The Shadows

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 medical—empty bottles, popped pill cases, and torn strips of cotton wool—but 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 father’s 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 sour—a man let down by everything in his life—and 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 hadn’t 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 Sally’s 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 devil’s face on the cover—and then pulled my hand away quickly, my fingertips tingling as if they’d 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. “It’s me, Mom.”

She frowned.

“You … shouldn’t 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 shouldn’t 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 Eileen’s not here.”

I looked around the room helplessly. “She isn’t, Mom.”

“I shouldn’t say that, really. But we both know what a bitch that woman is. Poor Carl.” She looked sad. “And poor little James too. We’re only doing this for him, aren’t we? You know that, I think. We don’t need to say so, but you understand.”

It’s like she’s 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 shouldn’t 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 couldn’t 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 shouldn’t 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, it’s in the house, Paul!”

And then my mother’s face contorted in anguish, and she screamed at the ceiling, or perhaps at something out of sight above.

“It’s 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 James’s house first thing that morning, and I remember my mother whispering to me as we walked up the path.

“I hope Eileen’s not here.”

I nodded. I hoped that too. Eileen was James’s mother, but you wouldn’t have known that from the way she treated him. James could never do anything right in her eyes, assuming she noticed him at all. I’d 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 James’s stepfather, and I liked him a great deal. James’s 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 he’d 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, I’d 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 don’t 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 name—Gritten Wood—gave 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 occu pied. I wanted nothing more than to escape from here—to move away and never return—but 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 school—in its stillness, and the way it seemed to be looking back at me. Before then, I’d understood James being nervous about starting here. The school was huge—home, if you could call it that, to over a thousand students—and James had always been a natural target for bullies. He was my best friend, though. I’d always looked after him in the past, I’d told myself, and I always would. And yet there was something ominous about the school before me right then that made me doubt myself.

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