Authors: Alex North
Tags: #Thriller, #Horror, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult
In the first few days after returning to Gritten, I spent my time drifting between the house and the hospice.
My mother continued to deteriorate. She was asleep during most of my visits, and I felt guilty over the relief that came from that. While I told myself it was best for her to be resting, I knew I was also afraid of what she might say if she was awake. On the few occasions she was, I found myself holding my breath, waiting for her to say something else about a past I had made a conscious decision to seal away and avoid. She didn’t. Most often, she was confused and didn’t seem to recognize me at all. It was as though I were a stranger—and I supposed I might as well have been, a thought that delivered a parcel of guilt from a different direction, and which left me confused too. I didn’t know what I wanted to happen. I didn’t know what to say or what I wanted to hear.
After visiting her, I would go to a pub for a time. It was a local place I remembered sneaking into as a teenager, and it had changed more than I had. Spit and sawdust back then, it was a sports bar now, slick and efficient, the d
cor dark wood and the lighting soft. It was never busy in the afternoon. I would sit at a table with a single beer, listening to the
of pool balls from somewhere at the far end of
the room, and for an hour or so I would try not to think of anything at all.
Because back at the house, the memories were everywhere.
I had put my old possessions back in the box, but I could always feel them inside—a constant throb of threat from across the room by the desk—and the ghost of the boy I’d imagined sitting there seemed to become more solid by the day.
I remembered the lunchtime when Charlie had first started talking to us about dreams—about
—and how midnight that day had found me sitting at the desk. That was always my favorite part of the day. Chores and homework done; the house silent; my parents asleep. I would sneak out of bed, click on the lamp, and work on my stories. I had so many notebooks back then. I kept them hidden away in the desk drawer, because my father wouldn’t have hesitated to read them if he found them, and I could easily imagine the sneer on his face if he did.
But that night, the notebook before me had been new.
Events that lunchtime had panned out exactly the way I’d expected them to. Charlie had decided we were all going to do something, and so eventually we had agreed to go along with it. Even the process had been predictable. James had been interested, which meant that Billy—keen not to be replaced in Charlie’s affections—had joined in too. That left me on my own, and eventually I’d given in.
As much as I’d disparaged it at the time, the thought of it had intrigued me. Looking around my dusty, threadbare bedroom, and thinking about the misery of my home life and the flat, gray, beaten-down world around me, the idea of being able to escape it all and experience whatever I wanted was appealing. It had felt like it might be the only way I ever would.
Charlie had told us the first thing we needed to do was keep a dream diary. After a week, we should read through the entries and
look for patterns. That way we would be more likely to recognize them in future, at which point we would realize we were dreaming and be able to take control.
Lying in bed that night, I had stared up at the bland ceiling for a while, then switched off the light with the cord that hung down by the headboard. Charlie had explained we needed to tell ourselves something before we went to sleep each night. It was
—a signal to the subconscious—and while it might feel as though the words were going nowhere, something deep inside us would hear them and respond.
I will remember my dreams,
I had told myself.
And it had worked. When I’d woken up the next morning, I’d remembered far more than usual. When I sat at my desk with the notebook first thing, images came tumbling out, each one leading to an earlier one, as though I were pulling myself back along the rope of the night.
In the dream I remembered most vividly, I had been in a strange outdoor market. It was night there, and I was running down narrow aisles, past stalls that were too dark to see properly. There were people bustling around me, as gray and indistinct as ghosts, and I knew that I needed to get out—that there was
in there with me. I could hear it stampeding angrily and randomly along pathways close by, hunting me like a minotaur in a labyrinth. And yet every passage looked the same, and whatever turns I took there seemed to be no way out.
And I knew I couldn’t escape from this place by myself.
I was in the dark market.
But it wasn’t just twenty-five-year-old memories that filled the house now. There was also the silence hanging in every room, which seemed heavier and more judgmental by the day. What had my mother meant by what she’d said?
was in the house?
I tried to tell myself it didn’t matter—that the past was something
that could be left alone—but there were moments when it seemed like the house and I were engaged in a war of attrition, and I couldn’t help but feel that on some level it was winning. And that something bad was going to happen when I found out what.
Red hands everywhere.
It was on the fourth day that I saw her.
I was sitting in the pub at the time, a half-finished beer on the table in front of me. I reached out to pick up the bottle, running my finger over the cool condensation on the glass, and I saw the door across from me open.
A woman walked in, framed by a wedge of warm afternoon sunshine. I only caught a sideways glimpse of her face, and the half jolt of recognition was left unfulfilled when she immediately turned her back to me and walked to the bar.
She was wearing blue jeans and a smart, black leather jacket, her brown hair hanging halfway down her back. I watched her fumble with her handbag and purse. I waited, telling myself to keep calm, that it couldn’t really be her. The barmaid brought a white wine I hadn’t noticed being ordered, and then the woman clipped her handbag shut and turned around, scanning the pub for somewhere to sit.
For a few seconds it was hard to believe my eyes.
Jenny looked different now, of course, and yet somehow the same. I could still see the outline of the fifteen-year-old girl I’d known: forty now, her face sketched over by life, but still immediately recognizable.
The years fell away.
Perhaps it would be better if she doesn’t see you.
But then Jenny’s gaze met mine, and moved briefly over before
returning again. She frowned. I could see her having the same thought I had.
And then she smiled.
God, her smile hadn’t changed at all.
I felt a spread of warmth in my chest at the sight of it, and any fear or reservation about seeing her again disappeared as she walked over, the heels of what looked like expensive boots clicking against the wooden floor.
“Good God,” she said. “Hello, there, stranger.”
“Wow indeed. How long has it been?”
I tried to work it out. She had visited me at college a few times, but it had started to feel awkward, and at some point we’d lost contact.
“Twenty years?” I said.
She evaluated me quietly for a moment. I wondered what she saw. My own appearance—shabby clothes; disheveled hair; tired eyes—must surely have provided a stark contrast to her own.
“Okay to join you?” she said.
She sat down across from me and put her wine on the table.
“I suppose it isn’t
a surprise to see you,” she said. “I’d heard you were visiting.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Yeah. Small community, news travels fast—that kind of thing. Always has done, always will. You know what this place is like.”
“I would have gotten in touch, but, well … you know.”
Yes. I remembered how things had ended between us.
“I know that too,” I said.
She smiled sadly. There was a moment of silence, and then she looked at her glass and rubbed her fingertip slowly around the rim.
“Listen, I was very sorry to hear about your mother.”
The response came automatically, but I realized how unqualified I was to give it. Another thing I’d been suppressing these past few days was the guilt, but with Jenny it felt safe to let a little of it out.
“I don’t know how I feel,” I said. “I should have been here, but my mother and I hadn’t spoken much recently. I didn’t even know how ill she was. I’ve not been back to Gritten since I left.”
Jenny sipped her wine.
“It feels like I’m here all the time,” she said. “I come back to see Mom pretty often. You remember my mom, right?”
“Of course. How is she?”
Jenny nodded to herself. “She’s good, yeah. Old, but good.”
“Better than the alternative.”
“That’s true. God, you’ve really not been back here?”
“No,” I said. “I went away to college and that was it.”
“Too many bad memories here.”
“I get that.” She was silent for a moment. “But some good ones too, right?”
She risked a smile, and despite myself I returned it. It was difficult to think of it like that, but yes, there were good memories here too. Moments that, looking back on them objectively, had been filled with light. The problem was that what happened later cast such a shadow they were hard to see.
“It turns out I still have your book, by the way,” I said.
“My book?” It took her a second. “Oh—
The Nightmare People
“That’s the one.”
She had brought it in to school for me the day after we’d met: a worn anthology of classic horror stories. The spine was as weathered
as tree bark, and the price—
¢—was written in faded pencil on the top corner of the first page. Not a lot of money, of course, and she gave it to me with the same apparent lack of concern she’d exhibited the day before, but I felt the book was important to her, and I had determined there and then to take care of it. If it was in danger of falling apart, then it wasn’t going to happen on my watch.
And I supposed I had done that.
“I think my mother was reading it,” I said.
“Yeah, but more importantly, have
finished it yet?”
I smiled. “Many times.”
“Do you still write?”
“Nah. You know what they say. Those who can’t, teach.”
I picked up my beer and told her a little about my work at the college and the classes I taught.
“What about you?” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “I still do all of that. Art and music too. But mostly writing. I’ve had a few books published.”
I was pleased for her; it was good that one of us had kept hold of that particular dream. And as I leaned back in my chair, I realized how good it was to speak to her again, even after all this time. She looked great, and I was amazed by how
she seemed. I was glad that things had turned out well for her—that she had gotten away from Gritten in the end and was living a good life.
“Wow,” I said again. “I hadn’t seen. I’ll have to look you up.”
She tapped her nose secretively. “I publish under a pseudonym.”
“Which you’re not going to tell me?”
“No. Anyway, that’s work stuff taken care of. What about family? Wife and kids?”
I shook my head. I’d had a string of relationships over the years, several serious, but none of them had worked out in the end. It would be too dramatic to say the women involved had sensed some kind
of darkness in my past, but the shadow of what had happened did fall over me from time to time. I didn’t let people in; at my worst, I pushed them away. The need to avoid addressing it was always more urgent, more important, than the relationships I found myself in, and I knew deep down that was no basis for anything long-term.
“Never got around to it,” I said.
And for some reason, I resisted asking the question in return. Jenny wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. But that didn’t mean anything, and right then I decided I didn’t want to know.
We sat in silence for a few seconds.
“Is your mother comfortable?” Jenny said.
“She’s sleeping, mostly. When she’s awake, she doesn’t recognize me.…”
I frowned. Jenny prompted me.
“Except for the first time I saw her.”
And because, once again, it felt safe to talk to Jenny, I told her what my mother had said on that first visit. How I shouldn’t be here. About there being
everywhere. That there was something in the house.
Jenny shook her head.
was in the house?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Nothing, I guess. There was a box of my old stuff she’d been looking through, so maybe she was just feeling guilty about me seeing that. But she’s confused. It probably doesn’t mean anything at all.”
“Yeah, but you mentioned it. It’s clearly been bothering you.”
“Because I’ve been doing my best not to think about it. I’ve done some cleaning, some tidying. I’ve sat with her.” I gestured at nothing. “I just want to do whatever I need to and then get out of this place. Go back home. Leave the past where it belongs.”
Jenny had started shaking her head before I finished.
“But that’s bullshit, Paul. You don’t have to worry about any of that. I mean, look at the pair of us now. Is it weird to see me again?”
“No. It’s nice.”
“Exactly. And I’m the past, aren’t I? The past was a long time ago. It can’t hurt you anymore.”
She checked her watch, then drained her wine.
“I need to go.” She stood up. “But if you’re worried about what your mother said, just …
about it? You might be right—it might be nothing. But there’s nothing to be scared of here.”
“Listen to you: Captain Maybe.” She hitched her bag onto her shoulder. “
I’ll see you around?”