Read The Shadows: A Novel Online
Authors: Alex North
Tags: #Thriller, #Horror, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult
And I had been wrong.
Because more memories were arriving now, dark and angry, and I realized that however much I wanted to be done with the past, what mattered was whether the past was done with me. And as I listened to the ominous thud of silence in the house behind me, the foreboding I’d had all day moved closer to the dread I remembered feeling twenty-five years ago.
Something awful was going to happen.
It was early October, a few weeks into our first term at Gritten Park School. That day we had rugby. James and I got changed at the main building with the rest of the class, and then trooped off through the cobbled streets to the playing field. I remember the air was icy on my thighs, and the way my breath misted the air. All around us, the
of cleats on the road was harsh and sharp.
I glanced at James, who was walking beside me with the air of a condemned man. He was watching the larger boys ahead with a wary eye. While the two of us had assimilated as quietly into the background of our new school as possible, James had been a target for bullies from day one. I did my best to protect him when we were together, but I couldn’t be with him all the time, and the rugby field felt like open season. A place where violence was not only tolerated but actively encouraged.
The teacher—Mr. Goodbold—was swaggering among the boys ahead, bantering with the favored. The man seemed little more than an older, larger version of the school bullies. There was the same angrily shaved head and solid physicality, the same resentment at the world and barely concealed contempt for the softer, more sensitive kids. On a few occasions I had seen him walking his bulldog around
Gritten, both of them moving with the same hunched, muscular rhythm.
We reached the road and had to wait at the traffic lights as cars hurtled dangerously around the corner. I winced at the blasts of air as they shot past. From the speed some of them went, there was no guarantee they’d stop for a red light in time.
I leaned in to whisper to James.
“It’s like every part of this experience is designed to kill us.”
He didn’t smile.
Once we were safely across the road, Goodbold led us down the field. At the far end, a teaching assistant was wrestling with a tangled net of rugby balls. The sky stretching overhead seemed gray and endless.
Goodbold spread his arms, somehow managing to separate his favorite pupils from the rest of us.
“You lot along this line. Organize yourselves by height.”
He led the larger boys across the field, and we all looked at each other and began shuffling around. I was a good head taller than James, and so ended up a distance away along the line. The assistant handed me a ball. Across the field, Goodbold organized the other side so that the tallest boy in that group was opposite the smallest of ours.
“When I blow this,” he bellowed, holding up a whistle, “you will attempt to get your ball to the other side. Your opponent will try to stop you. Simple as that. Do we all understand?”
There were a few murmured
but not from me. I could see how the boys across the field were conspiring and rearranging themselves behind Goodbold’s back. A boy named David Hague swapped places with the one beside him so that he could be directly opposite James.
I thought. Hague was the worst of the bullies. He came from a difficult family; his elder brother was in prison,
and it seemed likely he would end up the same. The first day at Gritten, Hague had shoved me for some perceived slight, and I’d thrown a punch without hesitation. The fight got broken up, and after that he had pretty much left me alone. But James was an easier victim.
I told myself there was nothing I could do about it. James was on his own for now. Instead, I focused on my own opponent. The success of my team didn’t matter to me, but I was determined to win if only for my own sake, and I gritted my teeth as I clutched the ball to my side and put my right foot back. My heart began to beat faster.
The whistle sounded.
I set off as fast as I could, only dimly aware of the boy coming at me from the opposite side. When it came, the tackle was brutal. He smacked into me around the waist, the collision knocking the breath out of me and sending the field whirling, but I kept struggling forward, twisting against him angrily, stamping down, focusing on the line in the distance. A moment later, he lost whatever grip he had and I was plunging forward again. Another second, and the ball was on the line, my hand pressing down on it.
The whistle blew again.
Breathing hard, I looked down the line. Only a handful of us had made it across, and the middle of the field was scattered with kids, some of them standing, some still grappling on the hard ground. It was Hague I saw first. He was standing a distance away, laughing. James was lying at his feet, curled up and crying.
Apparently oblivious, Goodbold simply meandered along the line, counting the winners. I looked back and saw Hague, still laughing, spit on James.
The anger overtook me.
He looked up as I approached, but not in time to avoid the hard shove I gave him, knocking him away from James. The impact was a shock to both of us—I hadn’t known I was going to do that. Hague looked equally surprised for a second, but then his face darkened
with anger. As if from nowhere, two of his friends were standing beside him.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I said quietly.
Hague spread his arms.
“What? So it’s my fault your friend’s a fucking gayboy?”
I swallowed. Even if Goodbold was watching, he wasn’t going to intervene—not until it got serious, at least. But other kids would be watching us, and I knew I couldn’t afford to back down. Which meant I was going to have to take a few punches. The best I could really hope for was to give a few back in return, and so I clenched my fists at my sides and forced myself to stare back at Hague.
“What the fuck is
with you?” I said again.
Hague took a step toward me.
“Going to do something about it?”
Talking was useless—it would be better just to swing and hope. And I was about to do just that when I became aware of a presence beside me. I looked to my right and saw that two other boys had joined us.
I didn’t know them beyond their names, and barely even those. They were in the same year, and shared a few of the same classes as me and James, but they’d never spoken to either of us. In fact, I’d never seen them speaking to anyone. As far as I knew, they’d been at Gritten Park for years, but it felt like they were as separate from the rest of the school as James and I were. At breaks and lunchtimes, they seemed to disappear.
And yet it was obvious from their body language that they were backing me up here for some reason. Neither of them were obvious fighters: Billy was tall and gangly, too skinny to be a real threat; Charlie was only the same height as James. But there was strength in numbers, however unexpected it was to have them, and right then I was grateful.
Or at least I was until Charlie spoke.
“I dreamed about you last night, Hague,” he said.
He sounded so serious that it took a second for the words to sink in. Whatever I had been expecting him to come out with, it hadn’t been that. Hague was taken aback too. He shook his head.
“What the fuck are you talking about, Crabtree?”
“Just what I said.” Charlie smiled patiently, as though he were talking to a slow child. “You were lying on the ground, and you were badly hurt. Your skull was smashed open, and I could see your brain pulsing—your heartbeat in it. You only had one eye left, and it kept blinking at me. You weren’t dead, but you were going to be. You knew it too. You knew that you were dying, and you were terrified.”
Despite the disparity in their sizes, Charlie didn’t seem remotely afraid of Hague, and there was a buzz to the air, as though he were channeling something terrible—some inner power he could unleash if he wanted to. Hague was more used to physical confrontations. He had no idea how to respond to something as alien as what he’d just heard.
He shook his head again.
The whistle blew behind us.
All of us instinctively took a step back—all of us except for Charlie. He remained standing exactly where he was. Still smiling. Still staring intently at Hague.
“Six of you made it.” Goodbold’s voice echoed across the field. “It would have been nine if Crabtree and his friends hadn’t left the line. Think about that next time, lads.”
Hague and his two friends headed off toward their line, Hague glaring back over his shoulder at us. I reached down to give James a hand, pulling him to his feet.
“You all right, mate?”
But although it was me who was helping James up, it was Charlie he was looking at right now. Charlie, who was still smiling to himself. Beside him, Billy met my eyes for a second, his expression blank and unreadable.
“Let’s try that again,” Goodbold shouted.
After gym class, the four of us ended up traipsing back up the field together. It didn’t feel like an accident to me, but I also wasn’t quite sure how it had happened; none of us seemed to seek each other out, and yet somehow we found ourselves walking side by side. It felt like, even then, there was already a design to what happened.
Hague and his friends were a little way ahead, and Hague kept glancing back at us. The effect of what Charlie had said had faded by now, and he had regained his usual angry swagger.
Charlie seemed indifferent to the attention.
“I wonder,” he said idly, “how many times Mr. Goodbold will come into the changing rooms on the pretense of making sure we all shower.”
I checked quickly behind to make sure Goodbold was out of hearing range. It wasn’t clear that he was.
I turned back. “At least we’re not too muddy.”
Billy kicked at the hard ground. “Only good thing about winter.”
“It’s not winter yet,” Charlie said.
Billy looked a bit hurt. “It feels like it, though. It’s as cold as winter.”
“Yes,” Charlie conceded. “That’s true.”
“I don’t want to hear about you dreaming about me, you fucking gayboy.”
Up ahead, Hague had turned around and was walking backward now, staring at Charlie. He was talking a lot more loudly than Charlie had been, so this time I was convinced Goodbold could hear. But, of course, he wasn’t going to intervene.
Hague made kissing noises. “I know you can’t help it, though.”
Charlie smiled at him. “Who says I can’t help it?”
“Who says I can’t help it?” Charlie repeated. “Maybe I
to dream about you dying, with your eye burst and your brain hanging out of your head. I mean, who
choose to dream that? It was a wonderful sight.”
Despite the recovered bravado, a little of the color drained from Hague’s face.
“You’re a fucking
“Yes.” Charlie laughed. “Yes, I am.”
Hague pulled a disgusted expression, then turned back around. I could see James was still riveted by Charlie. He was staring at him, as though he were a question he’d never encountered before and needed an answer to.
“A fucking freak,” Charlie said.
It was loud enough for Hague to hear, deliberately provocative. And as we reached the sidewalk, Hague turned around and started walking backward again, furious at being goaded. But whatever his response was going to be, I never heard it, because, as he stepped thoughtlessly into the road, a van smashed into him, and he disappeared.
There was a screech of brakes. I looked numbly to the left and saw the vehicle skewing across the road, spinning now, leaving smoke in the air and a swirl of tire prints on the road. It came to rest about a hundred feet down the street, a spread of blood smeared up its cracked windshield like an enormous handprint on the glass.
Everything was silent for a moment.
Then people started screaming.
“Out of the way!”
As Goodbold barged past us, I looked at Charlie. I was still too shocked to blink, never mind process what had just happened, but
I remember that Charlie seemed entirely calm. He had that same smile on his lips.
James was staring at him, his mouth open in horror and something a little like awe.
Your skull was smashed open,
I could see your brain pulsing.
And I remember Charlie looked back at James and winked.
“I really liked it.”
I looked up. The lunchtime creative writing club had finished, and I was busy cramming stuff back into my backpack. I’d thought that everyone else had already left, but a girl had hung back and was standing by the classroom doorway now.
“Your story,” she said more slowly. “I really liked it.”
The compliment made me feel awkward, not least because it came from a girl. She was small, with jet-black hair that looked like it had been cropped short with scissors in a kitchen, and she was wearing a T-shirt under her school blouse.
Jenny … Chambers?
Her name was all I really knew about her. To the extent I’d noticed her at all, it seemed she existed on the periphery of the school the same way James and I did.
“Thanks.” I finished stuffing my bag. “I thought it was shit.”
“That’s a nice way to respond to a compliment.”
She seemed more amused than insulted.
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s nice of you to say. You know what it’s like, though. You’re never happy with what you do.”
“It’s the only way to get better.”
“I suppose so. I liked yours a lot too.”
She looked slightly skeptical. It must have been obvious I’d said it out of politeness and couldn’t actually remember her story. Our English teacher, Ms. Horobin, ran a creative writing club for half an hour one lunchtime a week. We’d write stories in advance, and two of us would read them out each session. It had been Jenny’s turn last week. Or had it been the week before?
Her story came back to me just in time.
“The one about the man and his dog,” I said. “I loved it.”
“Thanks. Although it was more about the dog and his man.”
Her story had been about a man who mistreated his dog. Dragging it around everywhere; hitting it; forgetting to feed it. But the dog, being a dog, had loved the guy anyway. Then the man died of a heart attack at home, and because he had no friends, nobody found the body for ages. So the dog—almost apologetically—was forced to eat the corpse. Jenny had written it from the point of view of the dog and called it “Good Boy.”
There had been a couple of seconds of silence when she finished reading, and then Ms. Horobin had coughed and described the story as
“I don’t think Ms. Horobin was quite expecting it,” I said.
“Yeah, but those are the best kind of stories, right? I like ones that take you by surprise.”
based on a true story.”
“Yeah. It happened not far from here. Obviously, I wasn’t
. So I made a lot of it up. But the police really did find what was left of the guy when they went to his house.”
“Wow. I didn’t hear about that.”
“A friend told me.” Jenny nodded at the door. “You heading out?”
I zipped my bag shut and we left together.
“Where did you get the idea for your story?” she said.
And again, I felt embarrassed. My story was about a man walking through the town he’d grown up in, making his way back to his childhood home. In my head, he was being hunted for something, and wanted to revisit the past one last time—go back to a place where the world had still felt open and full of possibilities. It wasn’t clear whether he made it home or not; I ended it just as he was arriving at his old street, with sirens in the distance. I’d pretended to myself that it was clever and
to be ambiguous like that, but in truth, I hadn’t been able to think of a better way to finish it.
“Have you read
?” I said.
I wasn’t expecting her to have, but her eyes widened.
“Oh God, yeah. I love Stephen King! And I get it now. The Walkin’ Dude, right?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Her enthusiasm fired my own a little. “That guy really stuck with me … even though, you know, he turns out to be the Devil or whatever. But at the beginning, when he’s just walking, and you don’t really know why? I liked that a lot.”
“I did too.”
“Have you read any other Stephen King books?”
“All of them.”
All of them?
“Yeah, of course.” She looked at me as if the idea of not reading all of them was insane. “He’s my favorite author. I’ve read most of them two or three times.
Later, I would learn how true this was. Jenny was a voracious reader. Partly that was because her family was poor and books were
a cheap form of escapism, but it was also just the way she was. Right then, I was just amazed that she’d read more King than I had.
“I’ve read most of them,” I said. “
of them more than once.”
.” I thought about it. “Maybe.”
“Yeah, it’s difficult to pick, isn’t it? They’re all so good.”
“What about you?”
“Oh God, that one’s
“I know—I love it.” She grinned. “The ending! Bleak. As. Fuck.”
“Sure. They’re meant to be horror stories, right? And obviously they are, but look at
. Lots of bad things happen, but in the end the good guys basically win. And in
yeah, it’s sad and everything what happens to the dad, but the kid’s okay.
though. There’s just no hope there at all.”
I nodded, but also recognized the sad resignation in the way she said it. A part of me wanted to tell her that not all endings had to be hopeless. But then we walked out into the main playground, and faced the sea of children and the gray landscape around us, and the words wouldn’t come. On good days, it was possible to believe I was going to escape Gritten when I grew up, but the truth was that very few people around here were going to have anything but difficult, miserable lives. There was no reason to think Jenny or I were special, or that our endings would be any happier than most were.
I looked to the right. James was waiting for me at the far end of the gymnasiums.
I hitched my bag up on my shoulder. “I’m off this way.”
“And I’m off the other. That’s the way it works.”
Which seemed an odd thing to say. But then I remembered how I never saw her at breaks and lunchtimes—how she seemed to disappear
in the same way as James and I did. I wondered where she went: what forgotten part of the school she had made her own, and what she did there.
“Have you read ‘The Monkey’s Paw’?” she said.
“I don’t think so. That’s not Stephen King, is it?”
“No. It’s a short story—an older one. It’s quite similar to
though. You might like it.”
“It sounds good.”
“It is. I’ve got it at home. I could bring it in for you to borrow? I mean, only if you like.”
Some people might have added the qualification at the end to avoid the embarrassment of being turned down, but Jenny sounded relaxed about it—like it genuinely didn’t matter to her one way or the other. She’d come across as a loner before now, but it was remarkable from talking to her how self-assured and at ease in her own skin she seemed. It was as though the world were something she could take or leave, and it felt like some weird kind of privilege that she’d chosen to connect with me.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’d really like that.”
Then I went to meet James.
And Charlie and Billy, of course.
In the weeks and months that followed Hague’s accident, the four of us had started hanging out together.
I was never sure how it happened. It was a little like how we’d found ourselves walking back from the field together that day—as though it only appeared to be accidental. But I know it was mostly because of James. He became fascinated by Charlie after what happened that day, Charlie encouraged the attention, and it was the attraction between the two of them that gradually brought the four of
us into closer orbit. We began spending more of our time together. On weekends, Charlie would take us on treks into the woods talking about ghosts, and at school we spent our lunchtimes in Room C5b.
The room was in the basement of the school, down a secluded flight of stairs at the end of the main corridor. I remember there was a dark alcove at the bottom, with an ancient elevator that looked like the doors would screech if they ever opened. As far as I could work out, there were no corresponding doors above, so I assumed it must run to a floor below even the basement. A boiler room, perhaps. Some dank, wet place full of rusted, clanking pipes.
The only other door down there was to Room C5b, which I imagined had been a classroom once. There were skewed rows of dusty desks at the front, but also comfy chairs at the back of the room, giving it a ramshackle, piecemeal feel, as though the furniture had been gathered from different secondhand shops over a period of years. The room was like a part of the school that had been forgotten, and I suppose on that level it was an appropriate place for the four of us. We would meet there and lounge around. Eat lunch. Chat. Sometimes we’d use the old stubs of chalk to write song lyrics on the blackboard at the front. Nirvana. Pearl Jam. Faith No More. Whatever we wrote stayed there until we rubbed the words off and wrote something else.
Charlie and Billy were already there when James and I arrived one day. Billy was slouched in an armchair, reading one of the guns-and-ammo magazines he was obsessed with. He looked up briefly, to make sure we weren’t a teacher finally coming to evict us all, then continued reading. Charlie was in his usual seat at the far end of the room, high up behind a solitary oak desk. He didn’t acknowledge us at all. His attention was focused on a notebook on the desk in front of him. He was holding a pen above the page, as though poised to make a decisive mark.
I led the way through the maze of furniture.
“Hey, guys. What’s up?”
Billy shrugged, a sullen look on his face, as though he’d been told off for something. Since he often looked that way, it was impossible to say for sure. Charlie still didn’t respond. But as we reached the back of the room, he frowned to himself, and then carefully wrote something in the notebook.
I sat down in one of the armchairs across from Billy, got out the packed lunch I’d made for myself that morning, and ignored Charlie right back. I’d become accustomed to this sort of behavior. Every now and then, we’d arrive to find Charlie very conspicuously doing something mysterious. As I ate, I noticed the curiosity in James’s expression, and had to suppress the irritation it brought. He had become a little too impressed with Charlie for my liking. While I was prepared to entertain Charlie’s eccentricities, I made sure there was always a little mental eye roll there, whereas it was obvious James often thought Charlie was exactly as important as Charlie did himself. For reasons I found hard to articulate, that annoyed me.
“What are you doing, Charlie?” James said eventually.
“I already asked him that.” Billy pulled a face but didn’t look up from his magazine. “It’s a
Charlie sighed, then put his pen down on the desk.
“It’s not a
” he said. “I was concentrating. When you’re thinking about something important, you want to carry on without being interrupted.”
“Jesus,” Billy muttered. “Sorry.”
“The same way you wouldn’t want me to interrupt … whatever it is you’re reading.”
Billy glanced down at the magazine. He closed it.
Charlie smiled at James.
“I was writing in my dream diary.”
“What’s a dream diary?”
Charlie held up the notebook.
“Every morning, I write down what I dreamed the night before.”
I took a mouthful of sandwich. “It’s not the morning.”
“I didn’t say that’s what I was doing
I swallowed. Annoyingly true.
“I never remember my dreams,” James said.
“Most people can’t.” Charlie put the notebook down. “I used to be the same. Dreams are stored in the short-term memory, which is why it’s important to write them down as soon as you wake up, before you forget. If you don’t, they vanish forever.”
I resisted the urge to do an actual eye roll. I had become used to Charlie’s fascination with arcane bullshit. He’d bring books on magic and demonology in to school, but I always thought it was more to be seen reading them than out of any genuine interest—that it was part of a persona he liked to cultivate. Charlie would have been more than happy for people to believe he spent his evenings cross-legged in a chalk pentagram surrounded by candles. But he usually liked his reputation to have more of an edge to it than talking about dreams.
“So what were you doing?” I said.
“Searching for patterns.” He looked at me. “Making notes on what I’ve discovered. Once you start doing that, you begin to notice the same dreams crop up time and time again. The same themes. The same places. The same people.”
“And so what?”
“It helps with
.” Charlie smiled.
And I hesitated for a moment, the sandwich halfway to my mouth. It felt a little like when he had spoken to Hague on the day of the accident—saying something unexpected and odd enough to pull you up.
I didn’t like the word. It made me think of something awful being cultivated in a jar. And, of course, I realized I had been wrong just then—after what had happened to Hague, dreams actually did have an edge when it came to Charlie.
James seemed uneasy too.
“Influencing what you dream about,” Charlie told him. “Which helps to waken lucidity. Do you know what a lucid dream is?”
James shook his head.
“It’s when you become aware that you’re dreaming while you’re in a dream. Almost as if you’re waking up inside your dream but staying asleep. Once you do that, you’re in control of what happens. You can do anything you want, live any experience you want, make your dream world exactly how you want it to be. Anything you can think of can be real.”