The Shadows

The thought I’d 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 mother’s 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 I’d 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 couldn’t be with him all the time, and the rugby field felt like open season. A place where violence was not only tolerated but actively encouraged.

The teacher—Mr. Goodbold—was swaggering among the boys ahead, bantering with the favored. The man seemed little more than an older, larger version of the school bullies. There was the same angrily shaved head and solid physicality, the same resentment at the world and barely concealed contempt for the softer, more sensitive kids. On a few occasions I had seen him walking his bulldog around Gritten, both of them moving with the same hunched, muscular rhythm.

We reached the road and had to wait at the traffic lights as cars hurtled dangerously around the corner. I winced at the blasts of air as they shot past. From the speed some of them went, there was no guarantee they’d stop for a red light in time.

I leaned in to whisper to James.

“It’s like every part of this experience is designed to kill us.”

He didn’t smile.

Once we were safely across the road, Goodbold led us down the field. At the far end, a teaching assistant was wrestling with a tangled net of rugby balls. The sky stretching overhead seemed gray and endless.

“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 Goodbold’s 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 I’d thrown a punch without hesitation. The fight got broken up, and after that he had pretty much left me alone. But James was an easier victim.

I told myself there was nothing I could do about it. James was on his own for now. Instead, I focused on my own opponent. The success of my team didn’t matter to me, but I was determined to win if only for my own sake, and I gritted my teeth as I clutched the ball to my side and put my right foot back. My heart began to beat faster.

The whistle sounded.

I set off as fast as I could, only dimly aware of the boy coming at me from the opposite side. When it came, the tackle was brutal. He smacked into me around the waist, the collision knocking the breath out of me and sending the field whirling, but I kept struggling forward, twisting against him angrily, stamping down, focusing on the line in the distance. A moment later, he lost whatever grip he had and I was plunging forward again. Another second, and the ball was on the line, my hand pressing down on it.

The whistle blew again.

Breathing hard, I looked down the line. Only a handful of us had made it across, and the middle of the field was scattered with kids, some of them standing, some still grappling on the hard ground. It was Hague I saw first. He was standing a distance away, laughing. James was lying at his feet, curled up and crying.

Apparently oblivious, Goodbold simply meandered along the line, counting the winners. I looked back and saw Hague, still laughing, spit on James.

The anger overtook me.

He looked up as I approached, but not in time to avoid the hard shove I gave him, knocking him away from James. The impact was a shock to both of us—I hadn’t known I was going to do that. Hague looked equally surprised for a second, but then his face darkened with anger. As if from nowhere, two of his friends were standing beside him.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I said quietly.

Hague spread his arms.

“What? So it’s my fault your friend’s a fucking gayboy?”

I swallowed. Even if Goodbold was watching, he wasn’t going to intervene—not until it got serious, at least. But other kids would be watching us, and I knew I couldn’t afford to back down. Which meant I was going to have to take a few punches. The best I could really hope for was to give a few back in return, and so I clenched my fists at my sides and forced myself to stare back at Hague.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I said again.

Hague took a step toward me.

“Going to do something about it?”

Talking was useless—it would be better just to swing and hope. And I was about to do just that when I became aware of a presence beside me. I looked to my right and saw that two other boys had joined us.

Charlie Crabtree.

Billy Roberts.

I didn’t know them beyond their names, and barely even those. They were in the same year, and shared a few of the same classes as me and James, but they’d never spoken to either of us. In fact, I’d never seen them speaking to anyone. As far as I knew, they’d been at Gritten Park for years, but it felt like they were as separate from the rest of the school as James and I were. At breaks and lunchtimes, they seemed to disappear.

And yet it was obvious from their body language that they were backing me up here for some reason. Neither of them were obvious fighters: Billy was tall and gangly, too skinny to be a real threat; Charlie was only the same height as James. But there was strength in numbers, however unexpected it was to have them, and right then I was grateful.

Or at least I was until Charlie spoke.

“I dreamed about you last night, Hague,” he said.

He sounded so serious that it took a second for the words to sink in. Whatever I had been expecting him to come out with, it hadn’t been that. Hague was taken aback too. He shook his head.

“What the fuck are you talking about, Crabtree?”

“Just what I said.” Charlie smiled patiently, as though he were talking to a slow child. “You were lying on the ground, and you were badly hurt. Your skull was smashed open, and I could see your brain pulsing—your heartbeat in it. You only had one eye left, and it kept blinking at me. You weren’t dead, but you were going to be. You knew it too. You knew that you were dying, and you were terrified.”

Despite the disparity in their sizes, Charlie didn’t seem remotely afraid of Hague, and there was a buzz to the air, as though he were channeling something terrible—some inner power he could unleash if he wanted to. Hague was more used to physical confrontations. He had no idea how to respond to something as alien as what he’d just heard.

He shook his head again.

“You—”

The whistle blew behind us.

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