The Shadows

All of us instinctively took a step back—all of us except for Charlie. He remained standing exactly where he was. Still smiling. Still staring intently at Hague.

“Six of you made it.” Goodbold’s voice echoed across the field. “It would have been nine if Crabtree and his friends hadn’t 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.

“Let’s try that again,” Goodbold shouted.



* * *



After gym class, the four of us ended up traipsing back up the field together. It didn’t feel like an accident to me, but I also wasn’t 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 wasn’t clear that he was.

I turned back. “At least we’re not too muddy.”

Billy kicked at the hard ground. “Only good thing about winter.”

“It’s not winter yet,” Charlie said.

Billy looked a bit hurt. “It feels like it, though. It’s as cold as winter.”

“Yes,” Charlie conceded. “That’s true.”

“I don’t 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 wasn’t going to intervene.

Hague made kissing noises. “I know you can’t help it, though.”

Charlie smiled at him. “Who says I can’t help it?”

“What?”

“Who says I can’t 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 wouldn’t choose to dream that? It was a wonderful sight.”

Despite the recovered bravado, a little of the color drained from Hague’s face.

“You’re 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 he’d 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. I’d 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.”

“Oh—thanks.”

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 I’d 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.”

“That’s a nice way to respond to a compliment.”

She seemed more amused than insulted.

“Sorry,” I said. “It’s nice of you to say. You know what it’s like, though. You’re never happy with what you do.”

“It’s 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 I’d said it out of politeness and couldn’t actually remember her story. Our English teacher, Ms. Horobin, ran a creative writing club for half an hour one lunchtime a week. We’d write stories in advance, and two of us would read them out each session. It had been Jenny’s 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.”

“That’s 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 dog—almost apologetically—was 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 don’t 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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 he’d 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 time—go back to a place where the world had still felt open and full of possibilities. It wasn’t 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. I’d pretended to myself that it was clever and literary to be ambiguous like that, but in truth, I hadn’t been able to think of a better way to finish it.

“Have you read The Stand?” I said.

I wasn’t 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 he’s just walking, and you don’t 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. “He’s my favorite author. I’ve 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 she’d read more King than I had.

“I’ve read most of them,” I said. “Some of them more than once.”

“Favorite?”

“The Shining.” I thought about it. “Maybe.”

“Yeah, it’s difficult to pick, isn’t it? They’re all so good.”

“What about you?”

“Pet Sematary.”

“Oh God, that one’s horrible.”

“I know—I love it.” She grinned. “The ending! Bleak. As. Fuck.”

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