The distant whistle seemed to come from a twilight place, rousing Harry from where he lay face down on his desk, his head resting on his arms. He stirred and raised a leaden hand to the back of his neck as he tried to determine if the icy breeze was real or imagined.
When he glanced up, he appeared like a man waiting for a hammer blow to rain down upon him. The screen glowed polar white and the tiny black cursor blinked as if admonishing him for resting on the job. He closed the spreadsheet and gazed at the whiskey beside the keyboard, its amber glow diluted by the melted ice cubes.
Harry took a deep sip and toasted Charlotte and Abby who smiled, frozen in time, on the desktop wallpaper. There’d been no troubles in that moment on that seasonably cold English beach, but that afternoon was a world away and the Harry standing beside them was not the Harry currently slumped on his desk. In the picture he was the right side of thirty and there was a lot less gray in his choppy hair. Less pain in his smile and no black smudges below his eyes from the sleep he’d missed since that distant day. He reached to turn the PC off but paused as a cold breeze wafted by.
Were the patio doors open? Impossible. He’d checked them at least twice already.
Something flickered at the edge of his vision; a subtle movement in the garden. Night pooled over the lawn, its depth so thick it was hard to see the trunks of the apple trees below the marbled blue-grey clouds that drew across the moon like shrouds.
He froze as a patch of deep black stirred in the gloom.
Was someone outside?
Harry set his whiskey down and grabbed the flashlight from the table. Its weight reassured him, but he still paused before opening the patio doors. He glanced to the ceiling, picturing Abby asleep, blissfully unaware.
The November night was still; he must have imagined the breeze. He shivered as he stepped outside. It seemed the long, soggy autumn had finally surrendered to winter. A scent of spent fireworks hung in the air, the bitter tang of gunpowder blending with the mulch and damp. Nothing moved past the trees at the end of the garden, nothing was out of place but, as Harry began to head back inside for a final sweep of the house, it seemed that something stirred outside again.
He gazed back into the darkness…
There – a tall figure standing perfectly still.
He could almost feel its gaze, but then a strange, unwelcome thought drifted into his mind. The figure wasn’t watching him; it was watching Abby’s room.
Harry’s heart pounded as he gripped the flashlight and strode down the lawn past the darkness bathing the neighbors’ houses. He swung the light along the garden’s length, illuminating dewy grass and piles of dead leaves. The beam flickered as it slashed the gloom, but he couldn’t see anything except scratchy black trees. The figure must have been a phantom conjured by his imagination; yet another ghost haunting his exhausted mind.
“What…” Harry pulled the flashlight back as something skittered past his shoe. A rat?
His flesh crept as he swept the light by his feet, but whatever had been there had already scuttled beneath the rhododendron bushes.
He headed back to the house, eager for warmth and light. He slid the patio doors shut, locked them, and twisted the handles to make sure they were secure. But as he glanced at the garden for a final check, the feeling that had been dogging him for days returned. That the scripts people lived by had been rewritten. That the cogs behind the scenes had reversed, and a door had opened, bringing a dissolution as inevitable as the seasons changing.
It was nonsense, of course. Illogical. He had no time for superstition; he’d simply had a bad week. Another bad week.
He switched the lights off and was about to head upstairs when the ritual took hold. Harry returned to the patio doors and examined them again along with every window on the first floor, before double-checking the front door. Only once he was certain that everything was securely locked, did he climb the stairs to the waiting gloom.
Abby’s soft snores sounded through the gap in her door. Harry stole a glance inside to where she lay asleep in a pool of moonlight. She looked peaceful, younger than her twelve years, as if the weight of the world, and the horrors she’d faced that year, had slipped from her shoulders for a few hours at least. “Goodnight, princess,” he whispered.
Harry entered his bedroom, sat on the edge of his bed, and took a deep slug of the whiskey he hadn’t realized he’d been carrying.
Outside, the whistle sounded again, but this time he didn’t hear it.
A heavy rattle woke Abby.
She sat up and checked the time on her alarm through half-closed eyes.
She began to lie back down, but the rattle came again and it took a moment for her sleepy mind to realize the sound was coming from the phone on the dresser.
As Abby watched its faint glow, her mood shifted from one of foreboding to excitement.
Was she in?
She shook her head. Why would they choose her? What could she possibly have that they’d want? But someone had sent a message…
The light winked out.
She wanted to snatch the phone up, but caution told her to switch the thing off. To back out while there was still time. And yet, if she had been chosen and the stories were true…
The phone flashed a second time. Her heart sank. She had the feeling the first message was now irrelevant. Josh had ordered her to answer the summons right away, no matter the hour, and she hadn’t.
Abby’s fingers trembled as she reached for the phone. She paused, took a breath, and unlocked it. The red tick mark by the StarFlash app meant a new message had arrived. Only one. She’d been right. The first message wasn’t there.
She tapped the cartoonish envelope in the app:
Her fingers flew across the glass.
-Sorry. I’m awake now. Tell them to contact me again…
The phone faded to black.
Abby stared at the screen, willing it back to life, willing Josh to change his mind. She had to know if what they’d said was true… if they really could do what they’d promised. If there really was a final chance to make things right and to say goodbye, even though it was impossible.
Her heart skipped as the phone rumbled. She grabbed it and read the message.
-Last chance. Are you going to do whatever it takes?
-Meet me the day after tomorrow. Lunch hour at the hut.
Abby’s thumbs raced.
She waited, but the screen turned black. Abby crept back to bed as the bathroom door creaked in the hall. Her dad wasn’t sleeping either, not that that was surprising. A part of her wanted to talk to him, to tell him what was going on, and more importantly, what could happen next. But he wouldn’t believe her. She almost didn’t believe it herself, not fully.
Abby drew the bed covers up to her chin and allowed herself a smile. Perhaps she’d been given another chance. Maybe she was in after all.
And then her grin slipped and instead of feeling happy, she realized she’d never felt so lost.
Harry grimaced as Terence continued berating Emma, his tone growing increasingly waspish. The others hunkered down in their cubicles, staring at their screens and pretending to work as they listened to the drama unfold, as if there was any choice in the matter.
Emma didn’t deserve the lecture. Some idiot had driven into the back of her car that morning, making her late, not that Terence cared. Apparently it was the second time she’d been late that month and if he acknowledged things sometimes went wrong in people’s lives then he’d lose a golden opportunity to belittle and threaten his staff. And that wasn’t going to happen.
“It’s always something, isn’t it?” Terence’s voice drifted from his office. The door stood ajar, as it always did whenever he took someone to task. That way everyone got to hear him so they’d know who was in charge, as if there were any doubts.
Harry imagined repeatedly ramming Terence’s head into his desk, but let it go. Instead, he paged through the stream of emails in his inbox; a seemingly endless trail of demands, each more urgent than the last, at least in their senders’ minds.
Soon, a sense of dullness took hold and he glanced out the window to where dark clouds gathered over the old courthouse beside their office. It was only two in the afternoon, but he was already tired. A nap would be good, or better yet a full eight hours of sleep; something he hadn’t achieved for more months than he cared to consider.
Terence’s voice droned on, meaning he was still occupied. Harry called Abby again. Nothing. He switched to text and typed;
– Call me.
If she didn’t reply soon, he’d leave, and screw Terence’s last-minute overtime request. No, not request, demand. Harry glanced up as Emma left Terence’s office, her fake, teetering smile almost as watery as her eyes.
“Want a coffee?” He offered. If Emma heard him, she showed no sign as she returned to her desk. Terence watched from between the slats of his blinds, assessing the room, and Harry turned away before his face betrayed him. He reached for his cell phone as it vibrated with a call.
He strode to the photocopier, just out of Terence’s line of vision.
“I’ve been calling,” Harry whispered as he traced a finger down the crack on the photocopier’s lid. It seemed someone had punched it, which wasn’t surprising given how barely contained anger and festering contempt had become the new normal in the office over the last few weeks.
“I’m at school.” Abby’s voice was almost admonishing.
“Yeah, I know, sorry. Look, I’m probably going to need to work late tonight. Is there any chance-”
“You want me to go to Kaitlyn’s after school?”
“Is that okay?”
“Of course. Kaitlyn’s mum said she’s going to cut me my own keys.”
Her tone was playful, but it didn’t take the sting out of it. She was right; she’d practically moved into Kaitlyn’s house, so much so that Kaitlyn’s mother had taken to calling Abby her second daughter. “Thanks, Abs.” Harry forced a smile even though she couldn’t see him.
She sounded relieved not to have to go home. He couldn’t blame her; their house had all the atmosphere of a hospice of late. He’d need to turn that around… how long had he been telling himself that?
“So what time are you picking me up?”
“About-” Harry paused as someone laughed on the other end of the call. It was a nasty, mocking tone. “Who’s that?”
A pause. “No one. Listen, I need to get back to class. I’ll see you when I see you.”
“Sure. Love you.”
“Love you too, Dad.”
Harry shoved his phone into his pocket as footsteps approached behind him. The eye-watering prick of aftershave announced Terence long before he spoke. “Can I have a word, Harry?”
“Sure.” Harry turned to find Terence standing far too close, just as he always did. He was two feet shorter than Harry, meaning Harry often had to do his best not to appear like he was looking down on the man, despite there being no choice. Harry followed him to his office.
“Leave the door open,” Terence said, as Harry reached to close it.
Harry pushed it shut.
“If you’re going to give me a bollocking, then I’d sooner the whole office doesn’t have to hear it. I’m no expert but I imagine HR would say that’s best practice. Privacy, and all that.”
Terence’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t argue. He was a careful predator who knew precisely what he could get away with.
“So?” Harry forced a smile and remained standing. Sitting would prolong the conversation, and his claustrophobia was already kicking in.
“We’re on a deadline, Harry. You know that.”
“Which means I need you to keep personal calls for your lunch hour. Account managers need to be fully present at this time of year. It’s vital.”
“I don’t have a lunch hour. I haven’t taken any time out today. I worked through, just like you suggested even though we’re entitled to a break.”
Terence nodded, but it was clear it wasn’t in agreement.
“And,” Harry continued, doing his best to keep his voice measured, “I called my daughter to make sure she had somewhere to go after school. Because I can’t pick her up when I should do, because I’m working overtime. Again.”
“If you worked regular hours, you’d have found a permanent solution to that problem, Harry. Sanjeev and Cath’s kids are at school, they manage.”
“I’m not Sanjeev or Cath. My circumstances are different. They’ve got partners. I’m a single parent.”
Terence steepled his fingers and blew out a long, labored breath. Shit, Harry thought, he’s about to get deep. He almost detested Terence’s pseudo wisdom as much as the wanton bullying.
“You need to move on, Harry.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s been seven months since…” He let his words trail away.
“Since Charlotte died?”
“So what are you saying? That I should have gotten over it by now?”
Terence gave a slight nod but quickly contradicted the gesture. “No, I’m not saying that.”
“Then what are you saying?”
The fake sympathy melted, and a flash of fury lit his eyes. “I’m saying I need you to be present. Fully present. Your daughter…”
“Abby. She’s twelve, right?”
“And she needs you to keep a roof over her head and support her.”
Harry let out a slow, controlled breath. “I’m not sure I follow.”
“What I’m saying is, I need you to focus on your job. Far more than you are.”
“I was working on the report at gone midnight last night, Terence. At home. In my downtime. Am I going to be paid for it? Nope, thought not.”
Terence leaned forward. “We’ve got to pull together. It’s our busiest time of year. You don’t need me to tell you that. And, to be frank, I don’t appreciate the way you speak to me. I’m your superior.”
Harry repressed a snort.
“You need to move on, Harry. That’s all I’m saying.”
“You mean in life, or in my job?”
“Your life, and yeah, maybe your job too. If things don’t change, and I mean drastically.”
It felt like a punch to the gut. Harry had been with the company for eleven years, worked his way up from the bottom. Terence’s father, Jim, had spotted Harry’s potential and taken him from the shop floor to the office. He’d also cut Harry a ton of slack and let him work shorter hours with a minor dip in wages when Charlotte had died. But a heart attack had snatched Jim from the business he’d built and his bone idle, idiot son had inherited his mantle. And there he sat now, reveling in his stupidity, a grey office dictator desperate to make his mark.
“Right,” Harry unclenched his fists, but not before Terence’s gaze had passed over them. “I understand.”
“Good.” Terence’s smile was as real as the flowers decorating his shelves. The only time he genuinely smiled was when he made jokes at other people’s expense, and then his eyes lit up like a fun fair. “Good,” he said again and nodded like a wise old man. “You should get back to work. Okay?”
“Sure.” Harry returned to his desk with Terence’s basilisk stare following him every step of the way. He picked up his cold tea, swallowed the dregs, and opened his inbox, which had proliferated like an aggressive disease.
* * *
It was gone seven by the time Harry drove home and the town was dark and almost empty. Only a few people passed by the light of the shop windows, their heads down as the wind shook their hoods and umbrellas, and sent glittering rain drops falling from the bare branches. The elongated glow of a passing bus drew by and a solitary passenger turned toward Harry, their eyes pools of darkness.
It was that haunted time of year; the dead season as his mother had called it. Where had the sunshine gone? It seemed the last time he’d seen it had been the spring when there’d been daffodils in the hospital grounds as he’d visited Charlotte. Life pushing through the cold earth, as if in mockery of the cancer consuming his beautiful wife. He’d picked a flower for her, but by the time he’d reached the ward, she was gone and the woman in her bed had looked like an empty, haggard stranger. He could still see the gleam of sweat cooling on her head, and the waxy tone of her skin below the strip lights. Still hear Abby’s sobs when she’d realized it was too late to say goodbye.
Harry had found the daffodil he’d picked that day in his coat pocket. It had been shriveled and dead and he’d left it there, unsure what to do with it. Throwing it away had felt callous, even though he’d already summoned the strength to pile up Charlotte’s clothes and donate them.
He turned into the short street where Kaitlyn lived. A train rattled past, vivid blue sparks glowing from its squealing wheels. The carriages rolled by, as empty as everything else.
Harry pulled up and climbed out into the chilly, misty air. He thrust his hands into his pockets and started down the street, but paused as movement in the car parked ahead drew his attention.
A cigarette tip blazed, giving Harry a glimpse of a gaunt, youthful face framed by a dark hoody. The kid couldn’t have been much older than eighteen, but his drawn features looked almost ancient. He turned to Harry and stared him down.
“Twat,” Harry muttered, and was about to walk on when the teenager glanced up at Kaitlyn’s house and slowly and lewdly licked his lips. “What?” Harry asked, his voice cracking with anger. “What’s that supposed to mean?” He strode toward the car but it rumbled to life and before he could close the distance, it pulled away with a staccato boom of bass.
As Harry watched it go his gaze fell on the tattered sticker on the bumper, which showed a weird branch-like symbol and twisty words that spelled: ‘Daemonium Soul’.
Harry turned to find Abby watching from Kaitlyn’s doorstep. Kaitlyn stood behind her. She raised a hand tucked into a sweater sleeve, and waved. She was the same age as Abby but her choice of clothes and make-up made her look at least two years older. Harry glanced away from her short skirt, hoping, as he always did, that Abby wouldn’t follow her friend’s example.
Abby said something, and Kaitlyn bit her lip before whispering a reply.
Something had happened. Was it connected with the prick in the car?
“Night’, Mr. Ryder, night’ Abby,” Kaitlyn called. As she closed her door the light from her hallway vanished, and it felt as if the temperature in the street had dipped even lower.
“Everything okay?” Harry asked, guiding Abby to the car. His gaze lingered on the patch of black oil where Daemonium Soul had parked, and he considered mentioning it, but decided against it for the time being.
“Sure. You?” Abby snatched a glance at Harry as he opened the door for her.
They drove home in silence, Abby fiddling with her phone, Harry’s concerns circling him like carrion crows.
Maybe it was Abby’s imagination, but the clock hand appeared to be moving faster than usual. She sat back in her seat as the rest of her class gave the illusion of listening, even though it was clear no-one was paying the English supply teacher the slightest attention. They stared through the windows, stole furtive glances at the phones clenched below their desks, and suppressed yawns.
Kaitlyn shot Abby another worried look while Josh sat behind her as studiously arrogant as ever. He tipped his chair back, his wild dyed black hair like an ink splatter against the magnolia wall, and then his shark eyes roved the room and settled on Abby. Was he pissed off? Did he hate her? It seemed that way most the time.
“… and you must finish it by Tuesday at the latest. And that goes for everyone, including you, Miss Ryder.” Mrs. Parcell gave Abby a curt glance as she stopped before her desk. Abby nodded and continued pretending to make notes in her school book. Finally, the break alarm buzzed.
Desk and chair legs scraped and a flurry of black blazers headed for the exit. Abby followed Kaitlyn into the throng and moved aside as Josh pushed past. He gave her a slight nod as he barged through the crowd, heading downstairs, the bitter stench of nicotine clinging to his clothes like a trail of acrid bread crumbs for them to follow.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Kaitlyn pulled her coat tight across her chest as they crossed the sports field toward the janitor’s huts. A thin band of blue-grey smoke billowed from the side of the squat wooden buildings.
“Yeah.” Abby forced nonchalance. “You?”
“Of course.” Kaitlyn sounded insulted that Abby had even questioned her commitment. It had all started with her, and her fixation with Josh Hills. Abby could still picture the moment Kaitlyn had shown her the website on her phone, that black background, the white text flashing on the screen:
Ask a question…
She’d typed a stupid question first but Kaitlyn had shaken her head. “No. Type something important. That’s how it works.”
Abby had hesitated, before taking the phone and asking a question that no one, not even Kaitlyn, could have known the answer to. The reply had returned right away, and it had been correct, impossible though that was. The only person who could have answered Abby’s question correctly would have been her mother, and she was dead…
“What was that?” Josh demanded, bringing Abby back to the present as she rounded the hut with Kaitlyn. He sat perched on a trash can, his chunky black shoes thudding into the dented tin with the same irritated precision of an angry cat flicking its tail. He threw the stub of his cigarette down, spat twice, and sparked another.
“What?” Abby shrugged.
“Why didn’t you answer him the other night?” Josh’s glare grew in intensity.
“I fell asleep,” Abby said. “Sorry.”
“I told you you had to be ready. When you didn’t reply right away he messaged me. Gave me a ton of shit for it. I vouched for you, you dumb bitch.”
“I’m sorry,” Abby said, “I-”
“This isn’t a game,” Josh continued. “You’re either in or you’re out.” His voice was as much a weapon as his fists, but Abby heard the undercurrent of fear. He was as scared as she was.
“You’ve got one more chance,” Josh said. “He’s called for a gathering. Tonight.”
“What for?” Kaitlyn asked.
Josh shot her an almost dismissive look. “So he can run tests to make sure you’re worthy. And if you are, you get to ask for whatever you want.”
Abby wondered what Josh wanted, beyond status. It looked like he’d already come into money. The labels on his clothes had changed over the last few weeks, meaning he’d somehow gotten hold of cash for once in his life, and plenty of it.
“What kind of tests?” Kaitlyn shivered as the cold breeze swept Josh’s smoke away.
“Nothing serious.” Josh spat again. “Just questions and answers. If you get them right, then you go to the next level. It’s as simple as that.”
Accepted. Inside the circle, rather than outside it. It felt as if Abby’s whole life had been spent being locked out, and she sensed it was the same for Josh. They were both outsiders. Kaitlyn on the other hand… Abby loved her friend, but she’d never had to struggle with anything. Never lost someone she loved. “Where?” Abby asked.
“I don’t know.” Josh blew a smoke ring at Kaitlyn. “What about your place?”
“I guess,” Kaitlyn said. “My parents are out ’til nine.”
“It’s settled then.” Josh jumped from the bin. “I’ll let the others know.” He strode away, before stopping and turning back to Abby. “You better be there.”
“I will be,” Abby said, even though she had no idea why it mattered if she was there or not.
She called her dad and asked if she could stay at Kaitlyn’s for dinner. He sounded relieved, meaning he’d probably been told to work overtime again. Abby hated his job almost as much as he did, as well as his twat of a boss. She’d never met Terence, but she’d heard plenty about him over the last few months, as if they’d needed any more things to make life miserable. She wished they could move somewhere else, somewhere smaller so he wouldn’t have to work so hard, but he couldn’t let the house go, or the memories it held.
Abby ran to catch Kaitlyn up as dark blue clouds rose over the school, turning the last of the leaves on the auburn trees as bright as flames. The sky seemed like an omen, and for a moment Abby considered cancelling the meeting. It felt like she was taking a bad path, and that if she continued following it, there’d be no coming back.
“Hurry up!” Kaitlyn called.
Abby ran harder.
* * *
Harry skimmed the news as he ate his limp ham sandwich and finished his bitter coffee. Thanks to a meeting he’d managed to escape, the office was empty. He scoured the headlines. More bombings. More political scandals. More missing children.
“That work related?”
Harry closed the browser. How the hell had Terence appeared so quietly?
“Nope, I’m taking a lunch break.”
“Right.” Terence checked his wristwatch, making note of the time. “Good,” he said, before muttering something as he returned to his office. Harry swallowed his anger, threw the remains of his sandwich into the bin, and got back to work. And as he lost himself in the deluge of spreadsheets and calls, the strange sense of discomfort nagging at the edge of his thoughts grew more pronounced.
* * *
Abby had almost forgotten they were having a meeting as she sat back with Kaitlyn on her parent’s sofa, the TV blaring before them. But then the doorbell rang, and somehow it sounded heavier, and slower than usual. Abby glanced up as Kaitlyn ushered Josh into the room, followed by three kids she’d seen around school, but didn’t know. The two snobby-looking girls were from the year above hers, and the boy with the jagged fringe and quick, suspicious glances was in her year, but she’d never spoken to him.
“We need space.” Josh didn’t wait for Abby to move as he wheeled the sofa she sat on out of the way. The others joined him in helping to rearrange the furniture.
Abby felt nauseous as she moved an armchair. She considered making excuses and leaving, but it was too late. She’d committed. It was happening.
Josh studied her closely. “Everything okay, Abby?” He asked with mock concern. “You’re not going to freak out and go all spastic on us, are you?”
Abby held his gaze and bit back her first response. “Course not.” She glanced to where her coat was slung over the back of the dining room chair and fought the urge to pull it on and run as far from the madness as possible.
“Good,” Josh said. “Kill the lights,” he told Kaitlyn. “It’s better in the dark.”
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