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Shorts in the Dark

 

The Old Man’s Shed

 

 

There had always been something about the old man’s shed that fascinated Jacob Whistler. It sat there under the deep, dry shade of a large chestnut tree, silent and inviting; just like any shed would do in the mind of a twelve-year-old boy. But there was, and always had been, something more to it than that; a barely discernible, though undeniable, sense of something wrong. Something that appealed and repelled at the same time.

 

The old man had lived in the house next door long before Jacob’s family had moved in at number fifteen some four years earlier. It seemed that none of their other neighbours knew exactly how long he had been there. Questions on the matter were always answered with a vague and unhelpful statement that it had been a very long time. What Jacob had been able to confirm was that the old man had, once upon a time, lived with an equally old woman, his wife, but she had died the year before Jacob and his family had arrived. Old age, everyone said, had been the cause of death, though whenever anyone attempted to offer their sympathies to the old man, he brushed them aside in a bad-tempered manner and told them to keep their noses out of his business.

 

Since their efforts had fallen on such stony ground, the neighbours had done exactly as the old man asked and left him entirely alone, free to go about his business without their intrusions. Just what he did in that large, increasingly tatty house of his was anyone’s guess.

 

And it was this sense of the mysterious that Jacob had found so irresistibly appealing. But why his attention had come to focus so entirely on the shed at the bottom of the garden, Jacob could not say. He’d watched the old man on any number of occasions make the slow, careful trip down the straight concrete path from the back of the house to the silent, brooding shed, then open the door, switch on the light, step inside and close the door behind him. Sometimes he would be in there for hours, others he would reappear after mere minutes, refit the enormous padlock with a remarkable amount of attention to detail, then return to the house just as slowly as he had left.

 

He never took anything with him, nor brought anything back. Not ever. Jacob found this almost unbearably fascinating. How, he wondered, could someone make so many trips to their garden shed and yet never show any signs of what they were up to inside it.

 

Jacob had asked both his parents what they thought the old man kept in the shed, but they had failed to show any sign whatsoever of the same heightened sense of curiosity he possessed. The best he could extract from his father was a half-hearted statement about model aeroplanes, which seemed, for some reason, highly unlikely in the mind of the young boy.

 

Of course, Jacob, being a young and inquisitive boy, had not restricted himself to asking questions of his parents. At first, he had made futile attempts to engage the old man himself. But even his efforts at securing a response to ‘hello’ had failed. So the inevitable had followed. On three separate occasions, every one of them under the cover of darkness, Jacob had climbed in silence over the shared fence towards the bottom of the garden and attempted to gain access to the shed.

 

The padlock, he had found, was impenetrable to an unskilled shed-breaker such as him and he soon gave up on any idea of teasing it open or levering it away from the door. So, he had then moved on to a careful inspection of every external element of the building, even going so far as to climb up on to the roof in search of a way inside. But nothing, not even the merest hint of an opening, offered itself up.

 

He had returned to his frustrated observations of the old man’s comings and goings, growing ever more desperate to uncover his secret. Some evenings, he would watch from his bedroom window at the back of the house for hours on end, passing the time drawing up plans for further attempts at breaking into the shed or perhaps even the old man’s house. He had drawn up such a detailed picture of the garden in his head that he knew full well he could sketch it flawlessly from memory alone. Every plant, every tree, every blade of grass would be placed in just the right spot.

 

And on those occasions when the old man did appear, Jacob had counted the number of steps he took to reach the shed and the time that elapsed. He had kept a note of how long the old man spent inside the shed on each trip, as well as the time of day and the weather conditions, wondering if there was some hidden pattern he had yet to identify.

 

When, eventually, he was hustled into bed by his parents, Jacob would lay awake for what seemed like hours, his head filling with imagined trips beyond the shed door, to the many, wild and extraordinary things that he considered might lay there. Wild beasts of the jungle, leopards, tigers and the like, or maybe an Amazonian Indian, who’d been transported back to England many years before and had lived secretly in the shed ever since; only coming out for fresh air long after dark. Even sleep was not enough to empty his mind of such thoughts. His dreams soon became even more fanciful and outrageous than his waking, conscious mind.

 

There were days when he would wake, exhausted with tiredness from so little sleep that he wondered if he’d had any at all, and found himself passing through the day barely noticing the world around him. The shed was there with him all the time.

 

*

 

It was a cool September evening, shortly after he arrived home from school, when Jacob heard the news from his parents. The old man had, said his mother, passed away the night before; apparently peacefully in his sleep. An ambulance had arrived late that morning to take him away. The strange thing was, said his mother, that no one knew who had called for the ambulance. No one she had spoken to that day had made the phone call and, as every single one of them knew only too well, the old man never, ever had any visitors. It was, she observed, rather confusing.

 

For Jacob, however, things were crystal clear. His big chance, he immediately decided, had finally come. Now there was no need at all to be subtle in his attempts to break into the shed and, instead, he could use as much force as was necessary, so long as no one knew he was responsible. He felt a warm, exhilarating glow build inside him at the anticipation of what was to come. The days, the weeks, the months of waiting and wondering were finally over. Now he would get to know what it was the old man kept hidden away in that mysterious shed.

 

The hours after dinner trudged slowly by for Jacob. His efforts at speeding them up were all to no avail; no amount of time spent watching the TV or reading his magazines seeming to have any effect whatsoever. But eventually darkness began to fall and his pulse started to quicken as every nerve in his young body grew alert at the prospect of what was so nearly there. He realised he had never known a time like it. No Christmas, no holiday, no birthday, absolutely nothing had ever come close to equalling the surging, overwhelming sense of anticipation that coursed through his body in those last fading moments of dusk.

 

At last, he looked out through the French doors at a scene of welcoming darkness; the only light falling in isolated patches from the windows of the neighbouring houses. Now, like the foxes and the hedgehogs, the beetles and the toads, he could emerge into the world, hidden from prying eyes, to satisfy his own desperate hunger.

 

Outside, the air was cool and still, filled with the scents and tastes of a dozen different dinners. From every side came the undulating sounds of human endeavour and relaxation. It seemed to Jacob as if he was the only human being out in the world that evening; just him and the nature that crowded into every garden.

 

He had gone prepared. A long, brutal crowbar retrieved from his father’s horde of tools stored in rigid rows in the garage. And he had, it turned out, chosen wisely, for the lock on the shed door was no match for such a beast and it pulled easily away as the boy pushed the crowbar into place and pulled heavily back on the cool, hard metal. One moment to check that he had not attracted any unwanted attention, then he started to open the door that had resisted him for so long. He went one heart-thumping inch at a time, not aware that he had stopped breathing until his oxygen-depleted lungs sent a burst of air out through his mouth and his body demanded he breathe once more.

 

At last, at long, long last, he did the one thing, the only thing he had really wanted to do for what felt like half his life and stepped into that silent, waiting, beckoning shed.

 

It took him a moment to find the light switch, placed, as it was, higher up than he had anticipated. When he flicked it on, the light that resulted was weak, feeble even, and barely enough to illuminate such a small space. His eyes adjusted slowly and as they did his nose and his ears did their best to fill the void. The place was cold, the faint smell of damp filling his nostrils, and it seemed to him as if there were voices there, just out of earshot, even when he focused all he could on them. It was, he decided, just fanciful thinking brought about by his burgeoning excitement.

 

As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he saw that facing him, at the other end of the wooden structure, was a large, floor-to-roof timber cupboard; the front consisting of two big doors. It was irresistible, an obvious place to start, so the boy took several slow, silent steps forward, reached out with a hand he would never have admitted was shaking, and took hold of one handle. He pulled, once, twice, then a third time, harder and harder on each occasion. But the door was not prepared to accommodate his request and remained rigidly where it was. So he reached out with his other hand and took hold of the second handle and pulled both with considerable might. The doors flew open with ridiculous ease, causing Jacob to stumble backwards, barely able to stay on his feet.

 

He muttered to himself, straightened up and stepped back towards the cupboard, whose dark, cavernous interior he could not make out. Indeed, he had to position himself almost inside the cupboard before he could begin to see what wonders were stored there. No tins of creosote or stacks of unused plant pots, no long ago opened tins of paint or piles of ancient, flaking newspapers were waiting there to disappoint him. What looked back at him as he stared wide-eyed were several neat rows of small, polished human skulls.

 

Jacob would have gasped, if not for the lack of air in his lungs. And when he did draw fresh oxygen down through his throat, that one, single moment of utter shock had passed and he simply stood there, open-mouthed, his head filling fast with a thousand questions and as many answers. And there they were again, a little louder this time, those voices that seemed to call to him, way out just beyond the reach of his hearing, not quite clear enough for him to make out what they said.

 

It spooked him, made him tremble and his heart race. All his fanciful, wild and exotic day dreams and those of the sleep-filled nights seemed totally inadequate; nowhere near enough to match what seemed to be the reality of things. He had found out what he had wanted to know so desperately for so very, very long. But now what was he to do? Did he wish he had stayed at home, blocked out the curiosity and spent his time doing the things any sensible boy his age would have done? Was that regret he was feeling and did it come with its age-old partner, fear?

 

Something, he noticed, had changed and it took a moment to realise that he could no longer hear the sounds of the outside world. When he looked behind him, he found that the shed door had closed, entirely and silently. Odd, he thought, as he stepped back towards the door. As he placed the palm of one hand against its cold, grainy timbers and pushed, the door refused to budge. He pushed harder, then shoved and hammered with both hands, panic beginning to well up inside of him. Finally, as he slammed his slender frame against the stubborn door, he began to yell and shout, anxious, pleading calls for help. Outside not a living thing heard a single, uttered cry, not even the hedgehog that slipped by, close against the wooden building.

 

And inside? The boy had stopped hammering and pleading. Now he watched in horror as the dim light began to seep away, until it was all he could do to make out his outstretched hand. And yet… as he looked on, his heart beating so fast he feared it would explode, it seemed as if the cupboard at the other end of the room was moving towards him, little by little, so slowly you almost wouldn’t notice. And those skulls were, he was sure now, calling to him ever more clearly, in words he did not know. He leaned forward to see more clearly, drawn towards them so strongly the fear that had filled him so entirely fell instantly away. He just had to know…

 

Anyone who had been there to notice, would then have observed that Jacob Whistler was gone. The cupboard doors were closed, the light that had dimmed to almost nothing was turned off and the shed was locked and silent.

 

Outside, amongst the whispering trees and the shrubs they towered over, the figure of a young boy clambered in silence over the fence to his own garden. The boy was familiar, the same in every way as the one that had passed through in the opposite direction a mere half an hour before, filled with a barely containable excitement at the prospect of what lay before him. And yet there was, if you took the trouble to look closely enough, something that was different about him, but at the same time familiar in some other way.

 

There was a glimmer in the eyes of the boy, something that suggested he knew things about the world that no one so young should or could ever know; as if he had seen places and times no person could have experienced in a single lifetime. And as he walked in silence up the narrow garden path, he cast a smile-filled glance back at the shed in the old man’s garden; a shed in which a tall, wooden cupboard sheltered rows of shrunken skulls whose numbers had so recently been added to by one.

 

 

* End *

 

 

Every month you will find a new short story here, always with a darker criminal theme. Enjoy!