Authors: Alex North
Tags: #Thriller, #Horror, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult
When I drove back to Gritten Wood later, I didn’t go straight to my mother’s house.
As I turned off the main road, I could see the wall of the Shadows in the distance: a black and solid presence at the base of the sky. Soon it would be night, and I felt nervous about sleeping in my old room after everything that had happened today. With everything I’d learned churning in my head. With the house ticking and creaking around me, and the trees at the end of the yard full of darkness and ghosts.
Of course, there were ghosts everywhere here.
I parked in front of a different property and stared out of the car window. The yard was enormously overgrown, with brambles arching over the lawn like rolls of barbed wire. The undergrowth closest to the house rose high enough to reach the dirty black glass of the ground-floor windows. The place was little more than a shell. I had the sense that the woods behind had spread their fingers down the backyard and were slowly clenching their fist, reclaiming the building for the wilds.
James’s old house.
I had a dim memory of my mother telling me Carl and Eileen had moved away years ago. Perhaps they had tried to sell this place before
hand, but who was going to buy a home in Gritten Wood? The town was slowly dying, the houses like lights going off one by one, the old bulbs never replaced. The building beside me now had clearly been abandoned for years, and the heart had gone out of it long before.
Billy is dead,
The words signified something clear, but still didn’t seem to map onto the world in a way that I could grasp. It seemed like it should be important to me—that I should be feeling something. Perhaps I should be glad. Pleased that, after what he did, the bastard had finally gotten what he deserved. That would be the natural reaction to have, wouldn’t it? But every time I searched inside myself for a reaction to the news, I couldn’t find it.
The truth was that, in every way that mattered, Billy had been dead to me for twenty-five years. He was just an old photograph I had long since stopped looking at. Back then I would have been happy to kill him myself for what he’d done, but the time since had tempered that. Looking back, I could see that Billy had always been easily manipulated. He’d had a difficult childhood, and I could only imagine his adult life had been hard too. The only emotion his death raised in me now was an odd kind of sadness. A sense of how many lives had been ruined by what happened here, and what a waste it had all been.
And now another boy had been killed.
That was what I’d said to Amanda, but the words had come out of instinct. It was what I’d told myself over the years, because I had to. I looked past the house now, toward the woods. The most likely explanation for Charlie’s disappearance remained that he was out there in the Shadows somewhere—that after what he and Billy did, he’d woken up and wandered off, and that his bones were moldering away somewhere deep between the trees, pulled apart by tangles of grass and lost in the undergrowth.
And yet my skin was crawling.
As the evening darkened around me, I thought about knocks in the night, and figures in the woods, and what my mother had said about seeing Charlie flickering in the trees.
About someone online pretending to be him.
Do you think it’s possible they were telling the truth?
Right then, I wished I felt anything like as sure as I’d tried to sound in the pub, but the reality was that I could still feel him everywhere. As I started the engine again and drove away, I was frightened by the thought of it. If Charlie was still alive, then what was happening here?
Billy is dead.
The words came again as I drove. And despite what Amanda had said about it being unrelated and suspects having already been identified, the dread rose up inside me. Because red handprints were once again being pressed onto the world and I couldn’t escape the feeling that something awful was going to happen again. And most of all, there were my mother’s words.
You shouldn’t be here.
When I parked outside the house, I took a few seconds to calm myself. I was almost scared to go inside, and that wouldn’t do. Coming back here to Gritten had scrambled me; that was all. And while there were difficult moments still to come, the important thing was this would all be over before too much longer. When my business here was done, I could go back to my life and forget about it all again. In the meantime, it was understandable that I was seeing spirits in the shadows. It didn’t mean they were really there.
The past is the past.
And it couldn’t hurt me now.
The house was dark and gloomy as I unlocked the front door and
turned the handle. The door jammed on something for a second, then opened more slowly than it should. There was something stuck beneath the bottom of the wood. I opened the door wide enough to squeeze my body inside, then closed it behind me. Whatever had been trapped beneath it came loose.
I flicked the light switch beside me.
And then froze.
What is that?
Except I already knew. I forced myself to crouch down by the mat, and fought back the revulsion that came as I touched the thing that had been pushed through my mother’s mail slot. The fabric was dusty and old. It had come away in places, revealing gummy patches of glue beneath. And when I turned the doll around and looked into its pitch-black face, the red string fingers tickled against the back of my hand.
What was it?
The answer that came brought a shiver as I imagined the vast, dark expanse of the woods behind me right then.
The morning after the nightmare with Red Hands, I remember feeling scared as I walked through the town to James’s house. I knew that the dream I’d had—the experience of being outside the room in the basement of the school, and what happened there with Red Hands—had only been a dream: one that might have felt lucid at the time, but which couldn’t have been, really. I hadn’t been able to breathe simply because it had been a nightmare and I had never been in control of what was happening at all. But no matter how hard I tried to rationalize it to myself, the awful residue of it had stayed with me. The knowledge that Charlie had somehow got so far into my head was frightening.
James looked tired and apprehensive. As we walked to the bus stop together, it was obvious that whatever he’d dreamed the night before was on his mind as well. Neither of us mentioned it until the bus left the main road.
“So … how did it go?” James said.
“How did what go?”
“Last night. The experiment. What did you dream?”
I forced myself to shrug as though it were nothing. At the same time, I had dutifully written a basic account of the dream in my
diary that morning, and if I was going to end up reading it out at lunchtime there didn’t seem much point in lying now about what had happened.
“I did dream about the room,” I admitted.
“I did too. What happened in yours?”
“But you just said it was about the room?”
I would have been happy to leave it at that, but he was waiting for me to carry on, unwilling to let it go. He looked scared by whatever his own dream had been about. So I sighed, and told him a little bit about being outside the room and seeing him floating behind the glass. But I played down how scary the whole thing had been, and I certainly didn’t mention what had happened at the end.
was there,” I said. “Honestly, I’m not even sure it was you. It was just a stupid dream.”
James looked away, out of the window.
“What about you?” I said.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Because it was horrible.” He shook his head. “I’m worried about what we’ve done, Paul. I think we might have done something really bad.”
Something ridiculous, more like it.
And yet I didn’t say that. There was something in his tone of voice that bothered me. The day before, I hadn’t believed for one second that Charlie would dare repeat his door-knocking trick and try to do anything to Goodbold. This morning, though, I no longer felt quite so sure.
“Everything will be fine,” I said. “We’ll get to school, and it will just be the usual. Goodbold will be there, trust me. And he’ll be the same bastard he always is.”
James didn’t reply.
The bus juddered and rattled.
“You’ll see,” I said.
But Goodbold was not in school that morning.
After we trudged to the changing rooms to get ready for soccer, a different sports teacher, Mr. Dewhurst, arrived to take us down to the field. Under normal circumstances that would have been a good sign. Dewhurst ran a far tighter ship than Goodbold, and there would be less violence on the field as a result. But it might have been the first day since starting at Gritten that I’d have been glad to see Goodbold instead, and as we set out into the streets and I saw Charlie smiling to himself, the unease I’d felt since waking up that morning intensified.
Something had happened.
I’m worried about what we’ve done, Paul.
By lunchtime, the nerves were humming inside me. James and I walked down to room C5b, our footsteps echoing in the empty stairwell, and it was clear that whatever had been weighing on James first thing that morning had become heavier over the last few hours. As he pushed open the door, I felt an urge to reassure him again. To tell him not to worry. That everything was going to be all right.
Except I couldn’t find the words.
Charlie and Billy were in their usual seats, but the rest of the room seemed darker today. It took me a second to realize why. The lights closest to the door had been turned off, which left the two of them illuminated at the back, drawing you toward them from out of the shadows. Was that by design? I thought it probably was. Charlie stage-managed everything so carefully.
As James and I made our way between the seats, I decided I wasn’t prepared to be manipulated by him any longer. We weren’t alone in
the woods right now, miles from anyone; there was no danger here. So I allowed a little of the anger I’d suppressed yesterday to surface now. Wherever this experiment was heading, I decided it had to stop.
“So,” I said. “What the fuck is going on?”
I ignored Charlie—but of course James did as he was told. His hands were trembling as he took his dream diary out of his bag.
“What did we all dream?” Charlie said.
“I asked you what’s going on.”
He smiled patiently.
James looked up at me nervously. “I want Paul to go first.”
Charlie shook his head. “No.”
“I don’t want to say what I dreamed.”
“I’ll do it, then.”
Charlie held out his hand for James’s dream diary, the gesture delivered with total confidence that his command would be obeyed.
“You don’t have to,” I told James.
But Charlie’s hand remained out, and I watched as James did exactly as he’d been instructed. He didn’t want his entry to be read out, but such was the hold Charlie had over him that he was incapable of refusing.
Charlie opened James’s diary.
“‘I dreamed I was in Room C5b,’” he read. “‘Charlie and Billy were there too. Paul wasn’t. The air was strange and liquid, so it was like swimming through water. When I went to the door, I looked through the window at the side and Paul was standing there.’”
James glanced at me, and then quickly away.
“‘I couldn’t see him properly,’” Charlie continued. “‘His face was distorted and it was like he wasn’t properly in the dream. He seemed frightened. I started trying to talk to him, but I don’t think he could hear what I was saying. And then he wasn’t there anymore.’”
James was staring down at the floor now, completely unable to meet my eye. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. His dream matched mine almost exactly, and even taking
into account, there was no way they could have ended up so similar. There was only one explanation I could think of for what I was hearing.
He’d written his diary entry after talking to me on the bus.
I want Paul to go first.
Because I would have read my account of my dream, and then he would have read his, and they would have been the same. And in that moment, he would have impressed Charlie and proved him right, even though he knew deep down it was all a fantasy and a lie.
After everything we’d been through over the years—all those times I’d stuck up for him and protected him—he was so far gone that he was prepared to use me to help confirm Charlie’s delusions.
“Bullshit,” I said.
Charlie broke off from reading.
“I said this is bullshit.”
“Why?” Charlie looked from me to the book and back again, playing confused. “This is what James has written down. What are you saying?”
For a moment, I was too angry—too
—to answer. I looked from one of them to the other. Charlie waiting for my reply. Billy indifferent to it. And James, still looking down, so obviously ashamed of himself that I couldn’t get the words out.
I’m saying my best friend is a liar.
“Paul?” Charlie said.
“Finish reading what James dreamed.”
But instead, Charlie put James’s diary on the desk.
“You’ve always doubted this, haven’t you?” he said. “Why don’t you tell us what
dreamed? I can finish James’s account afterward.”
I looked down at my bag, on the floor at my feet with my dream diary inside. But I couldn’t read from that now, could I? Not without either confirming what James had written or challenging him outright about it, and both seemed unbearable to me right then.
“Just finish reading what James wrote,” I said.
“In a minute,” Charlie said. “But actually, I think I’ll read from mine first—or rather, Billy will. That way we can avoid any doubts or suspicion. You go first, Billy.”
They swapped dream diaries and Billy started reading.
“‘Billy and James and I were here in the room,’” he said. “‘At first, I wasn’t sure if the two of them were lucid in the same way I was, but I thought they were. Paul wasn’t there. I could sense that he was somewhere close by, but he didn’t want to join us for some reason. I was disappointed, because I knew it might take all four of us at first to accomplish what we wanted to do. It would be much harder with just three, especially if there was someone nearby who didn’t believe. Paul didn’t want to join us—’”
Charlie held up a hand. “Stop there, Billy. I’ll read the beginning of yours now.”
I shook my head. “This is fucking crazy.”
“‘Me and Charlie were in the room,’” Charlie read. “‘James was there too, but he was flickery, like he hadn’t managed to be as there as me and Charlie were—like he wasn’t as connected. I could see Charlie clearly, though. Paul wasn’t anywhere around. He wasn’t there at all.’”
Charlie stopped and looked up at me. “What did
I didn’t answer, and the silence in the air began ringing. After a
moment, James looked up at me, with an imploring expression on his face that only intensified the sick feeling inside me. In his own sad way, he was doing this in an attempt to bring me back into the fold. To give me an opportunity to invest in Charlie’s fantasy the same way he had.
I stared back at him, my face hardening.
“I didn’t dream anything like that,” I said flatly. “I wasn’t there. I didn’t see any of you.”
“That you remember,” Charlie corrected me. “James wrote down that
“I think I’m done with this whole thing.”
“Yes.” Charlie leaned back. “I think that might be for the best. You being involved is hampering the three of us. That’s why we couldn’t connect properly—because you weren’t properly committed.”
“James?” I said.
And then I stood there, waiting to see if James was going to say anything. Come to his senses and confess, perhaps; put an end to this whole charade. It was obvious from Charlie’s words that he was attempting to banish me from the group right then, and this was my supposed best friend’s chance to speak up and stop all this.
To leave here with me.
But he said nothing.
“You’re right.” I came back to life and picked up my bag. “I guess I’ll see you guys around.”
I walked over to the door. When I reached it, I paused and looked back. Because even though I knew that nothing could possibly have happened, the fact remained that Goodbold was not in school today.
“How did it all end?” I called over.
“The dream broke apart,” Charlie said. “Because of you. I remember James and Billy drifting away from me, and the dream beginning to fade. Red Hands and I got as far as Goodbold’s house by
ourselves, but I knew the two of us wouldn’t be strong enough to get inside by ourselves. All because of you.”
I shook my head and gave a half laugh.
“We managed to kill his dog,” he said.