Danny follows me quietly along the corridor, half-amazed, saying nothing. I keep focusing on what we’re about to do and avoid turning around to look at him because that’s when I’ll get distracted and make a mistake. Danny’s tension fills the corridor like buzzing electricity. You’re crazy, he thinks at me. I know, I think back. We turn into the reception area and I calmly walk up to the desk and smile at the receptionist and pick up a pen to sign us out.
The receptionist looks at me, then over at Danny, then back to me. For a moment I think we are just going to walk right out of there, but then she pauses and asks,
“Where are you going?”
“For a walk,” I reply, checking my watch and writing the time in the signing-in sheet: 10.33. I can’t sense Danny behind me any more so I look around and that’s when I see him, flicking through leaflets on the wall.
“Come on,” I say to him and turn around to leave, but the receptionist calls me back to the desk.
My spine freezes up. I walk back over to the window. Re-adjust my badge.
“You’ll need this to get out of the main entrance.”
“Of course. Thank you.”
I take the pass-card from the receptionist and escort Danny through the glass sliding doors. The cool breeze hits me and the world becomes real again. I wonder how long it has been since he’s been outside. Really outside, I mean.
The gravel crunches beneath our feet as he follows me over to the car. He glances at the tarpaulin in the back but doesn’t say anything and sits himself down in the passenger seat. I tell him to fasten his seatbelt.
“Where are we going?” Danny asks. It’s the first time he’s spoken since we left the room, and his question reminds me that deep down, he’s just a sixteen year old boy.
My mind goes back six months to our very first sessions together. Danny is lying on the bed with his knees propped up, staring out of the window of his room. Like quite a few of the children here, he has no parents.
“Tell me about Hailsham, Danny,” I ask him. I catch a glimpse of his face as he moves; a pale, familiar-looking face with sharp blue eyes and short, unkempt hair.
“What about it?”
“It was your first inpatient stay, wasn’t it? How long were you there?
Danny shrugs. He’s bright, but very reserved. His library record reads like an English undergraduate’s: Dostoevsky, Thoreau, Hardy. There’s something else about him, but I can’t quite put my finger on it yet.
“Have you ever been to Hailsham?” he asks me.
“No,” I reply, following Danny’s eyes out of the window of his room. “I know enough about it, though.”
Compared to Hailsham, I suppose, this place is nice. Danny’s room looks out onto a courtyard surrounded by a high, brick wall. In the corner stands an old wooden bench. Outside, beyond the wall, nothing exists. The only trace of the world is a square patch of blue sky.
“Can we talk about something else?” Danny asks. He looks at me the same way he looks out at that neat square of sky, searching for something elusive. “How could you possibly understand?” his eyes seem to ask me whenever we make eye contact.
“What do you want to talk about?”
“Why are you here? Why all the sudden questions? What happens to me after I turn eighteen?”
We drive away from the main entrance, past the old mill and out towards the countryside. For a minute, I think about turning around and going back. I look across at Danny. He has his face pressed against the window, staring at the hills far off in the distance.
It’s still early and the sky looks clear. It’s a good day for it, I think to myself. The road takes us away from the town, past farmhouses and fields of grazing sheep. Every once in a while I glance in the rear-view mirror, half-expecting to see a car following us, but the road is clear. After a while I turn off the main road onto a quiet track which runs down along the side of the reservoir.
“It’s nice,” Danny says approvingly.
“I do a lot of walking around here,” I tell him, “You know, Dickens used to go walking every day. And Hardy. All of the great authors.”
“When I’m older, I’d love to live in a place like this. In the country somewhere.”
“I’m sure you could, Danny. You’re a clever kid.”
“Do you think so?”
“Of course. You know, Danny, the hardest part in life is deciding what you want, and wanting it hard enough.”
“What did you want to do?” Danny asks me.
“I wanted to help people,” I say to Danny, “People like you. And I wanted to be a Dad.”
I’m holding Caitlin’s hand tightly as we walk through the hospital grounds and through the park. It’s quiet, and the floor is covered with autumn leaves. I buy Caitlin an ice cream and we sit on a bench looking out across the park.
“Are you okay?” she asks me.
“Yeah, of course. It should be you who’s nervous.”
“I felt him moving again.”
“Good,” I say, and then speak to our baby directly. “You must be excited to get out of there.” Caitlin winces and squeezes my hand tightly.
She nods. “I can’t wait for this to be over,” she says.
We wait all day around the hospital for labour to start, until eventually the nurse decides to transfer us onto the ward. She tells us that everything is going to be alright. Caitlin looks up at me from the bed and I can’t tell which one of us is more nervous. The lighting makes me feel nauseous and there are machines humming quietly in the corner of the room. The nurse brings Caitlin the oxygen and gas. She breathes some in and starts laughing uncontrollably. I take a quick breath when the nurse turns her back, and we giggle like school kids together.
Then the pains start. Caitlin starts writhing around and her huge stomach seems like it could burst at any minute. The nurse assures me everything is okay, but I get the impression quite quickly that that isn’t the case. The gas isn’t working anymore and the nurse brings a syringe full of something and injects it into Caitlin’s arm. The screaming stops—everything stops—and Caitlin goes silent for a minute and starts mumbling something I can’t understand, Daddy, she says, I want my Daddy, clearly hallucinating, and then she asks to see the baby. The nurse ignores her and hooks her up to some pads and a heartbeat monitor. The ward outside is silent save for the humming and the beeps of the machines.
“Is she alright? What’s happening,” I ask the nurse. She turns and smiles at me.
“Your wife’s going to give birth,” she says, “What, did you think it was going to be a walk in the park?”
Caitlin comes back around. She’s pumped full of drugs, but somehow seems perfectly sober and she tells me all of a sudden that the baby is coming. Another doctor comes in to assist the nurse. There is a scene which I can’t describe and and then they bring him back, tiny, wrapped in a little blanket. His hair is still sticky from the afterbirth. The nurse tells me he weighs seven pounds.
“Caitlin, look, it’s our baby.”
“Mhmm,” she manages.
“Isn’t he wonderful?”
“Yes. He really is.”
Later, the nurses tell me that they need to monitor them overnight, as a precaution, and to come back in the morning. I kiss Caitlin and hold the baby’s tiny hand and then I leave them there and drive home and collapse into bed. I sleep for twelve hours straight, and for the moment everything in the world is perfect; exactly the way things should be.
“What are we doing here?” Danny asks.
I get out and walk around to the back of the car and open the boot. Danny looks at the crumpled brown tarpaulin lying in the back of the car. I reach down and lift it away.
“You must be joking,” Danny says.
“No. Why not?”
“This is stupid.”
“I’m risking my job for this, okay?”
I lift the bike out and set it down on the road. It’s rusted and worn—a second hand one—but it will do. Danny looks at the bike and then at me.
“You said you’d never ridden a bike before.”
“What, you think I can’t do it?”
“I know you can, Danny,” I say, “But there’s a difference between being able to do things and actually doing them.”
Danny sits on the bike impatiently, grips the handlebars and pushes down on one of the pedals. The bike wobbles as he tries to lift his second foot up. Danny falters and places his foot back down and comes to a stop. He glares at me.
“You’re laughing at me,” he says.
“I know,” I say, grinning.
He tries again. This time, his right foot catches the pedal as he tries to lift it up and the bike lurches comically underneath him. He tries a third time and finally reaches the pedal and the bike sets off. After a couple of seconds the handlebars start to tremble and he loses control. He brakes to a stop again and looks across the hills.
“Look,” I say to Danny, “I know you’re brilliant. Everybody does. But that doesn’t exempt you from making a fool out of yourself like the rest of us every now and then.”
Danny pushes off again. He lifts his feet up and this time he is away, riding slowly but steadily along the road. He rides for a few hundred yards and then stops to turn the bike around.
“Well done Danny!” I shout.
“Easy!” he shouts back.
On the 8th of September 1999 it’s our son’s sixth birthday. Caitlin wakes him up early and he shouts down the stairs for me but I’m already outside in the back garden with a spanner in my hand. He comes to the back door, still wearing his pyjamas.
“Come outside!” I shout to him. He hops out of the door with no shoes on and comes straight into the garden. His eyes light up.
“Mummy, mummy, come and look!” he shouts.
The bike is new—straight out of the box. It’s got stabilisers and a bell on the front. I lift him up by his arms and place him down on the seat and he grips the handlebars excitedly.
Caitlin stands in the kitchen doorway with a happy frown on her face. He rings the bell, ding ding, ding ding. I turn him around so he is facing up the garden path and he puts his feet on the pedals and grins at me.
“Watch the road,” Caitlin warns me as I take him around the block for the first time.
Once, I met a couple whose son had gone missing a long time ago. On the last night he was seen, their son was out riding his tenth birthday present, a shiny new bicycle. His friend was walking along beside him. A petrol station attendant later recalled the boys coming in to buy some sweets. It was about midnight by then. The boys never made it home.
Sometimes they just run away, people tell me afterwards. Get on the train to London. Hop on the next ferry to Calais. Sometimes they just turn up, years later, they say.
Nothing makes sense afterwards. The regularity of the world comes to a grinding halt, and for a while, the only thing that matters is hope.
Of course, the searches start, but after a while the voices of hope start whispering quieter and quieter until you have to really strain to hear them at all. You learn to assume the worst, until little by little the words start to lose all meaning to you, until you can say it like you’ve come to terms with it completely. He’s gone.
Snatched. Taken in a van somewhere remote. Hurt in unimaginable ways. But if you could just keep searching every other weekend, just another field or hedgerow, you’d find something—a pair of shoes, or a ripped bit of t-shirt fabric—anything.
You wouldn’t even recognise him walking down the street after a couple of years, a friend tells me once. He could walk right into your office and ask for a job. Who knows?
I’d know, I tell her. But maybe she’s right and it’s a different way of moving on, after a while.
I go onto a website linked to missing children, and realise there are hundreds, thousands of parents searching like me. A needle in a haystack. He’s gone, I tell myself, forget it. The voices stop whispering completely.
Then, a few weeks later, I start looking again.
Danny rides a few hundred yards back up the hill to where I am standing. For the first time since I’ve met him, he’s smiling. The wind blows through his hair as he rides the bike around. The sun is slowly setting behind the hills.
“Come on, Danny,” I call to him, “Time to go back.”
Danny looks down and then back to me, and along the long stretch of road back towards the highway.
“Five more minutes, before we go?” he asks. I look into Danny’s eyes, still holding some lingering question in them like they did when we first met six months ago. It’s the question I’ve been asking myself ever since I met him, and now I think I know the answer.
“Sure, Danny. Knock yourself out.”
Of course it could be. Anything could be anything if you wanted it to be hard enough.
Danny sets off pedalling hard, picking up speed quickly. I lean on the car and watch him as the wind catches his hair and he flies down the hill. At a distance, he looks like an ordinary kid, and for a moment things are exactly the way they should be.
I think of Caitlin lying on the hospital bed squeezing my hand, brain full of morphine, saying something to me; mumbled words mixed in with the drugs, but now the words come back to me clearer now and I remember. Danny, she whispers to me above the sound of the monitors, let’s call him Danny.
Danny leans forward and glides down the road away from me. The sky in front of him is tinged with amber. I can hear the sound of sirens approaching somewhere off in the distance. Danny brakes to a stop as he reaches the junction at the bottom of the road.
Bryan Blears is a fiction and non-fiction writer from Manchester, England. He works for the National Health Service.
The SHALLOW CREEK Short Story Competition
Mallum Colt, proprietor of Colt’s Curiosity Shop, invites authors to explore the sinister shadows and crooked streets of his once splendid town of Shallow Creek.
Guests are gifted a Shallow Creek visitor pack consisting of a map of Shallow Creek, a character profile, a specific location, and an item of interest.
These items shall act as a source of inspiration as Mallum Colt guides his guests through Shallow Creek and reveals the secrets and stories of a town bereft of sleep.
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Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
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