This story was also translated to Polish.
The first four days Lachlan had been excited. The fifth day, that Friday that he came back from primary school with dirt on his knees, he was not excited. He was euphoric.
I was in my office, writing the final formulaic words of another research proposal.
“Dad! Dad! Dad!”
“Oh wow, someone is happy. Enjoyed school?”
“School is awesome!”
“And I have loads of friends!”
“Of course you do.”
He stretched his small, dirty hand towards me.
“You cut yourself?”
“That looks like a cut.”
“It’s a talesman.”
“You like it?”
I pulled his hand closer.
A perfect circle, clearly cut into his skin, with a small chequer in the center. The chequer was a solid red. Not just a cut; the solid red of his flesh.
“Did you do that on purpose?”
“No. My friends did it.”
“Your friends did it?”
“And they did that on purpose?”
“Of course. They all have one too.”
“Lachlan, are those friends older than you?”
He took a step back, but I still held his hand.
“And do they go to your school?”
“And do you know their names?”
He shook his head.
“You don’t know their names?”
“They don’t have names.”
“Oh,” I said. “But they are in your class?”
“But in your school.”
“And when did they cut you?”
“In the first break.”
“The first break?”
“They gave it only to me and Nichole.”
I took my mobile phone from the table.
“Lachlan, how old were they?”
“I don’t know.”
“How tall were they?”
“Smaller than you.”
“Just a bit.”
“And what did they look like?”
“I don’t know. Really white.”
My fingers were scrolling through the list of numbers.
“And where did they do that?”
“On my hand.”
“No, I mean, where were you when they put it on your hand.”
Lachlan paused. He bent his head to the side.
“Where were you, Lachlan?”
“Downstairs,” he said.
“Downstairs? Like in the basement?”
“No,” he said. “More downstairs.”
My index finger tapped the name of the class teacher. I asked him whethere there was a girl called Nichole in Lachlan’s class. The teacher said yes. I told him to come to school and to call the parents of that girl.
Then I called the police.
When we arrived Ms. Bullen was already arguing with the police.
“That would never happen,” she said. “Older kids and adults can’t just go in here.”
We stepped towards them. Lachlan was scared. I lifted him up, pulled the band-aid off and showed his hand to Ms. Bullen and the officers.
“Lachlan said some kids did this.”
“My god,” said Ms. Bullen.
“No,” said Lachlan. “Those were my friends!”
One of the officers bent towards Lachlan’s hand.
“Your friends?” he asked.
“Yeah. They showed me the school. And Nichole too!”
“And they were older than you?” asked the officer.
“And you are sure they were in the school?”
He nodded again.
A mother with a young blond-haired girl stepped through the door.
Lachlan waved and tried to get to the ground.
“Nichole! Nichole! Show them too!”
Nichole stopped walking. She took a few steps back, until her mother lifted her up.
“Show what?” asked the mother.
“The ta-lis-man,” said Lachlan.
Nichole shook her head.
“What talisman?” asked her mother.
“On her hand! I have one too!”
The color of Ms. Bullen’s face seemed to disappear in the small red wound on her daughter’s left hand. A circle surrounded that square wound too.
The police asked the janitor to safe all security tapes. Then they asked Lachlan and Nichole to show them where they had met their ‘friends’.
“Downstairs,” said Lachlan.
“In the basement,” said Nichole.
“Not the basement,” said Lachlan. “It was more downstairs.”
“It wasn’t,” said Nichole.
“But it was more black,” said Lachlan.
“It was really dark,” she said. “But it didn’t hurt.”
The two pulled us to a flight of stairs at the back of the school.
“Those stairs are usually locked,” said Ms. Bullen.
The officers called for backup. Then they went downstairs with us. Carefully, with Lachlan holding my hand and Nichole holding that of her mother, we stepped down into the darkness. Ms. Bullen found the lightswitch and the bare corridor blinked to life with bright white light.
Shut doors to each side. One after the other the officers opened the doors, flipped the lightswitches on and searched the rooms. A second pair of officers reached us after half the rooms had been discovered as empty.
“It’s not here,” said Lachlan. “Too much light here.”
“And it’s too cold,” said Nichole.
“Yeah,” said Lachlan “It was really warm.”
“They were really scary.”
“No,” said Lachlan. “They were really nice.”
“They were really white.”
“And,” Nichole said. “They didn’t have noses.”
“They had noses!” said Lachlan. “Just flat ones.”
“And they didn’t have a mouth,” said Nichole.
“No,” said Lachlan. “That was just their masks.”
“They wore masks?” asked the officer.
“Really cool ones.”
“Scary,” said Nichole.
“Like doctors,” said Lachlan. “But bigger and gray.”
“And you weren’t scared of them?” I asked.
Lachlan shook his head.
“They are our friends. They started school with us!”
“They’ve been here the whole time?” asked an officer.
Nichole and Lachlan both nodded.
When all the rooms had been checked the police interviewed Lachlan and Nichole again.
There were three or four of them. White skin; flat noses; large gray masks that looked like microphones. Large eyes or sunglasses.
They had played with Nichole and Lachlan during the week, but not with any other kids.
They had asked them to come to the basement and then, so said Lachlan, it was all black and the stairs suddenly ended and in the darkness he only saw the white of their bodies.
Then the men gave them talismans.
“It was really quick,” said Nichole. “It didn’t hurt.”
Then the light returned and they were told to run up the stairs.
That night Lachlan fell asleep in my bed, with my arms wrapped around him. He wasn’t scared. It was for me, not for him. I locked all the windows and doors; checked the attic and every single wardrobe. And still, even with my bedroom door locked, I still could not sleep except with him in my arms.
At 2:40am I woke up and there was nothing in my arms. And he was not under the bed or in the wardrobe. And the bedroom door was still locked from inside.
I called the police. Then I called Nichole’s mother and she sounded as panicked as I was.
I ran through the whole house and garden, screaming his name.
Then I got the call.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “He’s here.”
Nearly eight miles away. Yet he was there, in a locked bedroom, sleeping in the top bunk next to Nichole while Nichole’s sister slept below.
The police searched each of our houses but they didn’t find anything suspicious. I took him out of that school and stayed with him in the same room at most times. At night I tied his arm to mine with a silk cloth. Then I wrapped my arms around him.
For two nights it went fine.
The third night I woke up from a girl’s screams.
Nichole, squeezed between Lachlan and me.
The fourth night I woke up and he was gone.
I called Nichole’s mother and she ran to Nichole’s bedroom.
I heard her slam the key in the door.
She called Nichole’s name, but Nichole’s voice didn’t answer. Only her sister.
That moment we both, I think, had a nervous breakdown. I ran through the house again, screaming, and at the other end of the line she and Nichole’s older sister seemed to do the same.
Then there were screams on the line.
Then there was quiet.
The police arrived long before me.
They found the door locked and rang the bell loud and long.
Nichole’s mother answered. She said she had been in bed. She allowed the police to come inside.
Together they went to the girls’ bedroom.
They found Nichole’s sister sleeping on the bottom bunk.
They found Nichole and Lachlan on the top bunk.
Nichole’s mother said she didn’t know how he had come in.
Nichole’s mother also didn’t know how she had gotten the strange cut on her hand. And why her daughters and Lachlan all had the same.
She didn’t remember going to the school.
She didn’t remember meeting me.
It’s the fifth night now.
Lachlan is right next to me, his arm tied to mine.
His eyes are closed and his breathing is calm.
But I can’t sleep.
I sit with my back against the wall and my arm wrapped around him and my laptop on my lap and a camera at the other end of the room.
I can’t sleep because I wonder why that wound on his hand doesn’t heal.
I can’t sleep because I wonder whether he will disappear and whether he will be back.
And I can’t sleep because I wonder whether I will remember that something is wrong.