The Shadows

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 James’s face. He was staring at the school with absolute dread. For all my mother’s good intentions, this expedition hadn’t 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 car’s 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 I’d been experiencing all day intensified. It wasn’t just the sight of this place, but the feel of it. Memories kept threatening to surface—ripples of history beginning to blur the surface of the present—and 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 hadn’t answered immediately, because I didn’t 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 didn’t tell Sally what that time and place had been—or what she’d 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 me—the sense of foreboding—kept growing stronger.

You shouldn’t be here.

But I was.

I parked outside my mother’s 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 didn’t 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 I’d grown up in. It was the place where, twenty-five years ago, two policemen had waited with me for my mother to return home.

I’d 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 first—like 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 couldn’t mask the dust and dampness. I smelled ammonia. And something else too. The same sweetly sick air I’d 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 mother’s 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 mother’s bathroom.

At that, I pictured my mother—her body diminished, her faculties failing her, shuffling awkwardly about in a world that was closing in around her—and a wave of guilt hit me.

You shouldn’t 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 hadn’t 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 wall—just a metal frame with a bare mattress on top—while 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 James’s house and go into the woods through his backyard. We walked for miles. Charlie always led the way. He claimed the Shadows were haunted—that a ghost lived there—but, 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 still—that 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 wasn’t entirely bare—that 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 didn’t want to look at it right now, never mind touch it.

And then, below, there were several of my notebooks. The ones I’d 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.

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