Authors: Alex North
Tags: #Thriller, #Horror, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult
I remember the last time I went into the Shadows with the others.
It was the weekend after the knocks at James’s door in the night, and as usual, the four of us met in the town playground and then walked up to his house. There were numerous routes we could take, but for some reason Charlie always liked to go in from there. As we wandered down James’s backyard that day, I found myself lagging a little way behind the others. The trees in front of me seemed darker and more inhospitable than usual, gradually filling the sky as we approached the fence, and my skin felt chilly in the shade of them.
I glanced behind me. There was a figure in the upstairs window of the house. Carl was standing there watching us, a reflection of the clouds slightly occluding the expression on his face. I raised my hand to acknowledge him, and for a moment he didn’t respond. Then his own hand moved tentatively to the glass.
Turning back, I spread the thin wires of the back fence and ducked underneath, stepping through into the woods, and then followed the others into the tree line. The volume dropped a notch, the quiet rush of the real world fading away behind us. The silence in the woods was eerie, and not for the first time I found myself glancing around
as I trailed behind, my heart humming with that strange sensation you have when it feels like you’re being watched.
Which was stupid, of course. There was nobody out here apart from us. But the woods always made me nervous. My mother had warned me it wasn’t safe out here. There was little in the way of pathways, which made it easy to lose your bearings, and even if you didn’t, the land itself was treacherous and unsafe. There were abandoned mines out here, and places where the ground had collapsed, leaving the trees leaning at angles, forming shattered crosses above crumbling pits. These were not friendly woods. Not a welcoming place for children to play.
And, of course, there were all Charlie’s stories about the woods being haunted. The idea of that had wormed its way into my head. It was always Charlie who insisted we come out here, and always him leading the way, taking us along different routes through the trees. I had the sensation he was searching for something here, and frequently found myself peering off to the side or checking behind. It got so dark and quiet among the trees that it was easy to imagine something stalking us out here.
We walked for about half an hour that day. Then Charlie hitched his bag off his shoulder and dropped it in the dirt.
“Here,” he said. “It’s not right, but it’ll do.”
“Where would be
?” I said.
I didn’t expect a reply, and I didn’t get one. I’d become more openly belligerent toward Charlie over the previous weeks, and in return he had begun to act as though I weren’t there or hadn’t spoken.
I looked around at where he’d brought us.
Much of the woods were impenetrable, but Charlie had taken us off-path today and still managed to find what amounted to a clearing. The ground was black and scorched, as though there had been a fire and the land had never quite recovered. The charred trees pointed arrow-straight from the dark soil, the branches high above
spreading out like splayed fingers. There was an odd crackle of energy to the place too. I turned in a circle, breathing in the atmosphere, thinking of fairies and monsters. If anything like that had lived in the woods, this felt like a place where they would congregate. There was a sense of expectation to the air, as though the place were waiting for something to appear.
Billy had brought his own bag: an old, stained drawstring sack. He pulled a knife and a Black Widow slingshot out of it, then handed the slingshot to Charlie, but kept the knife for himself, turning it around in his hand and examining the blade. I’d seen the slingshot before, but the knife made me nervous. It was about six inches long, with a serrated edge and a wicked curve at the tip, and the little light that caught the metal revealed numerous scratches on the blade. I pictured Billy in his father’s workshop, following instructions from one of his magazines to sharpen the blade.
as Charlie kicked at it, searching for a suitable rock to fit the slingshot. When he found one, he hooked the brace of the Black Widow over his forearm, squeezed the stone into the pouch, and pulled the tubing back to its fullest extent.
I heard the creak of the rubber stretching.
He closed one eye for accuracy, and then turned and aimed at my face.
I reacted out of instinct, closing my eyes and throwing up a hand. He’d moved so quickly that my mind filled in the rest of the action, and I imagined the explosion of pain in my eye. It didn’t come. When I lowered my hand and looked again, Charlie was smiling at me, aiming down at the ground now.
“Got you,” he said.
“Jesus, man.” My heart was beating so quickly that it was hard to speak. “What the fuck are you doing?”
“Just messing around.”
But the nonchalance in his voice didn’t reach his eyes. He turned and took aim at one of the trees. I swallowed, trying to calm myself down.
If his hand had slipped then, he’d probably have killed me.
So do something.
The urge was there. But he still had the slingshot. And Billy had moved closer to me now. He was prodding the point of the knife into one of the trees. Not stabbing it, exactly, more like torturing it out of idle curiosity, a blank look on his face.
The realization came to me suddenly.
I don’t know these people anymore.
“Goodbold,” Charlie said.
He fired. The trajectory of the shot was too quick for me to follow, but there was an awful crack to one side, and when I looked across I actually
Goodbold standing there for a moment, one eye punched red, splinters of his skull dusting the air beside his ear. Then it was just a tree again. Charlie’s shot had shattered away a chunk of bark at head height.
“Dead center,” he said.
I shook my head, whether in disagreement or just to clear the vision he’d prompted.
“Not dead center,” I said. “More like an eye.”
“An eye, then. Still straight into his brain—or what passes for it. Your turn, James.”
Charlie held the slingshot out, and James took it hesitantly, scanning the ground for a stone to use. When he found one, he loaded it into the pouch and stood with his feet apart, aiming awkwardly at the same tree Charlie had shot.
“A little to the left,” Charlie said.
Handling a weapon didn’t come naturally to James. I could tell he was already setting himself up for failure, the exact same way he did on the sports field. As he adjusted his aim, Charlie touched his upper arm, gently guiding him.
“A little more.”
Just about whispering now.
“And a little higher as well. That’s it. Now—can you see Goodbold there?”
James had one eye closed, concentrating. “Yes.”
“So do it.”
James released the shot, but pulled it slightly at the last second. The stone skittered off through the undergrowth, and he lowered the weapon, a dejected look on his face.
“It just takes practice,” Charlie said. “Have another go.”
James loaded the slingshot again. “I wish we could do this to him in real life.”
“We’re going to,” Charlie said.
For a moment, the clearing was silent other than the steady
as Billy continued whittling at the tree. I looked at Charlie. The certainty that had been in his voice was mirrored in his face. He looked calm. And entirely serious.
“What do you mean?” I said. With anyone else, I might have taken it for bravado, but Charlie rarely suggested anything he didn’t mean.
He looked at me.
“We’re going to kill him,” he said.
“I don’t … I don’t think we should do that.”
“Why not? The man’s a bully. And a pedophile.”
“I’m pretty sure he’s not
“Really?” Charlie frowned at me. “So what would
call a man that forces boys to undress in front of him?”
What I thought was that Goodbold was just a grown-up version of Hague. A frustrated man, taking out the problems of his own miserable life on the rest of us.
“He’s a bully,” I said.
“No, he’s worse than that.”
“Maybe. But, Jesus. Even if that’s true, it doesn’t mean we can
kill him.” I shook my head; this whole conversation was ridiculous. “Apart from anything else, I don’t think any of us wants to go to prison.”
“We won’t have to,” Charlie said.
“Oh yeah—of course not.”
“Because we’ll get
to do it.”
And again, I could tell from his voice and his expression that he was entirely serious. I glanced around the woods, more uneasy than ever.
Who’s Mister Red Hands?
Charlie had never answered my question, but deep down none of us had needed him to. It was obviously the ghost he claimed haunted these woods that he was also conjuring up in the dream world. And in a strange way, it seemed that
saying it out loud had made the whole thing more believable. When people think they’ve worked something out for themselves, they become more invested in holding on to it as truth. What I didn’t know right then was why.
I looked at James and Billy now. Neither of them seemed remotely disoriented by what Charlie had said.
And the thought came again.
I don’t know these people anymore.
“But he’s not real,” I said carefully. “They’re just dreams.”
“You’re only saying that because you’ve not seen him.”
“No, I’m saying it because it’s impossible.”
We both turned to James, who stared down at the blackened ground, looking awkward.
“What is it?” I said.
“I saw him,” he said. “I saw him with Charlie.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“I did—earlier this week. I had a dream I was out here in the woods, and they were both there too. Red Hands was just like Charlie
described. He had on this old army coat, all frayed at the shoulders, so it looked like he’d had wings that had been ripped off him.”
“And I dreamed the same thing,” Charlie said. “Didn’t I?”
James nodded. Then he looked at me hopefully.
“His hair was wild, Paul. And his hands were bright red. But I couldn’t see his face. It was all dark. It was just a hole.”
The certainty on his face frightened me. I looked away. The spaces between the trees around us felt ominous now, as though something were listening, drawn closer by the quiet madness that was unfolding in the clearing.
“Tell him the rest,” Charlie said.
“You remember the other morning, right?” James took a step toward me. “The knocking in the night?”
He looked so eager. It was obvious he already believed whatever he was about to explain, and was desperate for me to believe it too. That he wanted to share it with me—to take me along on this journey he had found himself on.
“Yes,” I said. “I remember.”
“And the marks on the door in the morning?”
“Charlie showed me his dream diary. His entry for the night before. That was
. He did it in his dream.”
“No.” Charlie held out his hand. “Not me.”
Without being asked, James passed him the slingshot.
who knocked on the door,” Charlie said. “Loud and heavy. I remember the dream felt even more real than usual, like the two of us were really standing there. I looked up and saw a light come on upstairs.”
Which is exactly what happened
.” James was practically implor
ing me now. “My mother went downstairs, but there was nobody there. You remember, right?”
Before I could answer, Charlie shook his head.
“It was too much for me,” he said. “Too real. Just before the door opened, I woke up. It was like the dream threw me out of it.”
I closed my eyes, remembering Eileen wiping furiously at the door that morning—cleaning away the
if that was what it had really been. And it was obvious to me what had happened, even if the rational explanation was almost as unbelievable as what James seemed prepared to accept. Charlie had snuck out in the night and done that. Then he’d written the entry in his diary to convince James.
It was deliberate and calculated.
And it was so obvious.
But when I opened my eyes again, I saw that James believed, at least enough that he was willing to go along with it. The look on his face made me feel sick. But what could I say? I had a sudden realization of how alone I was out here, and how far the four of us were from another living soul. Charlie, standing there with the loaded slingshot. Billy, who had turned away from the tree and was watching me, the knife in his hand. And James, an innocent pawn in some game I still didn’t understand.
You need to be very careful right now,
I told myself.
Very, very careful.
“Okay,” I said slowly. “So Red Hands is going to come to life and kill Goodbold for us. How does that work?”
“It will take all four of us,” Charlie said. “Between us, with his help, we can be strong enough to affect reality.”
“Please, Paul,” James said.
You’re all insane.
Except I wasn’t sure that was true. Charlie seemed far more in
control of the situation than that. The real question was what he was hoping to achieve. Because even if he’d convinced James up until now, there was no way the experiment could go much further. Sneaking into our town at night and banging on James’s door was one thing, but I doubted even Charlie was capable of murdering Goodbold.
What matters is getting out of here, Paul.
The realization brought a shiver.
“Okay,” I said. “How do we do that?”
Charlie nudged the bag on the ground with his foot and smiled at me.
” he said.
That night, I sat at the desk in my room, the house dark and silent behind me, holding the thing Charlie had given me in the woods that afternoon.
It was handmade and about six inches long. The base was an old wooden clothespin, but Charlie had wrapped it in a patchwork of material. Scraps of old clothes; curls of string; clumps of dried paint and dabs of glue. The hair on what passed for its head was dark and wild, and the face it surrounded had been painted completely black. The body was draped in some kind of camouflage fabric, with pipe cleaner arms emerging from the sleeves. Five long tendrils of red string had been attached to the end of each one—fingers, I assumed, but they were so long that when I held the doll upright they hung all the way down to its feet.
I turned the doll around in my hand. It was physically disgusting. There was something dirty and
about it, like a toy that had been left under a couch or in the corner of a room that was never cleaned.
Why had I kept it? Back in the woods, I’d had no choice. Charlie
had made four of these dolls, and the other three were just as intricate and carefully constructed as mine. As revolting as they were, it was obvious he’d put a great deal of work into them, and Billy and James had accepted theirs gratefully. For me to refuse my own had felt like it would be dangerous. Instead, I’d listened to what Charlie had told us, and I had pretended to agree, the whole time telling myself I would get rid of the hideous fucking thing as soon as I was safe.
And yet here it still was, in my hands now.
I stared into the black absence of its face.
After giving us the dolls, Charlie had explained what we needed to do. The idea was that if we kept this doll close to us, and focused on it before we went to sleep, it would help the figure to find us in the night. When we were dreaming lucidly, we were to transport ourselves to Room C5b and find each other there, and then Charlie would show us what to do.
It was impossible, of course. I no more believed it could happen now than I had back in the woods, and I realized that the only reason I was entertaining the whole thing was because of James. Turning my back on Charlie would mean losing my best friend. And I was afraid that abandoning James would be placing him in danger.
So I needed to play along.
And how much further could Charlie realistically take this? There
no shared dream world. There was no way our dreams could have a tangible effect on the real world. And there was no Red Hands.
Which meant that nothing would happen.
And tomorrow would be the end of it.
Even so, there was a limit to how far I was prepared to go. Charlie had instructed us to sleep with the doll under our pillow, but that was too horrible an idea to contemplate. I put it in the desk drawer instead. In bed, I turned off the light and lay there for a time, and when I imagined the others in their own beds, I was unnerved by how easy I found it to visualize them. The day had spooked me
badly. I rolled onto my side in the darkness, and then repeated the mantras that had become familiar to me now.
I will remember my dreams.
I will wake up in my dreams.
Nothing would happen to Goodbold. James would begin to see through Charlie soon, wake up from the spell he was under, and in a few weeks all this would be forgotten.
I still had no idea what Charlie was capable of.
I remember the familiar thrill that came from becoming lucid within a dream.
And I remember the unease that came next.
Because I was standing at the bottom of the stairs in the basement of the school, looking at Room C5b. The door across from me was closed, the meshed window to one side misty and gray. The alarm I felt made the dream blur at the edges and almost woke me up, so I knelt down and used the environment technique, placing my hand against the cold stone floor, rubbing my palm in a circle against the rough stone. The sensation anchored me.
I stood up again.
There’s nothing to be afraid of.
This was a dream, which meant I was in control of it now and there was no need to be scared. I’d been thinking about the events of the day while falling asleep, and so it was perfectly natural that my subconscious had conjured up this place.
But there was no reason for me to stay here. With my back to the stairs, I told myself that when I turned around there would be a door at the top, and when I opened that door it would lead me out onto a beach. It was easier than trying to teleport. In a lucid dream your
brain could still cling to the familiar rules of what was possible, and this was a technique I’d used before that had always worked.
I visualized it clearly, and then turned around.
The area above was gray and dead, and—
I heard a distant noise. It was like a pipe being struck with a hammer. The sound reverberated and faded. I couldn’t tell where it had come from, and I felt even more uneasy now. I was awake in my dream, but it felt out of my control in some way, as though somebody else were exerting their own influence on it, and they were better at it than I was.
The noise again. Louder this time.
I turned around and walked across to the door to Room C5b. The window at the side was gray, but the air beyond looked like it was swirling, the room full of smoke. And there was something else there too, I realized now. A pale shape, close to the glass.
It was a face—or at least the nightmarish approximation of one. It was elongated into an oval, the eyes stretched and distorted into blurry smears, the nose little more than tiny vertical slits, and the mouth a thin black cut. As distorted as it was, though, I recognized James. His eyes widened at the sight of me, and his mouth began working in some alien fashion, forming odd shapes as he attempted to communicate with me across a divide neither of us could cross. He looked like he’d been drowned and left under the water, his image swimming before me on the other side of the window.
And then suddenly a much louder noise from behind me. The awful, grinding sound of metal against metal. A screeching and scraping of rusted parts that hadn’t moved in an age snapping free of their inertia.
I turned around slowly.
In the shadows beside the stairs, there was now a faint yellow triangle glowing above the doors to the old elevator. The sound of shrieking metal was coming from there. My heart started pounding so hard in my chest that it seemed impossible for me not to wake up. But I didn’t.
The tone of the grinding noise changed.
I told myself.
The metal doors began shuddering open.
I turned back to the room. James was still there, shaking his head from side to side now, his horrified features blurring into a slow-moving smear as he saw whatever it was that had risen out of the depths of the school and stepped out behind me.
I closed my eyes, picturing myself lying in my bed and willing myself to escape back there.
But when I opened my eyes again, the dream seemed even more vivid than before. The room was still right there in front of me, and now I could sense something standing right behind me. The skin of my back was crawling from its presence.
I smelled leaves and turned earth, and heard an awful rasping noise, like somebody breathing badly through a broken throat.
Wake up, wake up, wake up.
Then a wet red hand reached around my face, its rancid fingers closing over my nose and mouth and pinching them shut. I tried to breathe. Nothing came. And as I started to suffocate, I flailed around helplessly in panic.
Now I knew why I couldn’t wake up.
Because this was not a dream.