"I heard she's a witch."
"I heard she kidnaps and cooks children."
"And then feeds them to her cat?"
The school librarian. Was she a witch? I don't know. And I suppose no one really knew for sure. It's just that she looked so much like a witch I guess she had to be. She was tall, thin with a crooked nose on which perched a pair of wire frame glasses. Her skin was mottled, pale and her greying hair tightly wound into a bun. If she wasn't a witch, I don't know who would be.
"Are you sure?" I said, watching her through the window in the door, "why would the school have a witch who cooks children?"
"You mean you don't know about the book?"
I turned around and saw one of the older boys from the sixth form. He was leaning against one of the notice boards. I shook my head just as the witch brushed past the door. The corridor went cold; I could see my breath in the air. My friends scurried away.
"She's here to guard it," he said, his voice a mere whisper; "a book she keeps in her office."
"Come on," I said, "a spell book? I guess she rides a broomstick home? Or is it a vacuum cleaner? Does the book have eyes? Is it made of human flesh?"
He leant in close; he lowered his voice and stole a look through the window to make sure he wasn't overheard.
"It's more than a book," he said. "It's a gateway. To any place, any time that you want. I came close to taking it; but she caught me. Said I hadn't earned my passage so she made me pay for it."
He held up his hand, missing all but one blackened finger.
"That was a fire," I said, "you told me so yourself. In the science lab. We all know it. Mr Stubbs said it as well."
"Believe what you want," he said, "I would do anything to try getting that book again. But I'll never get close. She knows when I'm around. Look."
He pressed his withered and blackened finger against the glass. I looked through the window and saw her. The witch. She stood, perfectly still; ignoring those around her. Just staring at me. My blood froze. My skin prickled.
"You see," said the older boy, "she can feel me. She knows me. But she doesn't know you. Not yet."
I shivered, "Why would I want to find it?"
"You're kidding?" he said, smirking as he started to walk away, "you're telling me that you wouldn't want to change what happened? Think of how different it would be if you had that day again."
And like that, he was gone. Leaving me alone to think of what happened that day. He was right. I could still hear the screams in my head, every night, in every dream. I had to do it.
Hours had passed. The school day long over. I had skipped lessons and took refuge at the top of the playing field. Like just before a summer storm there was electricity in the air. Grey clouds swirled over the school, the ominous rumble of thunder in the distance.
"Would you change the past?"
One of my friends who had scurried away when we were outside the library sat beside me, playing with his maroon tie.
"If you could change the past," I said, "would you?"
"Just like that?" I said, "Not even a maybe, nothing you'd want to try again? See if it turned out different?"
He shook his head.
"You can't change the past," he said. "It's done. You've got to live with what you did. Whatever choices you made."
"What if I can't?" I said. "What if I can't live with what I did?"
"What happened on that day was nothing you did. You did nothing wrong."
"Easy for you to say."
"No, it isn't. I was there too remember."
He lifted his shirt and I saw the angry crimson wound under his rib cage. It hadn't healed.
"I thought a lot about that day," he said, "all the things that could have worked out differently. Every choice I made, every decision agonised and debated in my head. I realised that we can do everything right and still lose. That's not a choice. That's just luck."
"But what if I could change it?" I said, "what if I could start that day again? Think how different it could be?"
"You can't," he said, "so you need to stop. Forget it."
The rain started to fall, slow at first but soon in drenching sheets accompanied by roars of angry thunder that rattled across the sky. Towards the school I saw small black figures darting across the playground, seeking shelter, holding books above their head to protect them from the rain.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I don't think I've remembered it right."
"Your voice," I said, "It isn't right."
"Of course it isn't right," he said, standing up and turning to look at me, his face turning as dark grey as the clouds behind him, "and I'm not really here am I? I'm just sorry that you can only remember me like this. I never wanted that for you. I want you to remember me as the kid you copied every test from."
"Not every test?"
He didn't speak. It wasn't him anymore. The warm feeling I had being beside him was gone, taken by an abject terror so deep I couldn't move. His mouth opened and his jaw line stretched. Rows and rows of black and bloodied teeth spat from his mouth as I heard him scream. My eyes opened into the darkness and I cried out. The clouds in my dream replaced by the swirled pattern on the ceiling. The only wet from the sweat and urine soaked into my pyjamas and my bed. I stayed awake for the rest of the night. Each time my eyes closed I could see his teeth; the colour of rubies. And the sound of rain, gently tapping against my bedroom window. I realised that now was the time. I needed to go back.
"Do you blame me?"
Morning had taken a long time to come, and it seemed reluctant. It was still dark outside.
"What for?" Like the sun that day my mom was slow on the uptake.
"Everything," I said, "Letting him in. The arguments after. Making dad do what he did."
She turned and faced me, taking my face with her hand. She kissed me on the forehead.
"Your dad did it because he wanted to," she said. "It wasn't your fault. None of it was. It was all him."
Something in her voice made me feel like she didn't quite mean it.
"I dreamt about him again last night."
"No," I said, "him."
"The playing field again?"
"It was so real," I said, "I could sense, feel and taste everything. I don't even know what is real anymore."
The washing machine started its spin cycle.
"I'm sorry for the mess," I said, watching the duvet through the round glass door.
"Don't be," she said, again not entirely convincing, "I just thought we had got over the dreams."
It didn't seem the right time to tell her they happened every night.
Sunlight crept through the library windows, casting orange shadows on the bookshelves. The room danced, light sparkled on every surface but it was deathly quiet. If the witch was here, I thought, she was hiding. Getting into the school early had been the easy part, save for a near miss with the maroon jersey groundskeeper, but here I could feel my heart pounding. I daren't take a breath; I could feel the library watching me.
And where should I look? Where would the witch keep this book? If it even existed. I had begun to doubt myself as I rode into school this morning. What if I was being led on, and a group of sixth formers jumped out and shouted surprise? But then I remembered the blackened hand. The dreams, the screaming. People hiding where they could and barricading themselves into classrooms. The bangs, sounding like fireworks. And me; holding the door open for him. I could only go forward by going to the past. This life, this reality I had created by doing nothing was killing me slowly but effortlessly.
Moving through the library was like wandering through a forest. The bookshelves loomed over me like trees, twisted and contorting my senses. I didn't even know where I was. What was I even looking for? And then, as if to dissuade me from turning around, the answer presented itself. A door. A single frosted pane of glass with black peeling letters that spelt out Librarian's office.
The room turned colder and I could see my breath in the air. She was here. I knew it, and she knew I was here too. I tried to turn but my feet wouldn't move. I was paralysed. Just like my dreams, it was like trying to run through treacle. I closed my eyes, it's just a dream. It's just a dream. But each time I opened my eyes I was still here, frozen to the spot as the peeling painted door started to creak open. Pinpricks all over my arms as I could feel the air freezing. I closed my eyes again, next time you open them you'll be in your bed. Soaked through but safe, think of the ceiling. Think of the pattern. Imagine it and you'll be there.
I opened my eyes and there she was. Standing in the doorway. I was still in the library. Still rooted to the spot and face to face with the witch. She looked even more terrifying than she had done the other day. Her skin was greying, more mottled than it had been and she gave off a foul smell of rotting flesh, she smelt like a pumpkin that had been left to rot. My eyes watered as I felt the familiar trickle down my trouser leg. I tried to scream, but her hand moved quickly to cover my mouth and as I drifted into unconsciousness the last thing I saw was her pulling me into her office, her black eyes alight with what looked like a perverse pleasure. Another victim. One more soul.
My eyes opened and I was back at home. Another dream I thought, but something felt different, something wasn't right. Someone was talking. I turned over and one the cobwebs of sleep had cleared I saw my alarm clock. 7:00. and it had turned the radio on.
Good morning, today is Tuesday July 13 1999. The Government is working on a tax-advantage share scheme to encourage share ownership. British Airways has been fined four million pounds for giving travel agent rebates to sell its tickets instead of Virgin Atlantic's and struggling retailer House of Fraser has sold fifteen freeholds in a move which nets it over one hundred and seventy million pounds.
Then I heard his voice. My dad's voice. He banged on the bedroom door. For some reason I instinctively shielded my face.
"Wake up," he said, "you've got to be at school in an hour."
Feeling sick I touched my crotch but felt nothing. It was dry. Relieved I pulled up my pyjama sleeves and looked at my wrist. With my other hand I touched the skin on my wrist and felt it, smooth. No angry red straight lines crossing like lines on a map. I was here. A year in the past. The last twelve months had gone.
"What time do you call this?" Dad stared at me as I came down the stairs, "and you look a mess. Not another dream?"
"What?" I said, panicking, "a dream?"
"Doesn't matter," he said, looking me up and down, "just get to school."
"She's gone to work early," he said, not looking up from the newspaper he was reading, "and I won't tell you again."
That meant he had beaten her. After he'd left Mom had been less cautious about hiding what had happened to her when he'd been around. Whilst that hadn't actually happened yet, I still remembered the conversations. Part of me wanted to stay and talk to him. Try and explain what was happening. But I knew he wouldn't believe me. He always thought I'd been a bit odd. Not quite the son he was hoping for. Many times I had overheard him talking to mom about me. More than once he had used the word queer. When she tried to defend me, or argue that my insecurities were due to his absence, he hit her.
"What are you still doing here," he said, rising to his feet. The newspaper lay out on the table.
Now or never, I thought.
"I'm sorry I didn't turn out the way you wanted me," I said. "I'm a coward, a wimp and I know you hate me for it."
For a moment he looked disarmed. Not quite the conversation he'd been expecting. It didn't take him long to recover.
"It's not your fault," he said. "It's your mother. She's too soft with you. Now get to school. I don't want to be speaking to your head teacher about you missing PE again now do I?"
Only two months ago that missed lesson caused me a week of beatings. My punishment for telling the PE teacher I didn't want to throw a ball around a field and then fled to the changing rooms until the bell had rung. Naturally my parents had been called about my poor attitude and sportsmanship and my father hadn't missed the opportunity to straighten me out, and criticise my Mom at the same time for failing to do so. Part of me wanted to stay and confront him further. Say all the things I never got a chance to, but he seemed insignificant somehow. I had another chance today, and it would be wasted on him. He didn't know it of course but I was a year older than he thought I was. And whilst his abuse had caused anger inside me, the injustice of why he picked on me because I was different had made me resent him, I no longer feared him. Instead I pitied the man in front of me. He was nothing and he couldn't hurt me anymore. I went to school without another word to him.
It had happened at midday. Only four hours to go.
The bell rung. Three hours to go. Registration first, then assembly.
In my head I had it planned out. I would attend registration, but skip assembly. That would give me time to think. My guilt had made me think about everything I'd done that day or today if you will. I knew all the steps I'd taken, all the turns I had made. And where it had gone wrong.
"Are you coming tonight?"
I turned around. There he was. No bloodied teeth, no grey face. No bullet hole in his chest. My friend.
"Don't tell me you've forgotten," he said, "your memory is really bad. The party."
"Oh," I said. The way I remembered it the party had been cancelled, "I'm not sure. Are you?"
"The place has a pool," he said, wild excitement in his eyes, "and she said she was bringing drinks."
"Vodka," he said, looking at me curiously, "are you sure you're alright?"
"I didn't sleep much," I said, it was the half-truth. "Sorry."
"Catch me after assembly," he said as the bell rung, "I was thinking of skipping double English. Meet in the usual place?"
I hadn't had time to think it out yet but then the enormity hit me. What if something I said now would change everything, make something happen that I hadn't taken into account?
"Sure," I said, "I'll see you then."
It hit me. I didn't have a plan. I couldn't plan for this. I just had to be in the right place at the right time. But now I knew what decision I'd make. Not the wrong one. And no one would die because of me.
I woke and my eyes hurt. There was a strong white light. I squinted. I heard someone shout and saw my Mom sitting beside me.
"Don't move darling," she said, shouting again for help, "The nurse is coming."
I looked around and heard a beeping noise. I was wired to a machine. There were tubes coming out of me.
"What happened," I said. "Where am I?"
"You're in hospital," Mom said. "What were you thinking?"
"I don't understand," I said, "I don't remember doing anything."
"Nothing at all?"
"No," I said, "I was speaking to a friend but that was just before assembly. Then I just woke up here."
"I'm not sure now is the right time," she said and she started to stand up, but I grabbed her hand.
"Please," I said, "tell me."
I saw the look in her eyes and I realised. I hadn't stopped it at all. I could tell.
"There was a man," she said, "and he came to the school. We don't know who he was, or why he was there."
I do. I know exactly who he was. I guess she didn't think I was ready to hear that yet.
"For some reason you were the first one he met," she said. "I was told you were just standing in the reception waiting for him."
"I don't remember any of it," I said, "none of it at all."
"And before he could do anything," Mom said, "you pulled the fire alarm."
"Where is he now?"
"He's gone," she said, "the police have him, "they said you made him second guess what he was doing to do. He tried to run but they caught him."
"Then why am I here," I said, "If no-one was hurt?"
"Just a precaution," Mom said, "they said you were suffering with shock."
The door opened and a nurse walked in. She seemed familiar.
"I'm going to go the canteen," Mom said, "Did you want something?"
I shook my head. None of this seemed real. Tears formed in my eyes. This couldn't be a dream, it can't be. I closed my eyes and opened them. Still here. Not at home. Not in my own bed.
Then I realised. I smelt her, that rotting smell. It was her. She was here.
The nurse turned and looked at me and smiled. The witch. She leant over me, her face close to mine and I could see her black eyes, darting with excitement. I wasn't as afraid though of her, not this time.
"Why are you here?" I whispered.
"You were given what you wanted," she said, the rotting smell fading, "you wanted a chance to do right. To save them. And you did it. But there has to be a price."
"And that price is me."
She smiled and the fear I had of her was gone. She leant in and slowly kissed my forehead. Large black feathered wings formed from her back and she disappeared. The room went quiet for a few moments before I heard my Mom come back into the room, just as the machines keeping me alive started to wail.