You knew a teenager like Charlie Crabtree. A dark imagination, a sinister smile—always on the outside of the group. Some part of you suspected he might be capable of doing something awful. Twenty-five years ago, Crabtree did just that, committing a murder so shocking that it’s attracted that strange kind of infamy that only exists on the darkest corners of the internet—and inspired more than one copycat.
Paul Adams remembers the case all too well: Crabtree—and his victim—were Paul’s friends. Paul has slowly put his life back together. But now his mother, old and senile, has taken a turn for the worse. Though every inch of him resists, it is time to come home.
It’s not long before things start to go wrong. Reading the news, Paul learns another copycat has struck. His mother is distressed, insistent that there’s something in the house. And someone is following him. Which reminds him of the most unsettling thing about that awful day twenty-five years ago.
It wasn’t just the murder.
It was the fact that afterward, Charlie Crabtree was never seen again…
In this exclusive excerpt from The Shadows by Alex North, author of The Whisper Man, Paul remembers the time his classmate Charlie invited him and two friends to the high school basement for help with “incubation,” a seemingly innocent project that would haunt Paul well into adulthood.
“What are you doing, Charlie?” James said eventually.
“I already asked him that.” Billy pulled a face but didn’t look up from his magazine. “It’s a secret, apparently.”
Charlie sighed, then put his pen down on the desk.
“It’s not a secret,” he said. “I was concentrating. When you’re thinking about something important, you want to carry on without being interrupted.”
“Jesus,” Billy muttered. “Sorry.”
“The same way you wouldn’t want me to interrupt . . . whatever it is you’re reading.”
Billy glanced down at the magazine. He closed it.
Charlie smiled at James.
“I was writing in my dream diary.”
“What’s a dream diary?”
Charlie held up the notebook.
“Every morning, I write down what I dreamed the night before.”
I took a mouthful of sandwich. “It’s not the morning.”
“I didn’t say that’s what I was doing right now.”
I swallowed. Annoyingly true.
“I never remember my dreams,” James said.
“Most people can’t.” Charlie put the notebook down. “I used to be the same. Dreams are stored in the short-term memory, which is why it’s important to write them down as soon as you wake up, before you forget. If you don’t, they vanish forever.”
I resisted the urge to do an actual eye roll. I had become used to Charlie’s fascination with arcane bullshit. He’d bring books on magic and demonology in to school, but I always thought it was more to be seen reading them than out of any genuine interest—that it was part of a persona he liked to cultivate. Charlie would have been more than happy for people to believe he spent his evenings cross-legged in a chalk pentagram surrounded by candles. But he usually liked his reputation to have more of an edge to it than talking about dreams.
“So what were you doing?” I said.
“Searching for patterns.” He looked at me. “Making notes on what I’ve discovered. Once you start doing that, you begin to notice the same dreams crop up time and time again. The same themes. The same places. The same people.”
“And so what?”
“It helps with incubation.” Charlie smiled.
And I hesitated for a moment, the sandwich halfway to my mouth. It felt a little like when he had spoken to Hague on the day of the accident—saying something unexpected and odd enough to pull you up.
I didn’t like the word. It made me think of something awful being cultivated in a jar. And, of course, I realized I had been wrong just then—after what had happened to Hague, dreams actually did have an edge when it came to Charlie.
James seemed uneasy too.
“What does incubation mean?”
“Influencing what you dream about,” Charlie told him. “Which helps to waken lucidity. Do you know what a lucid dream is?”
James shook his head.
“It’s when you become aware that you’re dreaming while you’re in a dream. Almost as if you’re waking up inside your dream but staying asleep. Once you do that, you’re in control of what happens. You can do anything you want, live any experience you want, make your dream world exactly how you want it to be. Anything you can think of can be real.”
I looked at James and I could see he was considering that, and I wondered what he would choose to do if he could do anything at all. Get back at the bullies who tormented him? Envision a happier home life? Escape from Gritten altogether? I imagined the idea must appeal to him, and I didn’t like the way he was staring at Charlie as though he’d just been offered something magical.
“They’re still just dreams,” I said. “When you wake up, it’s not like it matters. It hasn’t changed anything.”
Charlie looked at me. For a moment his expression seemed completely blank, but there was an undercurrent to it that set me on edge, as though I’d committed some kind of transgression by challenging him.
“What do you mean?” he said.
I shrugged. “Just that. They’re only dreams. They don’t make any difference.”
Charlie smiled then, and for some reason it unnerved me more than the blankness had. It was the same smile he’d shown to Hague that day, one that suggested he was way ahead of me, and that I’d said something simplistic and childish that he himself had gotten past a long time ago.
They’re only dreams.
A smile that said he knew a secret I didn’t.
THE SHADOWS is on sale July 7, 2020.