Authors: Alex North
Tags: #Thriller, #Horror, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult
The hospice in which my mother was dying was on the grounds of Gritten Hospital.
It seemed a slightly melancholy arrangement to me. On the long drive cross-country, I had wondered why they didn’t go for the hat trick and install a cemetery and a conveyer belt while they were at it. But the grounds turned out to be pleasant. Once past the hospital, the driveway curled leisurely between carefully trimmed lawns dotted with brightly colored flower beds and apple trees, and then over a small bridge with a stream burbling underneath. It was a hot day, and I’d rolled the car window down. The air outside was saturated with the rich smell of freshly cut grass, and the sound of the water on the rocks below seemed threaded through with a child’s laughter.
Tranquil surroundings for the end of a life.
After a minute, I reached a two-story building with lush swathes of ivy covering its blackened walls. The car tires crackled over a sea of neatly turned pebbles. When I killed the engine, the only noise was the gentle trill of birdsong, the silence behind it heavy and profound.
I lit a cigarette and sat for a moment.
Even now, it wasn’t too late to go back.
It had taken four hours to drive here, and I’d felt the presence of Gritten growing closer the whole time, and the dread inside me had increased with every passing mile. The sky might have been bright and clear, but it had felt as though I were driving toward a thunderstorm, and I had half expected to hear rumbling in the distance and see crackles of lightning at the horizon. By the time I was driving through the ramshackle streets and flat industrial estates, past the rows of weathered shops and factories and the forecourts scattered with litter and broken glass, I was feeling so sick that it had been an effort not to turn the car around.
I smoked now, my hand shaking.
Twenty-five years since I’d been here in Gritten.
It’s going to be okay,
I told myself.
I stubbed out the cigarette, then got out and walked across to the hospice. The glass doors at the entrance slid open to reveal a clean and minimalist reception area, with a polished black-and-white floor. I gave my name at the desk and waited, smelling polish and disinfectant. Aside from the sound of cutlery clinking somewhere away to one side, the building was as quiet as a library, and I felt an urge to cough, simply because it felt like I shouldn’t.
“Mr. Adams? Daphne’s son?”
I looked up. A woman was approaching me. She was in her mid-twenties, short, with pale blue hair, numerous ear piercings, and she was dressed in casual clothes. Not an orderly here.
“Yes,” I said. “Sally, right?”
I shook her hand. “Call me Paul.”
Sally led me up a set of stairs, and then down a warren of quiet corridors, making small talk along the way.
“How was your journey?”
“How long has it been since you’ve been back to Gritten?”
I told her. She looked shocked.
wow. Do you still have friends locally?”
The question made me think of Jenny, and my heart leaped slightly. I wondered what it would be like to see her again after all these years.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I guess the distance makes it difficult?” Sally said.
“Yeah, it does.”
She meant geography, but distance worked in other ways too. The car journey today might have taken four hours, but this short walk inside the hospice seemed longer. And while a quarter of a century should be a span of history with heft and weight, I was shivering inside. It felt like the years had dropped dangerously away, and that what had happened here in Gritten all those years ago might as well have occurred yesterday.
It’s going to be okay.
“Well, I’m glad you could come,” Sally said.
“Work’s always quiet over the summer.”
“You’re a professor, right?”
“I teach English, but I’m not that high up.”
“That’s one of the classes.”
“Daphne was proud of you, you know? She always told me you’d be a great writer one day.”
“I don’t write.” I hesitated. “She actually said that?”
“I didn’t know.”
But then, there was a lot about my mother’s life I hadn’t known. We might have spoken on the phone every month or so, but they were always short, casual conversations in which she had asked after me, and I had lied, and I had not asked after her, so she hadn’t needed to. She had never given me a hint that anything was wrong.
And then three days ago I had received a phone call from Sally, my mother’s care worker. I hadn’t known about Sally. I also hadn’t known that my mother had been suffering from steadily advancing dementia for years now, and that over the last six months her cancer had become untreatable. That in recent weeks my mother had become so frail that the stairs were difficult for her to climb, and so she had been living almost entirely on the ground floor of the house. That she had refused to be moved. That one evening earlier in the week, Sally had entered the house to find her unconscious at the bottom of the stairs.
Because, either out of frustration or confusion, it seemed my mother had made an attempt to reach the landing above and her body had betrayed her. The head injury she suffered was serious rather than fatal, but the fall had goaded the rest of her afflictions into attacking more swiftly.
There was so much I hadn’t known.
Time was short, Sally had told me. Could I come?
“Daphne’s mostly sleeping,” she said now. “She’s receiving palliative care and pain relief, and she’s doing as well as she can. But what will happen over the next few days is that she’ll sleep more often, for more prolonged periods of time. And then, eventually, she’ll…”
“Not wake up?”
“That’s right. Just pass away peacefully.”
I nodded. That sounded like a good death. Given there has to be an end, maybe that’s all any of us can hope for—to drift steadily off. Some people believed there were dreams or nightmares to come afterward, but I’ve never really understood why. As I know better than most, those things happen in the shallow stages of sleep, and I’ve always hoped that death would be a much deeper state than that.
We stopped outside a door.
“Is she lucid?” I said.
“It varies. Sometimes she recognizes people and seems to understand vaguely where she is. But more often it’s like she’s in a different place and time.” She pushed open the door and spoke more softly. “Ah—here’s our girl.”
I followed her into the room, bracing myself for what I was about to see. But the sight was still a shock. A hospital bed rested against the nearest wall, with wheels on the legs and controls to elevate and change its position. To the side of it, there was more machinery than I’d been expecting: a cart with a bank of monitors, and a stand of clear bags with tubes looping out, connected to the figure lying beneath the covers.
I faltered. I had not seen her in twenty-five years, and, as I stood in the doorway now, it looked like someone had made a model of her from wax, but one far smaller and frailer than the old memories I had. My heart fluttered. Her head was bandaged on one side, and what I could see of her face was yellow and motionless, her lips slightly parted. The thin covers were barely disturbed enough to suggest a body beneath, and for a moment I wasn’t sure she was even alive.
Sally seemed unperturbed. She walked across and then bent over slightly, checking the monitors. I caught the faint scent of the flowers on the table beside the machinery, but the smell was corrupted by a hint of something sweeter and more sickly.
“You’re free to sit with her, of course.” Sally finished her examination and straightened up. “But it’s probably best not to disturb her.”
“There’s water on the table if she wakes and wants it.” She pointed to the bed rail. “And if there are any problems, there’s a call button there.”
“Thank you,” I said.
She closed the door behind her as she left.
And then silence.
Except not quite. The window nearest the bed was half open, and I could hear the peaceful, soporific buzz of a lawn mower coming from somewhere in the distance. And then, beneath that, the slow, shallow breaths my mother was taking. There were long stretches of empty seconds between them. Looking down at her, I noticed the pink floral pattern of the bedsheets for the first time, and the sight of them delivered a ghost of memory. They weren’t identical to the ones I recalled from childhood, but close enough. Sally must have brought them from the house to make my mother feel more at home here.
I looked around. The room reminded me of the one in the residence halls during my first year at college: small but comfortable, with an en suite bathroom built into one corner and a desk and cabinets along the wall opposite the bed. There were a handful of objects spread out on the desk. Some of them were clearly medical—empty bottles, popped pill cases, and torn strips of cotton wool—but others looked more ordinary, more familiar. There was a pile of carefully folded clothes. Eyeglasses in an open case. The old photograph of my parents’ wedding I remembered sitting on the mantelpiece when I was a child: here now, and angled so my mother could see it from the bed if she woke.
I walked over to the desk. The photo should have been a record of a happy occasion, but, while my mother was smiling and hopeful, my father’s face looked as stern as always. It was the only expression of his I could remember from childhood, whether illuminated by the constant fires he would build in the backyard or shadowed in the hallway as we passed each other without speaking. He had always been serious and sour—a man let down by everything in his life—and we had both been glad to be rid of each other when I left here. None of the phone calls from my mother over the years had featured
him. And when he died six years ago, I had not returned to Gritten for the funeral.
I glanced along the desk and saw something I hadn’t noticed before. A thick book, placed cover-down. It was old and weathered, and the spine was slightly twisted, as though it had been soaked in water at some point and then left to dry crooked. My mother had never been much of a reader; my father had always been sneeringly dismissive of fiction, and of me and my love for it. Perhaps my mother had discovered a passion for it after his death, and this was what she had been reading before the accident. A nice gesture on Sally’s part, although it seemed fairly optimistic to imagine my mother was going to finish it now.
I turned the book over, and saw the red, leering devil’s face on the cover—and then pulled my hand away quickly, my fingertips tingling as if they’d been burned.
The Nightmare People
I jumped and turned around. My mother was awake. She had moved onto her side and was propped up on one elbow, staring at me almost suspiciously with the one eye I could see, her hair hanging down to the pillow in a thin gray stream.
My heart was beating too quickly.
“Yes.” I spoke quietly, trying to calm myself. “It’s me, Mom.”
“You … shouldn’t be here.”
There was a chair by the bed. I walked slowly across and sat down. Her gaze followed me, as wary as that of an animal primed to flee.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she said again.
“I kind of
to be. You fell. Do you remember?”
She continued staring at me for a moment. Then her expression softened and she leaned toward me and whispered conspiratorially.
I hope Eileen’s not here
I looked around the room helplessly. “She isn’t, Mom.”
“I shouldn’t say that, really. But we both know what a
that woman is. Poor Carl.” She looked sad. “And poor little James too. We’re only doing this for him, aren’t we? You know that, I think. We don’t need to say so, but you understand.”
It’s like she’s in a different place, a different time.
This was a place and time I recognized.
“Yes, Mom,” I said. “I did understand.”
She lay down carefully again and closed her eyes, whispering.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
“Do you want some water?” I said.
For a moment, my mother did nothing. She just lay there breathing steadily, as though the question were taking time to work its way through the confusing labyrinth of her mind. I had no faith that it would reach its destination, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say right now. And then suddenly my mother lurched awake again, jolting upright at the waist, and reached out and grabbed my wrist so fast there was no time for me to recoil.
You shouldn’t be here!
” she shouted.
“Red hands, Paul! There are red hands everywhere.”
Her eyes were wide and unblinking, staring at me in absolute horror.
“Red hands, Paul.”
She let go of me and collapsed back on the bed. I stood up and staggered backward a little, the white imprint of her grip on my skin. I pictured a jungle gym and a ground patterned in crimson, and her words repeated over and over in my head in time with my heartbeat.
Red hands, red hands, red hands everywhere
“Oh God, it’s in the house, Paul!”
And then my mother’s face contorted in anguish, and she screamed at the ceiling, or perhaps at something out of sight above.
It’s in the fucking house!
And with panic lighting up my whole body, I scrabbled for the alarm button.
During the summer break when I was fourteen, my mother took me and my friend James to see Gritten Park, our new school. We arrived at James’s house first thing that morning, and I remember my mother whispering to me as we walked up the path.
“I hope Eileen’s not here.”
I nodded. I hoped that too. Eileen was James’s mother, but you wouldn’t have known that from the way she treated him. James could never do anything right in her eyes, assuming she noticed him at all. I’d always found her frightening. She smelled of sherry, and seemed to smoke constantly with one hand cupping her elbow, watching you suspiciously, as though she thought you might have stolen something from her.
But it was Carl who answered the door that morning.
Carl was James’s stepfather, and I liked him a great deal. James’s natural father had abandoned Eileen when she was pregnant, and Carl had raised him as though he were his own son. He was a humble man, quiet and kind, but while I was glad he was good to James, it also baffled me how he’d ended up with a woman like Eileen. Carl and my mother had been close friends since childhood, and I suspected it was a mystery to her too. Years earlier, I’d overheard a conversation
between the two of them.
You can do so much better, you know,
my mother had told him. And there had been a long silence before Carl replied.
I really don’t think I can.
Carl looked tired that day, but he smiled warmly at us both before calling back into the house for James, who then emerged a few moments later. James was wearing old tracksuit bottoms, a grubby T-shirt, and an awkward smile. He was a timid boy: shy and sweet and defenseless; always desperate to please the whole world, but never sure what it wanted.
And my best friend.
“Come on, then, urchins,” my mother said.
The three of us walked away from the house toward the main road that connected our town to the rest of Gritten. It was a warm morning, and the air was close and full of dust and flies. The metal of the overpass clanked beneath our feet as we made our way across to the dirty bus stop on the far side. Below us, a steady stream of vans and semi trucks shot past indifferently. Our town saw little traffic, and while it was technically a suburb of Gritten, it barely existed on maps. Even its name—Gritten Wood—gave more prominence to the enormous nearby forest than to the idea that anybody still lived here.
Eventually a bus appeared in the distance.
“Have you got your tickets?” my mother said.
We both nodded, but I rolled my eyes at James and he smiled back. We were both fine on buses, and had visited Gritten Park the previous term, after learning the small school we had attended up until now was closing. But while James might not have admitted it, he was scared about starting a new school, and so my mother had come up with a way to help without embarrassing him, and I was happy to go along with it.
It was a half-hour journey. Most of Gritten was saturated with poverty, and the view through the bus window was so drab that it was sometimes difficult to tell the empty premises from the occu
pied. I wanted nothing more than to escape from here—to move away and never return—but it was hard to imagine it ever happening. The place had a gravity that held whatever was dropped where it fell. That included the people.
Off the bus, the three of us took the five-minute walk to Gritten Park.
The school was much bigger and more intimidating than I recalled. The gymnasiums were about three hundred feet back from the main road, their vast windows reflecting the bland sky and trapping it in the glass. Beyond, the main building was visible: four stories of murky, monotonous corridors, the classroom doors thick and heavy, the way I imagined doors in a prison. The angles of the two buildings were slightly off, so that from the street the school looked like something that was pulling itself out of the ground, with one shoulder hunched up behind it, awkward and broken. I looked to the right of the gyms. The area there was being renovated, and I could hear the tapping of a pneumatic drill from somewhere behind the stretched tarps. An intermittent, staccato sound, like distant gunfire.
We stood for a while.
And I remember feeling uneasy. There was something malevolent about the school—in its stillness, and the way it seemed to be looking back at me. Before then, I’d understood James being nervous about starting here. The school was huge—home, if you could call it that, to over a thousand students—and James had always been a natural target for bullies. He was my best friend, though. I’d always looked after him in the past, I’d told myself, and I always would. And yet there was something ominous about the school before me right then that made me doubt myself.
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
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.
“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.
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.