The family saloon rumbled along the road below the thick woods. The sun had set, and the sky was turning from a deep gold to the purple of twilight. Rays still illuminated the streaks of cloud that hung in the sky as the car headed over the Menai Bridge, leaving the Welsh mainland behind. In the dim evening light, the broad straits below looked like a river of mercury.
The woman in the passenger seat clung on to the handle above the door. “Slow down,” she said, turning to the man driving. “You’re not in one of your jet fighters now!”
The man turned and smiled, then eased off on the accelerator, and watched as his companion visibly relaxed. “Sorry” he said. “Getting close to RAF Valley now, and the old instincts are kicking in.”
They drove on to the island of Anglesey, and through the little town that shared its name with Telford’s famous suspension bridge. Away from the streetlights, the road was dark and empty.
In the back were the couple’s three children. Behind his mother sat David, twelve years old, with short, dark hair, just like his dad. Sitting behind the driver’s seat was Owen, two years younger and risking travel sickness by reading the latest issue of his favourite comic by torchlight. In the middle sat his twin sister, Sian, who had spent most of the five-hour trip trying to get comfortable.
“Will you please stop wriggling,” said David, scowling at his younger sibling.
“It’s not my fault. Why do I always have to sit in the middle?” complained Sian.
“To stop your brothers from fighting,” said their mother, turning to glare at them. “Though I’m not sure which is worse, your fidgeting and complaining, or their attempts to secretly punch each other through folded arms – yes, I know what you do, boys, I’m not stupid.”
“Yes, no fighting in my car,” said their father, picking up on only half the conversation.
“No, that’s only allowed in your airplane,” said Owen, under his breath, sweeping his long hair out of his eyes with one hand. In his world, battles should be confined to fantasy games.
“Look, it won’t be long now, and we’ll be there,” said their mother. “I know it’s been a long way from Cardiff, but…”
Suddenly a silver flash shot across the road in front of the car. It looked like a fox, illuminated brightly in the headlights. With both hands, their father threw the steering wheel down and to the left to avoid it, slamming his brakes on at the same time. He turned the wheel the other way, desperately trying to regain control, but the tyres screeched as the car barrelled down the road, foul-smelling smoke pouring from the brakes. Sian screamed, and clutched Owen’s hand. They hit the verge at tremendous speed, throwing the passengers around as if they were in a washing machine. The car flew through the hedge and into a field where it slammed into a tree stump with incredible force and a sickening crunch. The front of the car crumpled like cardboard, steam erupted from the bonnet, and the car rocked to a halt on its creaking suspension. In the back, the children were dazed and began to groan and rub their whiplashed necks, but the passengers in the front were still, silent and unmoving.
Four hours had passed since the accident. The time had whizzed by in a blur, and David could think about little else – the night’s events played over and over again in his mind.
“We’re here,” said a kindly voice. “Wake up, we’re here.”
Blearily, David opened his eyes, and rubbed his aching neck. His brother and sister were next to him, both still dozing in the back seat of the car. It was dark, with almost no moonlight. In the headlights, David could see that they were travelling up a drive – gravel, by the crunching sound the wheels made – and it appeared to be surrounded by a wall of tightly-packed trees on both sides. A breeze blew – a strong one; the rustling trees roared over the noise of the car’s engine. A flurry of leaves danced through the headlights’ beams.
The drive widened, and there, in a clearing in the dense, dark woodland, was a house. There were no lights on, except for that of the porch, but suddenly, the wind sent the light clouds scudding across the sky, unveiling a bright, cold moon. The house was grey and square, with large, sash windows. Two windows were set into the steep roof, and their gables looked like two large, hooded eyes.
“Wake up,” repeated the policewoman from the front passenger seat.
Lights went on in the downstairs windows on this side of the house, the front door opened and a plump, grey-haired woman in a pinafore hobbled out.
“Oh, you poor children! Come inside! I’ve hot chocolate for you, with little marshmallows on the top!”
Behind her came another figure – a large man, with a grey beard and moustache, wearing a rumpled suit. The policewoman got out and started speaking to him. The plump lady had already opened the back door of the police car. Sian was still half asleep against the door, and almost fell out – the jolt certainly woke her up. The housekeeper caught her.
“Ah, bechod,” she said, speaking a word of Welsh. “My poor dears, come inside! You’ll catch your death out here. The wind has really got up. It’ll be a warm day tomorrow, but a cold night tonight.”
Owen climbed out next, grumpy from being woken up. David exited last, and glancing up, saw a beautiful, clear, deep purple sky. The iridescent moon blotted out the light of all but the brightest stars, but Orion stood out as visible as always, just above the trees. As he walked he could hear the policewoman and the large man talking softly.
“Will they be alright?” the man was saying.
“Yes. They bore the impact, so are in a worse state than the kids – both unconscious still, but neither have any life-threatening injuries. They’ll be fine. Thank you, sir, for agreeing to take the children at such short notice.”
“Nonsense, nonsense!” said the man, flashing the policewoman a warm smile. “What are families for? Think nothing of it. It was the least I could do to help my niece. Which hospital are they in?”
“Ysbyty Gwynedd, so not too far away. The children can visit them when they’ve come round.”
David wandered through the door and entered a large, high-ceilinged entrance hall. Cold flagstones, worn smooth from decades of feet, led to a steep staircase of dark, polished wood. They were ushered into the warm kitchen, and sat on a bench near the range.
“Now, grab a mug, and help yourself to a drink – all made fresh, with real chocolate, the way your mam used to like it. The marshmallows are on the table there.”
On the range, a large copper pot simmered, and sweet steam rose from it, filling the room with the aroma of chocolate, milk and sugar.
“You’re Mrs. Llewellyn!” exclaimed Sian.
“That I am, cariad, that I am. I knew your mother very well. She’s going to be fine, you know. A real fighter, that one! Always tearing around these hallways, never doing what she was told. The trouble that girl used to get into!” she chuckled.
The door to the kitchen opened and the bearded man came in. “Children!”
Sian slammed down her hot chocolate and ran to him, giving him an enormous hug. “Uncle Toby!” she laughed.
“Hello peach blossom,” he said, hugging her back, “I can’t believe how much you’ve grown! It’s a veritable age since I last saw you!” He smiled at the boys. “Nice to see you again, lads – welcome to Hawlings – make yourself at home.”
“Thanks Uncle Toby,” said David, and Owen returned his smile.
“I can’t imagine what you must have been through tonight. That policewoman has assured me your parents are going to be OK, you know. It’s all going to be alright.”
David smiled weakly, and Sian yawned.
“You all look absolutely shattered. Finish your chocolate, and Mrs. Llewellyn will show you to your room. I’ll see you in the morning.”
* * *
The room that the three children shared was up in the eaves, so high that their window allowed them a view right over the treetops. Owen sat quietly on a soft window seat gazing out. He could see all the way to the ocean, which glittered in the startlingly bright moonlight. Against that shimmering backdrop, every half a minute or so, a point of light would flare – an old lighthouse, pulsing out its warning to ships far out to sea.
“Can’t sleep?” said David.
“Nah. Too much going on in my mind. Thinking about Mum and Dad.”
“Me too. They’re going to be OK – I can feel it. I knew when Dad was going to fall off his bike that time – knew it was going to happen. This feels the same. I just know things are going to be fine.”
“I wish I shared your optimism,” sighed Owen.
“I’m hungry,” said Sian.
“Sian! You’re supposed to be sleeping!” whispered Owen.
“No point in whispering,” said Sian, “I’m awake, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“Well, we don’t want to wake up Uncle Toby or Mrs. Llewellyn,” suggested David.
“They’re on the other side of the house, on a different floor – no chance!” replied Sian. “I’m off to find some food.”
“Food? Where from?” exclaimed David.
“The kitchen, where else? Uncle Toby told us to make ourselves at home, so I am.”
“You wouldn’t have a midnight feast at home – Mum would kill us.”
“True, but when I have my own home, I’ll skip breakfast and have midnight feasts every night instead. You talking or are you coming?”
All three put on their dressing gowns, switched on their torches and slipped out of the door.
“Now boys, on the way up I noticed a squeaky floorboard at the top of the stai…”
“Nice one, Twinkletoes,” whispered Owen
“Sorry guys,” mumbled David.
All three were glad they’d brought their torches. Moonlight filtered in through high windows, but the dark wood of the staircase seemed to absorb it. They pointed their beams at the ornate, but well-worn carpets. In the reflected light, they could make out huge oil paintings towering above them out of the corners of their eyes. The faces of old, dead ancestors seemed to peer down on them, disapprovingly. They turned into another corridor, and moonlight flooded in through tall windows. They stirred up tiny motes of dust that whirled in the moonbeams. They crept through, occasionally peering out at the shapes of the trees silhouetted against the indigo sky.
They descended one more staircase, and found themselves once more in the entrance hall. Their bare feet touched the freezing flagstones and they skittered across them, making for the kitchen. Considering that it had only been in use a couple of hours before, it was surprisingly cold. No heat seemed to escape from the huge cast-iron range.
“I can see my breath!” whispered Owen.
“But it’s only October…” replied David. “It shouldn’t be this cold.”
“Whatever –” said Sian, “where’s the food kept?”
“The clue is on that door,” said Owen, pointing towards one marked ‘Pantry’.
“Right, great,” said Sian, yanking the door open, which squeaked quietly. “There are stairs – the pantry is under the kitchen.”
Not surprisingly, it felt even colder as they descended the narrow stone staircase. Heading into the basement, there were no windows, and the walls seemed to close in on them. They crept quietly, trying not to make any more sound. Sian’s torch blinked dimly and went out. She flicked the switch on and off, then tried again, but nothing happened.
“Great!” she said, staring into the lens. “What a time for the batteries to go.”
As they reached the bottom of the stairs, suddenly Owen’s torch flickered and went out too.
“OK, once was annoying, but twice is just plain weird,” said Sian, her voice wavering slightly.
“I don’t like this,” said David, his misty breath illuminated by his torch beam. “Something’s not right.”
Sian could see a neon striplight on the ceiling so looked around for a light switch, and saw one on a wall up ahead. Then David’s torch died as well, plunging them into darkness.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m getting out of here,” declared Owen.
“What, and miss out on the munchies?” exclaimed Sian. “There’s a light switch on the wall just here.”
In the utter blackness, Sian felt along the freezing cold wall, her fingers searching desperately for the familiar metal shape. After a few frightening seconds, she found it, and flicked it.
Brilliant cold light flickered once. Flickered again. Pulsed twice.
And in the next flicker, all three saw, standing in the middle of the cellar, a boy.
Darkness. Another flicker. Just the cellar this time. Darkness again.
Another flicker. And the boy was there again, with short hair under a grey school cap, a grey school blazer, grey shorts, a loose school tie, and an expression of utter sadness.
Darkness once more. And then bright, cold neon light flooded the room.
There was no-one there.