The Shadows

He spread his hands as though he couldn’t quite believe it. He was wrong, though. The three of them might have gotten away with the crime, but the repercussions of Charlie’s disappearance were still being felt even now. People were dying because of this secret. What happened that day had stretched its fingers out in the twenty-five years since, and it still had a grip on the world.

“James never really recovered,” Carl said. “He’s had a difficult life. The drinking. Drugs. Eileen and I came into some money, and we moved to be closer to him. He’s always needed someone to look after him.”

“Yes,” I said.

“And I did my best to help. I tried to convince him that what happened had only ever been a bad dream.” Carl laughed flatly at the irony. “Over time, I think he’s come to accept that’s true. He believes that Charlie really did disappear that day. He talks about it all the time. Reinforcing it to himself. He needs that to be what happened so he doesn’t have to remember.”

I thought about what Amanda had told me.

“Does he talk about it online?”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know.”

Amanda had believed the user on the forum she mentioned had been encouraging the killers in her hometown. I wondered now if perhaps she’d misinterpreted the messages she’d seen. If it was possible they had been designed not to incite so much as to bolster a belief the user needed to cling to. That Charlie wasn’t dead. That what Carl had just described to me had never really happened.

None of which answered my original question.

“How was my mother involved?”

“She wasn’t.” He looked at me. “Paul, you have to believe me on that. She had nothing to do with what happened.”

“But?”

He looked away.

“But it was hard. The guilt. The pressure. And Daphne was my best friend. We really … well. We cared about each other.”

I thought again of the photograph of the two of them, and then also the conversation I’d overheard as a child.

You can do so much better, you know?

The silence that had followed before his reply.

I really don’t think I can.

By then, of course, my mother and father had been married for years, and Carl had already taken on the responsibility of raising James. At the time, the exchange had not seemed loaded to me, but I was old enough now to imagine a weight to the words and the spaces between them. The rules that had to be followed. The chances not taken. The things left unspoken and the lives unexplored.

“You told her what you’d done?”

“A few years afterward.”

“What did she say?”

“That I’d done the right thing. That nothing good could come from telling the truth. Because she understood I was doing the best for James, and that it was better for it all to be forgotten. And so all these years, she kept it a secret.”

Yes. That was exactly what my mother must have done. Out of duty, and friendship, and perhaps even lost love. But it had been a burden she had found hard to shoulder. I thought about the red hands in the attic and the newspaper reports she had collected. She had understood the consequences of her silence, and it had tormented her. But she had carried it anyway.

One generation sacrificing so much to protect the next.

“But the last year or so,” Carl said, “she started calling me. It was obvious from what she was saying that she was … losing her grip on everything a little. She kept talking to me about what happened. I was worried what she might say to other people, and so a couple of weeks ago, I came back to Gritten.”

“You went to see her?”

“I tried to talk to her, but she wasn’t herself.”

“So you pushed her down the stairs?”

“No!”

The sudden shock in his voice and the expression on his face were genuine.

“Tell me what happened, then.”

“I decided the best thing was to get the body out of our old house. That way, if Daphne did say something, there would be no evidence there for anyone to find. So that night, I took the remains out into the woods and scattered them. Covered them up a bit. I tried my best to make it look like they could have been there a long time.”

He’s in the woods, Paul!

Flickering in the trees.

“Maybe Daphne saw the flashlight. But whatever, she knew what I was doing. The problem was Charlie’s dream diary, you see? James had taken that, and I brought it back with me. But I realized I couldn’t leave that in the woods with him. His remains were just bones, but the diary hadn’t been exposed to the elements—it might as well have been brand-new. So my plan was to burn it. I left it on the kitchen counter when I went out into the woods. And when I got back … it wasn’t there anymore.”

“My mother came in and took it?”

“She must have. But by then it was too late for me to do anything about it. I went to your house, and the emergency services were outside.”

They’re all the same.

I understood what had happened now. My mother had taken the diary and hidden it among the other identical notebooks. She had gotten that far, but her body was no longer strong enough.

“So she was coming down the stairs,” I said quietly.

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Silence settled between us.

Then Carl sighed.

“I’m tired, Paul. Now you know everything. And like I said, it’s up to you what you do with what I’ve told you.” He gestured behind us. “Charlie is out there in the woods now, and sooner or later he’ll be found. It’ll be over. In the meantime, you need to decide what to do. You can ruin what’s left of three people’s lives. You can damage your mother’s memory. Or you can—”

“Forget?”

“Yes. I suppose so.”

I looked away, considering everything he’d said. Thinking through the chain of events, the network of cause and effect. If what he’d told me was true, did I blame anybody for the way they’d behaved? I wasn’t sure I did. Everybody had been trying to do their best. To protect the people they loved. To shield them from harm. To carry the separate burdens that had been handed to them. Perhaps it was time for me to shoulder my share of that.

It was my mother’s words that came back to me then.

“You could have done so much better, you know,” I said.

There was a whole lifetime of regret etched on Carl’s face. I thought that what I’d said was probably true of everyone, and maybe it was only as you approached the end of your life that you appreciated the force of it.

“Yes,” he said. “I know.”

Then you can carry it all too.

And you can decide what to do about it.

And I was about to say something else, but then I looked up and saw the police cars that were arriving.





THIRTY-SIX



Dwyer drove way too quickly, and the car skidded to a halt beside what had once been the playground in Gritten Wood. A second car pulled up behind, almost running into the back of them.

Amanda looked out of the passenger window and saw two people sitting on one of the benches. She recognized Paul, and she assumed from the cell phone trace that Theo was still feeding to her that the other man was Carl Dawson.

Dwyer clearly had no doubts: he was already out of the car, moving much more quickly than she’d ever have pegged him for. She was still unclipping her seat belt as he was stepping over the small fence with his badge held out in front of him.

“Mr. Dawson?” she heard him call. “Mr. Carl Dawson?”

She raced to catch up with him. Behind her, she heard doors slamming. Both cars had parked on the same side of the area: not great procedure, but there was a dense horseshoe of bushes around the far side of the playground, and Carl Dawson looked too surprised to put up much of a chase. He had stood up, though, and moved away from the bench toward the center of the area. Paul was still sitting down, obviously confused by what was happen ing, but Carl had a look of panic on his face, as though he weren’t remotely surprised to see the police here.

As though he would have tried to run if he could.

But that was out of the question as Dwyer reached him. The badge went away with one hand and the other was resting against the top of Dawson’s arm before she’d even seen him move.

“Carl Dawson, right? Calm down, mate. We just want to have a word, okay?”

Dawson was frozen in place now. Amanda stepped past the pair of them and walked across to where Paul was still sitting on the bench. He stood up as she reached him.

“What’s going on?”

“Nothing.” She held out her palms, evaluating him. He looked shaken but unharmed. “Are you okay?”

But he just stared past her. She could hear more officers joining them in the playground behind, along with bursts of radio static.

“Calm down, Paul,” she said.

“What’s happening?”

“We just need to talk to Mr. Dawson.”

“About what?”

“I can’t tell you that right now.”

His gaze turned to her for a moment, and she saw the look of desperation on his face. His hands were by his side, fists clenching and unclenching. She turned around. Dwyer was leading Dawson over to the car, one arm practically looped over the older man’s shoulders. From behind, it looked as if they might have been friends, one of them helping the other home after a night out.