“Here’s Maggie Thatcher.” John opened one hand to reveal a stick figure drawn on the palm. He mimed throwing it in the air. “Throw her up and catch her. Roll her up and splat her.” He rubbed his hands together as though scrunching up a piece of paper, then opened his other hand, with a wild squiggle of ink on the palm. “There’s Maggie Thatcher.”
Peter laughed. He wasn’t sure exactly who Maggie Thatcher was, except that she stole milk from children. He wondered about that every first break. He would pierce his carton with a straw, and as he sucked the lukewarm liquid up he wondered whether she would peer around the corner, a clawed hand bracing the wall and hair as wild and sharp as brambles hiding the intent in her eyes, waiting for her moment.
Though by lunchtime the thought would be gone. Sonic the Hedgehog’s story had to progress and so he would zip about the yard, jumping occasionally and putting his hands to his knees to imagine he was curling into a ball, bopping imaginary badniks. The other kids would occasionally laugh at him or shout things, but he hardly heard them. Besides, most of the time they were running into one another playing British Bulldog or kicking about a ‘football’ that was really a squashed can. It was easy enough on most occasions for him to escape notice under the clamour of a hundred different games, chases and groups, just charging about in his own company.
Today, though, John’s other friends weren’t in and so he had decided to play with Peter. Peter didn’t mind, though when it happened – whether it was John or David or Liam or one of the others – he had to really concentrate. He didn’t try to play his games, because he knew when to act differently and to hide parts of himself, and occasionally doing that made him lose track of what was happening or being said. The day after, when other friends were back and he was no longer necessary, it would be hard to get back into the rhythm of his own games. He would still be thinking of the day before, his brain trying to process what he had seen and heard, what he should have said differently, and the unfathomable ways that other people acted. What they called ‘normal,’ he supposed, but he couldn’t quite get a handle on.
He had done it again, and now John was clicking his fingers in front of Peter’s face. “Hello? Earth to Peter?” Laughter. “You’re proper weird sometimes.”
“No, I’m not.” The objection wasn’t too strong. It was a lie, anyway.
“Come on, let’s get something from the tuckshop.”
To get to the tuckshop they had to leave the playground and walk around via the toilets. As they did, they heard rushed shouts of “Purple Aki! Purple Aki! Purple Aki!” Then two lads tore out of the toilet, quickly pulling the door shut on the third and flicking the lights off. The victim screamed and banged on the door, eliciting laughter in response.
Peter saw John laughing and made himself laugh too. He didn’t think it was very funny, but of course that wasn’t something you should say.
When it had happened to him, he hadn’t screamed. He had stood for a moment, staring at the mirror still. A cold chill had run up his arms and in the instant the light vanished he was certain he had seen a face staring back at him that wasn’t his. Over the hushed giggling, probably not as loud because he wasn’t crying out, he was sure he could hear somebody breathing; feel it on the back of his neck.
It couldn’t have been Purple Aki, though. Peter wasn’t averse to the idea of people being summoned through mirrors by their own name, pronounced three times, but Aki lived in the park. He had walked past the shack, out of sight of the school, just as daylight was starting to fade, and had felt the prickle of his skin as something watched him from the shadows. He knew first hand how dangerous it had felt, to be so close to his home and the dark all at the same time, and he had felt that danger fade as he reached light, then the road, then home.
He had no doubt that all of that was real but appearing in the mirrors didn’t fit in with the rules. That was something ghosts and phantoms did, because they weren’t tied to the physical world. Monsters were, and you could outrun monsters.
Explaining this wouldn’t do any good, though. It would just be another reason for people to look at him funny, and they had enough of those. Instead, he kept moving towards the tuckshop and once there he made sure to take his time looking at the drinks and sweets before buying anything. This made John grumble, but that was better than being in the hall when the victim of the Purple Aki prank got out and having to laugh in his face so that he looked just like everybody else.
There was an orange hue to the day as he left school, the leaves from the trees brown and crunchy underfoot. It was just chilly enough that Peter wished they didn’t have to wear shorts for their uniform, his jumper and coat shielding only his upper body from the nip of late October. Parents crowded at the gates, some with cars in the car park just next door but others there to walk their children up the road. Peter didn’t live all that far away, so he didn’t need an escort. The main thing he needed was to push past the crowds quick, to let the din of their conversations fall away from his ears so that he could breathe easier, and to cut once more through the park so that he could enjoy his own company. He didn’t mind days like today where boys like John chose to play with him, but it left him feeling tired and a little bit shaky.
The park was small enough that you could walk to the opposite corner of it in fifteen minutes, assuming you followed the direct path. Within that compact space, however, there were enough possible turns and twists that it wasn’t difficult to prolong that time.
There was a particular route Peter liked to take. He walked straight until he passed an eruption of overgrown grass, then turned along the route parallel to it. He weaved around a knot of bushes and through several parades of tall trees. He came past the children’s play area after half an hour rather than ten minutes, many of the youngest kids there now being urged by their parents to come along, because they had to get home and do some homework before they had their tea. Now he turned inwards rather than towards the exit, approaching the thicket of old, brick buildings of unknown purpose. Peter had never seen lights on, nor anybody going in and out, though that was perhaps because the smallest and most run down of those buildings, just beyond the cricket pitch, was where Purple Aki lived.
He wasn’t thinking about Purple Aki just then, however. He was pushing through the undergrowth towards the ruins of a long dead civilisation, these few buildings the last remnants not yet reclaimed by nature. There were threats everywhere. Behind him now, he could hear the squeal and cry of the mutants who made their home in nests of wood and metal that to the untrained eye could be confused for swings, climbing frames and see saws, but as long as he stayed quiet and out of their way he was fine. He wasn’t here for them, but to discover the secrets of the ancients.
A few more meandering twists and turns around the same small area of park took him deeper into the ruins, where daylight deigned not to follow. Peter hardly noticed, until it was so dark that he stumbled over a rock he had passed by half a dozen times without incident, because this time he didn’t notice it.
The stinging scrape on his knee made him cry out. It was lucky he didn’t wear trousers for school, because they would have been shredded, but this meant the cold bit at the raw red of the wound. He looked around, but it appeared nobody had seen him to laugh at his misfortune.
His mother would fuss over it when he got home, though. Not before shouting about how late he was, the worry he had caused them, why he should take his responsibility seriously if they were to let him walk home on his own. He wasn’t looking forward to that, because he never liked to be questioned about his day in most circumstances, certain that nobody was the slightest interested in his answers, let alone when he had to explain himself for wrongdoing.
‘Why’ questions were the hardest. Having to attach a motive, or a logical thought progression, to the fact that he had walked in circles, daydreaming about exploring a mutant-infested wasteland. There was a story in his head that needed to be told, and the adventurer whose persona he had taken on had to go on his adventure. For Peter, that answer was straightforward enough, but he would be the only one who thought so. ‘Why did his head always have to be in the clouds?’ ‘For a smart boy, he had no common sense sometimes.’ That’s what they would say.
He’d try to be different, at least for a while. It would work and he wouldn’t get in trouble for a few days. Then he’d forget that he wasn’t supposed to just be himself, and something else would result in fretting and tutting and proclamations about his lack of common sense.
A shape emerged in front of him. As one shape became four, his breath caught in his throat. When he saw that they were bigger than him, all wearing masks that hid their faces, his chest tightened and his heart battered against the walls closing around it. A weight pulled at his throat.
One of them shrieked at him. “TRICK OR TREAT!” Voice a rasping growl that bit at Peter’s eardrums and scraped his senses.
He wasn’t in control of what happened next. The cry, the tears running down his cheeks, or the sprint on trembling legs back the way he had come.
The park was small enough that you could walk from one end to the other in fifteen minutes, but it looked very different in the dark. The only light came from the stars and the moon, the latter but a sliver of white on starkest black. Nobody else was in the park, but that only made it noisier and more crowded. Peter couldn’t convince himself that the shapes ahead were without intent, and even with what might be behind him and his blood pumping in his ears he couldn’t bring himself to go past them. So he turned, turned, and turned again, having long since lost track of his route.
The cold seeped into him. His hands went numb first, then a shiver rippled across his shoulders, and finally whatever heat remained in his stomach was extinguished. Not knowing exactly where he was, he stumbled to a halt, crying. It would take him forever to get home now. His parents really would be mad. Assuming he got through the park.
Not knowing what else to do, he moved forward. Every step was heavy, his legs aching in protest at his movement. He shoved his hands deep in his pockets, but it did nothing to warm them up. He couldn’t stop shivering.
Finally, he saw a gate leading out. It didn’t ease the weight in his feet or warm his chest, but it was something. He would be out of the park. Then all he had to do was follow the roads home.
The park was small enough that you could walk from one end to the other in fifteen minutes, but there were five different exits and he didn’t recognise the roads this one brought him out to. Even if he had been here before, it was in daylight and not more than once, so he had no idea at all which way to walk. If he picked the wrong way now, or at the next fork in the road, or the one after that, or at every possible fork, then he might never get home.
He couldn’t stop himself from crying now. Great, gulping sobs which made his whole throat hurt and his whole body shake even worse than it was already with the cold. He cried and cried and cried, the ache of it spreading through his whole body, fearing he would never be able to stop.
He recognises that voice right away. It’s a bit shakier, a bit scratchier than he expected, but there’s no doubting it’s his mum’s voice. He rubs his eyes and looks up.
“Oh, Peter, it is you!”
She looks blurry, as if just out of focus. Perhaps that’s the tears still stinging at his eyes despite how hard he had rubbed them away. It makes her look older too, hair almost grey rather than light red. Though it is night-time, and the nearest streetlamp is pointing away from them. The lines on her forehead and the bags under her eyes are his fault, he reckons. Worry at how long he’s been gone.
“I’m sorry mum. I didn’t mean to be late but I was playing in the park and then I lost track of time and then it was dark and these older boys in masks jumped out of the bushes and scared me and I got lost and I didn’t know which way to go.” His words pour out so quick that they slam into one another, pile up and fall into the wrong order. He probably didn’t say it right.
“Oh, sweetheart. My darling boy. It’s okay.” There were tears in her eyes as well. He had made her upset rather than angry, so he must have been in real trouble. “I’m just so glad I found you. I heard the stories, but I was afraid to come. Then your dad went, and I thought I had to come here at least once, just to see if it was true.”
He didn’t understand what she was saying. “Mum…?”
“It’s okay, darling. I’m here. I love you.” She reached out a hand, which looked more out of focus than ever as it got close to him.
She touched his shoulder. Except that she didn’t. Her hand hovered just above it, and he couldn’t feel the weight of it, even when it trembled so much that it appeared to partially pass through him. That was when he understood. He put his own hand over hers, hovering just above it without actually touching.
The cold evaporated. He didn’t feel warm, but he felt light. The dark was receding, though it can’t have been anywhere near sunrise.
“I love you too mum.” He said.
Whatever she said in response, he couldn’t quite make out. He winced as the light flooded through everything, washing away the detail of his surroundings as thoroughly as the pitch black would have.