Mum was in the living room with the changeling when I got home. I walked straight past the door, headed up the stairs and staggered into Theo's room. Had they been in here? Was that how they figured out he wasn't coming back? Because when I checked the drawers, a bunch of clothes were missing. A few books had disappeared from his shelf, leaving gaping holes.
And the thank you note I'd written for him was gone.
X X X
The months skipped by. September turned into October, October came and went and Van came with me to Sammy's Halloween party. It was the first year we had boys there. Winter struck in November, Van brought me a new book for Christmas, ghost tales. The police came and went, checking up on us, scrutinising my father. The New Year didn't bring new hope or fresh promises. Just snow.
Van took me to the cinema for Valentine's Day. Spring approached slowly, slower than it ever had before and suddenly May and June had come and gone and no one mentioned my brother's birthday.
Still no word from my brother.
The changeling howled through the night, started saying a few words. Food. Potty. Bloody hell. I think he picked that one up from Dad. He was way behind for his age. July would be his second birthday. August would be my fifteenth.
Mum doted over the changeling. Neither me or Dad dared speak against him, dared to say anything about his constant crying or lack of progress in anything.
Least he was walking. Sort of. Though he'd stagger forward, stumble and land on his arse.
Mum took him to the doctor in late June. Nothing wrong with him, perfectly normal. The doctor was puzzled.
And life went on.
When school stopped, I started sneaking out. It wasn't hard. Dad was constantly tired and when he had the chance, slept through everything. Mum was becoming more and more preoccupied with the thing pretending to be my little brother.
The nights were warm, and soon I knew most areas of town like the back of my hand. Something about the dark made me feel better. Or maybe it was just being away from Robert.
I kept an eye out for Theo. On some nights, I thought I saw him out of the corner of my eye, thought I'd glimpsed him going around a corner. I never followed. If he wanted to be found, he'd come home.
Some nights, Van met me. We'd walk through the quieter streets in town, climb into locked parks and sit in cemeteries. We'd sit on the floor, his leg stretched out, arms around me, just staring out at the town. It was nice. Peaceful. And I always felt safe with him.
We'd been inseparable since Theo had disappeared. Mum liked him, Dad didn't seem sure, but he tolerated his presence at dinner and laughed at his jokes.
I think they liked having another teenage boy around.
Even Robert would shut up when Van was around. He played with the boy like you would with any normal toddler. He had two younger brothers of his own, and with him Mum working hard, he often looked after them.
And still made time for me.
Before my eyes, he changed. He grew. Stubble began to appear on his chin. He began to look older, and the baby fat – what little of it there had been – disappeared.
He told me he loved me for the first time that July. It was another of our night time meetings, this time in the woods near the old abandoned Smith factory. He kept trying to get me to come with him and break into the place, but I refused. There was something about the place that really creeped me out.
From behind its boarded up windows and high, chain-link fence with signs that warned of danger, it felt like someone was watching us. Me. I never mentioned it to Van. He took my protests at face value, really believed that I didn't want to go in because of the ghost stories surrounding the place.
But I went into the woods with him, and we just lay down between the trees, always in the same space. From our own private spot, we could see through the leaves to the moon overhead. I loved the full moon. It always looked beautiful, more beautiful than the brightest summer day. To me, anyway.
"I love you, Shadow."
I knew what love was, of course, but I didn't really know what it meant. I liked Van, his company, his personality, and I thought he was cute. I could imagine us doing this sort of things forever.
I loved Mum, Dad and Theo. I knew I would have loved Robert, if he had survived. And I knew in a way, I loved Van. But I couldn't help but wonder if I loved him in a way different to how you were meant to love someone.
So I said nothing.
I was fourteen; I had my whole life to figure it out.
Instead, I curled into him, throwing my arm across his chest and resting my cheek there. I listened to his heartbeat, closed my eyes, and smiled.
He stroked my hair back from my head.
When I got home and crawled into bed, his words rang around my head, and I spent the last few hours of darkness wondering if he meant it, if he thought he meant it but didn't, or if he was just saying it because we had sort of been together for almost a year.
For the baby's birthday, Mum got together a few parents and kids she knew. They crowded into the house, played games and gorged themselves on cake and chocolate and sweets. A few threw up, and Van helped me clean.
No one played with the baby. He sat there, content on his own, playing with his brand new toys. His eyes fell on me and he grinned. It was not a happy grin. More of a sneer, a look that said he hated me. Van glanced up and the thing that used to be Robert dipped his head, returning to the toy.
"I have to get out of here," I said, scrambling to my feet. Van followed, jogging to catch up with me as I stepped outside. Early evening sunlight lit everything up as I began to run. Van's footsteps joined mine, and we ran side by side, not saying a word.
I preferred running at night, when there was no one on the street and the sun didn't add to the heat of the exercise. I was glad school was over, glad I could sleep all day and not have my parents question it because I was a teenager. In a few short weeks I would be fifteen, and for the first time in my life Theo wouldn't be around.
No, that wasn't quite true. He had been there, at some point, the year before, but I'd missed it.
As we ran, I wondered whether or not I should tell Van the truth about Robert. Would he even believe me? Or would he think I was crazy?
He would definitely think I was off my proverbial rocker. But there was something hiding in the shadows, and that something took my baby brother and there had been nothing I could do about it.
What if it had come back for Theo?
I came to a stop suddenly, digging my hands into my sides. Panting, I glanced at Van. He lowered himself to sit on a small wall, watching me carefully.
"Shadow? You ok?"
I nodded, slowly, glancing around. The sun was just about beginning to set.
"Do you think he's still out there?"
"Who? Your brother?"
I turned my head to look at him and nodded. Van shrugged.
"Sure. I guess so. Don't see why…" He paused, frowned, and glanced up the street. "Maybe."
"Mum and Dad don't think so," I said. "They've given up."
"What makes you think that?"
"Just…I overheard them talking the other day. Dad said they should do something with the spare room and Mum sounded…almost okay about it. Spare room." I scoffed. "It's Theo's room, damn it."
If something had taken him, why would his clothes be gone?
"He ran away," I said. The words came out slowly, and I realised I couldn't even look at Van as I said it. "He just left me!"
"Why would he run away, Shadow?"
"He wanted to get away." The words felt like they were getting tangled in my throat, but I managed to get them out anyway. My chest ached, and I was panting heavily. "He wanted to leave."
Van got to his feet and wrapped his arms around me, drawing me to his chest.
"I want him back, Van."
"I know." I felt his lips on the top of my head. "I know."
X X X
The end of August. My birthday. A year since my brother disappeared. Mum and Dad remembered this year, but it was hard to see if that was a good or bad thing.
When I woke up, Mum was standing by the stove. She'd been cooking pancakes, but the batter in the pan was blackened and she was just standing by it, crying. She jumped when I walked in, her eyes falling to the pancake.
"Oh, Anna." She sighed. "I'm sorry."
I put my arms around her, my head against her chest.
"It's okay, Mum."
"It's your birthday and…and…" She hugged me back, squeezing me tightly. "I love you, darling. So, so much."
"There's a present for you in the living room."
I nodded. We stayed like that until I heard Dad coming downstairs. We peeled away, and Dad wished me happy birthday. He followed me into the living room, switched the TV on and fell onto the armchair. I opened the present. It wasn't expensive. Nothing close to an IPod – it couldn't hold as many songs. But who needed more than three hundred songs, anyway?
I smiled at the small MP3 player. It sat nicely in my hand, light.
"Thanks." I glanced up at Dad.
He was staring at the TV, and I turned to look at it. Local news. The reporter said something I didn't quite catch, and Theo's picture flashed on the screen.
My father's back became utterly straight, his eyes fixed on the screen. I turned slowly to look at it. There was my brother, the photograph taken the last year of his GCSEs. The most recent photo Mum had been able to find. He was smiling. He looked normal. Normal as he ever would be, anyway. There was no indication in that photo that he would just decide to up and leave.
"…year anniversary since his disappearance…"
Dad switched the TV off.
"We don't need that today."
I clutched the MP3 player, breathing slowly, still staring at the black screen. Leaving the house today would mean looks and glances, even if we headed into the city. People knew our names, our faces. We'd made family appeals once it had been reported to the police, but I could barely remember them. Journalists had been obscured by my tears.
The papers had called me 'his heartbroken sister'. They had described Theo as a bright boy who had his whole future ahead of him. He was intelligent, that much was certain, but he had finished school after GCSEs and started disappearing for days at a time. Rumours in the paper indicated that he had fallen in with the wrong crowd.
That, of course, had come from my very own dear parents.
It had died down by the end of September, and we were left to try to pick up the pieces of our lives. But there was a sinking feeling in my gut. They wouldn't just ignore us indefinitely; every year, every time my birthday rolled around, we would be reminded.
I glanced at Dad.
"Do you think he's still out there?"
He didn't look at me. The remote sat in his hand, his fingers tightening around it. "I don't know, Anna. Don't you think he would be home by now?"
The sound of wailing rang throughout the house. Dad swore under his breath, shaking his head.
As long as that thing was in the house, Theo wouldn't be back.
Dad got up, disappeared from the room and left me alone, wondering where my brother was and what he might be doing.
X X X
Before I went back to school, I dyed my hair black. My parents didn't notice. Either that or they just didn't care. Van didn't seem like he knew what to think.
"Why'd you dye your hair?"
He stared at me for a few moments. "Theo has black hair, in all those photos."
Even I didn't know really why I did it. Theo had dyed his hair black, when he was fourteen. It was easier than dying it red or blue or green. I thought Dad would be pissed off or Mum would look away from Robert, demanding more of her time than ever, and say something.
I thought people would stop staring at me in the street if I looked different.
In the days following my birthday, relatives and family friends dropped around the house, some of them asking if Mum and Dad would come to church.
"It might help."
It was like a repeat of the year before, when the disappearance hit the news. And I was getting fed up.
School rolled around again and I was staring my last year of GCSEs. I'd have a choice to make later in the year. Stay in school, do my A Levels like a good little girl and go to University or follow in my brother's footsteps and leave once my exams finished.
The homework piled on. I did it in the evening, slept for a couple of hours and went out, finishing anything else left when I got back. I stayed under the radar, not too good and not doing badly either. The perfect average pupil.
Van took me out more after school and on weekends, but came out in the nights less.
I didn't bother asking why. I didn't question it. Instead, I went running, I went to the woods and climbed up the trees. I went to the places we usually went to and let the air clear my mind when I needed not to think.
September turned into October. The nights grew longer, colder. I bundled myself up, found thick hoodies that Theo had left behind.
Mum and Dad still hadn't touched his bedroom, and hadn't mentioned anything about it to me.
But I didn't need to ask anything to know they'd given up hope.
They assumed he was dead.
But after the first week of October, I knew better.
A/N: I really don't know how I feel about this chapter. I have no idea if it works or not, but it's taken me ages to get back to writing so this so I just wanted to get something down. I'm going to leave it, for now, but I'll most likely end up doing a revised chapter two before doing chapter three so reviews would be amazing on this. Let me know if there are certain elements you like, and you think I should keep, or if you think I should scrap the whole thing and do something different with it. And there is a poll on my profile page so, you know, feel free to check it out.