Gran was more than happy to have me at her house after school. She'd welcome me with a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits, ask me about school, 'that young man' and home. She'd skirt around the topic of my baby brother, but assured me she felt the same as I did about Theo.
"I can feel him," she told me, squeezing my hand. "I know he's out there somewhere. It just breaks my heart that he won't come home."
"Or can't. He might be in trouble."
"Your brother can look after himself." She sighed, hands cupped around the mug. "He always could."
She pulled the conversation slowly away from the topic of my brother, and steered it towards other things. I could always tell when she getting tired. Her head would dip, just slightly, and her eyes would blink more rapidly as she stared at me.
When it began to happen, I stood, leaning forward and planting a quick kiss on her cheek. "I'd better go. See you soon, Gran." She smiled at me before grabbing my wrist. Her eyes locked on mine.
"Be careful, dear."
"I will." Her grip was just slightly too tight, and it was a few seconds before she peeled her fingers off. "Is everything okay?"
"I'm just tired," she said, pushing herself out of the chair. She grabbed the mugs.
"I'll get them." I reached for them, but she pulled her hands quickly away. Even for her age my gran was fast.
"Just head home. And don't forget to ring me when you get there!"
I kissed her again. "I will. I love you, Gran."
"Love you too, dear."
"Don't forget to lock up behind me."
She ushered me towards the door, and I left smiling. Whatever else was going on, visits to Gran's were always guaranteed to cheer me up.
For once, I was planning on doing exactly what she said. I was going to go straight home. Usually I'd call her from my mobile, tell her I was home safe and carry on wandering through the dark.
But tonight, whatever it was that made her grab my wrist so hard, I thought I could feel it too. It wasn't something I could put my finger on. Just something in the air that didn't feel quite right. It wasn't late but it was already dark, and I sped up as I turned off my grandmother's street.
It wasn't far to my house. Only about twenty minutes. I'd done the walk God knew how many times before, so why did I feel so scared?
The hairs on the back of my neck were standing on end. I reached into my pocket, pulling out my phone and dialling Van's number. It went straight to answerphone.
"Hey, it's me," I said. "I just…something doesn't feel right." I stopped walking, glancing over my shoulder. Footsteps. Somewhere back there, I had heard footsteps.
Shivers that had nothing to do with the cold ran right through me.
"Call me back?" My voice was barely above a whimper. "Please?" I hung up, put the phone back and carried on walking. The footsteps were back, matching my pace.
I didn't want to run. Not yet. I wasn't close enough to home. And if I began running and they were fast…they'd catch me. Better to just act like I hadn't noticed them.
We'd had safety lessons in school, had been told time and time again not to walk home by ourselves late at night, not to go to places that could be considered dodgy. To constantly be on our guard.
But this was my town. This was my home and I had walked these streets with the moon overhead too many times to count. I had always been safe. I had always felt safe.
And now some dickhead who wanted…what? My body? My life? Some dickhead with a currently unknown motive wanted to strip all that from me.
Like fuck was I going to let him.
In my pockets, my left hand curled around my phone. My right grabbed my keys, shifting them so if I pulled my hand out, the house key would be between my fingers. Mentally I was running through every self-defence tip they had given us.
Unfortunately, the two tips that came first to me – except for the one about the keys – were for girls wearing heels or carrying handbags. I had neither.
The phone buzzed in my hand and I took it out quickly, trying to stop my voice shaking as I answered.
"I…" I glanced behind me. Nothing. No one there. But the eerie feeling of being watched filled me. "Someone's following me."
I heard a voice in the background, and then Van asked where I was. I told him the street, heard more voices, a grunt.
In a voice I thought oddly familiar, a voice that sent my pulse beating rapidly, I thought I heard the word hunt.
From what I could hear, someone had snatched the phone away from him. Someone cried out, "No!" before another voice came on the line.
A voice I didn't think I'd ever hear again.
I didn't have time to speak, to ask him the million questions running through my head. He sounded scared, as scared as I was, and the footsteps were back. Speeding up.
I did as my big brother told me.
My feet slammed against the concrete as I slid the phone back and drew both hands out of my pockets, pumping them as I ran. I tried to ignore how the footsteps behind matched my speed, tried to focus only on getting home. Rounding the corner, I just about had time to spot something tumbling off the roof of a small house. It went over me, and I glanced over my shoulder to see the shadow plunge into the person following me. Both of them rolled into the road.
Another corner. Something grabbed my arm and I screamed, skidding to a stop and turning quickly, hand out, fist curled up, ready to punch whoever it was.
Van grabbed my other wrist, lowering it as he locked his eyes on mine.
"Are you all right?"
"What the fuck is going on?"
Van glanced over me, hands on my shoulders. I yanked out of his grip, stumbling back until I hit a brick wall. Panting heavily, I kept my eyes locked on him.
"Why were you with my brother?" I said the words slowly and carefully, trying to hide the fact that right then, I wanted to cry. I wanted to hit my boyfriend, wanted to scream at him. But somehow, I kept all that down.
"It's not important, it's…"
"Not important?" I screeched. "Of course it's important! There were times when I thought him dead and you…you…" I didn't get to finish the sentence. From behind us, I heard a loud crash. Sounded like something hitting a car. It was quickly followed by the same footsteps I'd heard earlier.
Van grabbed my wrist and yanked me forward, running with me. My feet caught on a paving slab slightly higher than the rest and I fell forward, bringing him down with me. My chin smacked concrete and I rolled onto my back, lifting myself up on my elbows to see him.
Him. My pursuer. The man was tall but thin. Lanky, with a thick mane of dirty blond hair. Some of it was tied back, but most had fallen out of the band. And he was whiter than white pale, like a porcelain doll.
Van appeared in front of me, standing with his legs either side of mine.
The man growled, upper lip curling back. My eyes must have been playing tricks on me, because what I saw was not normal.
"Out of my way, Donovan."
"She has our protection," Van said. "Mine and his."
I looked behind the man, and caught the first glimpse of my brother in over a year. His brown hair, in the streetlamp, looked darker, his blue eyes sharper. And his skin…
I sat up fully, inching backwards.
"I don't care," the man said, turning as my brother lunged. His fist whacked Theo, sending him flying into a nearby wall.
"Get her home!" Theo cried, getting to his feet quicker than he should have been able to. The man – monster – was advancing, and Van turned, grabbing my hand and pulling me to my feet.
I just about had time to see my brother barrel once more into the man. They went tumbling and Van was yanking me along with him. We said nothing as we ran, just focused on the street ahead. There were so many things I wanted to ask, but I knew we couldn't stop.
Not until we reached my house.
Van leant against my wall, panting heavily, eyes locked on the street behind me.
"He won't come here," he said, licking his lips as he turned to me. "You okay?"
"What are they?"
"Forget about them, Shadow."
"How can I forget what I just saw?" I snapped. "Are you seriously telling me to forget I just saw my brother?"
"Forget he's alive. You'll be safer."
"What? And just forget that my boyfriend knew he was alive? How long have you fucking known?"
"Shut up, Shadow! Just shut up!"
His voice was so loud, I actually did what he said. I fell against the gate, taking deep breaths as I tried not to cry. My head was swimming, as I tried to wrap my mind around it all. As I tried to figure out what the hell was going on.
"Why wouldn't he let me know he was alive?" I choked out, hands gripping the gate as I half leant over it. It was digging into my stomach, but surprisingly I didn't care. Some monster had chased me, almost caught me, but for that I didn't care. All I cared about…
Van's hand fell on my shoulder.
I threw my shoulder back, hearing him groan as I hit his arm with it.
"Leave me alone," I said, without looking at him. "I mean it, Van. If you're not going to tell me what's been going on, just leave me alone."
I opened the gate, slammed it behind me and headed for the door. I refused to look back, terrified that if I saw his face I'd crumple.
The door opened easily and I stepped inside, closing it, still not looking. Mum and Dad were in the living room, and I called in quickly.
"Okay," Mum called back. "You have something to eat?"
"At Gran's, yeah. I've got homework to do. See you tomorrow."
"Okay. Night, darling."
"Night, Mum. Dad."
He said it back. I headed up the stairs, shut the door to my bedroom and fell against it, sinking to my knees, wrapping my arms around them so they were against my chest.
Then, and only then, I cried.
X X X
The next few days of school were terrible. Van didn't turn up for a couple of days, and I couldn't help but worry about him. What if that monster had got him? What if he was hurt?
I resisted the urge to call him, promising myself that if a week went by with no sign of him, then I would call. But I'd meant what I said. I wanted him to leave me alone.
On the third day, I spotted him moving through the crowd in the courtyard with a couple of his mates. My chest untightened, and I felt like I was breathing normally for the first time since that night.
I stayed in the house. I didn't want to be wandering about with that thing out there, but I didn't exactly sleep. Tossing and turning all night left me in bad moods in school, and every time I closed my eyes I saw a mane of dirty blond hair surrounding a pale face.
More than anything, I wanted to ask Van if my brother was okay. But I knew he wouldn't tell me.
And if he wouldn't tell me…
Far as I was concerned, we were over.
The few friends I had did ask about us, and I brushed them away with a wave of my hand. "We had an argument," I told them, shrugging it off like it was no big deal. But I saw the look in their eyes.
He was okay, which was good. I was happy about that much at least.
Towards the end of the week, he started trying to talk to me. I'd spot him weaving through the corridor, eyes locked on me, and I'd dart away, heading fast to my next class. He'd try to approach me at lunch, but I found ways to avoid him. It wasn't hard. It was a big school, and I could lose myself in the crowd or in the girl's toilet.
Until he caught up with me on my way home.
The nights were getting longer, and it was getting to the point where I'd get home just before dark. I'd try to get home soon as I could, not wanting to be outside when the sun went down. I had my theories on what the monster could have been, but I didn't want to test out if they were true or not. I didn't want to get another glimpse to see if he was what I thought he might be.
Lost in my own thoughts, I didn't notice Van until he was right beside me. He grabbed my wrist, pulling me forward before I could say anything.
I yanked my wrist from his grip and he turned.
"What?" I snapped.
"You need to get home," he said, stepping closer to me. He kept his head titled forward. "Fast. Start walking faster, Shadow."
"I thought I was supposed to forget it all." I glanced upwards. Maybe I had been walking a bit slower than usual. The sun was dimming, and I knew sunset would be here before I got back to the house. "So I am safe, at home?"
"Have to invite them inside?"
I saw the gulp, more than heard it. He looked worried, more scared than I'd ever seen him before. More scared than he'd been that night.
"Should I invest in a crucifix?" I mused, watching his reaction. He took a deep breath.
"Not if you keep yourself inside when it's dark."
"Right. Great. What about you?"
"What about me?"
I groaned, and this time I closed the distance between him. As much as I hated him for lying to me, I still cared for him. Of course I did. Feelings weren't just something that could be switched off.
"Are you safe?" I asked.
He grinned, taking my hand in his and kissing my forehead. "I'm safe," he said. "Don't worry about me. Come on, we should get you home."
X X X
I had no idea what pushed my parents towards the idea. Maybe it was because Halloween, always Theo's favourite holiday, was coming up, or because after that it would be Christmas and maybe, just maybe, they couldn't face another Christmas with unanswered questions and no closure.
All I knew was one Saturday I came downstairs to find my grandmother in the kitchen, sitting at the table and looking unhappy. A cup of coffee sat in front of her, and my father sat opposite with my mother, her head bowed so her hair covered her face.
Gran glanced up as I came in. Dad's eyes flickered to me, before they returned to his own coffee. He picked up and slowly lifted it to his lips.
"What's going on?" I asked. It was too quiet. Way too quiet.
"You haven't told her?" Gran said, turning her head towards my father. "Have you even mentioned it to her?"
"Mum," he groaned, and my own mother looked up now, staring at me. There were tears in her eyes.
I moved forward. "What's happened?"
"Nothing, yet," Gran said, shaking her head. "Go on. You're her father. You tell her."
"Tell me what?"
It wasn't Dad who answered. Mum lifted herself slowly from her chair, taking a single step towards me. She reached out, putting her hands on my shoulders and squeezing gently.
"The last year has been hard, on all of us."
"No shit," I snapped, wincing as soon as I realised I'd sworn not only in front of my parents, but in front of Gran, too. "Sorry, Gran."
"Oh, I expect I'll hear worse from you soon enough."
My stomach tumbled. I looked at my mum's eyes. The eyes I shared. Tears swam in the bottom of them as her grip got slightly tighter.
"And we think it's about time we had some closure." The words came out slowly, as if she was thinking of each one carefully before saying it. "Your father and I have been talking and, well, we think we should have a memorial service. For your brother."
"You've given up."
"No, Anna, but we have to be realistic about this. Your brother…" She glanced over at my father.
"Theo's gone for good," he said, his arms crossed. "He's not coming back, even if he is out there somewhere." But I could see it in his face. In Mum's, too.
They thought he was dead.
And maybe he was. I was starting to think it myself. But not in the same way they thought it.
"I saw him."
Mum let go of me. Dad looked almost angry, and Gran's head snapped upwards. All of them were staring at me.
"Why didn't you say anything?" Mum said.
I glanced at Dad. "Didn't think you'd believe me."
"You're imagining things." Dad got to his feet, shaking his head. "Like your mother said, the last year has been hard on us."
"I wasn't imagining it."
"When?" Gran asked, following Dad's example and getting up. She was smiling at me, gently, a twinkle in her eyes.
"The other night. On my way home from yours, I…"
I never finished the sentence. Before I could, Dad's palm had connected with my face. I staggered, twisting and falling towards the counter. My hands reached out and I grabbed the side, leaning over it. When I glanced at him, he looked as shocked as I felt.
Gran and Mum were both gaping at him.
Gran came to me first, wrapping an arm around my shoulder and drawing me back. Robert stood in the doorway, a teddy bear in one hand and his thumb stuck in his mouth. He was grinning. But the moment Mum's eyes fell on him, the grin disappeared.
She moved quickly towards him, scooped him into her arms and disappeared.
Gran was still holding me as I turned to my father.
How many of the men in my life did I really know?
"Anna, I'm sorry."
Water was flowing freely from my eyes. I just shook my head.
"If you were sorry, you'd cancel the memorial," I snapped. Gran squeezed my shoulders. Reaching up, my hand fell on hers and I squeezed back. "You really don't believe me, do you?"
He hung his head.
"Maybe you should go to bed," Gran whispered in my ear. I nodded. She kissed the top of my head. "I'll call you tomorrow."
Another nod. My face stung. I left the room, climbed the stairs and went into the bathroom. My cheek was red, and all I could think was about how I slept on my right side. It was going to sting like hell.
I splashed cold water over my face, glad at the instant, cool relief it brought. My hands were shaking, and I ended up gripping the edges of the basin as I leant over it, wondering what my mum and grandmother would be saying to my dad.
I'd heard Mum go back downstairs.
I hadn't heard Robert come into the bathroom, and the sight of him standing in the doorway sent my heart racing when I turned around.
"Don't creep up on me."
He held his hand towards me.
"I know what you are," I said, taking a step towards him. "I'm not going to take your hand."
"Brother still alive."
It was definitely a statement, not a question.
"Big deal. You heard us talking."
I went to sidestep the little shit, but he grabbed my hand and squeezed it. Everything in me went cold. His eyes fixed on me, and I felt frozen in place. They weren't natural eyes. He blended in as a human well enough, and his eyes were usually hazel. But right then, they flashed gold.
"Not him. Not alive." He shook his head, a grin stretching out.
My heart stopped. Metaphorically, anyway.
"Other." He pointed at himself. "You leave now." He turned, let go of my hand, and I watched him toddle back to his own bedroom. It was more words than I'd ever heard him say, more words than any of us had ever heard his say.
And if I was understanding him right…
I ran across the landing, opening the door to his bedroom. He was sitting cross legged on the floor, playing with some toy soldiers. Those little green men that came in plastic packets for a quid down the shop.
"Robert," I said, trying to keep my breathing steady, "you're saying Robert's alive?"
He grinned at me, teeth pure white in the semi-light. The changeling nodded.
"How do I find him?"
"You leave," he said, nodding quickly. "You leave and one day I go home and your brother comes back."
I stepped into the room, staring at his eyes. They were still that golden colour, and for the first time ever I saw something there that wasn't malicious joy or just neutral. I saw sadness.
Dropping to my knees, I reached out and put my hand on his shoulder. "Do you miss home?"
The grin disappeared. "You leave. Now."
His lips curled back. What I saw there wasn't like what I'd seen in the monster's mouth, but it was similar enough that I scrambled back, got to my feet and made my way to the door.
His mouth had been full of fangs.
And I'd made my mind up, though I could hardly believe I was just going to leave my parents with the little monster.
But I had to find my brother. I had to find Theo. And maybe, together, we could find Robert.
A/N: So here's where everything really kicks off. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts. If there's anything you like, dislike, what you think I could work on. Anything. And if you're interested in seeing something new(ish) from me, please check out the poll on my profile page. Thanks very much. (And yes, I return reviews – as long as they are a decent length.)