Authors: Alex North
Tags: #Thriller, #Horror, #Mystery, #Suspense, #Adult
After my first lucid dream, there were more and more in the weeks that followed. I never mentioned any of them to Charlie or the others. That was partly because they felt too personal to share, but also, as time passed, I found myself resentful of the way the experiment began taking over our lives.
Charlie had started leading discussions on our
increasingly often, and it had become clear that, whatever was happening, it was not one of his passing interests. Looking back, I find it hard to remember exactly how it all happened. The idea of sharing dreams was impossible, but they did—or at least, they claimed to. It resembled a kind of arms race. Charlie might read from his dream diary first, say, and then Billy would describe
dream, and there’d be a connection there. Charlie would be pleased, which of course would spur James on to find a connection in his own. Or else James would go first, Charlie would describe a similar dream, and then Billy, not wanting to be left out, would make out that he had experienced something similar. They never showed each other their dream diaries after the first time. Perhaps they didn’t want to puncture the fantasy world they were developing between them.
And increasingly it did feel like the three of them. My reluctance
to join in began to open up a division in the group. I kept hoping that my indifference might sway the others, but it didn’t. James, especially, seemed to be falling harder under Charlie’s spell with every passing day.
Which was another thing I resented.
I had the uncomfortable sensation that we were all building toward something. There was a purpose to what Charlie was doing, and while I couldn’t figure out what it was, it made me more and more uneasy.
But as stupid as the whole thing seemed to me, I remember thinking:
What harm can it do?
Like I’d told James on the day we compared dream diaries for the first time, none of it meant anything. Dreams were just dreams. And so I figured that eventually the whole thing would burn itself out and life would get back to normal.
It doesn’t matter.
That’s what I kept telling myself.
Despite its sinister undertones, the word describes a straightforward fact: the dreams we have are influenced by the real world. Our subconscious takes everyday experiences and shatters them on the floor like a vase, then picks up a handful of pieces to form something random and new to show us while we sleep. We might recognize a few fragments, but they’re joined together oddly and separated by strange cracks. Dreams are a patchwork, stitched together from the things that happen to us in our waking lives.
But sometimes the opposite can be true.
One lunchtime, James and I were in the playground, heading to Room C5b. I wasn’t relishing more of the usual activity, and the feeling grew stronger as we walked, but I couldn’t think of an excuse not to go.
Then I glanced behind me.
Jenny was at the far edge of the playground, walking off in the direction of the construction site. She looked as confident and self-contained as always—alone, but never lonely—and the way she moved, it was as though she’d somehow plotted a route between the other kids that allowed her to walk in a straight line without having to stop.
I watched as she continued down the small road alongside the building site. Where was she going? There was little that way apart from the tennis courts, a few outside teaching huts, and the staff parking lot, and yet she was walking with quiet assurance, some destination clearly in mind.
“What?” James said.
I didn’t reply for a second. Seeing Jenny reminded me of that first lucid dream I’d had. And just as our dreams are shaped by our reality, there are times like these when our lives can be changed by the dreams we’ve had.
“I’ll catch up with you,” I said.
“I just need to talk to someone.”
He shrugged slightly and then headed off.
I hesitated, but then set off back the way we’d come. Up close, the tarps were transparent enough to see the mud spattered on the far side. The raised arm of a digger hung in the air above, its thick metal teeth misshapen and rusted, and I could smell the faint scent of tar in the air. Presumably something was happening in there, but the site was so quiet that it was easy to imagine it was all an illusion: that eventually the tarps would be pulled aside like a handkerchief in a magic trick to reveal that nothing had changed.
There was nobody else around, and the world grew quieter as I walked. The tennis courts on the left were locked away behind wire
mesh, while the teaching cabins on the right looked like corrugated caravans abandoned in a rough line. Up ahead, a little way past them, there was a lone wooden bench. Jenny was sitting there. She had been a minute ahead of me at most, but she was already scribbling furiously in a notebook on her lap.
I stopped a short distance away, unsure of myself now, and feeling a little stupid. This was clearly
place, and she was so absorbed in what she was doing that it seemed wrong to intrude. And while I’d spoken to her a handful of times since she loaned me the book, it had always been accidental: conversations after the creative writing club, or fleeting exchanges when we bumped into each other in the corridor. I’d never sought her out like this before. I had no idea what I was going to say. A dream might have brought me here, but reality found me speechless. So I was about to turn around when she looked up and saw me.
She stopped writing immediately, her face blank for a moment.
Then she called out.
I shifted my bag on my shoulder. “Hey.”
Another beat of silence.
“Well,” she said. “Are you coming or going?”
Again, I felt stupid. At the same time, turning around and leaving would make me look even more ridiculous. I walked up to the bench.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You looked busy.”
“Busy?” She glanced down at the notebook. “Oh. No. Just messing around with ideas.”
She closed the book.
“Kind of. Do you want to sit down, or are you planning to stand?”
Another question that, now I was here, had only one possible answer. I sat down at one end of the bench, leaving a careful gap between us. She looked at me expectantly.
I probably need a reason to be here, don’t I?
“I saw you and realized I’d been meaning to apologize,” I said. “I’ve kept that book you gave me for so long.”
“Oh. Don’t worry about it.”
“I just had the impression it was important to you.”
“Yeah, but I’ve had it for ages. Have you read all the stories yet?”
“Then you should keep it a bit longer, then. Get your homework done. Because they’re all good. There are some real classics in there—ones you should definitely read.”
“To educate myself?”
“Yeah. If you’re going to be a writer, you’ve got to know the field, haven’t you? Have a bit of respect for history. As awesome as he is, I can’t leave you just reading Stephen King for the rest of your life.”
I felt even more awkward now.
If you’re going to be a writer
. I wanted to be, but with recent distractions I’d barely managed to write a thing for weeks. I’d jotted down a few ideas, but they seemed flat and lifeless. It felt like I had nothing to write about. No stories to tell.
“What are you working on?” I said.
“A horror story, of course.” Her face lit up with an appealing kind of glee. “Sort of, anyway. A ghost story, so it’s more sad than anything else.”
“Because ghost stories should be sad. Don’t you think?”
Ghost stories generally made me imagine white sheets and clanking chains, and dark corridors with figures jumping out at you. But, thinking about it, I could see what Jenny meant.
“Yeah, I guess so. It must be sad to be a ghost.”
. If there’s a ghost it means that someone’s died. A person’s been left behind and isn’t at peace. Other people are grieving. And so on.”
“No gory bits in this one, then?”
“No.” She sniffed. “Well—not many.”
I smiled as I remembered “Good Boy,” the gruesome story she’d read out about the dog that had eaten its owner after he died. It made me think of Goodbold, strutting through the streets with his own pet, and a part of me hoped the same thing would happen to him one day. Except that, for all his faults when it came to us, he seemed to treat the animal well.
“The dog story was ace,” I said.
“You said it was based on a real thing. How did you even hear about that?”
“Marie told me.”
“Who’s Marie?” I said.
“A friend of mine.” Jenny put the notebook on the bench between us. “Which reminds me, actually—I’ve got something for you. I don’t know if you’ll be interested, but Marie gave it to me, and it made me think of you. Hang on.”
She bent over and rummaged around in the bag at her feet, eventually retrieving a tattered magazine. She passed it to me.
The Writing Life,
” I said.
“Check out the back cover.”
I turned it over, scanning the details.
“It’s a short story competition,” Jenny said. “Open to anybody under the age of eighteen. If you get selected, there’s going to be an anthology of the winners—an actual book. The deadline’s not far off.”
I looked at the advertisement, not understanding.
Finally, it clicked.
“What—you think I should enter it?”
. I thought your story was really good. You should absolutely send it in.”
“Are you going to send yours?”
“Of course. I mean, what’s to lose?”
I stared down at the magazine for a few seconds, reading through the details again, more carefully this time. Crucially, there was no fee to enter. So what harm would it do? I was worried about getting rejected, of course, but Jenny thought my story was good enough.
“I’ve not got a pen.”
She rolled her eyes. “You don’t need to send it off
. I mean to write down the address.”
“It’s fine—take the magazine. I’ve already got the details.”
“Yeah, totally.” She shook her head at me, bemused. “That’s why I brought it in.”
That’s why I brought it in
I remember being excited by that. It meant that, despite the small number of times we’d interacted, Jenny had been thinking about me, and that knowledge delivered a thrill that was difficult to describe. A warmth in my stomach. I hadn’t experienced anything like it before, but it was as though I’d just learned the world contained possibilities I hadn’t known about.
I put the magazine into my bag. “Thank you.”
“That’s okay,” Jenny said. “No big deal.”
The next morning, I was yawning as I walked through the town, meandering to James’s house almost on autopilot. The cold helped wake me up a little, at least—even though spring had officially come, Gritten seemed to hang on to its winters as hard as it did to its people.
But in the town the grass was growing again, at least, and while the sun was little more than a shimmery coin occluded by clouds right then, I could feel it gathering strength. There was birdsong for what felt like the first time in months. A cautious sound that seemed not to want to tempt fate, but there.
My heart sank as I arrived at James’s house.
It was normally Carl who got him ready for school and saw him off on a morning, but that day Eileen was outside on the doorstep. She was wearing a faded dressing gown, and she was wiping at the door with an old blue rag bunched up in her fist, a look of angry concentration on her face.
The gate hung on one old hinge. The wood scratched along the ground as I opened it. Eileen looked over at me sharply, and I kept my head down as I made my way up the path.
“Good morning, Mrs. Dawson.”
She resumed her activity, holding the door with one hand and pressing the cloth against it with the other, wiping with such ferocity that I half expected the flimsy wood to give. She shouted into the house.
“Get out here, boy. It’s schooltime.”
There was no immediate response. I stood there awkwardly for a few moments, watching her work. There was a bottle of disinfectant at her feet.
“Anything happen at yours last night?” she said.
The question threw me; I had no idea what she meant. After a second, perhaps taking my silence for some kind of guilt, she looked at me suspiciously.
out last night?”
“Don’t gape at me like that, boy. Were you out last night?”
She stared at me, evaluating me. After what felt like an eternity, she shook her head and then turned her attention back to the door.
“Someone was. One of you lot out playing silly fuckers.”
Before I could say anything else, James appeared in the doorway, edging past his mother carefully, as though the woman were electric and might give him a shock if they touched.
“See you later, Dad,” he called back into the house. “Love you.”
Carl’s voice came from somewhere far away inside the house. “Love you too.”
I waited until James and I had walked out of earshot.
“Everything all right?”
Which was obviously a lie, but I didn’t want to press the matter. When the bus arrived, he got on first. I always led the two of us up to the back—because that felt like the place you were
to sit at our age—but today James took us to a spare seat in the middle. When the doors shut and the bus started off, we sat there in silence for a time. But while I didn’t want to ask James outright what had happened, I was still curious about what Eileen had said.
Anything happen at yours last night?
“What was your mother doing?” I said.
“Cleaning the door.”
“Yeah, I saw that. What I mean is, why?”