Peter Pan's Shadow
 

A short story of mine, if you're having a browse to see if you like my style/stuff...

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The screams sounded like they were being flayed off of her little brother’s lungs.

Nausea clawed its way up Lucille’s throat, her heart quickening.

 It was the type of scream that provoked worried neighbours to call the police. The type of scream that had wrenched her from her sleep every night for the last two months, as if things weren’t bad enough already.  The type of scream that meant they would take her brother away -- take them both away -- if they found out that their mum hadn’t been home in a month.

Lucille lurched to her feet, tripping over her chemistry textbooks, swearing as pain throbbed through her toe. She sprinted down the hallway and slammed open Alexander’s bedroom door.  

The stench of urine assaulted her.

The battery on the nightlight must have broken again. It always broke, no matter how often she changed it.

She surged forwards after a split second of hesitation.

Alex trembled in his favourite fire-engine pajamas in the gloom. Twisted, howling in the soiled sheets, eyes bulging white pinpricks of terror. Each breath ripped ragged on a cry.

Too loud. It probably echoed all the way to Mrs Cordon’s house two doors down.

“Hey – hey – shh – shhh.” She dragged him away from the sodden bed, carding her fingers through his sweat-drenched hair. “Stop crying.You’re okay, we’re okay. It’s just a bad dream.”

“It’s not!” He hiccupped around his sobs. “It’s not.I saw it this time!”

His gaze darted around the room, feverish with fear, lingering on every shadowy corner and the wardrobe door.

Lucille clamped a handover his mouth to muffle his cries, feeling like her intestines had begun to rot.

He screamed even harder against her palm, writhing and kicking in her hold. Face bloodless in the moonlight.

“Sorry.” Tears stung her eyes as she tightened her grip, burying her face into the cornstarch-colour of his hair so she didn’t have to look at him thrashing. His nails clawed at her arms, joining countless scratches and bruises from last night and the night before that. She wore long-sleeves all the time at school now. Nobody asked.

“Shh. I’ve got you.It’s okay,” she said. “Shh. Just be quiet.”

It did nothing to calm him. Of course, it didn’t. Nothing she did seemed to work, and she’d tried everything! She put on the nightlight that their mum had got him. She made him‘Monster Spray’ out of water, salt and lemon juice, and disinfected his bedroom every evening just like mum used to. She checked under the bed for him. She checked the closet.

He didn’t want her.

“It’s me – it’s Lucille. I’m not going to hurt you. Just breathe…just…stop crying. Please.”It felt like forever had passed before he slackened in her grip, exhausted.Alex’s cheeks were wet with tears as she peeled her hand away.

“It has teeth!”

“It’s just a dream!” she said.

“Why won’t you believe me? Don’t you feel it?”

The back of her neck prickled, and she shoved the chill away furiously.  For a second, she imagined breath looming behind her, cold raising goose-bumps on her skin.  “Shut up Alex.”

 “I want mum,” he said.

“Shut up.” Lucille’s chest ached.    

Alex crumpled to the floor and Lucille wished that she had the same luxury. She swallowed, concentrating on breathing in and out deeply for him to copy.

A light flickered at Mr Boyd’s house across the street, but he could have just been going to the bathroom again.

Her fists clenched.

“Is she coming back?” Alex asked.

The switch from ‘when’ to‘is’ felt like a punch in the throat. Lucille wanted to slap him for it, hard. Give him something worse than a six year old’s bad dreams to scream about.

“Of course she is, she wouldn’t just leave us.” She gritted her teeth. “I said shut up. Haven’t you done enough?” Maybe if he’d cried less, screamed less in the night, their mother wouldn’t have left.

His lip wobbled and Lucille’s eyes widened. “No -- no don’t. Alex, please,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

Alex sniffled, wiping another tear from his face. He nearly choked as he swallowed back another sob for her.

The guilt squirmed in the pit of her belly. Maybe it had been her, maybe if she’d been a better daughter, argued back less, helped more around the house…

 Lucille shoved herself onto her feet, hauling Alex up by the back of his shirt. Her nose wrinkled.  His urine had smeared all over her pajamas. The tears burned behind her eyes again. She sucked in another deep breath, and exhaled.

“Let’s get you clean,”she muttered.

Lucille had thought nothing about the disappearance the first night.

Their mum had always worked a lot, and she had often had to get both her and Alex breakfast and to school before. Sometimes, her mum would even be gone for nights on end, only to return with the brightest smile like nothing had happened, and an armful of mad plans and wonders.

It had never been like this. It had never been this long before.

Lucille placed fresh towels on the bed, reaching haphazardly to try and tuck the sheets in. Her mum always made that look easy. But Lucille got one corner done, and the other one wouldn't fit right! She wanted to have the bed nice by the time Alex got out of the shower though.  He’d get embarrassed looking at his mess and start crying again.

Obviously, their mum would come back this time too. Of course she would. She wouldn’t leave them. It was all simply a matter of keeping up appearances until then, and then they would laugh at the adventure of it all. It would just help rather a lot if Lucille could get some sleep without Alex screaming and waking her up.

She had stuffed all of the bills under her bed and hoped that they would disappear.

The nightmares weren’t a new occurrence. Her brother had been having them for a while now – the type of dreams that every kid had. He wouldn’t touch the floor once the lights were turned out, but she couldn’t leave them on, could she? People would talk.  

It would have been fine if the nightlight would stay on.

Lucille shivered and wrapped her arms around herself as she finally stepped back from the bed.Sheets done and smoothed down.  Perfect. She managed a tentative smile, and tried to convince herself to keep holding it for Alex when he came back.  She would read him a story, hug him, and maybe he would sleep through until morning.

She heard his shower roar to life, softening to a soothing gush of water against the tub.

 “You are very brave, considering how scared you are,” the voice said.

Lucille whipped around,hands flying up into quivering fists. Her gaze roved across the closed wardrobe door, over the Avengers poster on the wall, past the shadows slicing the rug.  She strained her ears for the sound of breathing, for the creak of a floorboard.

There was nothing there.

Just Alex humming in the shower next door.  

Lucille felt the laughter bubble in her gut like vomit. She was going mad – that was the only reasonable explanation. Alex’s screams echoed in her mind, his babblings of teeth and monsters under the bed.  She squeezed her eyes shut, squared her shoulders and turned to the bed again.  

The bed was unmade.  

Lucille froze. Every muscle in her body locked into place. She forgot how to breathe.

Ridiculous, she was being ridiculous. It was the lack of sleep. She tucked the sheets in once more with trembling fingers.

Breath puffed over the back of her neck – she was sure of it now.  

She slammed an elbow back. The only thing it hit was air. 

A visceral darkness seemed to have seeped into every corner of the room, until it felt like someone had slot cardboard over the moon and the lamppost outside the window.

How could it possibly be so dark in summer?

“It’s very rich, your fear,” the voice said, in her ear. “Delicate. Sweet on the tongue, though not as sweet as the boy’s. But you’re only half a child.”

She was going to pass out, she was sure of it. Her head swam. The ground spun beneath her feet.

Fingers caressed feather light over her throat, far too cold.  

“I’m dreaming.”Lucille’s voice cracked. “There’s nothing there.”

“Dreaming means you can wake up,” it said. “Your nightmares don’t stop when you wake up, do they Lucille?”

Her mouth dried up like cereal without the milk.   “I-I don’t believe in monsters.”The Monster Spray was on the bedside table though, and vinegar in the eyes hadto sting.

“Then why are you frightened?” it asked.

Sweat beaded on Lucille’s forehead, trickling cold and sticky along her hairline. She lunged for her weapon, seizing the renovated disinfectant bottle.  She sprayed without hesitation, not daring to open her eyes to look if she met her target. 

It whimpered, hissed. Silence descended.

Tentatively, she pried one lid open, breathing hard.  Hope surged in her chest.  Had she done it?

Eyes.

They bore into her from the shadows, unattached to any face or body that she could see. Her mother’s eyes. Her own eyes, pale blue like a stream on the first day of spring.

But that had not been her mother’s voice.

Her mother’s voice was rough from cigarettes. This one was as smooth and sharp as cut glass.  

The walls seemed to close in on her, the darkness smothered her on every side. It swept over her like black waters.  

Lucille squeezed the bottle to spray again, nearly dropping it because her hands shook so hard.

The eyes didn’t even blink, entirely unaffected.

“You’re adorable,” it said. “You actually thought that would work.”

It was toying with her.  

Alex’s shower switched off. She could hear his humming more clearly now – Son of a Preacher Man, Dusty Springfield. It was their mother’s favourite song.

“What are you?” Lucille raised the disinfectant again. It was all she had. “You’re not real, you can’t be real!” 

“Then you’re talking to yourself. Is that better? Mad people aren’t allowed to look after their little brothers. They’d take him away. You’d be letting him down an awful lot, more than you already do,” it said. “More than you let her down.”

Lucille’s stomach clenched.  She wasn’t – she tried her best – Alex knew that, right?  

The eyes floated between her and the door. Such hungry eyes. They had no right looking like her mother’s. Her mum’s eyes had always been warm, even when she was at her worst and most erratic of moods. These eyes would have made liquid nitrogen feel like room temperature.

Lucille wiped her clammy palms on her night shirt as she circled the edge of the room towards the hallway.

Alex, she had to get to Alex. Protect him.

His tiny footsteps padded down the hallway.

“Alex run!” The scream stuck raspy in her throat, barely audible. She licked her dry lips.

The handle turned on the door. 

Those eyes mocked her,gleaming with amusement. 

She bolted for the exit. She’d grab his arm, yank him out the house – Mrs Cordon hearing them be damned! Tears blurred her vision.

The handle stopped,clicked again and again as she reached it.

“…Luce, the door won’t open.” Alex’s voice trembled. “Luce?”

She fumbled the handle herself, tugging.  It rattled and stayed closed.

Her eyes shot to the bedroom window. Second floor, no piping or good way down.  She scrabbled with the door handle, shunted her weight against the wood when that didn’t work. Pain seared up her shoulder.

“Luce!” Alex screamed on the other side. “Use mum’s Monster Spray against it!”

“Oh no, he’s scared,”the monster said.  “Aren’t you going to comfort him? He’s asking for you. Go on.”

She turned to face it once more. The rattling handle dug into her back.  

“You can you see it too now, can’t you?” Alex tugged at the door. “Can’t you? Should I get someone?Should I get Mrs Cordon? Did the spray work? Luce!”

Lucille couldn’t even see the window anymore. Couldn’t see the bed, or the wardrobe as the shadows thickened.The darkness pawed at her, suffocated her. 

All she could see was the monster with her mother’s eyes.

“Tell him it’s going to be okay, Luce,” it said. “I dare you.I double dare you.”

“It’s going to be okay,Alex.”

BREAKINGNEWS: Lucille and Alexander Jackson, 14 and 6, found dead in their home. Mothersuspected.