The doorbell rang. Molly jumped out of her doze, disorientated for a moment. It rang again, and this time she realised what it was. She glared at the grandmother clock on the wall. Five o’clock. Who the devil is it? I’m not expecting anyone.
She picked up her cane and heaved herself out of the armchair, managing to hobble over to the door. As she passed the window, she saw that a heavy gale was blowing and the snow had gotten deeper than last time she’d looked.
She unlocked the door, but just as she turned the handle the wind tore it open and knocked her backwards. It sent her sprawling to the floor, her cane rolling out of reach. Before she could get up, two figures darted through the doorway. One of them pushed the door shut again, and then knelt beside her, gently shaking her shoulder.
‘Are you alright?’
Molly looked up. The voice had been a woman’s, and it was very familiar. ‘Is it really you?’
The figure removed her chequered scarf. ‘Yes, mother, it’s me.’
Molly reached out a hand to touch her daughter’s face, but recoiled at the last moment. ‘Well, it’s about time you showed up. My chimney is in dire need of sweeping.’
She took hold of the cupboard she was slumped against, and tried to ease herself up. Her daughter grabbed her, taking most of her weight, but Molly shrugged her off and managed to pull herself upright. She stood breathing deeply, and caught sight of the other figure in the room.
‘Who on earth is that?’
‘Calm down, mother. This is Annie, and she is the reason I’ve come to see you.’
Molly looked at the girl huddled in the corner. She was so wrapped up in clothing that only her eyes were showing. They stared back at Molly, unblinking. There is something wrong with this child.
‘How old are you, girl?’ she asked. There was no reply, not even an acknowledgement that someone had spoken. Molly looked up at her daughter, and their eyes met. ‘Well, you have my attention. I’ll go and put the kettle on, and you can tell me all about it. Sit the child down in the lounge, it’s much warmer in there.’
They sat in the kitchen around the wooden table. Molly wrinkled her nose at the strong smell of polish. As always, she had used too much.
‘Alright then, who is she? Where did you find her?’ she asked.
‘She’s an orphan. Her parents died in a fire about a year ago while she was on a school trip. She had no next of kin, but her neighbour kindly asked the court if they could look after her, and they agreed. The thing is, she hasn’t spoken a word since then.’
‘I was right not to take her silence personally, then,’ Molly grunted. ‘How did you get involved?’
‘I was her neighbour’s hairdresser. I did mobile work on the weekends, and so when I went around there I saw Annie. Each week Mrs Roberts used to tell me that she had had someone round to try and get her to talk, but they were never successful.’
‘So you brought her to me?’
‘So I brought her to you.’
Molly took a long drink of tea, absently fingering a mark on the table. ’Well,’ she said, putting the cup down, ‘I don’t think that this is a case of simply not wanting to talk, Samantha. I’ve seen that many times before, and this is different.’
‘Different how?’ Samantha asked.
‘It seems to me that she’s shut away her mind. She can follow simple commands, as I’m sure you know, but there is no emotional response. She’s a robot, or at least she might as well be.’
Samantha’s eyes grew troubled. ‘Is there nothing you can do?’
‘I’m not sure. If I can draw out her consciousness, then yes, but if my suspicions are correct it will take more than my power to do so. She is an unusual child.’ Molly drained her cup and picked up her cane again. ‘Stay here, I need to talk to her alone.’
She got up and hobbled back into the lounge where Annie was waiting. The girl was sitting close to the fire, staring into the flames. She had taken off her hat and coat, revealing long dark hair that fell down her back. Just like mine when I was her age.
‘You’ll burn your toes if you put them much closer,’ Molly said. There was no reaction. She sighed and sat back down in her chair, resting her cane back on the floor. Now what? Perhaps…
‘I’m going to tell you a story, girl. You should listen,’ she said. ‘Let’s see now…where should I start? Back before civilisation began, on the vast, barren plains of the continent, lived a small tribe. They had no home and no name, and wandered endlessly in search of food and water. For them, every day was a struggle, and often led to starvation and disease.
‘Yet one day, a particularly violent storm hit the area, and with it came a fierce earthquake that split the ground in two. From the chasm that formed, a green vapour spilled out and encompassed the tribe. It put them into a deep slumber for many days, and some of the elders died through lack of nourishment, but when the tribe finally awoke, they found that the vapour had solidified into shards of emerald crystal. As soon as they touched it, every one of their senses became heightened. They could hear the thoughts of those around them, and converse telepathically. Their lives now had a new meaning, and a new purpose. Using their powers, they gathered information from the other tribes around them on where to find sources of food and water. No longer did they have to wander desperately on the brink of starvation.
‘For many years they prospered, and their abilities continued to develop. Soon they could even shut off part of a person’s mind to prevent them from remembering the tribe’s location or spread rumours of their powers, and it was found that children born to the tribe from then on also had those abilities. Even so, they could not keep themselves a secret from the other tribes forever. They became known as Shades- evil spirits, and the other tribes feared that not only would they leach every food source from them, but their very lives as well. They decided to take action against the Shades, and so joined forces to slaughter them. Hundreds were killed, but a handful of children managed to escape. Those children were my ancestors, Annie, and I too have the same powers as they, though mine are far weaker.’
Annie hadn’t moved throughout the story, but Molly knew it had reached her. She had been projecting images into the girl’s mind as she was speaking, and there had been little resistance.
‘Turn around, child.’
Annie turned as Molly knew she would. Her eyes were still unfocused, but there was something…a glimmer of hope, perhaps? I can feel her mind. It’s almost as though it’s encased in a shell. If I can break that, then surely I can return her to normal.
‘Another child would question that tale and say that it isn’t possible for a mind to gain so much power at the touch of a crystal. They would say that it is the content of fairy tales, not real life. You, however, do not question. Like the Shades discovered, you know that it is possible to close the mind, and you dare to hope that it can be awakened once again.’
Annie blinked; Molly fought hard not to smile triumphantly. It was only a small response, but it was a response none the less. Her mind is stirring, but not enough. She is too strong for me to release her. There is only one way…
It was late now though, and the effort had drained much of Molly’s strength, and she was sure that Annie needed rest too. She got up once again, and hobbled out into the kitchen where Samantha was waiting. As she left, she saw Annie turn back to the fire.
‘The girl needs sleep. Show her to the guestroom.’
Samantha, who had just opened her mouth to speak, shut it again hastily and obliged without question. The stairs creaked as she and Annie made their way to the bedroom.
Molly had seen many people drawn in by their grief, but not to the extent that Annie was. No-one else I’ve seen had that kind of strength, however, and there’s only one reason for a girl her age to possess it.
The stairs creaked again, and Samantha returned. She looked worn and stretched, as though she hadn’t had much sleep lately. ‘Did you get her to speak?’
‘No. It is beyond my own abilities to help her,’ Molly replied.
‘So there’s no hope?’ Samantha said. ‘I thought for sure—’
‘I didn’t say I couldn’t help her. It’s true I can’t do it myself, but there is a way.’
For a moment, Samantha was confused. Then her eyes widened. ‘You…you mean to use the shard?’
‘But that could kill her!’
‘Indeed it could, but I strongly suspect it won’t. If she were a normal child then I wouldn’t dare use it, but then if she were a normal child I wouldn’t have to. You must have felt it, just as I did. I suspect that’s what drew you to her in the first place.’
‘I- perhaps I felt something yes, but what are you suggesting?’
‘That she is Shade, just as we are.’
‘Shade? Are you sure?’
‘Of course I’m sure,’ Molly snapped. ‘That is why only the shard can draw her out again. However, once it is done she will be a fully awakened Shade, just as the first ones were. She will need guidance and proper training. We have no choice but to keep her here.’
It was early, but Molly was already up and fully clothed. She headed down to the kitchen and out the back door, making her way to the stone shed at the bottom of the garden. She didn’t bother waking Samantha, it was clear she needed rest.
The snow was still deep and the wind seemed to eat away at her bones. Thankfully the lock on the shed door wasn’t frozen and opened easily. She slipped inside, glad of the slight warmth. The light flickered as she pulled the switch, finally settling into a dull glow, just enough to see by. There was a cupboard in the middle of the floor, and Molly cursed when she saw it. You old fool, how could you have forgotten that was there? Putting down her cane, she took the sides of the cupboard and pushed with what little strength she had.
The cupboard moved, but slowly. Molly’s tired limbs were not what they once were, and she had to stop after each push to catch her breath. Eventually she pushed it off the loose floorboard that she was after, and with much grunting she lowered herself to the floor so she could remove it. She lifted it up, revealing a hole in the floor where an old chest lay covered in dust. Producing a polished brass key from her pocket, she opened it. Inside was a bundle of wrapped silk cloth. Good, it’s just as I left it. She picked it up, making sure the silk was still firmly bound around the object inside, and made her way back to the house.
When she opened the kitchen door, Annie was sitting at the table. She didn’t look up as Molly walked in, but she shifted ever so slightly in her seat. Can she sense the shard’s power?
The door opened and Samantha appeared, looking very apprehensive. She stared at the silk bundle Molly still held, and her lip trembled.
‘Is that…?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ Molly said, setting it down on the table. ‘Is she well rested?’
‘Yes, she didn’t wake until I called on her this morning.’
‘Good. It’s time,’ Molly said. She turned to Annie. ‘Do you remember the story I told you last night, child? About the tribe who touched the crystal shards and had their minds awakened?’
Annie looked up from her tea cup, and slowly shifted her gaze to the silk bundle.
‘Inside that bundle is one of those very shards. It will help you if you touch it.’
This time Annie moved her hand forward slightly in the direction of the bundle. It was all Molly needed to be sure. She found the knot on the silk and undid it, carefully unwinding it until the slim green shard was visible. She daren’t touch the bare crystal herself, to expose her aged body so such a jolt of power would damage her mind beyond repair.
Samantha took hold of one of Annie’s hands and laid it flat on the table. Ever so gently Molly let the shard touch it. Annie gave a shudder, and Molly quickly took it away and wrapped it up once more.
‘Do you think it worked?’ Samantha whispered.
‘Yes. We must take her to her room and let her recover.’
An urgent knocking woke Molly from her sleep.
‘What is it?’ she shouted, fumbling with the covers.
‘She’s awake, mother, she’s awake!’
Molly stumbled over to the door, ignoring her aching back, and opened it. Samantha was standing before her, her hair tumbling haphazardly across her face. ‘Well, of course she’s awake,’ Molly said. ‘Has she spoken yet?’
‘No, not yet.’
‘Take me to her, then.’
When they arrived in Annie’s room, she was sitting at the head of the bed with her knees tucked up against her chin. Her eyes were wild, as though she’d just woken from a bad dream. Molly could feel her mind writhing, trying to make sense of what she now felt.
‘Tell me your name, child,’ she said, pushing past her daughter and sitting on the end of the bed.
Behind Molly, Samantha gasped. ‘It worked! It really worked.’
‘Samantha, be quiet. We need to keep her calm,’ Molly said.
‘Where…where am I?’ Annie asked.
‘This is Shadesview House, child. It has been my home for many years, and now it will be your home too. I’m sure you have many questions that I will gladly answer, but first I think you could do with a nice strong cup of tea.’
Annie put her knees down, and turned to sit with her legs dangling off the bed. She looked at Molly. ‘Do you have any biscuits?’
Molly chuckled, a cackling, pot boiling chuckle that made Annie draw back slightly. ‘Yes, child, we have plenty of biscuits.’