Back to The Shadows.

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The cat dashed past Gerard’s legs and up the stairs in a black, scrabbling blur. Moments earlier the backdoor had crashed open, squeaking and clattering noisily in the frame.

He ran to the backroom and wrenched the door closed against the resistant wind and whipping rain. Gerard locked the door, leaving the key slightly turned. He took a final glance through the frosted pane into the garden, weakly lit by a neighbour’s security light, and returned to the living room.

The family watched as he knelt on the sofa under the front window and peered out into the street. They sat across the room, on the larger sofa, huddled together in the far corner.

‘I take it that’s the last of you?’ Gerard said without turning from his watch.

‘I told you, we’re all here’ the father replied.

Gerard turned his head and grimaced.

‘You didn’t mention the cat. I don’t remember a cat. I don’t remember any of this. Thought I would. Any other potential visitors I should know about?’

Of course I didn’t mention the cat! The father wanted to scream at the intruder. You break into my house, threaten my family, and you think I give a damn about the cat? But instead he just nodded and simply said, ‘No. Why does it matter?’

Gerard turned to the window. The family watched the leathery curls on the back of his neck wrinkle as he spoke.

‘Nothing matters now. Everywhere is locked. No getting in, no getting out. Now it begins.’

Despite her husband’s hurried appeal for calm when the intruder was out of the room, the mother struggled to hide the frustration in her voice.

What begins? What do you want?’ she snapped, clinging to her son tightly.

‘I don’t want anything. I’m here to save you from what’s out there.’ Gerard peered into the gloom between the streetlights.

‘There’s nothing out there’ said the mother.

Gerard turned, smiled, and sat facing them. As he crossed his legs the mother noticed how he repeatedly toyed with the laces of his gnarled boots. A nervous tick? Obsessive behaviour? She’d seen it before somewhere she couldn’t place.

‘Not yet. We’re in for a long night. You might want to get some bedding down for the little one. Looks like he might need it.’

The son, despite the adrenalin and confusion, was nodding into his mother’s armpit, the whites of his eyes rolling up under flittering eyelids.

‘I’ll go’ said the father.

‘We’ll both go’ insisted Gerard, pulling himself up to his intimidating six and five, wreathed in his long, worn leather jacket.

The father ran another mental bout against the monster before him. There was no way he could beat him in a fair fight, and he guessed there’d be nothing fair about it. When the intruder had first appeared in the house just twenty minutes previously, having casually just walked in from the street through the unlocked door, he had quickly subdued the father’s attempts at retaliation with little more than a sturdily outstretched arm and a firm grip.

So far the intruder had revealed no weapons, but that coat could hide a small armoury. There was nothing in the house the father could use anyway, save a sturdy walking stick in the storm-porch, but that was locked away like everything else.

He got up and walked to the corridor and was signalled by the intruder to go first up the stairs. As he reached the top he realised there was one weapon that was available to all, given the right circumstances. He stopped and waited for the footsteps behind to catch up.

‘What are you waiting for?’ said the intruder, one foot half on the landing, his knees bent and arms spread to the walls.

The father turned, planted his hands firmly on either side of the stair walls, lifted his leg and kicked the intruder squarely in the chest, putting his whole weight behind his straightening knee.

Gerard instinctively reached forward to grab the assailing leg, but was already toppling backwards as he did so. His hands flayed pointlessly into the void between them. He hit the steps hard, with the weight of his body on top of him, and then tumbled through all the angles to the foot of the stairs.

The mother came running out of the living room, in an instant seeing the contorted intruder and closing the door behind her.

‘Stay in there darling, just stay in there a moment’ she called back, holding the handle to stop her son from following. The handle wobbled and then fell still.

‘That’s it,’ she said, trying to hide the shake in her voice, ‘just have a little lie down, we’ll be there in a minute.’

The father descended the stairs quickly, lunged and landed purposefully with his knee on the intruder’s throat, figuring he could at least hold him down him while his wife and child ran to safety. All the heap below him could manage, however, was to turn his head slightly to meet his eye.

‘I came to save you’ Gerard moaned, pushing back against the waves of pain and cold numbness that phased across his being.

‘Don’t move!’ the mother yelled. ‘I’m calling the police.’

She thrust her hand into the intruder’s pockets and pulled out the keys he had stashed away earlier after bursting into their home and overpowering her husband. She felt a guilty pride now as all the intruder could do to try and stop her was strain against unresponsive muscles and limp limbs, thanks to her husband’s besting.

She unlocked the storm porch and retrieved the mobile phones the intruder had sealed away.

‘Close the door’ he whispered through strained breath, but the mother didn’t listen, busy as she was frantically checking each of the devices.

‘No signal?’ said the father. She nodded.

‘Use the landline. I’ll be okay.’

She ran to the kitchen.

‘Don’t go out. Don’t let anyone in. Not till light. Please!’ Gerard’s eyes bulged with the effort of speaking.

The father twisted his knee. He could barely force out words through the anger.

‘You come into my house, you say we will die if we don’t do what you ask, you threaten my family and now you beg me not to call the police?’

‘They can’t help you!’ Gerard pleaded. ‘They can’t help anyone! Not tonight. Only me.’

‘Why? Because there’s something ‘out there’? There’s something in here, and you’re done, man. You’re sick, you’re a sick…’

The father was interrupted by the sound of his wife’s cursing from down the hall. He called out to her and she returned, clutching the telephone handset.

‘There’s nothing’ she said, handing it over.

The father pressed fruitlessly at buttons, listening to the silence.

‘You cut the lines? Why would you do that?’

The intruder seemed to be coming to some kind of peace. His breathing slowed, his features calmed, his eyes looked past the father and to the ceiling.

‘They’re all down. Everything’s down. I came back to stop it from happening to you again. I failed.’

‘Damn right you failed. Sarah. Go next door, now. Get the police, and an ambulance.’

There was a loud scratch from behind the living room door.

‘Darling?’ said the mother tentatively.

‘I told you. They’re here. But how can… How did I make it? If…’ the intruder babbled weakly. There was another scratch in the wood of the door, deep and jarring. And another. It grew louder, furious.

‘Mummy!’ the son shouted from beyond.

‘Get him out!’ she yelled at her husband.

The father jumped to his feet and quickly but cautiously eased the door open. His heart pounded violently as the cat flew past him and down the corridor to the kitchen. The son followed soon after, sniffling from the fright of the dark living room and the sound of animal claws. He stood blinking in the doorway.

‘Just the cat!’ the father said furiously to the intruder, but the intruder said nothing. His eyes twitched urgently, but the words wouldn’t come to his lips, his breath failing in his throat. All he could do was look to the top of the stairs.

‘What?’ said the father. ‘What’s up there?’ He peered up, trying to follow the intruder’s line of sight but could see nothing on the dark landing.

‘It was me!’ the intruder croaked suddenly and violently. ‘I let it in. But why send me back here if… Oh dear.’ the intruder choked on the end of his sentence.

There was another scratch, and a deep, rattling growl, this time it came from upstairs.

‘But, Claw just went to the kitchen?’ said the mother.

‘Probably a stray’ the father said. ‘I’ll go and have a look.’

‘I’m coming too’ insisted the mother. ‘What if he wasn’t alone?’

The father looked at the dazed son in the doorway.

‘We can’t leave him. Not here, not with,’ he nodded at the intruder who had closed his eyes, and was very, very still. ‘Oh god. I think he’s…’ the father stopped short of saying the word in front of his son, even the sound of it in is head made him shudder.

The mother turned the boy by the shoulders and stepped him into the porch.

‘We’re going out soon, so you put your shoes on, Mummy and Daddy are just going to get some things. I’m going to close the door. Only for a few seconds, I promise.’

The son sat down on the cold tiles. The father winked and rubbed his hair before locking the door behind him and heading upstairs with his wife.

That was the night the shadows came in from the darkness and waited for those who went looking. That was the night that changed everything.

Gerard fiddled with the laces of his shoes while he waited for his parents to return.

THE END

A note from the Author:

Thanks for reading! I really appreciate it, and it would be great if you could help me reach more people by sharing this on social media by using the buttons below, or copying and pasting the web address far and wide.

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Thanks.

Garry.

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Pin the Devil.

It was something my grandma told me. I don’t know if it’s common knowledge, or a common myth, but I’m guessing she didn’t just make it up.

The way it goes is this: if you have lost something, simply take a pin (any type will do), and say out loud “I pin the devil”. Follow this by the name of the lost object and stick the pin in the back of a cushion. Leave it there for three days and the object will turn up.

To be honest, incantations over pierced furnishings wouldn’t have occurred to me, if it wasn’t for the ghost. Had my mind not already been on the supernatural, my grandma’s words would have remained a forgotten memory when I lost the ring. But I am getting ahead. Perhaps I should start with the ghost.

I don’t know when the ghost started. It was in the house before me I’m sure, so who can say? When I first moved into 32 Forge Lane, the landlady had neglected to mention that I would be sharing my little terrace with a poltergeist.

Maybe she hoped it would be masked by the plethora of other phenomenon the house presented. She would have been right to. For the first three months I accounted every strange going on in the house to faulty heating, dodgy wiring, and incessant drafts. But after a while, when all the doors had been oiled, all the cracks plugged, and your step dad has kindly given the boiler and the electrics a once-over, you start to notice the difference between a knocking pipe, and just plain knocking.

For a start, a knocking pipe doesn’t knock back. It may seem to, if you are prone to an over-active imagination, or chance so happens to time the random expansion and contraction of metal with your own signals. But that kind of chance, or whimsy, is not demonstrable to others. You know for certain when you can spend a whole evening with your sometimes-boyfriend, rapping knuckles with the other side, asking questions.

The problem with the whole ‘knock once for yes, twice for no’ system, however, is that it rather puts the emphasis on the person asking the questions. But it can get you so far, if you are persistent.

 

Isabelle

Do you want to talk to us?

Knock.

Isabelle

Good. We want to talk to you too. Did you use to live in this house?

Knock.

Josh

Did you die here?

Knock knock.

Josh

But you are dead?

Knock.

Isabelle

Is it you who opens the doors upstairs?

Knock.

Isabelle.

I thought so. And opens the windows?

Knock.

Josh.

See? I told you it wasn’t me.

Isabelle.

Shush! Are you happy here?

Knock.

Isabelle.

And do you mind me living here?

Knock knock.

Josh.

Does that mean no he doesn’t mind, or no he doesn’t want you here?

Isabelle.

He doesn’t mind, I think. Actually, are you a ‘he’?

Knock knock.

 

Call me a sexist, anti-feminist if you want, but something about knowing it was a ‘she’ made me feel better immediately. I’m sure you could argue that women are as free and equal to turn into spirits just as terrifying as men, but another female presence in the house reassured me. After all, how many tired ghost stories have you heard about dirty old misogynistic man that died in the battered armchair in the corner? That’s not what I wanted at all.

After our conversations, things settled down. If something ever happened that I didn’t like, or that disturbed me, I would ask very nicely for her to stop, and she always did. It just became normal to talk to the ghost when needed, but other than that, life continued as normal (at least for me). Then things started to go missing.

It was just little things, usually, and they almost always turned up. Josh’s tobacco, my hairbrush, house keys and whatnot. I know that you’re thinking: who doesn’t lose their keys? We all do, I know, but they don’t usually turn up on top of a six-foot bookshelf that you can’t even reach without climbing on your armchair.

It caused arguments between me and Josh, before we realised it was the ghost. He can be, let’s say, controlling, and I thought he was hiding things to put me off kilter, to make me feel like I was losing it. Josh said it was stupid to blame him when I was the one living with a mischievous spirit. He had a point, so I decided to speak to the ghost again, this time alone.

 

Isabelle

Are you there?

Knock.

Isabelle

Did you hide my keys?

Knock.

Isabelle

And Josh’s tobacco?

Knock.

Isabelle

I’m not angry, but can you please stop hiding things?

Knock.

Isabelle

Thanks. Also, I don’t know how you can answer this, but I still can’t find my grandma’s ring. Only, it’s valuable to me, and I really don’t want to lose it.

Silence.

Isabelle

Is it possible you can put it back for me, where you found it?

Knock knock.

Isabelle

Please? You did hide it, didn’t you?

Knock knock.

Isabelle

No? You didn’t?

Knock knock.

 

Of all the luck, I had an honest light-fingered ghost willing to return my goods, but the one thing I really wanted back wasn’t in her possession. I searched everywhere I could reach and clambered on furniture for those places that I would normally send Josh. He was having another of his ‘absent’ patches, so was no help at all.

The ring was an heirloom and was of more than just sentimental value. Mum had smuggled it out of my grandmother’s house when, in her dying days, long absent relatives suddenly started appearing like so many woodworm. It had always been intended for me, but with the hyenas around, Mum wanted to make sure it was safely out of reach from sticky fingers.

It was thinking of my grandma, and what mum would say if she found out I’d lost the ring, that trawled up the memory of ‘pin the devil’. It’s a funny thing, I’d only ever heard her mention it once, a long time ago when I still lived at home, but it had stuck with me. I think I’d lost something innocuous, probably my Walkman, and was scampering around the house in a blind panic. My grandma sat there watching and told me I should ‘pin the devil’, and exactly what that meant. Mum was there at the time, and for a rational sort of person, she didn’t bat an eyelid at the suggestion.

I never did it. The thought gave me the same chill as I got from playing Ouija with my friends, and a lost Walkman just didn’t seem worth the risk of dabbling with dark forces. But the notion that we could call for help on forces beyond our understanding stuck with me, as if there was a symbiosis at play between worlds.

It took a bottle of wine on a particularly lonely night before I plucked up the courage to give it a try. I had found out earlier that day that Josh had found somewhere else to hang his hat. He’d got his hands on some money, for a change, and no longer needed my social, sexual and financial subsidies. Apparently he was telling people it was my fault for being too overbearing. Presumably because I once asked him if he could bring some milk around, or some other torturous domestic request.

It’s funny how you can’t find a pin when you want one, and realise that you haven’t needed one since you were 12 and wanted to stick a Take That poster up on your wall. Fittingly for that teary night, the only pin I could find in the house was from the back of a badge that Josh had bought me at a gig. It was a black badge with a picture of a green skull in a bowler hat. I don’t even remember the band it was for. I never liked it, and had no issue with bending the pin back and probably ruining it forever.

I performed the ridiculous ceremony, calling for the ring and thrusting the badge pin into a sofa cushion. I went to bed expecting nothing, at least not for three days, but my wait was considerably shorter.

Now, I didn’t know if I had forgotten the added detail about the feathers, or if my grandma neglected to tell me, but it was a nice touch. At first I thought that Bart, my long missing cat, had returned with a present to say sorry for having disappeared three years ago. The feathers were dotted around the living room. There wasn’t hundreds of them, but enough that the eye noticed them straight away. I couldn’t honestly say what kind of bird they had come from, but they were white with black roots, and relatively small, about the size of my thumb nail.

I gathered them up one by one, following a trail of my own making, so I thought, until they led me up to the mantelpiece where I spotted the last one behind the carriage clock. And there it sat, the last feather, resting on Josh’s favourite lighter. He had kicked up a huge fuss when it had gone missing, accusing me of throwing it away to spite him. I remember how he’d been a miserable bastard all night after that, but wouldn’t leave because he knew I was making dinner and wanted to eat, basically.

Now I had found it, I actually did throw it away, along with the feathers. I checked everywhere and found no more. Okay, it wasn’t the ring, but it was something. A warm up. I resolved to leave the pin in place, and see if anything else turned up. Sure enough, the next morning, the feathers were back.

This time, they led me to the bookcase, and the last feather lay on one particular book. The book itself was not lost, evidently, but I opened it up and a photo dropped out from between the pages. It was a picture I had forgotten even existed, so I suppose in a sense, it was lost. The picture was one of me from back home, before I moved out here, when I wanted so much to get out and make my own world. I am kneeling on the sofa at Mums, throwing my hands out to the camera, and I have a look in my eye that I haven’t glimpsed in the mirror for a long time. It was a look of wide-eyed determination and hunger for independence, if such things can be gleamed from a Triple-Print Kodak.

When did I lose that look? If I was going to blame anyone, it would be Josh, but I’ve never been one to lay my shortcomings at other’s feet. Maybe, on some dark nights of the soul, I have been guilty of bitterly blaming my underwhelming existence on his toxic blend of possessive none committal. But I have always checked myself. I am more that the product of someone else’s whims, I know that, even if the hurt can occasionally make me feel otherwise.

I thanked the feathers for the discovery. To find something you weren’t looking for, but needed, is a gift indeed. I resolved to capture that look once again, and looked forward to what day three would bring.

I didn’t have to wait to the next morning, however. I woke during the night, for reasons unknown. There was no startling dream, no wind whistling down the terrace, and no bodily functions to satisfy. I was simply awake at 3am. Trying to find some reason to satisfy and return to sleep, I decided I must be dehydrated and went to get some water.

On the landing, my bare foot twitched as a tickle ran across it. I didn’t need to turn on the light to see the feather, the white down echoing the moonlight against the grey carpet. My eyes adjusted quickly, seeing the line leading down hall, past the bathroom, and terminating below the hatch to the attic.

The attic. That strange none-place in most houses where lost things are forgotten, and forgotten things are lost. I recalled the last time I was up there. It was Christmas, in the obligatory annual attic-opening to recover the old biscuit tin full of decorations and the bin bag with the plastic tree. It was possible that the ring had fallen off when I was up there.

I retrieved the stick from the corner that existed solely for the purpose of clicking the hatch up and off the magnetic catch, allowing the wooden door to swing open and the folding ladder to swivel on its hinge to a reachable height. It was okay getting it down. Putting it back up was another matter. Last time I was up here, Josh had to do it for me. As I pulled the ladder down to it’s full height, another feather drifted slowly down beside me.

I climbed the stairs, lit only by the night through the hallway window, knowing that a small switch on the inside of the hatch frame would illuminate the void above. I positioned myself half way up the stairs and switched on the solitary bulb. I was surrounded on all but one side by my hastily stacked decorations and boxes that I had never unpacked since moving in. Some were open, which I couldn’t remember doing. Maybe I had a taken a little look one of those Christmases, and decided that the memories were exactly where they needed to be, but I was sure I hadn’t.

Either way, as my eyes reached the level of the floorboards, more feathers came into stark contrast, leading through the gap to the small triangle of space by the apex of the rafters, where one could just about stand crooked by the water tank. I crawled up and around the corner, and that’s when I saw them.

Both birds were skewered to the boards by a single metal peg driven through the breast. I would say the pegs had come from my stashed camping gear, but these were thick, rough, mottled iron pins, the kind that you could imagine hammered into the hull of a boat. The poor beasts were dead, of course, their white feathers with black roots haloed around them. They both lay at his feet.

Just when and how Josh had found his way into my attic, and who it was that did that to him with the third peg, will forever be a mystery, if you believe these words. Don’t bother going to the house and trying to ask the ghost; the knocking stopped that night.

I submit this to you as my statement, as my declaration of innocence. I doubt it will help me now. When I pulled the peg from his chest, I swear it was only to retrieve the gold ring that was looped around it. In my shock I handled everything that has now incriminated me in his murder. All I wanted was my grandma’s ring back, and now it is locked up, like me, awaiting the exhibition of justice.

THE END.

A note from the Author:

Thanks for reading! I really appreciate it, and it would be great if you could help me reach more people by sharing this on social media by using the buttons below, or copying and pasting the web address far and wide.

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Thanks. 

Garry.

Is Anybody There?

‘Is there anybody there?’ said Carla, curling her lip as she did so, looking like the idea was a bad smell. ‘Why?’

‘She doesn’t get it Baz’ said Simon.

‘Nah, she doesn’t Si’ agreed Baz. ‘Never mind. More for us.’

‘No, wait’ Carla said seriously, seeing the boys smirking and Baz’s shoulder turning her away. ‘I just don’t know what you mean. I’ll do it.’

Baz turned back to face her, studying her closely, looking her up and down, weighing her up. Carla fancied she caught him talking a little too long to bring his eyes past her chest, until the light from a passing car bounced off the bus shelter and he quickly snapped them back up, feigning disinterest.

‘It’s scary. You know? Like…’ Baz waved his hands and adopted a floaty, vibrato voice. ‘Is there anybody there?’ he repeated, ominously.

‘Alright.’ Carla flapped her arms and shrugged. ‘Is there anybody there?’ she said to the boys, the bus stop, and the raindrops.

‘Not here!’ Simon laughed, holding his hand to his mouth instinctively, like cool kids do when they risk showing some emotion. ‘It’s got to be someplace scary, and on your own.’

‘Like where?’ said Carla, looking down the grey, sodden street, past the yellow stain glow of the chip shop window and weak clementine streetlights.

‘The old house on Parsley Lane’ said Baz. ‘It’s haunted.’

‘You mean, the squatters place? That old wreck?’

The old cottage stood stoically at the end of an old lane that had once connected the village to the main road but had been cut in half and hidden away by a glisteningly dull concrete bypass. The other houses on that street had withered and died, as appendages of any severed artery must, but not the old cottage. It still stood, crumbling, but erect. It probably belonged to someone, somewhere, but it had long been the refuge of teen drunks and rural junkies.

‘You been there before then?’ said Baz.

‘Kind of, but it was in the day, and I didn’t go in very far.’

In truth, Carla had only gotten as far as the doorway before she was overcome with guilt and worry that someone would find out she was trespassing. Her so-called mates has been standing on the lane, egging her on and teasing her when she turned and ran back to them. But that was years ago. Now she was older and not scared of her mum, or anyone else, telling her what she should and shouldn’t do, like sneaking out with the naughty boys from school. Skulking off to get out of her mind and forget about everything going on back home.

‘It’s not haunted!’ Carla said, surprised that boys like Baz and Simon would believe in things like that or anything that wasn’t alcohol, drugs or girls.

‘Then it won’t be scary, but you still need to do it if you want one of these’ said Simon, unfurling his fist, revealing three blue triangular pills embossed with a dove in flight.

Carla’s eyes widened. She hadn’t really believed Simon had them, and didn’t think she should ask in case she seemed desperate. Part of her had almost hoped he’d been lying about it. They looked like sweeties.

‘Are they real?’ she said without thinking.

‘You calling me a liar?’ Simon snatched his hand back, thrusting it into his jacket pocket.

‘I’ve just not seen them before. They look like sweets.’

‘Yeah’ laughed Baz. ‘They are. Sweeties. That’s what people call them.’

The two boys laughed. Carla had got away with it. She was treading a thin line with this pair. She didn’t know them very well, other than by reputation, which was exactly why she had made it her business to know them now.

‘Let’s do it’ said Simon, heading off as he did so. Carla and Baz fell in behind.

‘Don’t you want to know?’ said Baz, glancing sideways from under his hood.

‘Know what?’

‘Why it’s haunted?’

‘Oh. Yeah.’ Carla didn’t really care. She knew they were testing her, for kicks. She just needed to get through this stupid game so she could get what she wanted. She was sure they’d get bored of winding her up soon enough and just take her money.

‘You know there’s an old bed up there?’

Carla shrugged.

‘Well, there is, on the top floor. People always think it’s the squatters, but what squatters bring their own wooden bed?’

Baz waited for a response. Carla waited for him to continue.

‘The bed was there before the house was empty. It’s the only thing left that was. It was a bloke and his son who lived there last, but the boy had fits, and his dad had to tie him down sometimes to stop him hurting himself. But the dad was like a proper slob, and a bit of an alky nutter, you know what I mean?’

Carla nodded. Yeah, she knew.

‘So one of these times, he tied him down, and went off to the pub.’

‘What pub?’

‘I don’t know. But he got proper wasted and ended up getting robbed and the shit kicked out of him. He was in hospital for three days before he died. Beaten up so bad, no one recognised him.’

‘But what about his…? Oh.’ Carla saw where this was going.

‘It was almost a week before they found out who he was and sent someone out to the house.’

‘I suppose they found the son dead in the bed then?’ said Carla, thinking this whole story was a crock.

‘Nah. All they found was a bloody mattress, the restraints, and on the floor, a severed hand, chewed off at the wrist.’

‘Whatever.’

‘It’s true!’ Baz insisted.

‘How do you know?’

‘Because, that boy,’ he looked at Carla with puppy dog eyes, ‘was me!’ He waved his arm in the air, his hand withdrawn into his jacket sleeve.

‘You’re an idiot’ Carla said, trying not to laugh.

‘Baz! Come here. You, wait’ Simon called out from ahead. He had reached the entrance to the alley that ran behind parallel rows of houses all the way to Parsley Lane. Baz ran ahead to join him. Carla hung back as instructed, worried he was going to change his mind and ditch the square that had tagged along.

Simon waited till Baz joined him, keeping out of sight around the corner.

‘When we get there and she goes in’ he said, ‘I’ll go round back and climb up the fallen floorboards. You go up the stairs after she gets to the top.’

‘Then what?’ said Baz, ever the eager pupil.

‘When she says it, we give her a scare.’

Baz laughed. ‘She’ll shit herself.’

‘I hope not’ said Simon. ‘Not if we’re gonna do it.’

‘Do what?’

‘There’s that bed up there, ain’t there? After she’s had one of these mate, she’ll be up for anything.’

‘Huh. Yeah’ Baz said, uncertainly. Simon seemed to notice, and gave him a jab on his chest.

‘What? You scared you might actually get some for a change? Here. Let’s take ours now. We’ll be up by the time we get there.’

Simon fished in his pocket and picked out two of the pills, handing one to Baz and immediately swallowing the other. Baz did the same, ever the faithful student.

‘Come on’ Simon shouted back around the corner to Carla.

On the small trek down the narrow passage, lit only by the occasional suburban security light and the second-hand glow of the moon, Carla tried to pick up her conversation with Baz. Until now he was just a lad, some guy whose mate could score pills. She didn’t even know Baz would be here, or that this whole exchange would take longer than five minutes at the bus stop. But Simon had insisted they all took the ‘sweeties’ together. He said it would be safer, cos she’d never had them before. She didn’t really care, as long as she got to scratch this itch, this idea that one small thing could take her away, if only for a short while, and make her happy again. Ecstatic, even.

This Baz though, had surprised her. That little tale about the house was not expected. She thought these guys generally communicated in grunts and insults, not elaborate jokes. Maybe she’d misjudged him. No, maybe she misjudged people like him. Then again, Simon wasn’t exactly breaking the mould so far. Since they’d met up he’d done little else but tell her what she needed to do to get his approval and directed her around his stupid little ritual.

‘You been in this house then?’ Carla asked Baz, while simultaneously trying to keep up with the boys who were walking quickly ahead in single file.

‘Erm, a bit, yeah’ he said without turning.

‘Of course you have, when you were strapped to the…’

‘I was just being stupid’ Baz snapped, this time throwing back the hint of an impatient sneer over his shoulder.

Never mind thought Carla. I’m not here to make friends.

There were no street or porch lights at the end of the alley. It dwindled away into a muddy path that led out to the puckered dirt and gravel track that was Parsley Lane. The rain gathered in treacherous star-speckled puddles of indeterminable depth at almost every step, and the scrub land on either side was overgrown with bramble and nettles. The rain had stopped, but the overhanging hawthorns still dripped noisily with its remnants.

The rest of the journey was silent, save for the occasional splashing of misplaced feet and cursing from the boys. The house was a welcome sight to Carla when finally they arrived, if only to get the conversation going again and break the monotony of silence in the dark.

They stood by what remained of the gate, the two posts that almost sarcastically opened the way to a garden that had long ago lost any fence that required a passing point. Hints of flagstones parted the long, limp grass of the front lawn in a straight line to the front door that hung desperately from one hinge. The frames of the two symmetrically placed front windows on either side of the door were smashed, cracked or absent entirely. The paintwork on the wooden sills was blistered and rotten, and the roof tiles, while mostly still in situ, had slid into precarious ceramic drifts in several places. Only the stonework of the exterior walls retained any of the dwelling’s former charm and glory, standing sturdy, mossy ,weathered and worn in that strangely desirable way.

Neither Carla nor the boys knew this place when it was occupied, when the grass was trimmed and the borders were in bloom and the fence freshly varnished. When the polished windows reflected the life outside and in. It had, for many generations, been a happy place, full of memories that it shaped and sheltered. It had also been an unhappy place at times, as almost all homes have.

Baz was not completely wrong with his half-remembered tale that had been passed down, chewed up, diced and deranged by the local schoolchildren. A father and son had indeed lived there once, and the boy was unwell and rarely left the house. The father was a drunk and met his end following a brawl, but by that time the boy was already dead and buried in the back-garden alongside the mother he’d never known. They had both died from tuberculosis, and the father’s alcoholism had followed the tragedy.

Perhaps, at the time, the boy and his father were mocked by jealous and suspicious neighbours who sowed tall tales of torture and neglect to keep idle minds busy. People can be cruel, and that cruelty has consequences, sometimes even beyond life.

‘Right’ Simon said, taking a deep breath through his nose, feeling an unnatural welling of energy inside him starting to build. ‘You’ve got to go in, go upstairs, stand by the bed and say ‘is anybody there?’ three times.’

Happy to get this over with, Carla stepped towards the house.

‘Wait!’ said Simon, his eyes widening, quite out of his control. ‘I haven’t finished.’

Carla waited, bored.

‘You’ve got to say it three times, and wait for, I dunno, thirty seconds after each one. Otherwise it doesn’t count.’

Carla considered asking him again if he wouldn’t just take her tenner and let her have the pill without this charade, but he had made it clear to her that wasn’t going to happen when she first asked at the bus stop. He wanted a read on her, she reckoned. He wanted to know she was compliant enough not to go crying to anyone about him should something go wrong. He wanted her to prove herself in some way, and if this was the best his stupid little head could come up with, she was happy to play along.

‘Alright, alright’ she said, and headed off again.

‘We’ll come to the door, so we can hear you’ Simon added, hopping behind her. He seemed agitated, animated. Carla noticed Baz seemed a little strange too, his eyes bulging slightly, his breath quickening. Maybe they were more scared than she was? It was their idea after all. Maybe they actually believed in this kind of thing.

Carla nonchalantly pushed her way through the diagonal door.

‘Whatever.’

Happy she was inside and out of sight, Simon grabbed Baz heavily by the shoulder.

‘You feeling it mate?’ he said, not really looking at him, but instead, at everything else in the Universe.

Baz nodded, or thought he did, it was more like a twitch.

‘Uh huh. These are strong. Proper…’ Baz trailed off, another wave hitting the back of his eyelids.

‘I’m going round back.’ Simon said, his jaw jutting out involuntarily. ‘You sneak up the stairs behind her. When she says it the second time, we jump out.’

‘What do we say?’ said Baz, trying very hard to focus on the instructions.

‘Boo?’ said Simon, instantly.

‘Yeah, alright. Boo. Got it’ Baz confirmed.

They would have laughed, had their minds not been too busy blowing at the time.

They heard Carla reach the top of the stairs, and scurried off to their mission. Despite the blood pounding through his heart and temple, Baz stepped as light as a burglar up the stairs, keeping his weight spread to each side of the steps that hadn’t perished, and steadying himself on the damp plaster at each side. He was half way up when Carla spoke.

‘Is there anyone there?’ she said quickly, unconvincingly, and with a sigh.

Simon had circled around to the back garden and jumped through the broken window at the rear of the house. He clambered up the broken boards that had created a ramp between the floors and was now cowering behind the door frame in the bathroom, waiting for his moment to pounce. He heard Carla’s first attempt too, and was angry that she wasn’t taking this seriously. He wanted her to be scared. He’d hoped she’d be scared already, let alone when they jumped out. But it didn’t matter. He had something she wanted, and she had something he wanted, and maybe even Baz would get lucky if he didn’t wimp out. Simon felt another euphoric crash come over him as he anticipated the coming moments. He was still trembling with the sensation when he heard her.

‘Is there anybody there?’ Carla said again, more impatiently than anything else.

Simon and Baz both moved into the corridor from their respective hiding places and spotted each other. They crept towards the opening to the bedroom. From each side of the empty frame they peeked in and saw Carla standing with her back to them, hands on hips, one knee slightly bent and ticking off the seconds under her breath until the next shout-out was due.

Just as she was ready to speak out again, Simon gave a small nod and they jumped up and out into the room, both forgetting the script and just screaming like maniacs when they did so. They really let rip. Baz squealed like a stuck pig, and Simon roared like an altogether more ferocious beast. Together it made quite the hellish chorus as they waved their arms, rolled their eyes and shrieked just inches from the girl’s head.

Carla just stood there and sighed.

‘Is there anybody there?’ she said monotonously for a third time, and then turned, walking past the boys without a glance or start.

They followed her out to the top of the stairs.

‘You deaf or something?’ Simon spat.

Carla looked down the stairs.

‘I’ve done it’ she shouted down, and then waited. ‘I said I’ve done it!’ she shouted again, louder. ‘Is there anybody there? Hello? Are you guys still there? Is anybody there?’

Then Carla seemed to notice something in the gloom below.

‘Baz? Is that you?’

‘I’m here!’ said Baz, standing right beside her, but still Carla looked away. He followed her gaze down the steps, and whimpered.

‘Is… is anybody there?’ Carla said one last time, reaching for her mobile phone.

Somebody was there. Two bodies, in fact. One slumped by the front door, and another, collapsed across the broken window looking over the back garden. Both had expired following a massive allergic reaction to recently ingested narcotics. The chances of such an extreme reaction, a coroner would later report, were several thousand to one, yet both boys had suffered the same fate the moment they’d crossed the threshold.

The house in Parsley Lane still stands derelict, but the stories have changed. Now, any playground raconteur will tell you that if you stand at the front door and call out ‘Is anybody there?’, you will surely hear the faint cries of two cruel boys who can never go home.

THE END.

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