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Hi! No, you're not late at all! Please, come in. Say, don't I know you from somewhere? You're one of those pretty famous reporters, right? You seem really familiar. Can I get you some tea or coffee, or would you rather get on with the interview? Sorry, I don't know how this works; I've never been interviewed before. I pretty much shut myself off from the press after those kids went missing. I didn't need that kind of attention. I suppose I'll start my story by setting the scene.
The village of Tir Gulwyn is pretty quiet nowadays. It wasn't always so; back in the 90's, the Mayor was given a government grant to build a new school which would cater for all the small towns and hamlets in the surrounding valleys. I was fresh-out-of university back then, just finished my training to become a teacher, and eager to start my first professional job, so I was thrilled to be offered a place at the Tir Gulwyn Infants' School. I could finally prove myself by doing something I loved.
The dolls changed all that.
A thick fog had rolled over the mountains and was dribbling down into Gulwyn Valley, clinging to the top of the lake, and probing at the town with slim tendrils carried on a light winter breeze. The school bus had already arrived, and the children were lining up to go inside, shivering in their anoraks and school-jumpers. I skimmed the register and noted that all were present, except for a five-year-old boy called Gavin Lewis. His photograph, a gap-toothed boy with straw coloured hair, grinned up at me from the paper. Reassuring myself that attendance could not always be perfect, I ushered my class indoors and, shooting one last, hopeful glance out into the white-tinged street beyond the railings, shut the door behind me.
My first lessons went well: an introductory session, to allow the kids to settle-in and make friends on their first day, and then a reading group. The Hungry Caterpillar was a huge success, and the children left to change for gym in their respective changing rooms. I wandered outside. It was pretty chilly, and I was just debating whether or not to hold the class indoors when I heard it: a hollow rattling noise.
“Hello?” I called. There was no reply, but I followed the sound to the playground gate, which backed onto the main road out of town.
There was a little doll tied to the bars. I regarded it for a moment: a slightly misshapen object, with a wool body and a face made from some kind of white, ceramic material. A tangle of gaudy yellow thread was attached to its head, and the face had a disturbingly vacant, gap-toothed smile. The face of little Gavin Lewis came to mind, and I unhooked the doll from its string gibbet. It felt odd as I turned it over in my hands; heavier than it should have been, and solid beneath the soft exterior.
I took it back to the empty classroom and examined it further. There was a seam up the back which seemed deliberately loose. I tugged at it, and the doll just fell apart in my hands. Bones, small and dry, spilled out onto my desk, with a clatter which echoed the noise of running feet outside the door. I pulled my jacket over the mess just as the classroom was suddenly filled with excited children ready to play outside. My heart was pounding and, despite the cold day, I realised that I was sweating. What the fuck had I just found?
“Children...” I shouted. “... we're going to have PE indoors today, okay?”
This was met with a chorus of disappointed groans, but no objections, and they filed through into the gym hall.
I arranged for one of the other teachers to keep an eye on the class, then hurried to the staffroom. I found the number for Gavin's parents in the school's register and dialed it. No answer. I left an urgent request for his mother to contact me, then went to tell the headmistress. I showed her the bones, and she went white.
“Are they human?” she asked. I told her I had no idea. After a moment's deliberation, we phoned the police. The first officer to enter the room recoiled at the sight.
“Lord above...” He cried. His colleague turned one of the larger ones over in his hands.
“They're chicken bones,” he told us. I asked him if he was sure, and he told me that he'd grown up on a farm, and was therefore well-acquainted with animal bones.
“What happens now?” asked the headmistress. “It's obvious that this is some kind of threat, or at the very least, a sick joke.”
The men gathered up the remains of the doll, and took some of Gavin's records. I was assured that they would keep an eye on the school. True to their word, another patrol car pulled-up outside the gates, just as the first one left.
Strangely enough, the rest of that day was... fairly normal. The kids cottoned-on to the mute horror being displayed by their teachers, but aside from a general air of nervousness, the schedule proceeded as normal. Eventually, the school-day ended and parents (unaware of the eerie happenings) arrived en-mass to collect their children. Those left caught the bus home. We did our best to make sure that everyone got away okay, but were wary about telling anyone what had happened. We didn't want a panic, especially when we didn't know what was going on yet. I was told that the police would call me in the morning to take a statement, and that I should go home.
The next morning, I checked my phone, but there was nothing from the police. I suppose I wasn't really surprised. This was 1998 – post Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, so the police's reputation throughout the UK was at an all-time low. Such an oversight was definitely possible in my book. I waited for an hour, but figured that if they desperately needed to contact me, they could phone the school.
I arrived a little later than usual, actually meeting some of the children as their parents dropped them off. This, coupled with the patrol car now parked on the corner, reassured me for a time. It took me fifteen minutes to realise that the bus had not arrived. The playground was almost empty in comparison with the previous day. I put the few kids present to work on some story writing, and phoned the bus company. No, they hadn't heard from the driver. He was probably just caught in traffic on his way through the next town along.
I felt ill. Something awful had happened to those children. The crushing pain of guilt hit me then. I should have warned the parents the day before. I needed air, and I stumbled into the playground.
I heard it then. The faint rattling sound. I can only describe it as like that of a bead-curtain, swaying in the wind. On autopilot, nausea forgotten, I wandered to the gate.
Along the fence, in neat rows of identical gibbets, hung thirty-two little dolls. I didn't need to look at the register. I've always been good with faces. The children smiling up at me from their desks the day before were smiling at me now; faces frozen in an elation.
There was something off about their eyes though: painted in detail on the ceramic heads, the eyes told a different story. Fear, pain and anguish registered in their expressions. Everything is a bit of a blur after that. I remember hammering on the window of the police car outside. It was about then that I saw the dolls inside: slightly larger than the child dolls, and dressed in immaculate little police uniforms complete with crude, yet shiny epaulettes.
I slammed the classroom door behind me and, no longer caring whether the children knew something was up, began to cry. What the fuck had I done to deserve this? I must have passed out at some point, because I woke up on the beanbags in the reading room, with a doctor taking my pulse. I tried to speak, but my voice was a hoarse whisper. The man reassured me that the children had been taken home, and that the school was closed.
More patrol cars were arriving by that time. They rolled out the crime-scene tape, and I think I heard a helicopter going by. I was obviously in no fit state to give an interview, but I managed to tell them everything I knew, before I was taken to hospital to be treated for shock. As they escorted me to a waiting ambulance, a reporter shoved a camera in my face and tried to take a photo. A policeman shoved him back as he did so, and I was shut inside the vehicle away from prying eyes.
That almost concludes my part in this story. I quit my job and didn't leave my house for weeks following the incident, with one exception. It had been raining, and the fog outside seemed to have all but been washed away. I was listening to the local radio station, when they began to jabber about a supposedly important update in the missing children case. Hikers had found the school bus, empty but intact, part-way up a nearby mountain. Police were said to have closed-off a nearby farmhouse and barn, and weren't letting anyone through.
Needless to say, I made my way up to the house. The area was heavy with reporters, and even as I parked, TV crews were setting-up for the midday news bulletins. Another thing that I noticed were the chickens: several hundred, at least, roaming apparently wild all over the compound. A uniformed officer abruptly halted my advance, blocking the garden gate. Over his shoulder, I glimpsed forensics teams moving into the house. What the hell had they found in there?
“Sorry mate, crime scene. You're not allowed in.”
“Please,” I said, “You don't understand, I need to know what's happened.”
“We'll tell the press in good time, but for now I'm going to need you to get back to the cars.”
I went home, but kept the television on. For most of the day, they just repeated the same arbitrary details: that the house was unoccupied, that no arrests had been made and the like.
That evening, however, things changed. They played a short clip which looked to have been shot from a mobile phone (allegedly leaked footage). The cameraman is standing in a narrow hallway, which ends with a downward staircase. He then descends into the darkness and for a moment, it looks as though the clip has ended on a black screen. Suddenly, a dim electric light snaps on, and reveals a basement area, with damp stone walls, floor and ceiling. He pauses and lets the camera pan over the area. The entire room is filled with strings of what appear to be white beads on strings, as tall as the wall. The camera zooms in, and the beads become bones. But these aren't just chicken bones: they're not broken-up into fragments like the bones in the dolls. It's clear what they are, and I suppress the urge to vomit.
Finger bones. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tiny finger bones, dangling from strings like a macabre curtain. The cameraman mumbles some horrified curse, and the video ends abruptly.
I went up there the other week. I'd just got your email, asking to do the interview, and it got me thinking. It's been so many years, and I wanted to see for myself. I know, it's breaking-and-entering, but come on. I had to know what it was like. Perhaps the police missed something, they never caught anyone, and nobody ever found the rest of the remains, so in a way, I was helping the investigation! It's not like anyone goes up there any more.
The boards across the doorframe were rotten through, and it was fairly easy to crowbar my way inside. They cut the power a few months after it happened, so I had to rely on my torch, which narrowed my search considerably. I did find something, though.
I'm guessing that they never searched that coal shed behind the house. It was another cellar area: cramped, and containing just a workbench and a few barrels of chicken-feed. I pried one of them open and poked at the stuff inside with my crowbar: ordinary feed, mixed with a powdery, white substance. I glanced over at the desk, at which sat a mortar-and-pestle. Inside, what appeared to be a half ground bone (though human or chicken, I could not say).
I was about to leave and to run to the authorities, when I saw the files under the workbench. Generic, plastic sleeves for keeping documents safe from the elements. They were dated: one every five years, with the earliest being in the mid 1970's, and the latest being dated in the 1990's. I flipped the latter open and tipped its contents onto the tabletop.
Photographs. Photographs of children in a playground, apparently taken from inside a car. Near the back of the pile, there was a picture of two police officers in a patrol car, oblivious to the presence of the photographer. The final picture...
... the final picture was of me. Not just any picture, though. I remembered exactly where I was when it was taken. Blurred by movement, and partially obscured by the hand of a police officer shoving the photographer away, I could just about make out myself, being bundled into the ambulance.
There was one other object in the folder: a doll. It was only half finished: the face had not yet been completed, and one of the arms had not yet been fully attached. The resemblance was uncanny, however. Everything was familiar, from the brown suit, right down to the stupid teddy-boy hairstyle which I had in the 90's.
The doll was me.
No, not at all, I was glad to help. I guess sometimes we get over events by reliving them enough times. I just hope I don't get in trouble for the break-in part. You won't publish that, right? Good. What's that? A fresh photograph of me? Sure, yeah. Go ahead.
Written by Steven Shorter