Brian caught me about half a mile from my house.
The kid was actually hiding behind a tree, if you can believe it. God knows how I didn’t see him. I was walking back from the bus stop, winding along the country lane that leads me home, and the next thing I knew he’d jumped out onto the road in front of me.
“Hey… weirdo.” Brian stood on the tarmac panting. His chubby face was red and sweat stained. I already knew what had happened: Brian lives a few miles from me in a nearby village, and he must have run here straight after he got off the bus a few stops back. Cut across the fields or something. For a kid his size, it was an impressive feat.
“You okay Brian?” I tried to keep my voice as calm as I could, but the truth is my heart was beating fast. Brian’s not a nice kid. He’s two years above me in school and he’s got a reputation that’s well earned. The kid’s a bully. He’s tall and fat and he likes to throw his weight around. Picks on people every day. For some reason he took an instant dislike to my best friend Simon, and he’s made the poor guy’s life a misery since we started secondary school. Tripping him up in the corridors; grabbing food off his lunch tray. The problem with Brian is he’s not just one of those bullies that backs off if you stand up to them, either. Maybe that works in books and films, but not in this case. The only time I ever saw Simon say anything in retaliation, Brian punched him so hard in the stomach the poor kid collapsed to the floor. Winded him so bad I thought he might die.
Brian has never done anything too unpleasant to me – I guess I’ve got a reputation of my own, albeit of a different kind – but I didn’t want to try my luck. And I still didn’t know what Brian wanted. So far he hadn’t said anything else. Now he was just standing in front of me with his hands on his knees, trying to get his breath back. But his eyes never left mine.
“You know… I heard… some stuff…” Brian spoke between breaths. A gust of wind blew along the road and ruffled his sweat-streaked hair. “Some stuff… about your… family… weirdo…”
Brian paused. He took one more deep breath, then finally stood back up. Standing straight he was at least a foot taller than me. I watched him without saying anything.
“Fucking hell.” Brian wiped an arm across his forehead and pulled in another breath. I could see sweat patches staining the front of his school shirt. “This had better be worth it.”
“What had better be worth it?”
“The secret, you little freak. I keep hearing around school that your dad’s got a secret shed in his back garden. A weird dungeon or some shit. Justin Weathers says it’s full of guns, but Tim Waynton reckons it’s stuffed full of all this fucked up porn. So which is it?”
I stared back at Brian. So this was what his sudden appearance was all about. It made some sense. Ever since I joined secondary school, whispers about my family have floated around the playground. The thing is, my mum and dad sort of invite it: they’re both covered in tattoos, and they both dress in black no matter what the weather’s like. My mum does tarot readings for people, too – tells fortunes from tea leaves, reads palms; all that stuff. And my dad… well, let’s just say he’s had a colourful past. He was actually a university professor for a while – he taught physics up in London – but they made him retire early over some big misunderstanding. My mum says they never liked him much, anyway – he didn’t fit with their version of how a professor should look, or something – and they were always looking for an excuse.
Staring back at Brian, I kept my face as straight as I could. “I don’t know what you’re on about.”
The big kid took a step closer. His shadow, impossibly tall and wide, stretched across the tarmac towards me. “Be careful, you little weirdo. Just because your family are all fucking satanists or witches or whatever the fuck, don’t think that’ll stop me knocking your teeth out if I have to.”
I stared back without saying anything. I wasn’t trying to act tough; I was worried that if I spoke, my voice would give away just how nervous I really was. Kids like Brian can smell fear the same way dogs can, I reckon. You can’t give them an inch. By this point I knew Brian wasn’t going to give up easily, either. Whatever rumours he’d heard about my family in the playground, they’d clearly peaked his interest. I could have told him there was nothing all that exciting about them – could have said my dad’s just a guy with tattoos and some hobbies he likes to keep to himself – but it wouldn’t have worked. Brian only would’ve accused me of lying again.
Once I thought I had my nerves under control, I forced a smile onto my face. What I hoped was an appeasing look. “Tell you what, Brian. I’ll do a deal for you. My dad doesn’t like anyone going into the place you’re on about – not even me and my mum – but I know where he keeps the key. So I’ll show you, but you have to promise you’ll leave Simon alone from now on. That you won’t mess him about any more.”
The frown on Brian’s face was replaced with a grin. The braces lining his teeth were a dull silver. I could see food stuck in the metal. He took another step towards me, and I resisted the urge to flinch. “What you don’t seem to understand, you weird little fuck, is that this isn’t a negotiation.” Brian placed one meaty hand on my shoulder. “You either take me to your dad’s shed, right now, or I put you in the dirt.”
Brian’s fingers dug into my flesh. I forced myself to meet his gaze and ignore the pain. Then I nodded.
“Tell me something.” Brian’s voice was in my ear as I opened the garden gate. His breath smelled bad. It reminded me of the stink that wafts from a packet of freshly opened ham. “Are your family all as weird as you are?”
I don’t know, Brian, I thought. Are your family all as thick as you are?
I wanted so badly to say it, but I could still feel the ghost of Brian’s fingers digging into my shoulder. I still had the image of how Simon had looked after Brian had punched him, too. No: I had to be patient.
“And your dad,” Brian continued. “Did he really get kicked out of his job at the university for trying weird experiments or some shit? He definitely looks like he’s into some sick stuff.”
I ignored Brian and surveyed our gravel driveway. I’d known my parents wouldn’t be in – they never are when I get back from school – but it was still a relief to see that their cars were gone. I didn’t want my dad stumbling across Brian and I as we attempted to break into his private space.
Our footsteps crunched across the driveway. We passed my house on the right, the windows staring back at us like empty eyes, and continued into the garden. My dad’s secret hideaway – what Brian kept calling the “shed”, even though it wasn’t really – was round the back of the house. Tucked out of sight. I knew the way off by heart, and I headed straight there. Now that we were in the garden, I wanted to get things over with as quickly as possible.
Brian and I rounded the corner of the house. I moved beneath a silver birch tree, the shadow of its branches dancing across the grass beneath my feet. Brian was panting again now. I couldn’t tell if it was from tiredness or anticipation. I thought maybe the latter, though. And just beneath the bundle of nerves that had filled me ever since Brian jumped out from behind the tree, I felt it too: a tiny seed of excitement. It grew as we approached a bank at the far end of the garden.
“What the fuck is this?” said Brian. “I thought we were going to see his shed?”
“It’s not a shed.” Weeds and ferns formed a barrier in front of the grass bank. I walked along parallel to it, counting under my breath. “The kids at school might have told you it’s a shed, but they’re wrong.”
I stopped alongside a break in the weeds. A tiny path had been trampled through them, leading directly to the grass bank. A small, rounded stone door was set into it.
“Jesus.” Brian pushed past me and shouldered his way along the path. I let him go ahead. “What the fuck is this? Did your dad build it?”
“He found it,” I replied. “It was one of the reasons we moved here.”
Brian stood in front of the door, panting. His bulk was roughly the same size as it. He traced his large hands over its surface – moving from the flat of the stone to a large keyhole near the centre.
“Right, come on then,” he said. “How do we get it open?”
I stepped up alongside him. It wasn’t the first time I’d stood before this door, but I felt nervous all the same. The thing always made me uncomfortable. “Are you sure you want to do this, Brian? My dad will go mad if he finds out.”
Brian’s face creased in a scowl. “Just open it. Now. Before I lose my patience.”
I crouched down beside Brian and felt in the weeds to the left of the door. It only took my fingers a second to find the rock. I rolled it to one side and pulled a large key from beneath it.
“You mind not like what you find in there,” I said to Brian as I straightened up. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Brian snatched the key from my hand without saying anything. As he turned back to the door, grinning, I stepped to the left. I positioned myself so that Brian was in front of me, and my back was to the grass bank. So I couldn’t see inside the door when it opened.
As Brian fumbled the key into the lock, I pulled in a deep breath. Shut my eyes. The garden was peaceful. A light breeze ruffled the ferns around us. Birds called to each other from the branches of the silver birch. The smell of freshly mown grass filled the air. I pulled in another breath and did my best to fix the sounds and smells in my mind.
The lock clicked opened with a dull thunk. I opened my eyes to see Brian push the door inwards, an eager expression on his face.
Time seemed to slow down. I watched Brian’s grin morph into a mask of animal terror. A dull sound, like the howl of a far-off storm, issued from the mouth of the door. I felt a wave of heat touch my skin. Hairs stood up on my left arm and I shuffled to the right, away from the entrance. Brian screamed. I will never, ever, get used to the sound of a kid screaming like that. For someone so huge, the noise was impossibly high-pitched. The cry of a pig in the slaughterhouse. The temperature around the doorway grew hotter still, like the air around an open furnace. Brian’s face was turning red. It deepened to the shade it had been when I first met him on the road earlier, and then darkened to a bruised purple. He screamed over and over again, a hysterical infant, hitching in half breaths as his face blackened. His large hands reached up to press the sides of his head, then moved to grasp handfuls of his dirty hair. I thought he looked like a blind man, struggling to feel his way in the dark.
As the noise from the doorway grew in volume, Brian clawed his own eyes out.
I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t. It was as though my gaze was locked in place. Brian raked his chubby fingers deep into the cups of his eye sockets, causing twin gouts of blood to come gushing between the knuckles. He’d stopped screaming now. His mouth was open in a silent O of agony. His fingers continued to rake automatically at his face, the hands of a broken robot. White jelly dribbled down his cheeks.
Then, just when I felt I wouldn’t be able to stand the heat from the doorway any longer, it finished. A black limb snaked out from the mouth of the door like the arm of a dead tree, and a skeletal hand found the front of Brian’s shirt. It pulled him through the doorway. I caught a glimpse of his chubby bulk disappearing through the opening, and then he was gone. The door clicked shut behind him.
I pulled in a deep breath. I closed my eyes for a moment, collecting myself. Just as it had been in the moments before Brian opened the door, the garden was peaceful again. The birds had stopped calling to each other, but apart from that things were back to normal. I could feel a soft, cooling breeze against my skin.
As I bent retrieve the key from where it had fallen on the grass, I felt a smile forming on my face. “Oh Brian,” I murmured. “I guess maybe you shouldn’t have picked on Simon after all, should you?”
By the time the door was locked and the key was back beneath its rock, my smile had turned into a grin. I’ve heard lots of rumours about my parents over the years, and most of them aren’t anywhere near the truth. But some are close enough. And Brian, despite how dumb the kid was, almost had it for a moment.
My dad did indeed do experiments at university. The problem was, they weren’t the sorts of experiments he could tell anyone about. Some of his colleagues looked for atoms, or the light from distant stars; my dad looked for doorways. Places where the barrier between the things we understand and the things we don’t is sort of… well, thinner. Places like the one he found in our garden.
Nobody understood him. When he tried to tell people about his discoveries, he lost his job. But that was okay. It was okay because he still had us, his family, to support him. We were always the first to learn about his new discoveries. About his secrets.
And we’ve always been happy to keep them to ourselves.