Unseen People - Chapter 3

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Unseen People

A strange girl appears in the dead of night. She can’t speak or remember where she has been, what could her secret be?

* Thanks as always to Robyn and Chris for their input and support. I wanted to say a special thank you to all of you for your kind comments and messages for Chapters 1 and 2. It’s not always easy to put yourself on the line by posting a story so your comments and support really do mean a lot. Thank you.*


Chapter 3

Vlad and Esty sat at the bus stop and looked up the road towards the moor. The road disappeared into the fog only a few metres away from them.

"Do you think it will come soon?"

"The bus?"

"Of course the bus," Esty tuts. She often had to remind herself that English wasn't Vlad's first language. She shouldn't be so harsh. They both worked at a warehouse in Bury and caught the same early bus. She had agreed to work the Saturday for the overtime, what with Christmas around the corner.

"It seems like we have been waiting for ages," Vlad looked back towards town but there was no sign of it. He picked up the free paper but struggled to open it with his gloved hands. Esty leant over his shoulder and read a story about Christopher Bowman, a celebrity author who had been caught running around Soho in a pink French maid's outfit. He claimed 'little people' had glued it on to him.

"That's not the first time he was caught doing something like that," She pointed the story out to Vlad. "It’s always someone else's fault." She shook her head.

She looked around, sensing some movement coming from town. Two figures appeared out of the fog. These ghostly images slowly formed into recognisable figures, the first a talk black man with soft features, the second a thin girl with short, messy, blond hair. Esty thought the girl looked unwell, but perhaps she was just naturally pale.

The couple stood at the lamppost a little way away from the bus shelter. Etsy watched the girl closely. She seemed to be writing little notes for her boyfriend to read. She kept looking up at him as he read them. Esty was sure they were a couple. The coat the girl wore looked too big, perhaps it belonged to her boyfriend?

Vlad spoke, "Won't this bus ever get here? It feels like we have been waiting forever."

"Yes," Esty sighed in agreement, "It feels like it’s a clumsy metaphor for our lives or something."

---

"Ben? Ben! Can you hear me?" Ben heard the voice but couldn't focus on it. It sounded strange, ethereal. Like it was coming from inside his head not out. He sat, head in hands, on the sofa. A young policewoman sat next to him. She was speaking but he was sure it wasn't her voice that he heard.

Everything seemed so distant. He knew there were more police in the garden, where the... where the... body was... He couldn't think about it. It seemed wrong to think of his dad as just a 'body'.

Two figures, in those white Tyvek overalls forensic people wear, walked through the kitchen and into the garden. Their yellow face masks made them look like they were off to a rave in 1989. Pain built up inside his chest and came out as a loud wail and tears. He couldn't remember the last time he had cried.

The policewoman put a hand on his shoulder. He looked at it as if he had been touched by an alien.

"Do you want a hot drink?" he thought she said. It was as if he were sitting on the seabed listening to her shout from a boat on the surface. He nodded dumbly; at least he'd be alone for a moment. He felt he could handle this if he were on his own.

"Ben, listen to me. We need to get out of here." It was the strange voice again. It sounded like the voice of the actress he fancied from that film. It echoed in his head, more real than anything on the outside.

"Ben, look at me."

Ben looked where he thought the voice was coming from. All he saw was a black and white cat. Jess! When had she come back? Had the owner of the strange voice let her in?

"Where are you?" Ben looked around for the stranger.

"I’m here Ben, straight in front of you."

Ben looked straight forward. Again there was Jess; this time she was licking a paw.

"What?"

"It’s me Ben, Jess." The cat stopped licking her paw and looked straight at him. Their eyes met.

"J-J-Jess. It can't be you? Who is it, who’s trying to punk me? You've picked a pretty fucked up time for a practical joke." This made him cry some more. The universe felt cold and harsh and he no longer had his dad to protect him.

"Ben, we have to go, The Brownies will be after you next."

"Who are The Brownies?" Ben had a vision of little girls in brown uniforms, but that was silly, Jess couldn't mean them. Then he remembered that the Girl Guides got their ‘Brownies’ name from some elf like creatures from folktales. What was happening to him? Was he losing his mind?

"They are the first of the Unseen People. They won't be the last." Jess said. He couldn't see her mouth move but he could tell from her eyes it was her speaking.

"Who are the Unseen People? Why are they doing this?" Ben stammered.

"The Unseen have always been with us. They’re doing this because they’re angry." Jess looked around like she had heard something. Ben was spooked.

"Why are they angry?"

"Because they think you’ve forgotten."

"Forgotten what?"

"Forgotten them."

"Oh," Ben was even more perplexed, "But how could I have forgotten them when I’ve never heard of them before?"

"Not you. You as in people, the Seen People." Jess cocked her cat head to one side, "But we don't have time to talk. Go to your bedroom and pack a bag. Quickly."

"But what’s going on, how can you speak? Why are you a cat? Am I losing it?" The last part came out as a sad whine. Ben's head hurt, he wanted so much to feel the security of his dad's touch, for him to hold him close like he did after mum died, but he would never feel it again.

"No, you are not. At least no more than any other of the Seen. As to why I am a cat? Firstly, because I have always been a cat. Secondly, because whenever you have imagined your own voice outside your body, it was always a cat speaking to you."

This made some dim sense to him. He could remember when they told him mum would die. He had sat with Jess stroking her, scratching behind her ears. It had comforted and soothed him. He had felt that, if he could bring such happiness to another living creature, then perhaps all was not lost. He wasn't such a bad person, he didn't deserve the bad things. Maybe he could be worthy of his mum.

"Yes," said Jess, her voice was softer now, "You were always a good person. Now we must go."

---

There was a knock on the door of the little bungalow in Hernsgate. Ms Rees, Jenny, walked slowly to the door. It was the weekend and she wasn't expecting anyone. Had she ordered something over the Internet and forgotten about it? She was always doing that.

She opened the door, and at first thought it was a joke, no one was there. Then she looked down. Two girls in Brownie uniforms stood there. Their faces looked innocent staring up at her.

"Can I help you two?" Jenny enquired.

The smallest girl with the straight fringe spoke; "Will you buy our biscuits?" she lifted up a box of what looked like home-made biscuits. Most of them were lumpy and misshapen.

"Of course dear." Jenny said, "But my purse is in the kitchen, can you wait a moment?"

"Can we come in?" The tallest asked with a smile so sweet it could cause diabetes.

"Okay, but just for a moment." Jenny looked over the girls as they stood in the hall, "Don't either of you have coats?"

The two little girls shook their heads.

"Hmmm, it's too cold to be out without coats. They said on the radio that it might snow again."

The girls looked at her blankly. The smaller one blinked.

"Well come into the kitchen, I'll see what I have to warm you both up."

Once in the kitchen Jenny gestured for the Brownies to sit at the little table. They did so silently.

"What can I get you both to drink?" Jenny had her back to them. She heard their chairs scrapping on the floor as she opened the fridge door. She could feel them standing behind her. She heard a snapping noise as she poured something out.

She turned quickly seeing the girls about metre away from her. Then she put the saucer of milk she held in her hand down on the floor between them. A Swiss Army Knife clattered to the floor. The two Brownies looked a little confused, a few moments passed and then they knelt down in front of the saucer and began lapping.

Jenny pulled out a chair and sat down. She watched them shrewdly as they lapped up the milk like cats.

After around five minutes the tallest Brownie looked up, "Well played old woman." Her voice was low and resentful.

Jenny rubbed her chin, "Cut out the 'old woman' crap. I am only 55." She studied them for a while longer. Something of their human image had fallen away, although she couldn't put her finger on what.

"So. Were you the ones who took my little Jackie away?"

At first neither of them spoke, they just continued on lapping up the milk. Eventually the smaller one looked up, her face covered in milk and belched.

"No."

"But it was one of the Unseen?"

The little Brownies both nodded slowly.

"And you’ve come to take her back?"

Both Brownies sat up now, milk dripping from their chops. In unison they both shrugged.

"At first, yes," said the tall one

"But then we saw she was the wrong Jack," followed the smaller one.

"What do you mean, the wrong Jack?" demanded Jenny, but then she was overcome by a powerful need to look round. It was as if someone was standing at her shoulder. By the time she had looked back the two Brownies had disappeared. They always left like that.

---

Are you sure your friend can help? Jack was standing close to Isaac for warmth; he had to crane his neck up to look at him as he showed him the note.

Isaac spoke softly, "No one is going to guess you’re staying with her, and she lives out of town so you’re unlikely to be spotted."

Jack nodded. He supposed it made sense. He had thought he'd be staying with Isaac, but that would probably be the first place they looked.

She knows we’re coming? Jack showed him the second note. He watched the couple sitting on the bench in the bus shelter. He didn't suppose there was any way they could hear Isaac.

"I texted her and told her that I was bringing a friend who needed help." Isaac must have caught the worried look on Jack face because he continued, "It will be okay, don't worry."

It wasn't enough. Jack wanted more, but he could see he wasn't going to get it. He stuffed his hands and notebook in the pockets of his coat. It was actually a man's navy pea jacket Isaac had nabbed from the hospital's lost and found. It felt huge. The pockets were like caverns.

Isaac looked at his phone for a while, so Jack looked out into the fog. Somewhere in the distance he could make out shapes moving around. The sound of bleating told him they were sheep. His arm touched with Isaac's telling him he was too close.

He looked up at him. How tall was he? Past six foot. It was hard for Jack to tell heights now his own view was so much lower than before. It hadn't been something he could appreciate in his hospital bed, but now he was getting an idea of the difference. Everything seemed off, just that little bit bigger. It made him feel like a child again.

"Here it comes," Isaac motioned towards the arriving bus.

The bus was only a small one, and it got cold as soon as you moved away from the heater.

"There's a couple of seats at the back," Isaac pointed to the seat that stretched across the full width right at the back. The bus was full of shift workers at this time of the morning. Most were on their way to the warehouses and trucking companies in Heywood or Rochdale.

The pair struggled to the back. Isaac sat down first, Jack looked at the remaining space, there wasn't much room. On the other side from Isaac was a large man. The man had his legs spread open taking up way more than his allotted space. The man must have caught Jack looking because he moved his knees in a fraction each. Jack couldn't say thank you so he just smiled. He hoped it was enough. Still, there was very little room.

Jack sighed. He was just going to have to squeeze in. He tried to make himself as small as possible. Not wanting to get close to the big man, Jack was forced to rub up next to Isaac. It was a tight fit and, as the bus lurched forward, Jack half expected to end up on Isaac's knee. He placed his hands in his lap not knowing what else to do with them.

The bus bumped along the road heading into the hills. After ten or so minutes they were near the top of Hob's Hill. Looking down he could see the valley filled with fog. It looked as though they were driving across the top of the clouds. The bus took a right onto a council estate.

A couple of stops later Isaac nudged her, "This is us." They climbed their way to the front of the bus, past bags and errant feet.

The street was unremarkable. Modern houses lined either side, most semi-detached. At the far end Jack could make out the shape of a larger building he took to be a school. Isaac took his hand, he wanted to protest but had no voice. He could have pulled away, but to do so seemed churlish. Instead he allowed himself to be led.

They walked off the main street and down a foot path. All the while he was acutely aware that his hand was held by another man. He could feel the warmth ; even in the cold it made his hand slightly sweaty.

Eventually they arrived at a row of houses. They were older than the rest of the street. From the style he guessed they had been built in the 80s. Isaac tugged on his hand slightly motioning for her to follow him, "Here we are, Rachel's place."

Isaac finally let go of his hand and walked up to the red door. Jack stood for a while taking in the house. The garden had one large tree. It looked stark against the winter sky bereft of its leaves. He watched as Isaac rang the door bell, he could see movement behind the frosted glass. A moment later it was open.

The woman was tall with long red hair. She wore pyjama bottoms and a small T-shirt. Jack felt uncomfortable as she threw her arms around Isaac. He stood a little way back shifting from one foot to the other.

"Isaac baby, it’s been too long," The woman spoke with a strong Scottish accent. As she looked towards Jack he noticed how pretty she was. "Is this your friend, the one who needs help?"

"Yes, Rachel, meet Jack."

Jack pulled a hand out of his coat pocket and gave a little wave.

"So how do you know our Isaac then?"

"Jack can't speak Rach, she's mute." Isaac explained.

"Oh!" Rach put her hand up to her mouth, "Is that how you know her, from hospital?"

"She was a patient, yes." replied Isaac, he looked nervously around, "Can we speak inside."

The house was cosy, painted in bright clean colours. From the hallway Jack could see into a modern kitchen and then into a little conservatory built on the back.

"I like your retro 90s look," cooed Rach as she took his coat. He smiled at her, not quite able to look her in the eye. He was uncomfortably aware of his breasts, small as they were, sticking out. He tried not to look in Isaac's direction.

"You two go sit down in the living room," Rach pointed the way, "I'll make us a hot drink. What would you like?"

Isaac asked for black coffee. Jack wrote something on his notepad and showed it to Isaac.

"Tea, milk and one sugar," Isaac explained.

"I'll put two in," Rach smiled, "We need to put some meat on those bones."

Jack sat on one end of the sofa and Isaac the other. There was just enough room in between them for a third person although it would be cosy. Rach chose the armchair opposite them both. As the two of them chatted Jack watched Rach. Was she Isaac's girlfriend? Does he have a girlfriend? He knew nothing about him really.

"So, tell me what happened?" Rach leant in to them.

"Jack was brought in two nights ago. She'd been in some sort of accident or fight but doesn't remember what happened." Isaac touched Jack's hand. It was just for a moment but it seemed like an age to Jack. He stared at it but didn't pull back.

The two friends talked. Isaac explained what had happened and how Jack needed a place to hide.

"You poor thing," Jack's mind had wandered off and so he didn't see her coming. Rach had walked over and put her arms around him, sitting on the edge of the sofa. At first he felt uncomfortable, only too aware of her breast pressing into his face, but after a while it felt good. He put his arm around her and before he knew it, he was crying.

Isaac left half an hour later. He had another shift that night and needed to go home for a rest. As he left he asked Jack if she was happy staying with Rach, he nodded and wiped away a tear. He felt close to tears most of the time, but this time they were tears of gratitude. At the door Rach hugged Isaac good bye. Jack watched from a distance, uncomfortably aware of his body and not knowing what to do with it.

When Isaac put his arm around her it came as a surprise. It was even more surprising to him when he kissed Isaac on the cheek. He blamed it on the lack of sleep. He could feel the adrenaline that had sustained him through the night and the morning, draining away.

"You look beat," Rach said after she had shut the front door, "Wait down here, I'll go get the spare room set up so you can get some sleep."

Jack sat back on the sofa and looked at the TV. With everything else he hadn't noticed it was on. It was huge, seemingly too large for this room. The picture quality was amazing however. He tried to find the remote and instead found several. Looking at them he didn't know where to begin so he settled on the cooking programme that was already on.

He must have dozed off because the next thing he knew Rach was shaking him awake.

"Come on sleepy head," She said to him, "let’s get you comfortable."

The spare room was crammed with old books and boxes of paperwork. Jack wondered what it was Rach did for a living. In the middle of the room was a large bed, which looked extremely comfortable to him right then. On top of the bed was a folded up T-shirt with some logo he didn't recognise and a pair of pyjama bottoms.

"OK, I'll leave you to it," Rach turned to leave. He smiled what he hoped was his most grateful smile.

Rach stopped at the door, "I hope you don't mind me asking, but you like Isaac don't you?"

Jack was caught off guard and too tired to think of a proper reply so he just shrugged.

"Oh, don't worry. Your secret is safe with me, but I do see the way you look at him." Rach seemed a little sad. He wondered if she was his ex?

"It’s just," she seemed to pause for some time, "He's been through a lot. I wouldn't like to see him get hurt."

With that she turned and left. Jack just stood there for a moment literally unable to reply.

---

Wren woke up, her phone buzzing and head thumping. The first thing she noticed was the extra presence in her bed. She was used to being able to spread out without thought. She turned and saw the outline of Tom lying on his side. It looked to her like the outline of some unknown mountain range.

She moved as carefully as she could manage. Thankfully Tom didn’t seem to be waking. She reached her phone and tiptoed out of the bedroom.

“Hello?” She could hear the previous night in her voice.

“Wren, it’s Mark,” she didn’t need the introduction, she recognised his voice immediately.

“Mark? What’s happening? It’s my day off.” She couldn’t keep the note of petulance out of her voice.

“I’m sorry, Jacobs insisted that I call you.” She heard him take a deep breath, “Your Jane Doe has gone missing.”

“Jack?” she said quietly but Mark heard it.

“If that’s her name, yes. The ward sister checked on her about three hours ago and she was missing. They searched the hospital but found nothing. We’ve been trying to call you for hours.”

“Sorry, I left my phone on silent,” She didn’t know why she apologised; she had every right to keep her phone on silent when she wasn’t in work. She rubbed her temples in a vain attempt to stop the pounding, “Has anyone called the mother?”

“Sorry, Jacobs wants you to do it. He says you have a relationship with her and that I’d just panic her,” she could hear that he wasn’t happy about it.

“OK, OK, I’ll get dressed and then I’ll head around to her place,” she thought of Tom lying in her bed and how nice it would have been to wake together, maybe get some breakfast. “Just give me a while to get myself together.”

The Lunchbox was a small cafe on the Hernsbridge Road. It was opposite a small, free car park. She looked out at the traffic. It was quieter than in the week, although it would get busier when people started heading into Manchester for shopping and football. What has it been? Three, four hours? Jack could be almost anywhere.

She looked down at her scrambled eggs, then up at Tom tucking into a sausage. This wasn’t how the weekend was supposed to go.

“Why do you think she’s run away,” Tom asked between mouthfuls.

She sighed, “It could be many things, but my guess is she’s frightened of something,” she scooped some egg up on her fork, “or someone.”

“The person who kidnapped her in the first place?” Tom asked, Wren shrugged. “You said you found her mum, could she have run away from abuse at home?”

She put her knife and fork down, “I said we may have found her mum,” she paused to think, “a lot of things don’t add up, but I don’t think her mum abused her.” She thinks of the look on the girl’s face when she first saw her mum. She had been frightened, but not of her. It had been more the sort of fright you get with a surprise.

“How about the dad?”

“I’m not really sure I should be telling you all this,” she looked at him, she enjoyed holding his attention, “We haven’t tracked the dad down yet. Apparently he and his mother split a few years after Jack went missing. They couldn’t handle being together according to the mum. They reminded each other too much of what they had lost.

“Look,” she had come to a decision, “I shouldn’t really be doing this, but do you want to tag along?” She couldn’t read his expression, “I mean you brought her in, you might be able to spot something,” her voice trailed off.

“Sure,” he smiled, “might be interesting.”

---

Ben gently picked up his backpack with Jess’s head poking out from underneath the flap.

“Where are we going?” He whispered.

“The tree,” Jess said mysteriously.

“The tree, what tree?” Ben was on the edge of hysterics, but Jess ducked back into the bag.

He crept as quietly as he could along the corridor. He could feel Jess manoeuvring in the bag.

"That tree?" Ben stared in disbelief. He had known the tree for what seemed like his whole life. It was old and worn looking. Even in summer it looked a little bare. It marked one corner of the playing field of his old primary school.

"That's the tree, we need to get to it," He heard Jess say. He was aware the voice was coming from behind him. Now that he could no longer see her face doubts had begun to creep in. Was he experiencing some sort of episode? "Hurry up, we may not have much time."

There were two ways to get to the tree. The quickest was to cut across the field. Easy enough to do as the school fence was low. The second was to walk around the footpath along the side of the new estate. Ben could remember when the new estate had been fields, and then, when he moved from the infants to the juniors they had started constructing the new houses. He used to play in their empty shells with his friends. He lost a trainer to cement there once. He wondered if it was still there in the foundations of one of the houses he was looking at?

He could see kids playing in the playground. He could just about make out the faces of the teachers, most of whom he recognised. Despite Jess's urgency nothing would make him cross onto that ground. Both his mum and dad had been alive when he last set foot there.

Jess said nothing as he set off along the footpath, although he could feel her turning to get herself comfortable. Was it just him or were the shadows getting longer and deeper.

"How can this tree be special?" He spoke loudly, hoping to fill the vacuum with sound.

"It always has."

"I remember James Taylor and I found a half empty pack of cigs there once. We both smoked one each and made ourselves sick," Ben looked straight ahead. He didn't remember the walls being so high around here. Wasn't everything supposed to seem smaller than you remembered at your old primary school?

Something bothered Ben, there just at the edge of his perception. It took him a while to figure it out. On every second step the echo lasted a little longer than it should.

"They know we are here."

Ben felt sweat in the palm of his hands. If this wasn't real it was having a very real effect on him.

Who ever was following them no longer tried to mask their footsteps. Their pace quickened. For a moment Ben did nothing, he hadn't wanted it to be true, but soon the sounds were unmistakable. He was being follow, scratch that, chased. Ben broke into a run.

They turned the corner so they were facing the tree.

"You'll be safe there," he heard Jess say, although for the life of him he had no idea why.

The tree was as old and grey as he remembered. The empty crisp packets and other rubbish around its base told him it was still being used as a safe haven for slacking.

The footsteps behind them were quickening. They sounded odd, too small. Like the feet of children. He could see the tree getting closer and closer but it just seemed too far off. He wasn't going to make it.

"Jump, jump now!" Shouted Jess, real urgency in her voice.

He dived forward, not really knowing why and was able to crawl forward enough to touch the half dead wood with the tips of his fingers. Then everything went blank.

Ben came around slowly. He was in some great wooden hall. It reminded him of a drawing in one of his old history books that showed the feasting hall of a Viking chieftain. Only this seemed too big for a wooden structure of that era.

"Well done," He looked down, Jess was in front of him. "You saved us," She began purring and rubbing herself against his legs.

"Who, what..." Ben looked out across the great hall. On the walls were round shields displaying different colours and patterns. At one end was a raised platform with a tall wooden seat. What caught his attention the most were the orange globes that covered the floor. Each one was just above waist level and glowed strangely. He soon became aware that they were the only light source in the room.

He went up to one and peered in. It was semi-transparent and he could make out something moving inside. He looked closely, and then jumped back startled. He had seen the shadow of a man inside.

"They are the Bubble People," a male voice boomed out from behind him. For the second time in the space of a few minutes Ben jumped in shock.

Behind him was a white cat with patches of tabby fur.

"My apologies, I did not mean to frighten you young one," its voice was old and measured, the opposite of its young, sleek face.

"Mr Tiddles, this is the young one of whom I spoke,"

He sniggered, "Are you really called Mr Tiddles?"

The white and tabby cat looked a little put out, "It is the name I was given, yes," there was a pause, "It is a very fine name in the cat world."

Ben decided to try a different tack, "I’m sorry, this is all so strange to me."

"Of course," Mr Tiddles said magnanimously, "You have been through much. We were sorry to hear of your father."

He wanted to change the subject, "So who are all these people, why are they in these," he tried to look for the right word, "bubbles?"

"They are sleeping child," Mr Tiddles stood up on his hind legs, "We find them and bring them here for protection."

"Who is putting them in the bubbles?" Ben asked. His head was swimming, perhaps he really had lost it.

"We don’t know."

“You don’t?”

“No,” Mr Tiddles seemed vexed.

Ben waved his hands around exasperated, "So how do you know they need your protection?"

Mr Tiddles cocked his head to one side, "They are pretty and shiny and move around when we bat them." Ben could hear the uncertainty in the cat’s voice, “They must need our protection.”

Jess jumped up and curled up in his lap, "I know it is hard to take in," her voice purred, "but we only want to help."

"Ben, Son of Andrew," said Mr Tiddles, "It is time you learnt of your destiny.

---

Ash woke up, coughing as if his lungs were filled with goo. At first he wasn’t sure if his eyes were still closed because it was so dark. Only when he tried to open them further did he realise they were already wide open.

He remembered the dream he was having just before he woke up. He had been chased through some wood somewhere. It had reminded him of woods like Delamere Forest where his mum had taken him for walks when he was little. Only Delamere was small and the dream forest seemed to have no end. He never saw his pursuer but only knew he had to escape. Eventually he had reached the darkest part of the forest. The temperature had seemed colder there, with water turning into ice and his breath visible in front of him. Only then did he realise that it wasn’t only his own breath that he could see. Then he woke up.

He felt constrained on all sides, where was he. He tried to push out with his arms and legs but they were pinned close to his sides. He kept pushing against whatever surrounded him. It felt like wood. Was he in some sort of box? Everything was slippery, covered in some sort of mucus. He fought back his revulsion, there would be time to worry about that once he was free.

He tried moving his head but found something was holding it to the ceiling of where ever he was. He yanked his head to one side and felt something tugging at his hair. It hurt bad, something was attached to his hair. Who would do that and why? Taking a deep breath he gave it a bigger yank. This time something came free. He wanted to scream out but his throat seemed dry and coarse, no sound came out. It took a few yanks but finally his head was free. Hair covered his face. How had it grown so long? Had someone glued a wig to his head?

There was a cracking sound near where he pushed his foot forward. A tiny crack of light came in. There was an outside, if only he could break free completely. The task was arduous and he had to stop several times to rest. He felt weak and his muscles took longer than normal to respond. Had he been drugged?

More cracks appeared in his prison. Grey light shone through blindinghim. There was a loud cracking noise and then his left leg went through and out into the open. He could feel cold air against his bare skin. He sat back for a few moments composing himself. With both feet he started to push, using his arms against the back to increase the pressure. Within a few minutes he hand made a hole just big enough for him to slip out feet first.

Ash lay on the ground panting, every part of his body ached. He wanted to sleep but couldn’t allow himself. He had no idea where he was or how he got there. He just knew he was in trouble. He tried to stand but his muscles refused. Something felt wrong about his body, beyond the pain. Like all the settings were off by just a little.

Slowly his eyes became accustomed to the light. He had to brush hair out of his eyes, but could see he was in some sort of old Victorian-style green house. It was large and full of strange plants. Each plant had a large, egg shaped stem disappearing into the ground. Ash looked backwards at where he had just escaped. It was a similar egg shaped space at the foot of a young looking tree.

Ash crawled on all fours to the nearest undamaged plant. It looked like a giant Aspidistra with an egg shape at the bottom. He steadied himself. He didn’t know if he really wanted to see what he was sure he would. He started pulling at the wood (he could think of no better word to describe it than bark)that covered the egg-like shape.

His arms were thin and lacked muscle. How long had he been in that egg? He finally broke a piece away. Looking in he could see the face of a sleeping woman. Like him, she was covered in a mucus like goo.

Using the strange plant as a support he pulled himself up. Half standing half crouching he looked around. The greenhouse seemed to go on forever. How many plants where there? Did they all have people in them?

Somewhere in the distance he heard voices. They spoke in a strange language he didn’t recognise. He looked back at the sleeping woman, how long would it take him to free her? Was she even still alive? He couldn’t see any evidence she was breathing. He looked in the direction he thought the voices were coming from. They didn’t sound urgent but they were getting closer. He had to get away. All he could do was seek help.

He began hobbling away limping as fast as he could. The rows and rows of plants seemed to go on forever. He willed his muscles to work although he could feel them screaming in protest as he did.

The voices were close enough for him to be able to make out three distinct figures by the time he reached the door. There was an old wooden chair propped up by the door. Underneath there was a pile of dirty rags. Ash bent down, not an easy task with every part of him aching. Pulling out the rags he found they were clothes. Grey-green overalls and a red plaid shirt that had obviously been used to clean up dirt.

Realising just how cold he was he decided to pull them on. Both the overalls and the shirt were comically too big for him. But with the legs and the sleeves rolled up they would do. The clothes sat strangely on him, he wasn’t sure why though?

He opened the door slowly wincing as it made a creaking sound. Outside he discovered a discarded pair of wellington boots. They were caked in mud and so large they came up to his knees but beggars couldn’t be choosers.

From inside he heard shouting, his escape had been discovered. He had to go now. Looking back he couldn’t see anyone yet, then somethingstartled him. The face of a young woman or girl peered back at him. She was pretty, with high cheekbones and mysterious grey eyes, but very dishevelled. Her long raven black hair was plastered against her pale skin.

At first he thought the girl was a ghost but after a few moments he realised she was a reflection. Touching his own face he realised she was his own reflection. He stood staring until he was jarred out of his daze by the sight of three grey shapes moving through the greenhouse towards him. He turned and fled.

---

The house was in the middle of a post war council estate on the edge of town. These solid houses had been built by people whose lives had lacked any certainty or security after the depression of the thirties and then the war.

“This is the place,” said Wren, checking the address on her phone.

“Looks normal enough,” Tom’s voice came from behind her as they walked up the little pathway.

“We’ve both seen plenty of bad things happen in places just as normal as this,” Wren cautioned as she pressed the bell.

It took a while for Ms Rees to open the door, when she did she peered at them as if she half didn’t believe they were there.

“Can I help you Inspector?” She looked tired.

“Ms Rees, have you heard anything from your daughter?” Wren prepared to study Ms Rees’ expression.

“No, wait? Isn’t she with you?” Ms Rees said. Wren could see only confusion in her face.

“I am afraid she left the hospital this morning. We want to track her down. Have you seen her?” She left the question as open ended as possible.

“I haven’t heard anything from her,” Her eyes darted from Wren to Tom and back again, “Who is he? He's not police.”

Wren guessed she must have remembered Tom from the hospital.

“My colleague is a medical professional. We thought it prudent he come along, just to check on her,” she watched the fear grow in Ms Rees’s eyes. Either she knew nothing of Jack’s disappearance or she was one hell of an actress. Still, she had to be sure, “I want to impress on you Ms Rees that Jack is in no trouble. She is completely free to come and go as she pleases. We only want to make sure she is well and safe. "

“You better come in,” Ms Rees said, “You need to tell me everything.”

Ms Rees led them into her living room indicating for them to sit down. There was nothing particularly special about the room. Wren recognised most of the furniture from visits to Ikea with a few other pieces. The artwork on the walls was a little strange though. Tom went to sit down on the sofa while Wren inspected the walls. The first photograph she looked at was of a bearded man standing behind a young girl sitting on an avocado green slide. By the look of the clothes it had been taken in the early 80s. It was mounted and framed and, by Wren’s guess, it was a professional job. The style was very modern.

“Is this Jack and her father?” She asked.

“Oh yes,” Ms Rees said absentmindedly, “Anyone for tea?”

Wren told her she was fine but Tom asked for a builder’s tea - milk and two sugars. Ms Rees seemed to warm to Tom and smiled at him. Wren felt a little annoyed by this. She didn’t like the way she gently touched his shoulder, but pushed it down.

“What does it say underneath, Wio Dworh?” Wren asked trying to read the strange writing; ‘Wið Dweorh’. What language was it ? One of the Scandinavian ones?

“It’s an old good luck charm, I just liked it.” Ms Rees disappeared into the kitchen.

As she heard the sounds of a kettle being boiled Wren continued to look around. One photograph, black and white this time, showed a man dressed in a strange straw costume. The next showed a man in some old pub dressed in what looked like a German dress uniform from the First World War.

“What happened to Jack’s dad?” She asked as Ms Rees re-entered the room carrying two mugs. She gave one to Tom who thanked her and sat down in the armchair with the other.

She blew on the tea before answering, “You asked me that before. As I said then, our marriage didn’t really last long after Jack disappeared. I guess it was too much of a reminder of what we had lost.”

Wren interrupted her, “But do you know what happened to him? Where he is I mean?”

Ms Rees took another sip of her tea, “The last I heard from him he was working in the Middle East somewhere, earning quite a bit of money doing something IT related for a big company out there. I emailed him just last night, to tell him what had happened.”

“Could I have his email address?”

“Sure,” Ms Rees slowly put her tea down, “It is on my computer, I’ll just go and get it.”

She left the room. Wren waited until she was sure they weren’t being overheard, “So what do you think?”

Tom paused for a moment, “She seems genuine, about not knowing where her daughter is I mean. She looked terrified when you told her.”

Wren nodded, that was true, “Something doesn’t add up though, something she’s not telling us.”

“Do you think Jack is with the dad?” Tom asked.

“No,” this time it was Wren’s turn to pause for thought, “We’d know if she had tried to leave the country and where would she get a passport from without any money? Anyhow I don’t think she’d know where he is. Remember when she went missing her mum and dad were together.” She stopped talking when Ms Rees re-entered to room.

She passed Wren a card with a neatly written email address on it. Wren thanked her.

“Do you have any idea where she could be?” Wren asked.

“No, sorry. All of her friends have moved away or moved in with partners and the such. Even the ones she was close to she’d hardly recognise today.” She looked Wren directly in the eyes, “I don’t know what happened to my daughter. Why doesn’t she seem to have aged at all, but those years have taken and given a lot to those of us who took the long wayto get here? I doubt she is in contact with any of them. Hell, I doubt she even has a Facebook account.”

Wren’s phone started ringing. She saw that it was work. “I am sorry,” she said, “I am going to have to take this. It might be about Jack.” Ms Rees didn’t say anything, she just nodded, her face turning a little whiter.

As Mark spoke to her on the phone she watched Tom and Ms Rees interacting. She was impressed by the way he quickly got her to trust him. He leaned in, his body language signalled trust.

“I am sorry Ms Rees but we are going to have to leave you,” she looked between the two of them, “another girl has gone missing.” They both looked startled.

As they gathered their coats Wren remembered something, “You never told me what Wio Dworh means?”

Ms Rees smiled, directing them towards the door, “Oh it is just an old good luck charm. It literally means Against a Dwarf.”

“A dwarf?” Wren was surprised. She thought of the bearded short men in the Lord of the Rings films.

“In Anglo-Saxon times dwarfs were thought of as night spirits,” Ms Rees told them, when she saw their blank expressions, “They were the personification of infections or bad dreams. It’s is meant to keep you safe from illness.”

Wren nodded. It was strange but made sense. Just as they were at the door Ms Rees grabbed her by the arm.

“Inspector, I fear my daughter is in grave danger, please help her,” Ms Rees’ voice wavered as she spoke.

“Of course, we will do everything we can to find your daughter,” The standard response. You had to reassure them but you were never to make a promise you might have tobreak or be unable to fulfil.

Ms Rees let go of her arm, “I can tell you are someone who will help her, and your young man as well. Good luck.”

Before Wren could say anything the door was closed and she was alone with Tom on the steps.

---

By the time Jack woke it was already getting dark outside. For a few minutes he lay there watching the snowflakes dance in the wind. Some of the houses had already turned their lights on. Across the city people were sitting down to Saturday evening telly. Jack wondered if Bruce Forsyth still presented the Generation Game?

Then something happened he’d never seen before, the streetlights turned on. Jack thought this must have happened once a day every day for the whole of his life, yet this was the only time he had ever witnessed it.

He lay there for more than ten minutes, listening to the sound of Rach moving around downstairs. Finally he thought he needed to do something. His head was groggy; to try and wake it up he made an inventory of the room . It was clearly a spare room as, despite the bed, its main purpose was obviously storage. From the boxes of paperwork, exercise books and shelves filled with textbooks, young adult novels and various souvenirs from trips he guessed Rach was a teacher.

He rooted around before finding the switch for the bedside lamp. He pulled his sluggish body upright and threw the cover off. He was embarrassed to find he was wearing only a T-shirt, with Yellow Class Chester Zoo Trip 2014 printed on it and a pair of women’s black underpants. The ink of some of the letters on the T-shirt had begun to flake off. The way it pushed out from his chest and the flatness at the front of his underwear were too disturbing for him to take in. He needed a distraction.

He stood up and walked over to the largest bookshelf. The first item he picked up was a badly made green ceramic mug with the words World’s Best Aunt painted on it, only Aunt was spelt ‘Arnt’. Next to that was a small cuddly bull with a tag that said ‘Vacas Locas’. Behind them was a class photo. Rach and another woman stood either side of a group of beaming children. He looked at their innocent little faces looking up at him, there was so much hope there. If that policewoman was right then none of them had even been born the last time he remembered the world had made sense. Hell, probably most of their parents had not even met.

There was a loud bang and clatter from downstairs, then he heard Rach swear loudly. She must have dropped some pots and pans. He wondered what she was cooking. Whatever, the noise had brought him out of himself. He looked around the room again, this time with a more practical eye.

Across from the bed was a little table and swivel chair. The space between the bed and the table wasn’t big enough for the chair to turn around completely, but at least you could sit down reasonably comfortably. On the table was a metallic grey laptop that looked both smaller and sleeker than anything he’d seen before. Hanging over the back of the chair were some clothes.

Reaching out and picking up the clothes he guessed were meant for him. He laid them out on the bed. The bra and panties were bland enough for him to cope with. He struggled putting the bra on, cursing and wondering why they didn’t make the clasps easier to attach from behind your back? His arms ached as he did it, a reminder he’d just left hospital. The pants were simpler although he refused to look as he put them on. For some reason he could cope with his chest, but the emptiness at his crotch was too much. He just had to ignore it and find time to deal with it later.

Moving the clothes around he hoped to find trousers or at least shorts. He was not happy to find black tights and a short skirt. At least the top was better, a plain white T-shirt and a peach coloured cardigan. He spent a good ten or fifteen minutes trying to put the tights on before he came up with the solution of balling them up before slowly rolling them up his legs one leg at a time. After that he pulled the T-shirt and cardigan on.

He stared at the little black skirt; it almost seemed to be more indecent with it than without. For a moment he thought about going downstairs as he was and demanding some trousers. But that seemed very ungrateful to someone who had been so kind and really had no reason to be so.

A knock on the front door made him jump. He held his breath as he listened to Rach going to the front door. In his mind he could clearly see the Brownies waiting on the other side for her. Every atom in his body wanted to scream out in warning. The door opened and he heard the voices of Isaac and Rach greeting each other. He sagged as he soundlessly let out the air in his lungs. He hadn’t realised he had been holding his breath until then.

Looking down at the little skirt he steeled himself. It may not offer much cover but at least it stopped him from baring his bum to Isaac.

How could such a small garment be so restricting? His every step down the stairs reminded him of the tugging on his hips and the need to keep his legs together for the sake of modesty.

“How is she doing?” Jack heard Isaac’s whispered voice.

“Good, I think. She’s been sleeping, but I heard her moving around just a moment ago…” Rach stopped as she saw him emerging down the stairs. “Hey Jacks, you look great,” Rach turned to Isaac for confirmation, “Doesn’t she look great Isaac?”

Isaac just nodded. Jack could feel eyes going up and down his body taking it all in. Jack had heard women use the expression ‘why don’t you take a picture, it’ll last longer,’ before, now he understood it fully. Funnily enough he felt quiet proud that he had Isaac’s full attention, although he dismissed it as quickly as he could. After all it was understandable he’d be happy to see the person who had helped him so much.

“Food’s nearly done,” said Rach looking between them, “do you both want wine?”

“Sure,” said Isaac grinning. Jack nodded, he wasn’t sure if he could handle it, but he figured it was a normal thing for him to do.

They sat in the front room, some weird singing contest on the TV. The contestants kept talking about doing it for their dead Gran or similar. Jack wondered why that was relevant? He sat on a cushion on the floor, his legs folded underneath him. Rach had looked a little disappointed when he hadn’t sat down next to Isaac on the sofa.

After they had finished eating the delicious lasagne Rach had cooked for them she went and fetched a little black box.

“I thought we could play this,” she put the box down on the coffee table, “I figured it would be something Jack could play just as easily as us.”

He looked at the writing on the box as Rach began dealing out the cards. It said, ‘Cards Against Humanity’.

“It’s simple enough,” Rach explained, “We each take it in turns to read one of the black cards,” she looked at Jack, “You can just show it to us. Then the other two have to select one of their white cards to finish it with. The reader selects the one she, or he, thinks is the funniest.”

Jack looked down at the cards in his hands, amongst them he had:

“A posh wank,” “72 virgins,” and “Emma Watson.” He hand no idea who this ‘Emma Watson’ was. People in the future had some strange ways of entertaining themselves. They all sat on the floor around the little coffee table.

The night and the wine both flowed quickly. After the first few rounds Rach went and fetched a large tube filled with plastic dinosaurs, “I give them out to the good children in class, when they get points for their houses, like Griffindor and Slytherin,” Jack had no idea what she was talking about - since when did British primary schools have houses? “We each get a dinosaur when we win,” she finished explaining.

Jack had the distinct impression Rach and Isaac were letting him win. He certainly had more dinosaurs then either of them. He also noticed how Rach was topping up his glass even when it wasn't empty.

Rach read out the card, “What never fails to liven up the party?”

Jack looked through his cards, he didn’t have many good ones left. He figured he’d get rid of one he didn’t understand and let Isaac take this one.

“OK,” Rach put her hands on the two cards they had put down, “What never fails to liven up the party…” She turned over the first card, “Concealing an erection.”

Jack silently laughed, rolling back on the floor. He had to pick himself up silent tears running down her cheeks. He didn’t know why he found it so funny - perhaps it was the mention of an erection that pierced his awkwardness? Whatever, the rude ones always worked for him.

As he composed himself he looked at Isaac who was giving him a funny look; it made Jack avert his eyes quickly. He felt tingly and awkward, but he felt something else, underneath. Was it a sense of power? After feeling abandoned in a strange place and in a strange time it felt more than a little good to be able to compel someone to want to stick around.

Rach looked between the two of them, not for the first time that night. “Okay, I can see which one you liked the best,” she smiled to herself, “Well lets see the other contender.”

“What never fails to liven up the party… Ed Balls.” Both Rach and Isaac laughed, although they didn’t roll around the same way Jack had. Jack had no idea who this Ed Balls was, only that he had a mildly amusing name. “Well I think that is two against one, Ed wins it.”

Isaac threw up his hands in mock protest, “What? No! You saw the way she laughed so hard at my concealed erection. Concealing an erection has to win, I’ve been hiding that all evening.”

They all laughed at the innuendo, Jack wondered if he had planned that from the beginning?

“Tough luck bozo, Jack and Ed won the dinosaur fair and square,” Rach reached into the tube and pulled out a green T-Rex, “Oh bum, that’s the last one.” She passed it to Jack and thought for a second, “I think I have something we can use in the spare room.” She got up and darted out of the room.

“No waaay is that fair,” Isaac leaned back on his arms, Jack couldn’t help but notice his broad shoulders, “That was my best card.”

Jack smiled mockingly at him. He took the dinosaur and wiggled it around bouncing it on Isaac’s knee. He had no idea why he was being so silly, the wine he guessed. But he was enjoying teasing Isaac, it made him feel normal. He began moving the dinosaur up Isaac’s leg getting closer and closer to his thigh. Jack had to get up onto his knees to reach Isaac. He wasn’t sure exactly when Isaac froze, but something about it changed the atmosphere.

Without really thinking about it Jack’s face had become close to Isaac’s. He watched Isaac’s eyes staring at him. They were so brown and soft and he had them completely to himself. He was on all fours holding himself over Isaac. His breasts were close to Isaac’s chest, and he could feel a tingling spreading throughout his new body. How long did they have? Surely Rach wouldn’t take that long? Running on wine and instinct he closed his eyes and leaned in.

Before their lips could touch he felt the pressure of Isaac’s hands on his shoulders pushing him back. He opened his eyes surprised. He hadn’t really meant to do it, not really, but he had just assumed Isaac wanted him to.

“Sorry Jack, look I really am. We just can’t do this,” Isaac stammered.

Oh god, had he read the signals all wrong? Were Rach and Isaac an item, did he have another girlfriend. Why had he done it? He had never fancied boys before. The thought disgusted him.

Perhaps it was him. Maybe Isaac just didn’t like him? He’d assumed Isaac had been helping him because he wanted to get with him, but what if he was just being kind. He felt worthless, especially for just assuming he could take advantage of Isaac who had only been nice to him. He wanted to crawl under the sofa and never come out again.

Isaac looked like he was just about to say something when the doorbell rang. They both looked around.

“Is anyone expecting someone,” came Rach’s voice from upstairs.

They both turned and looked at each other with blank expressions. The doorbell rang again.

Isaac voiced Jack’s fear as he got up, “You'd better stay out of sight, maybe they have tracked you here.” Isaac went to the door, Jack could hear Rach coming down the stairs.

Jack went behind the half open living room door, watching what was happening through the crack between the door and the frame.

He saw the front door open and Isaac ask who was there. A voice boomed out, it sounded posh and well groomed. It was loud and suggested the owner was used to not having to hide his opinions.

“Hello,” it boomed, “My name is Peter Pan and I’m here to speak to the young lady Jack.”



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