Authors: Alex North
Tags: #Thriller, #Horror, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult
After the murder, the old playground had been demolished and paved over. When I left Gritten, nothing had been added to the empty stretch of stone there, as though nobody had known what to do with it and it had been enough just to cover it up for the moment. But now there were benches there, circling a tree in the center.
And yet, as I approached, I could still picture it just as it had been back then. And the figure waiting for me on one of the benches reminded me so much of James that day, so fragile and scared, that it was easy to imagine I’d slipped backward in time.
I stopped in front of him.
James’s stepfather was staring down at his hands. I took in the mottled skin of his bald skull, and the gnarled, ancient roughness of his hands. When he finally raised his head, his face was thin and drawn, his eyes sunken into the sockets. He looked impossibly sad. I could sense waves of grief beating off him, and it felt like something more profound than loss, as though now that he was facing down the final days of his life, he was grieving for all the things he’d done with it, and all the things he hadn’t.
How old everyone has got,
And how strange that a generation I remembered as being strong and sturdy and reliable was now vanishing away into old age.
“Paul.” He gestured to the bench. “Sit down, please.”
I sat at the far end, leaving a comfortable space between us. There was no sense of physical threat from him; if anything, age had only enhanced the gentle, harmless feeling he’d always exuded. But I suspected that he had been behind the events of the last few days, and now that he had finally decided to show himself to me I wanted to maintain a degree of distance between us until I understood why.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry about Daphne.”
He sounded utterly broken. But then I remembered that the man sitting next to me now had been friends with my mother since childhood—that he had known her far longer than I had. And I remembered the photograph I’d seen of the two of them, both looking so young, Carl whispering something to my mother that had made her laugh wildly.
“I’m sorry for your loss too,” I said.
He nodded once.
“Did you manage to see her?” I said.
“Not after the accident.”
There was the slightest of breezes. I turned my face to the sun and closed my eyes for a moment.
“I’m guessing I have you to thank for the doll?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“How did you get it?”
“It was James’s.”
I opened my eyes. So not mine at all. I wondered what had happened to it. Perhaps I would never know. The box of belongings in the house contained many things from that year, but not everything deserved to be kept.
“James held on to it all this time?”
“He hasn’t lived the most stable life,” Carl said. “But yes. He always kept that, for some reason.”
“We all carry so much with us, don’t we?”
“Yes,” he said. “We do.”
I hadn’t given much thought to what James’s life had been like after we left Gritten, but I supposed I’d always imagined he’d been happy. It made me sad to know he hadn’t. That the guilt he felt had trailed him too, and he’d been unable to put it down and leave it behind.
“The knocks at the door?” I said. “That was you?”
“And it was you I saw in the woods that day?”
“Why?” I said.
“I was trying to frighten you away.”
Which had nearly worked. But, of course, Carl had been there when it had all happened. He knew what buttons to push.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know what else to do. I honestly never thought you’d come back here. Daphne always told me you wouldn’t. But then you arrived at the house, and I knew it was only a matter of time before you found it.”
It’s in the house, Paul.
“Charlie’s dream diary,” I said.
“You found it, then?”
“Yes. Why did my mother have it?”
There was a long silence then. I stared across the old playground, watching the bushes at the far side wavering ever so slightly in the breeze.
“Are you sure you want to know?” he said.
After everything that had happened, the anger flared.
“Do you know,” I said, “people keep asking me that. And for a long
time, maybe the answer was no. I
want to know about any of it. But I’m here now, despite everybody’s predictions about me. And so, yes. I would fucking well like to know.”
Carl looked up at the sky.
“I just wanted to keep everybody safe,” he said. “But now that Daphne’s gone, perhaps it doesn’t matter anymore. Maybe nothing does. And, God, I’m so fucking tired. So I’ll tell you, if that’s what you want. Then you can carry it all too. And you can decide what to do about it.”
Tell me how my mother got the diary.
He continued staring at the sky for a moment, lost in memory, and then looked down and rubbed his hands together.
“First I need to tell you what happened that day.”
Carl and Eileen had both been home on the day Charlie and Billy murdered Jenny. Carl had been working upstairs, and, as always, he’d listened to James leaving the house with a heavy heart. There had been many days that year when he’d felt like that: watching Charlie lead us all down the backyard and into the woods, feeling powerless to intervene. He knew who Charlie was—the illegitimate son of Eileen’s former husband—and he didn’t trust his involvement in James’s life. But it had never felt like his place to say anything.
As he told me this, I recalled the last day I’d gone into the woods with them. The way I’d seen Carl reluctantly raise his hand to the glass when I’d waved at him.
“And, of course, by that point you weren’t with them,” Carl said. “But that day, you spoke to him here. You told him the truth. And instead of meeting Charlie and Billy, he came home.”
He had heard the argument begin, walking out of his makeshift office and standing quietly at the top of the stairs for a time, listen
ing to the furious words being exchanged between James and his mother. The fallout from what I’d done had been ugly. Eileen had been sobbing and shouting. For his part, James had seemed resolute. Determined to discover the truth about his father.
“I always thought we should have told him sooner,” he said. “But Eileen was adamant. She didn’t want to think about what had happened; she just wanted to forget. At that point, I didn’t know how James had found out, but a part of me was glad he had. But it was a matter for them to sort out between them, so I went back to work.”
The argument downstairs continued for a time, and then settled into a kind of silence. Carl carried on working, imagining he’d be able to help with the situation later. That was his role in the house: to calm things down; to look after everybody and keep things working. He had always been the peacemaker.
He took a deep breath.
“But then I heard screaming.”
He could never be sure exactly what had happened, but it seemed that at some point Charlie had come in through the back door.
“That boy was crazy. You know that, right?”
I nodded, remembering. “Yeah. I know.”
“He really did believe in that dream world he’d made up. He thought he would find his father by doing what he did. But, of course, the whole thing was ridiculous. I think when he woke up in the woods, he was so upset and frustrated and angry that he came to our house to take it out on Eileen.”
Carl hadn’t seen it happen, but from what he could gather afterward, Charlie had begun screaming abuse at Eileen, and then attacked her, pushing her to the floor and starting to beat her. James had stood there for a moment, watching the boy he imagined had been his friend trying to kill his mother. Knowing that he had been
betrayed. Understanding that the foundations of his existence had been undermined in a single afternoon.
And as Charlie continued his attack on Eileen, James picked up a knife.
When Carl had finished, I sat there in silence for a moment.
“James killed Charlie?”
“You could make an argument that he was acting in self-defense—or at least, protecting his mother. But it went way beyond that. He lost control of himself. I think that everything that had happened—everything he’d learned that day—it all came pouring out in that moment. He was still stabbing Charlie when I came downstairs. I had to wrestle the knife off him.”
He blinked the memory away.
“Why didn’t you call the police?” I said.
“I thought about it. But then … well. I made a decision. Standing there right then, I knew our lives had changed forever, and I wanted to limit the damage.” He looked at me suddenly. “I love James, you know.”
I nodded, remembering.
Like his own son.
“And I knew that he was going to be in real trouble. I had no idea what I was doing, but someone needed to take charge. James was sobbing; Eileen was hysterical.
needed to look after them both. So it came down to me. Like it always did.”
He shook his head and fell silent. I waited.
After a while, he took another deep breath.
“We wrapped Charlie’s body in plastic sheeting, packed up tightly, and stuck it up in the attic, surrounded by boxes and carpets. We cleaned up. And then we waited. We didn’t know what he’d done at
that point, and by the time Billy was arrested that evening, it was too late to change anything. We’d hidden the body; we’d tidied the scene. We were all guilty. The police came to talk to us the next day, but they had no reason to suspect us of anything. They never searched the house or anything like that. I kept waiting for it all to go wrong, but it didn’t. What was left of Charlie was sealed away above us, but in the end it was easy to pretend it had all just … gone away.”
He spread his hands as though he couldn’t quite believe it. He was wrong, though. The three of them might have gotten away with the crime, but the repercussions of Charlie’s disappearance were still being felt even now. People were dying because of this secret. What happened that day had stretched its fingers out in the twenty-five years since, and it still had a grip on the world.
“James never really recovered,” Carl said. “He’s had a difficult life. The drinking. Drugs. Eileen and I came into some money, and we moved to be closer to him. He’s always needed someone to look after him.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And I did my best to help. I tried to convince him that what happened had only ever been a bad dream.” Carl laughed flatly at the irony. “Over time, I think he’s come to accept that’s true. He believes that Charlie really did disappear that day. He talks about it all the time. Reinforcing it to himself. He needs that to be what happened so he doesn’t have to remember.”
I thought about what Amanda had told me.
“Does he talk about it online?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know.”
Amanda had believed the user on the forum she mentioned had been encouraging the killers in her hometown. I wondered now if perhaps she’d misinterpreted the messages she’d seen. If it was possible they had been designed not to incite so much as to bolster a belief
the user needed to cling to. That Charlie wasn’t dead. That what Carl had just described to me had never really happened.
None of which answered my original question.
“How was my mother involved?”
“She wasn’t.” He looked at me. “Paul, you
to believe me on that. She had nothing to do with what happened.”
He looked away.
“But it was hard. The guilt. The pressure. And Daphne was my best friend. We really … well. We cared about each other.”
I thought again of the photograph of the two of them, and then also the conversation I’d overheard as a child.
You can do so much better, you know?
The silence that had followed before his reply.
I really don’t think I can.
By then, of course, my mother and father had been married for years, and Carl had already taken on the responsibility of raising James. At the time, the exchange had not seemed loaded to me, but I was old enough now to imagine a weight to the words and the spaces between them. The rules that had to be followed. The chances not taken. The things left unspoken and the lives unexplored.
“You told her what you’d done?”
“A few years afterward.”
“What did she say?”
“That I’d done the right thing. That nothing good could come from telling the truth. Because she understood I was doing the best for James, and that it was better for it all to be forgotten. And so all these years, she kept it a secret.”
Yes. That was exactly what my mother must have done. Out of duty, and friendship, and perhaps even lost love. But it had been a burden she had found hard to shoulder. I thought about the red hands in the attic and the newspaper reports she had collected. She
had understood the consequences of her silence, and it had tormented her. But she had carried it anyway.
One generation sacrificing so much to protect the next.
“But the last year or so,” Carl said, “she started calling me. It was obvious from what she was saying that she was … losing her grip on everything a little. She kept talking to me about what happened. I was worried what she might say to other people, and so a couple of weeks ago, I came back to Gritten.”
“You went to see her?”
“I tried to talk to her, but she wasn’t herself.”
“So you pushed her down the stairs?”
The sudden shock in his voice and the expression on his face were genuine.
“Tell me what happened, then.”
“I decided the best thing was to get the body out of our old house. That way, if Daphne
say something, there would be no evidence there for anyone to find. So that night, I took the remains out into the woods and scattered them. Covered them up a bit. I tried my best to make it look like they could have been there a long time.”
He’s in the woods, Paul!