An itching against the back of my neck and across the whole of my skin. A taste like something corrupted and fetid against my tongue and a whistling hiss against my ears so that the little hairs in there were standing on end. The darkness closing in from all sides. A weight to it. The air as thick as treacle and the darkness as black as tar.
In my dreams I had returned to the Gamekeeper’s lodge and the night of the sleepover.
Roughhewn slabs of timber against the palms of my hands as I crawled across the floor. Splinters that were catching and piercing the skin so that the blood ran out across my fingers and down towards the gaps where the crooked floorboards didn’t quite meet. My blood flowing down between the gaps and falling towards the darkness down there. And the edges of the old well before me and the brick that was sharp as flint as it bit down against my fingers. I pulled myself closer towards the edge of the precipice until before I had even realised what I might be doing I was staring once more towards the bottom of the well.
The darkness that resided down there.
The ink-black tar that folded in and over and across itself as though the air was possessed by life somehow.
The darkness rising.
And how I wished to tumble across the edges of that well and fall towards that great abys and be swallowed by it and be gone forever from this world. And that was when I heard her familiar voice calling out to me once more from the bottom of the well. And the cool tears that creased from the corners of my eyes as her voice carried up to me and possessed my brain until it was all that mattered. The world reduced to darkness and the girls voice calling out to me.
“Help me Mandy.” She called. “It’s cold down here, so cold.”
A jarring bolt of pain that pierced my temples and rattled through my brain. The sound of a billion souls being torn asunder and their atoms scattered across the deepest corners of the universe. And the darkness that fell towards the centre of the well and the nothingness that existed down there. The girls voice calling out to me from the depths of hell. Her words shaming me. Cursing me. And so, I shook her pleading words from my mind and gripped down against the edges of the well so that the shards of clay flayed against the skin.
“No” I called back, and my words that were swallowed by the darkness so that not a single syllable rattled back against the edges of the chamber nor a single echoed heard. And my head shaking from left to right and the tears that were as cold as ice against my cheeks where they ran like cool rivers. “You’re not real!” I called again in defiance.
And the girls voice that was heard again. Travelling up to me from the bottom of the well. The pitiful sound of her words that called out to me from the darkness.
“Don’t say that Mandy!” she called in reply, “You know that isn’t true.”
And me shaking my head and peering over the edges.
“It is true!” I called with spite. A sharp taste of vinegar against my tongue and a memory of arguing with my sister like this all those years before. And my sister on one side of the see-saw and me on the other. And how I had pushed down with my heels with all my might as I had tried to make my sister fall. And the pain that came rushing back at the memory so that the words fell from my mouth without any sense of where the heck they might have come from.
“You’re dead.” I cried towards the darkness. And I knew that it was true. I knew it with all my heart that my sister was dead and had been drowned beneath the cold waters for so long now that all that would remain of her was hair and bone.
A flicker of movement down there, towards the bottom of the well, an arm, a hand and a leg. A face that was half revealed against the shadows and the skin that was peeled away so that the muscle and the gristle was revealed and the teeth that were chipped and as white as bone. The creature lifted its face towards me and the cruel smile that lifted against once side of its face. The skin that was porcelain white and the girls face that was revealed. And the vengeance that was wrought against the creatures twisted features as its claws buckled against the insides of the well as it raced up towards me from the darkness. And its rows of tiny teeth that were barbed like the fisherman’s hook.
I’m coming for you Mandy. I’m coming.
I woke from the nightmare.
My body covered in sweat and my head falling back against the soft cushioning of a pillow as I opened my eyes.
Moonlight illuminating one corner of the vaulted ceiling overhead and shining between rusted metal bars and wire framed windows. Motes of dust that were dancing the Paso Doble. Tiny particles that flickered here and there so that for a moment I was sure that I had died and gone to heaven. The cool kiss of air against my brow that was beading with sweat and the sheets lifting up and down against my chest where my breathing had yet to settle.
For a moment I remained laying there quite still. My gaze that fidgeted from one corner of the moonlit dormitory to the other and the sound of my friends snoring nearby. The bite of the steel clasp against my ankles where I remained shackled to the bed. The protesting cry of bed springs as I turned to my right and studied the shape in the bed to the side of me. The curve of shoulders beneath the blanket and a mop of inky black hair that had webbed across the pillow. A face that was illuminated silver by the light of the moon that was shining through.
Ariana’s eyes that were wide and inky black as though she had woken to find the devil by her side. Her mouth that was hanging open and her lips that were separated so that the white teeth could be seen and her tongue behind that was grey. And for a moment I was sure that the little mite must have died within in her sleep because she didn’t blink or move a muscle as I studied her.
“Heh.” I said, and the sound of my voice a little startling against the silence of the dormitory where we slept. The words echoed against the polished walls and lifted the hairs against my arms. I forced my hand from beneath the covers and reached out to Ariana to comfort her from nightmares. But the moonlight playing tricks upon my eyes I reckoned cause where my fingernails should be were thick talons that were hooked and folding over towards cruel points. My skin that was grey and mottled with blisters so that the skin appeared to have been half burned away. So, I quickly pulled my hand back towards the safety of the covers and the shadows and called out to my young friend once more.
“You ok Ariana?” I called.
Ariana blinked. An inky darkness that appeared like a thick cataract against the surface of her eyes and her mouth that was wide and her teeth that were small. In the darkness I could see that the little girl moved her head slowly from left to right and a pitiful sobbing cry that was beginning to rumble up from the pits of her belly somewhere and out across her tongue.
“I want my Mummy.” She said, the pitiful tone. And I almost burst out laughing but reckoned that would have been the wrong response at this time of night. So instead I kind of made a tut-tutting sound with my tongue and offered some words that I hoped would be comforting. But wondered to myself later that my words might have come across as a little harsh.
“I know.” I said, “But your mummy’s dead Ariana, remember? The house fire?”
And she kind of looked at me in a funny way and blinked again and her eyes as black as night. I watched as she turned her face a little to one side and I followed her eyes as she glanced briefly towards the little red light that flickered in one corner of the dormitory. The knowledge that we were never alone in here. Our every action that was captured on the CCTV. Our every word that was recorded. So, I reckon that’s why Ariana whispered as quietly as a door mouse when she spoke again.
“It’s not safe in here Mandy.” She whispered, her eyes like two lumps of quartz that sparkled against the moonlight as she studied me. “You’re right. We need to escape.”
And I agreed with the little munchkin – I really did, but I reckoned that pesky Mrs Dixon was listening to our whole conversation so thought I better be careful with my words this time.
“This is the best place for us Ariana, you know that.” I said, shaking my head from left to right as I spoke my tricksy response to Ariana. And realising I might have some fun in this Loony House before the week was done, I really might.
The little red light that flickered above the CCTV camera in one corner of the room. And Ariana not understanding my caution I reckoned because she really began to lose it then. And I reckoned if she carried on like this for much longer then the lights would flash on and the gorillas would come crashing through the doors. And I didn’t want that, because that would wake old Rag ‘n’ Bone who’d been sleeping like the dead to the side of me so that not a single sound was heard from between his fat lips.
“It’s not Mandy, what are you talking about, it’s not the best place for us.” Ariana sobbed. Her voice that was louder now and the shadows that shifted against the beds beyond her where the rest of the kids remained sleeping in here but rousing in their sleep. “There’s something wrong with deadwood,” Ariana continued, and her voice that was quite piercing now and getting right on my wick. And I was close to jumping up from my bed there and then and throwing my pillow against Ariana’s face and suffocating her until she couldn’t breathe or say another word. But didn’t want to cause any more of a scene, so remained beneath my covers for now.
Ariana’s voice that was growing in volume with each word that she spoke and her pitiful protests that would do no good, that would do no good one bit.
“We’re just lab rats, that’s all we are.” Ariana protested turning towards the CCTV camera that remained blinking in the corner and throwing an arm out towards it in frustration. “It’s not right in here, Sister Dixon’s not right. I’m not even sure she’s a Nun Mandy. She’s like no Nun I’ve ever seen. They’re poisoning us in here Mandy, I’m telling you. There’s something not right in the water, it tastes off. And where’ve they taken Brandon? Where’s Brandon gone now? And the others? Where have they all gone?” Ariana said, and she was quite upset now I reckoned, so that she pulled back her covers and started shaking against the edges of her bed. The iron frame and the hinges began to scream in protest.
“Let me out!” she screamed, her face moving from left to right urgently and her eyes that were peering out beyond where I slept to where the mountainous hulk of Rag n Bone remained sleeping like a log. “Let me out?” She called.
And that’s when the flood lights flickered on above our heads and a piercing light that exploded through the dormitory so that for a moment, I was forced to lift my hands to my eyes to shield them from the glare.
And from behind the darkness of my hands I heard the screaming. Ariana’s little voice. Screaming, and the sound like a wounded animal and her words that were garbled, and all messed up and talking some crazy nonsense like ‘Rag n Bone’ and ‘help’ and ‘he’s gone blue’ and some other mumbo jumbo nonsense.
I pulled back my hands from my eyes and allowed my pupils to dilate until eventually the dormitory returned to stark piercing clarity. The flood lights that shone down from the corners of the room.
The sound of the guard’s voices that were heard in the distance beyond the bolted metal doors and racing in towards where we all slept.
A siren that was screaming overhead and lights that were flashing red.
Ariana’s arm that was lifted out and her hand that was pointing beyond my shoulder and her screams of terror.
And so, I really shouldn’t have been too surprised I reckoned, when I rolled over in my bed and spied Rag ‘n Bone laying prostate upon his back and the bed sheets pulled back so that his belly reared up before him and appearing like a great blue gob stopper. Purple veins that rippled out against the skin. His arms that were hanging loosely to either side of the bed and his head against the pillow and the hair that was matted and scrunched up with dried sweat.
His face that was lifted to the eaves above and his eyes that were wide and black and lifeless.
Protruding from his mouth was half a packet of jammy dodgers, and the packet shoved so far down his throat that I could even see the ridges of each ring as it pressed against his larynx. The tears that had dried against his cheek and the skin that was blue. A fountain of Jammy dodgers that were spewing from between his lips that were black and flacked with crumbs.
“Fuck me!” I said, and my voice not mine this time, I was pretty sure of that.
“That boy must have been starving.”