It wasn't unusual for Theo to disappear. He'd often be gone for days at a time, and most of the conversations I overheard from my parents would revolve around the idea that he had got in with the wrong crowd. They were worried, they panicked, but there really wasn't anything they could do. He'd return home, he'd seem happy and healthy and be there for a few days before disappearing again.
My guess was he left to escape the changeling under our roof. I just wished I could do the same. Soon as I was old enough, I was going to get out of there.
See, the baby never shut up. Twenty-four seven, it howled and wailed. Mum never slept, Dad spent more and more time at the office or pub. As for me, I just tried to do what I always did. I worked on homework, sometimes hung out with people from school, and kept my head down.
And calling my little brother a changeling was not overdramatic.
Six months after he was born, Robert was taken and replaced by a fairy. A fairy pretending to be a human, whose sole purpose, I thought, was to split apart the family and drive my parents to an early grave.
My grandmother had been the one to point out to us what had happened, but none of us said anything to Mum and Dad. Mum just seemed happier, after having Robert. I guessed she was just grateful to have a third healthy baby.
On the morning of my fourteenth birthday, I woke to only one present. It was waiting for me in the living room, wrapped in dark paper with silver stars over it. Shadow was written on the tag in Theo's handwriting, and I dropped down onto the sofa to rip it open.
Mum came into the room, her dressing gown hanging open, hair a total mess and dark circles under her eyes. She glanced at the wrapping paper on my lap, and the book of Grimm fairy tales. She gasped.
"Oh, darling, I'm so sorry. We totally forget."
She stepped forward, and I shrugged, flipping the book over the read the list of tales on the back. I grinned to myself. Every dirty, nasty tale that Disney wouldn't touch was listed. Most of them I knew off by heart. Theo was great at story-telling, and these were just some of his favourites.
"It's okay," I said, putting the book on my lap as Mum sat on the edge of one of the two armchairs in the room.
"No, it's not." She sighed, shaking her head. "We'll do something tonight. Theo's not home…" She lifted her gaze to stare at the ceiling. Her face brightened as she drew it back down to stare at me. "But I'm sure he'll be back for tonight! We'll go to that new restaurant in town, sound good?"
"Pancakes for breakfast?"
I grinned at the thought. "Yeah!"
She smiled at me, before standing and making her way to the kitchen.
Curling up on the sofa, I opened the book and began reading. Dad's heavy footsteps slammed on the stairs, and from the sound alone I could tell he was in a bad mood. I ignored it, for now, listening as he went down the hallway and into the kitchen.
When he appeared in the living room, he had a cup of coffee in his hand. He spotted me and sighed, digging into his pocket.
I glanced up to see him handing me two crisp ten pound notes.
"Take it," he said, dropping them on the sofa beside me. "You deserve something for your birthday, at least."
Dad sat on his armchair, turned the TV on, and began watching the news, as he did every day. I returned to the book, waiting for the pancakes.
The day was normal enough. I entertained myself, checked my Facebook and found, at least, my friends had remembered my birthday. That or Facebook had reminded them. Either way, I had a number of Happy Birthdays on my wall, and I scanned them all, smiling at the questions of what we doing to celebrate?
Soon enough, I was getting ready to go out. Theo still hadn't returned. He wasn't back by the time we left, and he was still gone when we got back.
I wrote thanks on a piece of paper, folded it up and left it on his bed.
I didn't pay attention to his room, just went in and out.
The next day I went to the park with a few of the girls from school. A bunch of the boys were playing football, enjoying the last of the summer sunshine and the freedom that came with no school. Gathered on a bench were a few of the weirder kids from school, a couple from the year above us.
As I glanced around, one of caught my eye. Van. Short for Donovan, a known troublemaker. He winked at me, and I turned around before any of the girls noticed.
Not that I would ever admit it to my friends, but I thought the weird kids – some with black hair, some with skateboards, the older ones with piercings and tattoos – were kind of cool. If my friends had ever met Theo, they would have lumped him in with the weird kids instantly.
"So what did you get for your birthday?" Sammy asked me. I turned to look at her. She was stretched out, lying on her stomach and holding her chin in her hands.
"Money. My brother got me a book."
"I got a new phone for my birthday," Ava drawled. I didn't like her, but she was friends with Sammy so I had to be nice. And I did like Sammy.
I shrugged. "Didn't want anything." Which was true. I wasn't fussed on the newest phone or the newest tablet. My parents had forked out for a second hand laptop the year before, mainly so I could do school work, and apart from books, there wasn't much else I liked.
We didn't leave the park until the sun was going down. I split up from the rest of the girls about a block from the house, and took my time walking home.
I turned to stare at Van. He was walking slowly towards me, hands in his pockets. His hair wasn't dyed. It was still his natural light brown, matching with his sometimes green sometimes hazel eyes. He didn't have any piercings, or tattoos. That I could see, anyway. But maybe he was too young to get them. Still, he hung out with the weird kids, and I couldn't help but feel kind of glad the girls weren't around.
I took a step back. "How do you know my name?"
He laughed. "It's a name that sticks in your head, isn't it? Not your real name though, right?"
He stopped just in front of me, studying my face.
"Why'd you follow me?"
His lips stretched into a grin. He was actually kind of cute. "Just wanted to say hi. Something oddly interesting about a girl who goes by the name Shadow, isn't there?"
I frowned at him. "My brother started calling me that when I was little. It stuck."
"Because he didn't call me anything else."
He laughed again. "No, I mean, why'd he call you Shadow?"
"Apparently I slept so much as a baby he rarely saw me in the light." I shrugged. "Look, I've really got to head home…"
"Want to hang out sometime?"
I stared hard at him, trying to find some sort of amusement in his face, some sign that he wasn't being serious. I didn't see any. "Why?"
"I think you're cool," he said. "And cute, too. You'd look awesome with black hair, mind."
Oh, bloody hell. The heat rushed up my face. Most of my friends had been asked out, at some point or another, but that was only by guys in our year. Even if he was one of the weird kids, Van was in the year above. He was older!
"I'll Facebook you?"
"Sure. Shadow Richardson."
"I know." He winked at me. "See you around, Shadow."
He turned, walked back up the street and soon disappeared around the corner.
Soon as he was gone, I burst into a grin. I practically skipped the rest of the way home.
X X X
We hung out the last Sunday of the summer holidays. The air was getting colder, but it didn't seem to matter. Theo wasn't home yet, but he'd been gone for longer than this before. Van met me down the beach, where we had chips and ice cream and sat staring out at the sea, chucking chips out to the seagulls.
The talk came easily, and Van was soon suggesting films and bands I should totally check out. He wrote them down in my phone, winking at me as he handed it back.
"Put my number in there, too," he said. "So you can text me and let me know what you think."
I still couldn't really believe it was happening. I'd told my parents I was going out with the girls again, knowing my dad would not have a happy reaction to me actually dating someone. Was this a date though? What did you classify as a date? Would I have to kiss him?
Van threw another chip out, and we watched as a seagull dived, grabbing it right before it hit the ground and flying right back up again.
He leant me his jacket as it got chilly, saying I could just return it to him in school, and walked me home. At the house, he leant in and kissed my cheek, making my skin hot.
"See you at school, yeah?"
"Sure," I said, smiling at him as he turned and headed down the path.
Once inside, I could hear the baby screaming. No, not the baby. The thing. Mum was pacing upstairs, her footsteps on the ceiling above the living room. Dad was sitting in there, phone in his hand.
"Hey." He turned to me, and smiled. It didn't quite reach his eyes.
Dad shook his head, and put the phone back on the cradle. "No. Sure he'll be back soon though. You finished all your work ready for school?"
"Didn't have any."
Tomorrow, I would be starting my first year of GCSEs. The teachers had already started piling the pressure on at the end of the last school year, telling us if we didn't work hard from the very beginning, we were bound to screw up.
"Okay." He nodded. "Well, best get an early night. Had anything to eat?"
"Yeah. Chips down the front."
"Good." He climbed to his feet, stretching his arms up as he smiled down at me. "Like I said, get an early night, okay? Don't want to be tired on your first day back."
"Sure." I stood and hugged him. "I love you, Dad."
He chuckled, wrapping his arms around me and kissing the top of my head. "Love you too, baby girl."
I went to bed, read the book of Grimm's fairy tales for a bit, and fell asleep. My alarm woke me the next day, and outside my bedroom door was a pile of clean, new shirts, a skirt, tights and my school tie.
It didn't take me long to get ready, and soon I was back in the mundane, repetitive routine of school. With a few added extras like Media Studies and, of course, Van. He smiled, winked and said hi to me in the hallways, the girls began bugging me about him, and Sammy came to my defence when the others called him weird.
"I think he's kind of cute," she said, nudging me. "And if Shadow likes him, that's all that matters."
School was back in session, and we moved from class to class, normal.
For the first few days, anyway.
There was still no sign of my brother, and the worry was growing in my parents. I'd come home to find Mum sitting with Robert in her lap, bouncing him up and down as she phoned Theo's mobile, again, called his friends, and got nowhere.
"No one's seen him," she said that Wednesday. I heard her crying that night. None of us went into Theo's room – the thank you note, I thought, was still there, and he'd not be happy if he came home and found Mum had been rummaging through his stuff.
On the Thursday, Van asked me if I wanted to go to the cinema that Saturday, and I said yes. The girls squealed and got excited, and when I came home, I overheard Mum telling Dad that my brother's phone had been disconnected.
I thought Friday was just going to be another normal day. I kept thinking Theo would turn up, he'd be fine, and life would slip back into normality.
Until I got pulled out of my third period History class.
My head of year turned up in the class, spoke with the teacher for a few moments, and turned to me.
"Anna, please come with me."
Anna. There's a reason I go by the name my brother gave me as a kid.
Every pair of eyes in the room turned to look at me, as I stood up and brushed down my blouse. He glanced at my bag.
"Bring your things, please."
I really had no idea what he wanted. I thought he'd want to talk about something in the hall, and I'd wracked my brains trying to think of something I'd done wrong. But if he wanted me to bring my bag…
I grabbed it, slung it over my back, and felt my chest tighten.
He stared at me with an unreadable expression.
"Am I in trouble, sir?" I asked, as we came out into the corridor. He just shook his head, and strode a few paces ahead of me. The beat of my heart grew steadily faster as we stepped out into the courtyard and crossed to the other side of the school, where most of the offices were.
Each department had their own office in the departments, but each year tutor got their own cosy four walls on the same corridor as the head. That was where he was taking me, and I still found myself searching for a reason why I would be here.
Unless something bad happened.
My phone was buried deep in my bag. Not that we were supposed to have them in school, but I had the sudden urge to call my parents.
There was no need.
My father was standing in the first floor corridor as we came off the stairs. He was shifting awkwardly, but stopped as soon as he laid eyes on me.
"Dad?" I croaked, forgetting the teacher beside me. I ran forward, stopping when I was directly in front of him. "Dad, what's going on?"
"Your brother's still not back."
"He always comes back," I said, glancing at the open door to the right of my father. Inside, I could see two uniformed police. One man, one woman. We were outside the headmaster's office, but he wasn't in there. Dad put a hand on my shoulder and gently pushed me inside, nodding to my year tutor.
He didn't follow.
The two officers stood, stepping aside so that we could sit down. I glanced from one to the other. The woman smiled softly at me, and I took the seat Dad pulled out.
He took my hand and squeezed it once he was sat.
"Dad?" I turned to look at him. "They haven't…found anything, have they?"
Dad shook his head. "No."
"Your parents reported your brother missing," the woman said, perching on the desk. "They said you were close?"
I nodded. "But he doesn't tell me where he goes. Otherwise I'd tell them."
The woman nodded, and gave me another smile. She was trying to be reassuring. "What about his friends, Anna? Do you have any idea who he would be with?"
"No. Mum phoned them all." I sank further into the seat. "He's really missing, isn't he?"
The bell for break buzzed. Everyone would be leaving their classrooms, heading to meet up with friends. Nothing ever really happened around here. When it did, people talked. Gossiped. How many people would find out, in the next ten minutes, that I had been escorted out of class?
The rumours would spread quickly.
"Did your brother give you any indication, before he left, of where he was going?"
She was doing all the talking. The man was staring hard at my father, looking for something.
"No," I whimpered. "He never…never…" My voice cracked, and Dad moved his chair closer, putting an arm around me.
"Can't we do this another time?"
Her eyes fixed on me, just for a few seconds.
"Of course. Apologies, Ms Richards. We just needed to know if you were aware of anything that could help find your brother."
I shook my head. Under my dad's hand, my arm was trembling.
He really wasn't coming home.
She reached forward, her hand landing on my shoulder. "Your father has the details. Call us if you think of anything, okay?"
They left, and Dad stood. He pulled me to my feet and I fell into him, letting his big, strong arms wrap around me.
"Come on. I'm taking you home."
"It's been cleared with your year tutor." He let me go and made his way out of the office.
When we stepped out into the courtyard, the first thing I saw was Van. He broke away from his group of friends and crossed the yard towards us. Dad stopped when he saw I wasn't following.
I didn't know why I did it. We weren't even dating, not really, but for some reason I found myself throwing my arms around Van.
"What's wrong?" he asked, lips right by my ear.
"My brother's missing."
I giggled. "You shouldn't swear."
"Shadow, if there's a time for swearing, I think it's now."
He held me for a minute or two. I was surprised Dad didn't say anything. When he let me go, I could feel the tears leaking from my eye.
"When did you last see him?" he asked. His hand moved towards my face, but he dropped it quickly.
"Day before my birthday. I kept…I thought he'd come home."
"He still might."
I stared at the ground. "No. I…it's more real now. And if they've called the police it means Mum and Dad don't think he's coming home, either."
Van hugged me, squeezing me tight. I hugged him back.
It was strangely easy, and I had to remind myself I'd only known him a week.
"It'll be okay, Shadow," he whispered. "And I'm here for you, no matter what."
A/N: Right. Okay. Here we go. I started (and finished) this novel when I was fifteen. Since then, it has gone through many changes, but some things have remained the same. I've never been able to finish it again. Kept getting stuck, getting fed up because the characters refused to go from A to B. I never posted it up here because it was my baby, my first novel. It wasn't good enough but it was always on the back burner, and it was always going to be my main novel. I guess part of me was scared to put it out there. But in truth, the best motivation for me has been this site. Whether people favourite, review, follow or just read without saying anything, just knowing someone somewhere might get a bit of joy from reading something keeps pushing me to write.
I started (and finished) this novel when I was fifteen. Since then, it has gone through many changes, but some things have remained the same. I've never been able to finish it again. Kept getting stuck, getting fed up because the characters refused to go from A to B. I never posted it up here because it was my baby, my first novel. It wasn't good enough but it was always on the back burner, and it was always going to be my main novel. I guess part of me was scared to put it out there. But in truth, the best motivation for me has been this site. Whether people favourite, review, follow or just read without saying anything, just knowing someone somewhere might get a bit of joy from reading something keeps pushing me to write.
So here it is. Realm of Shadows. The novel that keeps drawing me back, again and again. Like I said, it's changed from the original version I wrote seven years ago, but the core is the same. As always, I am eager to hear your thoughts – let me know if you love it, hate it, or whatever. Review, favourite or follow. Silently read. Whatever you prefer, I just hope you get some joy out of Shadow's story.