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EST. READING TIME

16 minutes
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We had sneaked into the grounds to shoot rabbits. That was the plan anyway. But looking back now it doesn’t seem like such a good one.

It was the last Sunday before the new school term started. The afternoon had been slow and aimless like most of the rest of the summer. My cousin Ben was carving his initials into the bus shelter window with his Swiss Army knife. We were both feeling gloomy about going back.

“At least you don’t have exams at the end of the year,” Ben said. 

To me the end of the year felt like an eternity away. The summer holiday had felt like a lifetime, and that’d only been six weeks.

“Wanna go hunting?”

I nodded.  

*     

Cycling along under the canopy of trees, I felt like we were on some secret mission - like James Bond or something. Only James Bond probably never had to borrow his sister’s Raleigh Caprice (I’d removed the basket from the front). He probably wouldn’t have wrecked his own bike, trying to prove he could cycle downhill with no hands, either. Some lessons are hard learned. I know that now. 

Even though Ben was two years older than me, we were about the same height, and people sometimes thought we were brothers. We always had a good laugh about that. 

“It’s just here,” Ben said, skidding to a sudden halt.   

We locked our bikes to a fence, out of view of the traffic. Not that there was ever much traffic. 

Ben slipped between the bent railings. 

“Come on then.”

As I squeezed through, I managed to scratch the face of my watch against the warped black rail. From that day on, the number nine seemed slightly blurred, almost as if you were looking at it through a glass of water. 

Ben snapped his air rifle shut.  

“Reckon you can actually hit a rabbit with that thing?”

“Course. I’ve done it loads of times.”

I’d only ever seen him shoot a mangy half-dead squirrel, and that was only the once. I’d never managed to get anything.   

But as we soon discovered, there weren’t many rabbits in the woods that afternoon. Ben thought he saw one, but it might have just been a squirrel. Whatever it was, it scampered away quick smart when he cocked his rifle. 

“We should come back at night,” Ben yawned, “that’s when I normally shoot rabbits.”

“Bullshit, you do.”

We tramped along trying not to fall into feeling glum. We came to an opening where the trees thinned out. In the centre of this opening there was some kind of observation platform. To this day I don’t know what its purpose originally was. The whole structure was covered in thick green moss. Ben started to climb the rickety wooden frame. It creaked and sighed under his weight.

“You’re gonna break your neck,” I said.  

It sounded like the sort of thing my mum would say – something Ben was quick to point out. 

“Yeah, well don’t come crying to me afterwards.”         

Ben swung back down and wiped his hands on his jeans.   

“I know something we can shoot that’s better than rabbits,” Ben said, walking away.

*

We reached a series of bungalows, which stood seemingly forgotten on the outskirts of the estate. These, and the rest of the land, belonged to the McArdle family. From a distance their huge house, which overlooked the rest of the sprawling nine-acre estate, looked a bit like my sister’s old doll’s house - now stashed somewhere in our attic. 

I should probably say that my sister is five years older than me, and had already gone off to university by then. Actually, thinking about it, she would’ve been the same age then as I am now.      

Ben began to explain that the bungalows had once housed farm hands who’d worked on the grounds.

“The McArdle clan’s been here for donkey’s years.  I heard my mum saying to my dad that she heard from Louise at the hairdressers that they ‘hit the skids a while back.’” 

At the time I wasn’t really sure what this meant, but it didn’t sound good. It made me think of my crumpled front bike wheel.

“So all these are empty?”

By way of an answer, Ben ducked down onto on knee, cocked his rifle and shot out the window of the nearest bungalow. The glass shattered and collapsed in on itself. 

“Ben!”

“No one lives there, Nathan.”

“I know but—“

“So who cares?  Wanna try?”

I thought about it for a moment. I shot out the next window along. A jagged shard dangled for a couple of seconds, then fell with a satisfying crash. 

“Some people think these are haunted,” Ben said, scanning my face for a reaction.

I just shrugged, casual like.  

*

We stalked beyond the bungalows towards some empty farm sheds. I was pretending I was on a nuclear base somewhere in the Siberian forest, trying to rescue Chloe Fisher from a group of KGB assassins. Ben flung himself into a loose commando roll, and took aim at a rusty metal barrel.

He fired. 

The pellet pinged off the barrel and ricocheted straight back towards us. 

“Fuck!” 

There was a dull thud as the pellet hit a tree close behind. We looked at each other wide-eyed, and then burst out laughing.   

“Wanna see what’s in there?” Ben said, once our giddy laughter had subsided. 

He pointed towards a ramshackle old barn. 

Getting into the barn was a lot easier than either of us were expecting. Ben put his weight against the vast sliding barn door, and it juddered open with an ugly screech. He looked back at me, trying to hide his surprise. That’s what he’s like, Ben, a natural bull-shitter. 

The first thing I noticed when we went inside, apart from the dank smell, was a smeared mirror attached to the wall nearest the barn door. 

“Why’s that there?” 

But Ben didn’t know, and I still don’t. 

“Let’s bless it,” he said.

“Why?”

“So we can shoot it,” he replied, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“But why do you wanna bless it?” 

“Coz, otherwise it’s bad luck,” he said. “To break a mirror. Don’t you know anything?” 

I snorted. 

Ben held his hands up, palms facing the mirror. He muttered a few words. Then he crossed himself (although I think he got the order wrong).

“Ready?” 

“Sure.”

He looked at me sideways, smirking.  

“Go on then.” 

“I’m not doing it!”

“I knew you’d be too scared.”

“I’m not scared.”

“Yes you are, even after I blessed it and everything.” 

I snapped my rifle shut and pointed it at the mirror. I didn’t believe in that whole seven years bad luck thing, anyway.

I squeezed the trigger. 

The crack of the rifle resonated loudly in the barn. We both jumped, then tried to pretend that we hadn’t. When I went over to look at the glass, I was disappointed. The mirror’s surface remained stubbornly intact. The pellet had just made a blunt hole in its smudged face.

“Let me have a go,” Ben said, rolling his eyes. 

He took aim, exhaling loudly before he pulled the trigger. But the result was the same. Two silvery eyes stared back at us from the mirror. 

“That was rubbish.”

“Let’s see what’s round the other side.” I said.   

A moment later I wished I hadn’t.   

*

We rounded the massive stack of tarpaulin-clad pallets, Ben a couple of paces ahead of me. I was inspecting the scratched face of my watch, so wasn’t really paying attention. All I remember is that something smelled awful. I was just thinking that maybe an animal had got trapped in there, when Ben grabbed hold of my arm. In my surprise I looked at his face, rather than at what he was gawping at. 

But a second later I saw too.

The limp body of a man hung from the rafters of the barn. 

Ben took a couple of dazed steps forward. A chair lay on its side beneath the man. There was something on the ground next to the chair, but I didn’t really see what it was then. 

It was hard to tell how old the man was, because the rope had drained the colour from his face. But he definitely wasn’t as old as my dad or uncle Jerry. He was probably nearer my sister’s age, but like I said, it was hard to tell. The man’s neck and lower jaw were bruised yellow and blue, and the skin was mottled and swollen. His eyes were open and stared blankly ahead. It made me feel sick to look at him hanging there like that.

I could hear Ben breathing heavily. Neither of us said anything. 

I took a couple of steps towards the chair, but suddenly I started to see thousands of tiny pinpricks dancing across my eyes.  It was like when I had my BCG injection at school. Sweat pricked my brow. I knelt down in the dirt and tried to get some air, but the sickly-sweet smell was overwhelming.

That’s when I noticed what was on the ground next to the chair…a brown leather pocket diary. For some reason, almost without thinking, I reached out and picked it up. 

All I can say, looking back, is that the diary was a familiar object that my reeling brain could understand, and not that terrible new sight which hung above me.  When I stood up, my legs felt like someone else’s. 

I looked across at Ben.  His face was pale and clammy.   

“We should go and get someone,” he said eventually, his voice small and unsteady. 

I nodded, dumbstruck.

What happened next is a blur. 

I didn’t hear the bang, so much as feel it - like someone had punched my eardrums.  

Primal fear exploded in me, and I ran blindly out of the barn - Ben close behind. 

We scrambled frantically away from that place, thundering past the bungalows, into the woods and beyond the observation platform. We didn’t stop running till we reached the bent iron fence. Ben squeezed desperately through the railings. I followed close behind, but got caught on the railing. I fell heavily on the other side of the fence, my jaw snapping together as it hit the gravel. I stumbled up towards my bike. 

It was only then I realised I was still holding the diary.

Ben pulled at my sleeve. 

“Come on, come on!”

I stuffed the muddy book into my jacket pocket, and we raced back towards town, not stopping till we arrived at the familiar sight of Ben’s road.

*

My arms were jittering uncontrollably, as we wheeled our bikes along. I was too shaken to even hide it.       

“What was that?”

“I don’t know,” Ben stammered. “Could’ve been a cat.”

“A cat?” Even in my state of shock this sounded stupid. “Did you see another door on the other side of the shed?”

“Nah, it was too dark.”

I poked a finger into my right ear. It felt like it was stuffed with cotton wool.

“Maybe it was McArdle.” 

Ben stared into the middle distance.  

“Nah, we must’ve gone round those sheds a dozen times or more. There wasn’t anyone else around.”   

We reached Ben’s front gate.  He fixed me with watery eyes. 

“Do you think we should tell anyone about…” he trailed off. 

“I don’t know.”

I took the diary out of my jacket pocket. 

“But I need to get this back there somehow.” 

I felt a sudden heaviness weighing on me, and I knew then that I’d never truly felt dread until that moment.

“Let’s sleep on it.” Ben said. 

He made an attempt at a reassuring smile, but really he just looked scared.

*

When I got home, I was sure my mum would know something had happened. Mums have a sixth sense for these things – especially mine. But all she said was:

“Have you packed your bag for tomorrow, yet?” 

“No.”

“Well, you’d better go and do it before dinner.” She looked up at me. “You’re filthy, Nathan. What’ve you been up to?”

“Nothing,”

I pretended to remove something from my nail.      

“Nothing eh? No doubt young Benjamin was involved?” 

I shrugged. 

“Do you want me to throw your jacket in the wash along with those jeans?”

“No!” I barked, surprising myself as much as her. 

I was suddenly very aware of the diary pressing against my chest. My body tensed.  

“Goodness me! What kind of way is that to speak to your mother?”

“Sorry.”    

I sloped upstairs, without looking at her, and went into my room.

I ducked under my bed and rooted around trying to find my stash box. This was where I hid all the things I wanted to keep secret. Pulling the box out, my nose was filled with a heady smell, which only became stronger when I opened the lid. Ben’s friend Anthony had sold him a ten bag of skunk. Ben had given it to me to look after, because he was worried auntie Irene – who was one of those obsessive cleaning people – would discover it in his room. 

“She’s got a nose like a blood hood,” Ben had said. 

To be honest, I wouldn’t really have known what to do with it, but the smell seemed exciting and dangerous.  

Along with this I also had: a miniature bottle of Jameson whiskey, that me and Ben had stolen from his dad, a comb which looks like a flick-knife, a packet of Marlborough cigarettes, some French bangers which I bought on a school trip to the Somme, and a pair of Jodie Langley’s lacey knickers, which Ben had given me as payment for looking after the weed. I don’t know where he got them, coz she certainly never went with him (even though people said she’d go with anyone). All they smelled of now was Ben’s skunk, anyway.

I took my dictionary off the shelf and wedged it against the door. This wouldn’t stop my mum from coming in, but it would buy me a few precious seconds, should she suddenly open my bedroom door without knocking. I took the diary out of my jacket pocket. Suddenly all the other things in my box seemed very ordinary. 

I turned the small leather-bound book over in my hand.  I saw now that it was more of a dark red colour than brown.  Along the margin of the book there was a jagged line scrawled in blue biro. There was something tucked into the book’s centre. I started to ease off the elastic clasp and then I noticed it. On the back of the diary, where the barcode had been partially torn off, there was a smudged inky thumbprint. 

I felt a chill pass down my spine.  

At that moment, my mum called up the stairs that it was dinnertime.  I placed the diary gently at the bottom of my stash box, and tucked this under my bed. 

*

I don’t know if Ben was able to ‘sleep on it’ that night, but I don’t think I slept more than a few minutes. Every time I began to drift, I could see the man’s face again - his bulging eyes staring at me with that terrible emptiness. I’d wake up and start to think about the diary under my bed, and it filled me with that same sense of dread again. I wanted to go running to my mum and tell her everything.   But I didn’t.    

I think I had finally managed to drift off, when the sound of my alarm punctured my troubled dreams. It was the first time I’d set the alarm for six weeks, and my brain was slow to respond to it. In those first foggy moments of being awake, I wondered if I’d dreamed the whole thing. I scrambled underneath the bed for my stash box.  Even before I opened the box, I knew that it was still there. The diary stared up at me, willing me to open it and unleash its secrets. 

I grabbed my phone and called Ben. He sounded more his usual cocky self. 

“Let’s go before school,” he said. 

“I just want to get rid of it, man.”

“Why’d you pick it up in the first place, Nath?” 

“I dunno,” I said, truthfully.  “I’ll see you in a bit.”    

I hung up. 

*

We locked our bikes to the same spot we’d hidden them the previous day. Neither of us said very much as we hastily retraced our steps. Whenever I caught Ben’s eye, he’d crack a goofy grin or something. I think he was just as scared as me.

He wasn’t grinning when as approached the barn. I could feel my guts churning, and the pulse hammering away in my head. I started to think maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. 

“Let’s get this done quickly,” Ben whispered. 

The barn door was still open from the previous day. Somewhere in the near distance there was the sound of car tyres on gravel. Ben grabbed my sleeve, pulling me towards the door, and we ducked inside. 

We crept through the barn. I tried hard to steady my breathing. I glanced across at the scarred mirror and a terrible thought struck me: had the dead man looked at himself in that same mirror, just before he’d gone into the room we were about to walk into?

I took shallow breaths.   

We stopped dead. 

The man was no longer there. 

There was just an empty yawning space where his body had been. The chair was exactly where it had been, but the man was gone. 

I’d never seen Ben look properly spooked before and it made me feel even worse.  

“We should go. Just drop the book and let’s go.”

The barn seemed twice as big as it had the previous day. I took a couple of steps towards the chair holding the diary. I noticed for the first time the scuffed muddy boot prints on the seat, and some mud spatters up the back of it.  I thought about the man’s legs kicking desperately, maybe in some last minute change of heart

“Oi, what are you doing here!” boomed a voice.

We froze. 

A large man barreled in from somewhere on the far side of the barn. He was dressed from head to toe in a plastic white boiler suit. 

“This area is sealed for forensics. What are you…?  Sarg!” he shouted behind him.

Then we ran.        

*

By the time we reached the playground, we were both dripping in sweat - our new school shirts soaked through, and already tinged yellow. 

“Why didn’t you just throw it down?  Ben panted.

“Because they’d have known it wasn’t there before.” 

“They don’t know who we are, Nath!” 

“Isn’t it withholding information or something?” 

“The man hung himself. What more information is there?” 

He grabbed the diary from me. 

“Hey!”          

I grasped at it, catching the elastic clasp.  The diary sprung open in Ben’s hand.  A photograph fluttered down onto my school shoe. 

“Fuck sake, Ben!”

I leant down and picked it up.

The photo looked old.  I figured this partly from how faded it was, and partly from the clothes the people in the photo were wearing.  I’d seen pictures of my parents from before I was born and they were dressed in a similar way. 

The photo was of a man (who must have been about as old as Dad is now) with a woman, who looked quite a bit younger than him. It could almost have been his daughter, but from the way he was holding her around the waist, I knew it wasn’t. The young woman had a nice smile. It looked like a happy moment.  I wondered who these people were, and why the man in the barn had had this in his diary.

“Well I’ll be…” Ben exclaimed, looking over my shoulder at the photo.  “You know who that man is, don’t you?”

*

The whole day at school, all I could think of was the diary in my blazer pocket and what Ben had said.  But none of it made any sense…     

“Nathan?  Hello?”

Mrs Bell’s sharp nasal tone brought me out of my daydream. 

“Huh?”

“Ah, I see you’re finally awake, and it’s only…” she looked at her watch, “ten—twenty.  Still on holiday are we?”

“Sorry?”

The whole class stared back at me. 

“I asked you a question, Nathan.”

“Oh, sorry.” 

Everyone laughed. 

I tried to concentrate during the rest of the lesson, but pretty soon my mind returned to the diary, the photograph, and the man in the barn.

Looking through the diary hadn’t really confirmed Ben’s theory, but it hadn’t disproved it either.

We found out that his name was Simon.  Most of the recent entries were about how he missed his mother. There was a card from a mortician in Aberdeen stuck in the middle of the diary. The only mention of the photograph was that his mum had given it to him two weeks before. There was nothing about the man in the photograph. But there was the address in the very final entry, dated five days before.

So that’s where we headed.

*

We decided to go that night.  Ben had reasoned that the police wouldn’t be there at that time. 

The woods at night seemed endless.  

Ben lit the way with his Halford’s torch, which for some reason he held under his t-shirt, making it glow red.

“Why’re you doing that?” 

“So no one sees the light, stupid.” 

We crept silently past the bungalows. What was left of their windows smiled back at us like the jagged teeth of a jack o'lantern. I felt a hot pang of guilt. And another when we passed the barn. 

We kept close to the tree line. The moon was almost full, so we didn’t need Ben’s torch anymore.   

When we got near the house, I started to feel my panic rising.  The lights from inside glowed through the massive front windows.  I held the diary ready.  I was sure someone would hear the crunch of the gravel, as we sneaked up the path towards the house. 

From inside, there was the muffled bark of a dog.  Then the great door burst open. 

We stood like statues at the foot of the steps.    

“Hold it.” The voice sounded calm, almost as if he’d been expecting us.

The man held a snarling black Labrador on a leash.  The dog dripped saliva onto his master’s slippers.  The man started down the steps cautiously.  He was older, and his hair was grey and brittle, but Ben was right, it was unmistakably the man from the photograph.  

“What do you want?”  Mr McArdle said, his cold gaze never leaving my face. 

I held out the diary dumbly. He took it. 

He lifted the leash, so he could open the book. The dog yelped and pulled away. 

The photograph slipped from the middle of the diary, but he swiftly grasped it with his spare hand. A flicker of emotion flashed across his face, then the stony mask returned. 

“Where did you get this?” 

I started to stammer an answer, but at that moment a woman, about the same age as Mr McArdle, appeared at the top of the steps.  The dog circled on its leash. 

“Who is it, John?” said the woman.

“Nobody.  Just trespassers.  Kids.”

She looked out nervously holding onto the doorframe. 

“Shall I phone the police this time?” she called out. 

“No,” her husband replied.  He fixed us with a hard stare. “They’re leaving now.”

Ben grabbed my arm and we scrambled back along the path. 

John McArdle watched us go. I glanced back over my shoulder, and saw him slide the diary into his dressing gown pocket. 

He could keep it.  I was glad to get rid of the thing.  It was his secret now.  He could hide it under his bed.

James Vincent is the editor of In Shades Magazine. His short fiction has also been featured in Shelf Heroes Magazine.

Published on July 3, 2016.