Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Day 3 - The Carpet Crawlers

Run, run, just as fast as you can,
But you can’t run faster,
Than the carpet crawlers can.

The school looked completely different to how I remembered it. If you looked hard you could still see the parts of it that had been there when it was my school, but it had grown in all directions in the twenty five years since I had left it behind and now seemed to me to be more a random urban sprawl than a school.

I walked across a carpark that, if I remember rightly, used to be part of the playing field and threaded my way past a stack of modern red-brick two storey classrooms that hadn’t existed in my day. Once you were past that it looked the same though; the same main entrance, the same steps leading up to it. I felt a twisting in the pit of my stomach as I walked up them; this was the first time I’d attended one of the school reunions and it felt strange to know that I was going to be walking into a hall with a bunch of people who used to be my friends. Well, some of them.

To be honest, reunions seem a little bit of a waste of time these days. Sure, back in the olden days, this was your chance to catch up with everyone and to find out what they had been doing and who they’d been doing it with. But this was the era of social media; I already knew that Sean Simmons had put on weight and lost his hair, I’d already seen from Amy Burnham’s Facebook posts that she’d been through a really messy, and bitter, divorce. It wasn’t about catching up anymore; we were so caught up with everyone these days we didn’t even care.

I’d missed the ten year reunion because I’d been backpacking through Thailand at the time and hadn’t even seen the invitation until I got home and checked my email. I’d missed the twentieth anniversary because I was in LA and sitting by a pool and trying to persuade people to fund my script. And, let’s be honest, because I just couldn’t be bothered to fly all the way back to the UK to hang out with a bunch of people I hardly remembered anymore. And probably I’d have missed the twenty fifth anniversary just as easily if it wasn’t for the dreams starting again.

I paused at the door, one hand on the brass handle. I could still walk away from this, I could still turn around and get back on a train, and back on a plane, and back to my LA condo and forget all of this. Fuck the dreams. But I knew it wasn’t that simple; sometimes you have to go back and face the past. I opened the door and stepped inside.

The entrance hall was pretty much the same. Different paintings on the wall, and the old checked floor tiles had been replaced with some swankier hardwood flooring, but it was the same. It even smelled the same to me. I signed it at the table, said hello to a girl I supposedly hadn’t seen in twenty five years and who I still don’t remember, picked up a name badge and walked into the hall.

The hall brought back memories; memories of standing for what seemed like hours in assemblies, of having lunch here every day, of sitting at a desk and writing lines when I ‘forgot’ my gym kit in order to avoid a cross country run in the pouring rain. Heads turned as I walked into the room; a nod from a guy whose name I forget but who was on my Facebook friends list, a smile from a girl who I remember spending a whole summer infatuated with, and over in the corner, the three people I had come to this reunion to see.

“Chris fucking Mackenzie,” said Jon Evans, his hair still the mess of black curls I remembered. “I do not fucking believe it. I thought you’d moved to the States, Macky?”

“Long time no see Jon,” I replied, “yeah, I’m still living in LA but I figured I’d come over and see how you lot were doing.”

“Come to see how the other half live, eh?” said Mike Ellington, who was so big these days that it looked like he’d maybe eaten the old Mike Ellington I knew.

“Did not think we’d see you here, mate,” said Des Cummins, “and you still look exactly the same, you jammy bastard. We’ve all got old and bald and fat and you look the fucking same.”

“Nah,” I said, “I’ve put on some weight. And my hair’s going grey…”

“Well, at least you’ve got hair,” replied Des, running one hand over his now smooth head. “I finally admitted defeat five years ago and started shaving it.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I remember you posted the photos online.”

I looked around, it all seemed so familiar.

“Remember that first assembly we ever had here,” said Mike, “when Jackie Dawkins fainted and they had to carry her out?”

“Man, I still remember the sound she made when she hit the floor,” said Jon, looking around, “I wonder if she’s here tonight?”

“We had some good times here,” laughed Des, “some fucking good times. Remember when Mr. Pincher caught you with your hand up Kirsty Fletcher’s jumper and he went absolutely batshit and dragged you to the headmaster’s office by your sideburns?”

We all laughed, I had forgotten that. But now that I thought about it, I could remember how they’d ached for days afterwards. We swapped anecdotes that like for a couple of hours, pretty much ignoring everyone else who came over and said hello and then left the reunion to head to the pub down the road, where we continued the anecdotes alongside beers.

It was on the fourth beer that I asked the question that had brought me over five thousand miles to be here tonight.

“Do you remember James Benton?”

A silence descended on our corner of the pub. Des looked into his pint glass with a frown, Jon sipped from his beer without saying a word, and Mike stared out the window as though he’d suddenly seen something interesting out there.

“Do you remember James Benton?” I repeated.

“We said we’d never talk about him again,” said Jon quietly. “We swore.”

“I know what we said,” I replied, “but I’ve been having the dreams again.”

“Fuck,” said Des, angrily. “Why did you have to mention the dreams? I’d forgotten about the fucking dreams until you said that.”

Mike had continued to stare out the window, the colour seemingly drained from him so that he appeared to be almost made out of alabaster. He had one hand tightly gripping his pint glass, the other he was flexing open and shut.

“Mike?” I asked.

He turned back to us, his eyes hollow. “I’ve been having the dreams again as well. They started a few months ago.”

“It’s a coincidence,” said Jon, quickly, “it has to be.”

“We are not going to talk about James Fucking Benton,” said Des. “Benton died when we were still thirteen. He got lost in the woods and he was killed by that homeless guy and it is not our fault.”

“Is that how you remember it?” I asked, “Is that really how you remember it? Have you lied to everyone for so long about what happened in the woods that you’ve even started believing it yourself?”

“I remember the shack,” said Mike, putting his glass down on the table. “That’s what I see in my dreams. And I hear his screams.”

“Will you two shut the fuck up,” hissed Des, “this is not what I came here to talk about…”

“You know in your heart what happened that day,” I said firmly, staring him down until he looked away. “We were responsible for what happened and we need to go back. If the dreams are going to end, we need to go back.”

Silence descended again, thicker this time, as everyone mulled over what I had just said.

James Benton had been one of us, one of the five musketeers as we’d liked to call ourselves. We’d played football together on the car park of the factories down my road, we’d ridden our bikes in a pack along the roads of the estate, and we’d gone into the woods together that day all those years ago.

I still blame myself. Maybe that’s why I had the dreams more than anyone else. I was a storyteller, always have been, and so when we found the old wooden shack in the middle of the woods I immediately came up with a history for it. Its windows were thick with dust and dirt but one small pane was broken and we had stared in at a small room with a wooden table and a rocking chair and an old red carpet, and I had immediately made up a story about how it was haunted and how no one dared stay inside it. That was the day I made up the story of the carpet crawlers.

I’d heard mention of them in an old rhyme, something about running fast as you can, and I just built up a story around the words. The carpet crawlers lived in the patterns of carpets, I told them. They were little fragments of shadow, of darkness, that disguised themselves in the patterns and only formed into their true form when it was dark and they could move freely. They lived in that red carpet and they waited, I’d said, for someone to come to them after all these years alone. Waited for someone to taste.

And James, James who was the smallest of us and the youngest of us, he was scared of the carpet crawlers. Oh, he pretended to laugh like everyone else, but I could see that the thought of the carpet crawlers, slithering silently in the dark and waiting for him, scared the hell out of him. I saw that and yet I didn’t stop. Or maybe it’s only in retrospect that I see it; maybe the man that I am today sees it in my memories but the boy I was did not. Some days I can almost believe that to be true.

A week later, when we were playing in the woods again, we became separated from James and we lost him in the woods. We ran home and told my mum and she called the police and there was a big search organised; it was on TV and everything. The police talked to us and we all told them the same thing, that we’d been by the shack and something had scared us and we’d ran away but James hadn’t kept up and by the time we realised it was too late.

I think, to begin with, the police were sceptical of our story and thought we’d done something to James. But then two days later they found Alan Matthews, a homeless guy, sleeping rough a couple of miles away and he had James’ bag on him and they arrested him. He was an alcoholic and they didn’t get much sense out of him, certainly nothing on what he’d done to James, and then a couple of weeks later he was murdered in prison and the case died there. James was never found, presumed murdered by Matthews.

But the truth was different.

The truth was that day we went out to the shack again and, maybe it was Jon’s idea or maybe it was Mike’s idea, but whoever’s idea it was we decided we were going to shove James into the shack and shut him in. It was going to be a laugh we’d all agreed, we’d shut him in there and only let him out when he’d peed himself. I opened the door to the shack and Des and Mike shoved him in. I still remember the panic on his face as Des shoved the door shut. I’ve tried to forget but I still remember the way his eyes opened so very wide and his mouth fell open as the door swung shut on him.

He screamed and banged on the door, pounding against the wood so hard that it took all of us holding ourselves against the door to keep him in there. And then he cried and started shouting about the carpet crawlers, and we laughed our heads off. And then he whimpered, and then he went completely silent. I remember Des laughing that he must be peeing himself but I felt something cold inside me, that instinct that something is terribly wrong.

And, of course, when we opened the door to the shack, James was gone. We went in, but there was no sign of him. It was as if he had disappeared into thin air. And so we ran home and told my mum the story about getting scared and separated in the woods – after all, who would have believed that a boy vanished into thin air?

When they arrested Alan Matthews, I was happy that they’d found an explanation for what happened even though I knew in my heart that James Benton hadn’t been snatched up by some tramp. The shack had taken him, the carpet crawlers had taken him. And even though I tried to pretend that I believed the official version, when I started to have the dreams I knew my instincts had been right.

I dreamed of standing outside shack and of James Benton waiting inside, except he had no eyes. And he screamed silently at me as the floor beneath his feet, the red carpet, swirled in dark patterns. Inside my head, I heard a voice begging me to come inside.

And eventually we all were dreaming the same dream; all four of us, that same dream. Now, maybe there’s a rational explanation; maybe the trauma of that day caused it, maybe whoever dreamed it first mentioned it to the others and they started having the same dream. But I don’t believe you can explain it rationally. It go so that we would have the dream every single night. And every night we found ourselves closer to the door, closer to stepping into the darkness.

Mike had the idea of burning the shack down and we all agreed. We stole petrol from Jon’s brother’s moped and we came back to the shack in the daytime and we sprinkled it around the outside of it and we lit a match. And as it burned, we ran. It caused a forest fire that the fire brigade had to come out to and damp down but it was worth it because the dreams ended and we swore that we would never talk about James or the dreams or the shack ever again.

But here we were, twenty five years later than and the dreams had started all over again.

“We need to go back,” echoed Mike and Des and Jon sighed and reluctantly nodded.


We met early the next morning, heads still a little heavy from the beer the night before, and we headed into the woods together. The atmosphere sombre and tense; I think we’d all had the dream that night and we all knew we couldn’t ignore this, we needed to go back and end this finally.

The woods were silent, not a bird or an insect to be heard, as we trudged through them and after twenty minutes of walking we emerged into a small clearing where we found a wooden shack. Its windows were dirty and dusty, and one pane was broken.

“This isn’t possible,” said Jon, “We burnt this down.”

“Someone must have rebuilt it,” said Des.

“Do you know how stupid that sounds?” asked Mike, “Who would rebuild a shack in the middle of the woods and make it as broken down as before?”

“Maybe we didn’t burn it then,” suggested Des.

“We burned it,” I said. “I remember watching the flames climbing up the walls before we ran. We burnt this but now it’s back.”

The door of the shack was ajar and I knew that we needed to open it, that we needed to step inside. Even as a small voice somewhere inside me was telling me to run, to run away as fast as I could, a far more powerful voice was beckoning to me to step inside.

All four of us walked into the shack. It was exactly as I remember it; a wooden table and a rocking chair. The old red carpet, thick with dust and grime. Except in the corner, there was something else. Something in the shadows.

Somewhere in the distance a door shut but I was looking at the something else, at the something in the shadows, as it turned and as James Benton shambled forwards. His mouth open in a scream that never came, his empty eye sockets spilling maggots onto the floor.

And as the fragments of darkness began to coalesce across the floor, as the carpet crawlers begin to rise from the darkness, I realised that I’d always known it would have to end here. We left James once and now we had to come back for him. And as they touched me, midnight blackness scurrying ice cold across my skin, I knew it could never be a happy ending…

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