Another door just closed. There was a moment of stillness. An unnerving echoey sound, a cross between a human wail and the low toll of a church bell, came whistling and rushing up the stairwell to where he hung in the air. He felt the gust whip around him but he couldn’t move. The octagonal room began spinning like a zoetrope and he could see in front of him a figure made of shadows flung out of the wall. At first, the figure didn’t seem to move: it wavered and flickered in one place. Yet it seemed to Patrick that the thing was getting bigger and that’s when he realised it was coming closer. He tried to swallow, but couldn’t The thing reached out one shadowy hand and touched two cold long fingers to Patrick’s neck.
Patrick swallowed. He was awake. He lay on his mattress, hot and groggy, his heartbeat jackhammering in his ears. The first thing he thought was water, he was desperately thirsty, mouth like chalk. He heard a weird hoot, an owl somewhere outside – but wait, there were no owls where Patrick lived. And now he looked around and saw a foreign room, with a high ceiling, whitewashed walls and wooden floor where his backpack and clothes lay scattered.
Then he remembered. Yesterday, Sunday, he had moved with his Mum into this musty cottage on a small hill in a place called Wanderer’s Hollow, a dreary cluster of country houses that didn’t even live up to its name. They’d spent the day lugging boxes from their ute up into the house. They ate baked beans from a tin for dinner and, soon after, his mother said she’d need to drive to the next town for supplies. Patrick hadn’t liked the sound of this very much, but his mother insisted that she’d be back before bed.
She grabbed her phone, shouted “bye, honey – read your book”, and was gone. Patrick wandered the strange house and looked outside but soon retreated to the comfort of his sleeping bag and book, the words of the story drifting into worries about why his mum was so late and hadn’t phoned. Perhaps she’d just taken a wrong turn and had to trace her way back?
Patrick got up to see if his Mum was in her bedroom. She’d probably just not wanted to wake him up or something silly like that. She wasn’t there. He recalled her saying she would sleep in his room, but of course she wasn’t there. He looked at himself in the bathroom mirror – no mother there – then drank straight from the bathroom tap. It was already past eight, according to his watch, and today was his first day of school in Wanderer’s Hollow. He knew his mum would want him there no matter what, so he ate breakfast, quickly showered and got dressed, brushed his teeth with his index finger (no toothbrush at hand) and slung some paper and pens into his backpack. He wrote a note of his Mum, grabbed this new set of keys from the crumbling white mantelpiece, and locked the door behind him.
He took his bike from where he’d leaned it against the weatherbeaten boards of the cottage (‘No need to lock up a bike out here’, his mum had said) and with a few turns of the pedals he was off, zooming down the long gravel road, past the marshy fields and rows of leafless trees. A somehow familiar echoey sound, part human wail and part tolling bell, came whistling and rushing up along side him like some of ghost rider. He knew no such thing existed, but he turned and for a millisecond saw a shadowy figure flickering through the row of trees next to him. It must have been my shadow, he thought to himself. Suddenly he missed his mum.
Patrick knew how to get to the school, having studied an old map of the area that he’d found in a drawer of the house when they were moving in. He just had to take the first left off the gravel road and follow it to the end. The school stood alone, a converted old chapel with a bit built on the back. Patrick left his bike behind some bushes and wandered through long grass around the building. There were a few logs to sit on and a couple of rusty swings outside. It didn’t seem like anyone was at school today. All the doors were locked.
He checked his watch. 9:46 am. He was very late. But even so, where was everyone? He definitely hadn’t come to the wrong place: out the front a noticeboard said “Wanderer’s Hollow Area School” in faded black paint. He went up to the front door and knocked hard this time. He heard a scurrying sound inside. The wood was rotted through; he could have broken it open with one hand. He turned the events of yesterday and today over in his head like someone playing solitaire. The school had probably just gone on an excursion and him mum was probably home, so he got on his bike and headed back.
He came up the drive and found the door open. He swallowed, lowered his bike, and peered inside. There was his mum sitting at the table. She looked pale. Full of fear and relief, Patrick dashed in.
“You’re okay!” said his relieved mum as she embraced him. “I was so worried.”
“I was the worried one”, said Patrick. He felt a surge of warmth run through him. “What happened last night?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. Were you okay?” His mum looked at him intently.
“Of course I was okay, but what took you so long?”
“I took a wrong turn and practically drove to Jamaica. I had pulled the car over to try and figure out where I was and call you, but my phone was out of power.” She looked a bit sheepish for a moment. “Then I fell asleep.” Patrick grinned. His mum giggled. “When I woke up I had to find my way back, but I took another wrong turn, and after a lot of retracing finally got back here about forty minutes ago. I promise it won’t happen again”. She hugged Patrick once more. “But what about you? Where were you?”
“I went to the school, but no one was round”, frowned Patrick.
“Good on you – but that’s weird. Are you sure there was nobody there? I checked, today was definitely a school day.”
“Yeah, well all the doors were locked. It was weird and abandoned. And it’s so tiny I reckon it could only fit like forty kids.”
“I know what happened,” exclaimed his mum. “You went to the wrong school? It was the little one across from that hill with the farm, right?”
“That’s the old one, yours is down the road the other way.”
“Really? Shall I go down now?”
“If you want to. I guess you’ve got all your stuff ready, right?”
“You won’t miss it. And just tell the office you were late because of me. As for me I need to get some sleep, but you get home we’ll watch a movie on my laptop.” Patrick smiled. “I know moving can be hard. Patrick, but I think we’ll manage.”
Patrick felt something inside him fade away. He thought of the space in his dream, but the dream was just out of his reach: the only thing he could remember was the shadowy figure but that too was slowly slipping out of his mind, just like his anxiety about beginning life again in a new place.
“I know. See ya mum!” he said and he was out the door.
Sydney Secondary College, Balmain Campus