A door stood in front of her, the blue paint long since peeled and faded to an awful grey. Plastic numbers barely visible, the gold painted finish all worn off. The last door in a line of grey doors on the third floor, overlooking a concrete courtyard. The grey doorways faced onto a grey balcony, with a metal handrail painted white, but chipped and rusted with age and disrepair. Below, broken swings and a creaking see-saw. Bottles, cans and mouldy paper bags. The smell of piss and vomit.
A grey door, just like all the others, yet every detail had been seared into her mind. Every fleck of paint, every scratch and stain. The precise way that it stood, not quite shut. A crack, showing a last glimpse of the apartment beyond. She could hear the muted sounds of shouting. An argument. A television turned up too loud. The dull thump of a bass-line pounding through the concrete walls.
She should go back. Not walk away like this. Go back and do something. Do something, but she didn’t know what. She couldn’t remember what she was doing here. Couldn’t remember what was beyond that door… What could be so important. What she was running away from.
The thought lurked in the back of her mind, like a space where a tooth had been. She felt the flaking paint of the railing, the rusted metal rough against her fingers.
What was she doing here?
The ugly space in the back of her mind. Something trapped in shadow. An emptiness, sucking her in.
White paint, flaking on her fingers as she rubbed them together. The door, slightly ajar. Bass-line pulsing in her skull. Thudding, like a heartbeat. Like the feeling you get as the headache first begins to settle in.
The door creeping open. The gap widening. The emptiness sucking her in.
What was she doing here?
The last door in a line of grey doors, creeping open. She knew. She knew what was behind that door. She should have closed it then. Should not have let herself look back and see that door, half-open.
She should have closed it. Her feet were like lead. Her heart pounding in her throat. The bass-line, thudding in her head. One foot, then the other. Closer to the opening, the darkness, the emptiness. She held out a shaking hand towards the handle, but it continued to swing wider, moving just beyond her grasp. She reached out, a desperate whimper escaping from her lips as she leaned in closer.
And then the door frame was not a frame, but a vast archway, growing higher, wider. The darkness came rushing forwards. Her feet could not hold her, and the whimper became a scream. She was falling, falling down through that vast opening, falling into the darkness that rushed up to swallow her.
Rachael woke to find herself surrounded. Bodies pressed in all around as a thunderous sound bellowed in her ears. The carriage swayed violently as it swept around a bend in the tunnel. The clamour of voices could barely be heard over the constant rumble reverberating from the tunnel walls. They rode through total darkness, buried deep within the earth.
Slowly, her breathing calmed. Rachael checked her bag, the contents apparently untouched. She had little enough to steal, but the thought still nagged at her. The woman in the next seat glowered at her from the corner of one eye, before returning to her sudoku puzzle.
For the price of a single ticket, you could ride the Circle line until midnight. The underground was warm and dry, the trains rattling on through the same dark tunnels as they had for a hundred years, smelling of oil and grime. After the encounter on the rooftop the day before, she had retreated down into the tunnels, somewhere safe, hidden away. Curled up in a corner seat on the train, she kept her bag hugged to her chest and her hood down low, doing her best to simply shut out the sound of the other travellers.
The hours ticked by as the train pulled into one station after another, the crowd in the carriage shifting, changing shape, but never really seeming all that different. Sometimes she sketched, picking a face at random and letting it flow out onto the page. She liked drawing people on the underground. They tried so hard to block out everything around themselves, to become completely disengaged, and yet they allowed so much of themselves to flow to the surface.
She drew, and sometimes she dozed, head tucked against the corner of the window frame. Days on end of huddling in doorways and alleys had left her exhausted, and it was easy to nod off in the warmth, rocked to sleep by the gentle but insistent swaying of the carriage.
Somewhere half-way between dreaming and waking, she noticed that a man was watching her from across the carriage. He had steel grey eyes, tanned skin and a buzz-cut. He wore a patched black leather jacket. There was a tension in him that unsettled her. Still groggy, she clutched her bag tighter, ready to slip out at the next station. The train slowed, coming to a stop with a hiss as the doors opened. For a moment she couldn’t move, trapped by the press of bodies squeezing past. She was ready to slip into the crowd when she glimpsed the empty seat where the man had been sitting. As the carriage began to fill again, like a tide coming back in, she searched the crowd but saw no sign of him. Uneasily, she stayed where she was. Most likely, she’d only imagined the man was looking at her.
The train moved on. Time blurred, and she felt sleep pulling her back in. When she awoke again, she wasn’t sure how long she had been sleeping for. She was alone. She supposed it was late; likely the trains would be stopping soon. In spite of the noise booming from the walls of the tunnel, it felt strangely quiet in the empty carriage. Small gusts of wind pushed the litter around the floor, as lights flickered past in the darkness.
Then she saw that it wasn’t litter, but tiny clouds of golden brown leaves that danced across the floor of the carriage. The more she looked, the more she saw, covering the ground like a field in autumn. Some unfelt breeze lifted them in tiny clouds and flurries, to weave through the air and scurry over the seats and around the hand-rails. She reached out to catch one. Paper-thin, it crumbled between her fingers.
The voice was barely a whisper. How she had even heard it over the sound of the train, she could not guess. She couldn’t even say where it came from. She only knew that she had heard one word, whispered close, almost to her ear.
The train rolled on. The leaves continued to dance and play at the air, though she could not feel the slightest breeze, and the word repeated itself, almost an echo.
She clutched her bag to her chest and tucked her knees up close, becoming as small as she could be. Glancing about the empty carriage, she summoned up the courage to cry out.
The only answer was the whisper of her name once more, as if close by. She looked about wildly, unsure of what she could possibly have missed, but there was not a single person, not one thing out of place, save for the swirling clouds of autumn leaves.
Then the patterns of the leaves began to change. It was slow, at first. It took her a while to realise that they were gathering, spiralling gently inward towards a spot at the centre of the carriage. The cloud of leaves began to rise up like a pillar, still swirling in tight spirals.
Rachael watched in fascination as the pillar of swirling leaves grew taller and broader. Distinct shapes formed at either side, branching away. Then she saw that the shapes were not branches but arms. The form of a human figure began to emerge, taking slow steps towards her, one hand outstretched. The movements of the leaves grew ever tighter, until they were gathered together into a solid mass. A woman’s body with the shape of a simple dress about it, and a face emerging from the pattern of leaves. Empty spaces formed eyes and a mouth. Then, in a voice that was a thousand rustling leaves on a cold autumn day, a single word.
Rachael closed her eyes and screamed.
When she finally drew a breath, the thundering of the train seemed to crash in on her. She heard the sound of voices, and opened her eyes to see a carriage full of passengers, crowded in around her.
As the train pulled in at the station she fled the carriage, and collapsed against the tiled wall of the platform. She pulled her knees up and hid her face, as tears stung her cheeks.
The woman’s face was still clear in her mind. With trembling fingers she struggled to undo the zip on her bag, fumbling in the depths until she retrieved a small container made of clear orange plastic. Barely a half dozen tablets remained at the bottom of the pill bottle. She fumbled the cap loose and swallowed one. Then, pressing her thumbs to her temples, she closed her eyes and tried to slow her breathing. Eventually the sound of her heartbeat quietened to a dull thunder. She could feel white hot marks where her nails had dug into her palms. Her hands were still shaking.
When she opened her eyes, she saw a man watching her from further down the platform. It took her only a moment to realise that it was the same man she had seen on the train. Still unsteady, she got to her feet and waited just long enough for a large crowd to block her from his sight. Then she slipped out of the entrance to the station, weaving her way through the crowds. Before long her pace began to slow, her footsteps feeling lighter and lighter. She had the strange sensation that her body was starting to melt, bleeding out into the air around her as she walked. At each turning she reminded herself to check if she was being followed, but if the man was still tailing her then she could see no sign of him. She knew it was the drugs making her feel light headed, making her forget which street she was on, or to check for signs of pursuit. It was hard to keep it all in her head anymore.
She kept moving, pulling her hood low to cover her face as she ducked down into a narrow passageway. The alley wound it’s way between two crumbling old Victorian buildings, shutting out most of the chaotic buzz of the streets. As she passed another bend in the path, she saw a shape detach itself from the darkness up ahead. The figure’s face was hidden in the shadows, but Rachael could make out a voice, low and soft.
“You’re being followed. He was waiting back at the entrance to the alley.”
A cold shiver ran through her as she caught a glimpse of his face. The boy from the rooftop. He was wearing the same clothes she had seen in him the day before. His long black coat made him look oddly shapeless in the gloom.
“There’s another one waiting in the courtyard ahead. They think they’ve got you trapped in here.”
Barely seeming to notice her confused expression, he turned to nod at the wall to her left.
“No… Wait. You… You weren’t real,” she mumbled, mostly to herself. It took her another moment to realise he was looking at a rusted old iron drainpipe that was bolted to the brickwork.
She glanced back over her shoulder. Her fear was a dull, muted roar, clawing it’s way up through her gut, struggling against the lightness that clouded her thoughts. She wondered if she really was hearing the sound of footsteps approaching from beyond the last turn in the alley, or if it was just her imagination.
“I saw you on the rooftop. But you weren’t really there.”
A look of irritation flashed across his face.
“We don’t have time, come on,” he said.
“Why are you following me?”
“To keep you safe. From them,” he said, glancing nervously back down the alleyway.
The sound of approaching footsteps grew louder. With no time left to think, she grabbed the drainpipe and started to climb. Shifting her weight over the parapet, she rolled clear as the boy vaulted over just behind her. Before she could speak, he turned to her with a finger pressed to his lips. With his other hand he pointed down at the street below.
Rachael slowly peered out, just enough to glimpse what was happening below. She saw a tall, heavily built man in a tan coat walking past. From the other direction, another man approached him. Rachael shuddered as she recognised the dark skinned man in the black leather jacket.
As both men looked about the vacant alleyway, Rachael ducked back into the cover of the rooftop. When she dared to risk another peek, the taller man was holding something in his hand. It might have been a phone, or a walkie-talkie.
“Sorry boss, we lost her,” he said. Then he tucked the device away in his pocket, and the two men walked on.
Rachael pulled herself back from the edge a little. The boy kept watching with keen eyes, until the men were out of sight. Then he sat back against the low wall around the rooftop with a look of relief.
Slowly, Rachael got to her feet, and took a step back.
“OK, what the hell was that all about?”
Scarcely seeming to pay her any attention, the boy started rooting around in his satchel.
“I’m serious, what’s going on here? Why were you following me before?”
“I told you, because of those guys. They’re some sort of gang or something, I guess. They’ve been snatching kids. You know, young girls, like you. There’s this big Greek looking guy with a scarred head. I think he’s their boss. I caught some of them tailing you, a few days back, figured you where their next mark, right? Didn’t want to see you get hurt.”
The boy finally stopped sifting through his bag, and pulled out a pair of bright purple crisp packets. He held one out to her.
For a moment she just stared at him, as his outstretched hand hovered before her. Finally she snatched the packet from his hand, and sat down.
“So you didn’t think of just telling me all that? Like, ‘hey, there’s this gang of bad dudes planning to kidnap you’?”
He looked away, almost as if he was embarrassed.
“Yeah, I did. But… I dunno. I mean, you’re not exactly approachable.”
“Gee, wonder why?” she said.
“And I guess… I kind of liked just watching you,” he added, still staring out across the rooftops. “You know, when you’re out running, or when you’re drawing and stuff.
Rachael felt herself blush. She looked down at the crisp packet in her hands. The purple plastic split with a loud pop.
“They’re pickled onion,” he said. “Hope that’s OK.”
“Food’s food, man,” she said, digging in. She pulled a half empty water bottle from her bag and took a mouthful. She held the bottle out to the boy. He tipped it back, taking a long gulp. A little spilled down his chin.
“Thanks,” he said, passing the bottle back. Then he smiled, and held out his hand.
“I’m Justin,” he said.
“Rachael,” she said, though she made no move to take his hand.
For a moment they ate in silence. When the bag was empty she licked the foil clean. Finally she crumpled up the empty packet and let it fly away on the breeze. Leaning back on her elbows, she stared up at the overcast sky. Her head was starting to clear a little.
“I should go,” she said.
“Why?” he said, with an almost childish curiosity.
“I dunno. Because.”
“They’re probably still looking for you,” Justin said.
“Yeah, well, I can look after myself,” she said, begin to feel a little irritable. “Now I know what I’m dealing with and all.”
She turned to pick up her bag.
“Why do you want to leave?” he said. She stared at him as he got to his feet and checked the buckles on his satchel. She honestly couldn’t say if it was anger or curiosity she was feeling, as she found herself reaching for words that she couldn’t find.
“Come on,” he said, “There’s a baker’s nearby, gets really busy about now. You do it right, you can lean over the counter and snatch up some pasties while no one’s looking.”
He looked so at ease, so relaxed as he stood there smiling at her, brown eyes warm and friendly. It was only when she looked at his hands that she saw they were shaking, just a little.
She smiled. It was a strange feeling.
“OK,” she said.
In the end they struck out at the bakers after Justin tried to slip a whole loaf of bread under his coat. They barely escaped, pilfered sandwiches scattering across the tiled floor as they ran. In the end they bought hot-dogs from a street cart, and when the balding man wasn’t looking Rachael helped herself to the contents of his change jar. They ate in a park, drinking water from a guttering old fountain that had a coppery tang, and they pissed behind an overgrown laurel bush in the shrubbery, taking turns to keep watch.
Eventually, they found themselves sitting on a rooftop, overlooking the railway tracks, where nearly two dozen lines gathered together into the chaotic tangle of King’s Cross Station. They sat with their legs over the edge of the roof, heels knocking against the wall. The rumble of the trains mingled with the constant buzz of noise that filled every part of London’s streets. She ran her fingertips over the brickwork, feeling the rough texture as a prickling sensation against her skin. The world was beginning to feel brighter and sharper, every sound a little clearer.
“Do you ever wish it was you?” Justin said, nodding at a passenger coach. “Y’know, sitting on one of them trains. Going home?”
She shook her head.
“Not really. Home is here, you know? Lived in London my whole life.”
“Tottenham. Estates. It’s… It’s not really somewhere you’d want to go back to, you know?”
“So you left?”
Instinctively, she glanced away.
“Yeah. Something like that,” she said. “What about you? Where’d you come from?”
He leaned back, and looked up at the darkening grey sky.
“That’s, uh… A really complicated question,” he said.
She turned to look at him. The rumble of a passing train reverberated up from the building.
“Man, you are trying really hard to be all mysterious and stuff, ain’t you?”
A look of irritation flashed across his face.
“What, and you’re not?”
She scowled, and looked away.
“Listen,” she said, after a moment, “thanks for helping me out back there. That was real good of you man.”
She pulled herself back from the edge of the roof and stood up, shouldering her pack. He looked up at her, surprised and confused.
“I’ll see round, OK?” she said, turning to leave.
He was on his feet before she’d gone three steps, grabbing her by the elbow.
“Hey, where you going?” he said.
She shook his hand off.
“Don’t get personal, dude,” she snapped.
“Those guys could still be after you. You know that right? You should let me stay with you.”
She glanced back at him, and for a moment there was something unsettling in his eyes. A strange mixture of fear and determination.
She forced a shrug.
“Fine, whatever man.”
As she started to walk again, he fell in stride beside her. At the far of the roof, she dropped down. She heard the thump as he landed just behind her, but already she was picking up speed, cutting back on herself. Another drop, and she darting down a narrow street, towards the embankment over the train yard. She heard him scramble down the embankment behind her, heard him shout something, but she wasn’t paying attention to the words. There was a string of parked carriages up ahead, and she hit the ground rolling, right between the wheels. Coming up on the other side, she turned and jumped, catching a handrail to haul herself up onto the carriage roof. Looking down, she glimpsed the tail of his coat disappearing as he rolled under the carriage, now heading in the wrong direction. Quietly, she dropped down, and sprinted away, back towards the embankment. The sound of her footsteps against the gravel was buried in the thunder of another train passing.
Back on the streets, she kept running, cutting back on herself a couple of times, until she was sure she had lost him. Feeling strained and exhausted, she slipped around the back of a supermarket, arriving in a narrow side-street with a loading dock. Cigarette stubs littered the ground, and towards one end of the alley a pile of disused metal shelving had formed. She settled down against the wall, opposite a mound of broken boxes. She pulled out her water bottle and took a long swig. The bottle was still pressed to her lips when she heard the sound of footsteps, and looked up just as a shadow fell over her.
She recognised the man from the train instantly, steel grey eyes regarding her with a compassionless gaze. His companion was the man from the alleyway, fair haired, broad shouldered, and seeming even taller now that he was looming over her. His eyes were blue, and cold.
They didn’t even speak. Both men just reached down to grab her by the arms. She tried to scream, but ended up choking on the mouthful of water. As fingers like iron wrapped around her arms she kicked away, but they were far too strong. She continued to struggle in their grip as one of the men clapped a hand over her mouth. She lashed out, catching the grey-eyed man in the leg, but his grip did not falter.
Then, as they hauled her to her feet, she saw a movement above. A dark shape, descending. Briefly, she had the impression of outstretched wings. The figure crashed down onto the taller of the men, knocking him to the ground. Rachael was thrown backwards by the impact, landing hard against the wall. For a moment she could only register the pain that exploded across her body.
Dazed, vision blurred and struggling to breath, she could still hear the anger and confusion in the men’s voices. She looked up in time to see the taller man go flying backwards, as Justin landed a hard kick to his jaw that seemed to leave him stunned. Then the steel eyed man lunged at the boy from behind. Justin wheeled around, a flicker of bright silver in his hand quickly resolving itself into the shape of a knife. The blade plunged through the man’s hand, blood flowing over bright steel and dark skin. Then Justin wrenched the knife free, and wheeled around to plant a knee into the man’s guts. He doubled over.
Then Justin was kneeling at her side, pulling her up with strong hands. She found herself looking into his brown eyes, and saw that they were flecked with tiny spots of gold.
“You’re OK?” he said.
She nodded. Already, both of the men were struggling to their feet, hands reaching for weapons.
“Good,” Justin said. “Let’s go.”
She didn’t have to think about it. Together, they ran.
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.