by Hattie Atkins
Format: Short Story | Genre: Mystery
From the upstairs window, I see him appear. The young boy – running on legs as thin as matchsticks – comes into view at the end of the street. I at first wonder if I have fallen asleep at the easel; it is a thought I don’t consider unreasonable, given the number of times it’s happened before. I rise abruptly from my stool, knocking the palette beside me from its perch. The clatter, so sudden in the silence, confirms my wakefulness.
Reaching the foot of our driveway, the boy comes to a halt. He puts his forearms flat against his knees to catch his breath. It is an unusually hot day for April, and the boy’s wan pallor stands out against the evening’s tangerine sunset, as luminescent as torchlight. My jaw is slack, and I right it subconsciously. I am not dreaming, it would seem. This is no apparition, no vague projection of a sleep-deprived mind; he exists, as solid as the street on which he stands.
Downstairs, I rouse Joan from her nap on the sofa. “There’s a boy outside,” I tell her.
“Albert,” she says blearily. “You’ve finished your masterpiece?”
“I said, there’s a boy outside.”
Joan rubs the sleep from her eyes and sits up, propped upon an elbow. “What kind of boy? What’s he doing?”
I shrug, feigning nonchalance. “I don’t know. Doesn’t look right, though. Something off with the lad.”
Brows furrowed, Joan shifts to the window. She surveys him through the crack in the blind, and I peer over her shoulder for a closer look. I’m not mistaken; it is him, an exact replica – identical in every aspect. Since I’ve shifted from the upstairs window, the child hasn’t stirred.
“Poor boy. I’ll bring him inside and we’ll see what the matter is.”
“Don’t be daft,” I say, almost overturning the coffee table in my confused attempt to block the door.
Joan looks at me vacantly, then lets out a small, incredulous laugh. “He’s only a kid, Albert. What’s he going to do – overpower the both of us and steal our television? I think not.”
I try to sigh but the sound gets caught in my throat, escaping as if a whimper. “I just think it’s silly to bring strangers into the house. You know, given the time of day. The current climate.”
She briefly closes her eyes, then sidles past me into the hallway, muttering as she exits that she knows I have people issues, but this just takes the cake.
Positively afraid now, I watch through the open nook in the blinds as my wife emerges in the driveway and tentatively approaches the boy. He looks up at her like a sacrificial lamb, skin pale like the creature’s white coat, eyes glassy and unfocused. I wonder whether the continuous days locked in with my work have had a detrimental effect on my mental state, or if I have simply been struck down with the cabin fever Joan so often warns me of. I do not believe in spirits or supernatural apparitions; I am a man of solid fact, of paint and colour, of substantiated rationality. Yet, the boy’s materialisation cannot be disputed. I strain desperately, but still fail to make out what Joan is saying to him or what he mutters in response. Eventually, he allows himself to be ushered inside.
He’s steered into the living room, where I have clumsily arranged myself in the far armchair. Part of me expects him to jump in recognition as I did earlier, or to squint in the way an almost-stranger does when they believe to know a person but cannot figure out how. He does none of these things. In fact, he barely gives me a second glance as he sits beside Joan on the adjacent sofa, unspeaking.
“So, you have no idea how you got to be here?” she asks.
The boy presses his pale lips together and shakes his head slowly, as though half in slumber.
“Do you have a family to get back to?”
He nods. Upon closer inspection, he appears more ghoulish – more pallid, even – than I recall. His skin is colourless, almost translucent, and his intense, globular eyes shine with a kind of wateriness that I don’t believe to be tears, but an unfortunate regularity of his appearance. I can’t help but wonder whether he exists only partly in reality; it would account for his peculiar detachment – like a sleepwalker stumbling upon life where he didn’t expect to find it – and the opaqueness of his skin. If I shone a torch through him, I imagine I would observe the projection of light coming through his body on the other side. I grimace.
“Where do they live? Where does your family live?”
The boy says nothing.
“Where is home?”
When there is still no reply, Joan says to me, “Well, I’m calling the police.” She brings her hands together resolutely in her lap before continuing: “I don’t like this. Not one bit.”
“Nor do I.”
I follow her out into the kitchen, the need to not be left alone with the boy pressing and pathetic. Joan casts a glance over me as though she believes me pathetic, too. Once the police have been informed, Joan fills a plastic mug with cold tap water and brings it through to the boy, who is sat as he was before: unmoving, hands splayed across his knees, an air of rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights about him. I linger in the doorway, unnerved. I tell Joan I’m wasting time and must get back to my work. Through her nose she lets out an expulsion of breath, then waves a limp hand in my direction: a dismissal.
“Fine. I’ll let you know when the police get here.”
As I ascend the stairs, I realise I feel a particular sense of unease in leaving my wife alone with the boy. I try to convince myself that he’s harmless, that his sudden appearance in our lives informed the image of the child I remember rather than the other way around, as though some sort of reverse déjà vu. Even as I think it, I know it is not true.
Upstairs, the studio – a second spare bedroom – is just as I left it: the canvas upright on its easel, the desk surface cluttered by scraps of paper and wrinkled, empty acrylic tubes – some of which have spilled into the bassinet in the corner – and the palette knocked to the floor, miraculously paint-side up. My gaze shifts to the wallpaper coming away in long scratches, its uneven surface adorned with teddy bear illustrations faded with age. The room is bathed in grey; everything is marred by the falling light dispersed through the window. My painting, Fruit Bowl, looks no better for the evening’s dullness, its majority made up of uneven orange, burgundy, and golden yellow brush strokes. The longer I look at it, the less sense it makes. Yet, despite my dejectedness, I know it will be hours before I give up and turn in. There is something compulsive in my craft, something perversely necessary. For it, Joan and I sacrificed a lot; our renunciation of family life, routine and summer holidays is embodied in this studio once bedecked with a cot and mobile. I wonder what I have to show for this, and peer again at the redundant shapes before me.
The door groans on its hinges. I turn to find Joan and the boy hovering at the threshold.
“He wants to see your art.”
I glower my disapproval to her. Still, she steers him towards the painting, which becomes perhaps even more unimpressive and lifeless under his gaze. I hasten to turn on the lamp beside it, but the yellow glow makes little difference to its mediocrity.
“It’s a commission,” Joan tells him proudly. “Albert paints for important people in town, like the mayor. This one will be going up in the Town Hall when it’s finished. Do you know who the mayor is?”
The boy shakes his head. Intently, he gazes at the piece, so much so that I begin to sense his criticism despite his not uttering a word.
“Albert, you’ve got to get rid of the fruit,” Joan whines, exasperated. Beside the painting is a bowl of peaches, apples, tangerines, and grapes, arranged over hours of meticulous deliberation. The fruit, now darkened in places it shouldn’t be and beginning to grow pale-green fur on some of its sticky undersides, cannot be rearranged at this late stage; the whole piece will fall into disarray if altered. I tell Joan so, and she tuts in response.
“There’s no point in holding on to old fruit, Albert.”
“Butterflies get drunk off old fruit,” murmurs the boy. Both Joan and I start, alarmed despite his hushed tone. “So, it is good for something.”
“Perhaps I should just start again,” I say, my wife and I exchanging heavy glances. Undeniably, however, I am curious; does the boy have an opinion on the matter? Can an abstract thing such as himself inform the creation of something similarly abstract? He says nothing more, though, appearing to have retracted inside himself again. His eyes mist like a reflection on the surface of a body of water.
“Start again if you want to,” Joan offers after some consideration. “It’s your thing, after all.”
I eye the ever-expanding collection of abandoned canvases in the corner of the room. The boy follows my gaze. His expression remains unreadable. Defensiveness wells up inside me, bulbous, like an inflating balloon.
The police arrive shortly thereafter. We recount our story and I return upstairs, feverishly avoiding eye contact with the boy for fear of giving away too much. From the studio window, I watch one of the officers crouch before the child in the darkening driveway, perhaps trying to wean information from him. It’s clear the man is receiving the same silent treatment as Joan. The second officer approaches, pats his colleague on the shoulder, and conducts the boy into the back seat with a sad, thin-mouthed smile. In the fragmentary moment before the door closes and obscures the boy’s face from view, I almost catch him looking up at me, eyes – searching, unseeing, penetrating – disconcertingly familiar. I feel something shift in my chest. Then the door is closed, and he is gone. I breathe a low sigh of relief. Outside, in the driveway, Joan hugs her arms close to herself, watching as the car disappears beyond the hill before turning back to the house. I expect her to come and find me, but the stairs never creak, and the landing remains deserted. Eventually, the television whirs to life in the room below.
Motionless before the canvas, I concede that the painting makes as little sense as it had before; it is just movements and shapes and colours, pretentious in their nonsensical construction. Mournfully, I survey the piece, unsure of where to go or how to retract.
Joan joins me long after I’ve settled into bed. Perhaps she expects me to be asleep, but sleep is evading me, and I turn onto my back, eyes fixed on the stretch of blank ceiling above. Settled upon the mattress, I can do nothing but remember the boy as he had appeared to me before today, between fitful spates of sleep: unmistakeably the same, no older than eight, with eyes reflective like glass and hair flattened and thinned upon his head. Within the dream in which he had appeared – every night, for the past three weeks – I had sat quietly in some shadowy place, looking to him through a small, dirtied window, so blanketed in grime that he could not see through to me no matter how tirelessly he searched. I had felt sorry for him, yet my dream-self had never felt the urge to reveal himself. The next night would bring about the same tedious fate, and thus the cruel game continued. Now the dream has seemingly bled into my daily life, like a patch of damp seeping through to the ceiling of the floor below. Can an unreal thing be dreamt into existence? Can a dream project so fully into a person’s subconscious that it is brought, against its will, into reality?
I steel my resolve and glance down at Joan for a moment, whose head is sunken into the pillow beneath her, eyes closed unsleepingly.
“Do you think this fruit bowl is a waste of time?” I say into the quiet.
Joan ponders this. “I don’t think something that makes you happy is a waste of time.”
“Sometimes it feels like a waste of time. Like I should never have bothered in the first place.”
“That’s just silly. That’s your insecurity talking.”
I say nothing for a moment, already regretful; it pools inside me like molten glass melting down inside a crucible. “I wonder how that boy’s getting on,” I muse eventually. “Poor lad.”
I turn to Joan, her face partially disguised by shadow. “You know what boy,” I frown. “The boy from tonight.”
“What boy from tonight?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Joan. He was in our house only two hours ago.”
“Albert, you never mentioned any boy.”
I feel it rising within me: a familiar, claustrophobic nervousness. I keep my hands flat to the mattress and speak thinly through my teeth. “Then what happened tonight? What did we do?”
“You were painting. I had a kip in front of the telly, then came to bed, and here we are. Look, Albert, are you quite alright? Are you working too hard again?” She looks up at me, expression insistently blank. Then her face softens. “Whoever you’re thinking of, I’m sure he’s fine. I’m sure you looked after him.”
I assess her and her predictable condescension, instantly furious. Spittle forms at the corners of my lips and I see it race through the air as I tell her, “Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare.”
“Albert,” she responds sharply.
I sit up, hastening into position, and my head lurches, dizzy with the pressure. “Don’t do that again.”
“What is wrong with you?”
Joan remains motionless, lying on her side with her hands clasped beneath her head. Swinging my stiff legs from the mattress, I march through to the studio in my boxer shorts and vest, ignoring my wife’s protests that I should calm down and that I should take some time off from work. I allow the anger, poisonous, to thicken inside me like congealing blood before thrashing into the canvas.
A hollowed, ripping noise sounds before what I have done becomes visible. In the parts that border the great hole that now besets the piece, the fruit still leers mediocrely from the page, and I see in its roundedness only the face of a boy who shouldn’t exist.
Hattie Atkins is a writer from Manchester, currently living and studying in Edinburgh. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in The Open Mouse and Aurelia Magazine, and her poem ‘Home Remedies’ received a special mention in the 2019 Grierson Verse Prize.