Chapter 3: The Hidden People
A fantasy novel
Author’s note: This is Chapter 3 of my second novel, The Hidden People, a fantasy story with a romance element. The previous chapters can be found here:
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The next morning, Henny’s escapades in the dark might have been a dream, except that Jo was exhausted, Miss Pickles’ slippers had dirt from the street on them, and all the digital clocks in the house were flashing after the power outage.
Of course, the flashing clocks made Miss Pickles very upset, and she went around resetting all the clocks to a master clock she kept in her room. “I am going to write to the power company,” she complained. “Those blackouts—they happen all the time now. It’s just not acceptable!”
“They do seem more frequent,” said Mr Pickles. “Back when I was young—people ran things properly! They didn’t just do things on a shoestring, to make profit. It wasn’t all these foreign companies coming in and buying things.”
“Our late father would so disappointed with the way this country’s gone—” said Miss Pickles.
Jo tuned out while she made herself a quick instant coffee. Luckily the Pickles had a cheap plastic kettle: Jo found she had much less problem with these than expensive stainless steel kettles. She was sure Sean wouldn’t approve of the instant coffee, but she wasn’t in a position to insist on hand-ground single roasted beans from Madagascar.
“You really should eat more, dear,” Mr Pickles said anxiously to Jo. “You’re too thin. And you should grow your hair!”
“—And wear nice dresses, Joanna,” said Miss Pickles. “Why, when I was your age, there’s no way I’d be seen in boy’s get up?”
Jo sighed. “I promise I’ll eat if I’m hungry. I’m not a morning person. And I didn’t sleep well last night.”
They walked Henny to school, breathing out steam as they walked through the cold, grey streets, lined with skeletal trees. Simon talked to Henny sternly. “No more getting out of bed in the night, Henny.”
Henny turned to Simon. “Henny didn’t!”
“You did,” said Jo. “We saw you. Did you not notice your feet were dirty in the morning?”
“Henny didn’t!” Henny scowled.
“You did,” said Simon. “We both saw you. We took you back to bed. No more of that nonsense.”
Henny sulked for the rest of the walk, uncharacteristically sullen. Jo wasn’t sure if he really didn’t remember what had happened, or if he was pretending. She was disturbed by this, and pulled her coat tighter, as the wind whipped down the street, with a promise of icy rain on its heels.
Simon and Jo dropped Henny off at school, and Jo went to the café, while Simon continued to the supermarket, a little further into the slightly down-at-heel shopping strip. Stray bits of rubbish blew down the weedy concrete thoroughfare.
Jo was afraid that the uncanny events of the day before might be repeated—Jake was in today and she didn’t want to be fired—but nothing happened. There were no rustles, no rattling pebbles as if someone had just scuttled away. No doors slammed unexpectedly, no one tripped over invisible obstacles, no coffee cups moved to strange places. No electrical machinery or lights misbehaved. Jo had been used to these things happening all the time; it was only after they had been taken away from their mother that she had realised this was unusual. Her mother had said that They liked to tease. They’d take a sock or an earring or misplace a book. Jo had never caught Them at it. She put her hand to the gold necklace with the horseshoe trinket her mother had given her to keep Them away.
In a break where there were no customers, Jo looked for information about her mother on her phone. Sean came up and sat companionably beside her. “Whatcha doing?”
Jo felt shy and awkward now she had heard Simon’s theory. “Looking for my Mum. I don’t know where she went.”
Sean’s left eyebrow, the one with a piercing, went up. “Your Mum left you?”
“No, not really—she got sick, I suppose you’d say, and they had to treat her. I think they took her to a hospital, but I don’t know what happened to her then—”
Sean looked sombre. “I hate to say this—but—you ever checked the death notices and the coroner’s reports?”
“Of course. I don’t think she’s dead. I think I’d know if she was. Maybe that she lost her memory or something?”
Jo couldn’t work out how she felt about her mother’s absence. She really wished she could see her mother, just for a few hours, and hug her. But neither she nor Simon wanted to live with Mama, if she got released from hospital: they were agreed on that.
Sean and Jo sat in silence and watched the bitter wind blow leaves up the street, while the naked tree branches of the liquid ambers in the pots shivered.
“What about your Dad?” said Sean.
Jo shrugged. “I don’t know who he was. I don’t even know his name. Mama—she never told us about him—other than to say he was someone important, from a different country, and that his family wouldn’t like us, if they heard about us—”
“Mmm,” said Sean. “Surely—there’s three of you?—he’d know you existed and try to help you?”
Jo looked at her hands and twisted the etched gold ring on her right hand. Her mother had given it to her, saying that it was a special family ring. It had a strange pattern on it, almost like writing, but it was not a script, as far as Simon and Jo’s internet research had disclosed. Jo had always wondered if it was a wedding ring, or whether her father had had a real wife and a family, elsewhere. “I think he actually is dead, or not interested—?”
The conversation had to be left on that awkward note; the café doorbell jangled as customers came in, and Jake looked over sharply. “That’s enough, I don’t pay you two to chatter.”
Lunch time was particularly busy, and Tanya snapped at Jo several times when she got flustered.
The two cooks sympathised with Jo when she went to fetch the orders. “That Tanya, she a bitch,” said one of them, adjusting his white cap. Their English wasn’t great, but they were very good cooks.
Jo was yawning by the time Simon arrived to pick her up. Simon looked unwontedly tired and glum too—he had always needed his sleep. They picked Henny up from his special school and no one said a word as they walked home. But Jo noticed Henny’s gaze straying to the well in the churchyard and frowned. Simon sighed; he’d evidently noticed too.
After dinner, Simon again spoke sternly to Henny. “No wandering about in the night, okay?”
Henny frowned, looked mutinous, and shook his head.
“Promise me you won’t go out?” Jo pleaded. “Please! It’s cold—there might even be snow or sleet. And what if you slipped in the dark and fell and we couldn’t help you?”
Henny regarded her solemnly. “Henny won’t.” Jo breathed out a sigh of relief.
But Simon was quicker than she. “Henny won’t what?”
“Slip,” said Henny. “Henny’s eyes good. See in dark!”
Eventually, after a long argument, Simon moved his bedding so that Henny had to step over him to get to the toilet.
“This is annoying,” Simon grumbled, “but better that than us chasing you down the street in dressing gowns. I suspect They have a hand in all this, and you know what Mama said. You can’t trust Them. Don’t listen to whatever it is you can hear, Henny.”
Jo yawned so hugely that she thought her head might split in two. “I’m knackered … so tired. Night boys, be good, no wandering about.”
She kissed them both and went to her room. She was so tired that she didn’t even recall getting into bed. Her sleep was deep and dreamless, like plush black velvet.
She was annoyed to be woken by someone shaking her. “It’s not morning yet,” she slurred into the darkness.
“Henny’s gone again!” As Jo’s eyes adjusted, she could see her worried brother standing over her.
Suddenly Jo was immediately awake. She grabbed her mobile phone to check the time. Fortunately, it was still working. It was almost midnight. “Shit. How’d he get out?”
Simon looked grim and led her to his room. The blue glow of the mobile phone screen disclosed that the back window was open, and the curtain was fluttering in the night breeze. Henny had tied his sheets together to make a ladder.
“This is insane! I am dreaming. This is a dream.” Jo pinched herself, but she didn’t wake up. “Henny can’t do complex things like make a ladder out of sheets?”
“Seems you’re wrong on that,” said Simon.
Jo was filled with a sense of urgency. “He’s back at the well, Si. We have to go there. Now.”
“How do you know?” Simon looked doubtful.
“I feel these things more than you,” Jo said reluctantly. “You know it.”
Simon made a face. “Okay.”
Jo rushed down the stairs, jamming on slippers, and ran out the front door. Simon came after, struggling to get his dressing gown on. “Jeez, wait for me,” he hissed.
“We must go.” Jo trotted down the street as soon as Simon had pulled the tartan dressing gown on. Suddenly, the yellow sodium streetlights flickered and went out, but the moon was now entirely full, and the path was clear.
Jo sped up and ran to the churchyard, heedless of whom she might wake in the night. She flung herself towards the mossy, uneven edge of the well and stared down. The grate had been lifted and the well stood open like a black hole into hell.
“Henny!” she called desperately, shining her phone torch down the well.
Simon hissed, “Shh, be quiet,” and shone his phone torch too.
Their phone torches disclosed several things. First, iron staples were set into the inner wall of the well at intervals, like a ladder. Secondly, some of the stones inside the well had grotesque little faces carved into them. Thirdly, Henny was indeed at the bottom of the well, beaming up at them, his straight white teeth glinting in the torch light. He waved. The light made it look as if his hair and eyes had been bleached of colour, so his hair was dirty blond and his eyes were a strange pale brown.
“I go get Mama, Jojo,” he said. Then—there was no other word for it—he walked into a shadowed crevice in the corner of the well and disappeared.
“Well, fuck,” said Simon.
“We have to go down there,” said Jo. “I’ll get him back.”
“I’m not going down there in the middle of the night!” Simon shook her. “You can’t, Jo. It could be Them!”
“Just let me at least check he’s gone. I’ll come back up if I can’t get him straight away,” Jo promised. Something told her that she had to go down there: she knew it to her core. “Hold my phone for me. I’ll be back in just a tick!”
She hastily handed her phone to Simon, swung over the mossy edge of the well, and climbed down the rungs set in the wall of well. The iron had rusted and left gritty red residue on her hands. It smelled like blood. She looked up: she could see the bright phone torches, Simon’s silhouette behind them, with the full moon like a halo behind his head. The grotesque faces seemed to be laughing at her as she carefully stepped from one rung to the next. Eventually she reached the bottom and jumped down.
Then she recoiled as water splashed. “Ugh! Water and mud! I’m going to have to buy Miss Pickles some new slippers,” she called up to Simon.
“Least of our problems,” Simon called down. “Can you see him? Is he just hiding in a crack?”
Jo looked around. “No. He’s not here. But—” She looked at the corner of the well into which Henny had stepped. She’d been thinking that her sleep was dark and thick like velvet—but this was darker. She wondered what this darkness felt like.
Then she heard the music. The tune their mother had hummed as a lullaby when they were little surrounded her.
“Mama’s song,” she murmured. “Mama?”
She took a step towards the darkness. And then, the darkness reached out and embraced her, with many loving arms—and she did not remember anything else as it took her, other than how much she wanted to be held by her mother again and hear her voice.