Edition 8: Eyes of the Child by Robert Harkess
Alice is thought to be psychic and she revels in her power over other people. Why then is she chilled to the bone from one chance encounter with a stranger? She will be called on like she never has been before, and will have to use her abilities to prevent a tragedy. SY
“So you don’t agree with people who say you are the reincarnation of Doris Stokes?” Last asked. She had expected the weasely little reporter from the Hertfordshire Weekly Gazette to be scratching at a pad with a pencil, but instead he was waving some kind of fancy mobile phone under her nose to record her. She wondered if the clicking of her knitting needles would make the interview difficult to hear. Part of her hoped it would.
“Oh, no, dear,” said Alice, clickity-clackety and a little sharp jerk to pull more wool from the bag at her feet. The reporter ran his finger behind his collar again. She liked to keep the flat toasty warm, and he was still wearing his outdoor coat despite her suggestion that he take it off when he arrived. “You won’t feel the benefit when you go back outside,” she had said.
“No, not Doris. Doris was a bit flashy for my taste, if you see what I mean. All that nonsense with television shows, and places like the Albert Hall, and all those things she did abroad. No, not for me. I just like to meet people and pass on any important messages.”
“Have you ever been investigated?”
“Good heavens, no. Who would want to investigate me?”
Last shrugged. “The word is that you’re infallible.”
She rocked back and forth in the chair with a little more vigour, and the tippetty-tap of the needles got a tiny bit faster. A knee discretely nudged at the multi-coloured thing in her lap, stopping it from sliding down the floor. “I’m not infallible.”
“People are saying you are. Perhaps you could give me a list of previous clients, so I could get their opinion?”
She stopped knitting and looked at him. She didn’t glare or glower, she just looked. He had the grace to go slightly pink. She moved the knitting to one hand, so she could gently pat at the bun of hair on the back of her head before starting to knit again.
“I am not infallible,” she repeated.
“Ah, but those you speak to say you never miss.”
She smiled gently, but said nothing.
“Would you agree to an investigation, if one was offered? You know the sort of thing; check out if you’re a fake, hidden wires, all that stuff.”
She was gently shaking her head before he could finish. “No, dearie. No tests. If people want to come and speak to me, that’s their business. If there is a message for them, I pass it on.”
“And is it true you don’t charge?”
“I don’t ask for anything. If somebody wants to leave me something as a thank you…well, it would be rude not to take it, but I’d as much like to get a nice homemade cake as money any day.”
The reporter fiddled with his smartphone and slid it into an inside pocket of his jacket. “That’ll do, Mrs Lee…”
“Call me Alice,” she insisted for the third or fourth time.
“Alice, then. I’ll get this typed up and sent to the editor and, if he likes it, you should see it in this week’s edition. Do you read our paper?”
She smiled at him, but shook her head. “Never touch it, dear. Leaves muck on my fingers, and it goes all over the knitting.”
He was half way out the door when she called to him.
“By the way, your Dad says to fix the lock. Something about a broken key in the front door. Says it’s not safe, and he’ll be seeing his grandchildren next week if you keep ignoring it.”
The reporter froze, staring at her with a motionless face that slowly drained of colour until it looked like a death mask. Alice said nothing, but looked him with a slight smile on her lips as she saw the fear and anger he was trying to process reflected in his eyes. He nodded once, jerkily, and left the flat.
Alice put both her needles in one hand and patted the bun on the back of her head. The tight knot of hair seemed to glow, as if catching the late afternoon sun. She reached for the remote and tuned the telly on. There was usually something to watch on a Monday afternoon.
Locking the door to her flat from the outside Alice walked slowly to the elevator, her four-wheeled trolley squeaking ahead of her. Not that she was unsteady on her feet, she was always quick to say. “Still young yet,” she would almost always add.
It was Thursday, and she always took a trip to the supermarket on a Thursday. As she waited for the lift to rattle its way up to the seventh floor to collect her, she cast her head from side to side and sniffed as though she was picking up the spoor of the reporter. A slight smile bent her lips upwards. There was nothing soft about the smile. It was sharp and predatory, as if she could still feel the residue of his fear as he fled. The lift arrived, as it always did for her, and she rode it down to the ground level.
‘Centre Tower’ was a dilapidated apartment block in the middle of Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, perched at the end of a semi-sheltered shopping mall around which a bitterly cold wind gusted no matter what the time of year. More than half the shop windows looked to hide the air of decay that lingered around the place by placing art from local clubs and societies or adverts from other business in the otherwise vacant windows. Alice passed through the mall with her back a little straighter than usual, almost as though she was proud of it.
At the supermarket, Alice kept an eye out for people she knew. Not necessarily people who had come to see her, but perhaps someone she had ‘reached out’ to, as she called it. Someone for whom a message had come through so strongly that she had stopped them there and then and spoken to them. And she remembered every one. When she saw someone, she would go out of her way to make sure their paths crossed so she could tender a bright smile they could not ignore. She enjoyed the way they all tried to look aside, with a combination of shifty, angry, or terrified expressions. She also liked the way people would point and whisper when they thought she could not see them. She smirked, relishing the notoriety, and the almost palpable ripple of dread that people around her seemed to feel.
As she walked down aisle four—milk and creams on one side, tea, coffee and hot chocolate on the other—she stopped and turned as someone pushed a cage full of flattened cardboard past her. A short sequence of images and information flowed into her mind.
“Young man,” she called, her tone so declamatory that everybody in the aisle turned to look at her. “You. David Scott.”
The shelf-monkey pushing the trolley, who looked to be still in his teens and either in need of a girlfriend or a good anti-acne soap, flushed bright red as he realised he was the subject of her attention. To make sure, he slowly pointed to himself with the forefinger of his left hand, his right being busy holding on to the trolley and in no small part keeping him on his feet. She saw in his eyes the moment he recognised who she was, and she nodded slowly.
“Your Grandfather Jack says he’s looking forward to seeing you tomorrow. Unless you get the brakes repaired on your car.”
The shop assistant nodded slowly. Alice turned and went about her business, leaving an aisle of muttering and gossip behind her. It felt like a warm glow bathing her back and neck as she walked away, turning left down the central space to go looking for breakfast cereal.
Whatever it was Alice did, it wasn’t talking to the dead. People talked to her, just without knowing it. She would see things in their minds, things that worried them. Another little dig usually managed to unearth a recently death in the family. Put the two together, and you had Alice. The ones who came to her were easiest. They overflowed with so many memories that she could use, it was almost too easy.
When she left the supermarket Alice took the little alley that joined the car park to the High Street, at the end of which was the library. She dropped off a couple of books getting close to their return date but didn’t have time to pick any more, so she headed down the High Street and back towards her flat. As she passed behind the grey steel public benches, huddled outside the Post Office, a wave of darkness washed over her.
Alice had never felt anything like it. It was coming in like all her other messages, but never had there been such emotion accompanying them. A deep dark hatred of something, and a desire to punish, to hurt, anyone and everyone to take some undefined revenge. She felt herself stagger. Her hands gripped convulsively at the trolley, but it offered her no support as the wheels shot out from under and she fell to the floor.
There was a bustle of noise around her, people arguing to give her room and should someone call an ambulance and don’t move her and get her up to the seat. Alice let it all wash past her. A man sitting on the bench, wearing a dark blue hoodie, had turned to look at her. His skull was shaven to black stubble, and his face was covered by a thin beard. He stared directly into her eyes, then smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile. It chilled her blood and made her flinch away. Then he stood and was gone and she let the people fussing around her take control while she tried not to faint.
She eventually let them help her to her feet, thanked everybody politely, refused the ambulance, and set off towards her flat. As she passed the newsagent nestled in between the Elizabethan pub and a suspicious looking restaurant, Alice caught sight of the newspaper billboard outside, and she scowled at it. Exclusive interview with local medium, it blared. Several copies of the paper were folded into a rack above the poster. With ginger fingers and an expression that suggested she was touching something dead and rotting rather than a local rag, Alice pulled a copy from the rack and opened it. The headline read: Local ‘Doris Stokes’: Fake or Fantastic? and the article covered most of the front page and was, it said, continued on page five. There was even a picture of her, with a knitted thing on her lap and a beaming smile, which he had no recollection of agreeing to. She folded the paper carelessly, stuffed it back into the rack, and strode off
Alice went back to the nest of her living room, with the fire turned up nice and warm and the knitted thing on her lap providing an extra layer of thermal protection. The wireless was tuned to Radio 2, but she could not help wishing that it played more music like it once had. Doris Day, perhaps, or that nice Dean Martin.
The next day Alice went out. She didn’t normally go out on a Friday, but she felt fidgety and neither the knitted thing nor Jeremy Kyle gave her any comfort. But when she finally stood outside the reinforced door of the tower block, she realised she really had nowhere to go. There was a park near the canal, but it was miles away and there was no bus. Reluctantly, she set off towards the High Street, and the Friday Market.
The first child she passed off as simply being rude, but the second child made her feel uncomfortable. The third sent a shiver down her backbone. Every child she passed was looking at her. Their parents paid her no mind at all, but every child stared her directly in the eyes. Alice looked away, but their eyes were still focussed on her when she glanced back to see if she was still under scrutiny.
Being looked at was nothing new; she had courted it for years. This was different. The solemn, expectant eyes, the sadness. The intensity. She pushed her way into the library, through the turnstile, and found a chair to slump into. Her heart was beating too hard, stuttering, like a jazz drummer playing everywhere except on the beat. She scrabbled in the bag for the pills she had been given. They were nothing more than aspirin, but she put one under her tongue anyway and let the bitterness calm her. A few moments and a deep breath later, the whole thing was brushed away as an attack of the vapours.
Until Alice looked up from tucking her pill bottle into her bag and found the girl standing not three feet in front of her. She was perhaps nine years old, famine thin, with a dirty top and leggings a size too small. Her feet were in battered flip-flops, the soles squashed almost flat and garish cherry-red bows on each toe-strap. Her hair hung in lank, dirty rat-tails of grubby blonde. Alice flinched back in her chair.
“You have to look into it.”
“Into what?” Alice asked automatically, pre-empting an instruction for the offensive little beast to go away.
“If you don’t look into it, they’ll die.”
Alice opened her mouth to demand an explanation, but the child had already turned away and was walking off, back to the children’s section where a woman sat and twiddled with her phone while two more brats squalled on the floor. The two rugrats fell silent at the same instant, and their heads slowly turned to face her, dark eyes boring into hers.
The trolley let her down as she tried to pull herself to her feet, tipping as she put her weight on the handle. Instead, she pushed herself up using the chair arms, then shuffled out of the library in a parody of haste.
Everywhere eyes in unhappy faces accused her of a crime she didn’t understand. She fixed her eyes on the ground, staring at a spot three steps ahead of her. When she raised her eyes to cross the road, a child in a passing car tracked her through the window. In her tower block, children playing by the lifts stopped and stared at her as they slowly made way for her, and she could feel their eyes boring into her back as she waited for the lift doors to open.
When the lift dinged its arrival and the doors ground open on her floor, she peered cautiously out, expecting another mob of infants to be glaring at her.
The gasp was almost a sob. There were none. She hurried from the lift and along the corridor, stumbling in her haste, trying to get the key from her purse before she made it to her door and almost dropping it. She slipped the first key into the deadlock and turned it, and as she swapped from that to the Yale, she heard a door open down the corridor. She refused to look. The key slipped into the cylinder and started to turn. A piping voice spoke very clearly. “You must look inside. They will die if you don’t. Both of them”
Her door slammed shut behind her and she leaned back again it. Her heart hammered arrhythmically and her hands shook as she put them to her cheeks. She concentrated very hard on stopping her bladder from voiding and, only when she was sure that wouldn’t happen, did she turn and fasten every security device on the door.
Alice could not remember the last time she had slept. Only the TV reminded her which day it was. Nothing more fortifying than tea and a plain biscuit had passed her lips for some time. The TV distracted her a little but she needed the volume so high, day and night, that the neighbours had been battering on the door, and hammering on both floor and ceiling. The visions of infant faces, all so serious, played over and over in her head as she tried to ignore the one thing she knew she had to confront. The black miasma that overwhelmed her in the street had not been empty.
It terrified her. Lurking, whole and intact in the back of her mind, she waited for it to pounce and devour her. Simply trying to ignore it made her think of it more, and all the faces and the children telling her she had to look inside. She could not escape the certainty that if she did, it would consume her.
What was worse, confronting the thing or confronting the fear of the thing? Was that it? Was it a function of the dark blot in her mind simply to make her fearful of it? She cast her mind back to the day, replaying the brief walk from the library, getting closer to the grey bench and the man sitting on it.
She felt sick; violently, brutally sick. Her stomach clenched and bile burned at the back of her throat. A warning? She paused, too scared to go closer, looking at the man’s back. He was big; not just tall, but wide across the shoulders. Not fat, though. He wore jeans so faded they were almost white and a dark blue hoodie. There was a design on the back like the label of a popular beer brand. His hair was concealed beneath the hood, as was his face. Battered white trainers jutted out in front of him, ankles crossed, top separating from the sole down the instep of his right foot.
He turned to look at her, revealing the face she had buried in her memory, smiling. His eyes bored into hers, and she felt him drive into her mind, his thoughts raping hers. He sifted through her memories, replaying the little triumphs she had scored over little people, the vicious descriptions of life’s little tragedies.
No words passed between them. She received an image of a newspaper article, and realised that was how this person had found her. The picture of a folded paper with her face on the cover triggered a raft of associated memories, and she felt a flash of triumph. He had been searching for things with which to hurt people, ways to exploit pain and tragedy, and she had just given him something more than he had ever hoped for. She watched, helpless, as he scrambled her memory of what he had found, then built a mental wall around the whole event, hiding everything from her.
Her hands trembled uncontrollably and her sight slowly returned, bringing back the details of her tatty grandma flat with its tacky trinkets and the knowledge she had given away something terrible gnawed on her like a dog on an old bone.
What was it? What did the image of the newspaper unlock in her mind that had been of such delicious interest? Nothing made sense, not the newspapers, not the children on the street, not the dire warnings that “both of them would die”. She lurched to her feet and hobbled to the window, leaning on the low cabinet, hands fumbling to find safe purchase amongst all the trinkets. She knocked one over, a china figurine of an infant brother and sister. She picked it up and threw it against the wall with a satisfying crash and tinkle.
Things had been jumbled. She could feel the confusion in her head, see the faces of the people she had teased, and remember things she had predicted. But they didn’t add up. A woman at the bus stop older then her, a spotty youth in the supermarket, the journalist who had interviewed her, a stall holder. Faulty brakes, a poorly cat, a loose stone in a step. All there, but none connected to where it should be. Had that been what she had hidden? Or was it him who had hidden it from her?
She noticed there was one missing; she could remember one more victim than prediction. But which one? Her hands started to tremble. She had to look inside the darkness again. It was unclean, and defiled her, but she played the incident again. The more she concentrated, the more revulsion tried to overwhelm her, but this time, as she felt him stamping around in her memory, she caught flavours of his own thoughts. He had seen what he wanted, and there were images flickering in his thoughts; the flicker of a sharp edge, the tearing sound of wide tape pulled from a roll, muffled voices and eyes. Oh God, the terrified eyes.
She was on her knees, her hands clenched on the edge of the cabinet, a small pool of vomit pouched in the folds of her dress. Now she remembered.
The journalist. The key broken in the lock. She had seen children, a little boy and a little girl. What else had she seen, that she hadn’t noticed? She stood, carefully so as to contain the vomit, and got ready to go out.
The offices of the Hertfordshire Weekly Gazette were in the bleak shopping arcade at the foot of her tower block. She bashed her trolley against the door to open it, making the receptionist look up with an annoyed expression. Then she flinched and looked panicked, and Alice cursed her for being a fool at a time like this.
“Where is the reporter who interviewed me?”
“I…don’t…” The girl looked around for anybody to help her, but every face in the office was turned away. Alice didn’t care. She let her mind lean forward and dig.
“Where is Mr Last? I need to speak to him.”
“We can’t give out—” but Alice already knew the girl could not remember it. All she got was pressing two buttons on her phone that dialled it automatically.
“Where does he live?”
“I said we can’t…” the girl began, more hotly this time, but her voice trailed off as Alice reached forward, took a pen, and wrote Last’s address on a compliment slip. “How did you know?”
“You don’t believe the stories your paper prints?” asked Alice, her voice hard. “Phone number, please.”
The girl pressed buttons, wrote something. “He’s not answering,” she said, and Alice noticed the small headset perched on the girl’s ear. “Shall I give him a message?”
“Yes. Tell him ‘I warned him’ and ‘he has to fix it now’. He’ll know what it means.” She turned away, hoping that would be enough, but a tiny sliver of thought flowed from the girl and stopped her. An opening night? A theatre, in Harlow? She breathed a sigh of relief. He wouldn’t be in tonight. She turned back to the girl. “What is the play he is reviewing?”
“How…?” The girl swallowed. “It’s a local production of Equus.” She blushed and looked furtively fascinated. “You know, the one where he ends up naked.”
Hardly suitable for the family, Alice thought, as she walked out of the Gazette’s offices and up the High Street. It was gone five. Shops were starting to close. If she went to the house and tried to warn them, who would believe her? And what if he was already there?
The police station was just up the road; farther than she normally liked to walk, but still “in range”. She set off, pushing the trolley in front of her. Fifteen minutes later she was dragging it up the absurdly steep ramp of the “step-free access”, and on into the station.
It was a cheerless place. The lobby was a box no bigger than the lifts in her tower block, with every window inches thick and no handles on any of the doors. A bored-looking WPC stood behind the counter. “Can I help you?” There was no offer of help in her tone.
“Yes. There is going to be an attack tonight, on some children I think.”
The WPC looked up. For a moment her face was sharp and interested, but it quickly sagged into scorn. “You’re that woman who says she can see things, aren’t you? I read about you in the paper.”
Alice inclined her head and drew breath to speak, but the WPC got there first. “So, have you got any real evidence or information, or is this one of your ‘visions’?” The scorn was almost physical and Alice took an involuntary step back. “I should get you done for wasting police time,” the WPC added, her lip curling.
Alice took a breath and felt her lips firm into a thin line. “Feel free, dear, but if they find out your child wasn’t fathered by your husband, or that you fantasise about one of your female colleagues, how will that work for you?”
The WPC look confused. “What—but none of that’s true!”
“I know.” Alice waited until the WPC’s eyes opened wide and she was flushing angrily. “Now, find me someone with some authority to talk to, please.”
Alice stepped out of the lift and walked towards her door. She had done her little trick on a sergeant and he had promised her that someone would go around to the house. It was the best she could do, and she had trudged back to the tower block, night and chill closing around her, aches growing with every step. She had done too much. At least the children weren’t staring at her any more.
As her key touched the lock, a shiver ran along her arm. Far away, she felt a howl of rage, of outrage at being denied, and a small smile twisted her lips. She unlocked the door, took off her coat, and turned the fire on before sitting in her favourite chair. She didn’t bother making tea.
She was just getting warm when the door flew open. There was no kick or crash. She hadn’t locked it; there hadn’t seemed to be any point. He didn’t need to be in the room with her, but it was tidier, more private.
She felt the paralysis sweep across her body as he walked into the room, washing down from her neck in a tingling band that slowly froze each limb into immobility.
He sat before her, an echo of the reporter who had started this all just a fortnight ago. She held her face impassive, refusing to allow the fear churning her guts to show. He’d carried nothing into the room with him, but then he didn’t need any props.
“That’s wasn’t very nice,” he said, smiling broadly. “I believe you owe me.”
The tingling band rose upwards from the base of her neck. She felt her last breath still in her throat, and the last beat of her heart. The blackness surrounded her, overwhelmed her, and the sharp, shining edges flickered hungrily around the edges of her soul.
Robert grudgingly shares his writing time with his real-world job as an IT manager. He lives just north of London with a wonderful wife and two attention-seeking fur-dragons. His imaginary twin writes YA fiction as R. B. Harkess and they both blog at www.rbharkess.co.uk