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Silent Children

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Silent Children

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Author: Ramsey Campbell
Publisher: Tor, 2000
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Horror
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Synopsis

Once upon a time there was a man who loved children. He loved them so much he tried to save them from their imperfect parents. Unfortunately, Hector Woollie didn't work for Child Protective Services... and the children he rescued, he murdered.

Once upon a time, Leslie had a happy marriage, a happy son, and a happy life. Now divorced, she is trapped in ongoing battles with her ex-husband, Roger, especially over their newly-adolescent son, Ian.

When Ian and his young stepsister disappear, Roger insists the boy kidnapped the girl, while Leslie thinks Ian might have run away. She prays that her son is near and will come home soon.

Ian is near-right next door, just on the other side of a shared wall. Ian can hear his parents fighting and his mother's desperate weeping, but he can't call for help. Hector Woollie has him and his stepsister, and if either child makes a peep, the madman will slit both their throats.


Excerpt

ONE

Terence was following the boss through the trees, down the slope that led away from the hotels to the wide bright trembling sea, when he couldn't keep quiet any longer. "I know what I saw."

"That's as may be," said Mr. Woollie as if imitating Terence's loudness might make him lower his voice. "Let's wait till we're out where you want to go and you can tell me all about it."

"In the kitchen at that house." Terence was on the edge of confusion, unsure if Mr. Woollie understood, unable to judge how loud he himself was speaking. "It wasn't a worm with a funny head, was it? It wasn't a worm with earth on the end."

A helter-skelter in the forest on the slope sent a little girl twirling down toward the promenade, a gull seesawed in the blue air above her, and for a moment Terence couldn't distinguish which of them was uttering a plaintive scream. Mr. Woollie leaned sideways toward him, his grey caterpillar eyebrows squeezing his reddened eyes thin and revealing pale cracks in his broad leathery forehead, and gestured with one large calloused hand at children trotting to the playground. "Let's keep it to ourselves for now, shall we? We don't want little ones upset when they've come for a lovely day out by the sea."

Terence might have felt as guilty as Mr. Woollie seemed to hope he would if he hadn't heard two boys in fat white shoes and shorts garish as cartoons, laughing just ahead of him. "A worm with a funny head," chortled the boy with a back like a wall half-stripped of pink wallpaper.

"A funny head," his friend repeated, his voice even shakier with mirth.

"That's the style," Mr. Woollie said. "Let's have a laugh or let's have nothing."

"It wasn't a head. I'm saying it wasn't, that's what I'm saying. It was a nail, a nail on a finger."

Neither boy looked at Terence--they were busy laughing at a woman's voice from a public lavatory window: "How are your bowels performing today, dear? Are they behaving themselves?"--but at least a dozen people below them on the slope did. "Come along now," Mr. Woollie said, and dug a thumb into the crook of Terence's elbow. "If you make any more of a scene they won't let you on your boat you want to go on."

His tone was telling everybody that Terence wasn't like them, that he was one of the people they tried to stay away from in the street and shouldn't be taken too seriously: he was talking as if he'd no idea what Terence meant even though Terence had done his best to explain to him yesterday. But he was leading Terence down to the sea that always calmed him as not even his medication did, and Terence didn't want to seem ungrateful when the Woollies had taken care of him for so long, Mrs. Woollie mothering him at the Haven while her husband trusted him enough to take him out on building jobs. He watched the broken line of boats swaying on the edge of the water close to the start of the mile of pier, the bunch of them swaying on their stalks of ropes, pods emptied of their seeds on a tree in the wind. He brought his mind more under control as the keeper of the boats, a wrestler dressed in trunks that sprouted black hair wherever they had the chance and with all the muscles of his arms tattooed, turned to examine his customers. Now Terence saw that each boat was rocking like a cradle, and began to hear a lullaby in his head, though not the words. "Two for an hour's worth," Mr. Woollie said.

"Handled a motorboat before?"

"Many a time, and with a lot younger than him in them." When the man blinked less than happily at Terence Mr. Woollie said "It's his treat. He's been looking forward to it. He wouldn't spoil it for the world."

"Keep out from under the pier," the man said, having visibly decided to forget about Terence, and pointed a finger black with hair along the coast. "Stay well clear of all the danger flags."

Terence hadn't realised there was supposed to be any danger. As he planted his right foot between the two low benches that spanned the boat, the floor lurched and he went staggering helplessly forward to trip over the pointed end of the boat and sprawl in the jittery water--except that Mr. Woollie had grabbed his arm and bruised it. "I've got you. Turn round. Sit down now. Sit down."

He sounded exactly as Terence's parents used to--the sullen urgency, their voices willing him not to be an embarrassment--and Terence had to do as he was told. He watched Mr. Woollie sit opposite him and pull the string to start the motor once the tattooed wrestler had thrown the rope at him. The boat steadied itself and eased itself away from the swaying of its companions, and then there was sea all around Terence.

As the seafront shrank away from him he saw the red flags shaking their warnings at him along a stretch of wet sand past the end of the promenade. They were too distant, and swiftly more so, to mean anything to do with him. A train chugged along the pier, and he pretended the boat was racing it--would have emitted appropriate noises if those mightn't have made his boss think worse of him. When the train reached the end of the pier first, he contented himself with willing it not to start back until the boat was past it, and that was a kind of victory. Off it chugged again, carrying an assortment of dolls for return to the hotels a mile away. The trees were dragging the hotels down into the green fuzz that was squeezing the children's playground smaller, muffling the tiny squeals that could have been of panic. The sounds reminded Terence of something the boss had said. "Mr. Woollie?"

"Talk to me, Terence."

"Did you have children?"

"What's making you ask me a question like that?"

Those were too many words, and Terence had to struggle free of the tangle of them. "Because you told the man you'd had some in a boat."

"A long time ago."

Behind Mr. Woollie, to the left of the pier, a long thin gleaming blade rose from a bird sanctuary to vanish and reappear further along the coast, where the trees had crushed the playground almost to nothing. They pressed it down into the sea and followed it with the hotels, and the paddlers and swimmers near the beach were only cries and shrieks. "How far are we going?" Terence said.

"That's up to you." As if this were part of the same answer, Mr. Woollie stared at him and said "What did you want to tell me?"

"I don't... tell you... you mean..." Terence felt the waves splashing up into his brain to wash away his thoughts. "About ..."

"What you wanted everyone to hear when we were coming down to your boat."

"You know, Mr. Woollie. Just before we were pouring the concrete at the house in, where was it, you know, Jericho Close."

"Never mind telling me what I know. It's bad enough you're seeing things when you're supposed to be capable of doing a job, when Adele and me have been doing our best to get you back in the community. What are you trying to make out you saw?"

"I did see it, and you did, because you threw some earth on it and banged it down, remember? I thought it was a worm coming up at first, but it couldn't have been, because it wasn't moving. Maybe it had been, but now it was just sticking up."

"A bit of rubble. That's all you saw, a bit that needed smoothing over."

"But you always say we can't do that. We've got to dig out anything like that before you lay the concrete." That silenced Mr. Woollie--his eyes and mouth shrank as though the receding coast had tugged at them--which emboldened Terence. "Anyway, it wasn't only us that saw it," he said. "Hughie did."

"Hughie's worse than you when he starts. If you ask me you set each other off, and that's what anyone will say if you tell them. If you want to talk yourself out of being trusted on any more jobs--"

"That's not true, Mr. Woollie."

Mr. Woollie's eyes grew so small that Terence could barely see them watching him. "What's not true?"

"Hughie told the doctor yesterday, and I did, and she didn't say we'd made it up."

Mr. Woollie's eyes closed, and his face set like concrete. "What did she say?"

"She said she was meaning to have a word with you anyway."

Mr. Woollie let go of the rudder and wiped a hand over his face, which might have been why it began to glisten. "That's what you get for trying to help people," he said. "For thinking they've enough sense to keep quiet when it's good for them."

Beyond him Terence saw the pier retracting itself like a lifeline he'd failed to grasp. He wished he hadn't spoken, not if that was making Mr. Woollie neglect to control the boat. A wave splashed against it, spraying Terence's face, and he tasted the salt that would fill his mouth and nose if there was an accident out here at sea. "I want to go back now," he said.

He wouldn't have minded if his voice had carried to the tiny people on the pier. It seemed not to have reached Mr. Woollie either until his eyes revealed slits of themselves. "We've got nowhere yet," Mr. Woollie said, then cut the motor. "We need to quiet you down."

"I don't like it this far out. It's too deep."

"Just about deep enough, more like."

"Let's go nearer the beach," Terence begged.

Mr. Woollie's eyes widened as if Terence had inspired him. "You're taking charge, are you?"

"I just want--"

"I heard, and you'll get it. The boat's all yours. Change seats and you can steer."

Terence supposed he should take that as an expression of trust, but he was too nervous. "You" was as much as his mouth could manage as he watched Mr. Woollie rise into a crouch.

"I'm finished, Terence. It's your turn."

"I don't want to," Terence pleaded, digging his fingernails into the underside of the seat as Mr. Woollie straightened up and swayed above him.

"You can't always have what you want, Terence. You sound like a little child whining, do you know that? What do you reckon the doctor would say if she could see you cringing like that? What do you reckon your parents would?"

"Don't care," Terence wailed, gripping the seat so hard his nails bent, as if that might stop Mr. Woollie and the boat from swaying, whichever was causing the other. "You aren't meant to stand up in a boat," he protested.

"Not by yourself you aren't, that's right. Get up now, quick. Come this side of me before we lose our balance," Mr. Woollie said, jerking his clenched face leftward.

"You're making it do it," Terence cried, hanging onto the seat with all his strength. "You sit down and it'll stop."

Water sloshed over the left side of the boat, then the other, so that he was terrified that the next time it dipped, the boat would scoop up so much water it would start to sink. Spray stung his eyes, but he saw the coast tilting as if the world were getting ready to throw him off into the sea. He saw a line of people waiting for a train at the end of the pier, closer than the distant swimmers but dismayingly far away, and every one of them had their back to him as they watched a train start toward them. "Stop it. You're doing it. He's doing it," he yelled.

Nobody heard him except Mr. Woollie, who lunged at him. "Come here, you damned--"

Terence threw himself aside, trying to hold on to the slippery wood with one hand. His weight sank that side of the boat into the water. Mr. Woollie floundered across the empty stretch of the seat, and his purple face squeezed his mouth small. His impetus carried him over the seat as the side of the boat opposite Terence heaved up. There was a large flat splash, and Mr. Woollie was in the sea.

Terence saw the waves rub out the splash. He was expecting Mr. Woollie to reappear in the same spot, but when the purple face heaved itself above the water it was several arms' length further out to sea. It spluttered furiously and sank again, and Terence tried to make his stiff brittle body do something besides wait for the head that looked enamelled with greying hair to pop up somewhere else like someone who was trying to amuse a child. It might have been a hundred yards away when it reappeared, grimacing like a mask as unreal as the situation felt to Terence, as unreal as the finger in the earth was supposed to have been.

Didn't people who were drowning get just three chances? The idea released Terence from his trance, allowing him to notice that his side of the boat was lower than the other. He was inching himself toward the middle of the seat, clutching at it in a panic that almost blinded him, when Mr. Woollie's head bobbed up, twice as distant. It glared an accusation at him, so fierce he imagined that it was capable of keeping the head afloat. Then it vanished as if the glittering blades of the sea had chopped it up, and Terence thought at last to shout for help.

The sea shrank his voice and flattened it, even when he pointed his mouth at the pier. He'd hardly cupped his hands around a shout when he had to grab the seat in terror. He made himself let go in order to direct his shouts, only to panic and clutch the seat again. It must have been minutes later--by which time he was weeping so hard he could barely pronounce the syllable he kept repeating--before somebody on the pier noticed him out there alone on the sea.

Copyright © 2000 by Ramsey Campbell


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