By Paul McAvoy
Read the first chapter now:
The first thing I saw was the mist. It was a wall of translucent grey; it was so thick, clinging to the air resolutely. Slowly I was able to make out the skeletal shapes of the branches; could see the trunks, lurking intently. Leaves protruded through the greyness like striking daggers. The ground was a mass of rotten leaves.
The place was still and silent, and it felt as though someone had clasped their hands over my ears. There was an overall feeling of loneliness. This… and sadness. But… I did not feel sad. For some reason I was happy inside…
But then I suddenly felt a lightning strike of fear run across my chest; my legs grew numb with trepidation.
How had I got here? Where was here?
I looked quickly around me, nothing but mist. I cautiously started to walk along in silence, trying to remember something... anything. Where... who? How..? It was as though I was a newborn. My memories were gone, and all I could recall was drowning.
Yes.... drowning. I was swallowing dirty water and it tasted terrible. What had been in that water... duck wee? It had tasted gross. I remember thinking how horrible it would be, dying like this, with the taste of this awful water from the lake. Yes... a lake.
A long lake, where once a water speed record had been broken and the pilot had died during a speed attempt. I had learned all about that, from some teacher… Miss Jackson.
A couple of memories began to return. We had been on a school trip to the Lake District. A bit of scrambling up rocks, canoeing, walking, abseiling...
And drowning. Let’s not forget the drowning... What every good school trip needs, a bad accident of some kind.
I looked around the woods, for that was where I guessed I was. I tried to think. I must have got out of the lake somehow. I must have found my way to the shore. I looked down at my body, I ran my hands over my clothing: they were dry as a bone.
Think. Think, Jess, think!
Jess.... that’s me. Pleased to meet you.
I heard my mother’s voice: Jessica James, try to think backwards. What was the last thing you remember?
I don’t know...
Then another voice, one who was familiar, but whose voice I could not recall: Try to remember, Jess. You will if you try... deep breath, relax…
Mum again: ‘The last thing you remember. What was the last thing you remember, hon?’
‘Drowning, Mum... just drowning.’
The sound of my own voice broke the silence of the day. Somewhere I heard a magpie chatter, as though responding to what I had just said.
And before this ‘drowning?’ It was that other voice again. The strange voice.
I had been sailing with Adam... I remember I had not wanted to go with him as he is such an idiot. But one of the more sadistic teachers had paired us together as it would be good ‘team building.’ Team building with an idiot, yes… great. And just as an idiot like him would do, he made us sail right out into the centre of the lake, even though the teachers had explicitly told us not too.
I think our small boat had hit something as water started coming in and we began to sink. Adam had been laughing, messing around. We ended up in the water, but I was sinking… my life-jacket was faulty. I tried to swim, but there was a strong current. Adam was okay, but seemed concerned for me now... he tried to come over and help me, but suddenly I was under... and tasting the water.
‘The stupid duck wee water.’
I stared at the water all around me. And now I was in woods, with fog all around me. But... there was something else, something I couldn’t quite remember. It was as though I had come out of the house thinking I had left a tap on upstairs or something. There was something important.
It can wait until later…
Just get to safety first, worry about it later. Find civilisation.
I decided to carry on walking, to where I did not know. I heard movement to my right and watched a squirrel run across my path. I froze for a moment, and then carried on walking through the woods. My eyes grew accustomed to the dense fog a bit, but I still couldn’t see where I was going. I might end up walking further from civilisation, I thought. Deeper and deeper into dark woods, maybe meet Little Red Riding Hood, or come across a house made of gingerbread.
I was lost. I felt a twisting anguish inside me, it was a feeling I once had as a child when I had got lost while shopping in Manchester. Mum and Dad had been nowhere to be seen. I’d felt so helpless and alone.
Now this same feeling pressed itself upon my body, like a second skin. I found I was unable to breathe... it was a little bit like drowning.
My phone, I thought. Of course. I reached into my jeans pocket and pulled out my Iphone. I pressed the on switch and waited, but the phone was lifeless. Probably due to having been in the water, I decided.
I fiddled with the phone for a moment, crouching down on the dead leaves, taking out the battery and giving it a rub. Still lifeless. The phone seemed very important to me for a moment, as though I needed to remember something about it. I placed it back in my pocket and checked my other pockets.
I found two pound coins and a handkerchief in my jeans. In my hoodie pockets I found a half eaten packet of chewing gum and two hair bobs. I lifted my hand to my head and found my usually tied up blonde hair was lying loosely at the sides. I ran a hand through my locks, and then I put the hair into a pony tail, using one of the hair bobs.
I took in a deep breath. I had to keep moving.
All of a sudden I had a feeling that I was not alone, and that I was being watched. I looked around at the fog, eyes wide. I felt a chill race through me and was stood rigid for a moment.
Calm… keep calm… deep breaths…
The feeling of inertia broke and I hurried along through the woods, anywhere was better than here. Sensing that something was coming after me, I quickened my pace. It was a thing that wanted to hurt me, do me harm... Kill me…Maybe a big bad wolf or a crazed witch.
It was probably my imagination – illusions spawned from inside my head due to being in a weird forest with no idea how I had got here... Yes, I knew that, but I still carried on running.
Finally I found myself at a clearing. I came out of the woods and saw that I was on a road. I exhaled and glanced back in the woods, and then back to the road, which was quiet. I looked both ways. It was an old road, I could see that, and there were no markings. The fog was starting to lift now. I looked up and down the road again and decided to head downwards, not really knowing the reason why.
The feeling that I was being followed was starting to subside.
As I walked, the fog lifted more and I could make out mountains in the distance. Of course... I was in the Lake District still. I wondered how far I had wondered. I studied the mountains, trying to find a familiar crag or peak, but failing... not that I knew much about the mountains here anyway, other than one was called ‘The Tall Man,’ or something. I would just keep walking until I met someone and ask them for directions.
I carried on walking. There was chill in the air, but it was not cold. It felt like it was probably mid morning. I looked up; the sky was as insipid as dirty dishwater. I glanced at the woods again, seeing the wisps of mist curl away from the trees, retreating back to where they came from.
A noise filled the air and I turned to see a Land Rover heading from up the road towards me. I stood to the side of the road and watched the car pass me. There was a man in the driver’s seat with bright red hair and a large nose. He looked in his fifties. He gave me a curious look as he passed me. I watched him drive along the road for a several metres, and then he slowed down. The Land Rover stopped and the man got out the driver’s door. He walked over towards me.
I stopped walking, heart racing.
‘What you doing here, lassie?’ the man asked, curiously, but with concern. ‘You lost, hen?’
‘I... yes, I’m lost.’ I saw that he had a friendly face. ‘Can you help me?’
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘Hop on board, lassie, I’ll tek you to the next village. Am heading there anyways, so it’s no problem.’
He started back to the vehicle. I hurried along the road and got in the Land Rover and sat on the seat next to him.
‘Where you been, lass?’ he asked me.
I fiddled with the seat belt, clicking it in. I turned to stranger. ‘I was on a school trip,’ I told him. ‘I was in a lake, the boat sank.’
The man frowned at me. I saw he had bushy eyebrows and these seemed to thicken with the frown. He started the Land Rover moving.
‘A school trip here?’ he asked. ‘And you were on a loch, aye?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I guess.’ He must be from Scotland, I thought, as ‘loch’ was what they called lakes up there. I didn’t know how I knew that, someone must have told me. He probably has a farm in England, maybe? He looked like a farmer to me.
‘Never heard of school trips here, it’s only fit for sheep, farming and hillwalkers. Where were you staying?’
I tried to think. ‘I can’t remember the name of the place. I think it began with the letter D... or maybe C. Don...Der... Centrick... No, that’s not it.’ I could picture the youth hostel in my mind. There was a large table and we had sat eating breakfast. I hadn’t been able to eat my egg as it was too runny. Plus I was trying to be a vegan. Sadly, there was not much to offer a vegan food-wise on a school trip. I remember that Mollie was sat with me. She asked me if I wanted her mushrooms. She said they tasted like slugs, and I had asked when she had eaten slugs... we had laughed and I had declined her offer...
The man reached over and opened the glove compartment. ‘There’s some bars of chocolate in there, help yourself. Really, there’s plenty.’
I looked inside, realising how hungry I was. I chose a Twix and began to unwrap it. ‘Thanks.’
‘That’s okay... I like to keep a stash, for both health reasons and because I just love chocolate. So you fell out of the boat and made it to the shore of the loch? The loch is a good few miles away, so you must have been wondering for a while. Ye did well getting to shore. Lochs can be quite unforgiving, aye. Taken lives, like the hills, especially in winter.’
‘I don’t remember much of it,’ I told him. ‘I just remember the boat starting to sink and me swallowing water.’
‘Oh, you are a very lucky lass!’
‘I suppose... I just wish I could remember things more.’
The old man was nodding. ‘Aye... it will come back to ye. Given time. Best thing will be for me to get you to the nearest village and get you to the police, arrange to have your parents come and get ye, you ken?’
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Thank you.’ It would be good to see my parents soon. I just wanted to hold them tight and not let go. I stared out of the window, watching the woods as we passed them. The fog was gone now. I saw a bird of prey at the side of the road, pecking at something, beak bloody.
Are you ready to go home? It was that voice again. Yes. I was.
We came to a junction and turned left onto a much wider road. In fact the road looked more cared for. I looked around, but could only see fields and faraway hills. Nothing looked familiar. I must have wandered a long way, without even realising where I was going. Had I been delirious? Why weren’t people looking for me? Did they think I was dead? Were my parents somewhere crying right now? The thought made me feel sick.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Jess,’ I said, finishing my chocolate. I put the wrapper in the pocket of my hoodie.
‘My name’s Bill,’ he said. ‘I should get you to the nearest village in less than five minutes, and we will have ye home by tea time. Don’t ye worry, lass.’
True to his word, we reached a small village in five minutes. First there was the odd sprinkling of houses, a petrol station and then we entered the small village proper. Old terraced cottages, a small school and a shop.
We pulled up outside a police station. Bill parked on double yellow lines, but did not seem too concerned about this. ‘Come on, then,’ he said.
We both got out of the car and headed towards the main entrance of the police station. It was only a small building and when we entered we saw it was small inside too. There was a female police officer sat behind a counter. It was one of those counters that were set in the wall. There was one in my home town, I remember I’d had to go when my father needed to show his driver’s licence to the police because he had been driving with a faulty light or something. But the one I had been to previously had reinforced glass, whereas here there was none. The officer looked up as we entered.
‘Hi Bill, you okay?’ I noticed that she spoke with a Scottish accent, too.
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘This is Jess... I found her wandering, lost and lonely near Shear Bank.’
‘Oh?’ she asked. ‘Shear Bank?’
‘Says she was on a school trip and fell out a boat in a loch,’ the man explained.
The police officer crinkled up her face in a frown. I saw she was probably in her mid forties. She had a round and friendly face and I instantly liked her. ‘That’s a bit of mystery then! Have you eaten, hen?’
‘Just a bar of chocolate,’ said Bill
‘You hungry?’ she asked me.
I nodded. The answer was a big fat yes. Even after the chocolate I had just had.
She looked at Bill. ‘You busy? Could you get her a sandwich or something?’
He nodded. ‘I was going to go to Kath’s for a bacon bun anyway.’ He looked at me. ‘You want a bacon bun?’
The officer said, ‘Oh, can I have one too? I’ll pay, of course... for all of us. I’ll take it out of petty cash.’
‘Aye,’ he nodded. ‘Pay me later.’ He looked at me. ‘I’ll just be gone a wee while. But you are in safe hands here. You okay?’
I nodded, smiling. ‘Could I just have egg, though? I’m a... trying to be vegan...’
He smiled. ‘Of course.’ Then left the building. The police officer was looking at the door, smiling. She turned back to me. ‘I think he likes you, which is quite good really... Bill doesn’t usually like people. I’m Officer Wells... I’m one of the police officers who work in the village.’
She walked over to the side of the counter where there was a door. She opened it and gestured for me to go in. I did as she asked and entered a room with three cluttered desks, all containing computers and phones.
‘Take a seat, and we’ll get some details from you.’
I sat down, but as I did I heard the sound of the door opening and shutting. The police officer frowned. She went to the counter and looked out. ‘Hi, can I help you?’ she asked. From where I was I could not see the newcomer. I looked around the office at the various posters, some saying how it was wrong to drink and drive and how domestic violence should not be tolerated. ‘Okay...’ said the officer. I got up and walked over, curious.
There was a man in the police station wearing a dark suit. He looked at me and frowned. Then he passed his ID to the police officer. She studied it, her frown returning.
Then she handed it back to the man in dark. ‘Okay... must say, though, I didn’t even know you people really existed. I thought it was just a myth, or an urban legend.’
He smiled. ‘Stories to tell over a campfire, maybe? Is she your daughter?’ he asked.
She shook her head. ‘She’s our little mystery.’
The man raised his eye brows, and then smiled. ‘I like mysteries.’
‘I guess you would have to,’ she told the man in the dark suit. ‘In your line of business.’
‘You okay with me talking to her?’ he asked.
‘Do I have a choice?’
‘Okay,’ said the officer. ‘Let her eat first, though? The man who found her has just gone to get her a sandwich.’
‘You know her little shop?’
‘I know lots of things,’ he said. ‘I get around. Was around her a year or two back. Do you have a room where the girl and I can chat?’
She shook her head. ‘Just a broom cupboard and a small kitchen. You will have to chat out here, and I will just have to sign whatever piece of paper you need me to sign afterwards so that I keep shtum.’
‘Fair enough,’ the newcomer said. ‘Can you let me in then?’
The officer let the man in the office.
‘You said you were here a few years back?’ the officer asked him. ‘Anything interesting?’
‘Oh yes, quite.’
‘I’ve heard there is a werewolf in the glens near Glen Coe…’
The man in dark smiled. ‘There are many legends about Glen Coe. Ghosts, mostly. Mind you, there was a lot of killing there a few hundred years ago. Did you say she was found?’ he asked her.
‘Aye... you know Shear Bank?’
He nodded. ‘Know it well.’
He walked over to me proper. He sat at a desk and gestured for me to sit opposite.
‘I’m Bobby,’ he told me. He reached into the jacket pocket of his suit and tugged out a seven inch tablet. He switched it on. ‘I work for the government. I deal with strange things. Today there was what can only be called a ‘paranormal surge’ in this area. Location was actually Sheer Bank. I was in Glasgow when I got the call. I was the nearest agent to here. It is my job to investigate such things, and other things too.’
‘Okay,’ I said slowly, wondering if this was some sort of joke. ‘Do you mean you’re like Doctor Who?’
He frowned. ‘More like Fox Moulder.’
‘I know what you’re thinking, I have seen it all before, heard every comment. But it’s true. There are things in heaven and earth not dreamed of in your own experience. That’s me quoting Shakespeare... very, very badly.’
‘He was writer, wasn’t he?’
‘Yes, you’re right. One of the most famous writers the world has ever seen. And I am misquoting him as well.’
‘’There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,’’ said the officer.
‘Smart arse,’ said Bobby. ‘Anyway. I thought you weren’t going to listen.’
‘I need to step in when people badly quote Shakespeare.’
The man in dark smiled, then said, ‘So, then, shall we start with your name?’
‘Jess James,’ I told him.
‘Oh, like the cowboy?’
I nodded, and looked away, having had a memory of someone saying the same thing to me only recently.
‘You okay?’ he asked.
‘I think so.’
‘I know, crazy... but true.’ He began to use the tablet. ‘Jessica James... let’s see what my little machine brings up. Great little thing this.’
‘What’s a ‘paranormal surge?’’ I asked.
‘That’s a bit hard to explain… bit like a ripple in reality. We have guys checking for them all over the country.’
The door went again and Bill came in with food.
‘This is...’ the officer began.
‘Missing persons,’ said Bobby. ‘I was just passing. Thought I’d stop for a chat.’
‘Quite lucky,’ said the officer.
Bill looked puzzled. He handed the food to the officer. ‘Okay.’ He looked over at me. ‘You take care of yourself, Jess.’
I smiled. ‘Thanks Bill.’
‘Nay problem.’ And he was gone. PC Wells gave me my sandwich and started to tuck into her own.
I looked at Bobby and leaned forward. ‘There are a lot of Scottish people here,’ I said quietly.
He leaned forward too. ‘Yes,’ he said quietly. ‘There tends to be lots of Scottish people in Scotland.’
I had just bitten into my egg sandwich. I frowned. ‘But we’re in England.’
‘Nope... Scotland... Isn’t that right officer?’ he turned to PC Wells. ‘We are in Scotland?’
She looked over at us both. ‘Last time I looked, yes.’
‘Where about in England do you think we should be?’
‘In the Lakes... Cin... caten... Coniston!’
‘We are in Bonny Scotland, lassie,’ he told me. ‘But the big question is why you think you are in Coniston!’ He looked at the tablet. ‘And also the fact that you have been missing for two days... last seen on Coniston Water. Any idea where you have been... any memories?’
‘Two days?’ I asked. I put the sandwich down on the desk, not feeling too hungry now.
He nodded, looking at me sadly. ‘Look, I will get a message to your mum and dad soon, so don’t worry. You’ll be back with them soon, but what I need to do is find out where you have been. Like I said there was a paranormal surge.’
‘Do you think aliens had me?’
He shrugged. ‘That’s one possibility. But not the only one.’
‘Or maybe this is just a wind up?’ I said. ‘Am I on one of those prank shows?’ It all seemed to make sense now.
‘I wish it was a wind up, kid,’ he said. ‘Okay... what is the last thing you remember?’
‘I was on a boat. A boy in my class was being a jerk and the boat capsized. The life jacket was faulty. I sunk.’
Bobby was looking at me curiously. ‘Does it work? The phone?’
I looked down at my hands, realising I had took the Iphone out of my pocket and was fiddling with it. I shook my head. There was something about the phone, something I did not know. Important information that was eluding me.
‘So... you sank. Then?’
‘I was in the woods, I got on the road... I saw Bill. I came here.’
‘What happened before the woods?’ asked the government official. ‘Do you remember, Jess?’
I shook my head.
‘Try to relax,’ he said. ‘Before the woods, after the lake. Where were you Jessie James?’
‘With the man.’ I saw his image for just a brief moment, an old face. But there was another face, too: a younger face. ‘Two men.’
‘Men?’ he asked with a frown. ‘What were they like?’
‘Not really men,’ I said. ‘I guess I sound crazy.’
‘I have heard crazier things before,’ Bobby told me. ‘Believe you me!’
‘They were like men, but not men,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t with them at the same time... I had to do something.’
‘Oh?’ he asked, frown deepening.
I shook my head. ‘I don’t know. I can’t remember.’
‘After the lake,’ the man said. ‘There were men... Did they hurt you?’
‘No,’ I said. I reached a hand to my neck. I gently messaged the skin under my ear. Bobby watched me, frowning...
‘I think it’s coming back, bit by bit,’ I said. ‘I died... in the lake.’
I shuddered slightly at the memories which began to form in my head. The feeling of helplessness and deep sadness.
‘The water,’ I said. ‘The water, it filled my mouth...’