James’ whole class looked up as he walked into the room. His neck prickled, his ears grew hot. James slumped into his seat and concentrated on what he’d just seen in the office. Taz wouldn’t believe him:
“Look, you don’t have to try and make me laugh. What you said in the playground. I know you didn’t mean it.”
James’ face was too straight, too pale, for it to be a joke:
“I’m not joking. I wouldn’t make up some weird story just to try and cheer you up. I’m telling you. It is one hundred million percent a picture of Marcus.”
James knew that Taz would never believe him without seeing it for himself. It really did sound nuts:
“OK, OK, we’ll go to the library on the way home? It’s from an old newspaper, they’ve got them there. I remember looking at them when we were doing that project on the first world war.”
Taz had to admit, a stop off in the library to warm up on the way home didn’t sound too bad. He’d worry about James losing his mind after.
The afternoon moved along slowly and the sunset outside didn’t help much. They’d be walking home in darkness. The thought of it made the library even more appealing.
They had a pretty big group of friends but four of them lived near each other and most afternoons they walked home together. Tasha was waiting for them at the gates, frizzy hair shoved under a woolly hat. As usual Taz got to the gates about twice as quickly as James could:
“Hi Tasha. James wants to stop off in the library on the way home.”
She nodded. She did that a lot, it was her way of trying to look like she half-expected everything that happened. Tasha was experimenting with being ‘cool’:
“I told you to stop calling me ‘Tasha’. It’s Tash, just Tash! Anyway, yeah, the library sounds good. At least I can warm up a bit. Wish girls could wear trousers. Who thought up this uniform anyway?”
Conversations with Tasha were often three conversations in one. She’d sometimes lose track herself.
They waited for Tasha’s ‘little’ sister Nicola to come out. She was only a year younger than Tasha, and was also taller by a few inches. ‘Tash’ rolled her eyes theatrically (she was in the drama group so she knew all about theatrical eye rolls):
“Wee sisters are the worst! Why is her class always the last one out?”
Nicky didn’t take long. She came skipping out of the front doors with her standard cheesy grin:
“Hey guys, what’s happening?”
Taz was always trying to impress Nicky:
“Not much. Heading to the library on the way home. James thinks he’s discovered the Crieff Primary vampire.”
Taz winked at James. Clearly he wasn’t taking this investigation seriously at all. James shook his head and led the way.
They defrosted in the doorway of the library. The smell of old paper drifting from inside. Taz was grinning:
“It always smells like my attic; all dusty and old. I kind of like it.”
Tash was less impressed. She proclaimed her annoyance to the ceiling. Blaming the heat of the place on all the old people who ‘lived’ there. She pulled off her jacket and jumper and flung them next to a stack of beanbags the librarians called the ‘kids corner’.
Nicky’s mouth dropped open at her sister’s behaviour:
“Tasha keep your voice down! It’s nice and cosy here. You always make such a huge thing out of everything that happens to you.”
Tasha shrugged, grabbed a beanbag seat from the top of the pile, slumping onto it. She whispered as quietly as she could:
“Sorry ‘Mum’ I’ll keep my voice down.”
James laughed. It was the first time he had since lunch time. He left his friends looking in the ghost stories section and made his way to the librarian’s desk.
He had looked at the old newspapers with his teacher. He wasn’t so sure they would let some kids thumb their way through fifty year old papers.
The librarian was really helpful. She couldn’t let them see the original paper copies. However, she brought James over to a weird gadget that looked like a big plastic TV screen and got him something called a ‘microfilm’ of the newspaper.
It didn’t take her long to find the right roll of film. It was filled with hundreds of tiny photographs of every page of every Strathearn Herald printed in 1942. Finding the exact page James needed took a lot longer. She showed James how to twist the dial, moving slowly between pictures.
James was left to cycle through hundreds of pages until he reached November, then he slowed down and clicked through page by page.
There it was. James leapt up to get his friends. Taz got there first, he was surprised at the likeness:
“That is really weird. I wonder if it’s a relative or something. He looks so similar.”
That was it. They were all going to treat it as an odd coincidence. As if it were just a funny story to pass around the playground tomorrow. He was about to say something when Tasha jumped in:
“That’s more than ‘similar’ Taz. That boy looks identical to Marcus. I don’t even like looking at it. And did you see what it says in the article underneath.”
They all scanned through the article but the words jumped out as soon as James saw them:
…Crieff Primary Pupil Marcus Bauchan demonstrates proper use of the child-sized gas mask…
For a few seconds no one said anything. James wanted to stay and look for more pictures. His friends, on the other hand, had become remarkably interested in how soon their tea time was (they couldn’t have looked more scared).
James couldn’t blame them. Looking alike was one thing but sharing the same name was beyond odd. He needed to see what else was hiding in the newspapers.
His friends packed up their bags and got their jackets back on. As they said bye, Tasha insisted that James tell her everything in school the next morning.
For the next half-hour James gradually ran out of energy. He wouldn’t have anything to share with Tasha the next day. Then he found it; an article appearing years after the gas-mask photograph. There wasn’t even a picture. The title left a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach:
‘Missing Children Still Unaccounted For’
The article named five children. Four names that James didn’t recognise, and one that he did; ‘Marcus Bauchan’.
James searched ahead for some clue about the fate of the missing children but it was pretty clear they had never returned.
James needed to get home soon. His parents would be worried. On a whim he decided to wind the film back again. The gap between stories was exactly twenty-five years (give or take a few days).
James looked for microfilm of earlier issues and found one from 1917 (exactly twenty five years before the gas mask). In November he found it, more missing children. This time there were no names, apparently they had been with a travelling circus. Again they vanished without a trace but that was all the article had to say about it.
James stared at the screen in front of him, afraid to look round. How could Marcus be linked to all this? He was just a ten year old boy.
That was when the lights in the library went out.
James swallowed but his throat was so dry it felt like it stuck together. He forced himself to look round and found that he was completely alone. He couldn’t even see the librarian.
He got up on legs made of dough. They were numb from sitting in one place for so long but his whole body felt numb too. He leaned on the table giving his legs a chance to get the feeling back.
The library windows were lit by the street-lights outside and the odd passing car headlight. They gave him something to see by. He almost missed a shape in the corner of one of the windows; a blurred face with a look of terror plastered over it. It was on the outside. That meant whatever it was was two, maybe three, stories up.
Perhaps it was a leftover Halloween decoration. Then James saw it move, its black eyes fixed on James. The feeling rushed back to his legs but they wouldn’t do anything he told them to. He watched the face follow him, tried to tell himself it was just a distorted version of his own reflection then a hand landed on his shoulder.
He spun round to face whatever creature had come to take him. The librarian looked down at him:
“Sorry, I thought you left ages ago. Come along, I’ve locked up. I’ll need to let you out.”
James tried to hide his shaking as the librarian led him to the door and let him out into the street. The cold clawed at his cheeks as he made his way home. The whistling wind didn’t help either, it added that extra bit of dread to his current mood.
That got worse when he realised there was no wind. The air was so still the trees looked like statues. The sound he heard was actual whistling, and it was coming from behind him.
He turned his head back and forth, attempting to locate the origin of the sound. It was coming from across the road. But there was no one there. James was alone.
He pictured himself challenging the mysterious whistler. Then his memory lurched back to the black-eyed face in the library window.
James arrived home in moments, his legs aching from the fastest run he had ever done in his life.
Chapter 3 will be available next Sunday (24th/Christmas Eve) at 6pm. To be sure it gets to you you can sign up for the Marcus mailing list (please click this link for the sign-up form). Being part of the mailing list will also give you access to pdf printable copies of all the chapters so far (if you’d prefer to read screen-free).
Hope you enjoyed this week’s instalment. Please pop a comment in the comments section to let me know what you thought.
As always, thanks for reading, All the best, John
CLICK HERE TO READ ON TO CHAPTER 3