Stern iron lamps stand like luminous sentries on each side of the park entrance. The wind clatters branches against them, casting skeletal hand shadows that claw the leaves swirling around my feet.
I hesitate, pull down the hood to the bridge of my nose and slip unnoticed through the gate.
I pass the hedge maze, tempted to enter its leafy corridors and lose myself in the comforting gloom, but instead I cut across the playing fields until I reach the woods that encircle the north end of Worden park. I follow the path through the trees. It forks and I turn left, taking me to the back of the college.
Metal railings separate the woods from the college, the tops curving downwards into toothy spikes that would bite your arm or leg. In front of the lightning-split oak tree I use as a marker is a railing brittle with rust and age. Last week I kicked it loose and carefully replaced it to create my secret ingress.
I look around to check I’m alone and wiggle the railing free, shrug off my backpack and squeeze through the gap, the scabrous bars scraping my cheeks and shoulders. I kneel down and grab the backpack, the paint cans rattling inside, and furtively approach the granite monolith erected on the manicured lawn that borders the college campus. In the moonlight, the monolith looks like a slab of bone gouged with horizontal scratches. As I get closer I can make out the lists of names from the French trip carved into the pale stone.
Eight years ago, in 1981, the bus had skidded on the motorway, then ploughed through the barriers and tumbled down a steep embankment. When it finally stopped, the teacher who was driving and fifteen students were dead or close to death, steel and flesh mangled together. It caught fire just as the ambulances arrived, dying whimpers briefly turning into screams.
I run my fingers in a sweeping motion over the names until I reach the one at the bottom. Christine Black.
I scratch my fingernail along the curve of the ‘C’ and pull out a can of black paint, shake it and spray a stippled line on the stone. I spray four more lines, the ends touching each other to form a pentagram. In the centre, I spray an eye.
Every night as I teeter on the edge of sleep the symbol materialises and floats behind my eyelids, invading my dreams, its after-image hovering when I open my eyes in the morning until I blink it away.
Through the wind I hear my name being whispered.
I turn around and look through the railings into the trees, my heart pulsating in my throat.
There is a figure standing motionless between the trunks.
I duck down behind the monument, then slowly peer round the edge.
The figure has disappeared.
I take my backpack, push myself through the gap in the railings and jam the bar back into place, the graffiti eye staring back at me.
As I walk down the root-snarled path I hear moaning coming from a clearing a few metres to my left.
In the moonlight there are two men. They are kissing, their arms wrapped tightly around each other. I want to avert my eyes, feeling ashamed at violating their privacy, but something won’t let me turn away.
The head of the taller man elongates until it looks like a mantis.
I scrunch my eyes closed and open them.
His head looks normal again.
The taller man caresses the cheek of the other. ‘You want this, don’t you?’ The man nods. The taller man grabs the other’s shoulders. His head darts forward and clamps onto his neck. There are wet sucking sounds and the man against the tree moans more loudly.
Then he screams.
The tall man lets go of him and he falls against the trunk and slides lifeless to the ground. The man wipes his mouth and chuckles.
The dark smear on the back of his hand looks like blood.
I flatten my back against a tree, the knotted bark nipping my skin, craning my neck to peek around. The man takes a step towards me, sniffing the air and cocking his head from side to side. My body tenses and I fight the impulse to run. He stops and returns to the man splayed on the ground, bends down and gathers him up as though he’s made of twigs.
He disappears with him into the woods and I crouch beside the tree, taking slow breaths until I stop feeling faint. When I stand up, I feel pain lancing across my palms.
My fingers are curled into them so tightly the nails have drawn tiny moons of blood.
Skulking through the streets, my head bowed and hoodied, I get home in about half an hour and climb up the drainpipe at the back of my house. It curves like a spine down from the gutter, almost touching the corner of my bedroom window, the brackets attaching it to the wall acting as footholds. I clamber through the window and hide the backpack in the wardrobe, my dad’s snores reverberating from his bedroom.
I lie on top of my bed and close my eyes, thinking about the two men in the woods, their bodies pressing together, and wish I could have touched them.
I wake up tangled in my duvet. I must have taken my clothes off in my sleep, as they’re crumpled into a ball next to the bed.
I remember a dream about going to the college during the night but then see the freckles of black paint on the back of my right hand. Underneath my fingernails is dried blood and slivers of dark green paint from the drainpipe outside my window. I must have been sleepwalking again but don’t remember how I got to the park entrance. Tonight I will tie string around my ankle again and fasten the end to the leg of the bed.
I suddenly recall the men in the woods. If I was really there, shouldn’t I tell my dad? But how would I explain being there at night?
I press my head into the pillow and listen to the comforting sounds of him getting ready in the bathroom, the melodic echo of brushing teeth followed by the razor scraping wetly over his skin, and feel myself falling back to sleep. He starts whistling ‘off to work we go’, so I know he’s styling his hair with gel, teasing each strand into its assigned place. Every few weeks he makes me pluck out the grey ones and tells me he’s far too young to start looking like my grandad.
The whistling abruptly stops when he curses in pain after slapping on aftershave. He knocks on my door and it creaks open. ‘Wakey, wakey.’ I pretend not to hear him and bury my head further into the pillow. ‘Sam … Samuel! Do I need to pour water over your head?’
‘I’m awake,’ I grunt.
‘And you didn’t get up early to make your old man his breakfast?’
‘I didn’t have time to puree the toast.’
‘You should be a comedian.’
‘I would if I could do it in bed.’
‘There’s orange juice in the fridge or some delicious raw chicken if you prefer. I’ll be home this evening. Another boring meeting. I’ll pick up fish and chips, so don’t cook anything. Not that you ever do.’ I mumble ‘bye’ and bury my face in the pillow. There is a cough behind the door.
‘I’m filling a glass for your head right now.’
‘Fine, I’m getting up.’ I can never understand why he’s so cheerful in the morning; humans were designed to sleep until at least midday and then return to bed a few hours later.
‘And no trapping supernatural creatures before breakfast.’ My dad constantly teases me about the time when I was five and tried to capture a tooth fairy. I carefully built a booby trap structure of books, putting the tooth in a nest of toilet paper in the centre. I figured that when the fairy flew in and took the tooth, the books would collapse and trap it inside.
‘Won’t it just crush the poor thing?’ my dad asked with amusement.
I shrugged, indifferent. ‘Tooth fairying is a dangerous job.’ I stayed up as long as I could, cross-legged under the blankets, waiting for the books to topple, shaking the sleep from my head. I woke up early in the morning and clambered excitedly out of bed, disappointed that the books were still standing. Inside, the tooth was gone, the toilet paper shredded as though an apoplectic mouse had flung it around. I ran into my parents’ room, scared and angry.
‘It didn’t leave me any money.’ My dad looked at me, bleary-eyed, and my mother shook her head guiltily when he whispered something to her. On their bedside table was a shining ten pence.
‘She must have been annoyed with you and left it with us,’ my dad said, rubbing the side of his neck. Just below his ear, under the curve of his jaw, were tiny scratches.
I wait until my dad rattles the front door shut and crawl out of bed, shower and brush my teeth. I consider using some of his hair gel but decide to just run a brush through it. I am about to wipe the condensation off the mirror but instead draw a pentagram with my finger, the glass squeaking under every stroke. I place my finger in its centre and start drawing an eye, but then stop and rub the glass clear with the palm of my hand. I shiver and run into my bedroom, quickly get dressed and leave the house without having breakfast.
Before I lock the front door I hear a muffled voice behind it.
I run down the driveway, not daring to look back.