Part of my 'Shadows' series of short stories, published in The Blind Scribe ezine which has since gone offline. You can find the rest of the Shadows series so far on my Spark A Tale profile here.
Daniel waited, perched carefully in the tree, camera poised and ready. Months of preparation, tracing sightings, going through reams of paranoid forum postings. It all came down to this one night. It had to work. He would prove the damned thing was real, then nobody would be laughing at him anymore.
Damn. The bloody bait’s fallen over.
Slightly exasperated, he climbed down to right it. He had spent days making it: a life-size model of a young child, painstakingly assembled from old mannequin parts and painted very carefully. As he repositioned the doll, he felt an odd sensation, like he was being watched. He turned, camera held up to take photos of anything that might be there. Nothing. He clicked a few anyway, thinking something might show up on the film that he couldn’t see. He climbed back up his tree and settled on a reasonably comfy branch.
He had foregone hi-tech equipment like digital camcorders and automatic camera traps; the thing he intended to catch was known to cause distortion and damage to modern electronics. Instead, Daniel had an old SLR camera, with plenty of spare film, and had picked up a wind-up torch from the pound shop. He had very little else with him. He was expecting to spend the night climbing trees, and possibly running. If the creature took exception to his presence, he figured it would be best to carry as little as possible.
A fierce, cold wind blew up, howling through the trees and wobbling Daniel’s branch. He held on tightly, not wanting to fall and knock himself out. As the tree settled again, he slid down to a lower branch. The clouds sliding across the sky threatened to block out the moon and his little torch wouldn’t light much from his current high viewpoint. Climbing down, he had to move around the back of the tree. His set-up was only out of sight for a brief moment, but long enough for something to happen.
When he looked back at where he had left his bait, it had moved. Not just fallen over, but moved from the centre of the clearing to the edge, straight across from his tree. What the . . . ? Daniel stared at it, unsure what to believe. He wanted it to be the thing, the entity he had been looking for since his childhood, yet he couldn’t rule out the possibility that some of the other kids from the home had followed him and were messing about. He stayed where he was, perched precariously with his feet on separate branches, but not daring to find a better position in case he missed something again. Eyes fixed on his bait, he flung one arm semi-securely around the trunk and raised the camera. Are you here? Was it you? Did you move it? One picture, just one clear picture, that’s all I want . . .
Daniel had been trying to find this being for years, since the still unexplained house fire that had killed his parents, when he had first seen it. He’d only been four years old, but the memory was clear as if it had happened yesterday. The fireman had carried him out, lifted him from his bedroom window and climbed down the big ladder. Just before being put in the ambulance, he had looked back at the house. Bright yellow and orange flames danced in the windows, flashing lights from the fire engine threw weird shapes around the street, and something near the house had caught Daniel’s attention.
It looked sort of like a person, but too tall, far too tall. The arms were longer than they should have been, stretched out somehow, and despite its standing so close to the burning house, the firelight seemed reluctant to go near it. Confused, Daniel had pointed, asking the fireman who it was. The man hadn’t answered. He possibly hadn’t heard, but the thing near the house had turned as Daniel pointed, looked away from the flames and towards the little boy covered in soot. As it looked at him, he saw very clearly that whatever it was, it had no face, not even the suggestion of a face. Daniel had cried, hidden himself behind the scorched teddy bear he had carried with him, and not looked up until he heard the ambulance doors close.
In the eight years since, Daniel had fixated on the creature to the exclusion of everything else. He was convinced the being he had seen had caused the fire, yet nobody had ever believed his story. The adults he had told had dismissed it as a frightened, injured, and confused child’s fantasy; other children had teased and taunted him, calling him mad. He knew what he had seen, though, and resolved to find it and prove himself right. He had searched online, trying to find anyone who might have seen the same thing anywhere. There had been hundreds, maybe thousands of posts in forums. It had taken him time to work through them, figure out which ones were worth following up on and which could be discarded as paranoia. Careful examination of several sites had revealed that this thing, this being, was fairly well known in certain internet circles.
He had planned, prepared, saved his allowance for months to buy a decent quality camera. He was not going to miss his chance to catch it tonight, even though the weather seemed to be doing all it could to thwart him. The wind whipped up again. Clouds had hidden the moon and he felt spots of rain against his face. Fumbling with his torch, his fingers growing numb in the cold air, Daniel clicked some illumination back into the clearing. Where did it go? I flaming missed it, didn’t I? His carefully constructed model had gone, vanished from the spot he had last seen it. Frustrated at himself, he tucked his camera into an inside pocket and got ready to climb back down the tree. There was no point hanging around now. He would have to make another model and start over . . .
“Aaah!” he shouted. With a jolt, he clung back to the tree, staring wide eyed down at the ground.
His model hadn’t vanished entirely, only moved again, and was now standing at the base of his tree, its head tilted upwards so that its sightless, painted eyes looked right at him. How the hell did it get there? You’re messing with me. Someone is messing with my head. Stop it now, please stop it . . .
As he stared down at his own bait staring up at him, he felt something brush the side of his neck. He turned, expecting a leaf or twig. But instead, he was met by renewed horror. He found himself looking straight into that face, the familiar blank face that plagued his nightmares. Daniel screamed, panicked, and slipped off the branch. The thought that ran through his mind in the brief moment of falling: I should have taken a photo.
Consciousness returned, slow and dim. Daniel stirred groggily, vaguely aware of a loud, repetitive noise somewhere close by. He tried to lift his head, only to have something wet and furry stuck in his ear. “Ruff ruff, rrrruff,” said the wet furry thing.
“Rex, c’mere!” someone shouted, a woman, emerging from the trees. “Rex! Come back . . . oh my God, are you alright?” She rushed over to Daniel. “Did you fall? You’re freezing. Have you been out here all night?”
He looked around, saw the dawn-grey sky, felt the icy, wet leaves on the ground. He shivered, soaked through. “I think so. I fell out of the tree last night.”
He tried to push himself up only to be rewarded with a sharp pain in his left arm. “Ow, ow ow, my arm hurts!” he cried, falling back to the ground.
“Okay, okay, let me have a look. Tell me if this hurts,” she said, gently examining Daniel’s arm.
“Ow, yeah, yeah that hurts,” he said, flinching as the woman pressed down on his forearm.
She pulled out her phone. “Right, I’m calling an ambulance. Rex, shaddup, will ya?” she told the dog, who was still barking at nothing. “Have you got a mobile? You should probably ring your parents, let them know you’re… well, let them know where you are. Yes, hello? Ambulance please. There’s a boy here who’s hurt, fell out of a tree . . .”
Daniel tuned out the woman’s voice, looking into the trees where the dog was barking. He had no mobile on him. The children’s home didn’t allow them, and even if he had one he wouldn’t have brought it. What’s wrong with that dog? It must be barking at something. The thing can’t still be here. It can’t have been watching me all night, right? He stared intently, watching the shadowy patch that held Rex’s attention. After a moment, there was a flurry of movement, and a rabbit leapt out of the undergrowth, darting away into the trees. The dog chased after it, and Daniel relaxed.
“Okay, the ambulance men should be here soon. Did you want me to ring your parents?” the woman asked.
Daniel looked up at her. “I haven’t got . . . I’m from Lakeside,” he told her. Everyone in the area knew Lakeside Children’s Home. “Your dog ran off, by the way. He was chasing a rabbit.”
“Oh, bloody Rex!” she cried, exasperated. “Never mind, he’ll be fine. I’ll ring Lakeside then, they’ll be wondering where you are.” She dialled the number and focused on her phone once more.
Daniel pushed himself up awkwardly, trying to avoid putting any weight on his injured arm. He doubted anyone would be worried about him yet. Looking at the sky, he guessed it was still early, so they probably wouldn’t have noticed his absence. He’d been planning to sneak back in before sunrise, up the drainpipe, across the roof and back in the same window he’d left by last night. Not much chance of that now. Stupid rain. If it hadn’t been so wet I wouldn’t have fallen. Miss Coates is going to flip when she finds out I snuck out again. Perfect excuse for her to confiscate half my stuff. She’ll probably take my camera . . . oh, crap! He stuck his hand in his pocket, suddenly worried he might have fallen on his camera last night, a frantic litany of let it be ok let it be ok running circles in his mind.
It felt intact. Gently he pulled it out and examined it one-handed. The lens cap had fallen off, and another picture had been taken, but the camera was in one piece. I guess I've got a photo of my pocket then, Daniel thought to himself. He breathed a small sigh of relief and rummaged in his pocket for the lens cap.
As he clicked it back into place, the woman turned back to him. “What was your name again?” she asked.
“Daniel Jackson,” he replied, tucking his camera back into his pocket.
She nodded and spoke into her phone. “Daniel Jackson. I’ve already called for an ambulance, they should be here soon.” Pause. “Okay, sure.” She handed Daniel the phone. “Miss Coates wants to speak with you. I’m just going to wait on the main path for the paramedics,” she told him before walking back through the trees.
Daniel reluctantly put the phone to his ear, fully expecting to have his ear chewed off by the strict house mother at the children’s home. “Hi, Miss Coates,” he mumbled.
“Daniel, you are in so much trouble when you get back. What were you thinking, sneaking out to the woods in the middle of the night? Especially in the freezing rain. This is the fourth time this month. I don’t know what you’re up to out there, but it stops now,” she scolded. “We’ll discuss your punishment properly after you get home, young man. That nice lady Gill says she’ll go with you to the hospital. Mr. Adams will meet you there and bring you back.”
“Okay.” Mr. Adams, or Joe the Cook as the kids knew him, was alright. He was also the least likely to give Daniel an earful about running off in the night. “Did you want to talk to Gill again?”
“No, it’s fine, she already knows what’s happening. I’ll speak to you later, Daniel, and don’t think you’re getting away with this.” The line clicked and went dead. Daniel looked around and couldn’t see Gill, so he slid her phone into his pocket for safekeeping until she came back. The bushes rustled behind him and when he turned to look, Rex the dog came strutting out with a dead rabbit clamped in his jaws. He deposited it in the middle of the clearing and sat there wagging his tail, looking incredibly pleased with himself.
“Hey boy,” Daniel said wearily, scratching the dog behind its ears. Rex closed his eyes contentedly, sat still for precisely three seconds, and jumped up again, barking hello at Gill and the two paramedics. They quickly checked Daniel’s arm, pronounced it fractured, and walked him down the path and into the back of an ambulance. Gill passed the dog over to someone who had been waiting there and climbed in with him. “Here’s your phone,” he said, handing it over as the ambulance started moving.
Gill took it, looking mildly surprised. “Thank you. I’d forgotten about that.” She dropped it into her coat pocket and smiled at him. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be fine. What on earth were you doing up there, anyway?”
“Oh, nothing really. I . . . I just like the woods at night.” Daniel knew it sounded weird, but in his experience weird was better than telling people the truth.
Joe the Cook was probably the worst driver in the entire world. At least that was the consensus of all the kids at the home. Not that he was reckless or dangerous or anything, but he went so slowly and had to check all the mirrors three thousand times before he even started the engine. Daniel didn’t mind it, though, because it meant he had more time to himself. The journey from the hospital to the children’s home should have taken about half an hour, but with Joe driving the time doubled. Daniel sat in the back of the minivan staring out of the window and thinking.
He knew he’d seen the faceless thing again. It had been so close to him this time there was no way to mistake it, and somehow he knew it had been there for him. In a way, he was pleased. Now he knew for sure he hadn’t been seeing things, and if it was following him he would have more chances to get a picture and prove it was real. But knowing what it did to people it followed . . .
There’d been a story posted online last week by someone who’d lost a close friend and suspected it was something to do with this entity. The girl had been stalked by the thing for weeks apparently, and one day she’d just wandered into the woods and vanished. And other stories were worse, about other kids who had been found.
“Okay Danny boy, you wanna talk about it?” asked Joe in his friendly-yet-concerned voice. Daniel looked properly out of the window and noticed they had pulled into the children’s home driveway. “There must be something up in them woods you’re tracking, else you wouldn’t keep sneaking off. Planning to bring me home some venison for the Sunday roast?”
Daniel turned to face Joe. “It’s the thing that started the fire,” he said quietly, knowing Joe wouldn’t believe him. “I’m trying to find it and prove it’s real. Last night it found me, but before I could take a picture I fell out of the tree. Joe, I’m scared. It killed my parents and now it’s going to kill me.” He was unable to stop himself once he got started. About five seconds later he realized what he’d said, and tried to think of something he could say to backtrack convincingly. “April Fool’s,” maybe.
But surprisingly, Joe didn’t condescendingly pat him on the head, or worse, give him the 'I am concerned about your mental health' look. He just nodded, a serious and thoughtful look on his face. “That weird tall bloke without a face you kept talking about when you came to us? Tell you what, why don’t you lend me that camera. I can get the film developed for you, and if you tell Miss Coates you lost it in the woods, she can’t confiscate it. I’ve got an aunt who’s interested in paranormal photography, maybe she can take a look. See if she can spot anything unusual.”
Daniel hesitated for a moment. His camera was his most prized possession, not only because of how much it had cost him but what it meant to him. But Miss Coates was probably going to take it off him, and if Joe could get the film developed it would save him a little pocket money. He was short on funds anyway, because his allowance had stopped last month thanks to Nigel tattling on him when he’d planned to sneak out camping for the weekend. He handed over his camera and watched Joe slide it into his pocket.
“Come on then. Miss Coates’ll be wanting to talk to you, and the littlies will be wanting their lunch made up.” Joe climbed out of the van, opened Daniel’s door, and locked up as Daniel headed for the building.
A week later, Daniel and Joe sat impatiently in a stuffy, cluttered room, trying not to inhale too much cat hair as they waited for Joe’s aunt Alison to finish whatever she was doing in the kitchen. She’d said she was making tea, but from the sounds echoing through the tiny bungalow she might have been doing something with a faulty hydraulics system and a legion of opera-singing mice. A fat white cat jumped up onto Daniel’s lap and nuzzled at his splinted arm. He fussed over it, stroking it from nose to tail, making it purr loudly.
The noises from the kitchen eventually stopped and Alison came back with some china cups, a sugar bowl, a milk jug, and a large teapot, all balanced on a silver tray. “Here we are, sorry it took so long. Now, you’re the young man who took those photographs, aren’t you?” she asked, looking at Daniel.
Daniel looked back as best he could over the white fluff in his face. “Yes, up in the woods last week. Did Joe tell you anything about what I was looking for?” He tried to say it without getting a mouthful of fur. The cat had decided his face was the perfect place to rest its tail.
“No, he just asked me to take a look at them and see what I could find. Oh Casper, do leave the poor boy alone! I really don’t think he needs a faceful of fur,” she said to the cat, who had turned around and begun nooshing at Daniel’s chin. She scooped him up and deposited him on the sofa next to her.
“Most of them weren’t anything special, just some pictures of dark trees and things. But there were a few oddities in there that I think you might want to see.” She pulled out a photo envelope and started spreading them out on the coffee table.
Daniel leaned forward, eager to see what she had found. Most, as she’d said, were just dark pictures of trees, but a few had odd-looking shadows cast across them. It could be explained many ways, of course. Clouds, the moon, odd angles of trees’ shadows. Alison laid them out separately, however, which Daniel assumed meant she thought it was something else. One photo stood out: the last one in the envelope, the one Daniel hadn’t realized he’d taken, that he had thought would be of the inside of his pocket. It was, in fact, a picture of Daniel himself, sprawled out on the ground, but taken from a great height, like the photographer had been up a tree – or just incredibly tall.
Joe leaned forward and picked it up. “What on earth? I thought you were out there by yourself, Daniel,” he said, making it almost a question.
“I was. I didn’t take that, and there was nobody else there. Except the thing I was looking for,” Daniel replied.
Alison had finished spreading out the photos and started pouring tea. “Exactly. That picture wasn’t taken by someone messing about up a tree, Joseph. I can tell from these that something else was out there with you, Daniel,” she said, gesturing at the shadow photos she had laid separately. “I’d like to know what exactly you were chasing out there, and why. Because if it’s what I think it is, you may have gotten yourself in a lot of trouble.” She passed two cups over to Daniel and Joe and sat back with her own, watching Daniel closely.
Daniel took a deep breath. He’d told this story several times, to social workers, nurses, even a couple of psychiatrists, and they’d all assumed he’d been seeing things, was confused, or just making it up for attention. Yet this strange woman seemed to be open to believing him, and might even be able to help him.
“I don’t really know what it is, to be honest. But the first time I saw it I was four,” he began, once again reiterating the story of the house fire, the being he’d seen by the house, and his Internet research. “I’ve found a lot of different names for it over the years, and spoken to other people who say they’ve seen it too. Nobody seems to know where it comes from or what it is, or anything. And a lot of people say it’s just a bunch of stories. Some guy in a forum came up with it and people make up stories. But I know it’s real because I’ve seen it, and last week it made me fall out of a tree and break my arm!”
There was a moment of silence in which Casper the cat jumped onto the table and stuck his head in the milk jug. Alison was oblivious. She simply stared at Daniel. “Oh dear. Oh Daniel, you have dug yourself into a very complicated mess indeed,” she finally whispered.
Daniel stared at her, confused. He could tell she believed him, every word of it, and he could also see that she was frightened for him. “What do you mean, complicated?”
“This entity you’re looking for . . . it’s not real, but at the same time it is.” She dragged the cat out of the milk jug, put him outside, and sat back down heavily. “Have you ever heard of the Tulpa Effect?”
“Is that one of those alternative bands you’re always on about?” Joe asked, somewhat ruining the moment.
Alison looked over at him. “Joseph, maybe you should wait outside. The less people involved in this, the better. Daniel’s already involved; I wouldn’t want to drag you into it as well.”
Joe didn’t look as though he liked the suggestion, but he didn’t protest. He stood and left the room. Once he’d shut the door, Daniel leaned forward in the chair. He’d spent most of his life obsessing over this thing and it sounded to him like he was about to get some kind of explanation. “I’ve heard of it, but I don’t really know what it is or how it works,” he said quietly.
Alison slid across the sofa toward him. “It’s a theory to do with the collective consciousness. I won’t go into all the details of that, it’s a lot of rather dull psychology babble. But the basic principle is that something not real, if enough people believe in it sincerely enough or think about it hard enough, can become real. Most people dismiss it as just a theory. It couldn’t possibly work, makes no sense, blah blah. The thing is, the creature you’ve been researching began as just a story online, a bunch of urban legends, tales that caught people’s imaginations. But people have been captivated by this story, and focused on it to the point of obsession. Now, there are suggestions that something is there, where once there wasn’t. Look at these,” she said, almost whispering, holding up some of the shadow-pictures from Daniel’s camera.
Daniel looked closely. The more he looked at the weird shadows, the more they seemed like an actual substance. Something there, but not fully materialized. “You think that’s it? Like it’s sort of forming itself out of shadows, and people’s thoughts?”
“I suppose you could put it that way,” Alison mused. “It’s certainly not fully realized yet. If it were, there would be a lot more evidence than some shadowy photos. But this one,” she tapped the photo of Daniel, “suggests that it’s getting close. I would guess from the angle of the picture that it took this photo of you itself. Why, I can’t imagine.”
He picked up the photo again and shuddered. He’d been totally helpless, knocked out, unable even to run or scream for help. Why had it only taken this picture? “What do I do?” he asked, realizing Alison probably couldn’t help him even if she wanted to.
“Stop. Stop looking for it, stop researching it, don’t even think about it anymore,” she said firmly. “With a little luck, it won’t be too late. If this thing’s fixed on you, there’s nothing I can do for you.”
Daniel looked up at her. “Alison, this thing set fire to my house. It killed my parents. How can I forget about it?”
She gripped his arm tightly, staring earnestly into his eyes. “Listen to me, Daniel. If you keep up this obsession, you will only make things worse. Proving it’s real will make it real, and that won’t help anyone. It won’t bring your parents back, it won’t put your mind at rest,” she told him urgently. “Leave it alone, for everyone’s sake.”
That night, once Joe had taken him back to the home, Daniel went around his room collecting all his notes, doodles, printouts, whatever he could find that was even remotely related to his search. Alison had reluctantly let him take his photos back, along with the photo disc that had come with the hard copies, but only after he promised her he’d destroy them along with the rest of his stuff. He crammed it all into an old shoebox, the photo envelope squashed in down the side as there was no more space on top.
The plan was to gather it all into one place, then take it downstairs, and toss it in the recycling bin outside, or even in the pile of rubbish that the caretaker would burn once a month. But as Daniel pushed the box lid down and started taping it up, something made him pause. This was unfair. He’d spent so long compiling his research. Why should he have to just throw it away? All that time and effort would have been a total waste. He sat on the edge of his bed, just looking at the half-sealed box for several minutes. Alison had said he needed to stop thinking about it and researching it. He didn’t have to actually chuck everything away, did he? What would be the harm in just . . . keeping it? Tucked under the bed, out of sight and out of mind, but still there as a kind of memento, a reminder of the work he’d done to track the thing down.
He slid off the bed, knelt on the floor, and pushed the box underneath, right into the corner, disturbing a spider that had made a home down there. He shoved a bunch of other stuff in front of it to stop himself from getting to it quickly. I can’t just forget, Daniel thought. But I can try to move on. I guess that’s what Alison meant, anyway. He stood, brushed the fluff and dust from his jeans, and went to get ready for bed. At the door, he stopped and stared back at the bed. He could have sworn there’d been a noise there, that he’d heard someone whisper his name . . .
. . . it was probably just someone downstairs. Daniel shrugged and left the room.