Authors: Alex North
Tags: #Thriller, #Horror, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult
“Michael practically lived down here.”
Mary Price spoke softly, as though the air in the front room were delicate and she was worried her voice might bruise it.
Amanda looked around. It was true that remnants of Michael Price’s life were still casually scattered about. There was a glass table over by the window with what looked like the boy’s homework laid out on the surface; a pile of hoodies was slumped awkwardly over the back of one of the wooden chairs. A set of black headphones was stretched over the arm of the couch, and by the television, Amanda saw game cases spread across the floor beside a PlayStation. The room looked as though Michael had been here only moments earlier and would be back again shortly.
But when Amanda’s gaze moved back to the boy’s parents, it was immediately obvious he would not. Mary Price looked pale and shocked. Her husband, Dean, was sitting beside her on the couch, his face blank, with one hand tightly clenching his knee. Talking to relatives of victims was the part of the job Amanda found the most difficult. Especially recently, she found it hard not to take on their pain as her own, to imagine them standing beside her at the crime scene and to absorb the impact of their grief.
The feeling of loss and absence in the room right now was almost unbearable for her.
Lock it away,
she imagined her father telling her.
You need to keep yourself detached.
But she couldn’t.
“That’s partly our fault, I know,” Mary was saying. “We could never afford much. Michael’s had the same room since he was eight. It’s too small for a teenager—just space for a bed and some drawers, really. God, I’ve been such a terrible mother.”
Amanda looked at Dean Price, waiting for him to comfort his wife. But the man seemed so far away right then that she wasn’t sure he’d even heard.
“You shouldn’t say that. I’m sure you both did your best.”
“Do you have children?” Mary said.
. Amanda still vividly remembered a pregnancy scare in her early twenties; it had genuinely been one of the worst things that had ever happened to her.
“No, not yet.”
“It’s worthwhile, but it can be so hard. Michael was always a quiet boy, but he got so
when he was older. Didn’t want to talk to his mom, of course.” Mary looked at her husband, who was still staring off into the distance. “You two got on better recently, though, didn’t you? That was nice for you both. Made him feel a bit less lonely, I think.”
Mary patted his knee.
Dean didn’t respond, and Mary turned back to Amanda.
“That’s why I didn’t mind him gaming so much. He let his guard down a bit then, you see. Forgot I was here. It was good to hear him interacting with people.”
“Most of his friends were online?”
“Well, they weren’t friends, really. Just strangers he was playing against. That’s … that’s why I was so pleased when he seemed to have met some friends in the real world.”
Mary fell silent and Amanda shifted uncomfortably in her seat. This was going to be difficult. But it needed to be done. Apart from anything else, the two of them deserved to know what had happened.
“As you may be aware,” she said, “two boys have now been charged with your son’s murder. They’re due to appear in court early next week.”
Dean Price came to life.
“Elliot Hick,” he said. “And Robbie Foster.”
He spoke slowly and deliberately, but remained staring at the opposite wall. Amanda hesitated. The boys hadn’t been named in the press, but there seemed little point in keeping this information from the parents. They already knew. Everybody did. That was the kind of community Featherbank was. It became that way after the Whisper Man all those years ago.
“Hick and Foster had been friends since childhood,” Amanda said. “Am I right in thinking your son only started hanging around with them earlier this year?”
“That’s right.” Mary nodded. “They asked him to sit with them.”
Which was what Hick had told them. The three boys started sitting together at school, and then on weekends they would go to the quarry. Michael Price had been eager for the company, Hick said. Almost painfully grateful for it. The way he had described it made it sound like the two of them had adopted a stray puppy. In the light of what had happened, the thought of that made Amanda feel sick.
On Saturday morning, Michael had met Hick and Foster at the waste ground as usual, and the three boys had walked to the quarry together. Presumably, Michael had been expecting more of the friendship and companionship he’d been looking for all his life and thought he’d now found. But this time his two supposed friends had brought their knives and dream diaries with them. Killing Michael had been their intention from the very beginning. And the user known as CC666 had told them everything they needed to know to replicate what Charlie Crabtree had done.
I was there. DM me.
“Did Michael ever mention a place called Gritten to you?”
Mary thought about it, her face blank. But after a moment, Dean leaned forward. He was a man made of hard angles, Amanda noticed, and there was something almost threatening about the way he had turned his attention to her now.
“No,” he said. “Where’s that?”
“A town a little way north of here.” She hesitated. “What about Charlie Crabtree? Or someone called Red Hands?”
Dean just shook his head.
“Who’s Red Hands?”
Except not even that, of course.
was too grand a term for a fantasy figure conjured up by a group of teenage boys from twenty-five years ago. But as absurd as it might be, and as sad and pointless as it felt to Amanda, it appeared that really
what lay behind Michael Price’s murder that weekend. The original crime predated the modern internet, but the mystery of Charlie Crabtree’s disappearance had been taken up and passed on like a baton over the years: researched, analyzed, discussed—and worse. Taken as inspiration.
Which on one level was hard to believe. Except that, even now, in her late thirties, she could still recall the inherent horror of her teenage years. The way she had struggled with negotiating a world that seemed to be constantly shifting; the confusion and doubts about the best way to behave in order to fit in; the web of competing tensions and pressures. Most of all, she remembered the desire to
from it all—to be anywhere apart from where she was, and to find the person she was meant to be, as though the real
were already out there somewhere, and one day they would meet and shake hands. Teenagers were not rational, was the point, and the world was not always kind to them.
She did her best to explain to Mary and Dean Price what had hap
pened in Gritten twenty-five years ago. Dean listened intently now, his expression growing darker the whole time.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Are you saying my son was murdered because of a ghost?”
“I’m not saying
it makes sense
. I’m saying that his killers appear to have really believed in all this. They genuinely imagined it would happen. They thought they would disappear.”
“How did they even know about any of this?”
Amanda hesitated again. She didn’t want to mention what CC666 had told Hick and Foster on that forum. That was one detail she really didn’t want to get out to the public right now—especially as she’d now seen the content of the
he or she had provided by direct message.
“There is a lot of information about the case online,” she said.
But fortunately, Dean was still focused on everything she’d just told him. He seemed both furious and confused, and unsure how to negotiate his path between the two.
“But why would anyone believe such
“As I said, this murder occurred twenty-five years ago. And afterward, Charlie Crabtree really did disappear. He vanished into thin air.”
“What do you mean,
“Literally that,” Amanda said. “From what I can gather, there was an extensive search, but he was never seen again. So some people—”
She was about to say
believe he really did it,
but Dean Price interrupted her again—this time simply holding his palm out to stop her. It was too much for him. He stood up and walked out of the room without another word. Amanda and Mary listened to the noise of his footsteps on the stairs, and then the sound of a door closing, surprisingly gently, in the hallway above.
A beat of silence.
“I’m sorry about my husband,” Mary said.
“Neither of you have anything to apologize for.”
Mary stood up slowly and walked over to the table. She started adjusting the precarious pile of hoodies over the back of the chair, neatening them out.
“It’s just very hard for him,” she said. “Dean used to be in the army, and Michael was always such a soft, quiet boy. They didn’t understand each other. When Michael was younger, he used to be scared of the dark and he’d call out to us. Dean would get frustrated—tell him there was no such thing as ghosts or monsters. So in the end, it was always me that went.”
“I was the same as a kid,” Amanda said.
Except, of course, it had always been her father who came through to her: calm, kind, and patient when it came to looking after his daughter and reassuring her. Her father who would surely have been frowning at her right now, explaining that wasn’t the kind of personal detail a police officer should be giving away in the course of their work.
“It’s only since Dean left the army that the two of them started to bond,” Mary said. “They were very close. And Dean’s always been practical. A problem-solver.”
“But this isn’t a problem he can solve, right?” Amanda said.
Mary smiled sadly.
“No. It’s not a problem
can solve, is it? It’s just something you have to live with.”
She finished adjusting the pile of clothes, and sighed to herself.
“What do you think happened to him? This boy, I mean.”
“Yes. Do you think he’s still alive?”
Amanda considered that.
Over the last couple of days, she had researched as much as she could about the murder in Gritten, and she still didn’t know what to
think. On the one hand, the search for Crabtree had been exhaustive: hundreds of officers involved; local search-and-rescue teams; tracker dogs. These were individuals with tremendous experience in the land and terrain, and all of them had been focused on finding a teenager who surely couldn’t have gotten that far.
But on the other hand, he had never been found.
And there was also CC666 to think about. Whoever was behind the account appeared to be implying they were Charlie Crabtree, and the information they had given to Foster and Hick had resulted in Michael Price’s murder.
She thought about [entry.jpg], the file that had been sent as proof of the user’s identity. When she had opened it, the sight of what was on the screen had sent a shiver down her spine. A photograph of a notebook, held open at two pages dated from a quarter of a century ago and filled with lines of neat black writing.
I am sitting with him in the woods.
Charlie Crabtree’s dream diary, which was supposed to have disappeared from the world when he did.
Amanda looked at Mary, but it was actually Dean’s words that came back to her now, and his question that she answered instead.
Are you saying my son was murdered because of a ghost?
“I don’t know,” she said.
The attic was almost entirely empty apart from a stack of three cardboard boxes. They were piled neatly and were clearly the focus of the whole space, like a shrine. An open pot of congealed red paint rested beside them, and there were scrunches of rolled-up paper towels dotted about, so soaked in the paint they appeared drenched with blood.
My mother, I assumed, wiping her hands after creating what was plastered around me.
I approached the boxes tentatively, the corners of my vision filled with those mad red hands. I had the uncomfortable sensation they were moving when I wasn’t looking at them—that the whole time I had been in the house the past few days, they had been up here, fluttering silently across the eaves in the darkness.
I took the first box down and sat on the floor.
It was sealed with tape, and I used one of my keys to cut it open along the seam. Inside, I saw a pile of weathered newspapers. I pulled the top one out. It was an old copy of the
Gritten Valley Times,
which had been the area’s local paper when I was a child. I laid it out on the beams now and took in the stark headline across the middle of the yellowing front page.
GRITTEN ROCKED BY TEEN SLAYING
The printed text below the headline had been smudged by thumbprints and faded by time, but the grainy photographs there were still visible. There was Billy, age fifteen, glowering sullenly at the camera. His thick brown hair was parted in the center and there was a smattering of acne on his cheeks. Below that photo was one of Charlie. He was smirking absently, his dyed black hair swept back, his eyes as empty and alien as a shark’s.
I knew both of these photographs well. They had been taken from the class portrait we’d all posed for, early on in the year of the murder, and I knew the rest of us were there somewhere, outside of the frame. These were zoomed in, which explained the low quality of the images. There had been other, better photographs of Charlie and Billy, but these were the ones the media had generally run with at the time. I hadn’t understood why back then, but I realized now they seemed to fit the story best—capturing not only the killers themselves but their roles in what unfolded.
Charlie, the leader.
Billy, the led.
I hadn’t seen a photograph of either of them in years, and the sight of them now left me numb inside. I should have been feeling something, I thought, but for a moment nothing would come. I stared down at the blurry image of Charlie for a few empty seconds. And then—finally—something snapped inside me, as though a tendon in my mind had given way beneath a sudden strain, and the emotion came tumbling out, angry and sickening.
I hate you.
My hands trembled as I took more newspapers out of the box. There were other copies of the
Gritten Valley Times,
but there were national papers as well, all of the stories about the murder here in
Gritten and the subsequent investigation. There was coverage of Billy’s arrest and trial. The search for Charlie. The grief of a community in shock at the pitch-black evil that had flowered in its midst.
My mother had kept it all.
But why? I remembered she had encouraged me not to follow the media at the time, trying to protect me from it. I had ignored her, of course, and each report I scanned now brought with it a jolt of memory. Here was a photograph of the playground, sealed away behind crime scene tape, a policeman standing guard by the bushes. There, yet another lurid sidebar detailing Charlie and Billy’s obsession with lucid dreaming.
I turned one page to find a photograph of a knife, the blood on the blade dried to rusty-looking crumbs, and read the caption below.
The weapon that Charles Crabtree and William Roberts used to stab their classmate to death. A total of fifty-seven wounds were recorded on the body, leaving the victim’s head all but severed.
I put it quickly aside.
I felt hollow inside now: my whole body slightly stunned, as though the impact of seeing all this again were physical rather than mental. And the whole time, the red hands flickered at the edges of my vision.
What was in the other boxes?
There was a sudden urgency to the question. I took the second box down and opened it. There were newspapers inside this one too, but these appeared to be more recent. The first I pulled out was dated only four years ago.
And yet the headline was horribly familiar.
BOY, 14, MURDERED BY CLASSMATES
Next to that, there was a photograph of a boy. He had a mop of unruly blond hair and a scattering of freckles, and the collar of his school uniform was visible at the bottom of the frame. He was smiling sweetly for the camera. The caption told me his name had been Andrew Brook. He looked far younger than fourteen, and for a moment he reminded me so much of James at that age that it took my breath away.
As I worked my way through the newspapers, everything felt strange and off-kilter around me, as though the attic had rotated a few degrees and the world was now resting at an odd, disorientating angle. The story of what had happened to Andrew Brook emerged piecemeal through headlines.
TWO ARRESTED IN MURDER PROBE
“OUTSIDERS” CHARGED WITH BRUTAL KILLING
OCCULT CONNECTION “ONE LINE OF INQUIRY,” CLAIM POLICE
The murderers weren’t named in the reports, but it was clear from skimming the articles that Andrew Brook had been attacked by two boys from his school—boys he thought had been his friends—and that police believed they had killed him as part of some form of ritual. There was mention of diaries and other material being taken from their homes for analysis.
I pulled the third box across to me and opened it. Newspapers again. These were from only two years ago, and the reports were about another killing, this time of a fifteen-year-old boy named Ben Halsall. Two fellow students had been arrested and charged with his murder.
DREAM CULT CONNECTION IN LOCAL MURDER
As with the previous box, the reports remained vague in terms of exact detail, but if you knew what you were looking for the link was even more overt here. There were references to the two suspects being withdrawn and isolated, and obsessed with dreams and internet mythology. The influence of the murder in Gritten was obvious. I knew exactly what I was looking at.
For twenty-five years, I’d done my best not to think about what Charlie and Billy had done, or my own role in the events leading up to it. Any guilt had been parceled away, and when I left for college I’d imagined the train I boarded that day had taken me away from it. To the extent I’d ever considered it, I’d assumed the rest of the world had done the same as I had, and that Charlie had been forgotten.
But he hadn’t.
And my mother had known.
Why did you keep all this, Mom?
But of course there was no answer to that question here. I sat back on my heels and closed my eyes. The silence was ringing. And in the darkness around me, I felt a hundred blood-red hands slipping quietly over the eaves.
An hour later, I parked up outside the hospice. The surroundings were as tranquil as ever, with the day’s hot sunshine filtering through the trees, but the world felt darker than it had before. It was as though a shadow were gradually falling over everything, and my chest was tight with nerves as I made my way inside to my mother’s room.
She was sleeping. For the first time since arriving in Gritten, I wished that she wasn’t. She looked smaller than ever today, the slow
breaths her body was taking barely there. The machine that was monitoring her heart gave a soft beat every few seconds, and even that sound seemed quieter than usual.
“What are you dreaming?” I asked softly.
And then I sat in the chair beside the bed for a time, rubbing my hands together slowly. The window was open, and I could smell the trees and the cut grass out there, and hear a slight rush of breeze.
But although my body was here in the hospice, my mind kept returning to the attic and what I’d found there. And while I waited for my mother to wake up, I took out my phone and began searching online.
There were thousands of hits. It would have taken me hours to read it all, but I clicked onto a large forum devoted to the murder in Gritten, and then scanned through the hundreds of posts there. The amount of information surprised me; every aspect of the case was being discussed in detail. But what I found most fascinating were the threads devoted to Charlie’s disappearance. The speculation there went on and on.
It seemed so pointless. If the police couldn’t find Charlie a quarter of a century ago, what were a bunch of online amateurs going to achieve now? Regardless, they all had their own pet theory about how he had pulled off his vanishing act. Some thought his remains were out there in the depths of Gritten Wood, still waiting to be discovered. Others, that an accomplice had helped to spirit him away, and that he was still alive somewhere.
The thought of that made me shiver.
But even worse were the posts from people who appeared to believe the impossible. Charlie had thought a sacrifice would allow him to vanish into the dream world forever, and there were people online who genuinely believed he had managed it.
Which was ridiculous, of course. But at the same time, I remembered all too well the appeal that lucid dreams had had for me as a
teenager, and how even though I hadn’t bought into the outer reaches of Charlie’s bullshit, that central idea of
had still pulled at me. If I hadn’t believed him, perhaps a part of me had wanted to. So yes, it was ridiculous. But I had seen it happen myself, hadn’t I? I’d watched a belief take hold, and then the awful repercussions of that unfolding slowly and inexorably in real time.
The killers of Andrew Brook and Ben Halsall had believed.
It sickened me. What Charlie and Billy did that day had become a story, one that had grown and twisted over the years, and now at least two other children were dead because of him. It might have been absurd to believe Charlie had disappeared into a fantasy world, but in some ways he had achieved his wish. The murder had leaked out into the lives of so many others, and Charlie lived on in their dreams and nightmares, just as he’d wanted.
And because I had played my own role in what had happened, it was impossible to shake the feeling that I was partly responsible for the murders that followed in its wake. That, whether I had known about them or not, in some way they were my fault.
After a time, my mother began stirring in her sleep. Her breathing changed, and while it was probably my imagination, the soft beep of her heart monitor beside me seemed a little louder.
She opened her eyes.
I waited as she stared at the ceiling for a few seconds. She turned her head and looked at me blankly. And then she looked as sad as I’d ever seen her. It was as though she wanted to reach out to someone—to touch them—but a window was keeping the two of them apart.
“You can do so much better, you know,” she said.
I remembered the photographs I’d seen back at the house. My mother as a young woman full of hopes and dreams, laughing with such joy that it looked as though the whole world delighted her. The contrast right now was stark.
“Mom,” I said. “It’s me. Paul.”
She stared at me. I was worried she might react the way she had on my first visit, but instead, after a moment, her expression changed, the sadness softening into something slightly happier, yet still tinged with melancholy and loss.
“You look so grown up,” she said.
“Oh, I know. Or at least you
you are. Everybody does at your age. But that doesn’t stop me from worrying about you. My son, going out by himself into the big, wide world.”
She wasn’t here with me right now, but I knew where her mind was and what it was seeing. I didn’t need to close my eyes to picture that final day at the railway station as we waited for the train together. Me heading off to college, with my bags resting on the platform beside me. I remembered what she had said to me.
It will be Christmas before you know it.
My mother smiled sadly now.
“And I know you’re not coming back,” she said.
For a few seconds, I said nothing. Just as I had at the time.
Then I leaned forward.
“No, I’m not,” I said quietly. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to be.”
“Are you sad about it?”
She shook her head gently, then looked up at the ceiling and smiled again, this time more to herself.
“I’ll miss you so much,” she said. “But I’m happy for you. I want you to go out and do great things. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. For you to get away from this place, and everything that happened here. I want to throw you as far as possible, so you can grow big and strong somewhere better. So you can have a good life. I don’t care if you ever think about me at all. I’ll think about you instead.”
I didn’t reply. I hadn’t known what was going through my mother’s
head that day, and I had never had a child of my own to help me understand the notion of unconditional sacrifice she was describing.
That’s all I’ve ever wanted.
For you to get away from this place, and everything that happened here.
All these years, she had known about the copycat murders. She had kept newspapers detailing crimes connected to me, and which I had been blissfully unaware of. She had let me have my escape, and then carried a weight in my absence that should have been mine.
She had protected me.
“I went up into the attic, Mom,” I said.
Her smile flickered at that. It was as though my words had interfered with her reception, interrupting the clarity of the signal she was receiving, like a burst of unpleasant static across the screen of her memories. I regretted it immediately. If she had done that for me over the years, surely it was my turn to shoulder the burden now. What mattered most was that her final days and hours were peaceful.