Tony Richards is the author of three novels, more than fifty short stories, numerous articles and reviews and is a Stoker Award nominee. His fiction has appeared in F&SF, Weird Tales, Cemetery Dance, The 3rd Alternative and numerous anthologies. He is currently working as full-time freelance writer, and lives in London with his wife. To find out more about Tony, visit his website, www.richardsreality.com.
When Charley was three years old, his parents put a bunk bed in the nursery. And that was the beginning of all their troubles. That was the beginning of the nightmare.
Squeaking slightly on its hinges, the door to the nursery opened a crack. A sliver of light cut across the dark floor of the room. Jane Dean paused a moment, worried, listening, then pushed the door open wider and stepped inside.
'Charley?' she asked, whispering. 'Are you all right?'
The rustling of sheets and a soft sniffing noise were her only reply. From the shadows of the lower bunk, two large bright eyes, shiny with tears, stared out at her. The face behind them could not be seen -- only the eyes, like soft, wet diamonds.
Jane tiptoed closer to the bunk.
'I heard you crying. Is anything wrong?'Charley Dean pushed himself upright against his big pillow. High up, so that the shaft of light from the doorway caught his face at last, picked his features out in clear detail. They were open and innocent, the features of an angel. Jane had rarely seen him cry before. Even at his young age -- he was almost four by now -- the boy always seemed too happy to find anything worth crying over.
'Can't sleep, Mummy,' he told her.
Jane put one hand gently underneath his chin and turned his face upwards so that he was forced to look her in the eye. Charley averted his gaze. For perhaps the first time in his life, he was lying.
'Charley, tell the truth.'
She got only silence.
'You make a rotten liar you know,' she said kindly. 'The worst liar in the world.'
The boy blinked at her sadly, intelligent enough to know when he was beaten.
'Who's that bed for? That one.' He pointed to the empty bunk above him.
And at that moment, Jane almost felt like crying herself. She stopped herself just in time, thankful that the darkness of the room was hiding the expression on her own face. She had been an only child, too. She understood just how alone Charley was feeling right now, sleeping by himself in a bed designed for two.She took a handkerchief out of her sleeve and dabbed at his face.
'That bed up there?' she said. 'That's for your baby brother when he comes to live with us.'
'Yes. A little boy, just like you. He'll come to live with us soon.' She smiled at her tiny son. 'Just imagine, Charley. Your own little friend to be with you all the time. You'll be able to talk with him and play with him and do all the things that little boys do. Won't that be nice?'
'Nice,' agreed Charley. He settled back down amongst the bed sheets. 'Nice. Little brother.'
He closed his eyes and quickly fell asleep.
Satisfied, Jane crept back softly to the door, lingered there a moment, gazing at the face of her first and only son. He was smiling.
Another child. A brother for Charley. Or perhaps a sister. Jane and her husband, Norman, wanted that second baby more than anything they could imagine. The house was just the proper size for two children. The nursery was huge. And they had bought the bunk bed knowing another child would be due soon.
But they were wrong.
One evening, Jane returned home from the clinic down the road pale as a sheet, practically trembling. Norman led her into the sitting-room and closed the door.
'Well?' he asked.
'The doctor says,' Jane answered slowly, 'I can't have any more children.'
Nobody told Charley.
A year passed ...
And then another ...
The top bed of the bunk remained empty.
Lying in the bottom bunk each night, quite alone through those two years, Charley waited. He was a patient child and waited for a long time. But when the loneliness became too much, he resorted to his own imagination.
Down there, in the deep shadows, he lay thinking.
At first, his fantasies were distant and gentle, waking dreams. As month overtook month, though, they increased in scope, in vision, in pure ferocity until one thought became a burning pain in Charley"s head.Little brother. Little brother. Little brother. LITTLE BROTHER!
He talked to it, in the dark of the nursery. He could see it sometimes if he looked hard enough. He could hear it breathing, hear it moving. And gradually, it became more and more real to him.
And gradually, night by night, something began to take shape in the empty upper bed. With eyes, ears, nose. Two legs, two arms. A tiny form which might have been human -- but was not human at all.
Out of his mind, the mind of a child, Charley had done what his parents were unable to do. He had created his own brother.
'He'll grow out of it in time, when he gets older.'
Cousin Mildred talked with the authority of an expert, though she had never married and had no children of her own. Secretly, she seemed afraid of them. Or hated them. Or both. Still, Jane and Norman had heard the same advice a hundred times from a hundred different sources, so why not just pretend to listen, nod heads and agree. Anything to keep her happy.
Mildred stared at them, expecting a response. They nodded.
The fat old woman continued. 'What can you expect when you've been filling the child"s head with so much talk about another boy? Especially you, Jane. Lots of children invent their own invisible friends. It's practically a normal part of growing up, just a game which he'll discard with age, but you shouldn't have encouraged him in the first place.'
She paused to sip her tea. Then her lips curled in a self-satisfied smile. 'Jane, why don't you get rid of that bunk bed and tell him his brother won't be coming? Why not tell him the truth?'
Truth. She spat that word as though it were a curse.
The two women stared at each other unblinkingly, hating each other, loathing each other. Mildred was Norman's cousin -- she had no regard for Jane. To the old spinster's way of thinking, the lack of a second child was somehow Jane's doing. It was a judgement, a punishment; Mildred was sure of that. Poor Noman had simply been foolish enough to get in the way, get hurt.
Jane waited till she was satisfied her gaze had stood up to Mildred's, then she said, quietly but firmly, "I'm not going to tell him yet, or get rid of the bed. There's always a chance the doctor was wrong. And besides, Charley's too young. It would upset him too much. I'll wait. Till he's ready."
The discussion went on, becoming an argument.
Hiding in the darkness outside the lounge, Charley was listening. He should have been in bed, but the sound of raised voices had attracted him down. An impish grin creased his smooth features.
He turned to his brother.
"Hey!" he whispered. The brother had no name. Charley simply addressed it with hey! or spoke to it directly. "They're stupid, aren't they? They don't believe you're real. They can't even see you." His grin became wider. "Let's show them you're real. Let"s show old Mildred."
The brother nodded slowly.
"Come on, then."
Charley edged towards the door. He halted a moment, cautiously. Then, seizing the knob in both hands, he turned it and burst through.
The brother followed, unseen.
"It's me!" Charley shouted. "It's me and my brother! We've come to say hello. Hello, Mildred!"
His parents sprang to their feet, angry and white-faced. Mildred remained seated, but looking very shocked.
'Charley!' shouted Jane, half out of fright. 'What do you think you're doing behaving like this when we've got a guest? Get back to bed this instant!'
Charley's face dropped. He had thought it was all an amusing game, had thought they would be pleased.
'But,' he murmured, 'I only wanted to show you my brother.'
'And where is this little brother, Charley?' Mildred asked, her stony composure now returned. 'I can't see him.'
Charley glanced to his side. His brother was not there. His gaze swept across the room. 'Over there.' He pointed. 'Over by the open window. Can't you see him?'
There was a rustling amongst the curtains.
'Please,' said Charley. 'Look at him.'
Without warning, a china vase slipped from the window ledge and shattered on the floor.
Everyone stared at the brightly-coloured fragments for a moment. Jane, Norman, Mildred. Even Charley. As if they could not believe what they had seen. The boy smiled softly to himself. Mildred began to choke and got up from her seat.
'It ...' Jane started to explain. 'It must have been the wind.'
It was still and windless that evening, though. And Cousin Mildred was already getting on her coat to leave.
Late that night -- when the mess had been cleared up, when the Deans had calmed down, when Charley was back in bed and sound asleep -- Jane poked her head around the nursery door. Dead to the world, her only son was sleeping peacefully, not a sign of worry on his face. He was, if anything, more at ease now than at any time before this game of 'little brother' had begun.
Game? Just a game? Jane was not certain any more.
At first, she thought of waking her son right away, coaxing some explanation from him while he was still drowsy and off-guard. Some instinct halted her. She merely stood, quite still, in the darkened room, waiting, listening.
It was quiet in the room. Unnaturally quiet. Outside, Jane knew, a midnight storm had begun brewing under the sallow moon. She should have been able to hear, at very least, the noise of the increasing wind, the delicate patter of the first few tiny raindrops. There was none of that. Nor was there any sound of Norman's favourite record playing on the music centre downstairs. As if ...
As if, slowly and subtly, the bunk bed and the nursery and her only son were being drawn away from the outside world. Small children, all small children, find obsessions. But if a child becomes so fixated with one single idea that nothing else seems to matter -- what then?
Jane clenched her fist so tight that her long nails dug deep into her palms. She realised that she was sweating. Cold sweat. Why was she so suddenly afraid?
Almost imperceptibly, something stirred on the bare mattress of the uppermost bunk. Jane clamped her hand across her mouth to stop herself from screaming, from waking her son.
The upper bed was filled with shadow, black as a cavern, bottomless and terrifying. Jane could see nothing there, but felt that she was being watched. Something -- something quite invisible -- was glaring at her balefully. She was positive of that.
Her flesh crawled.
The thing on the upper bed moved again, and whether it was moving towards her or settling back down Jane never had the time to find out. Her nerve broke. Shaking with fear, her heart pounding like a hammer, she fled from the room.
Norman was downstairs, removing his record from the turntable, placing it carefully back inside its sleeve. Jane ran to him, sobbing, near hysterical.
And he laughed. And told her not to be so silly. And went to bed.
Throughout the next few months, Jane watched her son closely, her panic growing all the time. Charley was as good and angelic as he had always been. Forever smiling, full of life. Never sad. The perfect son. Almost.
Yet, even when he was at school with children of his own age, he refused to give up his obsession with the 'brother'. While other children went to class in groups of three or four, Charley would walk by himself, talking to the invisible sibling as he went. When he came home, alone, at four in the afternoon, he would eat his tea quickly, cramming it down, then dash upstairs to the nursery to play. With the brother.
Jane had to face facts. Her only son was growing more distant as each day passed; distant from all other living, real people, including his own family.
And Jane, for her part, was becoming afraid to go near him. Certainly, she never ventured into the dark nursery while Charley was asleep, not since that awful night after the incident with the vase.
She realised, now, that something would have to be done.
'Hey, what do you want to do now?' Charley said. 'I'm tired of playing pirates. How about soldiers?'
The brother shook its head disapprovingly.
'Why can't you speak to me?' asked Charley. 'I don't think you can even talk at all. It's easy. Mummy said I learned quick ... I mean quickly. See? Easy!'
Charley picked a wooden soldier off the floor and scratched intently at the scarlet paint. 'I'll teach you,' he said.
Before the brother had time to respond, Jane rushed in through the nursery door. She had been waiting outside for ages, plucking up the courage to face her son on his home ground. As she advanced on him, Charley caught the strange look in her eyes. It was partly anger, but there was fear there, too. Terrible fear. It made him tremble.
His mother grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him.
'Charley!' Her voice was unnaturally high and tense. 'Why are you playing up here when it's warm and sunny outside?'
He opened his mouth to answer her, but she shook him again.
'It won't be dark for hours yet.' She was speaking more quietly now, but the ragged edge of fear was still there. 'Come out into the garden with me. We'll play hide-and-seek, like we used to when you were little.'
Charley could not understand it all, the shouting and the cajoling, the fury and the fear. He gazed straight up at his mother, looking solemn and a little sad.
'I'd like to, Mummy, but I promised my brother that I'd play with him.'
Jane stepped back a pace, towering over him. 'Will you forget this stupid nonsense about your brother! There is no little brother. Never has been. Never will be.'
There! It was said! The truth was out at last!
'But there is,' Charley pleaded. 'He's real.'
His mother shook her head. 'I'm going to take you downstairs now. We'll go outside into the garden and play hide-and-seek in the nice warm sun, away from the dark. And you'll never play with your ... your little brother again, never talk to him or tell people about him or have anything to do with him. Ever!'
She grabbed Charley's arm, began dragging him towards the door. And ...
Something hit her in the stomach, hit her hard.
The blow was not so much like a solid punch as an electric shock. It drove all the breath from Jane's lungs, making her head spin. She staggered back, relinquishing her grip on Charley as panic began to overtake her totally.
But the fear was drowned by something else, an altogether stronger emotion. This thing, this monster, was standing between her and her only child. It was taking Charley from her. Instead of turning and running, she struck back at it.
Her hand passed through thin air.
The brother could hit outwards, but nothing worldly could harm it. The product of a child's imagination and loneliness and longing, it was beyond the reach of adult force.
Past fear or anger, Jane became suddenly, horribly calm. Charley gazed at her mournfully.
'I told you,' he whispered. 'I promised I'd play with my brother.'
Charley was unpopular at school. He never played with the other children, preferring to pass the time with his brother instead --and the others mocked him at first, as cruel small children often mock. But finally, when they grew bored, they left him alone to his fantasies. He was no longer a target. He was an outcast.
It came as some surprise, then, when a classmate approached him one lunchtime. It was the day after the argument with Jane, and Charley and his brother were brooding over the incident in a shady corner of the playground.
The boy who came to them was Jason Ketz, perhaps the least-liked boy in all the school. Jason was tiny, thin, and very pale. Weak in every way. His large blue eyes seemed permanently filled with tears. He shied away from everyone, hardly spoke at all, and then in muted tones. When the other boys teased him he became hysterical -- so, understandably, they teased him a lot.
The child teetered forwards uncertainly.
'What is it, Jason Cry-Baby?' snapped Charley. 'What do you want?' Charley loathed Jason. The boy reminded him too much of himself: isolated, fragile, piously innocent.
Jason's mouth hung open, as though he were so unpractised at speaking he had lost the knack of forming words.
'Well? Tell me what you want or go away.'
The confession came all at once, in a torrent, like water bursting from a dam. 'I'm sorry, Charley -- I'm sorry to disturb you -- but I've got to tell you that -- that --'
'That what? Speak up.'
'That I can see him too,' said Jason.
Charley stared at him, frozen.
'I can see your little brother,' Jason repeated, 'even if everyone else says they can't. He's a nice little brother, just like the brother I'd like to have instead of my stupid big sister. That would be nice, having someone to play with all the time. Instead of being alone.'
He stopped and shuffled nervously. 'Charley, I'd like to ask you something. A favour.'
Charley took some time to answer. He was stunned. Not that he'd ever doubted the brother's existence, not for a moment. But he had grown used to the fact that no one else believed. Unless, he realized now, they wanted to believe.
'Go on, Jason,' he said at last.'What kind of favour do you want?'
Jason stared at the spot where the brother was lying. He smiled at the silent figure. 'I wonder if you'd let me play with you. Both of you. There'd be three of us then. We'd have real fun.'
Charley glanced at his brother questioningly.
The brother shook its head.
'I'm sorry, Jason, but my brother says no. We've always been together, just me and him, and we don't want anybody else along. It's us alone. Us brothers. Like it's always been since he came.'
'Please?' begged Jason.
'I'm so lonely.'
'I'm sorry. No.'
Jason's lower lip trembled. Tears began to wet his cheeks. There was, at first, a gurgling noise deep in his throat. And then a shriek of rage.
'I'll make trouble for you!' he screamed, red-faced. 'I'll make real trouble for you if you don't let me play. I'll tell everyone about your brother and they'll say you're a ... bad influence! They'll take you away from here. You'll see! Just you wait!'
He turned and ran, wailing dismally.
Charley shrugged the incident off and forgot it within a few minutes. He played with his brother for a while, then leaned his head against the trunk of a large oak tree and went to sleep.
When he awoke, a little while later, the brother was gone.
The body of Jason Ketz was finally discovered hidden in the wasteland at the back of the school. He had been strangled to death. No clues were discovered,and the killer was never found. Some children, though, had overheard the argument and Jason's threat. The story spread, and a lot of people connected the murder, somehow, with Charley Dean. They weren't sure how. They simply knew. From then on, he was avoided by everyone; there seemed to be something brooding and unpleasant about him, for all his innocence.
Not that anyone believed in his invisible brother.
Or dared to believe.
Coinciding with this incident, another strange thing was happening. This time it affected Charley's parents. And it was strange in a marvellous way.
Jane had never given up hope that the doctor had been wrong. And two months after the murder of Jason Ketz, she was proved correct. The doctor had been wrong. She was expecting another child.
Perhaps, people said, this would finally make Charley forget his 'little brother'. Jane was not so sure. Perhaps all that would happen was the brother would get jealous.
Christmas came. There were family visits to the Deans" house. Uncles, aunts, grandparents -- they all asked Charley whether he was pleased at the prospect of a baby in the house, but they were lucky to get any reply at all. Charley simply was not interested, and they went away bemused.
From time to time, other people mentioned the new baby to Charley, with the same response. And yes, he had noticed how his mother had changed, growing bigger, needing more rest, eating more, how his father had taken over some of the more strenuous household chores. But this did not concern him, didn't affect him at all. It was as though all these things were taking place on the far edge of his vision. He was so far removed from the real world by now that nothing mattered to him save the brother.
He was surprised when the brother itself began to take notice, becoming almost angry every time an adult brought the subject of the baby up, sulking in the darkest corner of the nursery for hours.
'What's wrong with you?' Charley asked. 'Don't you want to play?'
The brother would not even look at him.
'It's just us two, like it's always been,' Charley told him.'No one's going to come between us.'
At the beginning of April, his mother went into hospital, and his father began coming home late every night.
A neighbour came in to look after Charley, but she was old and spent most of the time asleep in front of the television. Charley was bored.
The brother was practically impossible to approach by now. One evening, Charley found him in the hall, looking at a card which had on it the address of the hospital.
By the next evening, the brother was gone.
Charley's father was later home the next day than he had ever been before. But it was not his father who Charley, standing in the hallway close to tears, was waiting for. A noise from behind made him suddenly jump. He turned.
'There you are,' he said to his brother. 'Where have you been? I was all lonely.' He rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. 'You were gone all night. What's happening?'
Instead of answering, the brother turned and dashed away upstairs, to the nursery.
A car was pulling up outside.
Charley was just about to follow his brother when his father came in through the front door. Norman Dean was in a ghastly state. His face, a spectral white, was dirty with spent tears. His whole body was slumped forwards as though his bones had turned to putty. He was shaking uncontrollably.
'Dad?' asked Charley. 'What"s wrong?'
It was too much to bear. Everything seemed to be going bad at once.
Norman Dean fell to his knees and put his head between his hands. Overcome with grief, he poured out the whole story. Forgetting that Charley was a child, he told him every last terrible detail.
How Charley's mother had felt fine when she was admitted to hospital.
How the doctors had said everything would go perfectly.
How she had given birth to a healthy baby boy. A boy!
And how the child had been murdered in its crib. Smothered to death with a pillow. The police could not find a single clue. Who'd do a thing like that? And why? Why?
Norman broke down as he finished the account. He cried for a long time, helplessly confused. When he raised his tear-streaked face once more, Charley was still standing before him.
Smiling. Happy. Completely unperturbed.
'Don't you care?' asked Norman, aghast. 'Don't you care that you've lost your brother?'
'But I"ve already got a brother,' Charley said.
And he ran upstairs to play.
(C)Tony Richards 2004
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.