Authors: Alex North
Tags: #Thriller, #Horror, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult
“It was a little more complicated than that.” Marie shook her head. “Are you sure you want to hear all this? Because think about it. Maybe there are
you’ve never heard this before now. Perhaps it’s better for everyone to forget.”
“I need to know,” I said.
“All right. I don’t know if any of this is true, but it’s what I heard back then. The man was married to someone in Gritten Wood—your town—at the time, and his wife was pregnant. But he was also involved with a second woman as well. From another part of Gritten—I don’t know where. And this other woman had ended up pregnant too.”
“So the man had
“Yes. The second woman—she knew he was married, of course, and she wanted him to leave his wife. But he didn’t do that. He chose his wife instead. But when he confessed to her, she rejected him—threw him out. And because of that, he went off into the woods and did what he did.”
Marie spread her hands, looking slightly helpless.
“But I don’t know any of this for a
Paul. It’s just rumors I heard at the time. Some of it second-, even thirdhand. I’m not sure if any of it’s true.”
I nodded to myself.
Marie might not have been certain, but I was. I thought about James. How his mother always seemed to resent him. How his biological father had disappeared before he was born. I’d always assumed James’s father had abandoned his family, and that James had been a constant reminder to Eileen of that hurt. But nobody had ever told me that was what had happened.
And then I thought about Charlie. How similar he and James sometimes looked. The way that when we’d first arrived at the school, Charlie had seemed to seek James out, keen to bend him to
his will and bring him under his control. To isolate him from me. The way he always seemed to have some plan in mind, with the rest of us in the dark, trailing a few steps behind him.
When something awful happens, like Marie had just told me, people try to forget about it. Normal people, at least. But I thought about Jenny’s story now—about the little boy desperate to find his father; to talk to him; to be accepted by him—and I wondered if damaged people did something else instead.
If perhaps they went out searching.
You have to do something about Charlie.
On the morning of the final day, I remember waking just after dawn. The sun was streaming in through the thin curtains over the window by my desk, the room already warmed by it. But despite the heat, I was shivering. For the first time in months, I couldn’t remember the precise details of the dream I’d just woken from, only that it had involved Charlie. The dread from it was still there, seeping slowly across my thoughts like black ink spreading through tissue paper.
I lay still for a moment, calming myself down.
Trying to think of anything else.
My parents had both left for work early and the house was silent. Downstairs, I knew there would be the usual list of chores waiting for me to complete. They would occupy me for a few hours this morning. And then, this afternoon, Jenny was coming around.
It would be nice to have a bit more privacy, wouldn’t it?
My heart leaped for a different reason at that.
And yet the dream lingered. After a time, I went and sat down at my desk, drawing the curtains and looking out at the tangle of our backyard and the woods at the far end. The world was sunlit
and rich with life: walled and carpeted in a thousand shades of yellow and green, dew still glinting on the grass. But I knew now that, sixteen years ago, a man had walked into those woods and slit his wrists, his life spilling out into the foliage.
On a different day, I would have taken out my dream diary and written in it. Today, I decided not to. All I really remembered from last night was Charlie, and I didn’t want to put his name in my book.
You have to do something about him.
That same thought arriving again, this time with more force and urgency to it. After what I’d learned yesterday, I couldn’t escape the feeling that something bad was going to happen—that Charlie was dangerous in some way. But at the same time, I had no idea
I was supposed to do. Find an adult, I supposed, and talk to them. Tell them what I knew, and some of what I suspected. Start with the dreams, and then try to explain how everything had gradually become so dark. I could tell them about Goodbold’s dog, and about Red Hands, and how I no longer knew if Charlie was deluded and needed help, or if he was planning …
Nobody was going to listen to me.
But still. I had to try. So I would make a plan, I decided. I would work out exactly what story I needed to tell, and who I was going to tell it to. Marie was probably the best choice. Out of all the adults I could think of, she would be the most open to listening, and she already knew some of the background.
She could help me work out what to do.
Making that decision gave me the freedom to put it out of my head for a while. I showered and dressed, made scrambled eggs for breakfast, and then turned to the list of tasks that had been left for me on the kitchen table. There was tidying and cleaning to be done, and my mother had written a shopping list and left me some money. I did the house stuff first, and then finally, late morning, I set out to the shop.
The day was hot and bright, but I remember there was also an odd feel to the town. The streets were quiet, which wasn’t unusual for this time on a working day, but they seemed even more deserted than usual. On my way to the grocery store, I didn’t see another soul; it was as though everybody had been removed from the world and I had been left completely alone. There was a hush to the air and a strange sepia quality to the light. The roads, the houses, the trees—they all looked like they had been soaked in an amber liquid that had yet to fully drain from the air.
I was almost relieved when I reached the store and found actual people inside. Normality resumed. I collected together the items on my mother’s shopping list and the assistant bagged them carefully at the register. By the time I was outside again, back in that heavy silence, the plastic bag handles were already tight and digging into the creases of my fingers.
For some reason, I didn’t want to head home right away. There was still an hour or so before Jenny was due to come around, and I knew the only thing I’d do with that time was pace and worry. Although the atmosphere that day was unusual, it was also beautiful in its own strange way, so I decided to walk for a time, and I took a more circuitous route back to the house than normal, enjoying the warmth and the peace.
And as I did so, I felt buoyed. I’d been avoiding a lot of the town’s streets and lanes over the past months, careful to avoid Charlie, Billy, and James, and now I wondered why. This was
town, after all. My home. This afternoon Jenny was coming to my house, and what were the other three in the light of that? A few sad boys, lost in a fantasy, while my own world was blossoming, its petals opening, the future ahead of me full of possibility. Right then, I felt more than strong enough to face them down if I had to.
The walk took me around the edge of the town, and then up past the old playground at its heart. If I was going to see them anywhere, it would be here, and sure enough, as I approached along the dusty lane, I saw there was someone there.
He was alone for the moment, sitting on the bottom rung of the ancient jungle gym. When I had been younger, that thing had seemed huge, the ground perilously far away when you were at the top, but in reality it was hardly taller than I was now. Even so, James looked small in comparison to it, sitting hunched over. When I’d seen him in the last weeks of classes, he’d seemed diminished and drained, as though the life were slowly being sucked from him, but now he appeared almost skeletal, the shadow of his body all but indistinguishable from the ones cast by the thin metal frame around him.
My resolve faltered a little. But I made myself continue.
He looked up as I got nearer, his face hollow, and when he saw me he looked quickly away.
I walked past deliberately slowly.
I wasn’t sure why. Perhaps it was a show of dominance—some attempt to make him realize I didn’t care—but if so, that was stupid. Because I did care. In those few moments, in fact, the events of the past couple of months fell away. My life had moved far enough on from his betrayal that, even if I didn’t entirely forgive him for what he’d done, I at least understood the reasons why, and pitied him slightly because of them.
After I’d passed, I looked back and noticed again how fragile he seemed. How
. And that’s the memory of James I have from that day: a lost little boy who didn’t know how to escape from the situation he’d found himself in. Sitting there waiting, a condemned prisoner anticipating punishment.
You have to do something about Charlie.
That thought again. It wasn’t rational, but there are moments in
life like that, I think—moments you understand on some level are pivotal. Where everything will change, and you’ll regret it forever if you don’t do something you know you should.
Perhaps it was the strangeness of the day that made me believe this was such a moment. That whatever Charlie had been planning was coming to a head, and that if I turned around and walked away now I would never shake the guilt from it.
You have to do something about Charlie.
Before it’s too late
And so I walked slowly back to the playground. I stepped over the shin-high wooden fence that separated it from the road, and approached the jungle gym. James’s back was to me. I don’t know if he heard me, but he didn’t seem startled as I put the shopping bags down on the ground. He just turned and looked at me with those sad, haunted eyes.
“Hey,” I said. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
I remember the sense of relief I had when I got back home afterward. I packed the groceries away with a swing in my step. Perhaps I was even feeling slightly triumphant.
You have to do something about Charlie.
And I had.
I’d told James everything I’d learned from Marie, which meant that any duty of mine had been fulfilled, and it was now his responsibility to act on what I’d said. I had no idea if the information I’d given him would help or change anything, but right then it didn’t feel like that mattered. The important thing was that it was now in James’s hands to deal with, not mine.
I’d also managed to do it without giving away any ground. When I’d started talking, I’d seen a flash of something on his face. Hope, perhaps. But my own expression had quickly killed that dead. I’d
made sure he understood I wasn’t there to rescue him, or to rebuild bridges. It was just that I had to warn him, and so I did. He’d shaken his head, confused, but I could tell that what I was saying chimed with him in some way, as though I’d given him a piece of a puzzle he knew fitted somewhere, even if he didn’t quite know yet where to place it.
Those were the last words I ever said to him, and I said them coldly, making sure the message behind them was clear. We weren’t friends again now, and we wouldn’t be in the future.
Then I’d picked up the plastic bags and come home.
I remember I finished putting the shopping away and then pushed the encounter from my mind. By that point, it wasn’t too long until Jenny would be here, and I decided to let myself feel excited about that instead. There was an odd mixture of excitement and fear in my chest, my heart beating a little faster with every passing minute.
The time came and went.
For a while afterward I paced around the living room, frequently checking out the front window, expecting to see her here at any moment, bright and beautiful in the afternoon sun, opening the gate and walking up to the house.
But the street and front path remained empty.
And then I spent the next few hours wondering what had gone wrong. Perhaps she had come to her senses about me and changed her mind. Or maybe something had come up and she hadn’t been able to make it and right then she was stuck at home, feeling awful about letting me down. Her mother might have found out where she was going and told her no. I oscillated between all the likely explanations for her not showing up. The possibilities circled me.
A knock at the door locked them into place.
I was up in my room at that point, looking out at the woods. I
ran quickly down the stairs. By then I’d given up on Jenny coming around, and my parents would be back home soon anyway, but I still thought it must be her. That would be fine too. Everything else could wait, I told myself. Maybe I could even introduce her to my mother.
But when I opened the door, there were two police officers standing there. Their car was parked out front of the house, its lights rotating pointlessly in the late afternoon sun.
“Paul Adams?” one of the officers said.
He rested his forearm on the side of the door and peered inside past me, as though searching for something. Then he looked me up and down, his face set hard, devoid of emotion.
“Am I right in thinking you knew a girl called Jenny Chambers?”
“Yes.” I paused. “Why?”
He looked at me as though I already knew.
“Oh, she’s dead.”
I am dreaming right now.
Even after so many years, I had never lost the sense of wonder that accompanied that realization, and it arrived again now as I found myself staring at Gritten Park School, amazed as always that my sleeping mind was capable of conjuring up something so realistic. I’ve perfected it over all these years, and much of what Charlie originally said was true.
I crouched down and employed the environment technique: rubbing my palm over the ground and feeling the rough texture of the road. A tapping sound was coming from nearby. I looked to my right and saw the tarp stretched tight around the construction area. That was long gone in real life, of course. But this was the school as it had been then, not as it was now.
I stood up and drifted past the building site, and then the tennis courts and the corrugated huts. The dream had added layers of rust to the latter, and positioned them at odd angles in the grass, as though they had been dropped carelessly from the sky.
The bench was a little way along.
Jenny was waiting there for me. She appeared exactly as my mind had created her a few nights earlier: still recognizable as the girl I
remembered, but aged to match the years that had passed. Even just sitting down, there was a confidence and poise to her. But her old school bag was at her feet, and there was a notebook open on her lap. The past and the present, superimposed.
Not a line,
And my heart ached to see her.
She closed the notebook and smiled at me. “Hey there, you.”
But both the smile and the greeting seemed slightly more forced than the previous times I’d dreamed her. I remembered walking down here for the first time as a teenager, and how I’d been worried I might be disturbing her. That hadn’t been true then, but I had the strange sensation it was now. That even though this was my dream, and she was only a figment of my imagination, she would rather I wasn’t bothering her.
“Hey there,” I said. “Do you mind?”
“Not if you don’t.”
I sat down beside her on the bench, allowing a little distance between us.
“Are you okay?” I said.
“Honestly?” She looked away. “I’m tired, Paul. I want to go back to sleep.”
The way she phrased it, it was as though she were dreaming me rather than the other way around, and I felt a stab of guilt at conjuring her: an old sensation.
Why did we lose touch?
Jenny asked me last night. Thinking back on the times I’d dreamed of her after her death, here in Gritten and then at college, the answer was clear: because it had begun to feel like this. Whatever else he had done, Charlie had given me a tool to use, and I had. In a lucid dream, you could do anything, and so I had brought Jenny back to life in an attempt to assuage the pain and the grief I felt. But my subconscious had known, and it had become clear it was time to stop.
I had thought it would be harmless to see her again now. That it would make being back in Gritten, and everything I had to do and face here, easier to bear. And I supposed that, for a time, it did. But I knew it couldn’t last, and that it was time to let her go again now.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You don’t need to be. I know you miss me.”
“But I should leave. Before I do, though, I wanted to give you two things.”
“Do you remember when the police arrived?”
I thought back to that day. The two officers couldn’t question me without one of my parents present, but they asked if they could come in, and of course I said yes. They wouldn’t tell me what had happened to Jenny.
Oh, she’s dead.
The words had echoed in my head, but that had been all they were, and they didn’t seem to relate to anything that could possibly be real. If they were true, then the world should have ended.
And yet the world was carrying on.
“They thought it was me that killed you,” I said.
Jenny smiled. “Of course they did. I
coming to see you, after all. And it’s often the boyfriend, right?”
It had been about half an hour before my mother got home, at which point she insisted on driving me to the police station so I could be interviewed under supervision. I remembered how numb I had felt, and how the officers had forced us to stop at the playground so I could see what I had supposedly done. The way my mother had protected me so fiercely. She knew me. Even without me saying anything, she knew I hadn’t done that.
The whole time, there had been other officers searching our house for evidence that would incriminate me. A weapon, perhaps. Bloodstained clothing. There was nothing for them to find, of course, and it wasn’t long before Billy wandered into the town, his own clothes saturated with blood, carrying his dream diary and the knife he and Charlie had used to murder Jenny.
Jenny smiled at me sadly now.
“You never showed me your town before,” she said. “I was so excited to see you that day that I arrived about half an hour early. And I figured I’d walk around a bit.”
“I wanted to see you in your sauce.”
I closed my eyes at that—at my mother’s phrasing coming from the image of Jenny my sleeping mind was generating—but it was a mistake to close your eyes in a lucid dream. You needed sensation to make the world around you solid. So I opened them again, gripped the rough edge of the bench, and listened to the distant tapping of the drill, trying to anchor myself.
“When I got to the playground,” Jenny continued, “James was gone. He obviously took your warning seriously. But Charlie and Billy were there. They were waiting and they had their plan. They were angry.”
“I don’t need to hear this,” I said.
“Yes, you do. They beckoned to me. I’m not sure why I went over. I guess I was curious what they wanted, after everything you’d told me about them. By the time I saw the knife, it was too late.”
Again, I wanted to close my eyes.
“They held me down and took turns stabbing me,” Jenny said. “It almost didn’t hurt at first, because I couldn’t believe what was happening. I think I was in shock. But then it did. Whichever one wasn’t stabbing me was putting handprints of my blood on the ground. I fought so hard, because I remember realizing I was going to die,
and how much I didn’t want to. I wanted to live so very much.” She looked at me sadly. “But I didn’t.”
A total of fifty-seven wounds were recorded on the body,
The victim’s head all but severed.
“They stuffed my body under one of the bushes when they were done,” she said. “And then they went off to the woods and took sleeping pills, imagining they were going to escape this world forever. Which is ridiculous, of course.”
“Except that Charlie really disappeared.”
disappears, Paul. Nobody is ever really gone.”
I thought about it and nodded.
“The police were right though,” I said. “It really
me who killed you.”
Jenny shook her head.
“Paul, you didn’t know what would happen. That’s the first thing I want to give you. You did your best, which is all any of us can do. You were helping a friend. And you were just a kid. It wasn’t your fault. None of this is.”
She sounded so earnest that a part of me almost believed her.
“I’ve spent so long wishing,” I said.
“That I’d kept walking that day. That I’d said nothing. Because it’s not fair. It should have been James they killed, not you. And it would have been if it hadn’t been for me.”
The underlying sadness of what I’d just said hit me. For years I had blamed myself for what I did. I had wished I hadn’t spoken to James that day, and that things had been different.
What a waste that seemed now. Why had I never wished that Charlie and Billy hadn’t killed anybody that day? Perhaps simply because they had, and so the act had taken on an inevitability: the murder becoming something that couldn’t be avoided, the effects
only mitigated and shifted in favor of different people, different lives. But the truth was that there would have been a death on my conscience whatever I’d done.
It’s not your fault,
” Jenny said. “And now the second thing.”
She reached down and rummaged in her bag, then took out the magazine and passed it to me.
The Writing Life.
I remembered how touched I’d been that she’d brought this for me. How it meant she’d been thinking of me. But then the text on the cover swam out of focus, and I realized the dream was slipping out of my control.
“They’re all the same,” Jenny said. “That’s why he won’t find it.”
My mother’s words. I rubbed the pages of the magazine between my finger and thumb, desperate to stay.
“What does that mean?”
But despite my efforts, everything around me was beginning to fade. The awareness of lying in bed in the hotel room was becoming more real than my presence on the bench, and I was going to wake up. But even though Jenny couldn’t possibly know the answer to my question, it seemed urgent to hear her reply.
What’s the same?
” I said. “What won’t he find?”
As I stared at what was left of her, a sudden flash of revelation went through me, and I thought I might understand. And even though the dream was all but gone now, and the room in the real world was solidifying around me, I saw her smile one last time before I woke completely, her face mouthing words I felt as much as heard.