”
“There were a lot of people in the yard behind me—like there was a party going on. I think some of them had hoods and masks on. But it wasn’t scary. It was more like some kind of gathering I hadn’t been invited to.”
Charlie leaned forward, intrigued now.
“But what about the woods?”
James fell silent for a moment. “Yeah, there was … someone in the woods, I think.”
“I couldn’t tell. It was more like a
. But it felt like whoever was there could see me. Like they were staring right at me. Because it was all lit up in the yard behind me, right? But they were out in the trees—in the darkness—so I couldn’t see them.”
scare you?” Charlie spoke more quietly now. “Did the people in the woods frighten you?”
“That makes sense.” Charlie settled back. “There was no need to be scared, but you didn’t know that at the time. Did you think they might have been about to call out to you? Or come toward you?”
“I don’t know.”
“So what did happen?”
“The dream shifted. I just went somewhere else.”
Even after only a week, I was familiar with that sensation by now—the way dreams melted seamlessly into one other—but the way James phrased it still made me feel uneasy.
I just went somewhere else.
He made it sound as though the dream were real somehow. And Charlie was staring at him with fascination now, as though something important had happened and he couldn’t quite believe it.
him,” Charlie said, his voice full of wonder.
A beat of silence in the room.
“Saw who?” I said.
see him.” Billy sounded sullen. “He never said he
“Felt him, then.” Charlie gave Billy the briefest of glances before his attention returned to James. “Do you know what I dreamed last night?”
“I dreamed I was in the same place as you. I was in the woods with him, and I could see you, looking back at us. It was very dark where
we were standing, so I wasn’t sure if you could see us. But you did.” He smiled proudly. “It happened much sooner than I was expecting.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
Charlie looked at me. “James and I were in the same dream last night.”
“James and I shared a dream.”
“Oh, don’t be fucking
The words came out without me thinking, and the atmosphere in the room changed with them. While I might have rolled my eyes in the past, I’d never challenged Charlie as directly or aggressively as that before now. His smile vanished and his eyes emptied, and I knew I’d overstepped a line.
But I pressed it anyway.
“That’s not possible, Charlie.”
“I understand, Paul,” he said. “You haven’t tried as hard as the rest of us. You haven’t achieved anything. But believe me. It really did happen.”
“Yeah, well. It really
Charlie opened his dream diary and held it out over the desk to James.
“James, can you read this for me, please?”
James hesitated. The sudden edge to the conversation had made him nervous. But I could tell he was also intrigued, and after a second he stepped across and took Charlie’s diary, then stood there, reading the page that was open in front of him.
His eyes widened.
“What?” I said.
But James didn’t reply. When he was done reading, he lowered the book, and looked at Charlie with something like awe on his face.
“This is … this can’t be right.”
“But it is.” Charlie nodded in my direction. “Show Paul.”
James handed me the dream diary. Even though he was obviously spooked, I still thought this whole thing was absurd. People couldn’t share dreams. I looked down at the book. Charlie’s most recent entry started on the left-hand page, and his small, spidery handwriting filled both. The date at the top was that morning.
I started reading.
I am sitting with him in the woods.
It is very dark here, but I can tell he is wearing that old army jacket, the one with the weathered fabric on the shoulders that looks like feathers, like an angel that’s had his wings clipped down to stumps. There’s a bit of moonlight. His hair is black and tangled, wild like the undergrowth around us, and his face is a black hole, just like always. But he is sitting cross-legged with his hands resting on his thighs, and for some reason I can see his hands clearly. They are bright red.
The man stands up, and towers over me, as big as a mountain. He shambles away into the forest, and the trees part for him, and I understand that I am to follow. There is something he wants to show me, something he needs me to see.
I trail after him through the wood. He’s like a bear, a monster, blotting out the view ahead. I struggle to keep up, but I don’t want to get lost and let him down. The forest closes up behind me as quickly as it opens up for him ahead, and I’m amazed by the control he has here.
He stops suddenly and holds one red hand out, with the fingers splayed. I stop and move to his side. He rests his huge red hand on my shoulder, and my skin tingles where he touches me. This close, he smells of earth and meat, and I can feel his enormous chest expanding slowly beside me, and his breath rattles in his throat as he breathes. I want to lean into the weight and
strength and protection of him. I want to see his face, but I know I’m not worthy yet.
The woods go on a short distance in front of us. Then there is what looks like a yard, and it’s far more brightly illuminated than the place where we are standing. Someone is there. He won’t be able to see us because of the darkness, but I can see him.
My heart starts beating harder then, because I know it’s finally working. What he’s taught me and told me is coming true. One by one, I will lead us to him.
I am about to call out to James when I wake up.
After I finished, I checked the date again. And then scanned through the entry for a second time, giving myself time to think. The room had gone silent, and I was aware of the others staring at me, waiting for my reaction—wondering whether it was going to be me or Charlie who won this particular exchange. Everything felt balanced on a knife edge.
I glanced up at Charlie. He was watching me curiously, and I could hold his gaze for only a second before looking back down at the book again.
Because I had no idea what to say.
What I had just read—what was still in front of me right now—was impossible. Two people could not share a dream. And yet I was equally sure there had been no collusion between James and Charlie. The shock I’d seen on James’s face had been genuine.
I felt the seconds ticking by, and with each one the frustration built up inside me. Try as I might, I couldn’t work out how to unravel the magic Charlie had performed here. But I had to say something, and my stubborn desire to stand up to him was stronger than ever. There
was something wrong here, I knew. Something dangerous, even. What I didn’t know was how to deal with it.
I closed the diary and dropped it casually on the desk in front of Charlie, and then tried to sound as dismissive as I could.
Mister Red Hands,