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The Shadows / (by Alex North, 2020) -

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The Shadows /  (by Alex North, 2020) -

The Shadows / (by Alex North, 2020) -

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: 161
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The Shadows / (by Alex North, 2020) -
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2020
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Alex North
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Hannah Arterton, John Heffernan
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,
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upper-intermediate
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09:05:58
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128 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Shadows / :

.doc (Word) alex_north_-_the_shadows.doc [679 Kb] (c: 7) .
.pdf alex_north_-_the_shadows.pdf [1.57 Mb] (c: 5) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: The Shadows

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( , ).


PROLOGUE It was my mother who took me to the police station. The officers had wanted to drive me in the back of their squad car, but she told them no. Its the only time I can remember her losing her temper. I was fifteen years old, standing in the kitchen, flanked by two huge policemen. My mother was in the doorway. I remember her expression changing as they told her why they were there and what they wanted to talk to me about. At first she seemed confused by what she was hearing, but then her face shifted to fear as she looked at me and saw how lost and scared I was right at that moment. And, while my mother was a small woman, something in the quiet ferocity of her voice and the strength of her posture caused both of those huge policemen to take a step back from me. On the way to the police station, I sat in the passenger seat beside my mother, feeling numb as we followed the car that was escorting us through the town. It slowed as we reached the old playground. Dont look, my mother told me. But I did. I saw the cordons that had been put in place. The officers lining the street, their faces grim. All the vehicles that were parked along the roadside, their lights rotating silently in the late afternoon sun. And I saw the old jungle gym. The ground beside it had always been dull and gray before, but right now I could see it was patterned in red. It all seemed so quiet and solemn, the atmosphere almost reverential. And then the car ahead of us came to a stop. The officers were making sure I got a good look at a scene they were certain I was responsible for. You have to do something about Charlie. It was a thought Id had a great deal in the months leading up to that day, and I still remember the frustration it always brought. I was fifteen years old, and it wasnt fair. Back then, it felt like my entire life was constrained and controlled by the adults around me, and yet none of them appeared to have noticed the black flower rotting in the middle of the yard. Or else they had decided it was easier to leave it alonethat the grass it was poisoning didnt matter. It should not have been left to me to deal with Charlie. I understand that now. And yet, as I sat in the car right then, the guilt they wanted me to feel overwhelmed me. Earlier that day, I had been walking through the dusty streets, squinting against the sun and sweating in the simmering heat, and I had spotted James right there in the playground. My oldest friend. A small, lonely figure in the distance, perched awkwardly on the jungle gym. And while it had been weeks by then since he and I had spoken, I had known full well what he was doing. That he was waiting there for Charlie and Billy. A number of the officers at the scene turned to look at us, and for a moment I felt trapped in a pocket of absolute silence. Stared at and judged. Then I flinched as a sudden noise filled the air. It took me a second to realize that my mother was leaning on the car horn. The blaring volume of the sound seemed jarring and profane in the settinga scream at a funeralbut when I looked at her I saw my mothers jaw was clenched and her gaze directed furiously at the police car ahead. She kept her hand pressed down, and the sound continued, echoing around the town. Five seconds. Mom. Ten seconds. Mom. Then the police car in front of us began moving slowly away again. My mother lifted her hand from the horn and the world fell quiet. When she turned to me, her expression was somehow both helpless and resolute at the same time, as though my hurt were her own and she was determined to bear the weight of it for me as much as she could. Because I was her son, and she was going to look after me. Its going to be okay, she said. I did not reply. I just stared back, recognizing the seriousness in her voice and the conviction on her face, and feeling grateful that there was someone there to look after me, even if I would never have admitted it. Grateful there was someone with me who cared about me. Someone who had such faith in my innocence that the words themselves didnt need to be spoken out loud. Someone who would do anything to protect me. After what felt like an age, she nodded to herself, and began driving. We followed the car out of the town and left the parked police vans, the staring officers, and the bloodstained playground behind us. And my mothers words were still echoing in my head as we reached the main road. Its going to be okay. Twenty-five years have passed, but I still think about that a lot. Its what all good parents tell their children. And yet what does it really amount to? Its a hope, a wish. A hostage to fortune. Its a promise you have to make, and one you must do your best to believe in, because what else is there? Its going to be okay. Yes, I think about that a lot. How every good parent says it, and how often theyre wrong. PART ONE ONE NOW On the day it began, Detective Amanda Beck was technically off work. She slept late. Having been woken in the early hours by the familiar nightmare, she clung to the thin threads of sleep for as long as possible, and it was approaching noon by the time she was up and showered and making coffee. A boy was being killed right then, but nobody knew it yet. In the middle of the afternoon, Amanda started out on the short drive to visit her father. When she arrived at Rosewood Gardens, there were a few other cars parked in the lot, but she saw nobody. A profound silence settled over the world as she walked up the winding path between the flower beds that led to the gated entrance, and then took the turns she had committed to memory over the last two and a half years, passing gravestones that had become familiar markers. Was it strange to think of the dead as friends? Perhaps, but a part of her did. She visited the cemetery at least once a week, which meant she saw more of the people lying here than the handful of living friends she had. She ticked them off as she walked. Here was the grave that was always well attended by fresh flowers. There, the one with the old, empty whiskey bottle balanced against the stone. And then the plot covered with stuffed toys: a childs grave, that one, Amanda guessed, the presents left by grieving parents who couldnt quite allow their child to leave them yet. And then, around a final corner, her fathers grave. She stopped and pushed her hands into the pockets of her coat. The plot was marked by a rectangular stone, broad and strong, the way she remembered her father from growing up. There was something pleasingly implacable in the simplicity of itthe way there was just his name and a pair of dates that bookmarked his life. No fuss, exactly the way he would have wanted. Her father had been loving and caring at home, but his life had been spent on the force, where he had done his duty and left his work in the office at the end of the day. It had felt right to reflect that aspect of his character in her choice of headstone. She had found something that did the job required of itand did it wellbut kept emotion separate. No bloody flowers on my grave, Amanda. When Im gone, Im gone. One of the many orders she had followed. But, God, it still felt odd and jarring to her that he was no longer in the world. As a child, she had been scared of the dark, and it had always been her father who came to her when she called out. Whenever he was out on a night shift, she remembered being anxious, as though a safety net had been taken away and if she fell there would be nothing there to catch her. That was the way life seemed these days too. There was a constant sensation in the back of her mind that something was wrong, something missing, but that it wouldnt last. Then she would remember her father was dead, and the stark realization would come. If she called out now, there was nobody to find her in the night. She pulled her coat a little tighter around her. No talking to me after Im gone either. Another order, so all she ever did when she visited the grave was stand and think. Her father was right, of course. Like him, she wasnt religious, and so she didnt see much point in saying anything out loud. There was nobody to hear now, after all; the opportunity for interrogation had passed. She had been left with the short lifetime of experience and wisdom her father had gifted her, and it was down to her to sift through that. To hold parts up to the light, blow dust from them, and see what worked and what she could use. Dispassionate. Aloof. Practical. That was how he had been when it came to his job. She thought often of the advice he had given her: When you saw something awful, you had to put it away in a box. The box was something you kept locked in your head, and you only ever opened it to throw something else inside. The work, and the sights it brought you, had to be kept separate from your life at all costs. It had sounded so simple, so neat. He had been so proud of her joining the police, and while she missed him with all her heart, there was also a small part of her that was glad he wasnt around to see how shed dealt with the last two years. The box of horrors in her head that would not stay closed. The nightmares she had. The fact that it had turned out she wasnt the kind of officer he had been, and that she wondered whether she ever could be. And although she followed her fathers instructions, it didnt stop her from thinking about him. Today, as always, she wondered how disappointed he would be. She was on the way back to the car when her phone rang. Half an hour later, Amanda was back in Featherbank, walking across the waste ground. She hated this place. She hated its coarse, sun-scorched bushes. The silence and seclusion. The way the air always felt sick here, as though the land itself had gone sour and you could sense the rot and poison in the ground on some primal level. Thats where they found him, right? Detective John Dyson, walking beside her, was gesturing toward a skeletal bush. Like everything else that managed to grow here, it was tough and dry and sharp. Yeah, she said. It is. Where they found him. But it was where they had lost him first. Two years ago, a little boy had disappeared while walking home here, and then, a few weeks afterward, his body had been dumped in the same location. It had been her case. The events that followed had sent her career into a free fall. Before the dead boy, she had imagined herself rising steadily up the ranks over the years, the box in her head sealed safely shut, but it turned out she hadnt known herself at all. Dyson nodded to himself. They should fence this place off. Nuke it from orbit. Its people who do bad things, she said. If they didnt do them in one place, theyd just do them somewhere else instead. Maybe. He didnt sound convinced, but nor did he really seem to care. Dyson, Amanda thought, was pretty stupid. In his defense, he at least seemed to realize that, and his entire career had been marked by a singular lack of ambition. In his early fifties now, he did the work, collected the pay, and went home evenings without so much as a backward glance. She envied him. The thick tree line that marked the top of the quarry was just ahead of them now. She glanced back. The cordon shed ordered to be set up around the waste ground was obscured by the undergrowth, but she could sense it there. And beyond that, of course, the invisible gears of a major investigation already beginning to turn. They reached the trees. Watch your step here, Dyson said. Watch your own. She stepped deliberately in front of him, bending the fence that separated the waste ground from the quarry and then ducking under. There was a faded warning sign attached a little way along, which did nothing to stop local children from exploring the terrain. Perhaps it was even an incentive; it probably would have been to her as a kid. But Dyson was right. The ground here was steep and treacherous, and she concentrated on her footing as she led the way. If she slipped in front of him now she would have to fucking kill him to save face. The sides of the quarry were dangerously steep, and she made her way down cautiously. Roots and branches, baked pale by the oppressive summer heat, hung out from the rock like tendons, and she gripped the rough coils of them for balance. It was about a hundred and fifty feet down, and she was relieved when she reached solid ground. A moment later, Dysons feet scuffed the stone beside her. And then there was no sound at all. The quarry had an eerie, otherworldly quality. It felt self-contained and desolate, and while the sun was still strong on the waste ground above, the temperature was much cooler here. She looked around at the fallen rocks and the clusters of yellowing bushes that grew down here. The place was a maze. A maze that Elliot Hick had given them directions through. This way, she said. Earlier that afternoon, two teenage boys had been taken into custody outside a nearby house. One of them, Elliot Hick, had been borderline hysterical; the other, Robbie Foster, empty and calm. Each was holding a knife and a book, and both were soaked almost head to toe in blood. They were being held for questioning at the station, but Hick had already told the attending officer what the two of them had done, and where they would find the results of it. It wasnt far, hed said. Three hundred feet or so. Amanda headed between the rocks, taking her time, moving slowly and carefully. There was a pressure to the silence here that felt like being underwater, and her chest was tightening with apprehension at the thought of what they were about to see. Assuming Hick was telling the truth, of course. There was always a chance there was nothing to be found here at all. That this was some kind of bizarre prank. Amanda reached out and moved a curtain of sharp branches to one side. The notion that this was a practical joke seemed absurd, but it was infinitely preferable to the idea that she was about to step out into a clearing and see She stopped in her tracks. And see that. Dyson stepped out and stood next to her. He was breathing a little faster, although it wasnt clear if that was from the physical exertion of the climb and the walk, or the sight that lay before them now. Jesus Christ, Dyson said. The clearing ahead of them was roughly hexagonal, the ground jagged but basically flat, and it was bordered on all sides by trees and tangles of bushes. There was something almost occult about the setting, a first impression that was only enhanced by the tableau laid out there. The body was about fifteen feet away, directly in the center. It had been posed in a kneeling position, bent over almost in prayer, the thin arms folded backward along the ground like broken wings. It appeared to be that of a teenage boy. He was dressed in shorts and a T-shirt that had ridden up to his armpits, but the blood made it difficult to tell what color the clothing had been. Amandas gaze moved over the body. There were numerous dark stab wounds on the boys exposed torso, the blood around them pale brown smears on the skin. There was a deeper pool beneath his head, which was tilted awkwardly to one side, barely attached, and facing mercifully away from her. Dispassionate, Amanda reminded herself. Aloof. Practical. For a moment, the world was completely still. Then she saw something else and frowned. Whats that on the ground? she said. Its a kids fucking body, Amanda. She ignored Dyson, and took a couple of careful steps farther into the clearing, anxious not to disturb the scene but needing to make sense of what she was seeing. There was more blood on the stone floor, stretching out in a circle on all sides around the body. The pattern seemed too uniform to be accidental, but it was only when she reached the edge of the bloodstains themselves that she realized what they were. She stared down, her gaze moving here and there. What is it? Dyson said. Again, she didnt reply, but this time it was because she didnt quite know how. Dyson walked across to join her. She was expecting another exclamation, more bluster, but he remained silent and she could tell he was just as disturbed as she was. She counted the stains as best she could, but it was hard to keep track of them. They were a storm on the ground. Hundreds of blood-red handprints pressed carefully against the stone. TWO The hospice in which my mother was dying was on the grounds of Gritten Hospital. It seemed a slightly melancholy arrangement to me. On the long drive cross-country, I had wondered why they didnt go for the hat trick and install a cemetery and a conveyer belt while they were at it. But the grounds turned out to be pleasant. Once past the hospital, the driveway curled leisurely between carefully trimmed lawns dotted with brightly colored flower beds and apple trees, and then over a small bridge with a stream burbling underneath. It was a hot day, and Id rolled the car window down. The air outside was saturated with the rich smell of freshly cut grass, and the sound of the water on the rocks below seemed threaded through with a childs laughter. Tranquil surroundings for the end of a life. After a minute, I reached a two-story building with lush swathes of ivy covering its blackened walls. The car tires crackled over a sea of neatly turned pebbles. When I killed the engine, the only noise was the gentle trill of birdsong, the silence behind it heavy and profound. I lit a cigarette and sat for a moment. Even now, it wasnt too late to go back. It had taken four hours to drive here, and Id felt the presence of Gritten growing closer the whole time, and the dread inside me had increased with every passing mile. The sky might have been bright and clear, but it had felt as though I were driving toward a thunderstorm, and I had half expected to hear rumbling in the distance and see crackles of lightning at the horizon. By the time I was driving through the ramshackle streets and flat industrial estates, past the rows of weathered shops and factories and the forecourts scattered with litter and broken glass, I was feeling so sick that it had been an effort not to turn the car around. I smoked now, my hand shaking. Twenty-five years since Id been here in Gritten. Its going to be okay, I told myself. I stubbed out the cigarette, then got out and walked across to the hospice. The glass doors at the entrance slid open to reveal a clean and minimalist reception area, with a polished black-and-white floor. I gave my name at the desk and waited, smelling polish and disinfectant. Aside from the sound of cutlery clinking somewhere away to one side, the building was as quiet as a library, and I felt an urge to cough, simply because it felt like I shouldnt. Mr. Adams? Daphnes son? I looked up. A woman was approaching me. She was in her mid-twenties, short, with pale blue hair, numerous ear piercings, and she was dressed in casual clothes. Not an orderly here. Yes, I said. Sally, right? Thats me. I shook her hand. Call me Paul. Will do. Sally led me up a set of stairs, and then down a warren of quiet corridors, making small talk along the way. How was your journey? Fine. How long has it been since youve been back to Gritten? I told her. She looked shocked. Actual wow. Do you still have friends locally? The question made me think of Jenny, and my heart leaped slightly. I wondered what it would be like to see her again after all these years. I dont know, I said. I guess the distance makes it difficult? Sally said. Yeah, it does. She meant geography, but distance worked in other ways too. The car journey today might have taken four hours, but this short walk inside the hospice seemed longer. And while a quarter of a century should be a span of history with heft and weight, I was shivering inside. It felt like the years had dropped dangerously away, and that what had happened here in Gritten all those years ago might as well have occurred yesterday. Its going to be okay. Well, Im glad you could come, Sally said. Works always quiet over the summer. Youre a professor, right? I teach English, but Im not that high up. Creative writing? Thats one of the classes. Daphne was proud of you, you know? She always told me youd be a great writer one day. I dont write. I hesitated. She actually said that? Yeah, totally. I didnt know. But then, there was a lot about my mothers life I hadnt known. We might have spoken on the phone every month or so, but they were always short, casual conversations in which she had asked after me, and I had lied, and I had not asked after her, so she hadnt needed to. She had never given me a hint that anything was wrong. And then three days ago I had received a phone call from Sally, my mothers care worker. I hadnt known about Sally. I also hadnt known that my mother had been suffering from steadily advancing dementia for years now, and that over the last six months her cancer had become untreatable. That in recent weeks my mother had become so frail that the stairs were difficult for her to climb, and so she had been living almost entirely on the ground floor of the house. That she had refused to be moved. That one evening earlier in the week, Sally had entered the house to find her unconscious at the bottom of the stairs. Because, either out of frustration or confusion, it seemed my mother had made an attempt to reach the landing above and her body had betrayed her. The head injury she suffered was serious rather than fatal, but the fall had goaded the rest of her afflictions into attacking more swiftly. There was so much I hadnt known. Time was short, Sally had told me. Could I come? Daphnes mostly sleeping, she said now. Shes receiving palliative care and pain relief, and shes doing as well as she can. But what will happen over the next few days is that shell sleep more often, for more prolonged periods of time. And then, eventually, shell Not wake up? Thats right. Just pass away peacefully. I nodded. That sounded like a good death. Given there has to be an end, maybe thats all any of us can hope forto drift steadily off. Some people believed there were dreams or nightmares to come afterward, but Ive never really understood why. As I know better than most, those things happen in the shallow stages of sleep, and Ive always hoped that death would be a much deeper state than that. We stopped outside a door. Is she lucid? I said. It varies. Sometimes she recognizes people and seems to understand vaguely where she is. But more often its like shes in a different place and time. She pushed open the door and spoke more softly. Ahheres our girl. I followed her into the room, bracing myself for what I was about to see. But the sight was still a shock. A hospital bed rested against the nearest wall, with wheels on the legs and controls to elevate and change its position. To the side of it, there was more machinery than Id been expecting: a cart with a bank of monitors, and a stand of clear bags with tubes looping out, connected to the figure lying beneath the covers. My mother. I faltered. I had not seen her in twenty-five years, and, as I stood in the doorway now, it looked like someone had made a model of her from wax, but one far smaller and frailer than the old memories I had. My heart fluttered. Her head was bandaged on one side, and what I could see of her face was yellow and motionless, her lips slightly parted. The thin covers were barely disturbed enough to suggest a body beneath, and for a moment I wasnt sure she was even alive. Sally seemed unperturbed. She walked across and then bent over slightly, checking the monitors. I caught the faint scent of the flowers on the table beside the machinery, but the smell was corrupted by a hint of something sweeter and more sickly. Youre free to sit with her, of course. Sally finished her examination and straightened up. But its probably best not to disturb her. I wont. Theres water on the table if she wakes and wants it. She pointed to the bed rail. And if there are any problems, theres a call button there. Thank you, I said. She closed the door behind her as she left. And then silence. Except not quite. The window nearest the bed was half open, and I could hear the peaceful, soporific buzz of a lawn mower coming from somewhere in the distance. And then, beneath that, the slow, shallow breaths my mother was taking. There were long stretches of empty seconds between them. Looking down at her, I noticed the pink floral pattern of the bedsheets for the first time, and the sight of them delivered a ghost of memory. They werent identical to the ones I recalled from childhood, but close enough. Sally must have brought them from the house to make my mother feel more at home here. I looked around. The room reminded me of the one in the residence halls during my first year at college: small but comfortable, with an en suite bathroom built into one corner and a desk and cabinets along the wall opposite the bed. There were a handful of objects spread out on the desk. Some of them were clearly medicalempty bottles, popped pill cases, and torn strips of cotton woolbut others looked more ordinary, more familiar. There was a pile of carefully folded clothes. Eyeglasses in an open case. The old photograph of my parents wedding I remembered sitting on the mantelpiece when I was a child: here now, and angled so my mother could see it from the bed if she woke. I walked over to the desk. The photo should have been a record of a happy occasion, but, while my mother was smiling and hopeful, my fathers face looked as stern as always. It was the only expression of his I could remember from childhood, whether illuminated by the constant fires he would build in the backyard or shadowed in the hallway as we passed each other without speaking. He had always been serious and soura man let down by everything in his lifeand we had both been glad to be rid of each other when I left here. None of the phone calls from my mother over the years had featured him. And when he died six years ago, I had not returned to Gritten for the funeral. I glanced along the desk and saw something I hadnt noticed before. A thick book, placed cover-down. It was old and weathered, and the spine was slightly twisted, as though it had been soaked in water at some point and then left to dry crooked. My mother had never been much of a reader; my father had always been sneeringly dismissive of fiction, and of me and my love for it. Perhaps my mother had discovered a passion for it after his death, and this was what she had been reading before the accident. A nice gesture on Sallys part, although it seemed fairly optimistic to imagine my mother was going to finish it now. I turned the book over, and saw the red, leering devils face on the coverand then pulled my hand away quickly, my fingertips tingling as if theyd been burned. The Nightmare People. Paul? I jumped and turned around. My mother was awake. She had moved onto her side and was propped up on one elbow, staring at me almost suspiciously with the one eye I could see, her hair hanging down to the pillow in a thin gray stream. My heart was beating too quickly. Yes. I spoke quietly, trying to calm myself. Its me, Mom. She frowned. You shouldnt be here. There was a chair by the bed. I walked slowly across and sat down. Her gaze followed me, as wary as that of an animal primed to flee. You shouldnt be here, she said again. I kind of had to be. You fell. Do you remember? She continued staring at me for a moment. Then her expression softened and she leaned toward me and whispered conspiratorially. I hope Eileens not here. I looked around the room helplessly. She isnt, Mom. I shouldnt say that, really. But we both know what a bitch that woman is. Poor Carl. She looked sad. And poor little James too. Were only doing this for him, arent we? You know that, I think. We dont need to say so, but you understand. Its like shes in a different place, a different time. This was a place and time I recognized. Yes, Mom, I said. I did understand. She lay down carefully again and closed her eyes, whispering. You shouldnt be here. Do you want some water? I said. For a moment, my mother did nothing. She just lay there breathing steadily, as though the question were taking time to work its way through the confusing labyrinth of her mind. I had no faith that it would reach its destination, but I couldnt think of anything else to say right now. And then suddenly my mother lurched awake again, jolting upright at the waist, and reached out and grabbed my wrist so fast there was no time for me to recoil. You shouldnt be here! she shouted. Mom Red hands, Paul! There are red hands everywhere. Her eyes were wide and unblinking, staring at me in absolute horror. Mom Red hands, Paul. She let go of me and collapsed back on the bed. I stood up and staggered backward a little, the white imprint of her grip on my skin. I pictured a jungle gym and a ground patterned in crimson, and her words repeated over and over in my head in time with my heartbeat. Red hands, red hands, red hands everywhere Oh God, its in the house, Paul! And then my mothers face contorted in anguish, and she screamed at the ceiling, or perhaps at something out of sight above. Its in the fucking house! And with panic lighting up my whole body, I scrabbled for the alarm button. THREE During the summer break when I was fourteen, my mother took me and my friend James to see Gritten Park, our new school. We arrived at Jamess house first thing that morning, and I remember my mother whispering to me as we walked up the path. I hope Eileens not here. I nodded. I hoped that too. Eileen was Jamess mother, but you wouldnt have known that from the way she treated him. James could never do anything right in her eyes, assuming she noticed him at all. Id always found her frightening. She smelled of sherry, and seemed to smoke constantly with one hand cupping her elbow, watching you suspiciously, as though she thought you might have stolen something from her. But it was Carl who answered the door that morning. Carl was Jamess stepfather, and I liked him a great deal. Jamess natural father had abandoned Eileen when she was pregnant, and Carl had raised him as though he were his own son. He was a humble man, quiet and kind, but while I was glad he was good to James, it also baffled me how hed ended up with a woman like Eileen. Carl and my mother had been close friends since childhood, and I suspected it was a mystery to her too. Years earlier, Id overheard a conversation between the two of them. You can do so much better, you know, my mother had told him. And there had been a long silence before Carl replied. I really dont think I can. Carl looked tired that day, but he smiled warmly at us both before calling back into the house for James, who then emerged a few moments later. James was wearing old tracksuit bottoms, a grubby T-shirt, and an awkward smile. He was a timid boy: shy and sweet and defenseless; always desperate to please the whole world, but never sure what it wanted. And my best friend. Come on, then, urchins, my mother said. The three of us walked away from the house toward the main road that connected our town to the rest of Gritten. It was a warm morning, and the air was close and full of dust and flies. The metal of the overpass clanked beneath our feet as we made our way across to the dirty bus stop on the far side. Below us, a steady stream of vans and semi trucks shot past indifferently. Our town saw little traffic, and while it was technically a suburb of Gritten, it barely existed on maps. Even its nameGritten Woodgave more prominence to the enormous nearby forest than to the idea that anybody still lived here. Eventually a bus appeared in the distance. Have you got your tickets? my mother said. We both nodded, but I rolled my eyes at James and he smiled back. We were both fine on buses, and had visited Gritten Park the previous term, after learning the small school we had attended up until now was closing. But while James might not have admitted it, he was scared about starting a new school, and so my mother had come up with a way to help without embarrassing him, and I was happy to go along with it. It was a half-hour journey. Most of Gritten was saturated with poverty, and the view through the bus window was so drab that it was sometimes difficult to tell the empty premises from the occupied. I wanted nothing more than to escape from hereto move away and never returnbut it was hard to imagine it ever happening. The place had a gravity that held whatever was dropped where it fell. That included the people. Off the bus, the three of us took the five-minute walk to Gritten Park. The school was much bigger and more intimidating than I recalled. The gymnasiums were about three hundred feet back from the main road, their vast windows reflecting the bland sky and trapping it in the glass. Beyond, the main building was visible: four stories of murky, monotonous corridors, the classroom doors thick and heavy, the way I imagined doors in a prison. The angles of the two buildings were slightly off, so that from the street the school looked like something that was pulling itself out of the ground, with one shoulder hunched up behind it, awkward and broken. I looked to the right of the gyms. The area there was being renovated, and I could hear the tapping of a pneumatic drill from somewhere behind the stretched tarps. An intermittent, staccato sound, like distant gunfire. We stood for a while. And I remember feeling uneasy. There was something malevolent about the schoolin its stillness, and the way it seemed to be looking back at me. Before then, Id understood James being nervous about starting here. The school was hugehome, if you could call it that, to over a thousand studentsand James had always been a natural target for bullies. He was my best friend, though. Id always looked after him in the past, Id told myself, and I always would. And yet there was something ominous about the school before me right then that made me doubt myself. The silence stretched out. I remember looking at my mother and recognizing the confusion she was feeling, as though she had tried to do a good thing, a caring thing, but had somehow gotten it wrong. And I remember the look on Jamess face. He was staring at the school with absolute dread. For all my mothers good intentions, this expedition hadnt helped him at all. It was more like we had brought him to his place of execution. The quickest route from the hospice to the town would have taken me along that same road outside the school. I went a different way. I wanted to avoid any contact with the awful things from my past for as long as I could. But that became impossible as I drove into Gritten Wood itself. The town I had grown up in appeared untouched by the intervening years. Its spiderweb of quiet, desolate streets was immediately familiar, and the dark wall of the woods still dominated the landscape ahead, looming over the dilapidated two-story houses sitting in their own separate plots of scratchy land. I had the sensation that the faint sand misting up beneath the cars tires was the same dust that had been here when I was a kid. Picked up and put down again in slightly different places, but never really moving. The foreboding Id been experiencing all day intensified. It wasnt just the sight of this place, but the feel of it. Memories kept threatening to surfaceripples of history beginning to blur the surface of the presentand it was all I could do to push them down. As I drove, the steering wheel beneath my hands was slick with a sweat that had little to do with the temperature. I was still shaken from seeing my mother at the hospice. Sally had arrived within a minute of my pressing the alarm, but by then my mother had collapsed back into sleep. Sally had checked the machines and looked a little alarmed. What happened? She woke up. She spoke. What did she say? I hadnt answered immediately, because I didnt know what to say. My mother had recognized me, I told her eventually, but had seemed to be somewhere else, reliving a memory she clearly found distressing. But I didnt tell Sally what that time and place had beenor what shed said next, and how badly it had thrown me. Red hands everywhere. Despite the heat, the words brought a shiver. I was still trying to rationalize them. My mother was confused and dying; it made sense that she was retreating into her own past, and that some of that would be upsetting for her. And yet whatever I told myself, the sick feeling inside methe sense of forebodingkept growing stronger. You shouldnt be here. But I was. I parked outside my mothers house. Like almost all the buildings in the town, it was a ramshackle two-story structure, separated from the neighbors by stretches of dirt and hedges comprised mainly of brambles. The wooden front was weathered and the windows were dark and empty. The yard was massively overgrown. The drainpipes and guttering were rusted and almost falling away in places. The house didnt seem to have really changed over the years; it had just gotten old. The sight of it now brought a wave of emotions. This was the place Id grown up in. It was the place where, twenty-five years ago, two policemen had waited with me for my mother to return home. Id left it behind, and yet it had been here the whole time. I got out of the car. Inside the house, it was the scent that hit me firstlike unsealing a trunk full of your childhood belongings, leaning over, and breathing in deeply. But other smells kicked in almost immediately. I looked at the wall by the side of the stairs and saw it was covered with fingerprints of black and gray mold. The trace of cleaning products in the air couldnt mask the dust and dampness. I smelled ammonia. And something else too. The same sweetly sick air Id breathed in back at the hospice. That last smell turned out to be stronger in the front room, where it was clear my mother had spent most of her time. Sally appeared to have tidied up a little, but the pile of soft blankets on the arm of the couch, however neat, only made it easier for me to picture it as a makeshift bed. A small table had been moved across beside it. There was nothing on it now, but I could imagine things there. A glass of water. My mothers eyeglasses. The book, perhaps. The one I was holding now. The Nightmare People. Back out in the hallway, I followed the smell of ammonia to the pantry beneath the stairs. A couple of flies were buzzing against the murky green glass of the window, and the carpet had been untacked, then rolled up and bagged. It took a few seconds for me to understand. Because she had been unable to get upstairs in recent weeks, this bleak space must have served as my mothers bathroom. At that, I pictured my motherher body diminished, her faculties failing her, shuffling awkwardly about in a world that was closing in around herand a wave of guilt hit me. You shouldnt be here. Despite everything, I should have been. The stairs creaked beneath my feet, and I went up carefully, as though wary of disturbing someone. Halfway up to the landing above, I looked back down. An angle of sunlight was coming through the glass in the front door. It revealed a swath of the floorboards there that had been cleaned and polished, and again, it took me a moment to recognize what I was seeing. It must have been where my mother had been lying after she fell. Upstairs, I stood for what seemed like an age outside what had once been my bedroom, and then the hinges creaked as I opened the door. The space revealed itself slowly. Nothing had changed in here. My parents obviously hadnt used the room for anything in the years since, and the only real difference now was that it seemed so much smaller than I remembered. The remains of my old bed were still by the walljust a metal frame with a bare mattress on topwhile my old wooden desk remained under the window across from it. The room had always been as spare as this. I had never had much. My clothes had been kept in piles on the floor by the radiator; my books stacked up in teetering columns against the walls. I might have moved out yesterday. A part of me could almost sense the ghost of a boy sitting hunched over at the desk late at night, working on the stories he liked to write back then. I walked across the room and opened the curtains above the desk, flooding the room with light. Below me was the tangled mess of the backyard, leading off to the fence at the far end and then the wall of trees beyond. The town might have been named after the woods, but like everyone else here I knew them as the Shadows. For as long as I could remember, that was what everyone called them. Despite the sun, the spaces between the trees had always seemed full of darkness and secrets, and as I stared at them now, a memory fluttered out of them, black and unwanted. How Charlie used to take us in there. Every weekend that year, we would meet in the old playground, then head up to Jamess house and go into the woods through his backyard. We walked for miles. Charlie always led the way. He claimed the Shadows were hauntedthat a ghost lived therebut, while I often had the sensation of being watched by something between the trees, I was usually more worried about getting lost. Those woods had always seemed alive and dangerous to me. The deeper you went, the more it began to feel as though you were actually staying stillthat the illusion of movement was caused by the land rearranging itself around you, like the squares on a chessboard shifting around the pieces. And yet Charlie always brought us out safely. But then I remembered the last time I ever went in there with them. Deep between the trees, miles away from another living soul, Charlie pointing a loaded slingshot at my face. I closed the curtains. And I was about to leave the room when I noticed that it wasnt entirely barethat there was an old cardboard box on the floor beside the desk. At some point, the top had been sealed with layers of brown packing tape, but it had been cut open now, and the folds had been pulled back. I knelt down carefully, spreading them a little wider. There was a scattering of my old possessions inside. The first thing I found was a yellowing magazine. The Writing Life. As with the book at the hospice, my fingertips tingled as I touched it, and I quickly put it on the floor to one side. Beneath that, there was a slim hardback book. I knew what that was, and I didnt want to look at it right now, never mind touch it. And then, below, there were several of my notebooks. The ones Id used to write down my faltering attempts at stories as a teenager. Among other things. I picked up the notebook nearest the top, then opened it and read the beginning of the first entry. I am in the dark market. A flurry of memories erupted suddenly, like birds startled from a tree. James, sitting on the jungle gym that day. The knock on the door later. The thought Id had so often: You have to do something about Charlie. I put the notebook down, shivering slightly despite the heat of the day. When Sally had called me earlier that week, told me about my mothers accident, and asked if I was able to come back here, I had not answered immediately, because the idea of returning to Gritten filled me with horror. But I had done my best to persuade myself the past was gone. That there was no need to think about what had happened here. That I would be safe after all these years. 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 Id had all day moved closer to the dread I remembered feeling twenty-five years ago. Something awful was going to happen. FOUR BEFORE 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 click 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 couldnt 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 teacherMr. Goodboldwas 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 theyd stop for a red light in time. I leaned in to whisper to James. Its like every part of this experience is designed to kill us. He didnt 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. Two groups! 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 Yes, sirs, but not from me. I could see how the boys across the field were conspiring and rearranging themselves behind Goodbolds back. A boy named David Hague swapped places with the one beside him so that he could be directly opposite James. Bastard, 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 Id 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 didnt 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 usI hadnt 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 its my fault your friends a fucking gayboy? I swallowed. Even if Goodbold was watching, he wasnt going to intervenenot until it got serious, at least. But other kids would be watching us, and I knew I couldnt 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 wrong with you? I said again. Hague took a step toward me. Going to do something about it? Talking was uselessit 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. Charlie Crabtree. Billy Roberts. I didnt 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 theyd never spoken to either of us. In fact, Id never seen them speaking to anyone. As far as I knew, theyd 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 hadnt 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 pulsingyour heartbeat in it. You only had one eye left, and it kept blinking at me. You werent 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 didnt seem remotely afraid of Hague, and there was a buzz to the air, as though he were channeling something terriblesome 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 hed just heard. He shook his head again. You The whistle blew behind us. All of us instinctively took a step backall of us except for Charlie. He remained standing exactly where he was. Still smiling. Still staring intently at Hague. Six of you made it. Goodbolds voice echoed across the field. It would have been nine if Crabtree and his friends hadnt 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? Yeah. 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. Lets try that again, Goodbold shouted. After gym class, the four of us ended up traipsing back up the field together. It didnt feel like an accident to me, but I also wasnt 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 wasnt clear that he was. I turned back. At least were not too muddy. Billy kicked at the hard ground. Only good thing about winter. Its not winter yet, Charlie said. Billy looked a bit hurt. It feels like it, though. Its as cold as winter. Yes, Charlie conceded. Thats true. I dont 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 wasnt going to intervene. Hague made kissing noises. I know you cant help it, though. Charlie smiled at him. Who says I cant help it? What? Who says I cant help it? Charlie repeated. Maybe I choose to dream about you dying, with your eye burst and your brain hanging out of your head. I mean, who wouldnt choose to dream that? It was a wonderful sight. Despite the recovered bravado, a little of the color drained from Hagues face. Youre a fucking freak, Crabtree. 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 hed 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 thought. I could see your brain pulsing. And I remember Charlie looked back at James and winked. FIVE I really liked it. I looked up. The lunchtime creative writing club had finished, and I was busy cramming stuff back into my backpack. Id 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. Ohthanks. 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 Id 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. Thats a nice way to respond to a compliment. She seemed more amused than insulted. Sorry, I said. Its nice of you to say. You know what its like, though. Youre never happy with what you do. Its the only way to get better. I suppose so. I liked yours a lot too. Really? She looked slightly skeptical. It must have been obvious Id said it out of politeness and couldnt actually remember her story. Our English teacher, Ms. Horobin, ran a creative writing club for half an hour one lunchtime a week. Wed write stories in advance, and two of us would read them out each session. It had been Jennys 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. Thats true. 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 dogalmost apologeticallywas 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 evocative. I dont think Ms. Horobin was quite expecting it, I said. Jenny laughed. Yeah, but those are the best kind of stories, right? I like ones that take you by surprise. Me too. And it was based on a true story. Really? Yeah. It happened not far from here. Obviously, I wasnt there. 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 didnt hear about that. A friend told me. Jenny nodded at the door. You heading out? Yeah. 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 hed 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 timego back to a place where the world had still felt open and full of possibilities. It wasnt 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. Id pretended to myself that it was clever and literary to be ambiguous like that, but in truth, I hadnt been able to think of a better way to finish it. Have you read The Stand? I said. I wasnt 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 hes just walking, and you dont 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. Hes my favorite author. Ive read most of them two or three times. At least, I mean. Wow. 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 shed read more King than I had. Ive read most of them, I said. Some of them more than once. Favorite? The Shining. I thought about it. Maybe. Yeah, its difficult to pick, isnt it? Theyre all so good. What about you? Pet Sematary. Oh God, that ones horrible. I knowI love it. She grinned. The ending! Bleak. As. Fuck. And you like that? Sure. Theyre meant to be horror stories, right? And obviously they are, but look at The Stand. Lots of bad things happen, but in the end the good guys basically win. And in The Shining, yeah, its sad and everything what happens to the dad, but the kids okay. Pet Sematary, though. Theres 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 wouldnt 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. Im off this way. And Im off the other. Thats the way it works. Which seemed an odd thing to say. But then I remembered how I never saw her at breaks and lunchtimeshow 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 Monkeys Paw? she said. I dont think so. Thats not Stephen King, is it? No. Its a short storyan older one. Its quite similar to Pet Sematary, though. You might like it. It sounds good. It is. Ive 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 itlike it genuinely didnt matter to her one way or the other. Shed 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 shed chosen to connect with me. Yeah, I said. Id really like that. Then I went to meet James. And Charlie and Billy, of course. In the weeks and months that followed Hagues accident, the four of us had started hanging out together. I was never sure how it happened. It was a little like how wed found ourselves walking back from the field together that dayas 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 wed 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 werent 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 didnt 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. Whats up? Billy shrugged, a sullen look on his face, as though hed been told off for something. Since he often looked that way, it was impossible to say for sure. Charlie still didnt 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 Id made for myself that morning, and ignored Charlie right back. Id become accustomed to this sort of behavior. Every now and then, wed arrive to find Charlie very conspicuously doing something mysterious. As I ate, I noticed the curiosity in Jamess 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 Charlies 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 didnt look up from his magazine. Its a secret, apparently. Charlie sighed, then put his pen down on the desk. Its not a secret, he said. I was concentrating. When youre thinking about something important, you want to carry on without being interrupted. Jesus, Billy muttered. Sorry. The same way you wouldnt want me to interrupt whatever it is youre reading. Billy glanced down at the magazine. He closed it. Charlie smiled at James. I was writing in my dream diary. Whats 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. Its not the morning. I didnt say thats what I was doing right now. I swallowed. Annoyingly true. I never remember my dreams, James said. Most people cant. Charlie put the notebook down. I used to be the same. Dreams are stored in the short-term memory, which is why its important to write them down as soon as you wake up, before you forget. If you dont, they vanish forever. I resisted the urge to do an actual eye roll. I had become used to Charlies fascination with arcane bullshit. Hed 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 interestthat 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 Ive 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 incubation. 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 accidentsaying something unexpected and odd enough to pull you up. Incubation. I didnt 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 thenafter what had happened to Hague, dreams actually did have an edge when it came to Charlie. James seemed uneasy too. What does incubation mean? 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. Its when you become aware that youre dreaming while youre in a dream. Almost as if youre waking up inside your dream but staying asleep. Once you do that, youre 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. I looked at James and I could see he was considering that, and I wondered what he would choose to do if he could do anything at all. Get back at the bullies who tormented him? Envision a happier home life? Escape from Gritten altogether? I imagined the idea must appeal to him, and I didnt like the way he was staring at Charlie as though hed just been offered something magical. Theyre still just dreams, I said. When you wake up, its not like it matters. It hasnt changed anything. Charlie looked at me. For a moment his expression seemed completely blank, but there was an undercurrent to it that set me on edge, as though Id committed some kind of transgression by challenging him. What do you mean? he said. I shrugged. Just that. Theyre only dreams. They dont make any difference. Charlie smiled then, and for some reason it unnerved me more than the blankness had. It was the same smile hed shown to Hague that day, one that suggested he was way ahead of me, and that Id said something simplistic and childish that he himself had gotten past a long time ago. Theyre only dreams. A smile that said he knew a secret I didnt. SIX NOW Amanda worked late that night. She drew the blinds in her office and turned off the light, so that the only illumination in the room came from the computer screen on her desk and an angled lamp beside it. The arrangement was probably not great for her eyesight, but she liked working this way when she could. It concentrated her attention and made the rest of the world go away. It allowed her to think. What she was thinking about right now was dream diaries. The concept seemed ridiculous to her. Everyday diaries were alien enoughif something happened that wasnt important enough to remember in your actual head, what was the point in writing it down? The idea of going one step further and recording your dreams as well was so far off-planet she needed a telescope to see it. But that appeared to be what she was looking at now. While Robbie Foster was not cooperating, and Elliot Hick was borderline hysterical, the police had managed to establish a rough timeline of events, and Amanda now knew a little more about what had happened. Close to midday, Hick and Foster had gone to the quarry with a friend of theirs named Michael Price, and they had murdered him there. Afterward, they had taken sleeping pills. When they eventually woke up, they had wandered out across the waste ground, bloodstained and lost, at which point they had been spotted by a concerned member of the public. Each of the boys was carrying a knife and a book. Neither had denied the killing, and while the forensics would take time, Amanda had no doubt the two teenagers were guilty. She had the what and she had the who. What she didnt understand yet was why. Shed had a meeting with her boss, Detective Chief Inspector Colin Lyons, an hour ago. Lyons was a notorious bastard, and she had known full well the calculations that had been going through his head at the time. There had been a murder on his patch, which looked bad, but the killers were already in custody and there appeared to be no risk to the wider community. The convictions were going to be iron clad, and the department would look good as a result. A boy was dead, basically, but things could have been worse. That was how Lyonss mind workedand while her father had certainly not been a bastard, Amanda imagined the two men would at least have understood each other. Why was not necessarily a question that mattered. Motivations, causes, reasonsthey almost always turned out to be mundane and disappointing. What explanation could there possibly be for the horror she had seen in the quarry that afternoon that would make sense of it? Asking why was like diving into a black hole. The deeper you went, the less light you found. But she had been compelled to look. And she had found darkness that was difficult to understand. Foster and Hick had taken their dream diaries with them to the murder scene, and on the desk before her now were printed scans of the last few entries. She read what the boys had written down that morning. Robbie Fosters first: I am in the quarry. The light is strange. I perform nose trick and environment technique to stabilize then walk to the stage. Elliot is waiting for me. Hes vague but I can tell hes really there. (We both place hands on the ground.) RH is in the bushes watching us and I almost see his face. Elliot sees him too, and we both know its time. And then Elliot Hicks: I am at the stage in the quarry. The air is an odd color. Robbie arrives a moment later, and we stabilize each other by placing our hands on the ground. It takes a while, but then I feel RH. I still cant see his face, but hes in the bushes to one side. Robbie smiles at me. We have prepared everything carefully and know exactly what to do, just like Charlie told us. We both know tomorrow is the time. Amanda leaned back in her chair. Taking the entries at face value, it appeared that both boys had dreamed the same thing. Except the accounts were not identical. It was more like an event being described from two different perspectives. As though Hick and Foster had been in the same dream together. Which was obviously not possible. Of course, the boys had to be delusional to have done what they had, and what interested her most were the other details there. What did RH mean? And who was Charlie? Whoever he was, Hicks entry in particular implied the pair of them had been following instructions from him. And that in turn suggested the killing might not be quite as contained as Lyons had hoped. Amanda put the printouts to one side and turned her attention to her computer, opening the case file that was building online. Hicks and Fosters laptops had been seized earlier. Both were awaiting full analysis, but she did have a list of their browsing activities. The pair had frequented various sites online. But, scanning through the details now, it seemed that one specific forum had commanded the majority of their attention. The Unsolved and the Unknown. Amanda typed the address into her own browser. She was met by a schlocky-looking true crime website. The title was scrawled at the top in red, as though by a fingertip dipped in blood, and below it there was a dizzying number of sub-forums. The folders were arranged chronologically by the most recent post, and the one at the top of the page caught her attention immediately. Crabtree/RobertsRH The use of RH could hardly be a coincidence. She clicked through, and was then faced by another wall of posts, each of which had numerous replies of their own. The top few were in italicsold, pinned threads, she assumedbut her heart sank as she clicked on the most recent post below and began reading the thread. LP242: Guys, just got word of a murder in Featherbank. Its not far from where I live which is how I know. No details on the victim yet but local rumor is a teenager and police have two boys in custody. Close to @RF532 and @EH808 I think? Theyve not been online today as far as I can tell. Hope theyve not done something stupid? Trying to find out more. KH854: No recent posts I can find either. The murder itself is on the news, but no connection to RH I can find so far?? Lets not jump to conclusions. Copying @RF532 and @EH808. Check in with us, guys! SR483: Thoughts with the poor parents regardless. My reservations about @RF532 and @EH808 are a matter of record. Also perhaps the Mods might reflect on whether this is finally time to ban @CC666? Because if this is true then @CC666 has blood on his/her fucking hands. LP242: Okay, spoken to law enforcement source I trust. Victim and perps being widely named locally. Being told victim was nearly beheaded, dream diaries found, handprints on the ground. 100% RH, but police either being coy or havent made the link. God damn it, @RF532 and @EH808. We all shitpost on here, but I never thought youd go through with it. RIP to the poor kid you killed and I hope you guys rot in hell. Amanda read the whole thread again. @CC666 has blood on his/her fucking hands. She checked the time and picked up the phone. Detective Theo Rowan worked in the basement of the department. His office was commonly referred to as the dark room, and the reason for that nomenclature was twofold. It came from the lack of windows and natural light down there, and also the work Theo and his team did within it. Amanda knew many officers in the department thought Theo was creepy. She figured that was fair enough. If some people kept sealed boxes of horror in their heads, Theos probably held a fucking trunk. But he was efficient. Within twenty minutes of her call to him, her email pinged and a complete download of all of Hicks and Fosters posts and messages on The Unsolved and the Unknown arrived in her in-box. She blinked as she took in the volume of material: the messages had been pasted into a Word document that was close to a hundred pages long. The pair of them had clearly been active participants on the forum. Amanda scrolled down and started reading at random. RF532: Limited success with lucid dreaming so far. Some experience of RH but @EH808 and I still struggling to connect. Advice? PT109: Difficult to say. Sounds like youre making progress. But dont run before you can walk. Keep up the diaries and incubation and you and @EH808 will get there! Have faith brother. She read several similar messages that were equally oblique, but which all pointed toward the same conclusion. Foster and Hick had been engaged in some kind of experiment, and they were seeking advice and help in doing so on this forum. But it was difficult to make sense of what it was. Further on, a post took a more sinister turn. RF532: Can anyone confirm the precise make of knife that was used by CC and BR? Thanks in advance. FG634: I can! It was an Ithaca S3 hunting knife. There were a handful of photographs in the newspaper coverage at the time. Attaching some old scans I made. Posted FOR INFO ONLY as always. All best. [knife1.jpg] [blackwidow1.jpg] The images werent included in the document. But a few minutes later, in a post from a couple of months ago, she found what she was searching for. RF532: Advice folks. @EH808 and I now having constant success. Shared LDs every night. RH etc. Now thinking of next level, but slightly nervous given failed attempts in past. What do folks think went wrong there? Why did it work for CC and not for BR and the others? Theories welcome. CC666: I was there. DM me. Amanda peered at the screen. That was the only contribution to the thread by the user known as CC666. There were a handful of posts afterward, including a comment from SR483 expressing reservations about Fosters question and asking for advice from the moderator. But nothing appeared to come of that, and neither Foster nor Hick replied to the thread again. I was there. DM me. The record of the two boys direct messages on the site was pasted in at the back of the file. Amanda scrolled through to that, and quickly found the exchange between Foster, Hick, and whoever was posting as CC666. The thread took up several pages. [Participants]: @RF532, @EH808, @CC666 RF532: Hey there CC666. When you say you were there, what do you mean? CC666: You know what happened in Gritten. Thats all Im prepared to say, but heres a token. You can read between the lines and make up your own mind. Do you want the answer to your question or not? There had been an attachment to that particular message: [entry.jpg]. Amanda couldnt open it directly from the document, but from the messages that followed, it seemed that Foster and Hick had been impressed by the contents. RF532: Yes! CC666: Good. It didnt work for Billy or the others because they didnt believe strongly enough. But it worked for me, and it can work for you. You just need to follow the instructions. Amanda read on, feeling increasingly sick. After a while, she closed down the transcripts and opened the national database, searching for details of a different crime in a different place. She had never heard of Gritten before now. It turned out to be an industrial town a hundred miles north of Featherbank. A quarter of a century ago, a murder had been committed there. She opened the file. And then leaned closer to the screen, unable to believe what she was seeing. There was a photograph here. It had been taken years ago, but it might have come from Featherbank that very day. The image showed a playground. The body there had been rolled under one of the nearby hedges, perhaps in a half-hearted attempt to hide it, and the ground was patterned with hundreds of bloody handprints. She read through what had happened. On the afternoon of the killing, a teenager named Paul Adams had been taken into custody on suspicion of murder. But he had been released that evening, when a boy named Billy Roberts had wandered into the town, bloodstained and holding a book and a knife, and confessed to the crime. He and a boy called Charlie Crabtree had killed one of their classmates in the playground that day. The police in Gritten had their what and who almost immediately, but the why had taken a little longer to emergea story that was gradually pieced together over the days and weeks that followed. In the months leading up to the crime, Charlie Crabtree and Billy Roberts had become obsessed with lucid dreaming. They had kept diaries. They had believed they shared the same dreams while asleep. And over time, they had conjured up a shadowy figure that ruled over this fantasy kingdom, the killing an act of sacrifice to him. By doing so, they believed they would disappear from the real world and liveall-powerfulin the land of dreams forever. After the murder, the two boys walked to the nearby woods with their knives and dream diaries, took sleeping pills, and fell asleep in the undergrowth. Billy Roberts woke up hours later and staggered back to the town, where he was immediately arrested. But not Charlie Crabtree. Because he had vanished off the face of the earth and was never seen again. PART TWO SEVEN NOW In the first few days after returning to Gritten, I spent my time drifting between the house and the hospice. My mother continued to deteriorate. She was asleep during most of my visits, and I felt guilty over the relief that came from that. While I told myself it was best for her to be resting, I knew I was also afraid of what she might say if she was awake. On the few occasions she was, I found myself holding my breath, waiting for her to say something else about a past I had made a conscious decision to seal away and avoid. She didnt. Most often, she was confused and didnt seem to recognize me at all. It was as though I were a strangerand I supposed I might as well have been, a thought that delivered a parcel of guilt from a different direction, and which left me confused too. I didnt know what I wanted to happen. I didnt know what to say or what I wanted to hear. After visiting her, I would go to a pub for a time. It was a local place I remembered sneaking into as a teenager, and it had changed more than I had. Spit and sawdust back then, it was a sports bar now, slick and efficient, the d?cor dark wood and the lighting soft. It was never busy in the afternoon. I would sit at a table with a single beer, listening to the clack of pool balls from somewhere at the far end of the room, and for an hour or so I would try not to think of anything at all. Because back at the house, the memories were everywhere. I had put my old possessions back in the box, but I could always feel them insidea constant throb of threat from across the room by the deskand the ghost of the boy Id imagined sitting there seemed to become more solid by the day. I remembered the lunchtime when Charlie had first started talking to us about dreamsabout incubationand how midnight that day had found me sitting at the desk. That was always my favorite part of the day. Chores and homework done; the house silent; my parents asleep. I would sneak out of bed, click on the lamp, and work on my stories. I had so many notebooks back then. I kept them hidden away in the desk drawer, because my father wouldnt have hesitated to read them if he found them, and I could easily imagine the sneer on his face if he did. But that night, the notebook before me had been new. Events that lunchtime had panned out exactly the way Id expected them to. Charlie had decided we were all going to do something, and so eventually we had agreed to go along with it. Even the process had been predictable. James had been interested, which meant that Billykeen not to be replaced in Charlies affectionshad joined in too. That left me on my own, and eventually Id given in. Lucid dreams. As much as Id disparaged it at the time, the thought of it had intrigued me. Looking around my dusty, threadbare bedroom, and thinking about the misery of my home life and the flat, gray, beaten-down world around me, the idea of being able to escape it all and experience whatever I wanted was appealing. It had felt like it might be the only way I ever would. Charlie had told us the first thing we needed to do was keep a dream diary. After a week, we should read through the entries and look for patterns. That way we would be more likely to recognize them in future, at which point we would realize we were dreaming and be able to take control. Lying in bed that night, I had stared up at the bland ceiling for a while, then switched off the light with the cord that hung down by the headboard. Charlie had explained we needed to tell ourselves something before we went to sleep each night. It was incubationa signal to the subconsciousand while it might feel as though the words were going nowhere, something deep inside us would hear them and respond. I will remember my dreams, I had told myself. And it had worked. When Id woken up the next morning, Id remembered far more than usual. When I sat at my desk with the notebook first thing, images came tumbling out, each one leading to an earlier one, as though I were pulling myself back along the rope of the night. In the dream I remembered most vividly, I had been in a strange outdoor market. It was night there, and I was running down narrow aisles, past stalls that were too dark to see properly. There were people bustling around me, as gray and indistinct as ghosts, and I knew that I needed to get outthat there was something else in there with me. I could hear it stampeding angrily and randomly along pathways close by, hunting me like a minotaur in a labyrinth. And yet every passage looked the same, and whatever turns I took there seemed to be no way out. And I knew I couldnt escape from this place by myself. I was in the dark market. But it wasnt just twenty-five-year-old memories that filled the house now. There was also the silence hanging in every room, which seemed heavier and more judgmental by the day. What had my mother meant by what shed said? What was in the house? I tried to tell myself it didnt matterthat the past was something that could be left alonebut there were moments when it seemed like the house and I were engaged in a war of attrition, and I couldnt help but feel that on some level it was winning. And that something bad was going to happen when I found out what. Red hands everywhere. It was on the fourth day that I saw her. I was sitting in the pub at the time, a half-finished beer on the table in front of me. I reached out to pick up the bottle, running my finger over the cool condensation on the glass, and I saw the door across from me open. A woman walked in, framed by a wedge of warm afternoon sunshine. I only caught a sideways glimpse of her face, and the half jolt of recognition was left unfulfilled when she immediately turned her back to me and walked to the bar. Is that? She was wearing blue jeans and a smart, black leather jacket, her brown hair hanging halfway down her back. I watched her fumble with her handbag and purse. I waited, telling myself to keep calm, that it couldnt really be her. The barmaid brought a white wine I hadnt noticed being ordered, and then the woman clipped her handbag shut and turned around, scanning the pub for somewhere to sit. For a few seconds it was hard to believe my eyes. Jenny looked different now, of course, and yet somehow the same. I could still see the outline of the fifteen-year-old girl Id known: forty now, her face sketched over by life, but still immediately recognizable. The years fell away. Perhaps it would be better if she doesnt see you. But then Jennys gaze met mine, and moved briefly over before returning again. She frowned. I could see her having the same thought I had. Is that? And then she smiled. God, her smile hadnt changed at all. I felt a spread of warmth in my chest at the sight of it, and any fear or reservation about seeing her again disappeared as she walked over, the heels of what looked like expensive boots clicking against the wooden floor. Good God, she said. Hello, there, stranger. Hello. Wow. Wow indeed. How long has it been? I tried to work it out. She had visited me at college a few times, but it had started to feel awkward, and at some point wed lost contact. Twenty years? I said. Thats outright madness. She evaluated me quietly for a moment. I wondered what she saw. My own appearanceshabby clothes; disheveled hair; tired eyesmust surely have provided a stark contrast to her own. Okay to join you? she said. Of course. She sat down across from me and put her wine on the table. I suppose it isnt actually a surprise to see you, she said. Id heard you were visiting. I raised an eyebrow. Oh? Yeah. Small community, news travels fastthat kind of thing. Always has done, always will. You know what this place is like. I do. I would have gotten in touch, but, well you know. Yes. I remembered how things had ended between us. I know that too, I said. She smiled sadly. There was a moment of silence, and then she looked at her glass and rubbed her fingertip slowly around the rim. Listen, I was very sorry to hear about your mother. Thank you. The response came automatically, but I realized how unqualified I was to give it. Another thing Id been suppressing these past few days was the guilt, but with Jenny it felt safe to let a little of it out. I dont know how I feel, I said. I should have been here, but my mother and I hadnt spoken much recently. I didnt even know how ill she was. Ive not been back to Gritten since I left. Jenny sipped her wine. It feels like Im here all the time, she said. I come back to see Mom pretty often. You remember my mom, right? Of course. How is she? Jenny nodded to herself. Shes good, yeah. Old, but good. Better than the alternative. Thats true. God, youve really not been back here? No, I said. I went away to college and that was it. How come? Too many bad memories here. I get that. She was silent for a moment. But some good ones too, right? She risked a smile, and despite myself I returned it. It was difficult to think of it like that, but yes, there were good memories here too. Moments that, looking back on them objectively, had been filled with light. The problem was that what happened later cast such a shadow they were hard to see. It turns out I still have your book, by the way, I said. My book? It took her a second. OhThe Nightmare People? Thats the one. She had brought it in to school for me the day after wed met: a worn anthology of classic horror stories. The spine was as weathered as tree bark, and the price50?was written in faded pencil on the top corner of the first page. Not a lot of money, of course, and she gave it to me with the same apparent lack of concern shed exhibited the day before, but I felt the book was important to her, and I had determined there and then to take care of it. If it was in danger of falling apart, then it wasnt going to happen on my watch. And I supposed I had done that. I think my mother was reading it, I said. Yeah, but more importantly, have you finished it yet? I smiled. Many times. Do you still write? Nah. You know what they say. Those who cant, teach. I picked up my beer and told her a little about my work at the college and the classes I taught. What about you? I said. Yeah, she said. I still do all of that. Art and music too. But mostly writing. Ive had a few books published. Wow. I was pleased for her; it was good that one of us had kept hold of that particular dream. And as I leaned back in my chair, I realized how good it was to speak to her again, even after all this time. She looked great, and I was amazed by how happy she seemed. I was glad that things had turned out well for herthat she had gotten away from Gritten in the end and was living a good life. Wow, I said again. I hadnt seen. Ill have to look you up. She tapped her nose secretively. I publish under a pseudonym. Which youre not going to tell me? No. Anyway, thats work stuff taken care of. What about family? Wife and kids? I shook my head. Id had a string of relationships over the years, several serious, but none of them had worked out in the end. It would be too dramatic to say the women involved had sensed some kind of darkness in my past, but the shadow of what had happened did fall over me from time to time. I didnt let people in; at my worst, I pushed them away. The need to avoid addressing it was always more urgent, more important, than the relationships I found myself in, and I knew deep down that was no basis for anything long-term. Never got around to it, I said. And for some reason, I resisted asking the question in return. Jenny wasnt wearing a wedding ring. But that didnt mean anything, and right then I decided I didnt want to know. We sat in silence for a few seconds. Is your mother comfortable? Jenny said. Shes sleeping, mostly. When shes awake, she doesnt recognize me. I frowned. Jenny prompted me. Except? Except for the first time I saw her. And because, once again, it felt safe to talk to Jenny, I told her what my mother had said on that first visit. How I shouldnt be here. About there being red hands everywhere. That there was something in the house. Jenny shook her head. What was in the house? I dont know, I said. Nothing, I guess. There was a box of my old stuff shed been looking through, so maybe she was just feeling guilty about me seeing that. But shes confused. It probably doesnt mean anything at all. Yeah, but you mentioned it. Its clearly been bothering you. I hesitated. Because Ive been doing my best not to think about it. Ive done some cleaning, some tidying. Ive sat with her. I gestured at nothing. I just want to do whatever I need to and then get out of this place. Go back home. Leave the past where it belongs. Jenny had started shaking her head before I finished. But thats bullshit, Paul. You dont have to worry about any of that. I mean, look at the pair of us now. Is it weird to see me again? No. Its nice. Exactly. And Im the past, arent I? The past was a long time ago. It cant hurt you anymore. Maybe. She checked her watch, then drained her wine. I need to go. She stood up. But if youre worried about what your mother said, just do something about it? You might be rightit might be nothing. But theres nothing to be scared of here. Maybe. Listen to you: Captain Maybe. She hitched her bag onto her shoulder. Maybe Ill see you around? 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. EIGHT Do something about it. Jennys 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, its in the house, Paul. Its 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. Expecting. 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. Young Writers. 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 coverThe Writing Lifethen 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 Id suggested to Jenny, while my mother had clearly been looking through the box, I wasnt convinced it was this she had been referring to. So what was it? Until now, Id 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 mothers 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 shed said. Nothing. Or at least, nothing that helped. But there were memories here, fluttering out of the seams of the house like dust. Working through my mothers 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 shed 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 didnt recognize. My grandmother, perhaps, but it was impossible to tell, as even the parts of my past I hadnt 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 hadnt 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 mothers 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 wasnt 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 didnt 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 unguarded 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 didnt 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 Dawsona boy who would eventually grow up to marry Eileen and become Jamess stepfather. In the photo, he was turned to her. My mothers hands were on her knees and her face was frozen in an expression of wild delight, halfway between shock and laughter, as though hed 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 presencea role, almostand 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. Its in the house. I walked out into the hallway and rubbed my forehead. Perhaps there should have been a sense of relief that I hadnt found anything, but having committed to the enterprise, I felt frustrated. Absence of evidence was not evidence of absence. The fact that I hadnt found anything didnt mean there was nothing to find, only that I would never be sure. The silence was still humming. Come on, house, I thought. Im 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 attic. The humming in the house intensified a little. In my mothers 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 didnt relish the prospect, the attic was the one area of the house I hadnt 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. Id 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 coolfull 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. Click. Shit. 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 mothers. 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. Its in the house, Paul. Because I thought Id found it. NINE BEFORE 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. You okay? Yeah. It was obvious he wasnt. Even if he didnt 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 Jamess anxious manner that he was worried about disappointing Charlie. The realization brought a pang of irritation. It shouldnt have mattered to him so much. The whole things fucking stupid, I said. Did it work for you? Who cares? The thing was, it had worked for meat least to an extent. Each morning that week, Id had increasing success recalling my dreams from the night before, and last night Id had a dream I recognized. I hadnt 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 Id 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. Dont 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. Charlies 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. Jesus, I thought. Pull yourself together, mate. I didnt know whether I wanted to reassure him or shake him. But it turned out I didnt need to worry about doing either, because there was no way Billy was going to let James steal his rightful position as Charlies second-in-command. I had a lucid dream. Billy smiled, pleased with himself. It really workedit was just like you said. One night, I dreamed I was in my dads 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. Whats the nose trick? I said. Well come to that. Charlie didnt look at me. Billy, Im 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 didnt use the environment technique? No, I didnt 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 wed been set a test without being given the classes to prepare for it. What the fuck is the environment technique? I said. I said Id explain. Charlie turned to me. What about you, Paul? How did you do? I hadnt actually decided for certain whether I was going to talk about the success Id had, but I didnt 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. No? Maybe if Id have known about the nose trick. Charlie ignored the jibe and simply nodded, as though it was what hed 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 fucks sake, I wanted to tell him. It doesnt 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 didnt notice any patterns? Charlie said. Nothing at all. It was all just a random jumble. Thats fine. It just takes practice and experience. Give it another week or so, and youll get there. Youve done well just for trying. James gave Charlie a nervous smile. Billy looked at him. So what did you dream? 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 cant. James leaned away from him. Dont. 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 ours 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 melike there was a party going on. I think some of them had hoods and masks on. But it wasnt scary. It was more like some kind of gathering I hadnt 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. One person? I couldnt tell. It was more like a presence. 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 treesin the darknessso I couldnt see them. Did that scare you? Charlie spoke more quietly now. Did the people in the woods frighten you? James hesitated. A little. That makes sense. Charlie settled back. There was no need to be scared, but you didnt know that at the time. Did you think they might have been about to call out to you? Or come toward you? I dont 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 nowthe way dreams melted seamlessly into one otherbut 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 couldnt quite believe it. You saw him, Charlie said, his voice full of wonder. A beat of silence in the room. Saw who? I said. He didnt see him. Billy sounded sullen. He never said he saw him. Felt him, then. Charlie gave Billy the briefest of glances before his attention returned to James. Do you know what I dreamed last night? No. 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 wasnt 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. What? James and I shared a dream. Oh, dont be fucking ridiculous. 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, Id never challenged Charlie as directly or aggressively as that before now. His smile vanished and his eyes emptied, and I knew Id overstepped a line. But I pressed it anyway. Thats not possible, Charlie. I understand, Paul, he said. You havent tried as hard as the rest of us. You havent achieved anything. But believe me. It really did happen. Yeah, well. It really didnt. 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 Charlies diary, then stood there, reading the page that was open in front of him. His eyes widened. What? I said. But James didnt reply. When he was done reading, he lowered the book, and looked at Charlie with something like awe on his face. This is this cant 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 couldnt share dreams. I looked down at the book. Charlies 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 thats had his wings clipped down to stumps. Theres 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. Hes like a bear, a monster, blotting out the view ahead. I struggle to keep up, but I dont want to get lost and let him down. The forest closes up behind me as quickly as it opens up for him ahead, and Im 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 Im not worthy yet. The woods go on a short distance in front of us. Then there is what looks like a yard, and its far more brightly illuminated than the place where we are standing. Someone is there. He wont be able to see us because of the darkness, but I can see him. Its James. My heart starts beating harder then, because I know its finally working. What hes 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 reactionwondering 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 readwhat was still in front of me right nowwas 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 Id seen on Jamess 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 couldnt 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 didnt 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. So whos Mister Red Hands, then? TEN NOW Michael practically lived down here. Mary Price spoke softly, as though the air in the front room were delicate and she was worried her voice might bruise it. Amanda looked around. It was true that remnants of Michael Prices life were still casually scattered about. There was a glass table over by the window with what looked like the boys homework laid out on the surface; a pile of hoodies was slumped awkwardly over the back of one of the wooden chairs. A set of black headphones was stretched over the arm of the couch, and by the television, Amanda saw game cases spread across the floor beside a PlayStation. The room looked as though Michael had been here only moments earlier and would be back again shortly. But when Amandas gaze moved back to the boys parents, it was immediately obvious he would not. Mary Price looked pale and shocked. Her husband, Dean, was sitting beside her on the couch, his face blank, with one hand tightly clenching his knee. Talking to relatives of victims was the part of the job Amanda found the most difficult. Especially recently, she found it hard not to take on their pain as her own, to imagine them standing beside her at the crime scene and to absorb the impact of their grief. The feeling of loss and absence in the room right now was almost unbearable for her. Lock it away, she imagined her father telling her. You need to keep yourself detached. But she couldnt. Thats partly our fault, I know, Mary was saying. We could never afford much. Michaels had the same room since he was eight. Its too small for a teenagerjust space for a bed and some drawers, really. God, Ive been such a terrible mother. Amanda looked at Dean Price, waiting for him to comfort his wife. But the man seemed so far away right then that she wasnt sure hed even heard. You shouldnt say that. Im sure you both did your best. Do you have children? Mary said. God, no. Amanda still vividly remembered a pregnancy scare in her early twenties; it had genuinely been one of the worst things that had ever happened to her. No, not yet. Its worthwhile, but it can be so hard. Michael was always a quiet boy, but he got so silent when he was older. Didnt want to talk to his mom, of course. Mary looked at her husband, who was still staring off into the distance. You two got on better recently, though, didnt you? That was nice for you both. Made him feel a bit less lonely, I think. Mary patted his knee. Dean didnt respond, and Mary turned back to Amanda. Thats why I didnt mind him gaming so much. He let his guard down a bit then, you see. Forgot I was here. It was good to hear him interacting with people. Most of his friends were online? Well, they werent friends, really. Just strangers he was playing against. Thats thats why I was so pleased when he seemed to have met some friends in the real world. Mary fell silent and Amanda shifted uncomfortably in her seat. This was going to be difficult. But it needed to be done. Apart from anything else, the two of them deserved to know what had happened. As you may be aware, she said, two boys have now been charged with your sons murder. Theyre due to appear in court early next week. Dean Price came to life. Elliot Hick, he said. And Robbie Foster. He spoke slowly and deliberately, but remained staring at the opposite wall. Amanda hesitated. The boys hadnt been named in the press, but there seemed little point in keeping this information from the parents. They already knew. Everybody did. That was the kind of community Featherbank was. It became that way after the Whisper Man all those years ago. Hick and Foster had been friends since childhood, Amanda said. Am I right in thinking your son only started hanging around with them earlier this year? Thats right. Mary nodded. They asked him to sit with them. Which was what Hick had told them. The three boys started sitting together at school, and then on weekends they would go to the quarry. Michael Price had been eager for the company, Hick said. Almost painfully grateful for it. The way he had described it made it sound like the two of them had adopted a stray puppy. In the light of what had happened, the thought of that made Amanda feel sick. On Saturday morning, Michael had met Hick and Foster at the waste ground as usual, and the three boys had walked to the quarry together. Presumably, Michael had been expecting more of the friendship and companionship hed been looking for all his life and thought hed now found. But this time his two supposed friends had brought their knives and dream diaries with them. Killing Michael had been their intention from the very beginning. And the user known as CC666 had told them everything they needed to know to replicate what Charlie Crabtree had done. I was there. DM me. Did Michael ever mention a place called Gritten to you? Mary thought about it, her face blank. But after a moment, Dean leaned forward. He was a man made of hard angles, Amanda noticed, and there was something almost threatening about the way he had turned his attention to her now. No, he said. Wheres that? A town a little way north of here. She hesitated. What about Charlie Crabtree? Or someone called Red Hands? Dean just shook his head. Whos Red Hands? A myth, Amanda thought. Except not even that, of course. Myth was too grand a term for a fantasy figure conjured up by a group of teenage boys from twenty-five years ago. But as absurd as it might be, and as sad and pointless as it felt to Amanda, it appeared that really was what lay behind Michael Prices murder that weekend. The original crime predated the modern internet, but the mystery of Charlie Crabtrees disappearance had been taken up and passed on like a baton over the years: researched, analyzed, discussedand worse. Taken as inspiration. Which on one level was hard to believe. Except that, even now, in her late thirties, she could still recall the inherent horror of her teenage years. The way she had struggled with negotiating a world that seemed to be constantly shifting; the confusion and doubts about the best way to behave in order to fit in; the web of competing tensions and pressures. Most of all, she remembered the desire to escape from it allto be anywhere apart from where she was, and to find the person she was meant to be, as though the real her were already out there somewhere, and one day they would meet and shake hands. Teenagers were not rational, was the point, and the world was not always kind to them. She did her best to explain to Mary and Dean Price what had happened in Gritten twenty-five years ago. Dean listened intently now, his expression growing darker the whole time. I dont understand, he said. Are you saying my son was murdered because of a ghost? Im not saying it makes sense. Im saying that his killers appear to have really believed in all this. They genuinely imagined it would happen. They thought they would disappear. How did they even know about any of this? Amanda hesitated again. She didnt want to mention what CC666 had told Hick and Foster on that forum. That was one detail she really didnt want to get out to the public right nowespecially as shed now seen the content of the proof he or she had provided by direct message. There is a lot of information about the case online, she said. But fortunately, Dean was still focused on everything shed just told him. He seemed both furious and confused, and unsure how to negotiate his path between the two. But why would anyone believe such rubbish? As I said, this murder occurred twenty-five years ago. And afterward, Charlie Crabtree really did disappear. He vanished into thin air. What do you mean, vanished? Literally that, Amanda said. From what I can gather, there was an extensive search, but he was never seen again. So some people She was about to say believe he really did it, but Dean Price interrupted her againthis time simply holding his palm out to stop her. It was too much for him. He stood up and walked out of the room without another word. Amanda and Mary listened to the noise of his footsteps on the stairs, and then the sound of a door closing, surprisingly gently, in the hallway above. A beat of silence. Im sorry about my husband, Mary said. Neither of you have anything to apologize for. Mary stood up slowly and walked over to the table. She started adjusting the precarious pile of hoodies over the back of the chair, neatening them out. Its just very hard for him, she said. Dean used to be in the army, and Michael was always such a soft, quiet boy. They didnt understand each other. When Michael was younger, he used to be scared of the dark and hed call out to us. Dean would get frustratedtell him there was no such thing as ghosts or monsters. So in the end, it was always me that went. I was the same as a kid, Amanda said. Really? Sure. Except, of course, it had always been her father who came through to her: calm, kind, and patient when it came to looking after his daughter and reassuring her. Her father who would surely have been frowning at her right now, explaining that wasnt the kind of personal detail a police officer should be giving away in the course of their work. Its only since Dean left the army that the two of them started to bond, Mary said. They were very close. And Deans always been practical. A problem-solver. But this isnt a problem he can solve, right? Amanda said. Mary smiled sadly. No. Its not a problem anybody can solve, is it? Its just something you have to live with. She finished adjusting the pile of clothes, and sighed to herself. What do you think happened to him? This boy, I mean. Charlie Crabtree? Yes. Do you think hes still alive? Amanda considered that. Over the last couple of days, she had researched as much as she could about the murder in Gritten, and she still didnt know what to think. On the one hand, the search for Crabtree had been exhaustive: hundreds of officers involved; local search-and-rescue teams; tracker dogs. These were individuals with tremendous experience in the land and terrain, and all of them had been focused on finding a teenager who surely couldnt have gotten that far. But on the other hand, he had never been found. And there was also CC666 to think about. Whoever was behind the account appeared to be implying they were Charlie Crabtree, and the information they had given to Foster and Hick had resulted in Michael Prices murder. She thought about [entry.jpg], the file that had been sent as proof of the users identity. When she had opened it, the sight of what was on the screen had sent a shiver down her spine. A photograph of a notebook, held open at two pages dated from a quarter of a century ago and filled with lines of neat black writing. I am sitting with him in the woods. Charlie Crabtrees dream diary, which was supposed to have disappeared from the world when he did. Amanda looked at Mary, but it was actually Deans words that came back to her now, and his question that she answered instead. Are you saying my son was murdered because of a ghost? I dont know, she said. ELEVEN The attic was almost entirely empty apart from a stack of three cardboard boxes. They were piled neatly and were clearly the focus of the whole space, like a shrine. An open pot of congealed red paint rested beside them, and there were scrunches of rolled-up paper towels dotted about, so soaked in the paint they appeared drenched with blood. My mother, I assumed, wiping her hands after creating what was plastered around me. I approached the boxes tentatively, the corners of my vision filled with those mad red hands. I had the uncomfortable sensation they were moving when I wasnt looking at themthat the whole time I had been in the house the past few days, they had been up here, fluttering silently across the eaves in the darkness. I took the first box down and sat on the floor. It was sealed with tape, and I used one of my keys to cut it open along the seam. Inside, I saw a pile of weathered newspapers. I pulled the top one out. It was an old copy of the Gritten Valley Times, which had been the areas local paper when I was a child. I laid it out on the beams now and took in the stark headline across the middle of the yellowing front page. GRITTEN ROCKED BY TEEN SLAYING The printed text below the headline had been smudged by thumbprints and faded by time, but the grainy photographs there were still visible. There was Billy, age fifteen, glowering sullenly at the camera. His thick brown hair was parted in the center and there was a smattering of acne on his cheeks. Below that photo was one of Charlie. He was smirking absently, his dyed black hair swept back, his eyes as empty and alien as a sharks. I knew both of these photographs well. They had been taken from the class portrait wed all posed for, early on in the year of the murder, and I knew the rest of us were there somewhere, outside of the frame. These were zoomed in, which explained the low quality of the images. There had been other, better photographs of Charlie and Billy, but these were the ones the media had generally run with at the time. I hadnt understood why back then, but I realized now they seemed to fit the story bestcapturing not only the killers themselves but their roles in what unfolded. Charlie, the leader. Billy, the led. I hadnt seen a photograph of either of them in years, and the sight of them now left me numb inside. I should have been feeling something, I thought, but for a moment nothing would come. I stared down at the blurry image of Charlie for a few empty seconds. And thenfinallysomething snapped inside me, as though a tendon in my mind had given way beneath a sudden strain, and the emotion came tumbling out, angry and sickening. I hate you. I fucking hate you. My hands trembled as I took more newspapers out of the box. There were other copies of the Gritten Valley Times, but there were national papers as well, all of the stories about the murder here in Gritten and the subsequent investigation. There was coverage of Billys arrest and trial. The search for Charlie. The grief of a community in shock at the pitch-black evil that had flowered in its midst. My mother had kept it all. But why? I remembered she had encouraged me not to follow the media at the time, trying to protect me from it. I had ignored her, of course, and each report I scanned now brought with it a jolt of memory. Here was a photograph of the playground, sealed away behind crime scene tape, a policeman standing guard by the bushes. There, yet another lurid sidebar detailing Charlie and Billys obsession with lucid dreaming. I turned one page to find a photograph of a knife, the blood on the blade dried to rusty-looking crumbs, and read the caption below. The weapon that Charles Crabtree and William Roberts used to stab their classmate to death. A total of fifty-seven wounds were recorded on the body, leaving the victims head all but severed. I put it quickly aside. I felt hollow inside now: my whole body slightly stunned, as though the impact of seeing all this again were physical rather than mental. And the whole time, the red hands flickered at the edges of my vision. What was in the other boxes? There was a sudden urgency to the question. I took the second box down and opened it. There were newspapers inside this one too, but these appeared to be more recent. The first I pulled out was dated only four years ago. And yet the headline was horribly familiar. BOY, 14, MURDERED BY CLASSMATES Next to that, there was a photograph of a boy. He had a mop of unruly blond hair and a scattering of freckles, and the collar of his school uniform was visible at the bottom of the frame. He was smiling sweetly for the camera. The caption told me his name had been Andrew Brook. He looked far younger than fourteen, and for a moment he reminded me so much of James at that age that it took my breath away. As I worked my way through the newspapers, everything felt strange and off-kilter around me, as though the attic had rotated a few degrees and the world was now resting at an odd, disorientating angle. The story of what had happened to Andrew Brook emerged piecemeal through headlines. TWO ARRESTED IN MURDER PROBE OUTSIDERS CHARGED WITH BRUTAL KILLING OCCULT CONNECTION ONE LINE OF INQUIRY, CLAIM POLICE The murderers werent named in the reports, but it was clear from skimming the articles that Andrew Brook had been attacked by two boys from his schoolboys he thought had been his friendsand that police believed they had killed him as part of some form of ritual. There was mention of diaries and other material being taken from their homes for analysis. I pulled the third box across to me and opened it. Newspapers again. These were from only two years ago, and the reports were about another killing, this time of a fifteen-year-old boy named Ben Halsall. Two fellow students had been arrested and charged with his murder. DREAM CULT CONNECTION IN LOCAL MURDER As with the previous box, the reports remained vague in terms of exact detail, but if you knew what you were looking for the link was even more overt here. There were references to the two suspects being withdrawn and isolated, and obsessed with dreams and internet mythology. The influence of the murder in Gritten was obvious. I knew exactly what I was looking at. Copycat killings. For twenty-five years, Id done my best not to think about what Charlie and Billy had done, or my own role in the events leading up to it. Any guilt had been parceled away, and when I left for college Id imagined the train I boarded that day had taken me away from it. To the extent Id ever considered it, Id assumed the rest of the world had done the same as I had, and that Charlie had been forgotten. But he hadnt. And my mother had known. Why did you keep all this, Mom? But of course there was no answer to that question here. I sat back on my heels and closed my eyes. The silence was ringing. And in the darkness around me, I felt a hundred blood-red hands slipping quietly over the eaves. An hour later, I parked up outside the hospice. The surroundings were as tranquil as ever, with the days hot sunshine filtering through the trees, but the world felt darker than it had before. It was as though a shadow were gradually falling over everything, and my chest was tight with nerves as I made my way inside to my mothers room. She was sleeping. For the first time since arriving in Gritten, I wished that she wasnt. She looked smaller than ever today, the slow breaths her body was taking barely there. The machine that was monitoring her heart gave a soft beat every few seconds, and even that sound seemed quieter than usual. What are you dreaming? I asked softly. And then I sat in the chair beside the bed for a time, rubbing my hands together slowly. The window was open, and I could smell the trees and the cut grass out there, and hear a slight rush of breeze. But although my body was here in the hospice, my mind kept returning to the attic and what Id found there. And while I waited for my mother to wake up, I took out my phone and began searching online. There were thousands of hits. It would have taken me hours to read it all, but I clicked onto a large forum devoted to the murder in Gritten, and then scanned through the hundreds of posts there. The amount of information surprised me; every aspect of the case was being discussed in detail. But what I found most fascinating were the threads devoted to Charlies disappearance. The speculation there went on and on. It seemed so pointless. If the police couldnt find Charlie a quarter of a century ago, what were a bunch of online amateurs going to achieve now? Regardless, they all had their own pet theory about how he had pulled off his vanishing act. Some thought his remains were out there in the depths of Gritten Wood, still waiting to be discovered. Others, that an accomplice had helped to spirit him away, and that he was still alive somewhere. The thought of that made me shiver. But even worse were the posts from people who appeared to believe the impossible. Charlie had thought a sacrifice would allow him to vanish into the dream world forever, and there were people online who genuinely believed he had managed it. Which was ridiculous, of course. But at the same time, I remembered all too well the appeal that lucid dreams had had for me as a teenager, and how even though I hadnt bought into the outer reaches of Charlies bullshit, that central idea of escape had still pulled at me. If I hadnt believed him, perhaps a part of me had wanted to. So yes, it was ridiculous. But I had seen it happen myself, hadnt I? Id watched a belief take hold, and then the awful repercussions of that unfolding slowly and inexorably in real time. The killers of Andrew Brook and Ben Halsall had believed. It sickened me. What Charlie and Billy did that day had become a story, one that had grown and twisted over the years, and now at least two other children were dead because of him. It might have been absurd to believe Charlie had disappeared into a fantasy world, but in some ways he had achieved his wish. The murder had leaked out into the lives of so many others, and Charlie lived on in their dreams and nightmares, just as hed wanted. And because I had played my own role in what had happened, it was impossible to shake the feeling that I was partly responsible for the murders that followed in its wake. That, whether I had known about them or not, in some way they were my fault. After a time, my mother began stirring in her sleep. Her breathing changed, and while it was probably my imagination, the soft beep of her heart monitor beside me seemed a little louder. She opened her eyes. I waited as she stared at the ceiling for a few seconds. She turned her head and looked at me blankly. And then she looked as sad as Id ever seen her. It was as though she wanted to reach out to someoneto touch thembut a window was keeping the two of them apart. You can do so much better, you know, she said. I remembered the photographs Id seen back at the house. My mother as a young woman full of hopes and dreams, laughing with such joy that it looked as though the whole world delighted her. The contrast right now was stark. Mom, I said. Its me. Paul. She stared at me. I was worried she might react the way she had on my first visit, but instead, after a moment, her expression changed, the sadness softening into something slightly happier, yet still tinged with melancholy and loss. You look so grown up, she said. I am. Oh, I know. Or at least you think you are. Everybody does at your age. But that doesnt stop me from worrying about you. My son, going out by himself into the big, wide world. I swallowed. She wasnt here with me right now, but I knew where her mind was and what it was seeing. I didnt need to close my eyes to picture that final day at the railway station as we waited for the train together. Me heading off to college, with my bags resting on the platform beside me. I remembered what she had said to me. It will be Christmas before you know it. My mother smiled sadly now. And I know youre not coming back, she said. For a few seconds, I said nothing. Just as I had at the time. Then I leaned forward. No, Im not, I said quietly. Im sorry. You dont need to be. Are you sad about it? She shook her head gently, then looked up at the ceiling and smiled again, this time more to herself. Ill miss you so much, she said. But Im happy for you. I want you to go out and do great things. Thats all Ive ever wanted. For you to get away from this place, and everything that happened here. I want to throw you as far as possible, so you can grow big and strong somewhere better. So you can have a good life. I dont care if you ever think about me at all. Ill think about you instead. I didnt reply. I hadnt known what was going through my mothers head that day, and I had never had a child of my own to help me understand the notion of unconditional sacrifice she was describing. Thats all Ive ever wanted. For you to get away from this place, and everything that happened here. All these years, she had known about the copycat murders. She had kept newspapers detailing crimes connected to me, and which I had been blissfully unaware of. She had let me have my escape, and then carried a weight in my absence that should have been mine. She had protected me. I went up into the attic, Mom, I said. Her smile flickered at that. It was as though my words had interfered with her reception, interrupting the clarity of the signal she was receiving, like a burst of unpleasant static across the screen of her memories. I regretted it immediately. If she had done that for me over the years, surely it was my turn to shoulder the burden now. What mattered most was that her final days and hours were peaceful. What was that? she said. Nothing, Mom. She breathed slowly. The seconds passed. Then she frowned slightly. Theres something I need to tell you, she said. What? More silence. Just that quiet breathing. I just cant remember what it is, she said. I waited. I had no idea what time or place my mother was speaking from right now, as my own words had clearly disrupted her. Was she still at the railway station that day with me? Or were these thoughts coming from somewhere else entirely? But there was no answer to that question. Whatever my mother had been dreaming before, she returned to it now. TWELVE Are you saying my son was murdered because of a ghost? Amanda was still thinking about that question as she arrived back at the department. Instead of heading straight to her office, she got into the elevator and pressed the button for the basement. It was certainly the place for ghosts down here. While the rest of the building had been modernized a few years previously, the basement remained untouched. The paint on the walls was coming away in patches, as though picked at by fingernails, and a couple of the overhead lights flickered as she walked beneath them. The corridors down here were silent other than an omnipresent buzzing sound. Whenever Amanda visited the basement, she was never sure if the noise came from the lights above, the wiring in the walls, or something else altogether. Or which of those options unnerved her the most. The dark room, then. When she reached it, she knocked on the door and waited. Even though she didnt like it down here, it seemed easier to pay a personal call than to pick up the phone or send an email. She heard movement from inside, and then the door opened a few seconds later. Detective Theo Rowan had a way of opening a door not quite as wide as you might expect; it reminded her of someone keeping the chain on at the arrival of an unwelcome visitor. But the reputation he had throughout the department was largely down to the work he did; in person, Amanda imagined he would be a surprise to people who had heard of but never met him. Theo was in his late twenties, with an athletic build and a mass of curly blond hair. And despite all the talk about him being creepy, he had a nice smile. It appeared now. Amanda. Hi, Theo. While the smile remained, the door didnt open any wider. To what do I owe the pleasure? he said. I need help finding someone. Which was not, both of them knew, his job. But she had already tried the usual channels without success, and she figured Theo would recognize she was looking for a slightly different approach. Not outright illegal, but perhaps less conventional than the rule book strictly allowed for. She also guessed he would be intrigued by the prospect of that. She was right. After a moment, the door opened properly. You should absolutely come in, then. She followed Theo into the room, closing the door behind her. Despite the unofficial title that officers had given it, the dark room was in reality anything but. Although it lacked natural light, it was so brightly illuminated, and the surfaces so impeccably clean and polished, that it reminded her of a laboratory. And in a way, there really were things growing in here. Amanda looked to one side. While most of the room was white and swept clear, the desks covered with neatly arranged monitors, one of the walls was darker and messier. A huge library of black hard drives was slotted into an elaborate shelving system, the cables that emerged between them carefully looped and tied but still creating a mass of bristly texture from which a multitude of tiny green and red LED lights blinked out like spider eyes. Each of the hard drives was carefully marked with a thin white label. Many of them, she knew, were the names of children. Not real, living ones, but the fake online personas that Theo and his team had created. There were equally fabricated adult identities. Other drives simply listed the names of internet forums. Some of those were notorious, but others, mercifully, were well beneath the radar of the general public. The work Theo did in the dark room was simultaneously straightforward and horrifying. He and his team spent their days in the depths of the internet, dredging its silt. If there was anybody who could help her track down a ghost online, it was Detective Theo Rowan. He was the only one in right now, and he led her over to a desk at the far end of the room. This is to do with the Price murder? he said. Yes. The Unsolved and The Unknown. Yes, I remember. Tell me what you need. Amanda explained about the history of the case, and the user on the forum who had sent the photograph of what appeared to be Charlie Crabtrees dream diary. Using Fosters login, she had established that everybody registered on the site had a personal profile, but CC666s had been left entirely blank. The site was hosted outside of the country, and the registration was private. She had contacted the anonymous owner through a link on the forum but had been met with silence. He or she seemed to have no desire to cooperate with the police. All of which meant that, so far, the only lead she had on the user known as CC666 was their words on a screen. It seemed like there was nowhere else to go. Theo listened carefully, but halfway through he had already turned his attention to a monitor in front of him and begun typing quickly. And you think this person might be Crabtree? he said. I dont know, Amanda said. It doesnt seem possible, but thats what they seem to be implying in their messages. And given the way they encouraged Hick and Foster, Id very much like to find out who they are. I just cant see how. Theo finished typing. I can maybe get you their IP address. You can? Possibly. But you have to bear in mind that, even if I do, that might not be precise enough to identify them. IP addresses vary in their accuracy. I might not be able to pinpoint their exact house for you, but it might at least narrow it down to an area. That would be good, Amanda said. How? Theo gestured across the room at his wall of hard drives. With a little help from my friends. Or, in other words: set a ghost to catch a ghost. Theo explained he would use one of his cultivated false identities to set up an account at the forum, providing enough information on the profile for someone looking at it to establish that they appeared to be a living, breathing person with no connection to the police. He would then send a direct message to CC666, including a link designed to pique their curiosity. The link itself would look generic and innocentthe two of them chose a newspaper articlebut it would run through a spoof page first that the person who clicked on it would never see. That page would record extensive data about the user: their internet connection; the details of their computer; a location of sorts. And since CC666 was the only person who would ever visit that link, they could be confident any information they got would belong to their man or woman. Theo made it sound simple. Of course, it depends on CC666 taking the bait, he said. Would you? He raised an eyebrow and laughed. As Amanda took the elevator upstairs, she was still pondering the question shed now been asked twice that day. Did she think the user was Charlie Crabtree? It was hard to imagine. Surely Crabtree must be dead by now. Or else someone would have found him. He had been fifteen years old at the time of the murder, and while what she had learned about the case had given her an idea of how cunning he had been and how carefully his plan had unfolded, it was difficult to believe he could have evaded capture all these years. But not impossible. The idea chilled her. If it really was him, then what was he doing? What might his plan be now? Back in her office, Amanda closed the blinds, switched off the light, and turned to her computer. She told herself to be sensible. Before she started thinking about ghosts, there were other avenues to explore. I was there. DM me. The police might not have found Charlie Crabtree twenty-five years ago, but the evidence against Billy Roberts had been overwhelming. Roberts had pled guilty to the murder. His lawyer had attempted to argue the boy was suffering from schizophrenia, but the diagnosis was contested by a second psychiatric examination, and the judge had ultimately rejected it. Implications of childhood abuse were taken into account, along with an acceptance that Crabtree had taken the lead in the crime. In the end, Roberts had been sentenced to twenty years in prison for the killing. According to the online files she read through, he had responded well to the various initiatives and programs he had enrolled in over the course of his sentence. Evaluative reports repeatedly described him as thoughtful, repentant, and unlikely to present a further danger to society. He had been judged fit for release, and paroled over ten years ago. Amanda leaned back in her chair. Billy Roberts, a person who really had been there that day, was out there in the world somewhere right now. The knowledge provoked mixed feelings. She had become familiar with the killing in Gritten, and the ferocity of what had been done there had lodged in her head. How could it not, she thought, when she had seen a reproduction of it with her own eyes in the quarry? The idea that one of the people responsible for such an atrocity was free in the community shook her a little. But, of course, Billy Roberts had been little more than a child at the time of the murder. And she had to believe that people could change. At the same time, she was reluctant to rely entirely on the judgments of strangers when it came to that. She read the reports on the screen again. Roberts may well have presented himself as thoughtful and repentant on the surface, but who knew what unseen damage the murder and subsequent incarceration had done to him on a deeper level? Especially when he knew that Charlie had gotten away with it. Amanda opened a new tab on the computer and started typing. She was prepared to attempt to trace Billy Roberts through the parole systemalbeit gritting her teeth at the contortions that might involvebut it turned out that would not be necessary. As unbelievable as she found it, his address and phone number were publicly listed. At least, she assumed it was him. It had to be. The address on the system was only a couple of miles away from the center of Gritten, and a quick sideways check to the original file told her it had been where Robertss parents had lived at the time. Digging a little deeper, she found herself blinking at what she discovered. Robertss mother had died while he was in prison. Upon his release, it seemed he had returned home and lived with his father, who had then died a couple of years afterward. Roberts had remained in the family home ever since. Jesus, she thought. Presumably, given his background, hed had little choice, but it was still hard to imagine a man committing such a crime and then returning to the town where it had happened. Living thereor at least attempting to. She wondered how many of his neighbors had remembered or learned what Roberts had done, and whether his continuing presence in the area had been more difficult for them or for him. Amanda picked up the phone. It rang for a while. Hello? A mans voice. It somehow managed to sound both gruff and empty at the same time, as though he were annoyed to be disturbed by something he knew couldnt possibly matter. There were other voices in the background. She could hear swearing and shouting, but it was all distant, as though coming from another room. Hello, Amanda said. Is this William Roberts? Who are you? My name is Detective Amanda Beck. Im trying Roberts hung up. Amanda tried calling the number again. This time, as she had more or less expected, there was no answer. She frowned. Why dont you want to talk to me, Billy? There were a million possible answers to the question, of course. But the fact remained that there was someone out there who claimed to have been present on the day of the killing in Gritten, who had access to what looked like Charlie Crabtrees missing dream diary, and who had helped to incite a murder. While the sting Theo had set up might give her a result, Roberts seemed a decent candidate to be looking at in the meantime. She closed down the computer and went to see Lyons. THIRTEEN I wanted to see Jenny again, and I had an idea of the best way to find her. The way the white wine had appeared without her ordering suggested she was a regular at the pub when she was in town, and I could imagine a routine that saw her escaping her mothers house to get some time by herself in the afternoons. And sure enough, as I walked into the pub, I spotted her immediately, sitting at the same table as before, a glass of wine in front of her. I got a drink and made my way over. She looked up a little guiltily as I approached. You caught me, she said. I dont have a problem, honestly. HeyIm here too. Mind if I sit? By all means. I sat down across from her, then began picking at a beer mat to give my hands something to do. The two of us sat in silence for a moment, until finally she leaned back in her chair. I was thinking about what you told me yesterday. What was that? Stuff about your life. I always thought youd be married with kids by now. Writing your stories. And also, the way you didnt want to look into what your mother said. Its just so different from how you used to be. Lets just say that I remember you being a little more proactive. She raised a knowing eyebrow. I realized that even after all this time she still had the ability to make me blush, and I ran my finger over the condensation on the bottle of beer to distract myself. She was right, of course. But rather than thinking about me and her back then, I found myself remembering that day at rugby insteadthe day Hague diedand how Id been so determined to get through the boy opposite me on the field. About the way it had always been me who stuck up for James and protected him. And the focus Id had back then, working on my ideas for stories late into the night, the house dark and silent around me. I guess so, I said. So what changed? I looked at her. You know what changed. But its been twenty-five years. She gave me a pointed look in return. That seems a long time to be dwelling. I didnt reply. Again, I supposed she was right. While I had spent most of my life trying not to think about what had happened in Gritten, the truth was you didnt need to think about something for it to affect you. I had been knocked off course, and by keeping my eyes closed, I had never been able to correct that trajectory. Well, I said finally. I did look into what my mother said. I searched the house. Youd have been proud of me. So you searched. And? And I found. I told her about the boxes of newspapers my mother had collectedthe coverage not only of what Charlie and Billy had done here in Gritten, but of the murders that had been committed since. How it appeared that, over the years, other teenagers had read about Charlie and sought to emulate what some of them believed hed managed to achieve. Copycat cases, I said. I checked online. All the details are there. Charlie thought a sacrifice to Red Hands would allow him to live in the dream world forever, and because he actually did vanish, there are some people who think he managed it. Jenny shook her head. But thats Ridiculous? Yeah, I know. But there are all these websites. I started to reach for my phone, but then thought better of it. Its nuts. These websleuthsI mean, thats literally what they call themselvestheyre poring over every little detail, trying to figure out how Charlie disappeared. People like a good mystery, Jenny said. But nobodys ever going to solve it. For all anybody knows, Charlie could even be alive. Immediately I wished I could take the words back. The thought of him escaping justice after what hed done was unbearable in itself, but it was also unnerving to imagine he might be somewhere out there. Even after all this time, the idea of him being close by scared me. There was a beat of silence. I suppose he might as well be, I said. Because people are still listening to him, arent they? Still learning from him. Why do you think your mother kept it all? Im not sure, I said. I think she didnt want me to know about it or have to deal with it. Theres a whole lot of guilt there, and it feels like she was taking it on so I didnt have to. You dont have anything to feel guilty about, she said. Yeah, I do. I looked at her, and a different memory came back to me. The first lucid dream I ever had happened a couple of weeks after Charlie and James appeared to have shared their first dream. It had started out as one of the recurring ones I kept having about the dark marketwandering along narrow aisles as something huge and dangerous hunted mebut this time had been different. Ive been here before, I thought. I recognize this. I had pinched the sides of my nose shut and tried to breathe. There were various ways to test whether you were dreaming or not, but Charlie had told us the nose trick was the most reliable. In real life, you wouldnt be able to breathe, but in a dream you always could. I was met with the startling, impossible sensation of my lungs filling with air. God, Id thought. Im dreaming right now. I had looked around at the gray stalls, the dimly illuminated crates, the rickety tables and dark, creaking canopies, and they had all seemed completely real. The world had been indistinguishable from the one around me while I was awake, and I had felt a profound sense of wonder. Everything was so intricate that it had been ridiculous to think my brain was capable of constructing something so elaborate. Show me the way out of here, I thought. Paul. Jennys voice had come immediately from over to my left. This way. It was Jenny whom my subconscious had conjured up to help me during that first lucid dream. If it hadnt, things would have turned out very differently. You dont have anything to feel guilty about. I do, I said again now. Jenny frowned at me. Is that really how youve felt all this time? No, I said. Thats a new thing. When I left here, I made the decision to pack it awayto leave it all behind me. Guilty is just how I should have been feeling. God, you should talk to someone. I am. Someone proper, I mean. Someone who can help. Yeah. Maybe. That word again. Like I said, you used to be more decisive. She sighed and stood up. I have to go. I know. But seriously. Think about what I said. As I watched her walk away to the door, I did. You dont have anything to feel guilty about. I thought about it over and over, and tried to believe it, but it didnt feel true. Later, I woke suddenly in the middle of the night, unsure what was happening. The bedroom around me was almost pitch-black. I was sure I had been pulled out of a state of deep sleepjerked awake by somethingbut I didnt know what. I lay there, my heart singing. The bedroom revealed itself gradually, shadowy shapes emerging slowly, as though stepping forward out of the darkness toward me. My old room. The sight of it brought a disturbing sensation I had become used to in the days since Id arrived back. I was not where I should be, and yet the room was so familiar that it felt like someplace where I had always been. THUD. THUD. THUD. I sat up quickly, my heart pounding now. The sounds had come from downstairssomeone knocking at the front door. Except it had been more rhythmic than that: the noises spaced out, as though it took an effort for whoever was out there to lift their arm. From the weight of the blows, it seemed as though they were trying to hammer the door off its hinges. I swung my legs out of bed, then scrabbled on the floor beside me. My phone came alive in my hand as I found it; it was just after three oclock in the morning. Panicking slightly, I pulled on the jeans from last night and padded out onto the upstairs hallway. Downstairs, the floor by the front door was illuminated by a wedge of weak light from the street outside. I stared down at it for a moment, expecting to hear the noises again and see the door rattle in its frame from the force of the impact. Nothing. I hesitated. You used to be more decisive. So I headed down carefully, the phone still in my hand. When I reached the front door, I swiped the phone open and flicked on the flashlight option. Bright light filled the hallway, then the beam flickered around as I unhooked the chain and opened the door. There was nobody outside. The front path was empty and the street beyond was deserted. The gate was open, though. Had I left it like that? I couldnt remember. I stepped outside, the night air cool on my skin and the stone path rough beneath my bare feet. I shone the flashlight left and right, flecking the overgrown yard with light and shadow. Nobody hiding there. Then I made my way down the path, and through that open gate onto the sidewalk. The street was bathed in a sickly sheen of amber, empty in both directions. I listened. The whole town was silent and still. I closed the gate, and then headed back to the house. As I reached the front door, the beam from the flashlight passed over it. I froze, my heart beating quickly now. Then I steadied the light, and my skin began to crawl as I shined the beam over the wood and thought about the knocking Id just heard. And as I took in the marks that had been left on the door. FOURTEEN BEFORE After my first lucid dream, there were more and more in the weeks that followed. I never mentioned any of them to Charlie or the others. That was partly because they felt too personal to share, but also, as time passed, I found myself resentful of the way the experiment began taking over our lives. Charlie had started leading discussions on our findings increasingly often, and it had become clear that, whatever was happening, it was not one of his passing interests. Looking back, I find it hard to remember exactly how it all happened. The idea of sharing dreams was impossible, but they didor at least, they claimed to. It resembled a kind of arms race. Charlie might read from his dream diary first, say, and then Billy would describe his dream, and thered be a connection there. Charlie would be pleased, which of course would spur James on to find a connection in his own. Or else James would go first, Charlie would describe a similar dream, and then Billy, not wanting to be left out, would make out that he had experienced something similar. They never showed each other their dream diaries after the first time. Perhaps they didnt want to puncture the fantasy world they were developing between them. And increasingly it did feel like the three of them. My reluctance to join in began to open up a division in the group. I kept hoping that my indifference might sway the others, but it didnt. James, especially, seemed to be falling harder under Charlies spell with every passing day. Which was another thing I resented. I had the uncomfortable sensation that we were all building toward something. There was a purpose to what Charlie was doing, and while I couldnt figure out what it was, it made me more and more uneasy. But as stupid as the whole thing seemed to me, I remember thinking: What harm can it do? Like Id told James on the day we compared dream diaries for the first time, none of it meant anything. Dreams were just dreams. And so I figured that eventually the whole thing would burn itself out and life would get back to normal. It doesnt matter. Thats what I kept telling myself. Incubation. Despite its sinister undertones, the word describes a straightforward fact: the dreams we have are influenced by the real world. Our subconscious takes everyday experiences and shatters them on the floor like a vase, then picks up a handful of pieces to form something random and new to show us while we sleep. We might recognize a few fragments, but theyre joined together oddly and separated by strange cracks. Dreams are a patchwork, stitched together from the things that happen to us in our waking lives. But sometimes the opposite can be true. One lunchtime, James and I were in the playground, heading to Room C5b. I wasnt relishing more of the usual activity, and the feeling grew stronger as we walked, but I couldnt think of an excuse not to go. Then I glanced behind me. Jenny was at the far edge of the playground, walking off in the direction of the construction site. She looked as confident and self-contained as alwaysalone, but never lonelyand the way she moved, it was as though shed somehow plotted a route between the other kids that allowed her to walk in a straight line without having to stop. I watched as she continued down the small road alongside the building site. Where was she going? There was little that way apart from the tennis courts, a few outside teaching huts, and the staff parking lot, and yet she was walking with quiet assurance, some destination clearly in mind. What? James said. I didnt reply for a second. Seeing Jenny reminded me of that first lucid dream Id had. And just as our dreams are shaped by our reality, there are times like these when our lives can be changed by the dreams weve had. Ill catch up with you, I said. Why? I just need to talk to someone. Okay. He shrugged slightly and then headed off. I hesitated, but then set off back the way wed come. Up close, the tarps were transparent enough to see the mud spattered on the far side. The raised arm of a digger hung in the air above, its thick metal teeth misshapen and rusted, and I could smell the faint scent of tar in the air. Presumably something was happening in there, but the site was so quiet that it was easy to imagine it was all an illusion: that eventually the tarps would be pulled aside like a handkerchief in a magic trick to reveal that nothing had changed. There was nobody else around, and the world grew quieter as I walked. The tennis courts on the left were locked away behind wire mesh, while the teaching cabins on the right looked like corrugated caravans abandoned in a rough line. Up ahead, a little way past them, there was a lone wooden bench. Jenny was sitting there. She had been a minute ahead of me at most, but she was already scribbling furiously in a notebook on her lap. I stopped a short distance away, unsure of myself now, and feeling a little stupid. This was clearly her place, and she was so absorbed in what she was doing that it seemed wrong to intrude. And while Id spoken to her a handful of times since she loaned me the book, it had always been accidental: conversations after the creative writing club, or fleeting exchanges when we bumped into each other in the corridor. Id never sought her out like this before. I had no idea what I was going to say. A dream might have brought me here, but reality found me speechless. So I was about to turn around when she looked up and saw me. She stopped writing immediately, her face blank for a moment. Then she called out. Hey. I shifted my bag on my shoulder. Hey. Another beat of silence. Well, she said. Are you coming or going? Again, I felt stupid. At the same time, turning around and leaving would make me look even more ridiculous. I walked up to the bench. Im sorry, I said. You looked busy. Busy? She glanced down at the notebook. Oh. No. Just messing around with ideas. Story ideas? She closed the book. Kind of. Do you want to sit down, or are you planning to stand? Another question that, now I was here, had only one possible answer. I sat down at one end of the bench, leaving a careful gap between us. She looked at me expectantly. Yes, I realized. I probably need a reason to be here, dont I? Inspiration struck. I saw you and realized Id been meaning to apologize, I said. Ive kept that book you gave me for so long. Oh. Dont worry about it. I just had the impression it was important to you. Yeah, but Ive had it for ages. Have you read all the stories yet? Not quite. Then you should keep it a bit longer, then. Get your homework done. Because theyre all good. There are some real classics in thereones you should definitely read. I smiled. To educate myself? Yeah. If youre going to be a writer, youve got to know the field, havent you? Have a bit of respect for history. As awesome as he is, I cant leave you just reading Stephen King for the rest of your life. I guess. I felt even more awkward now. If youre going to be a writer. I wanted to be, but with recent distractions Id barely managed to write a thing for weeks. Id jotted down a few ideas, but they seemed flat and lifeless. It felt like I had nothing to write about. No stories to tell. What are you working on? I said. A horror story, of course. Her face lit up with an appealing kind of glee. Sort of, anyway. A ghost story, so its more sad than anything else. Why sad? Because ghost stories should be sad. Dont you think? Ghost stories generally made me imagine white sheets and clanking chains, and dark corridors with figures jumping out at you. But, thinking about it, I could see what Jenny meant. Yeah, I guess so. It must be sad to be a ghost. Exactly. If theres a ghost it means that someones died. A persons been left behind and isnt at peace. Other people are grieving. And so on. No gory bits in this one, then? No. She sniffed. Wellnot many. I smiled as I remembered Good Boy, the gruesome story shed read out about the dog that had eaten its owner after he died. It made me think of Goodbold, strutting through the streets with his own pet, and a part of me hoped the same thing would happen to him one day. Except that, for all his faults when it came to us, he seemed to treat the animal well. The dog story was ace, I said. Thanks. You said it was based on a real thing. How did you even hear about that? Marie told me. Whos Marie? I said. A friend of mine. Jenny put the notebook on the bench between us. Which reminds me, actuallyIve got something for you. I dont know if youll be interested, but Marie gave it to me, and it made me think of you. Hang on. She bent over and rummaged around in the bag at her feet, eventually retrieving a tattered magazine. She passed it to me. The Writing Life, I said. Check out the back cover. I turned it over, scanning the details. Its a short story competition, Jenny said. Open to anybody under the age of eighteen. If you get selected, theres going to be an anthology of the winnersan actual book. The deadlines not far off. Okay. I looked at the advertisement, not understanding. Finally, it clicked. Whatyou think I should enter it? Yeah! Definitely. I thought your story was really good. You should absolutely send it in. Are you going to send yours? Of course. I mean, whats to lose? I stared down at the magazine for a few seconds, reading through the details again, more carefully this time. Crucially, there was no fee to enter. So what harm would it do? I was worried about getting rejected, of course, but Jenny thought my story was good enough. Ive not got a pen. She rolled her eyes. You dont need to send it off now. I know that. I mean to write down the address. Its finetake the magazine. Ive already got the details. You sure? Yeah, totally. She shook her head at me, bemused. Thats why I brought it in. Thats why I brought it in. I remember being excited by that. It meant that, despite the small number of times wed interacted, Jenny had been thinking about me, and that knowledge delivered a thrill that was difficult to describe. A warmth in my stomach. I hadnt experienced anything like it before, but it was as though Id just learned the world contained possibilities I hadnt known about. I put the magazine into my bag. Thank you. Thats okay, Jenny said. No big deal. The next morning, I was yawning as I walked through the town, meandering to Jamess house almost on autopilot. The cold helped wake me up a little, at leasteven though spring had officially come, Gritten seemed to hang on to its winters as hard as it did to its people. But in the town the grass was growing again, at least, and while the sun was little more than a shimmery coin occluded by clouds right then, I could feel it gathering strength. There was birdsong for what felt like the first time in months. A cautious sound that seemed not to want to tempt fate, but there. My heart sank as I arrived at Jamess house. It was normally Carl who got him ready for school and saw him off on a morning, but that day Eileen was outside on the doorstep. She was wearing a faded dressing gown, and she was wiping at the door with an old blue rag bunched up in her fist, a look of angry concentration on her face. The gate hung on one old hinge. The wood scratched along the ground as I opened it. Eileen looked over at me sharply, and I kept my head down as I made my way up the path. Good morning, Mrs. Dawson. Is it? She resumed her activity, holding the door with one hand and pressing the cloth against it with the other, wiping with such ferocity that I half expected the flimsy wood to give. She shouted into the house. Get out here, boy. Its schooltime. There was no immediate response. I stood there awkwardly for a few moments, watching her work. There was a bottle of disinfectant at her feet. Anything happen at yours last night? she said. The question threw me; I had no idea what she meant. After a second, perhaps taking my silence for some kind of guilt, she looked at me suspiciously. Were you out last night? Mrs. Dawson? Dont gape at me like that, boy. Were you out last night? No. She stared at me, evaluating me. After what felt like an eternity, she shook her head and then turned her attention back to the door. Someone was. One of you lot out playing silly fuckers. Before I could say anything else, James appeared in the doorway, edging past his mother carefully, as though the woman were electric and might give him a shock if they touched. See you later, Dad, he called back into the house. Love you. Carls voice came from somewhere far away inside the house. Love you too. I waited until James and I had walked out of earshot. Everything all right? Yeah. Which was obviously a lie, but I didnt want to press the matter. When the bus arrived, he got on first. I always led the two of us up to the backbecause that felt like the place you were meant to sit at our agebut today James took us to a spare seat in the middle. When the doors shut and the bus started off, we sat there in silence for a time. But while I didnt want to ask James outright what had happened, I was still curious about what Eileen had said. Anything happen at yours last night? What was your mother doing? I said. Cleaning the door. Yeah, I saw that. What I mean is, why? James hesitated. Did you hear anything? he said. In the night? I thought about it again. As far as I could recall Id slept through undisturbed. Not that I remember. Are you sure? James looked as tired as I was. But scared too. I dont know, I said. What am I supposed to have heard? But after a moment, James turned away and looked out of the window at the bleak landscape flashing past. Nothing. Yeah. It really sounds like nothing. Someone knocking at the door. Did you hear that? Knocking? No. Right. You mean, you did? No, its just what my mother said. Someone was hammering at our door in the middle of the night. She was pissed off about it because it woke her up. James shrugged, a small, timid gesture that was barely even completed. So she woke me and Dad up too. There was nobody there, though. I thought maybe she imagined it, except there was something on the door this morning. That was what she was doingcleaning it off. Cleaning what off? Again, James didnt reply. I wondered if he actually knewor if there had even been anything there at all. Eileen drank a lot, and she wasnt the type of person to admit shed gotten something wrong. It was easy to believe shed imagined a noise in the night, overreacted, and had just been cleaning the door this morning as a way of stubbornly pretending she was right. The bus turned off the main road and began making its way past the abandoned factories, run-down shops, and boarded-up houses. James said something under his breath that I didnt quite catch. What? I said. Blood. He was still watching the dull scenery, his voice so quiet I could barely hear him. She said there was blood on our door. FIFTEEN NOW Officer Owen Holder squinted at my mothers front door. What do you think it is? he said. I dont know. It looks like blood. Yeah, I guess. He tilted his head. Maybe. I said that word too much, and it annoyed me to hear it now. There were three crimson smears on the door, each about the size of the side of a balled-up fist, and they stood out starkly against the white wood, glinting dully in the morning light. If it had been unnerving to see them by flashlight, alone in the darkness, the sight of them now made me feel sick. They were starting to congeal, and a couple of flies had already been drawn to them. I think its definitely blood, I said. They werent there before? You cant really miss them, can you? No, Holder said. I suppose not. Then he leaned back, stuffing his hands in his pockets, and he frowned, as though unsure exactly what he was supposed to do about this. I wasnt sure either. Id hesitated before calling the police, and had eventually decided it could at least wait until morning. But now, whatever the outcome, I was glad that I had. The marks on the door were clearly a message of some kind, and even if I didnt quite understand the meaning yet, it frightened me more than I wanted to admit. I hadnt attempted to get back to sleep after being woken by the knocks. Instead, Id checked the locks on every door and window in the house, and then sat in the darkness on my mothers bed, with the curtains parted a sliver to give me a view of the street. I had waited and watched until the silence in the air began to sing. And while there had been nobody out there, no sign of movement in the town at all, I had still had the crawling sensation of being watched. The feeling remained now. Holder took a long, slow breath and then glanced down the front path toward the street. He looked doubtful. Im not really sure what to say, Mr. Adams. Its vandalism of a kind, I suppose. And I appreciate it must be annoying. But theres no actual damage been done. Its probably just a prank. One of you lot out playing silly fuckers. Despite the warmth of the morning, the memory sent a chill through me. But Holder looked to be in his late twenties at most, and I assumed he was way too young to know what had happened here all those years ago. I could have attempted to explain, but it felt like there was too much to say to bring him up to speed. And even if I did that, to understand the real significance you would need to have lived through it in the first place. Id like a record made of it, at least, I said. He sighed, then took out his phone. Of course, sir. He took photos of the front door from a couple of different angles, and I stood back with my arms folded, scanning the street and the nearby houses. Again, there was nothing to see. But if someone was watching me, at least theyd know I was taking the situation seriously. Thatat least on the surfaceI wasnt going to be intimidated. After Holder was done and gone, I went back inside. The whole situation felt both strange and anticlimactic; something serious had happened, but the house itself looked perfectly normal, and life appeared to be going on in the same way it had over the past few days. I wasnt sure what to do. Clean the door, for a start. Yesthat was the proactive thing to do, wasnt it? So I took cloths, a bucket of water, and a bottle of disinfectant out onto the doorstep and set to work. But the whole time, I kept checking the street behind me. And even though there was nobody there, I was glad when I was finished and I could get back inside and lock the front door against the world. The house was silent. Who could have left those marks? It was an impossible question to answer. When I had been reading online yesterday, I had seen numerous references to the knocks on the door at Jamess house. It was just one of many infamous details in the case: a piece of the puzzle known to thousands of internet obsessives. If somebody wanted to play a prank on me, there was a wealth of material for them to draw inspiration from. And perhaps that was all it was. But as I thought about those posts Id read online, I also remembered the users who believed Charlie was still alive out there somewhere, and the ones who imagined he really had achieved the impossible. The sense of foreboding that had been gathering for days was stronger now. The feeling that the past was not gone, and that something awful was coming. But if so, what? I walked slowly up the stairs, then stood by the window, looking up at the attic. The hatch was closed, but I could almost feel the red handprints and the boxes of newspapers sealed away above me. Its in the house, Paul. Its in the fucking house! The urgency of my mothers words came back to me now, along with the panic and fear straining her voice. I had found boxes full of reports on three different murders, separated by years but with a common thread that led back to me. As painful as it had been to learn what my mother had kept hidden from me all this time, Id imagined that was all I had found. But now I wondered if there was something there I had missed. A detail that was important enough for someone to send me a message or a warning. A threat. The idea of that scared me. But I needed to take another look. And I was about to reach up to open the hatch when I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I stood very still, forcing myself to keep looking upward. The window to the side of me faced out over the backyard and the woods, and I was sure there had been a flicker of movement in the tree line there. I glanced out, watching the woods for a few seconds and trying to catch another sight of whatever it had been. There was nothing there. And then there was. I couldnt be certain, but I had the impression of a figure crouching down in the undergrowth on the far side of the fence. Act naturally, I told myself. And then tried to keep myself calm. After a moment, I turned my back on the window and stood there a little longer, looking here and there, as though I hadnt seen anything. As though I wasnt sure what to do next. In a way, that was true. Did I want to confront whoever was out there? My heart was beating with a steady message of, No, no, no. It was the last thing I wanted to do. But then I thought about what Jenny had told me, and I remembered running through the boy on the rugby field that day long ago, and I decided that what you wanted to do wasnt always the same as what you had to. I headed downstairs. The backyard was long. There was about a hundred fifty feet of undergrowth between the door and the woods, and if I went out that way, whoever was there would see me and disappear into the trees before I could reach them. But there were other routes into the Shadows. Outside the front door, I locked it and then headed quickly off down the street. A little way along, an overgrown footpath led away from the road and toward the woods. I set off down it. Muffled by the hedges on either side, the world became so quiet that all I could hear was the bees buzzing softly in the brambles around me, and even that sound fell away as I reached the end of the path and stepped carefully between the trees. The unease intensified. I hadnt been in these woods for twenty-five years, but I remembered them all too well. You only needed to go a few feet for civilization to disappear behind you and a profound and unnerving silence to settle. To feel trapped and lost even on the bare threads of path where the undergrowth had been trampled down. And to feel watched. But I wasnt a teenager anymore. A little ways in, I turned to the left, making my way between the trees at an angle toward the back of my mothers house. If I was careful, I would be able to sneak up on whoever Id seen at the fence. A minute later, I judged I was nearly there. It was punishingly hot, and I stopped to wipe sweat from my face before crouching a little and beginning to move more slowly. The distant backs of the houses began to appear gradually between the branches of the trees. A stick clicked beneath my foot. I held still for a moment. Nothing by way of response. I continued forward, reaching the fence a few seconds later, the trees thinning out and the untidy spread of my mothers backyard suddenly visible ahead. There was nobody here. But when I looked down, the undergrowth at my feet was clearly flattened, and I could smell something in the air. A sickly trace of dirt and sweat. The skin on the back of my neck started itching. I turned slowly to face the woods behind me. There had always been something wrong with this placea soft thrum of energy to the land, the same as when you got too close to an electricity generatorbut the sensation right now was worse. Somebody was out there. Someone hidden between the trees. Hello? I called out. Anyone there? There was no reply. But the quiet had an edge to it, like breath being held. Charlie? I had no idea why it was his name I called, but it got a result. After a couple of seconds of silence, I heard foliage snap gently ahead of me on the left. I stood very still, my heart pounding. The woods were so dense in that direction that I couldnt see more than a few feet, but the sound hadnt come from far away. Whoever was out there was still close by. I steeled myself, then moved tentatively, edging between the rough trunks of the trees, stepping over the coils of grass, and lifting thin spreads of branches out of the way. And then, as I emerged into a clearing, I froze in place. A man was at the far side. He was about thirty feet away from me, standing with his back to me and his head bowed, his body entirely still. Hello? I said. The man did not reply. I looked closer, and saw he was wearing what appeared to be an old army jacket, worn away at the back of the shoulders so that the fabric stuck out in feathery tufts. And as I listened, I could hear him breathing. No, I thought. No, no, no. Although a part of me wanted to move closer, my body wouldnt respond. I felt as rooted in place as the trees to either side of me. I reached up and pinched my nose. I wasnt dreaming. And then, just like that, the man moved away between the trees. I stared after him in horror, but he was out of sight almost immediately, foliage snapping as he disappeared deeper into the woods. Then the world fell silent. I stood there, my heart hammering. And just as Charlies name seemed to have come from nowhere a moment ago, a thought came to me now that was similarly unbidden. That what I had just seen hadnt been a man at all. That it was something that had dragged itself out of the depths of the Shadows to visit me, and was now returning to its home among the trees. SIXTEEN Jesus, Amanda thought as she arrived in Gritten. The world around her seemed to have completely changed in the space of twenty minutes. Not long ago, she had been driving along tranquil country lanes, surrounded by sunny idyllic fields, thinking: This isnt such a bad place. Whereas now there were just empty industrial estates and shabby houses and shops on all sides, and what she was thinking was: This is a fucking shithole. Which was admittedly harsh. In her experience, places were just places. What mattered most were the people who lived in them, and an upmarket zip code was no guarantee of anything; you found good and bad everywhere. And yet there was something especially beaten-down about Gritten. Despite the sunlight, the air seemed drab and gray, like an old wet cloth half wrung out. As she looked at the dilapidated neighborhoods she drove through, it was difficult to shake the sensation that the place was cursed in some waythat there was something poisonous in the ground here, rooted in the history of the place, that kept the land barren and the people dead inside. Her phone was in a dock on the dashboard, the navigation showing her the route. About half a mile to go. She slowed the car slightly as a tight bend approached, then passed a series of newly built houses on the left. The folly of hope over experience right there, she thought. It was hard to imagine someone moving to Gritten who had the option of being anywhere else instead. Of course, some people had no choice. A few minutes later, she parked up a little way past the address registered to Billy Roberts. The house was small and stood off by itself between two stretches of bedraggled, overgrown grass. The brickwork was crumbling away below the old windowsills, and the paint on the front door was peeling so badly it looked like something had been clawing at it. The remains of an old garage were half attached to the left-hand side, with sheets of corrugated iron scattered on the ground and a few rusted struts still poking out of the house, like a body with an arm torn off and the ripped tendons hanging loose. Amandas first thought was that the place had seen better days. But then she remembered the implied details shed read about Robertss childhoodthe neglect; the extreme poverty; the allegations of abuseand she wondered if maybe it hadnt. She killed the engine and sent a curt message to Lyons, informing him shed arrived. When shed gone to his office yesterday, hed turned out to be more than amenable to her suggestion of traveling to Gritten to talk to Billy Roberts. In itself, that had not been much of a surprise. With the possible involvement of a third party online, the murder of Michael Price had started to sprawl at the edges, and Lyons always had his eye on the prize. If Roberts turned out to be implicated oreven betterCharlie Crabtree really was still alive and they could find something that led to him, there would be gold stars all around. But Lyons needed the rest of the day to clear her visit with the Gritten Police Department. What she hadnt expected was that, in the course of tracing other individuals connected to the original crime, she would learn from the college he worked at that Paul Adams was also back in Gritten right now. Lyons had loved that, of course: two birds with one stone. And so what shed initially imagined as a day trip had ended with her booking a shitty local hotel and hastily packing a suitcase that was presently stuffed in the trunk of her car. Roberts first. She took out her phone as she approached the house and called Robertss number again. The street was so deathly quiet that, after the call connected, she could hear the phone ringing inside the house. No answer, though. She killed the call and the house fell quiet until she knocked on the door. She waited. Was there movement inside? There was a small fish-eye lens on the door, and a few seconds later Amanda had the crawling sensation that there was someone on the other side of it staring out at her. Impatiently, she looked behind her at the run-down surroundings. The house was opposite a row of closed shops, the metal shutters daubed with simple graffiti. A little way along the road was a fenced-off yard filled with piles of old car tires, an illegible wooden sign tied to the wire mesh. She turned back to the house and knocked again. No answer. She took a step back. According to the records, Billy Roberts had been unemployed for a number of years, but obviously that didnt exclude the possibility of him being out of the house somewhere. Which was fine, of course; she could come back. But she looked at the fish-eye lens again. It had felt like someone had been there, and, given Robertss reluctance to answer the phone, she wasnt entirely convinced his attitude toward the door would be any different. She knelt down on the doorstep and poked the mail slot open. Mr. Roberts? Nothing. She peered in as best she could, and was rewarded by a thin view of the hallway. It led down to a door that was open onto the kitchen, the broken slat on the window at the far end hanging at an angle like a guillotine. Everything she could see looked old-fashioned: the patterned wallpaper; the dust on the picture frames hanging in the hall. It was as though Roberts had changed nothing after moving back here. The beige carpet was patchy and threadbare, and there were Footprints on it. Amanda stared for a moment. Red footprints. Her heart began to beat a little faster. She allowed the mail slot to close slowly, then stood up and tried the door handle. It turned easily, the door opening slowly inward on creaking hinges. She took a step inside. Mr. Roberts? The house was completely silent. Check your exits. She scanned her surroundings. There was a door directly to her left, secured by a rusty padlock; presumably that had once led into the garage. Stairs led up, but there was nobody in the gloomy hallway above. The old hallway directly ahead of her was empty, and narrow enough for only one person at a time. Nobody was visible in what she could see of the kitchenalthough she guessed there was probably a back door out of sight there. She looked to her right. The open doorway there led into what appeared to be a front room. She couldnt see any furniture, and the bases of the walls were lined with empty cans and bottles. Nobody visible there. But that was her immediate flash point. The place she wouldnt see anyone coming from. She stepped away from it for a moment. Now that she was inside, the footprints leading away down the hall looked even more like blood than before. From what she could discern from the pattern, it looked like someone had walked out of the front room to the door, and then headed off down the hallway into the kitchen. Amanda listened. Silence. She slipped her phone out of her pocket and keyed in the number for the police, her thumb poised over the CALL icon as she steadied herself. Then she stepped sideways into the front room. Immediately she pressed CALL. It was out of instinct more than anything else, because it took a second for her mind to process what she was seeing. Her attention was drawn to the dark red couch to her left, its back against the wall to the hallway. And then the still figure sitting on it. She didnt immediately recognize it as a person, only as something that was close to human but also horrifically wrong. The head had no discernible features and was far too large, and it was only after staring at it that she realized the mans face had been rendered unrecognizable, the skin swollen to almost impossible proportions by the bruises and cuts that had been inflicted upon it. Amanda held the ringing phone to her ear. Answer, answer, answer. Gritten Police Department, how Officer requesting assistance. Eighteen Gable Street. I need police and ambulance on scene as a matter of urgency. A man appears to be dead. Suspicious circumstances. Whereabouts of perpetrator unknown. She stepped carefully toward the body as she was speaking, taking in the details. The mans hands were in his lap, every finger broken into a twisted nest. Another step, and her foot squelched slightly. She looked down. The couch wasnt red at all, she realized. It was just drenched with blood that had soaked into the carpet below it. She looked up. A little way past the couch, a door hung open. From the length of the room, it could only lead into the kitchen. Whereabouts of perpetrator unknown. Maam, can I take your name, please? Detective Amanda Beck, she said. Just get here now. The man on the other end of the phone said something else, but Amanda lowered her phone, her heart thudding in her ears and her attention entirely focused on the open door a little way in front of her. She was thinking about the footprints in the hall. They disappeared into the kitchen, but the most obvious route there from here was this door at the far end of the room. And yet whoever had made them had gone out into the hall to the front door instead. She remembered the sensation shed had after knocking. The feeling that someone had been staring out at her. Keep calm. With her gaze locked on the door into the kitchen, Amanda slipped her phone into her jacket pocket and took out her keys, bunching them between her knuckles. Then she moved carefully across to the far side of the room, giving her more distance, more time, a better angle. Not that, armed as poorly as this, she would stand a chance against anyone capable of the ferocious violence that sat motionless across the room from her. The kitchen revealed itself by increments. She could see the end of the counter, loaded with dirty plates, and then the edge of the sink. The window. She hesitated, caught between the fear of what she might encounter in the kitchen and of the ruined, crimson thing sitting behind her now. Panic was setting in. I cant do this. And for a few seconds, she was eight years old again. Terrified, and yet too frightened to call out because she knew there was nobody in the house who would come. Then: You can do this, she imagined her father saying. I raised you better. She took another step sideways. The kitchen was empty. She could see the length of it now, all the way to the alcove at the far end, where the black eye of an old washing machine was staring back at her, and she saw the pebbled glass of the back door that was hanging open against the boiler on the wall, desultory sunlight streaming in beside it. Youre okay. Relief flooded through her, and she moved more quickly now, treading around the bloodstained footprints leading in from the hall. Despite the heat of the day, when she reached the door and breathed in the air, it was somehow cooler and fresher than the tortured atmosphere throbbing behind her. Out back, there was a disheveled paved area, grass springing up in the cracks between the dirty slabs, and then an expanse of trees at the far end. Nobody in sight. She looked down. The bloody footprints headed across the paving stones toward the trees at the end of the yard. But they faded as they went, as though the person who had left them were disappearing as they ran. And by the time they reached the tree line, they had vanished entirely.

  • Ratatouille /  (Disney, 2012)    Ratatouille /
  • Toy Story 2 /   2 (Disney, 2012)    Toy Story 2 /
  • Toy Story /   (Disney, 2012)    Toy Story /
  • Dumbo /  (Disney, 2012) -   Dumbo / (Disney, 2012)

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