This book is dedicated to my wife,
who has taught me the true meaning of horror.
As the car rumbled over the rough country road I got the sense the sky was closing in on us, like the nearer we got to the village the more the world shrank. Seagulls circled overhead and shrieked into the air. Jeremiah drove. I sat in the passenger seat and leafed through my notes, pausing from time to time to stare through the window as the pale greens of the Scottish countryside rolled by.
It looked like a peaceful area, but it was desolate. Weeds scratched through the grass and the ruins of decades old cobble-stoned walls lined the roads. The greenery grew up to the side of the road and then suddenly stopped at the tarmac, as though it were surprised at the sudden intrusion onto its spread. I reached for the radio dial.
“Don’t touch that,” said Jeremiah.
“It interrupts me thinking.”
They were the first words he’d said in over an hour, and without the radio on all I could hear was the hum of the engine and patters of rain of the windscreen. The wipers moved hypnotically back and forth, each swipe clearing my view of the murky countryside. I couldn’t stand silence. Not when I was with another person. I didn’t mind it when I was alone studying or writing an assignment, but even then I had the TV on low volume to get some background noise.
Enough was enough. Why had he agreed to the interview if he wasn’t going to talk to me? What was either of us getting out of the whole thing? Professor Higson had warned me about Jeremiah. How stubborn he could be. How he was rude just for the hell of it. I wasn’t going to pussy foot around him.
“Why do you do it?” I asked.
He glanced at me and then back at the road. He held onto the wheel as though he were a student driver and needed complete concentration. He was so wooden, like there was no life to him at all.
“My professor says you’re subconsciously seeking out your own death, but you’re too scared to take the matter in your own hands. He says you’re waiting for something else to do it for you.”
“Your professor needs a glass of water to help swallow the thesaurus.” he said.
I wondered why I’d agreed to come. Travelling all the way up to Scotland to investigate an urban legend that anyone with even a shred of logic would know was bullshit. Did he really believe in this stuff? His reputation was dirt, but no-one ever doubted his intellect. Maybe he was dangerous. Perhaps a twenty two year old woman shouldn’t travel with a man she hardly knew to score extra credit with her professor.
Jeremiah’s bulk threatened to spill over the edges of the driver seat, but his long leather coat was zipped, buckled, and it managed to reign in his body. His hair was an unwashed swirl of ginger that swept across his forehead. His face reminded me of my alcoholic uncle’s; slightly bloated and red all-over, but with an intelligence behind it. Except that I knew that Jeremiah didn’t drink.
I opened my mouth to try and start a conversation again, but I thought better of it. I sighed. Jeremiah reached forward and turned the dial of the radio. The car filled with the sounds of an upbeat pop song. He pressed a button and it was replaced by something classical.
“If you have to have music we’ll at least have something I like,” he said.
It was like I was just a nuisance to him. I had felt that way since I first wrote to him requesting the interview. I remembered his reply to me, on which he’d spent as little energy as possible.
That’s all I got. It was only when I dropped Professor Higson’s name that Jeremiah opened up to the idea. Said he wouldn’t do a normal sit-down interview, but he was investigating something up in a little Scottish village. If I really wanted to get the inside scoop I could join him. Otherwise, he didn’t give a crap. I remembered telling Professor Higson about it.
“Do you think it’s, you know, some kind of sex thing?”
Higson leant forward with his elbows on his desk. His tie was fastened so tight that it threatened to strangle him.
“Jeremiah Cosgrove is a lot of things, but he’s no pervert. He isn’t interested in your body Ella.”
“Then what is he after?”
“Me. Or what I can get him, anyway. He’s been hounding me for access to an experiment the university carried out in the eighties.”
“So what’s the big deal?”
Higson tapped his pen on the desk. His initials were carved into the tip. “I want to find something out from him, but he isn’t willing to trade. No quid pro quo. It has to be his way.”
I sensed a history between the two men, and it felt like I was stuck in the middle. Like they were old friends with a decade-long feud between them. Perhaps I should have picked something else for my dissertation.
“Maybe the real life study of the occult and urban legends is a stupid thing to write about,” I said.
“No Ella, you’re on the right track. Go with him, get a little life experience.”
“Life experience won’t get my dissertation finished.”
“Just remember what we’ve spoken about in class. These dark tales and fancies, they’re all bollocks. They’ve always got their roots in reality, some kind of logical explanation.”
I leaned forward, looked him in the eyes. “Let’s say I do. Will you recommend me for the master’s program?”
Higson sighed. He rubbed his forehead. “You know I can’t do that. You just don’t have the grades.”
“I need this, professor.”
“A master’s degree isn’t everything. There are lots of avenues you can take when you leave university.”
“It’s everything to me.”
I was getting worked up. We’d had this conversation before. He liked me and I knew I was his favourite pupil. So why wouldn’t he recommend me? I’d poured too many hours into this to hit a block in the road. I’d turned down party invites and rejected phone calls until one by one my friends stopped dialling my number. This was all I had.
The professor bit his bottom lip. Then he picked up the pen from his desk and stared at it for a while, deep in thought.
“Do one thing for me, and I’ll see what I can do about recommending you.”
“What is it?”
“Go on Jeremiah’s trip, his investigation, whatever he wants to call it. Find out one thing for me. Find out what happened in Bruges.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ask him about Bruges in ’99. Find out what really happened – no lies, no bullshit. Then I will recommend you.”
The car hit a pothole and jolted me out of thought. The village was ahead of us. It was a collection of ten or so houses that looked like they grew out of the fields. As though the stone and the grass were melding together, and someday the countryside would rise and devour the buildings. It seemed like the kind of place you’d go to die when your kids had grown up and left you.
“Are you going to tell me why we’re here now?” I asked.
“You wanted to learn what I do. Well here’s the first lesson. I listen.”
I couldn’t believe a person could be so socially inept. I bit back my anger.
“What exactly are we listening to?”
He turned the radio down.
I listened. All I could hear was the car engine turning over. Then my breath as it left my mouth. A faint rattle coming from one of the windows at the back of the car.
Jeremiah seemed occupied with something, like he heard something I couldn’t. His eyes were far away, not staring at the road but looking somewhere I couldn’t see. They were pointed at the village in front of us but they seemed to look beyond it at the same time.
The stone houses got closer and I realised how run down they were. They must have been built hundreds of years ago, and the centuries had taken their toll on the battered stonework. Something about the village and the way it jutted out of the fields made me uneasy. I missed Manchester and the hustle of the city and the knowledge that you were surrounded by thousands of other people. Out here I felt like we were the only people in the world.
We were staying in the only pub in the village. It was a run-down inn that served ale and cider to the locals. It was the kind of place where everyone knew each other’s names, their gossip, what kind of cereal they ate in the morning. The landlady was a stern old woman called Marsha. She motioned us into the pub without even a hello, just looked us up and down with a grimace.
“How many rooms?”
Did she think we were going to share? Jeremiah had twenty years on me at least. No offence, but an overweight grump wasn’t my type. I hated her attitude. Luckily Jeremiah was a match for it.
“Did you not hear me on the phone? Thought I was explicit. Two rooms.” He held up two fingers. Then he looked back at her. “This is what fingers look like when they’re not webbed.”
Marsha turned and walked through the pub and passed the bar.
In a different situation with different company the pub might have been quaint. Old wooden beams ran across the ceiling. A real log-burner fire filled the air with a smoky smell. I could picture taking a table in the corner and cosying up to someone. Having a warm stew and then drinking beer and playing scrabble. Pity I hadn’t met anyone I could do that with in a long time.
In this environment the place didn’t warm on me at all. Along with the smoky smell there was one of damp, like it had rained and the water had seeped inside and dried into the walls. The furniture was all mixed up like they’d collected it over the years, some chairs looked comfy, and others like they would break your back. Holes dotted the walls where a dartboard had been in place at some point.
Marsha stood in a doorway across from us with her hands on her hips. She reminded me of an old school teacher I once had, the kind who saw the kids as nothing but a hassle. Someone who saw teaching as a job to be groaned through rather than something to love.
“It’s this way.”
We followed her upstairs. I struggled getting my travel case up the steep wooden steps. Jeremiah didn’t help. At the top of the landing she pointed at two doorways.
“You decide which one belongs to who. I lock the doors at ten, so you better be back because I won’t get out of bed to let you in. Breakfast is at six.”
“Six?” I said, incredulous.
She had me a sharp look. Her eyes narrowed.
“We keep hardworking hours round here, lady.”
She turned and walked down the steps. When her feet touched the bottom Jeremiah turned to me.
“Landladies are usually a source of local information. This one’s a bitch. Don’t talk to her, don’t tell her about anything we see.”
“What are we likely to see?”
Jeremiah paused, as if wondering what to tell me. I badly wanted to know. He’d given me almost no information on what the trip entailed other than where we were going and how long we’d be. I knew it would be something unusual, but going by Jeremiah’s history, that could mean anything.
“Dump your things then come to my room.”
In my room there was a bed that looked slightly smaller than a double. Fine for me, but I imagined that Jeremiah would struggle with his. There was a small sink, a dresser and a window that looked onto the village. I turned the tap on the sink but nothing happened. I looked under the basin and found the pipe had been disconnected. I was in a hurry to hear what Jeremiah had to say so I didn’t unpack my stuff.
Jeremiah’s room was the same except that I saw him washing his hands in the sink.
“My sink doesn’t work,” I said.
“Ask for your money back,” he called over his shoulder. “Oh, wait. You’re not paying.”
“Hope this hell hole isn’t costing too much.”
“You’ve got your own bathroom haven’t you? So you don’t need the extra sink.”
“Stuff like that just bothers me,” I said.
“You need to learn which things are worth getting angry about in life and which aren’t.”
I didn’t want to seem fussy. That was exactly the sort of attitude that would lower me in Jeremiah’s estimation. Not that I actually cared about his opinion, but if he didn’t see me as an equal he would carry on treating me like a nuisance.
I pulled the chair from under his dresser. Jeremiah had found the time to unpack some of his things, and on the dresser I saw a collection of books. An Encyclopaedia of the Occult. Darsley’s Dreams and Fantasies of the Fantastic and the Uncanny. A Modern Guide to the Other. Just some light reading, then. The books were well–worn and each had index cards of various colours jutting from the pages.
Jeremiah turned from the dresser. He unfastened the buckles in his coat and took it off. Seeing there was no coat stand, he threw the coat onto the bed. I was surprised. He looked a lot slimmer without the coat. Still overweight, but more like an older guy that had let himself go a bit. I could imagine him being slim in his younger days. What happened to him? Probably the same thing that happened to every guy as they got older. He’d gone to pasture.
Jeremiah sat on the end of the bed and faced me. For the first time I felt like he was actually paying some attention to me, rather than speaking from the corner of his mouth. He looked into my eyes and I stared right back, not wanting to seem nervous.
“What are your beliefs?” He said.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m an atheist.”
“It’s a crock.”
“Do you look behind you when you walk through your house alone?”
Suddenly I was the one being interviewed. I felt like he was writing a paper about me, not the other way round. But his would just be stored in his head, like he was building a fact file on me. I got the impression there was a lot in Jeremiah’s head. Like when he told me to listen in the car. He was taking in his surroundings, feeding on something I couldn’t quite see or hear.
“I live in dorms,” I said.
Jeremiah shifted his weight on the bed.
“When you were little, did you sleep with the light on?”
I thought back. From six through to twelve years old the light stayed on every night. One of my foster dads and I had an understanding that he’d look in on me, and only after he knew I was asleep would he turn off the light. I also had a lamp next to the bed with the switch within easy reach, just in case I woke up during the night.
“No,” I said.
“I don’t believe you.”
My face bristled. “Believe what you want.”
Jeremiah stood up and walked toward me. He reached behind me and picked up a book from the dresser, then sat back down on the bed. The old frame sagged under him with a creak. I wondered how much weight it had supported over the years, how many people had slept in this room. He opened the book and flipped through the pages. He settled on the one he wanted and read.
“A child needs light because they fear what they will find in the dark. But it is not always the dark that scares them; sometimes it is the idea that when they turn off the light, there will be nothing. In the darkness their world is devoured.”
“Spooky. What’s the relevance?”
He put the book down next to him. There was a serious look to his eyes. Not that he’d ever seemed light hearted. “Do you know what I do, what I am?”
“You study the occult.”
He shook his head. “Your professor studies the occult. I live it. I meet people Ella, I see things. Things that can’t be dismissed in the pages of the book. But nor can they be believed by the eyes that see them.”
Was this a riddle? I realised that getting anything from him was going to be tough. The man didn’t open up or speak clearly. He seemed to want to mystify me, but at the same time I knew there was something underneath. Some truth. But how would I get there? How would I follow Professor Higson’s request and find out what happened in Bruges? If this was some big secret, how would I get the truth from a man who gave nothing away?
Jeremiah carried on. “Six months ago I got a letter. That’s nothing new, I get dozens a month. All of them ask me to go here and there to investigate some mystery. If I followed them all I’d be running round like a blue-arsed fly. And most are just shite.”
“And this one?”
“This one’s real.”
He picked up the book and turned to the back. He pulled out a letter from between the pages. It was lined paper torn from a notebook. I couldn’t see the words but the handwriting was unkempt, like that of a child’s but with a slight maturity that came from a man’s hand.
Outside the sky was starting to turn. The clouds hung low, and there was a dark grey mix in the air as though the sky were trying to hold onto the light. It was a battle it was losing, and one it would fight and be defeated on every night in a cycle that would last long past my life and the life of any children I had. A sliver of silver moon cut a pale shape.
Jeremiah started to read.
“I know you’re not the sort of man to mince words, so I won’t mince them meself. From what I read you’re a travelled man, and you’re learned, but you’re grounded to boot. I never got the idea that you were anything more or less than exactly what I saw. That’s why I like reading about you.
Well I got something for you. Have you ever been to Scotland? You’d like it, I think. Don’t go to Glasgow. Edinburgh’s alright, if you want to do the tourist thing. I’ve got a much better place for you. You could come to my village. I think you’d find it interesting. I’ll tell you the tale of why, but you’ll have to forgive me setting it on paper like this because I know it will seem hard for you to read. I’ve found that you can’t control your emotion on paper the same as you would with a face. Don’t you agree?
There was this lass. Seven years old, black hair, good mum and dad. A nice little village girl. She’d grow up to be a bonnie-un. But there was something sour about her. You got a sense that something was off, like she were empty. Other folks apparently thought the same, but I’m not here to give their opinion.
You might be reading this knowing exactly who im talking about. Or you might not have a clue. It didn’t make many newsrags, for some reason.
But a seven year old girl killing herself is pretty news worthy if you ask me.
I know I know, you didn’t ask me.
Her folks haven’t said much about the whole thing. Can’t blame them. Meself, I didn’t dare talk to them. I wanted to. I wanted to tell them how sorry I was, and that things would get better, and that for what it was worth I didn’t think their girl was bad for doing what she did. Suicide is a sin is some folk’s eyes but I say the sin lies with the people around them, the ones who should be watching for those little signs that’s everything not alright.
I’m getting worked up now, and I didn’t mean to do that here. Because I know you’re a rational man and you wouldn’t come if you thought I was being emotional. But we need you to come, Jeremiah.
The girl would be seventeen now. Since then my body’s sagged a bit. I’ve been engaged and then found myself single. I’ve had a dog that I got as a puppy and then buried him when he was seven years old. The village is a little bit darker, the buildings older. Lots of folk have forgotten about her. They’re the lucky ones.
Some said that she killed ‘erself because she hated the world and everything in it, and she wanted to wipe every trace of herself from existence. Pretty deep thinkin’ for a seven year old eh? There was something going on behind those young eyes. Something very old and very sick. Something there that shouldn’t have been.
Years on, those of us who still remember her are the ones in trouble. Because she comes for you. People have died, Jeremiah. Anyone who’s acknowledged her existence in the light of day or dead of night, has died. They say she comes at night. She knocks on your bedroom door.
Knock, knock, knock.
She’ll carry on all night until you answer. She’ll never leave save for day break, and then at night she’s back. Knocking on your door. The knocks getting louder and louder until you answer or tell her to come in. Once she’s in your room she stares at you. You can try and look away all you want but you’ll feel that glare on your face, daring your eyes to meet hers. And once you give in and look at her, well you’ve acknowledged her again. She knows that you can see her, that you know she’s there.
So they say anyway. I thought you might be interested.
As you can probably imagine I’m not telling you my name because if you do come here, you’ll be wanting to ask me questions. And there’s no way I could answer them because I’d have to tell you about her, and she’d know that I knew she existed. I figure I’m safe in writing this down because she was seven when she died and she probably couldn’t even read too good. But then, they say there’s something terrible living behind her eyes. And maybe that thing, whatever it is, can read.
I’m so desperate I can’t sit back. I have to send this.
Maybe by the time you come here I will have left the village. Gone to live in Edinburgh, or even Glasgow. Anywhere but here.
He folded the letter and put it back between the pages of the book.
“So what do you think about that?” he said.
I knew this was a test. In fact, it felt like everything was a test with him, as though he were always watching me and scoring me. Maybe he was looking for an apprentice – someone to travel round the world with researching creepy urban legends. Maybe I should just give up on the masters, forget about the stress of the assignments, having to live on a shoestring budget, never having time for anything but study. That actually sounded like a good idea.
But what did I think about the letter? Without being patronising, it was clearly written by someone uneducated. Someone with an active imagination. I tried to think back through Professor Higson’s course, because I was sure we’d studied something like this. And then it clicked.
I cleared my throat. “The girl is a representation of guilt. The letter was probably written by a man who lost a child – not this one because he’s gone to great lengths to disassociate himself with the girl he talks about – and he’s never really found a way of coping. Either that or he is looking for attention. I don’t imagine a life amounts up to much here. It will just be work, sleep, pub. You’ve got to get your kicks from somewhere.”
“Ever considered the chance that it’s true?” said Jeremiah.
I let the thought turn in my head for a second and then scrapped it.
“So what would you do next?”
I pulled my cardigan closer to me. The air was biting even indoors, and I doubted the stone walls would be much good against the cold during the night. In fact it looked as though they might store the cold and hold onto to it, and then seep it out during the day to make sure there was never a second where you felt warm.
I tried to think about what the next step would be. I put myself into Jeremiah’s shoes, and I knew that he was looking for this sort of stuff to be true. He was chasing the occult, the other, and his next action would be to build up the evidence. But where to begin?
The writer of the letter had chosen to remain anonymous, so that was a dead end. Maybe they could ask Marsha? No, best to leave that old hag out of it. She looked too nosy for her own good, and the last thing they needed was their business spilt all over the village. That didn’t leave many options other than the village’s births and deaths register.
“If we’re going to try to find out if this is true, we need to know if a girl actually died here recently. No girl, no ghost.” I said.
Jeremiah, rushed to his feet, his calf muscles propelling up his frame faster than I thought possible. A look spread across his face, as though his brain synapses were live electric wires and what I said had jolted them. Like a buzz spread through his skull, across his forehead and through his cheeks. He held up a finger.
“Rule one, Ella. We never try to prove something is true. What do you get if you are trying to prove something to be true?”
I looked up at the ceiling. I had the term on the tip of my tongue. My brain wasn’t working well today. Maybe I was coming down with a cold.
“I guess you’d try to make facts fit what you were looking for.”
“Confirmation bias.” he said.
He walked over to the window and looked out. I couldn’t see the view with him stood in the way. He turned back around and faced me.
“Always try to prove something to be false. That’s our game. Look for the doubt. Find the bullshit.” he said.
“But won’t that also be confirmation bias? Confirmation that something isn’t true?”
“True, but this is the good kind. Because I’m looking for something to be real. I want a fucking real life mystery that shows there’s something else to this world, Ella. And before I do that, I want to know I’ve put it through the wringer. That I’ve looked through it so carefully that there’s no room for doubt.”
I needed a pen and paper. I wanted to make some notes, because my assignment had suddenly come to mind. Finding out Jeremiah’s motivation for what he did was going to be one of my focal points, and he had just handed part of it to me on a plate. “I want a real life mystery that shows there’s something else to this world.” There you had it; that’s why he travelled the world on a whim.
There was more to it, I sensed. Wanting a sense of the other, that was a common idea. That was why UFO sightings, the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot all picked up so much attention. As science gets better at explaining why the world behaves the way it does, right down to the atoms bouncing against each other in a blade of grass, people crave mystery.
We don’t want to know exactly why things happen. So we invent things that can’t be explained, can’t be proven. Nobody can ever prove that UFOs don’t exist. They can disprove an individual sighting, sure, but you could never disprove all of them. The mystery of them excites people. It gives them the hope that there might be something else in the world other than the grim reality that we all muddle through.
So what about Jeremiah? Was it escapism for him? I looked at him as he perched against the window frame. He wore black jeans that were tucked into heavy Doc Martin books. He wore a thick jumper, a shirt collar poking out of the top. Practical clothes for the cold Scottish countryside. I saw a man who was dedicated to his calling to the exclusion of everything else. His whole life was probably an act of escapism, and it must have been from something in his past.
Was it this Bruges incident that the professor was so obsessed with finding out about?
Jeremiah walked to bed and sat down again. “So I’ll ask again. What do you think we should do next?”
Oh good, I was getting chance to repeat my exam.
“If we’re going to prove that everything in the letter is false, we should start with the facts. And the biggest one for me is the little girl. Let’s prove that no little girl died in the village recently. That should put the whole thing to bed.”
I realised that I was talking about the death of a little girl brazenly, as though this were an academic exercise. What if we checked this and there really was a little girl who died? A sad little girl who killed herself, as the letter said? This becoming a little too real for me. I was used to the abstract comfort of textbooks.
Jeremiah nodded his head. “A good a place to start as any. That’s what we’ll do, tomorrow then. Tonight we get some sleep.”
I nodded, thankful that we were done for the night. My arms and legs felt heavy, and I felt the faint tap of a headache behind my eyes. I sat for a few seconds more. Jeremiah looked at me expectantly and I realised I was in his room.
I stood up and walked to the doorway.
“Tomorrow we solve the case of the non-existent ghost girl.” I said.
“Lock your door tonight” he said.
My phone alarm woke me up the next morning. I looked at the time and it read 5:55, and I looked at the signal bars and there was nothing there. An alarm clock was the only thing my phone was useful for all the way out here; the mobile companies hadn’t thought it profitable to extend their signal coverage to reach a village of fifty-something people.
I stood up and dressed for breakfast. I felt shivery even when I was fully dressed, and the headache still tapped away at me. The back of my throat felt raw. Great, I thought.
Jeremiah was in a sullen mood over breakfast. He was reading a book when I walked downstairs into the main pub lounge. He didn’t put the book down, and if he saw me he gave no indication. I sat across from him at the table.
“Morning.” I said.
He closed the book. “Yep.”
Outside the window, the village was in twilight. Situated in a valley of steep Scottish hills, I didn’t imagine it saw much light even in the summer. It seemed like a place that was comfortable in the darkness, and that the people living there had grown used to it.
Jeremiah wore a claret woolly jumper, and the same jeans as the day before. His trusty long coat covered the ensemble. His beard seemed to be longer than yesterday, but maybe I was imagining that. They didn’t grow so quickly, surely? It was a good beard, I decided. One that matched his face well, because I got the impression that under it he had something of a weak chin and saggy cheeks. The beard covered up for that and gave him a grizzled look.
I decided that I’d try to interview him over breakfast, because we were going to be busy today and it was evident he wouldn’t answer my questions while we worked.
“I thought this would be a good time to get some of my questions done. You know, so we have the rest of the day to look into the girl.”
“No chance. I don’t want to be interviewed over breakfast. Besides, you don’t really know what I’m about.”
“Isn’t that the point of the interview?”
“Some things you can’t get through asking questions.”
A door opened behind me. Marsha walked out of the pub kitchen carrying two plates. Stream rose off the top of them. She put a plate in front of me. There was sausage, bacon, beans, mushrooms, eggs. My stomach turned.
“I didn’t ask for this,” I said.
A look of annoyance crossed Marsha’s face. Like it was too much trouble for her. As though she didn’t want them as guests, and even the money they were paying wasn’t compensation enough for their presence.
“He ordered for you,” she said.
Jeremiah shrugged his shoulders. “What’s the problem?”
“I don’t eat meat. And I can’t eat this,” I said.
Marsha stared at me, her eyes not comprehending the idea of a human being who didn’t eat meat. I pushed the plate away.
“I don’t want to be a nuisance, but I can’t have this.”
Marsha’s eyes snapped back. The confusion gone, the annoyance returning.
“Just have the beans and the egg. Eat around the meat.”
“I can’t. The meat has touched everything.”
I knew I was being picky, that was the worst thing. I could see why it would annoy Marsha. Hell, I got annoyed when I was in restaurants and I saw someone being really choosy about their food. But I just couldn’t eat meat. The idea of it turned my stomach to mush.
Marsha picked up the plate and walked back to the kitchen.
“Vegetarian, eh? Didn’t have you down as one of those. You know, those pigs would be slaughtered whether they were on your plate or not. They were destined for someone’s belly, and that’s that.”
Jeremiah sawed at a piece of sausage with his knife. He dipped it in the egg yolk and then lifted it to his mouth. I caught sight of the white sausage gristle and felt my face turn green.
“It’s not that,” I said. “The slaughter doesn’t bother me, because like you say, it will happen. Meat just knocks me sick.”
“Humans are carnivorous by nature. It’s strange that you should be born the opposite. There’s a story behind this.”
I nodded. “It was something that happened in one of my foster homes. But I don’t want to talk about it.”
Jeremiah put his knife and for on the table. “Come on. Just when you were getting interesting you clam up.”
I sensed an opportunity.
“One good turn for another,” I said.
I had him, I knew it. He wanted to know my story, and I wouldn’t tell him until he gave me some of the information I wanted. I had seen a chink in the armour and I’d shot an arrow right through it.
Jeremiah seemed to be turning the idea over in his head. Should he answer my questions? Or should he choose to remain an annoying enigma? He picked up his knife and fork again. He stabbed a piece of bacon and lifted it to his lips.
“No,” he said, before swallowing the bacon.
After breakfast I went back to my room and showered. I put on my coat, headed downstairs and followed Jeremiah out of the pub. I had chosen my thick coat with the fur-lined hood but I still wasn’t prepared for the gust of wind that hit me as soon as I stepped outside. The sky was starting to lighten now. It looked like a cup of black coffee with milk being dripped into the middle.
Jeremiah started to walk. He was quicker than I expected for someone who carried a bit of weight, and his strides were much bigger than mine.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Where do you think?”
I looked at the village in front of me. It was laid out haphazardly, with the buildings dotted in a strange formation. It was as though people just built wherever they felt like. Sometimes the buildings were put next to each other and you’d get four or five in a row, but often they were all isolated from each other. I got the sense that the villagers kept themselves to themselves.
A cobbled stone pathway ran through the village and it also served as the only road, not that many cars drove down it. It ran in twists and turns from building to building, the only thing I could see that connected the whole place together. Through its mazy run there was the pub, a general store and chemist, some houses, a post office, more houses, the town hall, a church and a graveyard. Given that we wanted to find out about a fairly recent death, or whether there was one, the town hall seemed a good choice. There would be a census or some sort of record kept there.
“We could check out the town hall.” I said.
Jeremiah followed my gaze and saw the two story building a few hundred metres away. Then his eyes moved passed it.
“It’s too early for that. No-one will be in. First we’ll go to the graveyard.”
“You think they ever bury someone here without giving them a plot in the graveyard?”
I thought about it. Probably not.
“They could cremate?” I suggested.
“Do you see anything equipped for cremation? They bury their dead here,” said Jeremiah.
The graveyard was next to the church. It was a plot of land a few acres long, and it stretched outside the boundaries of the village. There were rows upon rows of headstones, which seemed like too many for a village of this size. There could be fifty odd people here, tops, at any one time. Yet there were hundreds of graves.
“You take the east side and work your way in, I’ll take the west. We’ll meet in the middle.”
I looked at the rows of headstones as they sat in the grim morning light. The east side seemed much darker than the west.
“We’re splitting up?”
Jeremiah nodded. “Look for a girl buried here. Check the birth and death dates for a seven year old, or someone around that age. There will probably be some sort of poem carved into the head stone too. You find that with anything this tragic.”
Jeremiah walked away from me and toward the west side of the plot, scanning the graves as he went. I pulled my hood down from over my head and let it rest on my shoulders. The wind bit my ears and made them raw, and I felt my nose getting bunged up. But having the hood up drowned the outside world and blunted my hearing, and I felt like I needed all my senses intact in this place.
I walked from grave to grave. At first the ages and descriptions made me sad. Loving father, husband, wife, mother. Died aged 50, 48, 39, 20. After walking passed a few hundred, I developed a mental callous for it. They became just words and numbers, and I was looking for two; ‘daughter’ and seven.
It seemed strange that a little girl could be buried here, surrounded by the bodies of people much older than her. People who had been given a shot at life, had been given a chance at living some sort of existence before they ended up in the ground. But the little girl didn’t even have a decade to her name. No chance to develop her own thoughts about things, her own ideas, carve out some sort of life for herself.
I got the stupid idea that maybe the girl would wake up in her coffin six feet under and wonder where the hell she was. Or that maybe dying aged you beyond normal comprehension, and that in death this girl took on wisdom beyond her years. That she knew something I didn’t.
There was a faint burning smell as though someone had lit a fire. I glanced back at the church and saw who must have been the caretaker burning a pile of twigs. As I smelt the smoke from the fire I realised I would have loved to have the heat from it too.
I walked through my section of the graveyard but I didn’t see anything. I doubted Jeremiah had either, because surely he would have shouted me over. He walked slower than me, taking time to read every gravestone thoroughly as though it was a respect he owed the dead.
I looked across to the church. The fire still burnt, but I was too far away to feel it. I could do with some of that heat, I thought.
The caretaker looked up as I approached. He was evidently not used to seeing people at this time in the morning, because he had a look of shock on his face.
“Morning, didn’t mean to scare you,” I said.
He wore blue overalls and muddy wellington boots. These were not just flecked, they were absolutely caked, as though the onslaught of mud on them was inevitable and he had long ago given up washing them. His face was red from the fire, or possibly through embarrassment, and his cheeks stretched gauntly up to his ears. He didn’t look like a guy who did well in social interactions, which was maybe why he was burning twigs behind a church at this time in the morning. He took a glove off and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.
“Didn’t scare me, lovey,” he said.
“I was wondering if I could ask you something.”
“Not from round ‘ere, are you?” he said. He bent to his side and picked up a pile of twigs. He saw my eyes follow him, and he gestured toward me with twigs. “Want a go?”
I shook my head.
He threw the wood on the fire. The heat felt good on my face, comforting somehow. I remembered being at a bonfire with a foster dad, one of the good ones. We stood thirty metres back and watched the giant pile of furniture and tree branches as they were enveloped in fire. It grew until the flames reached up into the sky. A wretched Guy Fawkes doll drowned in fire, the orange spikes of heat going down his throat. Foster dad and I stood well back, and we knew the fire couldn’t reach us. I enjoyed the warm tickles on my face and felt the glow spread across my cheeks.
“I’m from Manchester,” I said.
“Manchester?” The way he pronounced it made it seem like a foreign city, somewhere in Eastern Europe.
“What’s your name?”
“Alec,” he said.
“Can I ask you something, Alec?”
He picked up another pile and threw it into the fire. His stock was diminishing, and soon the fire would run out of fuel.
“Aye, go on then.”
I mentally rehearsed what to say, so as not to come off insensitive about such a touchy subject.
“Have there been many new plots here over the last few years?” I asked.
“Graves, I mean.”
“No, lass, not many. And I’d know. ‘Cos I’d be the one to dig them.”
I could tell from the tightness of his shirt that his arms were used to a lot of physical labour, so I had no doubt that it would be him.
“Have there been any at all?”
He reached into a big pocket in the middle of his overalls and pulled out a pouch of rolling tobacco. It looked nearly empty.
“You could use a new pouch” I said, hoping to find a bribe point.
“Got plenty at home.”
He wasn’t giving much up. I didn’t know if it was through social ineptness, or because he just didn’t want to tell me anything. Maybe it was because I was an outsider, someone not from the village. Someone from a big place called Manchester that he’d probably never been to but he’d heard about. And was suspicious about.
I decided to get straight to the point with him.
“Have any little girls in the village died over the last ten years?”
He looked shocked.
”No lass,” he said.
It was completely light outside now, but it wasn’t what you’d call a nice day. The sky was a milky colour, completely covered in clouds that seemed to hang so low that they touched the peaks of the hills that enclosed the village. There was a little bit of life in the streets now; a milkman drove a small milk float door to door, two women stood chatting outside the post office, no doubt waiting for it to open. A man walked down the cobbled streets with a florescent satchel on his back. At first I thought he was the postman, but I realised that he was posting newspapers through letterboxes rather than mail, so he was an adult paperboy. A connection fired in my brain.
“You don’t see many kids round here,” I said.
Jeremiah walked with the collar of his coat pulled up passed his mouth, so I couldn’t see his lips move when he spoke.
“A place like this, no kid will stay around for long. They probably hit eighteen and leave for the city. Glasgow’s only a two hour drive.”
I’d been to Glasgow once to visit a friend who used to be in my class. Not my favourite city by any means, but at least it had the amenities of modern life; internet, supermarkets, bars, cinemas. Here you got none of that, it was like living thirty years in the past. Strange that a city could be only a two hour drive away but seem like it was a lifetime.
“But there are no kids under eighteen either.”
“Schools in.” said Jeremiah. He pointed over to a building on the east side of town. Black railings stood on top of a small wall that stretched around the perimeter. I could see an adult stood at the gate saying hello to a group of children as they trudged into the school.
“Take it you didn’t find it,” I said.
“Nothing on my side.”
You’re dying to know, I thought. He had surely seen me talking to Alec the caretaker, and he was desperate to know what he said. But he didn’t want to ask me. He didn’t want it to seem like I was actually of some use to him here rather than some annoying girl who was pestering him for a story.
“So what next?” I asked.
“Town hall’s open. We’ll go check the census.”
It was only a short walk to the town hall, but it was made longer by the difficulty I had in keeping what the caretaker had said from Jeremiah. I knew he wanted to know, but he was putting on such an air of indifference that I almost doubted it. And now I found myself wanting to tell him, wanting him to ask. I realised it was because I wanted to prove myself to him, to this fifty year old lonely man who didn’t care enough about himself to stay in shape. I realised I had a respect for him.
“Don’t you want to know what the caretaker said to me?”
“Well he said that they haven’t had any deaths like the kind we’re looking for.”
Jeremiah didn’t show anything on his face but his eyes seemed to stare passed the town hall and over the hills, to wherever he did his thinking. I stupidly felt a small pleasure in giving him information that made him think.
The town hall resembled more of a school assembly than an official office. There were a couple of cramped offices hidden away through doors at the side, but the main part of the building was a large space with wooden tread boards and cheap plastic chairs arranged in rows. These pointed at a stage, on top of which was a piano. I guessed that the town hall doubled as a place for official business and one that was hired out for village plays and social club meetings.
The official that met us was called Murray. He didn’t offer a hand shake. Instead he talked to us as he guided us through to his office. His eyes were intense and they darted everywhere, and his body seemed to pull in all different directions, as though he needed to be in a hundred places at once. He wore green felt pants, and a white shirt with the sleeves folded up to his elbows. His short hair and moustache were ginger, though not quite the deep red of Jeremiah’s.
Inside his office he offered Jeremiah a seat. There was only one, so I stood. There was no point waiting for Jeremiah to offer me his.
“I’d offer you a cup of tea but I haven’t even had chance to pick up the milk.”
“You should have said, we could have brought it in for you,” I said.
Jeremiah shot me a look that said I’d just be a listener in this meeting.
“I’ll keep it short,” said Jeremiah. “We want to check the births and deaths register.”
Murray’s eyebrows tightened.
“Something wrong?” he said.
“It’s for research. I’m a professor in Manchester, and Ella here is one of my students.”
Murray cleared a tiny portion of the corner of his desk and sat on it.
“Are professors in the habit of going on trips to Scotland with their students?” He said.
Jeremiah ignored the remark. “The census is public record, and I want to see it.” There was a tone of authority to his voice, a sense that he’d get what he wanted.
Murray sighed. He rolled up his left sleeve an inch further above his elbow, revealing part of a skinny pale bicep. He rubbed his index finger back and forth across his moustache. Ginger hair curled over his top lip.
“I guess I can dig it out” he said.
We waited in Murray’s office while he fetched the file. I took his place at the corner of his desk and drummed my fingers up and down the wood. Jeremiah sat with his legs crossed and his right cheek propped up on his elbow.
“What an arse” I said.
Jeremiah looked at me but didn’t say anything or change position.
“He really couldn’t be arsed helping us, and he didn’t even bother to hide it. Hate people like that. Tosser.”
Jeremiah straightened up.
“That’s something you’ll have to get used to, because it doesn’t change. Go anywhere in the world and you’ll find people who don’t like their jobs, don’t feel they should have to help you. The trick is to know what you want and believe that you’re entitled to it.”
Murray walked into the room, gave us the file and then left. He had a hundred errands to run, and he was happy for us to look at the census and then just leave it on his desk before we left.
“You can do the monkey work,” said Jeremiah.
He got out of the seat and then gestured toward it. Part of him must have been enjoying having an assistant. An underling there to do the jobs he didn’t want to. I sat down. The chair was hard on my bum. If Murray ever spent any time in it, I’m sure he’d have replaced it by now.
I sat with the book in front of me.
“What am I looking for?”
“Try deaths first,” said Jeremiah.
He paced back and forth behind me.
I opened the second half of the census, which was a record of all the reported deaths in the village. The first page began in 1946. Presumably the one for the years before that had been filled. We were looking from the late nineties to present, to make sure we took in the biggest catchment area possible. I flicked to ninety nine without waiting for Jeremiah to tell me.
“What information does it give?”
“Name, address, age, cause of death.”
“Okay, look for anyone under ten and read them all out to me.”
Ignoring his ordering tone, I flicked through the pages and scanned the age column. The handwriting of the census stayed the same apart from rare patches where a record was written in a different hand. Murray had probably recorded them, and the different hand was from when he took a holiday. I imagined Murray as the kind of guy who had taken the town hall job when he was sixteen and would stay in it all his life.
I went as quickly as I could, looking for the death of someone under ten years old. Unsurprisingly, they were rare, and after twenty pages my concentration started to lag. Then I saw something.
“Got one!” I said. The enthusiasm of my voice broke the stillness of the office, and when I realised that I was talking about the death of a young child I lowered my tone.
“What is it?” said Jeremiah.
I looked at the name. “Thomas Wells, aged seven. Cause of death unknown.”
“Not our kid. Carry on.”
We were looking for a girl, I knew. She should have been seven years old, but I looked a year either side. The cause of death had to be suicide. My stomach lurched when I thought about it. It was something I didn’t think I would ever get my head round, the idea that a child was capable of committing suicide.
How was it even possible? How would they know death was even an option? At that age, you’re not supposed to even know death exists. What could possibly be so terrible for a kid that she would prefer to bleed into the nothingness of death than face living for her sixth birthday? I felt sick.
“Ella, are you still with us?”
I shook myself out of my thoughts. I flicked through the book and watched the names and ages of the dead whizz by. It was like I was leafing through a clothing catalogue. I wanted to slow down and give each person the respect they deserved, but at the same time I wanted to get this horrible book away from me. I reached the year two thousand and stopped. This wasn’t right. I flicked forward a page and then back again to make sure my eyes weren’t messing with me.
“What’s up?” said Jeremiah, moving in for a closer look.
I held the book out to him. It skipped from February 18th to February 20th, and there was a jagged line from where the 19th had been torn out. I held the book up and shook it to see if any loose papers would fall out, but none came.
“Some sneaky git has been at this,” said Jeremiah.
I put the book down and stood up. The room felt cold, as if a sudden draught had started to kick around. There was a chalky smell in the air like an old school classroom, and it felt like the walls had moved forward an inch and pressed us in. There was no wonder Murray didn’t spend much time in here.
“Should we ask Murray?” I said.
Jeremiah shook his head. “Wouldn’t surprise me if it was him.”
“What do you mean?”
“This was torn out on purpose, Ella.”
The door opened. Murray walked in, red-faced as though he’d been on a run. His shirt sleeves were folded even further up his arm so that his little muscles peeked out. He glanced over at the deaths register, and a flicker of disgust registered on his face. In less than a second it was gone.
“Find what you were looking for?” he said.
“Do you ever let people take pages of the book home with them?” said Jeremiah.
Murray looked incredulous. “Why would I ever do that?”
Jeremiah turned to the table. He picked up the book and shoved it toward Murray. “Either the 19thof February didn’t happen, or someone’s been taking cuttings from your register.”
Murray flicked back and forward through the book, his eyebrows screwed up in a way that had to be exaggerated. Murray was a bad actor. If there was a local drama society and he was a member, there was not a chance in hell I’d go and see their plays.
“What are you hiding?” I said.
Murray glanced at me without turning his head, making it look like he sneered at me.
“It’s a simple mistake, nothing more.”
“This was torn out, Murray,” Said Jeremiah.
“What are you hiding?” I said again.
“Probably a relative who wanted the record for their family.” The words strained out of his mouth, as though he’d just thought of them and didn’t believe in them.
“Cut the shit,” said Jeremiah. “This was torn out on purpose for a good reason. I think you know who did it and why. How about you tell me before I report you? This is a public record and I’m sure your bosses would like to know that you let it be used as a scrap book.”
He looked up. The colour drained from his cheeks like oil leaking out of a barrel. The whites of his eyes seemed to spread out and threaten to wash over his pupils. His fingers curled tight around the edge of the book.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” he said.
“Then tell us,” I said.
He stared at me. There was something behind his eyes that made them wide and hollow. Something that sucked the blood out of his cheeks and left them white as chalk. Seeing him look like this sent icy fingertips tapping down my spine. Suddenly I didn’t want to know what had happened with the book. I felt like it was information I shouldn’t listen to, like I should put my fingers in my ears and run.
Murray slammed the book shut and dropped it to the floor. The thud echoed across the room and drifted out into the hall. A spray of dust kicked up from the carpet and then drifted back down to the ground. Murray put his hands on his hips. His cheeks started to flood red again.
“Thank you for bringing the problem to my attention,” he said.
Jeremiah breathed in and straightened his back. Standing with good posture he was six foot four inches tall and towered over most men. His large frame seemed to fill half of the room. If this intimidated Murray, he didn’t show it.
“As a matter of public record,” said Jeremiah, “I’ve got a right to know what happened to that page.”
The blood pumped back into Murray’s face at a rate that made him look like a swelling balloon. His shoulders shook, and it was only through great effort he kept his arms at his sides.
“As a matter of public record,” he said,” I suggest you get the fuck out of my office. Our doors are shut to strangers who go where they’re not wanted.”
The hearth of the pub hissed like a snake and spat fiery venom across the room. Usually a roaring fire would be pleasant, but this one looked angry. The flames burned with an intensity I had never seen before, as if they smouldered with a silent fury. Marsha had to throw extra logs on every twenty minutes as the flames ate through them. She stopped every so often to tell an impatient bar customer to ‘piss off’.
We sat just ten feet away from the fire. It was so hot that Jeremiah had taken off his coat and rolled his jumper sleeves up to his elbows. As much as I could see that the room was warm, I couldn’t feel it. I wore a thermal t-shirt, a jumper, a coat and a scarf but the cold still managed to sneak its way through and smother my skin. I turned my chair to face the fire so that the flames spat toward me, but it was like someone rubbed me with ice. Not just the outside of my skin, either. It was like my insides were freezing.
Outside the pub the darkness peered in through the window, so heavy that it was like a presence watching us. There was something about the village that raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I always got the feeling that someone was watching me. It didn’t matter if we were at the graveyard, the town hall, the pub or even my own room, it always seemed like an unseen pair of eyes stared from the shadows.
I crossed my arms and rubbed my hand up and down my sides to shock some warmth into my body, but the friction didn’t do a thing.
“You look like shit,” said Jeremiah.
Every other man in the pub had a pint of larger, bitter or cider. Jeremiah had a ginger beer. People spoke in murmurs around us, as if they guarded their words so that they didn’t leave the confines of their tables. Every so often I was sure a man or woman shot a glance at me. A dog sat under a table to our right. Its fur was black like crow feathers, but it had fallen out in places. It lifted a weak paw and scratched its ear, then lowered its chin to the ground.
“Thanks,” I told Jeremiah. “You’re a charmer.”
“Seriously, Ella. You should get some kip. I can’t be dragging your arse around all day tomorrow. I don’t want you getting in my way.”
My head banged with the throb of a tribal drum. My skin felt sensitive and shivery, as if someone with an icy hand was touching me. I wanted to shake the hand off, but no matter how many layers I put on it stayed there. My throat burned like I had swallowed nettles and my nose gushed.
I stood up and pushed my chair out.
“I’ll be a minute,” I said, and walked toward the loos.
When I came back I had stemmed the flow of snot from my nose, but my throat still felt like I had drank acid. Jeremiah looked at me, raised his glass and tipped the ginger beer into his mouth.
“I ordered for you,” he said.
“You couldn’t have waited?”
“Marsha asked. And I was hungry.”
A shiver ran through me. I pulled my coat closer. Every inch of me wanted to crawl upstairs and flop into bed. I couldn’t do that, though. There would be time for rest at some point but for now I had work to do. This was a rare moment where we weren’t visiting graves or looked through death registers, and I had an assignment to finish. I thought I would try a different tactic.
“Bruges is lovely this time of year,” I said.
Jeremiah put his glass down on the table with enough force to be on the wrong side of slamming it.
“Professor Higson loves playing with his puppets, doesn’t he?”
“I’m here because I want to be.”
“You’re here because he’s tugging at your strings. And you’re not the first.”
I felt my forehead screw up and a steam of anger rose in my chest. It was true that Higson had helped persuade me to come on the investigation, but in the end I made the choice myself. There was no way I would let myself be manipulated.
“Believe what you want,” I said. “I’m here because I thought this would be interesting. Turns out you’re as full of shit as the fields around this dump.”
Jeremiah leaned forward and grimaced. “Did you ever hear about a student at your university called Billy Wilkins?”
I thought about it but I couldn’t place the name. “Nope.”
“You won’t have. Because he dropped out from his course and checked into a mental health facility.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because your friend Professor Higson convinced me to take Billy out with me to an investigation years ago. Billy wasn’t ready for the things we saw there.”
Ice spread across my back and slid across my skin. I reached for the zip of my coat but found that it was already pushed up as far as it could go. I felt someone stare at me from across the pub. It was a shape in the corner of my eyes, too fuzzy to make out who it was. I felt their glare on my face and my skin started to itch. I tried to focus on Jeremiah but I couldn’t ignore it.
My heart drummed in my chest. I turned my head but nobody even looked at me. A man at the table across from us dropped a stack of cards face up on the wood and smiled. He leapt out of his chair and pointed at his friend.
“You owe me a pint you bloody bastard!” he said.
I looked at Jeremiah. “Isn’t it your fault for taking Billy with you?”
Jeremiah shook his head. “He was an adult, just like you. My point is, don’t let yourself be manipulated. Not by Higson and not by me. If something happens to you when you’re with me, that’s on you.”
My throat felt cracked, like burnt cake hardened on a baking tray. I tried to swallow but it felt like the skin inside my neck was stuck together. A crushing weight pressed down on my shoulders.
“What does Higson want to know about Bruges,” I said. “And why won’t you tell him?”
“You’re not letting this go, are you?”
“You promised to let me interview you.”
Jeremiah put his hand to his chin and breathed in. He stared at me, weighing up the decision of whether to answer my questions as if he were Caesar deciding the fate of a gladiator. As he opened his mouth to speak Marsha appeared at our table. She had two bowls in her hands and a scowl on her face.
She set one in front of Jeremiah and the other in front of me. It was a bowl of stew. The broth was thick and brown, and potatoes and carrots rested at the top like barrels floating in the sea. Steam rose off and twisted up my nose. The smell of it was enough to make my mouth water, and my stomach cried out for the nutrients the stew would give. Jeremiah had done something nice for once. Was the world about to end?
I dipped my spoon into the stew and then brought it to the surface, making sure to get a good mix of liquid and vegetables. As I swallowed the broth and chewed the potatoes, I felt something gristly between my teeth. I twisted it on my tongue trying to work out what it was. When I did, acid rose up my throat. I put my fingers in my mouth and pulled out a sinewy piece of beef. My stomach wobbled and my throat tightened.
“What the hell is this?” I said, my voice weak.
“Beef stew,” said Jeremiah, and brought his spoon to his lips and sucked the juice off it.
“I told you I was vegetarian.”
“And now I believe you.”
I felt my cheeks burn as if imaginary fingers pinched them. My stomach screamed at me and begged for some of the stew. At the same time I felt my chest grow tight with anger at the man sat across from me. His complete lack of respect for anyone but himself was shocking.
“No wonder you’re alone,” I said, my words dripping with venom.
“I wanted to see if you really were vegetarian, or if you just like the idea. If you can turn down a stew when you feel like shit, then you’re true to your ideals. Not many people are these days, Ella. I respect that.”
“Shove your respect up your arse.”
“What made you be vegetarian?”
I wasn’t going to tell him. If he was going to avoid my questions and play games, then he wasn’t going to learn a damn thing from me either. Despite deciding I wouldn’t tell him about it, thoughts of an old foster family rose in my head like worms crawling out of the dirt.
It was my third foster family. The bad one. I was six years old, too small to sit properly in my seat. The dining table was so polished it glinted under the light of the chandelier above. Expensive watercolours were spread across the walls of the dining room, and the red velvet curtains were drawn. The watercolours were of family members who had died over the years, and the further back the line went, the uglier the faces became.
Foster dad sat at the end of the dining table, so far away that when he spoke it was like he whispered. Foster mum was in the middle, keeping as far a distance as she could from both me and her husband. The light was dim enough so that we could still see each other as we ate, but the faces of my foster parents were covered in shadow. The atmosphere was drenched in ice. By this point I had given up asking them to turn the heating on. I stopped begging for a coat or a jumper. I stopped expecting them to put me to bed or to even talk to me.
They sat and shovelled morsels of food into their mouths. Their stares were blank, as though their brains had been emptied. Sometimes I caught foster dad looking at me with a sneer on his face, but when I stared at him the expression dropped. Foster mum was a husk, an empty sack of skin that moved around the house like a ghost.
I looked down at the plate in front of me. I was so hungry that my stomach felt like it was twisted into a knot. My last meal had been two nights before, and my tiny body cried out for more food. I felt like I was wasting away.
The steak on the plate was cold, and I picked up my fork and poked it. The sides of it moved, and I saw that maggots twisted and turned along the meat. I let my knife and fork clatter onto the table. I pushed my chair back. My stomach felt like it had liquefied.
“Sit down,” said foster dad.
I gulped. The maggots crawled along the beef.
“Sit down,” he said, his voice firmer. “Get in your seat and eat your meat.”
My stomach sent an anguished tremor through my body, and I nearly doubled over in pain. I knew I had to eat it. I picked up my knife and fork and flicked away the twisting maggots. I cut a piece of the meat and brought it to my lips, the smell getting worse the closer it got. I closed my eyes and wished I were dead.
“Earth to Ella.”
Jeremiah leaned in close to me. He snapped his fingers, and the clicking sound punctured my thoughts and brought me back to the pub, back to the flickering hearth and hushed conversations. He folded his arms and breathed out a sigh.
“I’m going to the library,” he said.
“It’s pitch black and it’s eight in the evening. It’ll be shut.”
He shook his head. “I made a deal with the librarian. A bottle of whiskey goes a long way around here.”
I stood up out of my seat. As I moved away from the stew, my stomach beat against my skin as though it were trying to break through and dive into the bowl.
“I’ll come with you.”
“Not a chance in hell,” he said. “You look like the crypt keeper. Go upstairs and get some sleep. I’m hoping I’ll have a lead for us tomorrow.”
When I shut my bedroom door behind me I felt alone. The timber floorboards creaked when the slightest weight was applied to them, and walking barefoot across my room made them sound like someone was opening a coffin. Dusty wooden beams ran across the roof, the wood thick enough to slip a noose around and high enough to finish the job.
Paintings hung on the wall of woodland areas that I assumed were somewhere nearby, because the art work reeked of being from the paintbrush of a local artist. Their technique wasn’t the best, but they’d managed to capture darkness in the trees that looked heavy enough to trap anyone walking underneath them. It looked like the kind of place no person should ever go, and the feeling seemed to spread out of the confines of the painting and seep into the room.
My bed was opposite from the door. The wall behind it was stone, cold to the touch and greyer than grey. Marsha obviously didn’t care about the comfort of her guests, because everything about the room made me feel I was unwelcome. Even so, the hard mattress of the bed had never looked so inviting. My body ached so much that I felt like I could lie down and melt away.
I wasn’t going to do that. It was stupid, but because Jeremiah’s last words to me were “go to sleep”, I was going to do the exact opposite. I wasn’t going to let him order me around like I was the hired help.
A writing desk sat in the corner of the room, next to a window that was covered by a sheet of darkness. Outside the window was the front of the pub. A wooden gate slapped against a post, and the wind grabbed the stalks of the plants and throttled them.
I pulled out the chair and slumped into it. I spread my dissertation books on the scratched surface and opened them to pages saved by crumpled post-it notes. The text was small and I had to strain to read it. Someday all this studying was going to put me in a pair of glasses.
My dissertation was nowhere near ready, which was pathetic considering the sacrifices I had made. I had spent so long with a book in front of my face that I couldn’t remember the last time my phone rang. Sometimes, I didn’t even bother to charge it. I’d let the blood drain out of my friendships until they have shrivelled and crumbled into dust. I always carried books in my bag, but they were becoming more like weights that threatened to drown me in a raging sea.
I flipped to the front of the book in front of me and looked at the title.
“Shadows That Walk Behind Us: How Historical Horrors Affect the Present,” I read. “This is going to be lovely.”
Reading these books always made me squirm. Even back in my halls of residence where the floor was carpeted and my room warm and inviting, staying up into the early hours reading about myths made me shiver. There was something wrong about urban legends. They were bullshit, I knew that much. That didn’t explain how the same stories could turn up again and again, thousands of miles away and hundreds of years apart. Legends of old women who would appear behind you in the bathroom when you turned off the light, of teenage girls possessed by demons.
The temperature of the room started to drop as though someone were blowing snow into it. I reached to my left and felt the radiator, and the coldness stung my hands. The lever that controlled the temperature was turned on and twisted to full heat. Great, another thing in this shithole that doesn’t work.
I put on my dressing gown. As I read about Romanian legends, the lamp in front of me flickered like a flame being teased by fingers. The temperature plummeted, and it felt like fingers nipped at my skin. I shivered into my clothes. A feeling built in me that the cold wasn’t just from the winter air. That something was forming in the room, a shape taking hold in the darkness and creeping just out of sight.
I looked at the door. I hoped to see a slit of light peeking through the bottom, but instead there was a black rectangle that indicted the hallway outside was dark. I pushed the thoughts to the back of my mind. I was reading too much of this stuff. I bet even Professor Higson got the creeps sometimes. I spread the book in front of me and stared at the page.
The words span round my brain. Devils, demons. Witches. Skeletons buried in church graveyards. My head felt heavy and my eyelids began to slip. I felt my vision fade into black.
I opened my eyes and found myself staring into red eyes. The corners of them were twisted in fury, as if I had wronged their owner. My heart banged and I jerked my head away. I realised it was the cover of the book, and that I had fallen asleep on the desk whilst reading. There was a dripping sound behind me, the sound of water beating rhythmically against porcelain.
“Time for some sleep,” I said, as if announcing the idea to the room would break the creepy spell that seemed to have taken hold in it.
The dripping grew louder, the water doing the best it could to get my attention. I walked across the floorboards and heard them creak underneath my bare feet. Sometimes it sounded like there were two creaks at once, as if someone walked behind me and lifted their feet at the same time as mine. As I got to the bathroom the dripping sound faded.
I stopped and listened. My pulse throbbed inside me and my arms felt sensitive, as if something was playing with the hairs on them. I swallowed. Suddenly, staying in Jeremiah’s room didn’t seem such a stupid idea. Even if it meant on his floor.
No, I thought. That’d just confirm every single thought he has about you.
A hand banged against the bathroom window and spread its fingers across the glass. I jerked away, almost backing into the door. Another look, and the hand became the spindly branches of a tree as the wind toyed with it.
The room was silent, the shadows having nothing to say. I listened again. I knew that fear was in the mind, and it was in every person’s power to feed it or let it starve. I held in a breath and tried to cut off my fear’s supply of food, tried to make wither away.
See? There’s no sound. Shadows are just shadows.
Something dripped behind me. I span round, my breath catching in my chest. Then I saw that it was the sink in the corner of the bedroom. Globs of water formed on the spout of the tap and then fell onto the cracked porcelain. I let out a sigh of relief.
I walked over to the sink and twisted the tap. It struggled against the turn, as if it hadn’t been touched in years. The sink was dirty and scratched with age. Disgustingly, there was black hair wrapped in the plughole.
“For god’s sake Marsha, you old cow,” I said.
I’m not the sort of person who can leave mess until morning. If something needs doing, it needs doing now. Although the idea of touching someone else’s hair made my stomach turn, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sleep knowing that it was there, the strands tangled in the plug and trying to crawl down the pipe.
I grabbed the bin from the bathroom and put it next to the sink in my bedroom. I turned my head away, as if avoiding looking made it less disgusting, and grabbed the hair. It was black and wet, and it seemed to be wrapped in loops around the metal of the plug hole. It wouldn’t come away on the first tug so I had to get a firmer grip and pull. Despite being wet the hair was tough, and it took a good few pulls with most of my strength to break it away. Finally, after another tug, I felt it start to snap and tear. It felt like pulling off a strip of Velcro.
As I pulled at the hair more and more of it came out. First just a few strands, but quickly more. They became thicker and thicker, each clump of it sodden with stinking water. It was like a wig that had been left in a muddy puddle, and the musty smell was enough to hang heavy in the air.
The putrid water slashed over my arms and onto my clothes. I started throwing hair in the bin beside me, but the more I put in the more there was in the plug. I tugged at it and pulled a slimy snake-like bunch of it. It slapped down on my arm and water flicked off, spraying my face and chin. A few drops landed in my mouth, and I gagged as I tasted the rank liquid on my tongue.
My heart thumped. Where the hell was all this hair coming from? Why hadn’t Marsha sorted it? As the stench worked its way up my nose and my arms were splashed with rank water, I wanted to shout out. It felt like it would never end.
I reached to the plug and grabbed as much hair as I could. It was slimy beneath my fingers but I gripped it. Feeling the blood rush to my face, I yanked at it with all my strength and pulled it away. It felt like I had an entire scalps worth of the long strands in my hand. I threw them to the ground, not even caring that I missed the bin. I stood in the dark room and tried to let my breathing settle.
I tried to work out where the hell the hair was from, but my mind fogged over. Then a thought hit me in the guts. A memory crept up and socked me in the stomach so hard I felt winded.
When I moved into the room, the sink had been disconnected. It had never worked.
Suddenly I saw movement in the corner of my left eye. A nearly imperceptible shifting in the dark, as though pale fingers played with the black. A shiver ran through my body and I had the overwhelming urge to run. Suddenly the bedroom door felt far away. It was only metres, but it seemed that if I ran then it would stretch even further out of reach.
I couldn’t let this happen. I realised I was falling victim to the fear. I was thinking like the kind of people who were scared of legends.
With my heart drumming in my chest I forced myself to look to my left. My neck was stiff, as though my muscles didn’t want my head to turn. I looked deep into the darkness that swam in the corner of the room, and I saw nothing. I breathed out.
I looked back over to the bedroom door, and my heart stopped. There was an envelope on the floor.
Every step down the narrow stairs jolted my head and made my bones ache. My body felt like it was covered in sludge, and my brain swam in a thick goo that bunged up my nose and made my temples pound. Any sensible person would have been in bed, but I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t going to let Jeremiah see me weak.
When I walked into the pub Jeremiah was already sat at a table poking his fork into a fry-up. A radio span soft tunes from somewhere behind the bar. The sky outside still had a dark tint to it. The branches of the trees shivered in the wind and the leaves clung on for dear life. Opposite Jeremiah was a plate with four rounds of toast, honey and marmalade. There was also a bowl spilling with cereal and one full of fruit.
“What’s this?” I said, the words sounding croaky in my throat.
“Take your pick,” he said, and lifted a slice of bacon to his mouth. He had rolled up a full rasher around the fork and obviously planned to eat it whole. He added: “I’m sorry about last night.”
I pulled out the chair and had to bite back a wince as my shoulder joints ached with the movement. I knew this was going to be a bad cold. It seemed like I was a germ magnet the whole year round, and it was rare I didn’t have a red noise or puffy eyes. But it was when my joints started hurting that I knew it was going to be a nightmare.
“Did you get some kip?” asked Jeremiah.
I had already decided that I wasn’t going to tell him about the hair. I wasn’t even going to let Marsha see it. I had taken it out of the bin, wrapped it in a bag and I would get rid of it later. I certainly wasn’t going to tell him about the feeling I had, like someone was in my room. He’d say I was just being silly and letting all of this affect me.
“Funny thing happened to me last night,” he said.
My ears pricked. “Oh?”
“Yeah. I woke up at about three in the morning. It was pitch black. I looked over to my bedroom window and there was a face watching me.”
For a second my heartrate spiked. I breathed through my nose and tried to calm down.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a cloud or something?”
Jeremiah smiled. “No. It was a crow. Little bugger was watching me sleep.”
He sawed a sausage in half and popped it into his mouth. His ginger beard was a tapestry of egg yolk, brown sauce and breadcrumbs. It was most likely that the crow had been watching Jeremiah because it saw his beard as a potential nest.
“Did you go to the library?” I said.
Jeremiah swallowed and then gave slow nod. “I did.”
He picked up a paper towel and wiped his mouth with it, smearing more egg yolk across his ginger hair.
I sighed. “Jesus. Does everything have to be a battle?”
“People prosper through adversity. Nobody ever got stronger walking down easy street.”
I picked up a piece of toast, put it to my mouth and ripped at it like a wolf tearing at flesh. A man crooned on the radio but the volume was too low for me to make out what he sang. From the back of the pub, in the kitchen, pots clanged and every so often Marsha would mutter incomprehensible curse words.
“I’m not your apprentice you know. I’m here to interview you.”
Jeremiah gave me a knowing look. He could have been saying ‘we’re both the ones being interviewed’, because that’s what it always felt like with him. But in reality, I had no clue what he meant.
I threw the toast onto the plate. “Just tell me what you found.”
Jeremiah nodded. “For such a small village, this place has a dark history. They might not have a pot to piss in, put their librarians have been diligent over the years. And a lot of shit has happened here.”
Jeremiah reached to his coat pocket and pulled out a thick notepad. The edges of the paper were stained brown as if coffee had been spilled on them. He flicked through the pages until he set his stubby fingers on the one he wanted.
“In the year thirteen fifty, a hundred men, women and children died and their bodies were burned in the field. It was four-fifths of the village population. Do you know what might have happened?”
“Didn’t know I had walked into a history lecture.”
“If you don’t know, it’s fine to admit it.”
I felt a stab of annoyance in my chest. “It was the plague, wasn’t it?”
Jeremiah nodded. “Then from sixteen twelve to sixteen thirty-six, a dozen women were hanged from the trees just outside of town.”
He turned behind him and pointed out of the window. The houses of the village covered most of what I could see through the panes, but through a tiny gap, miles away, were the beginnings of a woodland area.
“Witchcraft?” I said.
Jeremiah gave a solemn nod. It was the first time I’d seen him show any real respect for anything.
“Those were dark times ruled by dark minds. When I think about how people could actually believe in witchcraft and then snap someone’s neck for it, it make me want to smash things.”
“I thought you wanted to believe in that kind of stuff.”
Jeremiah hit the table with his fist and made my plate clang. I sat upright and looked into his eyes.
“Don’t mix me up with those ignorant bastards,” he said. “Witchcraft was just a word they used because their tiny brains couldn’t handle the unknown. It was a tag to put on some poor cow so that blame could be given for goats dying and crops wilting. You see, when strange things happen, people need a reason. Blame gives people a reason when no others can be found.”
I looked out of the window, passed the town and toward the woods. It seemed like the beginnings of something thick and full of shadows, a place where daylight was choked and things crept in the dark. It was a place no person should ever go. I imagined the innocent women swinging from the branches, their tongues lolling out of their mouths. Pin-pricks travelled up my legs and onto my arms.
Suddenly the lights above us went out. The early morning twilight seeped through the window and settled over the room. The radio stopped playing, and a silence took over. It felt like time had stopped. The clanging from the kitchen ceased, and I heard Marsha’s steps trampling toward us.
She walked into the room with a red face and a sheen of sweat on her forehead. Her hair was tied back so tight that it looked like her scalp was going to come off. It was as though just acting annoyed all the time wasn’t enough for her, she had to put effort into looking that way as well.
“Okay,” she said, voice tight with irritation. “Which one of you buggers messed with the electrics?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Marsha crossed her arms and lifted her bony shoulders. She looked like a spinster teacher in a boarding school.
“I know one of you did something,” she said.
Jeremiah sat forward in his seat. “We don’t know what the hell you’re saying, you old cow. We haven’t touched anything.”
Marsha huffed. “This place is decades old, you know. The fuse box is fragile as a box of eggs. Just don’t touch anything.”
With that she walked out of the room, as if she were satisfied that having the last word won her the argument. I watched her walk out of the doorway and then heard her steps as she pattered down a stone staircase that led to the basement.
Jeremiah shook his head. “Batty old bint.”
I didn’t disagree with him, but I wasn’t going to say anything in case Marsha heard me. I got the sense that the woman was always watching and always listening. As if she could be everywhere at once, like a spectre that haunted the walls and floors of the pub.
“Found something last night,” I said.
Jeremiah’s eyes glinted. “Oh?”
I took the envelope out of my pocket. My heart began to beat and I felt a smile creep on my lips. There was something pretty damn good about knowing something Jeremiah didn’t. He tried to hide his surprise, but he was no actor. I pushed the envelope across the table.
“Someone slid it under my bedroom door last night.”
Jeremiah teased the paper out of the envelope. He unfolded it and read. It was a weathered piece of paper, with the words typed in black ink. When he had finished reading, he put it on the table and gave me a look of surprise, as if it was strange that I could ever know something he didn’t.
“This is the missing page from the death register,” he said.
I nodded. “And there was a young girl who was born in nineteen-ninety who died seven years later.”
“Someone in this town is playing games.”
“So what do we do now?”
Jeremiah sat back and folded his arms. He looked at me with his teacher expression. It was a similar look that I saw on Professor Higson’s face when I asked him questions about my dissertation. What was it about older guys and smug looks?
“You tell me,” said Jeremiah. “What’s our mantra?”
“Look for the bullshit.”
“Find the bullshit.”
“And there’s certainly some bullshit in this village.” He ran his finger along the birth certificate and stopped in the middle. “It lists the girl’s parents,” he said. “So let’s see if they still live in the village.”
The girl was called Emily Jenkins, and her parents were Peter and Sharon Jenkins. Their home was outside of town, far enough away that at night it was swamped in pure darkness. Luckily we had decided to visit during the day.
“Now remember,” said Jeremiah as we took brisk strides up the gravel path, “When we get in there I talk – “
“You talk, I listen. How could I forget.”
It was a cottage that looked like it had weathered several centuries. It seemed a lonely place, as though it had been banished from the village and forced to stand in solitude. Ivy spread over the face of the building like spores and the garden was full of weeds that strained out of the mud like hands digging for freedom. Beyond the house and in the distance were the woods. They were a mile away, but from the angle we stood they wrapped around the sides of the house as though they were about to choke it. There was a sign planted in the mud that read ‘For sale.’
“Maybe we should pretend to be buyers,” I said.
“Maybe you should talk less and listen more,” said Jeremiah.
He reached out and gave three sharp knocks on the door. The doorframe rattled as if it were shaking from the physical contact. Footsteps tapped toward us and the door opened with a creak. A man stood in the doorway with a questioning look on his face.
His skin was smooth but it was coloured as grey as his sparse hair. His eyes were large but seemed vacant, like glass eyes floating in water. It was as if different parts of his body aged at different speeds. He was a man who had turned old well before his time.
“Yes?” he said. There was no warmth to his voice, but nor was it cold. It just was.
More footsteps walked toward us and a woman joined him at the doorway.
“Who is it, Pete?”
The woman’s forehead was creased and her skin bore lines of age, though she had done her best to plaster over them. At first glance she seemed to be much older than the man, but I realised it was because of how she was dressed. She wore a cardigan that trailed down her arms and spilled onto her hands, and her blouse looked like it came from the over sixties section in Marks and Spencer’s. It was her eyes that gave her away. There was a youth in them that seemed to fight against the tide of age, as though they were rocks that the sea of time couldn’t move.
Pete looked at his wife. Again, no warmth in his eyes.
“Don’t know, they haven’t said a word yet.”
“Sorry to bother you,” said Jeremiah. “Wondered if we could use your toilet?”
Peter jerked his head back. “What?”
“We saw the sign,” I said, and jerked my thumb back to the ‘for sale’ sign. “We’re thinking of buying in this area and wondered if we could take a look around.”
The woman scratched behind her ears. “We’re not really ready for visitors…”
Peter gave his wife a sharp look. “If they’re interested in buying let them have a look.”
His tone was urgent, as if to say ‘they might buy this hovel from us’. There was desperation in his face.
Sharon and Peter stepped away from the doorway. Peter gave a smile that didn’t sit true on his face, and staring at it made me feel uneasy. I avoided looking at him as I squeezed passed him and walked into the house.
The air in the house was stale. It smelt sweaty and damp, like a towel left in a gym bag. Things were neat and seemed to be in their place, but little things betrayed a mess that hid under the surface. A cobweb hung from a smoke detector and drifted in the breeze. A fly lay dead on the windowsill. A circular red stain was ingrained in the carpet. It stuck out underneath a chair that had obviously been moved to hide it.
We sat on the Jenkins’s sofa. Pete went into the kitchen to make us a cup of tea while Sharon sat in front of us, her lips pursed as if she thought of what to say. I had some questions of my own. The death register named the girl as Emily Jenkins, and her parents were Peter and Sharon Jenkins. This couple had called each other by those names, so there was no doubt we were in the right house. But as I looked around me, I didn’t see anything that betrayed the existence of their child. No drawings from school, no photos to remember her by.
Maybe it had just been too painful. Sometimes your brain flinches at the things it sees, and bad memories, no matter how many years you put behind them, still prick you. Get enough of these and it’s like death by a thousand cuts, your brain bleeds away and you become hollow. Maybe this was the only way the Jenkins family could cope with their tragedy. I wondered what the hell Jeremiah and I were doing. Intruding on their grief just seemed wrong.
“So you two are buying around here?” said Sharon.
Jeremiah gave a slight nod. From the grumpy look on his face it was obvious he hated having to play along with the pretence I had made. Perhaps it was because he hadn’t thought of it himself. Tough luck, I thought.
“We are,” I said.
“How nice. And are you two…”
My head tipped back and nearly rolled off my neck. “Hell no,” I said.
“She’s my daughter,” said Jeremiah. “And she’s a little brat.”
Sharon gave a smile, the smallest one her pursed lips could carry.
The kitchen door across from us opened and Peter walked out with a tray. There were four cups, and in the centre steam rose from the spout of a teapot. It twisted into the air like cigarette smoke and then vanished against the ceiling.
Despite the inviting look of the tray of tea, there was something about the house that made me feel uneasy. I felt like I had to be constantly on my guard, as if things crawled behind me, shapes that sat in the darkest corners they could find and watched us.
“Take your coat off if you like,” said Peter.
“I would but I’ve got a cold.”
Peter leant forward. His eyebrows arched at an angle. “Are you saying our house is cold?”
Sharon put her hand on his arm. “The girl’s sick,” she said. “This man here is her father.”
Peter picked up the tea pot and poured steaming golden liquid into each cup. He pushed one toward me. I picked it up and looked inside, and I saw tiny molecules of dirt smeared into the china, like someone had done half a job washing the cups.
Peter leant back and folded his arms. “You’re nothing alike.”
“She wasn’t blessed with my looks,” said Jeremiah.
He looked at Sharon, having marked her as the most responsive of the pair.
“Do you have children?” he asked.
The words seemed to cut into the air and then drop right out of it, as though hands had stretched out and knocked them away. A silence pressed over the room. The windows were only single-glazed and looked like a gust of wind could break them, but the sounds of the countryside didn’t break though. It was as though the chirps of the birds and bleating of the sheep didn’t want to enter this house. It was a place where emotions were smothered and happy thoughts died.
I thought that Jeremiah had gone in too heavy. He could have come up with something subtler to say, words that wouldn’t hang like a bad smell. I guessed that after their tragedy, the Jenkins family had spent countless hours being bombarded with questions about their daughter and how they coped without her. It was a wound that was still raw, and every time it started to heal someone else would come along and rip off the scab.
Peter leant forward and swallowed. His face was the colour of elephant hide, and his hair looked brittle enough to fall out of his scalp.
“We never had children,” he said.
Peter led us up carpeted stairs so narrow that it felt like one false step would send us all toppling down them. The further up we got, the more the damp smell grew. It was like there was a room up here full of sodden clothes and wet walls, a place that never really dried. I looked at the walls and saw framed paintings of the bleak countryside, the same style as the one in my room at the pub. The guy was definitely a local artist. From his paintings, I got the impression that what he saw in the village haunted him.
“Bathroom’s through here. No shower, but you could get someone to put one in.”
He pointed to his right. The bathroom was cramped, with barely enough room for the dirty bath and sink. There were wet footprints on the carpet. I was glad we weren’t really looking, because there was no way in hell I would buy this house. Just walking through it made me want to put on more layers and pull my hood over my face. It felt like someone watched me as I walked.
“Two bedrooms. We use the one on the end. There’s a walk-in wardrobe, but we don’t bother with it.”
“What about the other room?” asked Jeremiah.
Peter gave his wife a strange look. It lasted less than a second, short enough that I wondered if I had actually seen it. Jeremiah prodded my side with his finger. I looked at him, and he arched his eyebrows toward the other bedroom.
“Could we take a look at the spare room?” I said.
Peter stopped. “Don’t you want to see the master bedroom?”
“Well the spare room would be mine, so I’m more interested in that. Plus sometimes my … cousin will come up to stay, so I want to see if it would be big enough for us to share.”
Wow, I could really bullshit when I put my mind to it.
Sharon stood against a dresser next to the landing wall. She leant back and knocked a vase. It tipped and threatened to fall, but she reached out and steadied it.
“How old’s your cousin?” she said.
I knew what I had to say, but I didn’t want to say it. The couple obviously had a reason for hiding their truth. Jeremiah prodded me again, this time so hard his finger dug in my side. I winced and stepped back.
“Watch it,” I said.
“Sorry love,” said Jeremiah. He smiled at Sharon. “I’m a clumsy bastard.”
I looked at Sharon. “My cousin is seven,” I said.
There was a silence in the landing. The only sound was the whistling of the wind as it blew through the attic above us. It sounded like an enormous cavity that sucked in the wind and threw it around. I looked at the ceiling and saw the entryway, but it had been boarded up and painted over, as if someone had tried to hide it.
Pete followed my eyes and saw what I looked at. He flinched, and then his face straightened.
“This house is no place for children,” he said.
“What do you mean by that?” said Jeremiah.
Peter’s face looked stern, and his cheeks flushed red. Sharon answered for him.
“It’s not really big enough” she said, her words not sounding completely true.
I coughed, and the back of my throat burned. “Not to intrude, but do we think we could take a look round on our own? Get a feel for the place?”
Sharon looked at Peter as if asking permission to accept. He looked up and his eyes glazed in thought. He grabbed his wife’s arm and pointed her toward the stairs.
“We’ll be downstairs,” he said. Then, trying to add warmth to his tone but failing, he added: “We’ll be waiting.”
They turned and walked down the stairs. As their footsteps trailed away and then sounded on the carpet downstairs, Jeremiah walked to the spare room doorway. I stopped before following him. For some reason, I wanted to delay for every second before entering the room.
“Did you see the attic hatch?” I said, and pointed at the ceiling.
He looked up. “Of course. Did you think you saw something I didn’t?”
“Jesus. Do you ever get tired of this?”
If he heard me speak, he didn’t show it. “Someone’s done a rough job covering it up.”
With that he pushed open the spare room door and stepped inside. I stayed in the landing. The room was dark and looked featureless from here, and the doorway seemed like an enormous wide-open mouth. I felt a sensation in my chest, as if something were pushing me away. It felt like my body was telling me not to enter the room.
Pull yourself together, I thought.
I followed Jeremiah into the room. As soon as I stepped inside I felt a deep chill, as if my bones were freezing and would start to crack if I stayed too long. The walls and ceiling were cloaked in shadow, and it was so chilly that I thought I saw icicles hanging from the roof. It was an all-consuming cold, like the onset of winter.
Jeremiah walked over to the window, reached for it and pulled it shut.
“Not ones for home comforts, are they?” he said.
I put my hand on the wall next to the door and felt for the light switch. I pressed it in, but the lightbulb above stayed dead. It swung softly from a cord that stretched out from the ceiling.
This was a room I shouldn’t be in, I decided. I knew instantly it had been the girl’s room, and it felt like I was intruding on something private. I walked over to the window and looked out. From here I could see the terrible woods. It gave me an unspoiled view of the darkened tree trunks and spindly branches that hid their secrets within.
How far into the woods had the witches been hanged, I wondered? Would the townsfolk want to venture too far into the labyrinth? This house must have been here when the witch trials happened. Had the occupants back then heard the women’s screams as they were murdered?
“Let’s get to work,” said Jeremiah.
He opened a wardrobe and poked around in it.
“What exactly are we looking for?” I said.
He turned his head toward me. “I honestly don’t know. Something. Anything that might belong to the girl. They’re hiding something from us.”
“Maybe they have a right to do that. It’s not for us to poke around.”
“Just check the bed. Try and pull it away, something might be behind it.”
I walked over to the bed. It was a single-sized frame, certainly small enough for a kid to sleep in. I took hold of the headboard and pulled it back, but I couldn’t see anything in the crevice between the bed and the wall. With every step I took and everything I touched in this room, a feeling of dread built up in my chest. The back of my neck itched as if eyes burnt holes in my skin.
Jeremiah rifled through the wardrobe. I heard the clang of metal as he pushed back coat hangers, and a thud as he lifted a shelf and let it drop. We shouldn’t be here, I thought. I lifted the mattress, my arms straining with the weight. When I didn’t see anything underneath, I let it fall. I had the feeling that something was hidden in the room, but I didn’t know which direction to look. It was like my body was a compass drawn to whatever it was, but something span the dial so that the reading changed constantly.
Footsteps sounded on the floorboards as someone walked into the room. I span round and felt my face go red like a naughty school child. Peter stood in the doorway, his arms crossed. He looked at Jeremiah with his head in the open wardrobe, and grimaced.
“I think it’s time you left,” he said.
Peter walked down the stairway first, his angry steps pounding on the carpet. Jeremiah walked behind me, and he leaned toward me and whispered into my ear.
“Did you find anything?” he said.
“No,” I replied. “But I’m sure something is there. I could feel it.”
Jeremiah moved his head away from me. We reached the bottom of the stairs. Sharon stood across the hallway in the living room with both feet behind the threshold of the doorway. It was if she were a vampire who wasn’t invited to step over the line.
“I like the place,” said Jeremiah, in as affable a tone as he could manage. “And I’d be interest to talk to your estate agents. Think I could take one last look around?”
“I think you’ve seen enough,” said Peter.
“I really won’t consider putting in an offer unless I get another viewing.”
Peter leaned in, his forehead creased and eyebrows arched. “I don’t give a feck if you put in an offer or not, I’ll never sell to you.”
Sharon shrank into the doorway, as if the harsh tone of her husband’s words had pushed her back. I felt my heart beat. As much as being in the house made my skin itch, I knew something was up there. The key to it all was in that room, the one that I was sure the girl had inhabited. If we left now, we would never get another chance.
Jeremiah looked to me, eyes wide as if he was telling me to do something. But what? Peter obviously didn’t believe our story, and he’d just caught us snooping in the spare room. He had his reasons for lying to us, and he didn’t look like the kind of man to spill them.
I put my hand to my mouth. I puffed up my cheeks and bent over a little.
“Jesus, I’m going to be sick,” I said, and bent over even more for effect. I looked up at Peter, and I hoped my face was pale. “Can I use your bathroom?”
“I want you to leave.”
“Oh my god, I’m going to spew.”
I made a gagging sound as if vomit was building in my throat.
“For Christ sake, use the bathroom and then get out.”
I sprinted passed him and up the stairs with such urgency that I almost convinced myself that I was sick. I got to the landing, took a left and ran into the spare room. My pulse fired and a shiver ran through me. I stood in the centre of the room and the feeling of dread took hold of me again. It felt like I shouldn’t be here, but I couldn’t turn back. There was something here, but where was it?
I walked to the wardrobe, but that didn’t feel right. I took strides over toward the bed, but the feeling lessened. Then I looked at the floorboards, and my heart leapt. In the centre of the room, one of the floorboards looked an centimetre out of place.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs. They were the heavy treads of Pete’s boots, and he pounded up them with urgency. My heart rate spiked. I bent to the floor and gripped the floorboard. It looked sturdy enough, but it came away with the slightest of tugs and revealed a cavity underneath.
In the darkness under the floorboards were dust and cobwebs, but there was also a shape. I reached in, expecting something in the depths to tug at my hand and drag me down. I closed my eyes and dug further, and my hand closed on a square object. I pulled it out and looked at it in the pale light that filtered through the window. It was a book. Written on the front, in writing that looked too adult, were the words ‘Emily’s Diary’.
As we walked into the village square Jeremiah took long strides beside me, glancing from time to time as if he expected me to say something. I walked on without saying a word. I felt the nervous energy coming off him like he was like a kid waiting to unwrap a Christmas present. Maybe I was being childish, but I enjoyed the feeling of having something over him. There was a tension between us as we walked, as though he were always on the verge of saying something but stopped himself.
Finally he blurted out: “So are you going to tell me what you found?”
“Let’s find a place to sit.”
The village square was more of a box. Concrete rectangle flags covered the ground, and moss grew in the ridges between them. There was a statue of a woman with a sheep next to her. She was middle-aged, and her eyes stared out into the distance as though she were looking at the woodland that lay beyond the village. Her mouth was half open, and her eyes looked sad.
We sat on a bench under an oak tree. The leaves were bare but the branches seemed to twist as if they were limbs grabbing for us. I had the weird feeling that they wanted to reach out and take the diary from me, as though it were a secret that the village wanted to keep hidden. Jeremiah sat beside me, a fiery ball of energy.
“Aren’t you going to congratulate me on my acting?” I said.
“Sidney Poitier doesn’t have anything to worry about,” he said. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
The wind threw the clouds around the sky like clothes on a washing line. Despite being midday there was an overcast feel to the air, as if darkness were always straining to tear through. There was a curious lack of people milling nearby. I knew that the village was small, but I expected at least some people to be in the square. The wind whistled through the tree branches and somewhere a crow shrieked. It felt like the village at the end of the world.
Jeremiah tried to grab the diary from my hands. I pulled it back out of reach.
“Nope, mister. Not yet. Quad pro quo, as my professor likes to say.”
Jeremiah sighed. “Cut the crap. What do you want?”
“You agreed to let me interview you, and you haven’t told me a damn thing.”
Jeremiah leant back into the bench like a kid having a tantrum. The wood rattled under his weight and for a second I thought it might collapse underneath us. Everything in this village seemed brittle, as though the houses and the fixtures had rotted to the point of breaking.
“No wonder Higson was so keen to get rid of you,” he said.
“Answer some of my questions and I’ll let you see the diary.”
“I’ll answer one.”
At this rate I was going to have to investigate the whole thing on my own and then drip feed him the findings one by one before I managed to coax an interview out of him. This was better than nothing, at least. I might actually have something to show for the trip.
“Tell me about Bruges.”
Jeremiah put his hand to his rough beard and looked into the distance. His eyes glazed over and his forehead creased, as if he was swimming in a memory that threatened to drown him. It was a look of discomfort that cut through his usual bluster and made me think that maybe he was human after all. He curled one hand into a fist and gripped it tightly with his other.
“You remember the student I told you about? The one Higson sent to study with me?”
“Billy Wilkins. He was in Bruges with me, way back then. We went to investigate a possession case, but he didn’t come back.”
“I thought you said he was in a mental institution?”
“I mean he came back physically, but not all of him returned. A part of him is still there.”
“Are we talking organ thieves?”
“You really don’t understand, do you?”
Jeremiah’s words trailed away, as if they had been lapped up by the wind and carried beyond the darkened woodland and over the bleak hills. There was a cutting tone to his voice, like a hammer of emotion trying to smash through a stone wall.
“That’s all I’m going to say,” he said.
He’d only promised me one question, but god loves a trier, as one of my old foster mums used to repeat endlessly.
“So what about the experiment at the university, the one you want access to? What’s that all about?”
Jeremiah gave me a stern look. “You’re professor isn’t what he makes out. He’s a liar, Ella.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s just say that me and him used to study the same things. Only, I stayed true to myself. He got scared and locked himself away. He abandoned every true thought he’d ever had, put on his tie and then wasted his life in the lecture halls.”
A car drove down the road at the edge of the square. It was a family hatchback that looked like it rolled off the production line in the fifties. There was a dent on the passenger door and the bodywork needed a respray. I couldn’t see the driver clearly, but he looked middle-aged. He turned and looked at us, then sank back in his seat. In the passenger seat next to him, a small shape leaned forward. It seemed to be covered in shadow, like a little child-sized bundle of black. Gradually daylight caught the features, and I realised it was a little girl. Her eyes were wide and white, and black hair spilled over her shoulders. For a second our eyes locked.
“This place is creeping me out,” I said.
“The world’s a scary place when you walk through it with your eyes shut.”
“The world’s a scary place with you in it.”
“Let’s see the diary,” said Jeremiah.
I held the book tight in my hands. It felt cold, as though it had spent an hour in a fridge. As I ran my fingers down the spine I felt a shudder run through my arms, and I slackened my grip. It felt like I shouldn’t be holding it.
“Hurry up,” said Jeremiah, and shifted uncomfortably.
I opened the book on the first page. The diary was filled with two sets of handwriting. One was child-like, full of sloppy squiggles and crosses through the words. Every so often a paragraph would break, and the next paragraph was written perfectly. It was the stylish handwriting of a guided hand, and there was a control to it that could only have been achieved with maturity. The letters bunched together so tightly they were like a chain that couldn’t be broken.
I felt my head begin to pound. I strained my eyes to make out the words, but my brain just wouldn’t process them. I felt like I had forgotten how to read. For a second, I thought I was having a fit.
“It’s in code,” said Jeremiah.
I looked closer and saw that the adult-style writing was indeed written in code. The letters were standard alphabet but they were matched in ways that made no sense. I flicked through the book and saw page after page of childish writing – ‘mum sent me to my room last night’ – followed by precise handwriting written in mismatched letters and words that made no sense.
Two thirds into the book the writing stopped abruptly, like a movie paused before the end. The last paragraph was in the adult-style but the words were bold and angry, as though someone had written the words and then gone over them again and again to make them darker. It was like someone had pressed deep into the page as they wrote to try and gouge the words into the book.
My hands started to ache as though the book was pressing into my skin. I had a light feeling on my chest like someone were trying to push me back. I couldn’t explain it, but I felt that the book shouldn’t be in my hands. The branches of the trees swayed above me, like hands reaching down to choke me. My throat tightened.
I threw the book on Jeremiah’s lap. He jerked back in shock, and then took hold of it. I tried to hide the feeling of dread that sat heavy on my shoulders.
“Over to you,” I said, hoping that the crack in my voice didn’t show. I was glad to have the diary away from me.
“It’s written with a cipher,” said Jeremiah. “This kind of code works with the use of a word chosen by the person who wrote it. It acts as a key.”
“So we have no chance of reading it,” I said. “It could have been anything.”
“Not quite. People usually use a word that means something to them.”
I shook my head and felt it throb. “How the hell would a seven year old girl know how to do this?”
“This girl was older than she appeared.”
“So what now?”
Jeremiah let the book rest on his lap. The piece of evidence excited him, I knew, but it was like he didn’t want to hold it. I wondered if he felt the same way I did when I had the book between my fingers.
“We need to work on the cipher. I’ll make a copy at the library, and we can both go to our rooms and try and figure it out. You take the original.”
I shrank back in my seat. “Why me?”
“You were a seven year old girl, once. You know how they think.”
“You’re not so different to a seven year old girl yourself,” I said.
As night fell I sat at my desk with a book on Polish urban myths in front of me. My chest felt heavy and my brain swam in a thick sludge that blocked my nose. I got colds all the time, but I rarely felt this horrible. The last time was in a foster house. Again, the bad one.
It was the heart of winter and I lay in bed. Frost spread over the windows like spider’s webs, and a layer of shadow covered the walls. I didn’t have a duvet, only a thin sheet that should have been used to cover it. My foster parent’s house was rich with drapes and paintings, and crystal ornaments glinted from every shelf. Despite the showing of wealth, poverty was hidden in the places no one knew to look. Carved oak cupboards contained cheap tins of beans, and inside panelled wardrobes were clothes that were years old. They had been rich once, but not anymore.
I lay into bed and tugged the cover close to me. My body shivered with every breath, and my chest felt like it was filling with ice. I wanted to close my eyes, but shapes made by the shadows watched me, and I knew that if I slept, they would come for me. My bedroom door creaked open as if pushed by the wind. My foster mum stepped into the room, hair pinned back, skin pale.
“Can I have a duvet please mum? I’m freezing.”
“Don’t call me that.”
I swallowed. I wondered what she wanted, why she had even bothered to visit me. She walked to the edge of the bed and sat down on it. Her body was painfully thin, and the mattress didn’t even register her weight. She looked at me and I saw fury behind her eyes. I wondered what I had done to put it there. She reached down and grabbed me.
“I hate you,” she said.
The words sent a shock through my chest. I felt vulnerable, and didn’t know whether to bury myself under the cover or to get up and run. Somehow it felt like the walls were closing in on me. Foster mum grabbed the cover and tugged it away from me, and the coldness of the room attacked.
She stood up and walked to the doorway, leaving me shivering on my bed. As she left the room she looked at me and sneered.
“I never wanted you here.”
Wind blew against the window. I was back in the pub, back at the desk feeling like darkness sat heavy on my back. I looked at the book in front of me and felt a heavy paw swipe at my mind. I couldn’t face studying tonight. Something swam behind my eyes and made my eyelids feel heavy.
I looked outside the window. The streets outside the pub were a river of black. The gate smashed against its fixture, and the branches of the trees gave a grave dance in the gust. The skin on the back of my neck tingled, and I got the sense that someone watched me from the darkness. You’re being stupid, I thought. This urban legend shit is getting to you.
I swivelled away from the desk and reached down to my bag. I took out the girl’s diary. I had put it in my handbag hoping that if I buried it with all my stuff it would warm up, but the hard print of the cover still felt icy.
It didn’t mean anything, I knew. The whole power of scary stories and urban legends was that they were designed to tug on your emotions. They reached into the parts of your brain that still held onto primal fears and twisted them. Every myth ever told over campfires or printed in horror anthologies was carefully designed to jump out at the coward in us. None of it was real.
The sooner we finished this investigation, the sooner things could go back to normal. Jeremiah would give me the interview I needed, then I could go back home and get the extra credit that Professor Higson had promised. Out here I just couldn’t work on my dissertation. Something about the village put me on edge.
I picked up the diary and flicked through it. I stopped in the middle and traced my finger over a page. There were two paragraphs on it, one in the childish handwriting and the other in the adult style. Now I just needed the cipher, and I knew it had to be something important to a seven year old girl.
What was important to me as a kid?
I wasn’t a good model to go by, I realised. I hadn’t exactly had a normal upbringing. So what about Emily? What word could she have chosen? I closed my eyes and tried to put myself in her place. I thought back to her bedroom in the cottage. It had been empty when I was in it, but in my mind I filled it with childish things. A colourful duvet, posters on the wall. Toy horses and colouring books. No, that didn’t seem right. Emily wasn’t a normal child. So what would she be interested in?
In my mind I paced across her room, heard the floorboards whine and creak. I walked to the window and looked out. A flush of shivers spread across my arms as I stared into the countryside and saw the darkened woodland that lay beyond.
Emily would have seen the woods every night. They would have smothered her dreams. She would have heard the legends of the witches, and there was nothing more terrifying to a child than tales of witches swinging from tree branches. That was it.
My chest flooded as I tested the word, but it didn’t work. I was sure I was on the right track, but if witches wasn’t the word, then what was? The woods would have dominated Emily’s thoughts, I was certain of that. No child could live near that terrible place and not have it affect them. It would have soured her thoughts, turned her mind grim. With a bolt of cold, the answer hit me. ‘Witches’ wasn’t the cipher. I tested a new word.
Gradually the paragraphs started to form words that made sense, and the writing changed from random scribbles to real sentences.
I felt a shadow cloak my back. The feeling of being stared at grew, like a sixth sense that flashed a beacon inside me. The room was filled with an utter quiet, and I couldn’t even hear the banging of the gate outside. It was like the volume had been drowned out.
I looked at the diary. I felt like I needed to break the silence of the room, so I read out an entry.
‘School is rubbish! Oops, don’t tell mum I said that. Teacher put Thomas next to me, and he keeps stealing my stuff. Mum’s going to have to get me new pens and stuff and I won’t be able to write as good with them. Good thing I’m teacher’s favourite!’
This seemed normal, the kind of stupid crap that any kid would write in her diary. I remembered keeping one myself, once. When I moved into halls of residence I thought I had packed it away in a box. I reached into the box to take it out to have a read, and a laugh, but the book was gone.
The next paragraph was written in adult handwriting, a contrast to Emily’s childish scrawls. I applied the cipher to it and teased out the words. I ran my eyes down the page and read the text.
‘This one is lost, we know. But we will show her the way. She is young and her mind is soft, flesh that squeezes between our fingers. She fights us away but we tear through. We are comfortable here. Too comfortable. Her mind will be a dark place soon. Black enough for us to rest.’
I tore my eyes away from the book. It felt like an icy hand ran up and down my back, and my skin itched. I turned my head and looked out of the window. I expected a shadowy figure to be on the street, looking up into my room and watching me as I sat. Instead it was empty.
Suddenly I felt like I had to get out of the room. Like any second now it would be plunged into darkness, and shapes would form where my eyes couldn’t see. I stood up away from the desk and looked at the door. I expected the door knob to twist and for something to start pushing it open. The door stayed firm.
With my breath catching in my chest I looked at the wall. As I traced my eyes along the cold stone a feeling of dread crept up in my chest, a warning sign from my body to look away. Suddenly I caught something glinting out of the stone. My heart stopped beating and my chest tightened in a freezing vice. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I wanted to turn from the room and run.
Along from the door, there was a hole in the wall the size of coin. Darkness from the corridor should have poured through it, but instead, an eye stared into the gap.
It peered through the hole and into the room. White as milk and bloodshot with a bulbous black pupil sitting heavy in the middle. My legs felt like lead weights. I stepped to my left, feeling a chill run through me as I moved. The eye followed me, its stare fixed on me from the darkness.
A scream built up inside me but I didn’t have the breath to let it out. I was mute, a radio with the volume slid down. My body made no sound, but inside my mind I shrieked. I wanted to look away but I was scared that if I looked back and saw that the eye in the wall still watched me, I would lose my mind.
I ran into the bathroom. I slapped the light switch and the old bulb flickered to life and cast a dim glow on the laminate floor. I walked to the sink, twisted the tap and let water trickle down. It felt like a layer of ice when I splashed it on my face. I closed my eyes and tried to settle my hammering heart. I opened them again, half expecting the eye to be staring back at me from the mirror. Instead there was just my pale reflection, my face a sheet of fear.
I opened my mouth and made a sound. I didn’t know what it was, I just needed to know my vocal chords still worked. I turned the tap and cut the flow of water. Without its steady trickle, the room was silent. I shook my head, tried to empty it of the eerie thoughts that stabbed at me.
I felt emptiness inside, like my body had given up and let everything leak out. I looked down at the sink and felt shards of fear stab at me. In the plughole, wrapped around the metal, were long strands of black hair.
A desperate cry rose in my throat and escaped my mouth before I could clamp it shut.
This isn’t happening.
I reached for the hair and tugged at it. It clung to the plug hole like a leech.
This isn’t happening.
I took a breath and heaved at the hair, and finally I felt it rip away. The long, sodden strands felt like eels in my hand. Wet and slimy, and wrapping around my fingers. A damp smell invaded the air. It snuck up my nose, into my mouth, down my throat. I wanted to gag. I threw the hair away from me and heard it slap against the bathtub.
I became aware of a presence beside me. I didn’t dare turn my head to see it, but I knew it was there. It stood just beyond the bathroom doorway in the shadows of the bedroom. It watched me silently. I felt like I was going to faint. My heart raced, but its beats were weak like a battery running out of charge. I held onto the sink so as not to fall.
Is it her?
Emily. The name crawled out from the crevices of my brain. I looked out of the corner of my eye, fighting for my life to keep my head rigid and not let it turn. I knew I must not look at the shape directly, that to stare at it would be to welcome it in. But still I felt its black presence in the doorway. Waves of malice drifted from it and settled in the air like steam.
I wanted to scream for Jeremiah, but I didn’t dare make a sound. I remembered the words of the letter.
Once she’s in your room she stares at you. You can try and look away all you want but you’ll feel that glare on your face, daring your eyes to meet hers. And once you give in and look at her, well you’ve acknowledged her again. She knows that you can see her, that you know she’s there.
With a shaking hand, I picked up my toothbrush. I had to act natural, pretend nothing was amiss. My hand trembled as I brushed my teeth. I looked in the mirror and saw my wide eyes and skin drained of colour. I was like a spectre staring through a window.
When the feeling started to fade I walked back into the bedroom. I picked up the diary, ignoring the ice that spread across my palms. My chest was tight as if I had run a marathon, and I felt like I was going to drop. I opened the drawer on my desk, threw in the diary and slammed it shut.
Alone again, I wasn’t sure that anything had actually been here. The presence I had sensed felt like a bad dream, drifting away as I swam into consciousness. Had I imagined it all? Had she really been there?
I looked at the stone wall and saw no trace of any hole. Relief flooded through me. I ran into the bathroom and stopped in shock in the doorway. I had expected the bathtub to go back to normal, but I wasn’t that lucky. The long strands of hair hung over the sides of the porcelain and dripped dirty water onto the floor.
What was real?
I thought back to the letter. What was it the man had written about Emily?
They say she comes at night. She knocks on your bedroom door.
Knock, knock, knock.
She’ll carry on all night until you answer. She’ll never leave save for day break, and then at night she’s back. Knocking on your door. The knocks getting louder and louder until you answer or tell her to come in.
I hadn’t heard any knocking, and there wasn’t a chance in hell I would answer the door even if I did. Questions fired through my brain as I began to doubt my own mind. Was all of this getting to me? Where the years of reading about urban legends finally catching up? Had I broken my own brain by studying too hard and reading about bullshit?
I sat on the edge of my bed and stared at my desk. The diary was the key to everything, I knew. Within it, if I ever built up the courage to read it again, was Emily’s story. I hoped it stayed hidden forever. I couldn’t hold the thing in my hands again. I couldn’t tell Jeremiah I had figured out the cipher. To do that would be to acknowledge her. If I read her diary again, I knew I would hear those terrible knocks on my bedroom door.
I glanced at the stone walls around me. I felt naked, like unseen faces stared at me from the stonework. Some curious, others laughing. A feeling of evil intent seeped out, like someone meant me harm.
I scampered down the bed and crawled under the sheets. I pulled them tight up to my neck, reached out beside me and flicked on the bedside lamp. I was back to this, then. Back to sleeping with the light on again.
Suddenly I wished I hadn’t wasted my teenage years lost in the grim text of folklore and legends. I wished I had picked up the phone once in a while. Spent time basking in the smiles of my friends, hearing their laughter and actually listening to them talk, rather than worrying about my next assignment. I was letting life spin away from me, trapping it within the covers of dusty books.
I wanted to go and see Jeremiah, but the prideful part of me locked my body in place. I wouldn’t let him see me this way. I was stronger than this. At least, I thought I was. I cocooned myself in my bedsheets and hoped that soon the chill would leave my body and that my eyelids would start to feel heavy and allow me some escape.
As the black of night swam outside the window, I let the hours drain away. Try as I might I couldn’t shut my eyes. I couldn’t take them away from the bedroom door. My ears pricked up, expecting any second now to hear those terrible sounds.
Knock, knock, knock.
When I crept down the stairs and into the pub lounge the next morning, Jeremiah’s seat was empty. I didn’t think it likely that he would have slept in, because he seemed like he functioned on as little shut-eye as possible. Outside the sky was murky, and the dim light in the corner of the room didn’t do much to illuminate the shadows. It didn’t feel like a quaint place to me anymore. It felt like a chill clung to me wherever I went, like a mouth blew frozen breaths on me from the darkness.
“What do you want?”
I jerked my head up and saw Marsha stood next to the table, bony arms folded against her chest. My stomach felt light, but the idea of food didn’t sit well.
“I’ll just take some toast and a coffee.”
She looked at me in disgust.
“That’s all, Marsha.”
Instead of walking into the kitchen she hovered at the table like a ghost. I felt irritation scratch at my chest. I had never been a morning person, and I was even less so when my throat was thick with phlegm and my body still shook from the scare I’d had the night before.
“Can I help you?” I said, not caring to hide to annoyance in my voice.
Marsha’s skin stretched sternly across her face and showed off the bones beneath. She hadn’t put on any makeup, and black circles rested below her eyes. I noticed a silver wedding ring on her hand, but I couldn’t remember ever seeing her husband. She’d never mentioned him, either, and it seemed like she ran the pub herself.
“I know what you’re doing,” she said.
I stared ahead of me and feigned disinterest. “Just some university work.”
Her face was grave, her skin pale. She looked around her, as if checking that nobody watched us. From the silence in the pub, without even the radio playing, I knew we were alone. Or I hoped we were, at least.
“I know why you’re here,” she said.
“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
I expected her to raise her voice or show some of her trademark contempt. Instead she pulled out the chair and sat across from me. She stretched her arms out along the table as if she were begging. She leant forward and met my eyes.
“You don’t know what you’re doing. You have to stop. You have to tell him to leave well alone.”
I shrank back in my seat. I didn’t know what to say. Marsha harsh tones were gone, replaced by what sounded like genuine concern. I was at a loss. Marsha twisted her wedding ring around her finger, and I saw that the skin underneath was red. Despite how thin her fingers were, her ring cut into her skin.
The pub door opened and Jeremiah walked in. Water dripped from his coat and fell onto the floor in patters. His hair was soaked, and the tangles made him look like a shaggy street dog. Despite his drenching there was a spark in his face.
Marsha bolted to her feet.
“I’ll get your toast.”
“Save it,” said Jeremiah. “We’re leaving.”
“But I haven’t had my breakfast,” I said.
Despite not feeling hungry, the fact Jeremiah had already decided I wasn’t having anything to eat made me want it all the more.
“Get something later. We’ve got work to do.”
Outside the rain had stopped. The clouds looked thin and sparse, as though giant hands had choked the water out of them and left them to die. The cobblestones were stained dark with rain. One woman walked down the street with her umbrella above her, unaware that the sky had stopped throwing water on it.
I struggled to keep up with Jeremiah’s brisk strides. He walked fast normally, but today it seemed like he was in a race.
“Gonna tell me where we’re going?”
“I’ve got something.”
“Great, but what?”
We walked through the village and passed the school. We took a few turns through narrow streets and then came out on the east side, leaving the main square and shops behind us. As we moved out from the shelter of the buildings we reached the fields. The wind swirled savagely and battered my coat. There was a building in front of us.
“Any luck with the diary?” said Jeremiah.
A pang of dread hit my chest. I’d been waiting for him to ask.
“No,” I said.
Jeremiah’s face dropped for a second.
The building looked like an old manor, the kind of country house a rich family might build as a holiday home. From the front I counted forty windows. It reached three stories high, and all along the stone work were intricate carvings of swirls and shapes that I couldn’t make sense of. Two pillars stood outside the front entrance. They were cracked, as if they strained against the weight of the roof above them. The manor looked like it was dissolving away piece by piece, as if the countryside was fighting to reclaim it and pull it deep into the earth. They had long ago given up on maintenance of this place, I decided. Whoever owned it was happy to let it crumble, or maybe they were helpless to do anything about it. A sign outside read ‘Sleepy Meadow Retirement Home.”
“Grim place,” I said.
Jeremiah stopped walking. He scanned the front of the building.
“Everything looks grim on days like this.”
Black metal railings surrounded the manor. They reached seven feet into the air and were capped with thick spikes, giving the building the feel of a medieval prison. I thought about the name, ‘Sleepy Meadow’ and how ill-fitting it was. There were meadows surrounding it, sure, but they were harsh and windswept. It wasn’t a place that inspired sleep, and I couldn’t imagine spending a night here.
“This is the most populated retirement home in a hundred mile radius,” said Jeremiah. “It’s packed with old gits.”
“There must be at least forty rooms,” I said.
He nodded. “More, actually. There are fifty-seven residents, according to the receptionist I spoke to.”
“But how? There’s not even that many people in the village.”
“Think about the kind of place this is. People move here to retire. Even if they have kids, the children leave for the cities the first chance they get. It’s a village where people come to die.”
“So what are we doing here?”
“There’s someone we need to see.”
Inside the manor dim lights fought against the gloom. The lobby spread out wide like a cavern. The carpet underneath our feet was patchy and stained, as if the people in charge had long ago given up trying to clean it. Large, industrial-sized radiators lined the walls but if they gave off any heat, I couldn’t feel it.
The receptionist sat behind her desk. Next to her a plug-in heater whirred and emitted a warm glow. Along the desk, pushed far away from her, was a stuffed owl. Its eyes were pinpricks of black and its beak looked sharp enough to cut skin.
“You the fella who rang earlier?” she said.
“I’ll take you to Clive.”
She led us away from reception and down a corridor that smelled of bleach. The roof was low and at points it looked like Jeremiah was going to bang his head. It was like it had been designed for short people. Maybe the family who once owned didn’t have any members over six feet tall. We stopped outside a door with the number thirteen on it.
“This is Clive’s room. Try not to rile him up. He doesn’t look it, but he’s a vicious bugger.”
I looked at her in surprise. I thought we had come to see a weak old man, but she made it sound like Clive was prisoner. I expected her to reach to her side and pull out a truncheon and pepper spray.
She gave two sharp knocks. A thin strip of light shone under the door, and footsteps walked toward us. The door knob rattled and twisted, but the door didn’t open. It started to turn quicker, and I heard groans from behind it. The handle shook furiously, as if in fright.
“Slide the bolt, Clive,” said the receptionist in a pleasant, but patronising, tone of voice.
A bolt clicked and the handle turned, and this time the door opened. We were greeted by a face that looked like a corpse emerging from a coffin. Clive looked ancient. His skin was wrinkled so that there was not an inch of smoothness, and it seemed dried out. His wrists were bony, and a white night gown clung onto his torso.
“Clive, we have two people here to see you.”
Clive stood uneasily at the door, as if wondering whether to let us in. Finally he took a step to the side. He smiled at me, and despite looking like death his smile was warm, and his eyes shone behind it. It struck me that I felt at ease in his presence.
“What a surprise,” he said. “Come in, come in.”
I had expected his voice to be dry and croaky, but his tones flowed like warm treacle. He walked into his room and sat on the edge of his bed. I stood in the doorway, unsure of what to do.
“Come on love,” said Clive, and waved his hand in the air to beckon me in.
“I’ll leave you to it,” said the receptionist. “Remember; don’t get him into a state. There’s a panic alarm next to the bed if you need anything.”
Jeremiah and I walked into Clive’s room. I shut the door behind me. Despite the gloom of the manor, he had made bright use of his space. There were flowers on the mantelpiece, and a bookcase filled with adventure books was opposite his bed. Paintings hung on the walls.
Clive crossed his legs. “First time I have ever heard her call it a panic alarm,” he said. “They normally call it the care button. Makes me sound like a murderer.”
We took seats next to Clive’s bed. Jeremiah sank into his like he was lounging in a gentleman’s club. I sat upright. The wooden spine of the chair dug into my back.
“I can’t tell you how good it is to see you again,” said Clive.
I shot a look at Jeremiah, but he didn’t betray any surprise. I wondered if the two of them had met before. Then I realised that Clive had addressed the words to me. I didn’t know what to say.
“It’s been too long,” he carried on. “When do I get to see my beautiful grandson again? He’s not asleep in the car is he?”
“I don’t know what – “
Jeremiah gave me a sharp kick on the ankle. I saw his eyebrows arch as if trying to tell me something. I looked at Clive and thought about where we were. It slid into place.
“You know I always love to see you,” said Clive, “but we’ll have to be quick. I have a class to teach in thirty minutes.”
Suddenly the room seemed cast in shadow. I looked at the old man perched on the end of his bed. It made me sad to think about what happened to our minds as we got older. That thoughts could start to get jumbled up, that memories could seep through into reality and confuse us as to what was real. Clive had once been a teacher, I realised, and his past was swimming into the present. He must have a daughter, too.
“We won’t take too much of your time, Clive. I know you’re busy, and you can’t keep the school waiting, eh?” said Jeremiah.
His tone was kind. It seemed like some people were exempt from his bluster.
“I’ve always got time for my daughter and her – “
Clive looked at me, as if searching for the word.
“Assistant,” I filled in. “This is Jeremiah, my assistant.”
I decide that there was nothing to be gained from correcting Clive. If he thought I was his daughter, then so be it. It was obvious that his real daughter never bothered to come and see him. I felt Jeremiah’s gaze burn on me, but I let my lips wrap into a smile.
“I’m so proud of you,” said Clive. “A high-flier. City slicker. Not like your old dad.”
Jeremiah straightened in his chair.
“I wanted to ask you about a pupil of yours.”
Clive’s eyebrows arched. “Oh? Not that bloody Thomas, is it?”
“No,” said Jeremiah. “Emily Jenkins.”
Clive ran his hand over his head as if expecting curls to topple between his fingers, but his hair was sparse. He pulled his fingers away and seemed confused for a moment.
“I don’t recall her,” he said.
“Little girl, black hair. Quiet. Moody,” said Jeremiah.
Clive’s face was one of utter confusion. Whether it was through fading memories of the years or the advancement of his condition, it was clear that he struggled with the name. He needed something to prompt him. I didn’t want to speak of it, but I knew what would spark a fire of memory in him. I thought about the diary.
“You made her sit next to a boy called Thomas,” I said. “He stole all her pens. Her name was Emily Jenkins.”
Clive’s face drained of colour until he turned as grey as the sky outside. His eyes grew wide, and he shrank back so far it seemed like he was going to flop on the bed. He shifted away from us, as if putting distance between himself and the name.
His face twisted into a mask of terror. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words formed. Instead a cry crawled out of his throat, as if it was the only sound he could manage. I bolted out of my seat. It looked like he was going to pass out.
He moved even further along the bed until he bumped his head against the back wall. He was like a child scampering away from a monster. The groan trailed away, and he stared at us blankly. Then, not daring to take his eyes off us, he reached his hand out toward the panic alarm.
Jeremiah stood up, walked to the end of the bed and pulled it away from him.
“Just a few questions,” he said.
Jeremiah had never scared me until now. There was something chilling about the way he snatched the panic button away from Clive. He was calm, but there was a look in his eyes that suggested Clive should do as he say. The old man shrank back against the headboard of the bed.
“Nurse!” he shouted.
“Maybe we better go,” I said.
Jeremiah shot me a dirty look. “I’m sick of this place. I’ve had it with their cover-ups and bullshit.”
“Are you saying he’s faking his condition?”
“They fake everything else around here, so why not?” He leaned into Clive’s face. “Tell us about Emily.”
White eyes stared back. “Don’t say that name. I don’t know who you mean.”
Jeremiah’s shoulders shook. “Tell us.”
Footsteps ran along the corridors toward our room. The door opened and the receptionist stood there, eyes wide as if she didn’t know what to expect. I wondered why a nurse hadn’t come. Did this woman have to play nurse to the fifty-odd residents as well as receptionist?
“What the hell is going on here?”
“I want to see his medical records,” said Jeremiah.
The woman arched her eyebrow. “Are you his doctor?” Her tone was sarcastic.
“Does he really have Alzheimer’s? Has he actually been diagnosed?”
Clive looked up at Jeremiah from the bed. He winced when he heard the word. Sadness stabbed through my chest when I realised we were talking about Clive like he couldn’t hear us. It seemed like because he had his condition, we assumed that he didn’t matter and that he couldn’t process our words. The fact was that he was probably cleverer than all of us.
“We better go,” I told Jeremiah.
Jeremiah pointed at Clive. “Tell us about the girl.”
The receptionist held a walkie-talkie in her hand. “I can have security here in five minutes.”
Jeremiah hung his head. He walked toward the door, shoulders sagging like a tire bleeding out air. As he passed me he looked at me with sad eyes.
“This is a lost cause, Ella. It’s all a big waste of time.”
There was hurt in his tone, as though the misdirection and lies of the villagers were a weight pressing down on him. I understood how much this all meant to him; that investigating this stuff was his life, and he wanted to find mysteries that he could scientifically prove and then show them to the world.
There was something real to this one. I knew that from the way goosebumps raised on my skin when I thought of going back to my room. Knowing that was the case meant that I could never talk about it, because talking about what I saw would mean acknowledging her existence. Then those horrible knocks would come, not just on my door but on Jeremiah’s too.
We walked out of Clive’s room and down the gloomy corridor, our footsteps sinking into the decades-old carpet. The receptionist walked briskly ahead, so fast she almost slipped into a run. It was like she didn’t like venturing too far into the building, that it was safer behind her reception desk where she could see the front door.
As we got into the lobby I gave Jeremiah a dig in the ribs. When he turned his head toward me I gave him a knowing look.
”Listen,” I said, looking at the receptionist. “I’m Clive’s daughter, you know.”
“Yeah. Surely you’ve seen me here before?”
“I only started a few months ago. Never seen you here.”
I hung my head. “Yeah. I don’t come as often as I could. Think I could go see him again? Just me on my own?”
The receptionist put her fingers to her chin. The remains of flecked-away polish clung onto her nails.
“Aye, go ahead.”
When I pushed open Clive’s door and walked into his room, his shoulders twitched in alarm. He stared behind me into the corridor, but after seeing it was just me his posture relaxed.
I looked around his room. Aside from the bookcase there was little to show how he accounted for his time. Did he just lie in bed and stare at the walls? For his sake I hoped not, because they weren’t a nice sight.
Familiar watercolour paintings hung over the seventies-style wallpaper. I walked up to the wall and stood in front of one of them. It was of the woodlands outside of town, and it was by the same artist as the ones I had seen before. My throat tightened as I stared at the scene.
The trees bunched together to create pillars of darkness and sucked away any light that dared shine at them. Outside the woods four children played. The boys seemed to be wrestling with each other, while the girls drew symbols on the grass in chalk. Beyond them, deep in the heart of the woodlands, were four figures. They were too far into the shadows to see clearly, but their black outlines were there all the same. They watched the children, and seemed to be waiting for them to venture into the woods.
“I see these everywhere,” I said. “Guy must be famous.”
Clive laughed. “Trust me, he’s not famous. I’d venture to say that most people bought his paintings out of pity.”
“They’re so dark and depressing.”
“He was that kind of man.”
I turned and looked at him. He looked much more at ease with just me in the room. “It was you, wasn’t it?” I asked.
Clive nodded slowly.
I pulled out a chair opposite him. “Mind if I sit?”
“Park your bum.”
The wind swept along the fields outside and blew the grass to one side like a comb running through hair. The clouds were wispy in some places and thick in others, struggling to decide whether to give the village another lashing of rain. There was a chill to the air, and it was the kind of weather that drove people indoors where they’d light up their fires and shiver into their clothes.
“I’m sorry about Jeremiah,” I said.
“He’s a thug.”
“He’s just passionate.”
Clive looked to the walls at one of his paintings. His eyelids were heavy like a basset hound, and glumness settled over him.
“Haven’t painted in years. Can’t seem to do it, any more. As soon as I get an idea it slips away.”
“Why do you paint the forest so much?”
He let out a shaky breath. “Because I used to think about them a lot. It was like I didn’t have any choice. My thoughts were drawn to them, and also to…”
As soon as I spoke the words they shattered over the stillness of the room like crystal smashing on a marble floor. Clive wrapped his fingers round one side of the headboard. He looked to the door, as if wondering whether to try and call for reception again.
“I know about it all,” I said. “I know about her.”
The fingers of his free hand twitched. He took hold of the bedcover and pulled it over his knees. His forehead creased as thoughts tumbled over in his mind. Finally he shook his head, as if he had made a decision that he was unhappy with but knew he must stick to at the same time.
“She was such a sweet child,” he said. His words sounded choked and desperate. “She had a nice nature. The kind who would remember my birthday. That sort of awareness is rare in small children. They’re usually selfish little bastards.”
He shot a look at the hallway as if he expected someone to be stood there. “She was the cleverest girl in my class by a mile, and there was talk of fast-tracking her into another year group. She was clever way beyond her years, beyond any child I had ever taught. But there was a sadness about her, too.”
I swallowed. It seemed wrong to hear about her, like any words concerning Emily should stay unspoken. “What kind of sadness?” I asked.
Clive’s face was pale. “There was a sickness in those young eyes.”
He put his hands to his face. He curled his fingers and pressed them into his skin, and for one ridiculous second I thought he was going to start clawing at his own face to tear it off. Instead a deep sob rumbled from his chest and out of his mouth.
I stood up and walked over to him. I put my arms over his shoulder and brought his head tight against my stomach. I let the old man sob against me, his shoulders heaving and shaking as the sadness welled in him.
Finally he brought his hand away from his face. The sadness slipped away, as though within a second it was forgotten about.
“Thanks for coming,” he said. “Can you bring Alfie next time?”
He looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “My beautiful grandson.”
“Oh, yeah. Sure thing.”
I knew that there was no more I would get from Clive. He had taught Emily, and he knew that something was wrong with her. Aside from that, there was nothing he could have done. From the painting he made it seem like something in the village haunted him, that a spectre rested on his shoulders. Maybe his condition was the best thing for him. It sounded horrible, but maybe the ability to forget was a blessing.
I stood in the doorway and watched him as he stared out of the window. There was something about the words he used that jarred in my thoughts. I couldn’t place it, but I knew there was something significant about what he had said.
“I’ll see you around,” I said. “It was good to see you.”
“And you dear.”
I turned and faced the dark corridor. I was about to leave when I heard him rustle on the bed behind me.
I span round and faced him.
“Yeah?” I said.
Hang on. He just called me by my real name.
Clive sat up straight, as if unseen hands pulled at a string on his back. “She knows about you.”
A chill spread through my legs, into my stomach and chest and up my arms until it felt like pins and needles stabbed at every inch of my skin. I pulled my coat closer and walked toward the main lobby as shadows swallowed up the corridor behind me.
Outside Sleepy Meadow the wind blew on the blades of grass and made them seem like they were stretching out toward us. Jeremiah leaned against the black metal gate with his arms folded and a disinterested look on his face. The village loomed a quarter of a mile behind him, across the fields and almost tucked out of sight by the crest of a hill.
A gust hit me in the chest and sneaked through whatever gaps it could find in my clothes. It didn’t make a difference. The chill I felt from my talk with Clive filled me with a coldness that layers and heat couldn’t change. It was a burden that made me feel a stone heavier now than when we had walked into the retirement home.
Sheep chewed grass in the fields adjacent to us. Some of them lay down, bunching together to shelter from the cold. It was a large field but the sheep had decided to stick to one half of it, and what should have been a sparse plot of land was covered in one half by chewed grass and the other by woolly creatures. At the other end of the field, I saw why they avoided one side of it. On the grass, across from a wooden turnstile, was a dead sheep. Its fleece was stained red and bleached bones stuck out from a hole in its torso. The sheep’s fleece seemed to spread out and melt into the field, as though it was being devoured whole by the earth.
“Did he say anything interesting?” said Jeremiah. His tone was relaxed, carefully so, but his eyes burned on me.
I could have kept it to myself, but I was getting bored of the games. Sometimes Jeremiah was way too easy to pull along, and he was so desperate for there to be a mystery here that he hung on everything I said. I wondered what he would have done without me. The guy had brains, more than I could ever hope for myself, and he knew what he wanted. But his natural attitude pushed people away. It had made the Jenkins family hate us, and it had gotten us kicked out of Sleepy Meadow. Jeremiah needed to change, but I didn’t see that ever happening.
I wondered what to tell him. It was stupid, but a part of me worried about saying anything. What if the story was true? Would I be putting Jeremiah in danger by telling him what I knew about Emily? Clive’s words chilled through me.
She knows about you.
This was ridiculous. Jeremiah knew the girl existed already, and he had read the letter. If she was going to come for him, she would have done it by now. The fact was, this was an urban legend. Nothing more. A sad little girl had died, and in the years that followed grief had given birth to a twisted tale. It was the only way some people could process the harsh reality of life; that all of us would meet our end at some point. They coped with the finality of death by imagining there was something else.
As much as I soothed my mind with rational words, I knew that they wouldn’t stick.
I shivered into my clothes. “Can we get away from this place?” I said.
Jeremiah sprang away from the gate. Sleepy Meadow was behind me, a once beautiful building rotted with age, and the steel bars of the gate pointed to the sky and warned people away. I felt like a prisoner released from a sentence, with Jeremiah waiting outside to lead me into a second prison, that of the real world.
“Come on then,” he said. “Let’s go back to the pub.”
Not the pub.
I shook my head. “Think we could go somewhere else?”
“There’s nowhere else to go, Ella. Can’t exactly get a cappuccino and croissant around here.”
We decided to take the long route back to town and walk through the fields that surrounded it. The grass was a weak yellow colour and the mud was hard and cracked. A cow stood lonely in the middle of an acre. Cobblestone walls divided the fields in sections, the stones looking like they could slip away and crumble at any second. I thought about the women killed in the woods. Had they walked this way to their deaths? Had their hands passed over the rough stones while the villagers marched them to their fates?
“Come on then, spill it. What did Clive say?”
My fingers throbbed with the cold. I put my hands in my pockets.
I decided I wasn’t going to tell Jeremiah everything. There were things that he didn’t need to hear, words that I felt deep down should not be spoken. Maybe I was trying to protect him, or maybe I just didn’t want to speak about it myself. I wanted to forget the nightmare. I decided I wouldn’t tell him about Clive’s warning.
“You saw what he was like. There wasn’t much he could tell me.”
“He must have said something.”
“How about you tell me how you found out he was the girl’s teacher?”
Jeremiah looked out across the fields as though he expected someone to be stood there. He flicked his coat collar up and ducked his chin into it.
“Remember the groundskeeper at the graveyard?”
I remembered the man with his mud-caked boots, throwing twigs into the fire. He hadn’t told me anything, and he seemed like the kind of guy who kept to himself.
“He didn’t know anything.”
“So he said.”
I screwed up my forehead. “I already asked him about the girl. He didn’t even know there was a death.”
“Like I said, a bottle of whiskey goes a long way around here.”
“You must have bought about fifty bottles by now.”
Jeremiah smiled. “I’m single-handedly keeping Marsha in business.”
I thought about being at the pub sat across from the stern landlady. The concern in her face when she warned us to stop what we were doing. To stop digging, stop asking questions. It was yet another thing I hadn’t told Jeremiah. I felt bad. He wanted there to be a mystery here. He was searching for a truth that by all rights shouldn’t have existed, yet I knew I did. I was here as a tag along, I realised, but this was his life’s work. Who was I to hold it back from him? I decided to throw him a bone.
“There was a phrase Clive used, and I just can’t get it out of my head.”
Jeremiah stopped walking. The wind groaned through cavities in the cobbled-walls.
I had to tease the words out, as though they clung to my throat. “He said ‘There’s a sickness behind those young eyes’.”
Jeremiah’s face lit up. His eyes grew wide and almost bulged out of his face. He grabbed my arm, and I felt my muscles sting beneath his grip.
“Say that again. Tell me exactly what he said, word for word.”
“He was talking about Emily, about how she was clever and kind, but that she was sad. That there was a sickness behind her eyes.”
Jeremiah sucked in a breath so big it was like it took his lungs by surprise. “Doesn’t that mean anything to you, Ella? Don’t you remember that?”
He gripped me harder and shook me in excitement. I felt like a scarecrow tossed by the wind.
“You’re hurting me.”
He relaxed his grip. “Surely you remember?”
“I really don’t.”
Jeremiah looked up at the sky, as though some golden truth had rained down from the murky clouds. Then he looked back at me and his eyes swam with a fire red as his beard.
“It was in the letter. The one that started this. The person who wrote it said that, too.”
A shudder ran through me. I thought back to the letter. The sloppiness of the handwriting, almost like a child’s, but with the words of an adult. The invitation for Jeremiah to come to the village, the warning about the girl.
“It was Clive,” I said.
The air felt thick as though fog gathered around us, except I could still see for miles around. To the west, I saw the dark woods. The trees bunched together and created a border of shadows, as if blocking anyone from entering. It was like they were warning people away. I thought back to Clive’s painting, of the children playing on the borders of the forest, and the shadows watching them from beneath the tall elms.
Jeremiah put his hands to his face and covered it. Seconds passed while he just stood there with deep thoughts washing over him. When he moved his hands away, his face was pale.
“It’s all bullshit,” he said. His words were choked, as if they burned his throat as he spoke them.
I shivered into my coat. “What do you mean?”
“The letter, the girl, all of this. It’s just bullshit. It’s a fantasy, the wild imagination of a man who is losing his mind. If Clive wrote the letter, than it’s all a crock of shit.”
I shook my head. Part of me wanted to tell him about what happened to me in my room. Deep inside me I knew that it was real, that it wasn’t just the fantasy of a man losing his mind. Just knowing that meant I couldn’t tell him. I wanted Jeremiah to find his mystery, to have his glory, but I wouldn’t put him in harm’s way just to satisfy his ego.
Jeremiah walked over to the wall, swung his leg back and kicked the stones. A loose rock tipped from the top and tumbled onto the dirt.
“All of this, for nothing. A load of absolute shit.”
As Jeremiah took his frustration out on the shaky wall, the wind whipped around us. It pulled at my hair, stung my ears. Suddenly I wanted to get in the car and leave. I wanted to be far, far away from this grim village.
As we walked into the village the streets seemed greyer than usual, as if the rain had washed over them and carried away the colour like water over an ink stain. The main square was empty save for a man who walked with a dog that strained at its leash, and an old woman who pulled a shopping trolley behind her.
Jeremiah walked with his shoulders sunk so low that he looked like he was about to tip over. His face was set in a grimace, and his eyes watched the dirt-lined pavement flags as his boots pounded on them.
I had a crushing feeling inside me. Guilt sat heavy and clawed at my stomach. This was Jeremiah’s life, I knew. He didn’t have anyone to care about, that I knew of anyway, and every breath he took, every step he walked, was in search of some mysterious truth. He wanted to know that there was something out there.
“So it’s all bollocks,” I said, in as nice a tone as I could manage, “So what? You’ve investigated tons of cases, Jeremiah. You must have loads of proof that…things…exist.”
“Nothing,” he grunted.
“What about Bruges? What about Billy Wilkins? Surely you got proof of whatever happened there.”
He shook his head. His voice was gruff, his tone weak.
“You don’t understand. Any time I get closer to the heart of something, the proof just dissolves away. These things are so fragile, Ella. The things beyond what we can see, the mysteries that exist, they don’t want to be found. They don’t want us to know they are there.”
“I don’t understand.”
He looked at me with sad eyes. “Deep down I know that out of everything I ever investigated, at least some of it was true. But I’ve never been able to prove it. And until I do, guys like your professor and his tie-wearing friends will always think I’m a lunatic howling at the moon and chasing ghosts.”
I wanted to reassure him, but from my conversation with Professor Higson I got the sense that he did believe Jeremiah was crazy. Higson was a man grounded in reality, who didn’t believe something until he saw proof within the pages of a book. To him, for something to be real it had to be set on paper. Displayed on a projector. Stand firm before the poke of a scientific finger. I realised that his need for proof restricted his mind like the tie around his neck restricted his breathing. Jeremiah was free. He allowed himself to look beyond all that, and to actually trust what he felt.
I couldn’t let him be so downcast. Though he seemed calm I felt him shake, as if he sat on top of a fault line that was starting to tremor. I reached forward and put my hand on his shoulder.
“I cracked the cipher,” I said. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before, but I thought that if I did – ”
He jerked his head up and glared at me with a steel stare. The wind flicked his hair around, made him look like a mad man.
“You did what?”
“I know what the diary says. I mean, not all of it. I only translated some. I couldn’t bring myself to read the rest.”
“I need to see it.”
His tone was urgent, his voice strong. His shoulders bunched up, as though the weight that made them sag had been cast away.
“It’s in my room. I really don’t think you should read it though,” I said.
My breath was cold as it left my lips.
“There’s something going on, Jeremiah. There’s a truth to all of this. When I think about the girl, I feel…I don’t know. Like I’m filled with ice.”
If he heard my words, he didn’t show it. Instead he took off in great strides that stopped just short of being a run. I walked after him. As we moved through the village and toward the pub I glanced from time to time at the houses we passed. Most looked dark inside, as though the residents saved electricity by living in darkness. In some I was sure I saw eyes watching me through drawn-back curtains.
Jeremiah pushed the pub door open with a force that made it slam against the wall. Marsha looked up from behind the bar and stopped pouring gin into a glass.
“Watch my bloody door,” she said.
Jeremiah ignored her and headed straight for the stairs.
“For God’s sake wait a second,” I said.
He shrugged off my words and pounded up the staircase. His boots rang off in deep thuds as he reached the top, turned down the corridor and stopped outside my room. I finally caught up to him and stood outside the door. He twisted the handle, but the door didn’t budge.
“Just listen to me,” I said. I felt like I needed to get the words out. I had to warn him about what he was about to read, and about what could happen to him if he did.
When he looked at me, his jaw clenched. I stepped back a little and felt a shiver run through me. It was like looking at a mad dog.
“You’re scaring me,” I said.
He took a deep breath, closed his eyes for a second. When he opened them, his face softened.
“I’m sorry. I just need to see it. Please open the door.”
Stood outside my room, I realised that I didn’t want to go back in. It felt like a cold energy throbbed from it. I put the key in the lock and heard it whine as I twisted it. I reached for the handle, felt the metal sting against my skin. My heart thudded in my chest.
Jeremiah pushed the door open and stepped into my room. He looked around him.
“Where is it?” he said, eyes darting from wall to wall.
I nodded over to the desk by the window.
“In the drawer.”
He strode over and ripped open the drawer. His forehead creased.
“Try the other one,” I said.
He pulled the drawers open one by own, finding each of them empty. I rubbed my temple and wondered if I’d put the diary somewhere else and just forgotten about it. I knew that I hadn’t. That night, after feeling the presence watching me in the bathroom, I had put the diary in the drawer so that I didn’t have to see it. Now it was gone.
Jeremiah slammed the drawer so hard that the desk wobbled and the floorboards whined underneath it. I felt a chill run through my body and for a second I thought of telling him about the busted radiator to give him another reason to have a go at Marsha. From the heated look in his face I knew that was a bad idea.
“Where is it?”
I walked over to the desk and slid open the drawers. Part of me dreaded opening them and seeing that the diary was there. I didn’t know where it had gone or who had taken it, but a part of me felt happy. I hoped someone had stolen the diary and taken it far away. I hoped they’d walked into the fields in the dead of night and buried it in a mound of dirt.
“It was right here,” I said.
Jeremiah raised his fist and pounded the desk. The sound made me jump. I had never seen him like this. He always wore a grimace on his face, but now his features twisted with pure anger.
“This is all bullshit. I’m ready to call curtains on the charade.”
Do it. Let’s get in the car and get the hell out of here.
But I knew that couldn’t happen. If we took off, where did that leave the village? Were people going to die because of this girl? Was I going to have to live with the knowledge that I knew about it, and that instead of doing something to stop it I fled into the night?
What if she followed me?
“I swear it was here, Jeremiah. I translated a page and then shut the thing up in the drawer.”
“What did it say?”
I tried to remember the words written in adult handwriting, but they were hidden away. I ran through my mind, lifting rocks and looking into the shadows, but it was like something had teased them away from me and locked them up. As though they were words I shouldn’t remember.
“It was horrible stuff. Something a kid couldn’t have written. ‘The flesh is soft. Her mind will be a dark place soon’. Shit like that.”
Saying the words felt wrong on my tongue.
“You’re losing your mind.”
Irritation stroked my spine. “Really? After all the shit you’ve told me, you still don’t believe me?”
Jeremiah pulled the chair from under the desk. He lowered himself into it, and his weight sagged against the wood.
“It’s because of everything I know that I can say it. I know what it’s like to believe. I know how it feels to want there to be something else. And listen to me when I say this, Ella. I wanted there to be something here more than anything.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you knew what she was like.”
Jeremiah looked at the floor. When he lifted his head back up and stared at me, there was sorrow in his eyes.
“I’ve been on hundreds of cases. Possessions, hauntings, poltergeists, demons. All of them were convincing to a fault. But the thing is, sometimes they are just a load of crap. You want to believe so much that your mind twists facts and squeezes them into theories where they just don’t fit.”
“Damn it, Jeremiah. I’m not bullshitting. I felt things in here, in this room.”
He shook his head. “You felt the effects of a nasty cold. You got the creeps. I mean, it’s a horrible story, a girl killing herself. I might not show it, but I feel sorry for the poor bastards who had to cope with it.”
I clenched my fists. “I can’t believe that I’m the one having to convince you about this.”
“Find the bullshit, Ella. Always remember that. You need to be able to see through it, and right now you’re blind. It’s time to go home.”
My arm muscles tightened, and I felt like my heart was trying to beat out of my chest. When I had come here I had been the doubter. Now I felt like a crackpot. I was jumping at shadows, hiding from things that I couldn’t see. Jeremiah’s words washed over me and left me drenched in a feeling of stupidity, as though I were a little kid hiding from my imagination.
Jeremiah sunk forward. He let out a long huff of breath.
“I regret bringing you along.”
There were three knocks on the bedroom door. Without a word of invitation, the door started to open. When it swung wide, Marsha stood in the doorway. She crossed her arms, and her face was pale like it had been powdered with flour.
Jeremiah got to his feet.
“What do you want?”
“It’s time for you to settle up,” she said.
Jeremiah pushed up his sleeve and looked at his watch.
“It’s only half-three. We’ve got another night left yet.”
“Aye, you have. But in the morning I want you to scarper.”
I felt Marsha glance at my face but as I looked to meet her eyes, the glare disappeared. I had always known that we would have to leave, but when I thought of going with so much unfinished, something stabbed at me. It felt like I would be letting everyone down. Professor Higson. Jeremiah. Clive. Emily’s parents. I turned toward Marsha.
“You know something,” I said.
Jeremiah shot a look at me, ginger eyebrows arched.
“What are you talking about?” He said.
Marsha leant into the doorframe.
“The lass is tired.”
I was sick of this. My head throbbed and my arms ached. I wanted to get in bed for a week and sleep off the phlegm and the cold. When I thought of being in the room alone, I felt goosebumps tingle across my skin. When I pictured the woods beyond the village, with the shadowy figures watching the children play, a needle of ice threaded through me. Despite it all I knew I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t just scared, and I definitely wasn’t making things up.
“Cut the crap,” I said to Marsha in a voice so firm it seemed to surprise her. “You warned us to stop what we were doing. What was that all about, if you didn’t know anything?”
Jeremiah stood up. “She did what?”
Marsha shook her head as if she were dismissing the tall tales of a school kid. “Make sure she gets some sleep,” she said. “The Scottish air sends you southerners loopy.”
“Just give us more time,” I said.
“No. In the morning, I want you gone.”
I looked at Jeremiah, pleaded with my eyes for him to say something. Instead he looked at Marsha and nodded.
“We’ll leave at first light.”
When Marsha and Jeremiah left my room I walked to the side of my bed and collapsed onto it. As my back hit the mattress I felt the energy leave my body. My muscles slackened and my brain emptied. My thoughts drifted out of the pub, floated over the barren fields and stopped outside the darkened woodland where the trees stood like sentinels and beckoned me in. I felt the shadows calling me, tempting me to take a step into their forest tomb.
I sat up on the bed. I looked at the bag of books next to the desk, and it seemed like a sack full of boulders, too heavy for me to take with me when we left the next day. I didn’t know if I even wanted to. The idea of staying up in my room every night, the lamp beside me warding off the shadows as I poured through small-print texts, made my head hurt.
What was the point?
What was I doing with my life? As soon as I hit eighteen I had left my last foster family and resolved to cut all ties with them. They were a nice enough couple, a little cold maybe, but I had no desire to see them again. I made some friends in university but as I got sucked into my work I let the friendships wilt until they were just weeds dying in the soil.
I thought about the Jenkins family and their tragedy. They had lost something, but they still had each other. I had never even had anything to lose, and the way I was going, I never would. I kept a cold layer of ice around me that made people scared to come close, and those who did soon felt the life drain out of them. One by one people stopped calling me, and before coming on this trip I had spent so much time behind drawn curtains that when I went outside the sunlight hurt my eyes. In the end all I had was a throbbing head and a sack full of books written by men who died decades ago.
I tore myself off the bed. The floorboards screamed underneath my feet as I strode to the door and went out into the hall. As I walked down the stairs I heard a radio playing in the pub lounge, where a lonely voice bemoaned the loss of his wife, and the twang of a guitar undercut his grief.
Marsha stood behind the bar. She stared across the lounge and out of the window, eyes deep in thought as they swam over the grey village buildings.
“Mind if I use your phone?” I said.
She jerked her thumb to the end of the bar.
I picked up the receiver and dialled Professor Higson’s number. As the tone beeped I tried to settle the pounding of my heart. Was I really going to do this?
I knew I should have waited until I got back to Manchester. It would have been better to do it face to face, so that he could see the resolve in my eyes as I told him, but I worried that the further away I was from the village the easier it would be to slink back into old habits.
“Professor, it’s Ella.”
“Is everything okay?”
I took a deep breath, held it in my chest.
“I’m leaving the course.”
“You sound distressed.” His voice was academic, emotionless.
“I’ll explain some other time. But I want you to take this as notice that I’m done with it all. I’m sick of studying. There’s got to be more to everything than this.”
I heard him swallow as though he were taking a drink while talking to me. “Maybe you should finish your interview and we’ll talk when you get back.”
“We’re coming back in the morning. Jeremiah has told me fuck all.”
The word sounded harsh as I croaked it into the receiver. I had never sworn in front of Higson. In a way I was scared of his reproach as though he were one of my foster dads. I’d always guarded my tongue around him. It didn’t matter anymore.
“Did you ask him about Bruges?”
Annoyance made my throat dry. “I couldn’t give a shit about Bruges. You used me, Higson. You don’t give a shit about me. When I’m off your course you’ll move onto another toy.”
“I don’t know where all this is coming from,” he said, genuine surprise in his voice.
“I’m just sick of it.”
“I’ve been meaning to tell you. I was going to leave it as a surprise until you came back, but you sound like you need good news.”
I drummed my fingers on the counter of the bar. Right now, ‘good news’ sounded like long forgotten words, like fragments of an ancient language buried centuries ago.
Higson forced levity into his voice. “Funding for a doctorate has come up. I could put you forward for it, Ella. Imagine that. A PHD and a research post at the university.”
There was a time when I would have jumped around the bar with my arms in the air after hearing those words. Now, they tumbled over me like stones in a rock slide. A PHD meant years of studying. When that was done I would get a job as a researcher at the university, and that meant spending the rest of my life with my eyes locked on the black print of academic texts.
I felt my chest tighten. I knew what I had to say, but the words slipped from my grasp like mice scurrying from the swish of a broom. I took hold of them and squeezed.
“Forget it,” I said. “I’m done.”
I slammed the phone into the receiver with such force that Marsha jerked her head up. I wondered if she had been listening to the conversation. Her eyes had been engrossed in a magazine crossword, but nothing escaped her eager ears.
I didn’t care. I leant against the counter and felt myself sag into it. I looked out of the pub window and caught a glimpse of the fields beyond the village, empty except for the faded grass that was throttled by the wind.
Back in my room I half-heartedly opened my case and began stuffing my clothes into my bag. The black of night pressed on the windows so hard that I thought it might crack the glass. I wore four layers, including a thick woolly jumper, and topped it off with a dressing gown that came with the room, but still the chill worked its fingers up my sleeves, down my neck, across my skin.
I walked over to the desk and picked up my study books. The titles flashed at me as I put them in my case. Studies of the Occult. The Fantastic and the Other. What a grand waste of time it had been. The pages of these books had sucked away so many hours of my life that even though I wanted to just leave them behind, I couldn’t. It was like a part of me was trapped in them, and if I didn’t take them with me it would be stuck in this chilly room where floorboards moaned and the wind shook the window frame.
I thought about Jeremiah in the room next to me. He had seemed so deflated about it all. I told him what I could, but I didn’t dare explain the whole truth out. It wasn’t about getting one over him anymore; I wanted to protect him. Maybe he had to make that decision for himself though. Perhaps I should just tell him everything, about the hair in the plug, the presence watching me as I looked into the bathroom mirror.
He would never believe me.
That was the face of it. Despite how much he wanted to believe, he reigned himself in. He was so eager to prove himself to the academics who spurned him that he wouldn’t accept truth unless it was impeachable. He wasn’t all that different to Professor Higson, in that regard. They sat on the same branch, but they stared at each other from opposite ends.
The moon peeked through wispy clouds, its pale light dying as it met the black sky. The lamp on the desk flickered. I looked to the bedroom door. I ran my eyes along the wall, stopped where I had seen the eye staring through a hole. A shiver tapped up my spine. It was just wall now, but what about later? Would I wake up in the night and see that bloodshot eye bulging through a crevice?
I couldn’t shake the feeling that tonight I would hear the sounds that sent a stab of fear into my chest. Three terrible knocks on the wooden door from tiny knuckles that shouldn’t be able to make a sound. Would she rap incessantly on my bedroom door until I couldn’t take it anymore?
Suddenly the darkness seemed to creep in through the windows and cover me. I looked outside the pub, saw Jeremiah’s car parked up. I wished I had the keys. We had one last night here, but it seemed to stretch out like an endless road, and I wondered if I would ever get to the end.
The light bulb fizzled and the yellow glow dropped, replaced by a shroud of black. The room plunged into darkness, and straight away I felt the skin on the back of my neck tingle. Shadows formed in the corners of the room, grew and took shape as my mind tried to make sense of them. A chill floated along the ground, blew on my ankles and up my legs, raising tiny goosebumps as it snaked its way up my body.
Adrenaline stabbed through my chest. The fuse box had blown. My mind clawed at memories that I had tried hard to forget. Of being in my room at the bad foster home, lying in bed and seeing black masses grow in the darkness near my bed. Getting up and flicking the switch, the light staying dead because my parents never replaced the bulb. A feeling of helplessness as I heard groans in the walls, felt unseen hands reaching for me, faces staring at me.
I opened the bedroom door and walked into the hallway of the pub. It took all my self-control not to break into a run, and the effort drained me and threatened to paralyse my legs. I looked to the end of the hall, and I felt my chest constrict and my heart leap into my throat.
At the end of the hallway, in the darkness, someone sat in a chair. They faced me and watched silently as I padded along the floor in bare feet and stumbled into the wall. My face washed with cold as though my blood had drained from it, and I clutched the bottom of my dressing grown and gripped it tight as though it were a life ring in a raging sea.
Another look, and I saw a chair with a heavy coat draped over it, the sleeves slumped over the back. Get a grip of yourself.
I took careful steps over to Marsha’s door. I listened. I couldn’t hear her stir, nor could I hear the groans or snores of sleep. It was gone midnight and the pub was shut, so she must have been in her room, but silence lay beyond her door. I knew she would get mad at me but I didn’t care. I tapped softly on her door.
No answer. The hallway became darker still, as though someone were pouring black paint over the walls and ceiling. I knocked harder on the door.
“Marsha?” My voice left my throat as a croak.
Another knock, loud enough to wake anyone inside. Still, no answer.
She said the fuse box is in the cellar. I looked further down the corridor. Jeremiah’s room lay at the end, but I knew I couldn’t go to him. If he saw me jumping at every twist of the shadows, he would call me crazy.
I swallowed, and my throat felt dry. I clenched my fist and pressed my fingers into my palm, tried to settle my raging pulse. This is up to me.
I went into my room and took the torch off the desk. I walked into the hallway, clicked the button and a curve of light spat onto the walls. As I tiptoed down the creaking stairs my brain shrieked at me. It told me to get in bed and wait until morning, that going into the cellar was a stupid idea. But I couldn’t turn back. I couldn’t spend a night in darkness. I thought my fear of it was long gone, left behind in my childhood years where bedside lamps warned away the monsters of the night. It turned out that fear never left you; it always stalked you, hovering behind close enough to watch you without being seen.
The cellar felt like a refrigerator. Stone walls lined the sides. They were colder than the ones in my room, as though they had been built centuries ago and had held a sheet of ice on them ever since. Bulbous wooden beer barrels sat empty along one side, and a rack full of wine bottles glinted when the beam of my torch hit them. I span my torch around the room and let the light bathe over every inch, but it seemed that as soon as the light left one area the shadows crept back.
Something is here.
I couldn’t see anything, but I knew it was true. I had the sense of certainty in me. It was a feeling of being watched, where your skin prickles and a heavy weight settles over you, and when you turn around you meet eyes staring back at you.
I span around and shot bolts of light over the dusty floor and cold walls. The fuse box was set at knee height against the wall furthest away from the door. At first I couldn’t force myself to cross the cellar, as though there was a thick web that would trap me if I moved. I took a few steps, felt the stony floor sting my feet. As I walked across the darkness swallowed me up and I got the sense I was lost in a never-ending wilderness. How could Marsha live here and face this place every night?
I bent down toward the fuse box and flicked open the lid, but the plastic fell shut. I would need two hands, one to prop the lid open, and the other to flip the switches. I set the torch beside me on the floor, but as I placed it down I felt like a mountain climber willingly cutting her own support line. I angled it so that the beam of light pointed at the fuse box, and the yellow glow hit weak cobwebs and illuminated the switches.
“Let’s see which fuse blew,” I said, feeling my words scatter over the silence of the room.
The pub lounge switches were fine, as were the toilets, Marsha’s room and Jeremiah’s room. As I traced my fingers across them I stopped at the one that had tripped, the only one that pointed down. It was the fuse for my room.
As I gripped the switch and went to flick it, I felt my back freeze and the hairs on my arms stiffen. My nerves endings screamed out, warned me that something stood behind me. I stopped mid-breath and became as still as a statue. I didn’t dare move, like a camper playing dead as a bear prowls nearby.
I knew something was there. Stood silently in the shadows. Watching. Creeping. I didn’t dare breathe out, and I held the air in my lungs until I couldn’t take it anymore. I wished I was upstairs in bed or in the lounge. Anywhere with light. Just a place where things didn’t move around me in the darkness.
I gasped as I felt something walk closer to me. It stood behind me, so close that I could almost feel it brush against my clothes. My skin tingled with a terrible chill.
Oh my god, I thought, even the voice in my head a whimper.
A hand took hold of my hair and wrapped the locks around its fingers, then glided through the strands. Their touch was gentle, like a fine comb running through from end to end. I felt the skin on my back itch, and I held in a shudder as the fingers moved through my hair.
My insides turned to water. My legs were locked in place and wouldn’t move, and it was all I could do not to let a whimper escape my throat. The cellar door seemed miles behind me, leaving me trapped in the darkness with this thing caressing my hair. A scream rang in my head but that was where it stayed. It was like my body was frozen in fright, and that whatever happened I must not move or make a sound.
The hand gripped hold of my hair once again. This time it tightened, and suddenly it yanked at me. It was so hard that I felt hairs start to tear from their roots. My head jerked back sharply, and I almost fell onto the stone floor. My heart smashed against my chest. I couldn’t hold back the scream now. It pierced through the darkness, echoed off the stone walls and seemed to break the spell on my legs.
I picked up the torch and scrambled to my feet. I span the light into the darkness behind me, but there was nothing. A cold shiver wrapped around my arms like a blanket, and a wave of despair settled over me. My breath rushed out in panicked gushes, rising in the air like steam.
I ran out of the cellar and left the fuse tripped. The lounge and stairs blurred passed me until finally I found myself in the upstairs hallway. I didn’t dare risk a look behind me as I went, fearing that I might actually see her stalking me through the empty halls of the pub.
I stopped outside Jeremiah’s room. Inhibitions gone, I pounded on his door until my knuckles stung. The door stood firm, the silence held.
“Jeremiah!” I shouted, my scratchy voice stabbing at the quiet of the halls.
I pounded again, felt my hand sting. Still the door didn’t move.
I turned and walked back to Marsha’s room. I knocked on it again, this time not giving a damn whether I annoyed her or not. I knocked and knocked, and the only answer I got was silence.
I twisted her handle and felt it move all the way. I slowly opened her bedroom door and stepped inside. The glow of the moon poured through the window, and I saw that the landlady’s room was empty, her bed made as though she had never slept in it.
Next to the bed, on a dresser with a mirror in the middle, was a book. I knew what it was straight away. As I walked over to the dresser my pulse fired. Up close, the light of the torch confirmed my suspicions and made my heart thud. It was the diary.
Marsha must have taken it from my room, but why had she done it? Where was she now? And where the hell was Jeremiah?
Footsteps creaked on the threshold of the door. I span rang and shot a beam of light at the doorway. A figure stood there, bathed in shadow. An old and twisted face watched me.
The figure stepped over the threshold of the door. I shrank back and bumped into the dresser, knocking a bottle of nail varnish to the floor. The figure moved closer, and as the moonlight hit them the features untwisted. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that it was Marsha.
“You’re a snooper,” she said. She looked around the room, inspecting it as if I was a thief and she needed to make sure everything was in its place.
I held the diary in the air. “I could say the same about you. What the hell are you playing at?”
Marsha strode across the room, the floorboards thudding under her feet. She stood in front of me, reached out and grabbed the diary. She held it tight in her hand and looked at it, as if figuring out what to do.
I pictured her creeping around my room while I was gone, sifting through my case and poking through my drawers. The nerve of the woman. I felt my fingers curl into a fist, and the vein on my temple pounded.
“Are you going to explain what the hell is going on?”
“Where did you get this?” said Marsha, shaking the diary in the air.
“Have you read it?” I asked.
Marsha looked at the ground and stared as if she expected it to open up and devour her. When she looked up at me, a moist film glinted as the moonlight hit the corner of her eyes.
“Aye, I’ve read it. Knew that I shouldn’t, for what it’s worth. Couldn’t stop myself.”
I thought Marsha was just being nosy, so I didn’t understand this reaction. What was she so upset about? What did Emily have to do with her?
“Did you know her?” I said.
Marsha gulped. “Everybody in the village knew her. Though you’d not get any of them to admit it now.”
“And why were you warning me away?”
Marsha took a step to the side and sank herself into the bed. She sat straight and stared at me, eyes narrowed on mine.
“You better sit down.”
The adrenaline seeped out of me, taking every last scrap of my body heat with it. Despite the layers I wore my shoulders still shivered. I sat down, wrapped my arms around my torso and hugged myself, tried to shock warmth into my worn-out body.
Marsha stood up, lifted a dressing gown off a hook and threw it on my lap.
“Put this on.”
I wrapped the dressing gown over my back.
“This is my fiftieth layer.”
“It’s been a lot colder around here. Ever since he died.”
It felt like a shadow had slipped into the room. As though some invisible mass had drifted through the keyhole, under the door and began to whirl around us, watching and listening from the corners of the room. I leaned forward and whispered.
“What do you know about her?” I said.
Wait. Did she say ‘he’?
Marsha’s face sagged and her skin was as pale as the weak light of the moon. Her eyes were glass balls, no life in them anymore. She ran her hand through her hair, straining at the knots that wouldn’t let her fingers pass.
I got the sense that something was building inside her. Like there were words forming that she had long-fought to keep buried, but she had been desperate to say. The vacant look on her face and sloping of her shoulders showed me what a sad woman she really was. Suddenly I felt a pang of regret for how I had treated her.
“This wasn’t always such a dark place,” said Marsha, her words breaking the silence like a hammer smashing glass.
She shook her head. “Your room didn’t used to be for rent. There was a time when it would be full of toy cars, Bob the Builder posters. Goosebumps books. It used to be my favourite room in the whole pub.”
I crossed my legs, kept my mouth shut. It didn’t seem right to say anything.
“Thomas was such a good lad. Smarter than me and his dad. There’s no way he would have been around here when he was grown. No, he’d be working in some office in the city earning loads of cash.”
“You have a son?”
As she spoke she stared at me, but her head didn’t move.
“I used to. Had a husband once, too, until he loaded up the car with his clothes and the takings from the till. Folks said they saw him in Falkirk one summer but I never bothered to look. The pig can piss off.”
A crow landed on the windowsill outside. It twisted its head and preened its oily feathers, and then it turned and looked at us. I wondered if it had been the same one that had watched Jeremiah the other night.
Marsha rubbed her hands up and down her trousers in agitation. The skin around her eyes was red and her eyeballs were glazed.
“I’m sorry lass,” she said. “This is hard to talk about.”
“Then you don’t have to,” I said.
She gulped again. “I do. If you’re going to poke around in secrets of the village then you better know what you might find.”
“And what’s that?”
“Everything about Emily is black.”
The name spread out as a chill as it left Marsha’s lips and drifted over the room. I lifted my legs onto the seat and tucked them close against my chest. My heart pounded as I thought of what to say. I knew what I wanted to tell her, but I didn’t know if she’d believe me.
“I’ve seen things, Marsha. Here in this pub. You’ll probably think I’m talking shit. But I’ve had a weird feeling about my room since day one.”
Marsha nodded. “Aye. That’ll be Thomas.”
I jerked my head up in surprise.
Marsha’s stare met mine, eyes intense. “I’m going to tell you something now, but afterwards you don’t question me on it. Just believe what I say, and take it as the warning it is.”
“Okay,” I said, but suddenly I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear it.
Marsha began to speak. The words pushed weakly through her lips.
“Thomas came home from school one day with a big smile on his face. You’d have thought it was his birthday. I asked him why he was grinning like a clown and he told me ‘teacher let me sit next to Emily’. Boy was always trying to make friends. I wished to god he’d never met this one.
“The weeks go by and he won’t shut up about Emily. It was always ‘Emily this’, ‘Emily that’. We had her round for tea one night and I tell you, there was something cold about her. The words she used sometimes, ones a kid shouldn’t know. The look in her eyes when she thought you couldn’t see, sort of like a mocking grin, like she was getting one over on you. I told Dennis, the bastard in Falkirk, ‘She’s not coming round here again. She makes me shiver.’ He told me I was being a daft bint.”
Marsha looked at her feet. Red rings sat heavy under her eyes, a contrast to the chalky pale of her cheeks. A trickle ran from the corner of her eyes and cut a channel across her face. She sniffed, then rubbed her palm across the tear and smeared it away. Her voice grew softer, as if the words wouldn’t come.
“One night, he went out to play with her. Nothing special, something he did all the time. Den and me thought nothing of it. Then the hours passed and I sat in the lounge and waited for the doors to open and for my smiling boy to run in covered in mud. But Thomas’s room stayed empty from that night on.
“Every parent thinks their child will live forever. They never imagine that they will see their son’s coffin before they lie in their own.”
Her breath left her mouth in a steamy trail. Water welled up in her eyes like a sink filled to the brim. She lifted her hands into her face and sobbed silently into her fingers.
When she pulled her hand away her face was red, but her features looked strong again. The stern look had gone from her face, and I didn’t think I would ever see it there again. All I saw was a sad woman who had lost everything.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I can’t talk about this anymore.”
I wanted to know what happened to Thomas and Emily, but she looked one finger poke away from shattering. I couldn’t push her on this. There was a deep sadness in her, thick like oil and sitting heavy in her chest.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I understand.”
“No you don’t.”
I nodded. “Okay, I don’t. But I don’t expect you to say anything.”
The moonlight hit half of Marsha’s face and left the rest covered in shadow.
“You better go see your friend,” she said.
“I don’t have a clue where he is.”
“Last time I saw him, he was walking toward the woods. Here, take the diary. You might as well have it.”
The streets of the village looked alien when covered in the darkness of the night. The moonlight glistened on the old cobbles and made them look slick, like scales on a lizard. The wind whipped and nipped at me but I made no effort to stop it. I scanned every corner as I passed the shops and houses, but I couldn’t see Jeremiah.
Surely he hadn’t really gone to the woods? I knew he was desperate to find something, but nobody in their right mind would go to such a place on their own. A shudder crept through me from thinking about the dark trunks stretching into the sky, branches twisting together to block out light. The crunch of leaves as I imagined something walking behind me.
I moved so fast and was so deep in thought that I didn’t see the figure in front of me until I walked into it. My nose hit something hard and I felt it sting.
“Watch where you’re going,” said a voice.
My eyes took a few seconds to adjust but gradually I saw ginger hair, a short beard and eyes darting in dozens of directions.
“Murray,” I said.
“What are you doing out here?” he said.
“I could ask the same about you.”
“Well I live here. Whereas you…what are you still doing here? Looking for holes to poke your nose through?”
I shoved my hands into my pockets so that he couldn’t see them clench into fists.
“That depends. Got anything else to hide?”
Murray’s nose curled and his eyes looked harsh. “This goes way beyond you, lady. You couldn’t even begin to understand. There are hundreds of years of history in the village. Do you honestly think you have a right to know its secrets?”
He took a step forward, shoulders set firm and face in a grimace. My heart started to beat faster.
“Like I said, it’s for a university project.”
He shook his head. “Cut the shit. You’re looking for them. Believe me about this. Once you find them, you will wish with all your soul that you hadn’t.”
“I saw your friend head toward the woods half an hour ago. Go that way if you want to look under rocks.”
With that he pulled his coat collar over his chin and walked away. He didn’t stop to look back, and soon he turned a corner and disappeared from view, leaving me stood alone. It felt like I was the only person awake at this hour. Usually that was something I thought about with pride as I sat at my dorm room desk and studied into the twilight hours. Now it was a lonely thought, as if nobody would be awake to hear my screams if something were to happen.
The air grew colder as I left the village, and the wind was harsher. It licked at me and swept my hair around until it was a mess of curls. Part of the back of my head still stung from where something had tugged my hair in the basement. I put my hand to the back of my scalp and winced.
Soon the Jenkins cottage loomed. As I got closer I made a pointed effort not to look at it. I didn’t want to see the ivy smothering the walls, and I didn’t want to look at a window and see the harsh glare of Peter or Sharon staring back. Soon the cottage was behind me, and as I went by it I saw movement in the corner of my eye.
Emily’s room was behind me now, I knew. It had faced the woods, so right now it looked down on me. I felt a prickly sensation on my face as though something stood in the darkened room and stared out of the window, watched me as I walked towards the woods. A shiver seeped through my skin and massaged goosebumps into my flesh. I knew I mustn’t turn around. If I saw something now, anything, this would all be lost. I wouldn’t be able to carry on.
Going into the woods was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, but I couldn’t abandon Jeremiah. If he went exploring there alone then he was in danger, and he was too stubborn to admit something like that.
I switched away from rational thoughts and let my feet carry me until the woods stood tall in front of me. Thick tree trunks stretched out of the earth and spread their branches across the sky, creating a knobbly umbrella that blocked the glint of the moon. It was a well of darkness, a labyrinth of black that threatened to close on anyone stupid enough to walk through it. Was I this stupid?
My heart beat so fast that a searing pain spread across my chest. I shivered and rubbed my arms over my body, but any chance of heat was long gone. It felt like I stood in a snowstorm that I couldn’t see, and the only thing I heard was the scream of the wind. I couldn’t do this, I realised. No matter how much I wanted to help Jeremiah, I couldn’t go into those woods. I knew that even if I tried, my body wouldn’t comply.
I saw a bolt of light penetrating the black. It was just off the centre of the woods, a vertical arc of yellow that started at the ground and spread up toward the ceiling of the trees. It didn’t move nor flicker, it was like an upside down street lamp in the middle of the forest. A chill shuddered through my chest. It was Jeremiah’s torch, and it was on the forest floor.
I couldn’t turn away now, not when he was in trouble. I tried to swing my leg forward but it was filled with two tons of lead. My heart hammered the blood through my veins so fast that I thought they would burst. My mind screamed at me to turn back, told me how stupid I was being. It told me that nobody had ever cared about me, so why should I care about anyone else? I gritted my teeth. I was done being that person. Jeremiah was a stubborn old fool and he was rude as hell, but I wouldn’t abandon him.
I forced my legs into action. The closer I got to the woods, the more they felt like jelly. My stomach turned to water and swirled around inside me, and my arms felt light and full of air, like balloons twisted into shapes.
I reached the threshold of the forest. It would only take one more step to be inside, but it felt like a climb over Everest. There was something final about it, as though I was making a decision that would affect me forever. I took a deep breath and stepped over the line. As I walked into the forest the shadows slipped over me. They were heavy, and with every step I took toward the beam of light the weight grew. I had the urge to hunch over, as though I really did have layers and layers on my back.
Each twig that I stepped on sent a snap out into the air. Sometimes it was answered back with another snap, and I stopped dead. I felt icy fingers stroke me and spread cold through my tingling skin. I listened and hoped not to hear another noise. It was just an echo, I knew. Or a woodland creature scampering across the floor.
I walked on. As the beam of torch light grew closer the trees tucked in together until soon I had to weave in and out of them. Some of them were so close that it was a tight squeeze to get through, as though they had formed barriers. I was near the middle now. A treacle of pure darkness swished around me, but I didn’t need my eyes to know I was in the centre. It was something I could feel, like walking through a maze and getting the sense you had nearly beaten it.
A fallen branch snapped beneath my feet. Behind me, something crunched on the forest floor. This time I didn’t stop. I took a breath and squeezed between two elm trunks, took a few paces forward and reached the torch light. I had expected Jeremiah to be nearby. Maybe even to see him on the floor, like he had fallen over or something. Instead, it was nothing. Just the same black wilderness that covered the rest of the forest.
I felt alone. I picked up the torch from the floor and lit up the barks of the elms trees that surrounded me. I realised that they formed a perfect circle now, and that the square metre of forest in the centre was the only part that was clear. As I span the beam of my torch across the trees, the yellow arc flicked and then faded away, plunging a deep darkness down on me.
I smacked the torch against my chest and flicked the power button. It coughed a weak ray of light and then faded again. Damnit. I shouldn’t have been in such a panic to find Jeremiah.
I realised just how far into the woods I had come. I was in the heart of it now, and to get out would mean a long walk back in the darkness through tangles of bushes and roots that hooked up from the forest floor. A breeze blew on the back of my neck.
Where the hell was Jeremiah? I wished beyond anything else that he was here with me. I had tried to keep the feelings of terror inside me, to be confident and keep control of myself. As the black of night pressed in and I felt shadows grow into shapes around me, I surrendered to the dread. I let it seep through my chest, into my heart and then spread through my veins.
Something whined in the trees across from me, and I dropped the torch to the floor in shock. It sounded like something twisted the branches and made them creak. I knew that it wasn’t just the wind blowing through them. I held my breath so that not even my own intake of air could interfere with the stillness of the woods. I listened as hard as I could.
This time the whine came from behind me. Then to the side of me. Soon the circle of trees around me turned with terrible groans, and I realised what the sound was. My heart flooded with a terror so sudden I thought I was going to faint.
The whining sound I heard from the trees was that of rope rubbing against them as something twisted underneath. The ropes were tied onto the branches around me, and limp bodies swung off them.
I shut my eyes. I wished there was a way to close my ears, but my body was so frozen in place that I didn’t even dare raise my arms to cover them. I felt a retch work its way from my stomach and to my throat, and I clamped my mouth shut. All I could think was how much I wished someone was here with me. Someone, anyone, just as long as I wasn’t alone with the terrible creaks of the trees as things swung from them.
I opened my eyes and peered into the fog of darkness, but I couldn’t see anything passed a metre away. As silently as I could I bent to the floor and reached for the torch. I clicked the power button, but nothing came.
The arms of the trees groaned in the night. I couldn’t see them, but I felt heavy masses form around me. They were a denser kind of shadow, shades of black that were impossibly darker than the rest of the forest. They hung in the noose of invisible ropes and stopped just short of the ground, swinging gently in the night air.
Something wheezed. Behind me, a raspy groan drifted toward me and tickled my ears. A murmur began, as though choked throats tried to speak. Someone laughed. My eyes widened so much I felt like my eyeballs were going to pop out. The laugh came from somewhere deeper in the forest. It was a girlish laugh, full of fun and mischief. Another laugh answered it, this one of a young boy.
A branch creaked. The others creaked back at it. My stomach sunk, and I felt like falling to the ground and shutting my eyes. Something spoke without making a sound, as if the words turned inside my mind and then faded away.
We will claim the girl.
My back stung as a sheet of ice settled on it. I felt a scream try to escape but my throat was too dry to let it out.
Kill the boy.
Claim the girl.
The childish laughter got closer, tiny feet snapping on twigs. The trees whined and the shadows twisted beneath them. Suddenly I knew. I wanted to warn the children away, but my mouth was clamped as though something had sawn it shut. I needed to warn the children about what waited for them, but as their chuckles and shouts grew nearer I knew that it was impossible.
I sprinted through the trees. My feet crashed over rotted branches and the snaps rang off around me. Adrenaline flooded through me, gave me fuel, took the sting out of my shoulder when I ran into a tree. I sucked gushing breaths into my lungs, and even though I felt them start to burn I knew that I couldn’t slow down. Soon the trees grew sparse until finally, without even realising it was so close, I spilled out of the forest and onto the grassy fields. I had never been so happy to feel the glow of the moon seep down onto me.
As my lungs began to relax and my heartbeat slowed, I got up and walked away from the woods. I was glad to put as much distance between us as I could. The Jenkins’s cottage loomed before me, a centuries-old relic that defied the attempts of time to pull it down.
There was a shape in the window of Emily’s room. I looked away, as though my brain averted my eyes out of instinct. When I looked back, all I saw was a dark curtain that had been drawn to cover the window. I walked closer and soon I was at the front of the house. I was going to pass it and walk into the village, but the glow of a light in the living room intrigued me. It must have been gone midnight, and the light had not been on earlier when I had gone toward the woods.
I looked over my shoulder. I tried to be subtle at first, but soon I just stared. The Jenkins family were in their living room. They sat together on their couch, but there was a foot of separation between them as though they couldn’t bear to sit close to one another. Opposite them I saw the back of a head. It was a mane of familiar ginger hair with hulking shoulders beneath it.
Why was Jeremiah there? I knew deep down that he wouldn’t just give up on things, and perhaps I even expected him to go to the woods at some point. I never expected him to go back to the Jenkins house. What was even more surprising was the fact that they let him in.
Inside the living room Peter jerked his head up and caught me in his cold glare. He lifted his arm and pointed. Jeremiah span round, saw me, and his eyes seemed to widen. He stood up from the couch and walked way.
As the cottage door opened I felt like shrinking away. It felt like I shouldn’t have been watching them, that I had intruded on something private.
“Thanks for your time,” I heard Jeremiah say.
A few seconds later the living room light was extinguished, and the Jenkins’s family home once again looked empty. Jeremiah strode across the fields. I expected him to look mad, but his features were soft.
“You look like crap,” he said.
I smiled at the words. Out of the forest and away from swinging branches, Jeremiah could insult me all he wanted.
“How did you get them to talk to you?” I said.
Jeremiah took off his leather coat and wrapped it around my shoulders. I started to protest but as the warmth slid over me the words died in my throat.
“Jesus,” he said. “You shouldn’t be out in this. I’m freezing my bollocks off and I have layers of blubber to keep me warm. Why aren’t you in bed?”
“I needed to find you.”
He put his arm on my shoulder and turned me toward the village.
“You get back to the pub,” he said.
“What are you going to do?”
“There’s one last person I need to see. You get back, get some sleep, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
The village lay before us but this time, despite the gloom, I didn’t mind walking into it. Only, instead of going back to the pub, I wished that we could walk back to the car. I didn’t care how treacherous the country roads were in the dark. I didn’t care that I couldn’t do anything about the secrets of the village. I would feel better if I could get to the bright lights of the city.
“Wait,” I said, as Jeremiah turned away from me.
He stooped. “What is it?”
“How did you get them to talk to you? Last time we were there, it was like they hated you.”
“Well – “ he began.
I cut in. “Let me guess. ‘A bottle of whisky goes a long way in this village.’”
Jeremiah grinned, then shook his head. “Nope. This time, I just apologised.”
I crossed my arms and felt the leather of Jeremiah’s coat crinkle around me. “Wow. I bet you didn’t expect personal growth when we came out here.”
“I’m not about to try yoga.”
A breeze tickled my legs. I stamped my feet onto the floor. “So did they tell you anything?”
“Quite a lot, actually. Really interesting stuff, not that it matters much. Did you know that one of Peter Jenkins’s ancestors was part of the witch hunts?”
I heard the creak of rope on wood in my head. I pulled the coat tighter toward me. “Oh?”
“His great, great, great and-then-some grandfather tied the ropes around the trees. It was his job to pick branches that wouldn’t snap. Ones that would stand firm and make sure the women’s necks broke properly.”
I thought back to the groans of the trees as things swung off them. Snapping sounds that followed me through the forest. Suddenly Jeremiah’s coat wasn’t enough to ward off the cold winds that lapped around me.
“I went looking for you, you know.”
Jeremiah arched his eyebrow.
“What do you mean?”
“I went into the woods. I saw the torch you dropped.”
He shook his head sadly. “That was stupid of me, going in there. But I was so pissed off. I just needed to find something.”
“And did you?”
“What about you?” he said.
I didn’t want to think about what I had heard. I didn’t want to relive the experience through the telling of it.
“Not a thing.”
Jeremiah took a few steps back toward me. He spoke in a low volume, as though we were members of a conspiracy guarding our words against listening ears. The wind brushed against Jeremiah’s jumper but if he felt the chill, he didn’t show it. I was grateful to him for looking out for me. He wasn’t as bad as I thought, I decided. In some ways he had earned his reputation, but in others the reputation masked the truth within.
“I asked them about the diary,” he said. “I wish to hell I’d made copies of it straight away instead of letting you take it for the night.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but Jeremiah lifted his hand in the air.
“Don’t worry, I’m not blaming you,” he said. “I just wished I could have shown it to them. Instead I had to tell them about it. I described the different sets of handwriting.”
“And what did they say?”
Across the fields, in the woods, an owl screeched. The wind lapped above and below us, moving black clouds across the sky, flicking blades of grass back and forth and trying to tear them from the ground. A solitary light winked on in a house in the village. Jeremiah leaned closer.
“Did you know she died in the bath?”
He gave a grim nod. “Drowned herself.”
I shuddered. “Part of me wishes I never came here.”
Jeremiah skipped over my remark.
“Peter acted like he didn’t know about the diary. But there was this look in his eyes, Ella. I’ve seen it before. The look of a man who doesn’t want to admit the truth. The diary is the key to it all. The answer is in it somewhere. I just wished I knew where.”
Jeremiah left me when we got to the village. I didn’t know where he was going, and my head throbbed so much that I didn’t want to ask. My body felt weary, the energy drained out of me and sucked away into the night sky. My nose felt like it was swollen with snot. As soon as we left the village and went home, I was going to crawl into bed and hibernate through the winter.
At the pub I unlocked my bedroom door and was greeted by a warm glow. At the end of the room flames spiralled inside a black fireplace. Funny, I hadn’t even realised it was there. It was strange the things you missed when they weren’t used. If I had, I would have made sure Marsha had kept it constantly lit. Chop down the entire forest for fuel if you have to, I would have said, just keep that fire going.
The heat spread from the fireplace and warmed up half the room, but it couldn’t seem to fill the rest. The stone walls looked like the sides of a cavern, and the air near my bed was draughty. I walked over to the desk and flicked the switch for the lamp, but the bulb stayed dead. There were three candles on the desk and next to them was a box of matches. Marsha hadn’t reset the fuse box, but she’d obviously been in my room and tried to make it comfortable. I picked up a match, struck it against the rough side of the box and smelt sulphur in the air. The candle wick soaked up the spark and a flame teased up the end and cast a dim glow in the room.
I reached into the pocket of my coat and took out the diary. It felt like a slab of stone. I threw it on the desk with a thud, settled into the chair and positioned myself so I could see the door. I wasn’t taking my eye off it tonight.
I lifted the cover of the book and opened it carefully, as though I expected a poisonous gas to seep out. The diary was the key to it all, I knew. I just didn’t know how. We were leaving in the morning, and this was one last chance to sift through the lies and the secrets. I hardly dared admit it even to myself, but I hoped that there might be a way to stop it all.
I turned the pages and read. I only scanned Emily’s part of the diary, unable to bring myself to decode the adult writing. Something deep inside me, hidden away in my core, knew that written in the careful handwriting were things that should never be read. I cast a glance to the door, and seeing that it stood firm, I read Emily’s story, turning her childish words into adult facts.
At school the teacher – I knew this to be Clive – had taken exception to Thomas talking too much in class. It seemed that he was the class clown, always laughing and joking and doing his best to make his schoolmates smile. So Clive sat him next to Emily, who was always a quiet, serious girl.
Emily didn’t like this at first. Thomas always copied her work. He pinched her under the table, stole her pens, and hid her lunch. Emily tried to get him to tone his jokes down, but the boy wouldn’t be deterred. He talked over the teacher, shouted things out as the class memorised their times tables.
In one lesson, they learned about the witches. It was a watered-down version, a tale that saved the children from the grisly details. Nowhere did the school texts mention the creaking of the trees as the ropes were tied around them, or the snap or the women’s necks as their foot supports were removed.
Emily became obsessed with the witches. She wished she could be one. Then she could make Thomas disappear. She could magic herself some sweets when mum and dad said no. She could trick the sky to make it seem like it was daylight, and that would mean she didn’t have to go to bed. That she didn’t have to go up to her room, where things scratched the walls and footsteps creaked on the floorboards. At night she thought of the witches as she fell asleep. She dreamed about them as the house swam in darkness.
Thomas never stopped trying to be friends with her. One day, Emily decided to use it to her advantage. After checking with her parents, she offered for Thomas to go for tea at her house after school. The boy grinned and agreed, and he followed Emily to the cottage. After a meal of pork chops and mashed potatoes they went outside to play. Emily’s parents told them not to stray too far, but Emily was in no mood to listen.
She convinced Thomas that they should go into the woods and explore. She knew from teacher that that the villagers had trials for the witches here, though she didn’t fully understand what a trial was. It sounded bad. Maybe if they were lucky, a witch would still live in the woods. Maybe she would give Emily powers, and she could turn Thomas into a centipede and then leave him to live in the forest.
As the evening light began to fade and clouds stretched over the sky, the children walked into the woods. Thomas was scared, his face went white. He said that maybe they should just play cops and robbers. Emily shook her head. She cast her eye to the darkened elms and knew that tonight they must go.
I sat back in my seat and shuddered. Emily’s entries in the diary ended here, and the rest of the book was written in the adult style handwriting, the paragraphs longer, the words bolder. I wanted to tear out the pages and throw them in the fire. Something told me that they shouldn’t be allowed to exist.
What had happened in the woods? Where had Thomas gone, and what had the children seen as they wandered alone through the trees? My brain screamed inside my skull, told me to stop reading. But I had to know what happened after Emily stopped writing her diary.
I took a deep breath and felt the cold air swirl in my lungs. I applied the cipher to the adult paragraph immediately after Emily’s last entry. As I read the first sentence back to myself, I felt my chest tighten and close in, as though something were squeezing me from the inside.
The new body is fresh. It is young, but we will make it old.
Without thinking I reached forward and swept the diary away from me. It flew off the desk and clattered onto the floor, but even that wasn’t far enough away. I swung my foot and kicked it until it skidded across the room.
My head throbbed in pulses that made me nauseous. My nose ran, and it felt so stuffed that I struggled to suck air through it. I couldn’t read anymore of the diary. My skin shivered and my arms ached. I needed sleep. I was going to be ill for a while, I knew. I’d had enough colds to realise what a bad one felt like.
I picked up the candle and walked over to my bed. As I set it down on the bedside table I must have moved too fast, because a breeze whipped the wick and blew out the flames. I lifted the duvet and climbed into bed fully-clothed. Despite the jumpers, dressing gown and bed cover on top of me, I felt like I was in an ice bath. The room was dark now save for the dim flicker of the fire as the flames chewed through the wood.
I wished there was a hotel nearby. I wished I could just get in the car and leave. Something told me to get far away from this place, that to stay even one more night was madness. I tugged the duvet up to my neck and over my face, so that only my eyes poked out from it.
Something rustled in the hallway outside my room. I lifted my legs and let the blanket hook underneath them, cocooning myself in it. I stared at the door, wanting to close my eyes and let sleep take over but unable to tear my eyes away.
The rustling sound grew, until it sounded like something scraped along the wooden floor outside. My heart pounded against my chest. I stared at the doorway, eyes wide. Darkness pressed against the windows and tried to climb into the room, and the fire put up a weak fight. Soon the logs would burn and the darkness would win. I hoped I was asleep before then.
The sound stopped outside the door. There was silence, a moment of utter quiet that stretched out for what seemed like hours. I tried to take a breath and hold it in, hoping I could still the beating of my heart and throbbing of my head. A sound thudded out and shattered the quiet, a terrible noise that threw my pulse into a beat so wild that I thought my chest would explode.
Knock, knock, knock.
It echoed off the wood of the door. I gasped and pulled the cover tighter around me.
Knock, knock, knock.
Who was it? Did I lock the door? I must have done.
“Jeremiah, is that you?”
Knock, knock, knock.
I knew that I had definitely locked the door, yet as the door handle turned, I realised it would make no difference. A sharp blast of ice covered my chest as the handle rotated and the door started to swing open. I tried to close my eyes and hide away from it, but my brain refused to let them fall shut. A feeling of utter dread seeped into the room and filled the air, and the darkness grew so heavy that it sat on my chest like a gremlin. The door slid all the way open, and I heard the patter of feet as they tread across the floorboards.
As the figure moved into the room I knew who it was. I knew I shouldn’t talk to her, that I shouldn’t look at her. My head banged and my forehead burned. The room blurred at the edges, like it was a photograph that had been set alight and had started to curl. You have a fever, I told myself. You’re not right. Maybe she was symbolic of me, of my inner lost child, my own guilt, frustrations, misery. The kind of stuff I wrote in my analytical essays. “The shadows on the curtain represent his diminished ego and sense of responsibility”. How pointless it all seemed now, with my head sweating and the eyes itching.
She moved into the centre of the room, directly facing my bed. She looked at the floor, her neck bent so sharply it looked like it was snapped. I saw her out of the corner of my eyes. I didn’t dare risk moving my head, and the sight brought a burning sense of revulsion to my stomach.
I realised that the door had shut behind her, and somehow I knew that it was locked again. Or had it never opened in the first place? Was the entire thing a product of my panic-filled mind?
Her hair was a sooty black. In another life she would have been a pretty girl. A happy girl. But now, the figure in my room didn’t represent happiness. Dread and depression seeped off her, as though that was what she exhaled rather than carbon dioxide. I wanted to hold my breath, but I was sucking it through my mouth in such shallow bursts that my lungs didn’t have enough to hold. At the same time it sounded loud, and I was aware of it gushing in and out. The girl’s was raspy and strangled.
I wanted to move further up the bed, get myself into an upright position, but I didn’t dare move. I couldn’t feel my legs underneath me, and it was as though they overrode the commands my brain put out. This is a fever, I thought.
This is not a fever, replied another part of me. I felt like I was draining away. Like I might liquefy and spread into the bedsheets. Where was Jeremiah?
I moved my head a fraction and let more of her come into my vision. She wore pale blue pyjamas with white dots. They looked a few years too big for a seven year old. Seven years old, Christ.
This sent a jolt to my brain. A spark of recognition, a fact learnt, or in this case, not learnt. I knew that Emily was seven years old. That was for definite. I didn’t know she wore spotted pyjamas that were clearly too big for her. That was a detail too rich for my brain to make up, fever or no fever. When you dream your brain takes the images it weaves from reality and it pieces things together that you already know.
I couldn’t have possibly known this detail. I had never been told that instead of buying the correct sized clothes her parents had gone one or two sizes up, obviously hoping to save money on the fact she would grow into them in later years. Years that, in reality, they didn’t get to have with her. Phlegm slid down my throat and landed in my stomach. It spread through my gut into my legs, my arms, up my spine. With it came a numbness that cut through the shivers. The girl was real.
Jeremiah, where the hell are you? I need you!
I knew that I couldn’t look at her. I remembered what Clive had written. She doesn’t want to be acknowledged. She doesn’t want to exist.
“Then what the hell are you doing here?” I said out loud, the words blurting unwanted into the silence of the room.
Slowly, the girl turned her head away from the floor. Inch by inch she lifted it in jerky movements. I didn’t want her to complete the turn. I didn’t want to look into her face, but I just didn’t know the real reason why. Maybe I was worried that I would see myself in her face, and that she was a symbolic hallucination of my own fears. Or even worse that she was real, and I’d be looking into the eyes of a dead child.
Icy tendrils moved in waves across my skin. I couldn’t think of anything else but escape. Getting out of this room, into the car, and driving until the tank was empty. I tried to command my body. This time my legs worked, and I used them to push myself up into a sitting position, as far away from her as possible. I banged into the headboard and realised there was nowhere else for me to go. The girl’s forehead came into view, and then her eyes. So dark they were almost black, darkened rings around the edges. Pupils lost amidst the darkness. Staring at me.
I screamed. My cry seemed to bounce off the walls then die. Marsha wouldn’t hear me, I knew. Even if she did, would she come? Who else knew about this? There was only one person, and he’d left me alone.
She stared at me now. She waited. For what? For me to speak? For me to try to run? I didn’t want to look fully into her face, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from her. So I looked down at her legs, followed them to her feet. There was the nail polish on her big toe, no doubt from where she’d tried to copy her mum. It hinted at a little girl who wasn’t always depressed.
The room was ice, and it was silent except for the banging of the pub gate outside as the wind threw it against its frame. My breath left my mouth in hurried gasps, sighing through the stillness in the room. It felt like this was a deathly peace that should be left undisturbed. To make a sound was like kicking the foot of a sleeping bear. Yet I couldn’t stop the sound of my breathing, and I knew that she could hear it too. Somehow I hoped she didn’t see me, that it was a one way mirror that only I could see through. I knew this wasn’t the case. She took a step toward me, nail-polished foot first.
I looked out of the window and for a second considered jumping out. At the same time, I knew that I couldn’t. There was a fifteen foot drop, and even if my neck didn’t snap when it hit the ground I knew my ankles would. Yet I had to do something. My arms and legs had stopped working. All I could feel was the headboard as it dug into my back, and the drum beating inside my head.
The girl’s footsteps made a soft patter as they got closer to me. There was a smell in the room like earth. Dampness and mud, and something sour. I choked back a retch.
I caught a glint of movement across the room. The doorknob moved, and then stopped. It rattled again. I knew now that the door was definitely locked. There was nowhere for me to go. Nothing for me to do but what the girl craved. I had to look into her eyes.
Cold breath blew on my skin, and I realised that the girl’s face was next to mine now. I felt the ice that drifted off her skin. She wanted me to look at her, and I knew I had to do it.
The door rattled again. Something heavy thudded against it, but the door held firm.
“Marsha! Marsha! Wake up you old cow,” said a voice outside.
My skin tingled and I felt her stare burn onto me. I knew that she peered at me, eyes wide and black, skin pale. I gulped. Against my will, I felt my head begin to turn towards her. Pinpricks of fear dotted up and down my arms, and a voice inside my head told me to shut my eyes. I knew that I couldn’t. I knew the only end for me was to look into those dead eyes. With my breath catching in my chest, I twisted my head and met her gaze.
When I looked into her face, a rush of dread covered me like snow. My heart stopped beating, my arms felt numb. I stared at her young face and I wanted to scream. A realisation hit me as I looked at her. One so sudden that it felt like a hammer on my skull. The figure looked like Emily, but it wasn’t her. There was something in her eyes, something old. Something sick.
The thing stood at my bed, whatever it was, sure as hell wasn’t Emily Jenkins. She was dead and her body was in the ground somewhere. Her poor parents, still shell-shocked a decade later, were testament to that. The figure stood beside me was something else entirely. It wore the body of the girl, but it was something that had used her when she was alive. Now that she was dead, it tied her to the earth as a spectre. It was a drowning spirit that wouldn’t release its grip on the girl’s soul, and it wanted to erase any trace of its retched crimes.
Well I could certainly do that. I didn’t want to bury the secrets away from those who should know, but I was the only one who could put an end to it, I realised. The diary was the key. Within its pages, gouged in ink, was a record of the terrible things that had happened.
I knew who the words belonged to, those that weren’t written by Emily’s hand. I knew what the children had seen in the woods. I knew what swung from the branches of the trees, and what had followed Emily out again.
My legs felt like weights, but I strained and lifted myself off the bed. The figure stood on the other side. It twisted its head as I moved, following me with its eyes as I crossed the room and picked up the diary. Next to me, built into the wall, the flames of the fire licked and spat. The figure’s mouth opened wide as if to shout, but no noise left its lips.
I took a breath and held it firm in my chest. I held the diary in the air, and in one decisive motion I threw it into the fire. The flames welcomed the book, and soon they twisted over the pages and began to melt them into ash.
There was another thud at the door, and this time it burst open. A familiar mass stood in the doorway, a thick body bulging in tight fitting clothes. A mop of red hair, eyes wide and full of fire. Jeremiah paused as if he didn’t know what to say. He looked at me, and then looked at the fire. He saw the book roasting against a charred log, and his face turned red.
“What the hell are you doing?”
I couldn’t squeeze out the words. I looked over to my bed and expected to see the girl crawling towards me. Instead, the room was empty.
I tried to find my voice.
I wanted to gesture to the left with my head, but I didn’t have the energy. I felt like I was going to collapse.
“What am I supposed to be looking at? Do you have a fever?”
“A … fever?”
Did I have a fever? I thought back to when I first got into in bed. My head swimming. Feeling like my skull was a balloon ready to burst. The bedcovers scolding hot on my skin. I did have a fever. I was sick.
“That’s enough,” he said. “This trip is finished. You need to get home, get to bed and stay there for a week. You should have told me you were this bad.”
He was right, of course he was right, how could I be so stupid, how did I forget something like that? I looked at Jeremiah. His face was concerned. He guided me over to the bed and watched me as I climbed into it. As he pulled the covers over my icy body, I cast my eye over to the fire. The flames climbed over the pages over the book and roasted it into a black dust. I felt the weight slip off my chest, and my breathing came easier. Soon my eyelids started to drop, and I felt like finally I could sleep.
The next morning the birds sang as we loaded up the car. Rain pattered down on the hood of my coat and ran in dribbles down my sleeves. I shook my arm and let the drops fall to the floor. Jeremiah opened the boot of my car and heaved both his and my travel cases into it.
“Looks like you’ve learned some manners,” I said. I tried to make the words light-hearted, but even the effort of speaking was enough to drain me.
“Get in the car and buckle up.”
Jeremiah turned around. He waved a hand in the air at Marsha, who stood pale-faced in the pub doorway.
“Thanks for the lovely stay,” he shouted over to her. Then, in a quieter voice, he added “You crazy mare.”
Thoughts of the trip squirmed through my mind like worms. I swiped them away and let them crawl back into the earth. I wasn’t ready to face them yet. I knew what I had seen, and I knew what I felt, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about it. It felt like there was no need; that somehow, I had put an end to it.
I got in the car and sunk into the seat. Jeremiah got into the driver’s side. He pulled the seatbelt across him, eyes straining as he fumbled with the buckle.
“What the hell were you doing last night?” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“When I barged in. You were burning the diary.”
I wanted to tell him. I wanted him to know that the things he searched for existed. Maybe he was fully convinced of that already, but I wanted to tell him that I believed in them too. I knew that I couldn’t. Some things would have to remain unspoken, because there were things in this world that nobody should hear.
“It was just the fever,” I said.
Jeremiah huffed. He turned the ignition, and the engine growled.
“Another damn hoax. I swear to god, these people have too much free time on their hands. And they’re gullible. All it takes is one daft sod telling a ghost story, and the rest of them just swallow it up.”
I grunted. To talk more would mean to think, and I wanted a rest from that.
“Do you want me to drop you off at your dorms?” he said.
I thought about it. I imagined nights in my dorm room, my lamp burning and books spread in front of me. My phone staying silent, my notebook filling up. The coldness of the air, the bareness of the walls. There was more to life than this.
“If I give you an address, think you could take me there?”
The wheels of the car moved and Jeremiah guided the car over the cobbled road and away from the pub.
“Sure, where is it?”
“I think I want to go visit some friends,” I said. The word ‘friends’ sounded strange when I said it. It was like a stream springing from a long-dry desert.
“Sounds like a good idea. You could do with a break.”
As the car rolled over the country road I got the sense the sky was opening up around us, as though the further away we got from the village the bigger the world became. Sparrows spiralled above us and sang. Jeremiah drove. I relaxed in the passenger seat and watched the greens of the Scottish country side fly by. I leant forward and reached for the radio dial, but stopped myself and sank back in my seat. The sounds of the world drifted by, and it was time for me to listen.
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Kyle Vauss hikes the ruins of Northern England, a broken man running from his past. He has one more journey to make through the graveyard that was once Britain. Maybe then he can forgive himself for what happened to his wife.
They said the outbreak would only last a few days…fifteen years later the world has gone to hell. The zombie infected roam the streets, and at night the mutated stalkers leave their nests to kill. Nobody knows what they are, or where they’re from. But anyone caught outside after dark will find out how dangerous they can be.
Kyle’s got one last trip to make and a promise to his dead wife to fulfil. When a kid called Justin tricks Kyle into taking him along, Kyle has to learn to trust others again. He doesn’t want to face his past, but there are some things that you can’t turn away from.
Praise for the Fear the Dead series from other readers:
‘Loved this book. It had everything you want to see in a good apocalyptic story. And it’s great to see a British author giving the likes of Mr Kirkman a run for his money. Bring on the next book. Can’t wait.’
‘Excellent baddies and a realistic depiction of a post-apocalyptic future. Fear the Dead has left me wanting more and I’d love to know what happens next. I would read a sequel in a heartbeat!’
‘The author Jack Lewis is the mist of writing what could be one of the classic end of the world zombie tales in years to come, that’s if we are not wiped out be a zombie apocalypse.’
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Copyright 2015 by Jack Lewis. All rights reserved worldwide. No part of this publication may be replicated, redistributed, or given away without the prior written consent of the author.
Ghosts, poltergeists, spirits, haunting. None of them are real. Or are they? Paranormal investigator Jeremiah Cosgrove certainly thinks so, as do the residents of an isolated countryside town. Something is happening in the town at night, and although everyone knows about it, nobody will talk. The residents have a dark secret and a black history, and some of them will do anything to make sure it stays buried. A student called Ellie joins Jeremiah on his trip, but she doesn't believe in the paranormal. When she feels someone watching her in her room and hears noises that she can't explain, she might have to think again. Tapping on the windows...figures in the doorway...creaking in the hallway... With a dark past comes dark secrets, and Jeremiah and Ellie are about to find out what haunts the shadows.