The smoke from the engine drifted aimlessly in night air and strung itself through a lacework of wispy clouds as the train rattled off through the October night. The countryside was lit by the lambent silver moon hanging in black velvet sky pricked by twinkling points of light. The fair-haired man shifted on the seat and stretched a leg out into the aisle. The hat over his face wasn’t doing it. It might be midnight, but sleep simply wasn’t coming despite the soporific lightness of the clicketty-clack from the rocking railway car. He pushed the hat back with a long forefinger and blinked in the darkness of the railway car. His partner was sitting fixated on something in the aisle; sitting upright and tense in the seat opposite.
“Are you alright?” the Kid whispered.
“Yeah,” came the muted reply. “Just thinking, is all.”
“Thinkin’?” The gunman frowned. “A body can do too much of that, especially your body.”
The shadows flooded in to fill the dimples framing the wry smile. “Yeah, I guess I just had trouble sleeping.”
“What were you thinkin’ about?”
“Me? Life, youth, Valparaiso...”
A fair brow arched. “You don’t talk of Valparaiso much. Not since you shook me awake that night and told me we had to get outta there. A whole lotta water has passed under the bridge since then, huh?”
Heyes nodded. “It sure has. It keeps flowing too. Sometimes it’s white water, other times its deep and silent as the grave.”
The Kid felt a shudder run down his spine. “A grave? Someone just walked over mine.”
The dark eyes became intense. “What made you say that?”
“It’s just a sayin’,” he stared at his cousin, drinking in the stiff shoulders and grim set of the jaw. “What’s got into you? I catch you starin’ into the dark like a lone wolf. What did you see?”
“Nothing. Not one thing?” came the stark reply.
“Just your mood. You get like this sometimes. What’s up?”
Heyes sighed deeply. “Like I said, just thinking.”
“Is it because it was a night like this when we left Valparaiso?”
The Kid leaned back on his seat. “That was real dumb of us to leave in October. We should’ve waited until spring when we would’ve stood a much better chance.”
“No, we shouldn’t.” The sharpness of Heyes’ words caught his cousin by surprise. “We had to go. We had to go right then.”
The Kid leaned forward, keeping his voice low. “Why?”
“We just did. It’s a long story and I’m tired.”
He stared into the intense brown eyes. “No, you ain’t and neither am I. I’ve asked you this question for years. We just up and lit outta there in the dead of night and you never told me why. I was too young to question it. The subject came up again, so how about you tell me now? We got time on this journey; far too much of it for my taste. ”
Disquiet played in the dark eyes. “I suppose. Do you remember Charlie moon?”
“That weird, sickly, pale kid? Yeah. I remember. He died, didn’t he...?”
Valparaiso twenty years earlier...
“Heyes!” The shrill voice of the matron echoed around the stone walls of the institution. “You were warned. Sit up straight and eat your breakfast.”
The boy dragged up a weary head and blinked heavy eyes. “I’m not hungry, Miss.”
The bow of the linen cap tied under the woman’s chin waggled as she spoke. “Not hungry! There are children starving in the streets and you refuse good healthy food? This is unacceptable. Report to Mr. Wayne immediately.”
The dark eyes widened in angst at the required extra exertion. “Now, Miss?”
The hard lips pursed in a scowl which would brook no opposition. “Now.”
The little boy propped his hands on the table to drag a leaden leg over the bench but he lacked the energy for even this small operation. His foot caught and he tumbled face-first onto the stone floor. The other inmates looked on in silence, too afraid to speak and risk punishment from the authoritarian regime, but one wily boy took the chance and swapped his empty plate for Heyes’ uneaten portions. No point in letting it go to waste, was there?
“Get up,” she bellowed.
“Miss, I don’t think he can...,” came a little voice.
“What do you mean?” She strode between the rows of uniformed boys sitting in place at the long trestle tables. “Get up.” She prodded at the boy with her toe. “Heyes, get up.”
“I think he’s sick, Miss,” ventured a larger boy.
“I suspect you may be right,” she stepped back and called to a couple of trustees. “Schwartz and Cramond, get this boy to the infirmary.” She held her hand up to the blond-haired boy who started to stand. “No, Curry. You may not go with him. You are not ill. Stop crying! Stop that right now...”
The hazy mess gradually morphed into a face framed with grey mutton-chops. The man looked over a pair of round spectacles and gave a grim smile. “Welcome back, young man. You’re finally awake.” The picture became clearer. The walls were painted in two shades of carbolic green, with an imaginary dado line being the demarcation point between the two. Unoccupied brass beds lined the walls and bible quotes were etched on the walls at each end of the room. “You’re in the infirmary. I’m Doctor Green. You’ve had a fever for a day or so. It seems to have broken, but an ague like that leaves you weak. You’re to stay in here for the next week at least.” He cast his hand around the ward. “You and Moon are the only ones here, so you’ll have some company.” He scribbled something on the notes he carried on a clipboard. “Moon is new here. He lost his parents too. You two have something in common.”
“My parents ain’t dead, Dr. Green,” murmured the boy in the next bed.
Hannibal turned his head and gaped at the ivory-colored boy. He’d never seem anyone like him, he looked like he’d been frosted. The doctor cut in abruptly. “They are, Charlie. They’re gone. You need to accept that.” He turned back to the dark-haired patient. “He’s an albino, Hannibal. They got no color anywhere. Even us white folks got some color. He’s got none. That’s why his hair and skin are so white, and his eyes are that color. He was born that way. Be nice to him, huh? Lots of them here bully him, but he can’t help the way he was born.”
Hannibal stared wordlessly at boy who sat up in his bed, as pale as his linen shirt. The eyes were unearthly; an unblinking violet gaze. The thin boy smiled. “Hi, I’m Charlie. What’s your name?”
He opened his mouth to reply, but no more than a croak came out.
“He’s too sick to talk, Charlie. Let him sleep,” Doctor Green clipped the chart on the end of the bed. “The nurse will be in to check you in the night. I’ll see you in the morning. Glad to see you with us again, Hannibal. Get some more sleep.”
He had fallen back into a deep insensibility, with the help of the draught given to him by the night nurse, and he wasn’t quite sure what had wakened him, but he opened his eyes to find a figure at the window dragging on the stiff metal latches. Charlie Moon turned, fixing him with his hauntingly beautiful eyes. “Ssshhh! Go back to sleep. I’m goin’ to see my folks.”
Hannibal still couldn’t be sure if he’d answered him. All he knew was that he was soon seized by slumber and was insensible once again. By the next morning he had been convinced it was all a dream.
The next morning dawned bright and cheerful, with buoyant birds swooping and lunging at the buzzing insects fussing around the flowers and trees. Charlie slunk into the shadows, avoiding the sunbeams. His alabaster skin burnt easily and he couldn’t take the risk. Hannibal had done the opposite, seeking out the life-affirming energy. He was still very weak, but he felt very much better than he had in some time. He was allowed to sit up, covered by a blanket, and had even been permitted the luxury of a book. The Home for Waywards was a tough regime and work filled every waking moment, so he was determined to savor the respite, and was in no hurry to get back to the mindless tasks of rope-making and agricultural work which were intended to ward evil influences away from idle hands.
“Have you had the fever too, Charlie?” Hannibal asked.
The boy shook his head. “The doc says I need to be kept separate. Between you and me I think he’s studyin’ me. I don’t think he’s seen the likes of me afore.” He grinned. “Suits me. I seen what you lot have to do every day. I get to sleep.”
“Sleep? Sure a nap here and there, but don’t you get bored?”
“Bored? Na. I gotta catch up on my sleep anyways. I’m busy at night.”
Hannibal frowned. “Busy doin’ what?”
“I goes and sees my folks. The doc says they’re dead and gone, but he don’t know the half of it.”
“No?” Hannibal curiosity was aroused. “They’re hidin’?”
“Hidin’ in plain sight,” Charlie laughed uproariously at his own joke. “Men like the doc think they knows it all, but my ma says she’s forgotten more than he’ll ever know. She’s real clever my ma.”
“Why ain’t you with your folks if they’re still alive, Charlie?”
“Ma says the medical folks want to study us. She’s in hidin’.”
Hannibal’s brows furrowed. “She’s like you? Why ain’t you hidin’ with them?”
“I will be, but Ma says I gotta do somethin’ first. Once the Doc has had a look at me he’ll get bored and leave us alone.”
“That makes no sense, Charlie. She should just tell him to git.”
Charlie shook his white head, the hair like strands of flax. “You’re normal. You don’t know how it is. I’ve just got to wait a day or so and then we’re going away. Ma’s found a place for us, where our type can be happy. I won’t be here much longer.” The boy paused, wondering if he had said too much. “Ya ain’t gonna tell on me are ya?”
Hannibal shook his head. “Go where you like. It makes no difference to me. I don’t get why they think your folks are dead though.”
“Ma let them think that. She hid. If’n they hadn’t they’d have never give up. It ain’t no fun bein’ different. Folks want ta hurt ya.”
“We ain’t different and they hurt us,” Hannibal replied. “My folks were killed; all of ‘em. Even the baby.” His bottom lip started to tremble; he was surprised that he still held so much pain close. “They’s gone forever and I don’t even know why. Seems to me that some folks just hurt because they can.”
The violet eyes widened. “That’s real sad. Ya can come with us if’n ya want. Ma likes normals. She says we need normal blood to keep the family strong. I gotta find a normal gal and bring her along, she says.”
“There ain’t no girls here,” Heyes backhanded away the tears stinging at his eyes. “This is a boy’s place.”
“Yeah, but I got someone I can bring. That’s why Ma’s happy for me to stay here for now. In any case I sleeps most of the day.”
“Your Ma sounds weird,” snorted Hannibal.
The little white knuckles tightened and the violet eyes flashed with sudden fire. “Don’t you dare say that about her. You ain’t even met her. Ya know nuthin’ about my ma! I’ll kill ya!”
“How are you doing today?” The doctor strode into the small ward. “Charlie, you know what I’ve told about getting angry. What was it?”
Sullen white brows formed a shelf above the fulgent eyes. “Count to twenty.”
Doctor Green placed his hands on his hips. “Did you do it?”
“Then start. There’s no point in doing it afterwards, is there? Nurse Broadmere, can you take Charlie out to calm down?” The doctor watched a fair-haired, young woman usher the pale boy into the corridor before he turned to his other patient. “Don’t provoke him, Hannibal. He has a short temper and can turn quickly. He has a sickness in his head. That’s why he’s here. Just keep to yourself and read until you are fit enough to go back to the dormitory.”
“I can see why he gets angry if he lost his folks,” Hannibal frowned, “but he says they’re alive.”
The medical man shook his head. “They’re in the graveyard in town. They’re gone; dead and buried. I examined them myself. Poor Charlie just has a hard time accepting that. I’m hoping that I can sort him out with a bit of time and care.” He paused, his eyes narrowing. “You get angry too?”
The boy nodded, his lashes forming perfect crescents against his skin as he lowered his eyes. “Sometimes. It don’t do no good though. Ya gotta think first and feel later. Eventually you realize you ain’t got time to feel.”
“You’re twelve?” The doctor nodded, knowingly. “Some men could never learn that if they lived to be a hundred. You’ll go far if you straighten up and live a good life.”
“I never did nothin’ wrong, sir. They put me here ‘cos there was nowhere else.”
“And you were doing so well. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t admit it exists, Hannibal. I have to go.” Doctor Green stood, shakin his head. “Remember to keep Charlie calm. Humor him if you have to. There’s a nurse here twenty four hours a day if you need help.”
“No ‘buts’,” the doctor cut him off as he left the ward. “I hate excuses. You’re in a home for waywards. You’re mind is a garden. It will become overgrown with weeds unless you cultivate it. Go out and be the best at something.”
A chill wind gusted through the open window and prickled at the slumbering child’s neck, but it was the sound of the sash window being slid further open which brought him back to the here and now. He turned and snuggled into the blankets, but the dropping temperature nipped at his face and nose until a heavy eye reluctantly opened. The room was drenched in moonbeams, illuminating the fluttering curtains and the sheets dragged back on the empty bed next to him.
He sat up. Should he close the window? That would prevent Charlie from getting back in. The boy’s words floated through his mind. “I goes and sees my folks... he don’t know the half of it.”
What did he mean by that? Curiosity had nibbled at him since those words had been spoken. It was no use. He was feeling much better and he had to know what was goin on. He pulled back the blankets and opened the locker beside his bed where his clothes were kept and pulled on the institution overalls and jacket over his nightshirt. The boots were slightly too large, but he jammed them on anyway and made for the window.
Charlie didn’t appear to feel the cold, despite being so sensitive to the sun. He was visible in the moonlight, the lustrous beams which picked up the white shirt also silvered the snowy hair. He merely looked unusual during the day, but he commanded the night. He strode through the landscape unafraid and assured until he reached the large wooden gates. At that point he slunk into the shadows, disappearing completely as the luster seemed to drop from him at will.
The gates weren’t locked, this was a home, not a prison, and they proved no barrier to a determined boy. He slunk through and was quickly out on the open road, headed for the town.
Hannibal followed at a distance. The Home for Waywards lay on the edge of town, with the church lying in the dip between. The boys were marched to it every Sunday, so he was completely familiar with the spired timber building. The tracking continued with the darkness enveloping the young inmate but strangely emphasizing the stark paleness of his mark. Young Hannibal’s heart sunk as he watched Charlie enter the churchyard. This was not a place a boy preferred to hang about after dark, but he swallowed down the apprehension forming in his gullet and pressed on. The white figure seemed to float in the distance until it came to a stop by a grave marked only by a wooden stake. Charlie sat and started to talk. From his vantage point behind a gravestone Hannibal couldn’t hear the words, only the music of the conversation drifting in the night air, carried by the breeze.
Hannibal froze. Were his eyes playing tricks on him or was there movement in the darkness? He stared harder, but the more he looked, the less sure he became. The shadows seemed to morph and meld before his very eyes; distorting and mutating with a swirling eddy, until the very blackness itself seemed to churn and roll around the albino boy, who appeared to be radiant and shining in the midst of a maelstrom of night. Hannibal blinked and rubbed his eyes. Were the shadows moving, or was the night playing tricks with eyes which stared too intently?
The hairs on the back of his neck started to prickle. It took a few moments for him to realize why, but then his senses caught up with his instincts and he heard it. Along with Charlie’s descant tones, there was a definite lower rumble. No, there was a bass resonating with a slightly higher contralto, or was there? Was Charlie talking to someone, to others? The white figure lay down on the earth, but the sounds continued, or did they? They seemed to exist at the very edge of perception, just like the undulating, curling gloom.
Hannibal’s heart leaped into his mouth at the hand dropping onto his shoulder. “There you are. I know you came this way.” It was Nurse Broadmere, and she was furious, but Charlie’s words suddenly came unbidden to his mind, ‘I gotta find a normal gal and bring her along...’
Had Charlie wanted to be followed? Even worse, had he wanted the nurse to come here in the dead of night for god only knew what purpose? Panic gripped him.
“We gotta run!” Hannibal yelled, seizing her hand and tugging her back in the direction of Valpairso. “Come on.”
He ran as fast as his legs could carry him along the path, but the woman held back, moving no more than a few steps before stopping. Hannibal turned to face her, but the swarming whorl of drab mist behind her caused him to let out an involuntary wail. It was moving. It was headed straight for them. “We’ve gotta get back, Miss. We just gotta...”
He grabbed her hand as tightly as he could and dragged her, stumbling through the night, back towards the home. The blood pumped loudly in his ears and all he could hear was his heart beating furiously over the metallic scrunch of the tackets on the sole of his boots hitting the an occasional stone as he ran. Every time he looked back his fear spiraled at the teeming darkness behind them, an empty, hungry, venal blackness flowing towards them in a malignant murmuration of obscurity. “We’ve got to run!” howled Hannibal. “You can’t be out here.”
“Hannibal, stop! Where’s Charlie?” the Nurse demanded. She turned and looked behind before giving a little cry. The mounting panic became contagious and he felt her hand tighten round his. It wasn’t long before her pace gathered and she overtook the panting boy, dragging him along in his out-sized boots against the wind.
They reached the gate, which Hannibal flung open, his heart beating fit to burst. He yanked her through, and slammed it behind them. “Help! Help us,” he shouted at the top of his voice. Lights appeared at the windows of the stark building. His breath came in great gasps of panic as he sank to his knees. They were safe, or rather the nurse was safe. He was convinced the poisonous wave was directed against her. The shadows retreated against the warm glow of the lanterns and the calls of the men coming to investigate. They had made it back to Valparaiso.
The twitching of a pert nose and the scrunching of the eyelids heralded Hannibal coming to. “He’s waking up,” a male voice murmured. “That was quite the fright you gave us all. It was touch and go for a while there. I think you’re past the worst of the fever. How are you? Can you talk?” He watched the mouth futilely open and close. “No? Just relax. Nurse Hodge will look after you.”
The boy’s dark eyes scanned the ward, but found all the beds empty and made up with military precision. “Charl...” The voice croaked off to nothing.
Doctor Green shook his head. “He’s gone, Hannibal. Don’t worry about him. Just concentrate on getting well. You’ve been a very sick boy, but you’re going to be just fine...”
Twenty years later
Heyes looked down at his feet. “It took about a month before they let me go back to work. The doc was a good man and protected sick boys as much as he could. I spent the time reading and studying things I’d never have had the chance to learn. I never saw Charlie again.”
“He died, didn’t he?” the Kid replied.
“I only found out later he was found on his family’s grave. He slit his wrists and bled to death,” a grim-faced Heyes leaned back in his chair. “I don’t know if that’s how my fevered brain interpreted what I half-saw in the dark, or if I was even there at all. Maybe I heard the staff talking about it when I was delirious? I was too far gone to make sense of it. I guess poor Charlie never got over losing his folks. I think he was right about Doc Green studying him. Maybe he should’ve been in an asylum instead of a home? We’ll never know now.”
The fair head nodded slowly, watching his cousin intently. “And dark nights make you think of that time. Why have you never told me this before?”
The intense, dark eyes fixed on the gunman. “I never saw Nurse Broadmere again. She left too. No notice, she left the very same night. That made me think it was odd.” He paused, glancing out the window uncertainly. “When I was released from the infirmary I went back to the dormitory after a day of picking oakum,” he gave a snort of derision. “That was considered light duty for the weak. I crawled into my own bed and felt something under my pillow. It was a note. As soon as I read that I knew I had to get out of there and that you had to do the same. That’s why we left. I couldn’t stay there a moment longer. I still don’t know if it was a sick joke by the other boys, or if it was meant for someone else, but every now and again it comes flooding back to me and I feel like that little boy again. Occasionally the shadows seem to live and move, just like they did that night, and I can’t settle.”
The fair brows met in curiosity. “Huh? A note?”
He nodded. “It simply said, ‘I know you were there.’”
Na sir 's na seachainn an cath - Neither seek nor shun the fight Old Scottish proverb