by Sophia Adamowicz
When eleven-year-old Sheffielder, Matthew, goes in search of his missing kittens, he discovers dark forces at work on Ruskins Road...
Mum were right pissed off when she saw the size of Lucky’s belly. “We’ve enough on us plates without her getting knocked up,” she said. That much were true – we had a massive cleaning-up job to do over summer. The doctor who’d lived in the house before us were a filthy old git. He’d left stacks of newspaper piled up in each room, so you can imagine how much the mice loved that. Lucky were supposed to be sniffing out their secret hideaways and pouncing on them whenever they scampered between sheets of peed-on John Majors and Princess Dianas. But she had other things on her mind, and three months after we moved to Ruskins Road, she crawled into a box in the front room and began panting. Dad ended up being a midwife, stroking her head and fetching her bowls of water as one pink-footed, rat-tailed creature after another slithered into the world. He loved them kittens, especially the black one, Bourbon, because it looked just like a miniature version of its mother. When Dad held it to his face, Lucky’s fur stood on end, and she hissed at him.
“’S all right, lass – he’s not gonna hurt it,” I said, trying to stroke her, but she hissed at me an’ all.
After, Dad said we’d handled them too much and that Lucky’d be cross with us. We didn’t even get a chance to make it up to her: the next day, she’d gone, and so had her kittens.
I found Mum on her hands and knees in the kitchen, sweeping up mouse droppings from behind the oven. In a grey jumper, with her hair scraped back from her face, she looked old and tired, like one of the dinner ladies at school. She didn’t want to talk, didn’t even look up at me when I told her the kittens had disappeared – only said, “Don’t be daft. Mind you don’t trail in any more dirt.”
“I’m not being daft.” The cardboard box that Dad’d put in the front room were empty. I’d got down on my front and looked under the sofa, crept behind the TV set, lifted the purple curtain that kept out the draughts. I’d tramped through every room, making a kissing noise and calling their names: Lucky! Bourbon! Kit! Kat! Jaffa! But they were nowhere to be found. “Will you help me find them?”
Mum knelt up and rubbed her back. “Oh, aye, I’ll just drop everything I’m doing here, shall I? Can’t you see I’ve got my hands full?” She bashed the brush against the lino floor, and pellets of mouse poo dropped from the bristles.
“But have you seen them?”
The look she gave me could have frozen a pipe to bursting. “No, Matthew, I have not.”
A horrible thought occurred to me, as they sometimes did. “What if someone’s took them? Do you think–?”
“Stop mithering! If you really care about them kittens, go and look for them your sen. And put the rubbish out while you’re at it,” she said with a curl of the lip. “It stinks in here.” She tried to sweep the mouse droppings into the dustpan, but they got lodged in the bristles again.
Mum knew I hated taking out the rubbish. Not just because the bag always let out one toxic fart of revenge as you tied it up, but also because the wheelie bin lived in the ginnel. It were cold as a Castleton cave down that passage and almost as dark. Once, I’d been sweeping away the leaf mulch from behind the bin, and a great big frog’d leapt out, squealing like a piglet. Nowt were hiding from me this time apart from a couple of slugs scribbling messages in slime on the wall. I opened the wheelie and, holding my breath, stuck my head inside. Another of them horrible thoughts popped into my head. What if the kittens were in there, tied up in plastic bags with old fish and chip wrappers? My pulse pounded in the middle of my forehead as I pushed aside the bloated bin bags.
“They’ll turn up,” I mumbled. “They’ll turn up.”
“Or Bob Robinson’ll have got them,” Scott added. He was leaning against the wall, all cool, with one leg bent behind him and his arms folded. Smirking at me. I chucked in the latest plastic bag and slammed the wheelie bin lid.
“Shut your gob!”
“Aye, he likes cats, does Bob. Likes to eat them in stew.”
“I said, shut it!”
Scott glared at me. Until then, I’d never thought about what colour his eyes were. I decided they were North Sea blue, a bit like Mum’s. “Bob nabbed Lucky, all right. Bashed her head in with a lead pipe. Said it served her right for being a slut.”
I went to push him, but he ran down the ginnel, snickering. He stopped at the end of the passage and looked back at me with his hands on his hips, swinging them from side to side like a pendulum. Grey daylight shone dimly through the gaps under his skinny arms.
“See you later, wanker!” he shouted, and legged it.
Most people made do with imaginary friends. Trust me to have an imaginary enemy.
There were only one place inside I hadn’t looked. Mum and Dad always told me to stay out of there, though they didn’t say why. I hated it when adults did that – gave you orders without a reason other than because I said so.
I clicked the cellar light on, and a weak, yellow glow spread over the bottom few steps and made summat scurry away across the stone floor. “Mice’re down here an’ all,” I muttered.
“Which proves that cats can’t be,” said Scott, with only a smidgen of his earlier spikiness. We stood side-by-side like two travellers looking into the mouth of some ancient cave filled with treasure and monsters.
“I have to check.”
“What if summat JUMPS out at you?” He started guffawing like I’d shat my pants. Truth was, I’d known he’d been planning on scaring me, so I’d barely even twitched.
“Gi’o’er, Scott. If you can’t be sensible, don’t bother coming down.”
He made that sing-song oooh noise that the kids at school made whenever someone stood up for themselves, but he followed me down the steps anyway.
In the main room, the ceiling pressed so low that I had to duck out of the way of trailing shreds of web. Dad’d chucked a load of moving boxes down there. Some of them were gaping open on their sides; others were loosely stacked, but with enough of a gap between them for cats to slink through. Perfect nesting territory.
I called for Lucky. She didn’t come. I called for the kittens. Not a squeak.
“They could be hiding in any of these boxes. It’ll take us forever to find them.”
“Best get going, then,” said Scott, plonking himself down on an upturned box and taking a packet out of his jeans pocket.
“You’re not just gonna sit there and light up?”
Scott stuck a cigarette between his lips. “What? Are you gonna tell on me?” He put on a whiny voice. “‘Oh, Mum, Mum, my invisible friend is smoking in the cellar where you told me not to go.’ Get real, Matt.”
I should’ve said, ‘You get real,’ but I didn’t want to waste my breath. To be honest, I were glad of the company, even if he did disappear once he got sick of watching me sticking my head in box after empty box. I gave the last one a kick when I saw that nowt were inside except bubble wrap. I hadn’t given up, though. I had one more place to check: the room next door.
Mum and Dad had been banging on about how the coal cellar needed a tonne of work ever since we moved. They weren’t kidding. As soon as I stepped into its Arctic temperatures, my teeth started chattering like a cartoon skeleton’s. Though the room had a titchy window, all the daylight dribbled down into a mountain of coal piled against the wall. A thin layer of black dust covered the entire floor, but in one place, I could see the outline of some drawings under the grime.
Crouching down, I brushed the dirt to one side, trying not to touch the freezing stone for more than a few seconds at a time. Bit by bit, the chalk lines under the coal dust got clearer. I stood back to get a better view.
“Looks like a knob,” said Scott.
The first drawing did look a lot like a knob, but with an extra bollock hanging at the side and weird symbols scribbled all over it. I pointed to the big triangle underneath. “Do you think that’s the fanny?”
Scott didn’t laugh. In fact, he didn’t look impressed at all. He just stood with his arms folded and his bottom lip stuck out. “Can we go outside now? It’s bloody freezing in here.”
I stared at the drawings. “Who do you think made them?”
“A dirty bastard.” Scott craned his neck to look at the window above the pile of coal. “Ey, you know what that is, don’t you?” He made the shape of a gun with his thumb and index finger.
“A chute,” I said.
He closed one eye and aimed right at my head. “Bang!”
I’d taken loads of Polaroid pictures of the kittens, right from when they were first born to the day before they disappeared. I stuck the latest ones on posters that said, ‘MISSING KITTENS Pack of 4 disappeared on 23/08/1994. 2 tortoise shells (Kit and Kat), a black one (Bourbon) and a ginger (Jaffa). £100 reward for safe return!’ I didn’t know our new phone number yet, so I just ended with, ‘Bring them to 18 Ruskins Road, Hunter’s Bar, Sheffield.’ I had no idea if Dad would hand over a hundred quid if anyone turned up with them, but I thought it better to get people’s attention and work out the details later.
I stuck the posters up around Hunter’s Bar and Ecclesall Road, wrapping them around streetlamps and tying them to gateposts near the church. Rosie, the baker, said I could put one in her shop window, and she made a right fuss about how sorry she felt. Even gave me a free cream bun. I were eating it on the way back when I heard the hacking cough of Bob Robinson coming my way.
“Ooh, watch out! Don’t let him get his hands on you,” said Scott, sneaking up beside me and curling his fingers into claws.
“Shut up!” I said through gritted teeth. I stared down at the pavement, hoping to fall under Bob’s radar. Too late – he were already striding over to my side of the road, coughing up his lungs with every step.
“Oh, hello lad! All right?”
“Better get that cream off. He’ll think you’re trying to tempt him!” said Scott.
I wiped my sleeve across my mouth. “Fine, thanks, Mr Robinson.”
“What’s tha got there?”
I shrugged, not looking at him. “Just a bun.”
“No, lad.” He bent down until the peak of his cap were close to skimming my fringe, and I could smell the stale sweat on his knitted jumper. “What’s in your hand?”
“Oh, these…” I flipped the edges of the remaining posters. “Nowt.”
“Let’s have a look.” He put on the reading glasses that were hanging from his neck and held out a leathery hand. After a second’s pause, I gave him what he wanted. “Oh, kittens, eh? Missing. Hundred-pound reward.” He chuckled and peered at me from over the top of his gold-rimmed specs. “That’s a lot for a few balls of fluff.”
They’re not balls of fluff! “I really want to get them back. Have you seen them?”
He scratched the blotchy skin around his mouth with the back of his thumb and opened his lips to reveal teeth like lopsided gravestones. “No – I’m afraid not, lad,” he said in a greasy voice. “I expect summat’s got them.”
A lump the size of a golf ball lodged in my throat. “What? Like a fox?”
Bob pulled down the corners of his mouth and nodded. “Could be.” He looked over each shoulder, then leaned even closer. “Or it could be summat in your house.”
“What?” The only things in my house except the mice were Mum and Dad. Mum didn’t like the kittens, but she wouldn’t get rid of them, and Dad had a soft spot for them.
“Don’t you know? About the doctor who lived there afore you?”
“I know there were a doctor.” Dad’d found his old patient records stashed away in a box under the stairs, along with some empty whisky bottles.
“Aye, but what happened to him?” Bob prompted.
“Didn’t he… go mad?” Dad’d said working for the NHS would drive anyone to drink.
“And do you know what drove him mad?”
“Living next door to thee,” jeered Scott, putting on Bob’s voice.
I shook my head.
“Well…” He made a ‘come hither’ movement with his finger. When I didn’t move, he put his hand on my shoulder and pulled me towards him. Now I were so close that the smell of his stale sweat made me want to gag. “He conjured summat. A demon. Stole from the other houses and fetched money for him. Stole animals, too. People’s pets.”
He were full of crap, Bob Robinson. But still, I couldn’t help listening. “What did it… what did he do with them?”
“No-one really knows. They were never seen again. Me, I reckon they were familiars.”
“Familiar with what?”
“No, lad, witch’s familiars. You know, cats and frogs that do the devil’s bidding.”
I shrugged. “Never heard of that.”
Bob ruffled my hair. “Tha mother never told thee fairy stories, eh?” The ruffle turned into a stroke. Before I managed to jerk my head away, he dropped his hand.
“How old are you, lad?”
“Eleven,” I found myself telling him. “Nearly twelve.”
“You know, I’ve got dozens of books for boys your age in my house. You can come round to read them whenever you want.”
“Tell the perv he can piss right off,” said Scott.
I thought that’d be a bit strong, so I said, “I’m all right, thanks. Got plenty of books over at ours.”
“I can tell you more about the demon an’ all,” continued Bob. “I’m well-schooled, you know. Not as thick as I look. I even know how to get it to–”
“Afternoon, Bob!” came Dad’s voice. He waved as he stepped out of the front door. It weren’t a friendly wave, though. There were a kind of warning in it. “You’ve found Matt, have you?”
Bob stood up, his joints cracking. “Ey up, Mr Willis. I just bumped into the lad. He’s out on a mission.”
I ran over to Dad, sheltering under his tall shadow, and handed him the bunch of posters. “I’ve been trying to find the missing kittens.”
Dad’s eyes went shiny as he stared at one picture after another of shut eyes and pink noses. “They look good, Matt. But I wish you’d have waited for me before walking around on your own. Come on, we’ll put the rest up together.”
He took my hand, even though I were far too old for that.
“I’ll take it from here. Bye now,” he said to Bob. His words were hard and cold. Like he were throwing stones.
I woke up from a nightmare about being shot by a firing squad. The bedroom were cold, way too cold for August; my feet, poking out from the end of the bed, felt like blocks of ice. As I tucked my legs further under the cover, I narrowly missed brushing against Scott.
“Can you hear that?” he whispered.
I held my breath. Silence.
Scott sighed. “It’s gone now.”
“The noise that woke you up.”
I grunted and went to switch on my bedside lamp.
“Don’t!” Scott said. “It’ll see us.”
“That thing Bob Robinson were talking about. The demon.”
“As if!” Even though I’d only been hanging round with Scott for a few months, I were wise to his tricks. “You’re just trying to scare me.”
Again, I went to switch on the light. “I said, don’t! I’m being serious, Matt. It’s in here with us.”
I sifted the air, trying to find sounds, smells, anything that didn’t belong. I couldn’t put my finger on what I sensed, exactly, but there were summat off about the room. It felt like the coal cellar. I drew my arm back into bed.
“What’s it look like?”
“I can’t see it. I just know it’s there.”
I inched my shoulders up the headboard. The curtains, backlit by streetlamps, didn’t let much of the grey-orange light into the rest of the room. My eyes swept over the bulk of the wardrobe that loomed out of the dark in front of me and over the desk, stopping for a moment on the chair with a jacket dangling off the back, across the long spine of CDs next to the boombox and up to my bedside cabinet.
“Where is it?” I whispered. “Scott, where is it?”
“Where? I can’t–”
A scratch, scratch came from the skirting boards by the wardrobe. My body went stiff. There were a gap between the wardrobe and the wall – only a narrow one, but big enough for summat sinewy to squeeze itself into. I strained my ears and edged a bit further up the bed. That’s when I caught the familiar sound of squeaking.
“Mice!” I breathed, sinking into the pillow.
Then I heard it. Rain dropping into a tin cup. A frog’s croak, sped up and loud. A rattle, cranking deep inside a throat.
I sat bolt upright. The noise stopped. It’d come from the gap by the wardrobe. I stared hard at that strip of darkness, not even blinking as I tried to figure out what’d made the sound. I couldn’t see owt, but I could feel it – another creature, taking up space in the room. I stared until my eyes started to water. And then I blinked.
When I opened my lids again, summat had changed. The gap looked bigger than before, not as dark. Whatever were in the room with me hadn’t gone; the air were still cold enough to make the hairs on my arms stand on end. Like a spider in the middle of a web, I stayed very still and tried to sense the weight, the pull of another body nearby. I’d forgotten all about Scott. Alone under the covers, I tuned in to the scratches and squeaks in the skirting board.
On the floor at the end of my bed, a movement.
Then that sound. The clacks were louder than before, bouncing around the room like machine gun fire. So that was why I’d dreamt of being executed. It must’ve been watching me while I slept.
Now it were inches away.
I yanked the covers over my head and curled up into a tight ball. Music magazines skidded over each other as the demon slapped its way over to the side of the bed with clumsy, wet-sounding feet. A cold wave of fear washed over me. My heart were ready to burst out of my neck.
My arm shot out from under the covers. I grabbed the lamp switch and pressed the button at the same time as throwing the covers off my head. The room jumped forward in technicolour. There were nowt standing by my bed.
I leant over the side. Right there, on the front of May’s copy of Vox, were webbed footprints – black, like they were made of wet coal dust.
Bob Robinson couldn’t have looked more surprised when he opened his door the next day to find me standing there, twisting my hands.
“Ey up, lad! What brings you here?”
“You said you had some books.”
“That I do.”
“Well, I were wondering I could have a look at them. Please.”
His mole-spattered old face lit up. “Of course you can, lad. You’re welcome.” He opened the door wider. “Come in!”
His corridor, lit by a dim, low-hanging lights, were even more dingy than ours. The carpet were shit-brown, and the off-white wallpaper had the bumpy, veiny look of blue cheese. The whole place stank of boiled cabbage. As soon as the door closed behind me, I knew I’d made a mistake. Scott were at home – said he didn’t want to end up as Bob’s gimp, locked in a tea chest in the attic. He’d agreed to let me go alone, but only on the condition that I brought him a souvenir from the house. “A lock of hair from one of his victims,” he’d said with a laugh. I’d told him I’d never be able to find anything as horrible as that. Now I weren’t so sure.
He took me through to the front room. It were exactly the same size as ours, only everything seemed bigger in his, like I’d suddenly shrunk, and darker; he’d shut the curtains despite the fact that it were a cloudy day.
“Sit down and make tha sen at home, lad.” Bob gestured to the tiny TV set in the corner. “You can watch the tellybox if you like, but I’m afraid it’s only black and white.” He switched it on to demonstrate, and a grainy, grey picture of a man walking across a weather map of England appeared. Frowning, he moved the aerial around a bit until the picture became a tad clearer. “That’s better. Now, what can I get thee to drink? Orange squash? Tea?”
“I don’t want anything to drink, thanks. I’ve just come to look at the books.”
“I’ll get thee some orange squash,” Bob said, and disappeared out of the room with a cough, cough.
I took the chance to look for that lock of hair I’d promised Scott. A big dresser stood opposite the front window, and one of the top drawers were already open a crack. I didn’t think it’d even be prying if I slid it open just… a little…
Bob banged a cupboard door shut in the kitchen and made me jump. I took it as a cue to get on with the job. Straight off, I struck gold. Lying there right at the very top of a pile of notebooks stuffed with papers and held together with elastic bands were a photograph. It showed a boy who must’ve been about my age, sitting on a bed and looking miserable as sin. He were ugly in the way that people used to be when Mum and Dad were kids, with a pudding bowl haircut and glasses that took up half of his face. He were dead pale and skinny. How did I know that? Because he didn’t have a top on.
Bob’s cough came from nearby. I stuffed the photograph into my back pocket, sidestepped over to the TV and were fiddling with the aerial by the time he came in.
“Here we go. One cup of squash.”
It were in a mug, not a cup, with pictures of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger and Piglet and that boring owl dancing in a ring all around it. Had he dug out a children’s mug just for me, or did he drink from things like that normally? What if the mug belonged to one of his victims – that little boy in the picture?
“Ta,” I said. It were weak as water. He couldn’t have added more than a drop of orange. Shit! What if he’d poisoned it?
“Now,” he said, “look at this.” He held up a book with three naked hags on the cover. It was by someone called Reginald Scot. I read the title out loud.
“The Discoverie of Witchcraft. They’ve spelt ‘discovery’ wrong.”
“It’s an olden days spelling. Come and sit down with me, and I’ll show thee what I’ve found.” He opened up the book on his knee. I dithered on the spot. He patted the place beside him. “Come on, now. Don’t be shy.”
I sat on the scratchy woollen blanket, knocking a few toast crumbs to the floor. Bob perched his glasses on the end of his bulbous nose and turned to a page that he’d folded down at the corner.
“Here it is: Shax. Now you probably won’t be able to read the old-fashioned writing, so I’ll translate. It says he’s a dark and great marquis – that’s like a sort of duke – and he looks like a stork.”
I almost spat out my squash. “A stork?”
“Aye.” I leant over as much as I dared and looked at the sentence where his tobacco-stained finger were pointing: ‘Like unto a storke.’
I gasped. The webbed feet.
“What is it, lad?”
“Nowt.” For some reason, it felt like I shouldn’t be telling what I’d seen. It were a secret between me and Scott. “What else does it say?”
“It says he has a husky and clever voice, and he can tell you secrets, and he can make folk go blind, deaf or daft, if the conjurer command it.”
“Who’s the conjurer?”
“Whoever calls him up. In your house, it’d be that doctor who were there afore you.”
I scowled. “What makes you so sure? Have you seen him?”
“Oh, no, lad, and I thank God that I haven’t.” He looked at the picture of Jesus with a glowing heart above his gas fireplace and crossed himself. “But remember what I told you about how the demon steals animals and money? That’s exactly what it says here.”
He opened his mouth to read more, but I interrupted. “How do you know Shax is doing it? What if it’s just a burglar?”
“When you get to my age, you know when summat funny’s going on. That doctor were mighty strange, I tell thee. He dabbled in things he shouldn’t have.”
“Dabble in things.” In case he thought I meant summat else, I pointed at the book. Really, though, I did mean that other thing. His mouth bunched up into a little cat’s arse.
“You’ve got to know your foe in order to protect your sen from him. I’m putting on my armour, lad. And you should, too.” He patted me on the knee. I shuffled away.
“Tell me the truth,” I said, feeling shaky. “Do you know what happened to my cats?”
“No, lad, I don’t. I wish I did. I wish I could protect you and everything you love,” he said in that glistening, greasy voice. I felt a strong urge to knock his lights out.
“I should go.”
I tried to get up, but he touched my wrist. “But you’ve only just come! I’ve got biscuits – Digestives and Rich Tea.”
“No,” I said, pulling away my hand. “I really have to go. I hate Rich Tea.”
I didn’t even thank him for showing me his book as I made for the front door… which turned out to be locked and chained. He stood in the shadows of the corridor, watching me trying to pull it open and failing. The keys were in his hand, but he didn’t come across with them. Panic rose up in me.
“Please can you let me out?” I said. “I need to go home now.”
He dropped the keys from one hand to another and didn’t move. He spoke low and quiet.
“I don’t like rudeness. I think I’ve been very good to you.”
I nodded manically. “You have. Ta, Mr… Mr Robinson.”
Now he crossed his arms, letting the keys dangle at the side.
“I thought you were a good boy,” he continued. “I thought you’d know better than to be rude to elders.”
Tears rushed to my eyes. Why’d I gone into his house alone? I knew he’d do summat like this. Stupid, stupid.
“I’m sorry, Mr Robinson. I’m sorry for saying I didn’t like Rich Tea. Thank you for the squash and showing me your book and letting me come in.”
Bob’s mouth were still bunched up in disappointment, his eyes still narrowed. He shook his head, and his shadow ate up the walls as he stepped towards me. I felt like a mouse on the floor, helpless and small as the stork loomed closer and closer.
He reached across and took off the chain. I went straight for the handle. He put his own fingers round it and looked me hard in the face.
“Draw a triangle around the demon. Then you can master it,” he said. He turned a key. The latch clicked. I ran into the fresh air, not looking behind me as I heard the snap of all them locks being done up again.
I shoved a whole load of stuff in a plastic bag: the photo of the boy, Lucky’s toy mouse, one of the magazines with the demon’s footprints on it (though they’d faded a bit since the night before), a jumper, ten battery-powered candles (I couldn’t find any real ones), some chalk and a Bible, just in case things got rough. It were easy enough to sneak past Mum, sleeping on the settee in the front room with a copy of the Daily Mail blanketing her chest.
“This is a bad idea,” Scott said when I opened the cellar door. “Did you listen when I told you not to go to Bob Robinson’s? Did you heck! And he could’ve got you.”
“He couldn’t. I knew what I were doing,” I lied.
“Did you heck!” Scott repeated.
“Look – he said this demon knows things. Maybe it knows what happened to that boy. Maybe it knows what’s happened to my cats. I need to try this.”
I switched on the light. The yellow glow spread out from the buzzing bulbs. Scott stood in the doorframe, blocking my way. “What’s up with you?” I said, anger flashing inside me.
“I don’t think it’s wise to mess around with this.”
“Since when have you been so sensible?”
“Since you’ve started being so stupid.”
My blood burnt hotter. “I’m not being stupid. Just because you don’t have any feelings and don’t bother about anyone or anything, doesn’t mean you have to stop me from finding out the truth.”
“If you were really bothered about other people, you wouldn’t spend all your time with a made-up friend,” Scott snapped. “You’re just a sad, lonely boy who talks to himself and goes round to the neighbourhood paedo for fun because he doesn’t have anyone else.” He whispered into my ear. “I bet you liked the attention, didn’t you? Seeing as you don’t get enough from your own mother.”
“For the last time, Scott, shut up!”
Concentrating as hard as I could on the solid feel of his chest under my hands, I gave him a push. Only a little push. But he were too near to the edge of the top step. His mouth popped open as he wobbled; his eyes grew wild with fear. Hands scrambling to get a hold on the wall, he fought gravity for a few long seconds before tumbling backwards.
His head smacked a step with a horrible crack, stamping it with blood.
I closed my eyes until the sound of his body whacking against hard surfaces stopped. When I opened them again, he’d gone. No blood. No body lying twisted at the foot of the staircase.
Too much imagination – that were my problem.
I made my way down, through the room of boxes and straight into the coal cellar, wishing I’d brought a torch – the light bulbs seemed much dimmer than before, and the few rays of sunshine that made it down the coal chute were swallowed by the pile of fuel. I switched on one of the plastic candles. A weak flicker appeared. While one on its own looked pretty naff, the effect of ten of them lined up along the newly drawn chalk triangle were quite convincing. I folded up the jumper I’d brought and put it on the floor, under my knees.
“Shax,” I whispered. “Shax, if you can hear me, I need your help.”
In the middle of the triangle, I laid Lucky’s mouse, the picture I’d taken from Bob Robinson’s house and the magazine with the footprints. “If you know where my cat and her kittens are, please show me. I’m dead worried about them. And while you’re at it – ” Bloody hell, I really didn’t know how to talk to a demon. I cleared my throat. “Please, can you also tell me what happened to this boy? Our next-door neighbour… I think he might have summat to do with it. I’m asking for your help because I know how great and powerful you are.” A bit of flattery never went amiss. “Shax, please help. Amen.”
I hit my forehead. Amen, seriously?
It worked though, because all the plastic lights went out at the same time. Even the overhead bulbs blew. The whole cellar was suddenly coal-black and huge. Anything could have been in there with me, and I wouldn’t have known.
I fumbled in the dark for the nearest candle and, once I’d grabbed it, I flicked the switch off and on, off and on. Come on! Come on and light, you bloody –
Two things happened next: hot pain shot through my fingertips, and light flashed. I dropped the candle to the floor. The flame were no longer plastic.
Nine more jets of fire shot up around the triangle. Despite the light, the middle of the shape looked darker than before, like a bottomless pit. Cold radiated from it. I stood and put my jumper round my shoulders, but didn’t dare put it on for fear of missing anything.
Missing what? The cellar were silent. Except for those high-pitched mews coming from the coal chute.
I clambered up the coal pile, and it shifted under my weight like sand. More than once, I thought I’d fall down as the lumps rolled out and clacked to the floor, but I managed to keep my balance by digging my fingers deep. The mixture of hope and excitement filled my stomach as I came nearer the top, and I were practically at the point of throwing up when I caught sight of Lucky, lying on her side, her yellow eyes beaming out at me.
“Is this where you’ve been this whole time, lass?”
I gave her a scratch on the head and a deep purr rumbled from her throat.
“And look! Your babies have got so big!”
Suckling on her teats were the kittens. Jaffa were growing up just like the neighbourhood tom, a stripy orange monster. Kit and Kat were blindly scrambling over each other, mewling and kneading her swollen belly with their tiny paws. I couldn’t see Bourbon.
“Where’s your other baby?”
At that moment, Lucky’s ears pricked. She sat up, pulling herself away from her suckling kittens and sheltering them under the arch of her back. Her fur stood on end. She hissed.
Another sound had joined the mewling of the kittens. Rain dropping into a tin cup. A frog’s croak, sped up and loud. A rattle, cranking deep inside a throat. It came from behind me.
As I tried to turn, pieces of coal went clattering down the pile. The sound came again, louder this time, the clicks echoing round the cellar like a bat’s sonar. The back of my neck were ice-cold. How close had it got?
Take it slowly. Don’t fall.
I shuffled bit by bit until, out of the corner of my eye, I could see something standing just outside the triangle.
My final movement were a clumsy one, leading to a landslide at the bottom of the pile. I slid down a few inches, but managed to swivel around and come face-to-face with what I’d conjured.
It had the shape of Scott – the same jeans and black t-shirt, the same golden brown hair. But its eyes were white as two pearls, and, when it opened its mouth in what looked like a smile, a hollow rattle poured out. All them weeks I’d been hanging out with Scott, the boy who’d appeared when I were at my loneliest, smoking a cigarette against the wall of the ginnel one day… It’d never occurred to me that he had a life outside my own imagination. He’d been with me in the dark. He’d been in my bed.
Cupped in its hands were a tiny black ball. Bourbon.
“Scott… I’m sorry for being mean. I shouldn’t have pushed you.”
The clicks that came from its mouth rang harsh and loud. I swallowed my fear and said in a trembling voice, “I should’ve listened. It were wrong of me to come down here and call you up – Shax.”
At the sound of its real name, Shax sang its song of rattling bones. It lifted Bourbon up by the tail. The kitten thrashed around, trying to get free, but the demon held fast.
“Don’t hurt him!” I cried, reaching forward and almost losing balance. “Please!”
The creature wearing the skin of a boy unhinged its lower jaw with a snap. It opened its mouth unnaturally wide, its bottom teeth falling to the level of its collar bones. The clicking from its throat rose to the volume of machine gun fire. Bourbon squirmed, crying out, as Shax lifted it over the gaping hole. I screamed.
A shadow zoomed out of the coal pile, making a bee-line for Shax. Ears flattened against her head, mouth spitting poison, Lucky reared up on her hind legs and stuck her claws into the demon’s leg. It dropped Bourbon and staggered back… right into the middle of the triangle. Lucky lifted her kitten up by the scruff of its neck and darted back into the heap of coal.
Shax paced around in the triangle, snarling: a trapped animal. Whenever it reached out its arms, it came into contact with some sort of invisible wall. Isn’t that what Bob Robinson’d said? Get it in the triangle, and you can master it.
“I’ve got you now.”
The pearl-white eyes turned, and blue-grey pupils rolled forwards from the back of Shax’s skull. It clicked its jaw back into place. The voice that came from its mouth were Scott’s.
“Don’t I know it.”
“I can’t believe you tried to eat my kitten. Knobhead.”
He smiled, and his cheeks turned into little red apples. “I were only teasing.”
“That demon… that stork thing in my bedroom… it were you?”
He crossed his wrists, and the shape of a bird with long, thin legs appeared on the cellar wall. “Pretty cool trick, eh?”
I’m not gonna lie, it were pretty cool. “And you didn’t want me to go to Bob Robinson’s because you thought I’d find out the truth about you?”
“That, and, well… you know what he is. Speaking of…”
Bob’s cough crashed in from outside. He must’ve been just by our front door.
“He’s come back for you,” said Scott.
Bob moved past. I followed the sound of the cough and his footsteps…
“He knows you have evidence.”
…up the ginnel. A hammering on the back door, strangely loud and clear even all the way down in the cellar. “Mrs Willis? Mrs Willis?” he shouted.
The back door clicked open. My mum were speaking. Fraught. They both sounded like they were on the edge of a fight.
“He’ll get your mum first. Then he’ll come after you,” said Scott. “Your dad’ll come home to find your mum dead and you missing.”
I dug my nails into my palms. “Do what needs to be done, then.”
His smile were handsome. Wicked. “With pleasure.”
The candle flames dipped low as the shadow of a stork tore over the coal pile and disappeared up the coal chute.
Mum put one of Rosie’s cream buns in front of me, with a mug of milky tea on the side. Bourbon – who, like his brother and sisters had only just opened his eyes – blinked up at me and chewed on air. I massaged his head with my little finger. Lucky watched over us from the kitchen windowsill – a bit wary, but learning to trust me. Mum sat down at the table with her own cuppa.
“I’m sorry, Matt,” she sighed.
I took a bite out of the bun and cream squirted from the sides. “For what?”
“For not being here for you this summer. It’s been so busy and stressful with the house move, you know.”
“I know.” She’d made it nice. The floors were pretty clean now, apart from the odd bit of cat hair, and the new shelves were full of herbs and cookbooks. She’d even put a soft bed in one corner for Lucky and the kittens.
“It must’ve been lonely for you. New place. No friends to play with.”
That’s not exactly true, I thought, but I nodded.
She stared down into her cup of tea. “Did you… did you ever go round to Bob Robinson’s house? Alone?”
I swallowed a chunk of bun without chewing. “No. Why?”
“I can’t help thinking about what he said… the night he went blind. Just like that!” She laughed like she didn’t quite believe it. “Just as I were talking to him.”
“What did he say?”
“He said… he said he thought you had summat of his.”
“A photograph. A picture of his son. He died in the same car accident that killed Bob’s wife. He didn’t have many photos, so he were quite distressed when he lost it.” She turned her North Sea eyes to me. “Did you take it, Matthew?”
Outside the kitchen window, Scott grinned.
More To Explore
We’re excited to reveal the cover and share an exclusive excerpt from All the White Spaces by Ally Wilkes, Horrified’s own Book Reviews Editor!