The Shadows

“And you like that?”

“Sure. They’re meant to be horror stories, right? And obviously they are, but look at The Stand. Lots of bad things happen, but in the end the good guys basically win. And in The Shining, yeah, it’s sad and everything what happens to the dad, but the kid’s okay. Pet Sematary, though. There’s just no hope there at all.”

I nodded, but also recognized the sad resignation in the way she said it. A part of me wanted to tell her that not all endings had to be hopeless. But then we walked out into the main playground, and faced the sea of children and the gray landscape around us, and the words wouldn’t come. On good days, it was possible to believe I was going to escape Gritten when I grew up, but the truth was that very few people around here were going to have anything but difficult, miserable lives. There was no reason to think Jenny or I were special, or that our endings would be any happier than most were.

I looked to the right. James was waiting for me at the far end of the gymnasiums.

I hitched my bag up on my shoulder. “I’m off this way.”

“And I’m off the other. That’s the way it works.”

Which seemed an odd thing to say. But then I remembered how I never saw her at breaks and lunchtimes—how she seemed to disappear in the same way as James and I did. I wondered where she went: what forgotten part of the school she had made her own, and what she did there.

“Have you read ‘The Monkey’s Paw’?” she said.

“I don’t think so. That’s not Stephen King, is it?”

“No. It’s a short story—an older one. It’s quite similar to Pet Sematary, though. You might like it.”

“It sounds good.”

“It is. I’ve got it at home. I could bring it in for you to borrow? I mean, only if you like.”

Some people might have added the qualification at the end to avoid the embarrassment of being turned down, but Jenny sounded relaxed about it—like it genuinely didn’t matter to her one way or the other. She’d come across as a loner before now, but it was remarkable from talking to her how self-assured and at ease in her own skin she seemed. It was as though the world were something she could take or leave, and it felt like some weird kind of privilege that she’d chosen to connect with me.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’d really like that.”

Then I went to meet James.

And Charlie and Billy, of course.

* * *

In the weeks and months that followed Hague’s accident, the four of us had started hanging out together.

I was never sure how it happened. It was a little like how we’d found ourselves walking back from the field together that day—as though it only appeared to be accidental. But I know it was mostly because of James. He became fascinated by Charlie after what happened that day, Charlie encouraged the attention, and it was the attraction between the two of them that gradually brought the four of us into closer orbit. We began spending more of our time together. On weekends, Charlie would take us on treks into the woods talking about ghosts, and at school we spent our lunchtimes in Room C5b.

The room was in the basement of the school, down a secluded flight of stairs at the end of the main corridor. I remember there was a dark alcove at the bottom, with an ancient elevator that looked like the doors would screech if they ever opened. As far as I could work out, there were no corresponding doors above, so I assumed it must run to a floor below even the basement. A boiler room, perhaps. Some dank, wet place full of rusted, clanking pipes.

The only other door down there was to Room C5b, which I imagined had been a classroom once. There were skewed rows of dusty desks at the front, but also comfy chairs at the back of the room, giving it a ramshackle, piecemeal feel, as though the furniture had been gathered from different secondhand shops over a period of years. The room was like a part of the school that had been forgotten, and I suppose on that level it was an appropriate place for the four of us. We would meet there and lounge around. Eat lunch. Chat. Sometimes we’d use the old stubs of chalk to write song lyrics on the blackboard at the front. Nirvana. Pearl Jam. Faith No More. Whatever we wrote stayed there until we rubbed the words off and wrote something else.

Charlie and Billy were already there when James and I arrived one day. Billy was slouched in an armchair, reading one of the guns-and-ammo magazines he was obsessed with. He looked up briefly, to make sure we weren’t a teacher finally coming to evict us all, then continued reading. Charlie was in his usual seat at the far end of the room, high up behind a solitary oak desk. He didn’t acknowledge us at all. His attention was focused on a notebook on the desk in front of him. He was holding a pen above the page, as though poised to make a decisive mark.

I led the way through the maze of furniture.

“Hey, guys. What’s up?”

Billy shrugged, a sullen look on his face, as though he’d been told off for something. Since he often looked that way, it was impossible to say for sure. Charlie still didn’t respond. But as we reached the back of the room, he frowned to himself, and then carefully wrote something in the notebook.

I sat down in one of the armchairs across from Billy, got out the packed lunch I’d made for myself that morning, and ignored Charlie right back. I’d become accustomed to this sort of behavior. Every now and then, we’d arrive to find Charlie very conspicuously doing something mysterious. As I ate, I noticed the curiosity in James’s expression, and had to suppress the irritation it brought. He had become a little too impressed with Charlie for my liking. While I was prepared to entertain Charlie’s eccentricities, I made sure there was always a little mental eye roll there, whereas it was obvious James often thought Charlie was exactly as important as Charlie did himself. For reasons I found hard to articulate, that annoyed me.

“What are you doing, Charlie?” James said eventually.

“I already asked him that.” Billy pulled a face but didn’t look up from his magazine. “It’s a secret, apparently.”

Charlie sighed, then put his pen down on the desk.

“It’s not a secret,” he said. “I was concentrating. When you’re thinking about something important, you want to carry on without being interrupted.”

“Jesus,” Billy muttered. “Sorry.”

“The same way you wouldn’t want me to interrupt … whatever it is you’re reading.”

Billy glanced down at the magazine. He closed it.

Charlie smiled at James.

“I was writing in my dream diary.”

“What’s a dream diary?”

Charlie held up the notebook.

“Every morning, I write down what I dreamed the night before.”

I took a mouthful of sandwich. “It’s not the morning.”

“I didn’t say that’s what I was doing right now.”

I swallowed. Annoyingly true.

“I never remember my dreams,” James said.

“Most people can’t.” Charlie put the notebook down. “I used to be the same. Dreams are stored in the short-term memory, which is why it’s important to write them down as soon as you wake up, before you forget. If you don’t, they vanish forever.”

I resisted the urge to do an actual eye roll. I had become used to Charlie’s fascination with arcane bullshit. He’d bring books on magic and demonology in to school, but I always thought it was more to be seen reading them than out of any genuine interest—that it was part of a persona he liked to cultivate. Charlie would have been more than happy for people to believe he spent his evenings cross-legged in a chalk pentagram surrounded by candles. But he usually liked his reputation to have more of an edge to it than talking about dreams.

“So what were you doing?” I said.

“Searching for patterns.” He looked at me. “Making notes on what I’ve discovered. Once you start doing that, you begin to notice the same dreams crop up time and time again. The same themes. The same places. The same people.”

“And so what?”

“It helps with incubation.” Charlie smiled.

And I hesitated for a moment, the sandwich halfway to my mouth. It felt a little like when he had spoken to Hague on the day of the accident—saying something unexpected and odd enough to pull you up.


I didn’t like the word. It made me think of something awful being cultivated in a jar. And, of course, I realized I had been wrong just then—after what had happened to Hague, dreams actually did have an edge when it came to Charlie.

James seemed uneasy too.

“What does incubation mean?”

“Influencing what you dream about,” Charlie told him. “Which helps to waken lucidity. Do you know what a lucid dream is?”

James shook his head.

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