I’m Not Matthew
All the kids at school knew about the weird house. Some even said they’d been in the garden to collect the ball when they’d kicked it over. Others still said they’d seen the old witch-like woman that lived there in the flesh, walking around outside, but no-one believed that. She never went outside.
Sam threw his keeper’s gloves on to the ground.
“I’m not getting it. It was your bollocks shooting that sent it over.”
The other two boys looked at Craig. He rubbed the palm of his hand on his tightly cropped hair, the way he always did when he was nervous. He looked at them, then at Sam, still standing defiant. Craig was the biggest and the oldest. He’d look soft if he tried to get out of it. Besides, he’d climbed higher fences a hundred times.
“Alright ladies, don’t cry.”
He walked over to the gate, forcing a swagger. He took one quick glance back at his football buddies and put his foot onto one of the bars. He launched himself part of the way up, placing his right hand on top of the gate. He lifted a foot to the top of the gate and then swivelled his body to climb over. Just as he was about to drop, he thought he saw a shadow behind the frosted glass in the front door.
At once he became more aware of the state of the garden, the plants overgrown, the whole space thick with brambles and nettles. Who lived in a place like this? How did they possibly get out? He looked back at the boys. Omar pretended to yawn, while Steve was looking exaggeratedly at his watch. Craig shook his head and swung his lower leg up and over the fence, landing on the other side with a thud. He stood up to his full height and walked over to the wall where the ball sat under the window. He noticed a trail of rust-coloured grime that had worn its way from the bricked window sill down to the base of the wall over the years. He stood and inspected the ball for damage, or just filth. But, finding neither, he took a step forward and then tossed it over the fence. It bounced, thumping in to the ground. Then Craig heard something else.
The door creaked open and the old woman stepped outside. She sniffed continually and looked at Craig, scratching her torso in a way that was overt and unsettling. More so once Craig had noticed the brittle and broken state of her curled yellow fingernails. Craig opened his mouth to speak, but no words came. The woman looked at him, taking a step forward. Still sniffing. Still scratching. Her smell was one of must and body odour, blended into a foul concoction that made Craig feel unsteady on his feet. He tried again to speak, but this time she beat him to it.
“Matthew, come inside.”
“Sorry, miss. My name’s Craig. I don’t live here. I was just getting my ball.” He pointed in the direction of the boys, Steve now holding the ball.
“I said get the fuck inside Matthew. It’s almost time for church.”
“Miss… miss. I’m…”
“OK, have it your way.” She let out a series of gurgling sounds as she walked back into the house.
Craig couldn’t make out whether she was talking to herself or if they were indeed just curious, guttural sounds. He didn’t want to wait to find out, though. He leapt towards the fence, his hands clamping around the vertical bars and pulling him upward while his feet scrambled, one at a time, to find purchase. He finally felt the solidity of metal beneath his second foot and pushed up. Just as he did, though, metal struck the inside of his right knee. His leg gave way and he fell, his hands losing all their ability to hold on as a sickening pain swept over him.
His forearms crumpled under his weight and his bottom lip slammed against the dirt. He tasted blood. He looked up to see the old woman holding some kind of metal pole.
“No more games Matthew. I’ll smack you again if you don’t come in and get ready for church.”
“But I’m not-“
Craig stopped himself as he saw her wind up to take another swing at him. He looked to his friends. They were still watching from afar. Completely still. Mannequins. The ball had rolled to a stop. He scrambled to his feet, inspecting his ragged palms, criss-crossed with scratches from the climb and the fall. He looked at the woman, the deranged vacancy of her eyes once again rendering him unable to speak. He nodded towards her and she guided him in to the open door. He stepped inside and she closed the door behind him with a slam. He didn’t dare look back as he heard the thumping of multiple bolts being locked into place, one after the other.
“Go through to the sitting room, Matthew, I shall bring your tea presently.”
She walked into a dimly lit room, which Craig supposed must have been the kitchen. He continued on down the hallway. There was no carpet, only bare floorboards underneath his feet in variously poor states of disrepair. He tried to avoid the ones that were entirely broken, while his eyes were unintentionally drawn to the florid wallpaper. Shades of green and yellow, long since faded and ripped away from the wall in patches. The naked plaster bore the wounds of some unknown violence.
Finally he came to what was the sitting room. Lamp shades so thick with dust that they gave off almost no light at all dotted the place, while the dominant source of illumination was a tiny, cuboid television with a black and white display. The volume was too loud and the tiny speaker vibrated shrilly with every sound it made. Craig took the chance to peek out through the heavy brown curtains, noting the roughness of the fabric they were hewn from, and saw that there was no rear garden to speak of. It was simply a paved yard of salmon pink slabs, with myriad heavyweight tools leaning up against the fence at the back. He heard mumbling from outside the room and decided it was best to sit. He sat at one end of a wicker sofa, made slightly more comfortable by the presence of supposedly-plush cushions that had long outlived their useful life.
The old crone waddled in, spilling tea from the spout at the front of the faux-porcelain tea pot. It sloshed onto the room’s hard tiled floor, rolling down into the cracks.
“Here we are then Matthew, nice cuppa tea.”
She poured until the small cup she had placed on the side table next to the lamp was full. The tea was stone cold. Great archipelagos of tannins floated on the surface of the liquid.
“Drink up then.”
Craig didn’t really drink tea at all and, looking at this, didn’t want to start today.
“Matthew. Nice cuppa tea Matthew.”
He looked up at her. Looked straight into those grey eyes, their wild, lunatic stare boring into him and through him all at once. She raised her hand, opened her palm and began to shriek, not words, just sounds. Craig reached down to the cup handle on his left and drank a large gulp of the tea. It was revolting, heavily sugared and stagnant. He swallowed the gulp and replaced the cup on the coaster.
“Mmm… Thank you.”
He forced a smile onto his face against every sensation that coursed through his body and focussed his mind on not retching it back up.
“Want a biscuit, Matthew?”
She was already halfway across the room as she asked.
“No, no. Thank you. I’ve only just had lunch.”
She stopped and looked at him. A smirk drew itself on to her withered face. She knitted her hands together in front of herself and she cocked her head slightly.
“I’ll get your things ready for church.”
She sped out of the room and began to climb the creaking stairs. Craig saw his chance and crept to the edge of the room. He listened and, as soon as he could no longer hear her footsteps, he dashed to the front door. He reached up to the top bolt and tried to shift it, but it wouldn’t budge. He leaned into the door with his full bodyweight and shoved the bolt with both hands. Finally it moved. He forced it all the way along and then set to work on the next one. This bolt was even more stubborn, its rusted barrel swollen in the catch. It budged just a few millimetres before he heard her approaching on the landing. He ran as quickly and as quietly as he could back down the hall to the sitting room. He sat down. Exhaled deeply.
“Here we are then, Matthew. We can’t go to church without our Sunday best, now can we?”
She was holding up a child’s formal suit. It had to be perhaps ten years old, judging by the style and the tired fabric. It was also at least a size too small for Craig’s frame. She held it out to him. He thought about protesting, but was sure that she would respond only with more violence. He gestured toward the hanger and shrugged his shoulders.
“You can dress here Matthew.”
He felt himself flush. He looked around for a corner, but the room was so cluttered with old magazines and other tat that he realised he would have to do it here. He stood up and unfastened his cargo trousers, slipping them down over his knees and then stepping out of them. Then he lifted up his red cotton t-shirt, piling both untidily on the sofa near to where he’d been sitting. He put one leg in to the charcoal grey trousers and breathed in deeply so that he could fasten them. Next he slipped the white shirt, yellowed with age, over his torso. He could fasten only three of the seven buttons, but the vacant stare and gaping grin from the hag told him that she either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care. The jacket pulled tightly across his shoulders, but that was the least of his concerns for now, so he tolerated the discomfort.
“Like a proper gentleman, Matthew.”
He tried to smile, but could feel his face contort at even the attempt. Any hope of smiling was dashed altogether when she unfastened her dress and let it drop to the ground. Craig tried to avert his eyes, but all too late; the image of her pockmarked skin, lying in folds of sagging fat, to be forever etched on to his mind’s eye. He held his breath for a moment, closed his eyes to stave off yet another wave of nausea. When he opened his eyes again she had, mercifully, slipped on a semi-elegant replacement. It was practically antique and looked as if it had been providing sustenance to a whole family of moths for some time.
“Ready?” Her face was a picture of derangement, worsened by the dim light in the room.
Craig nodded, unsure how else to respond and watched as she stuck out an arm and swept back one of the thick brown curtains to reveal the indigo blue sky of near dark. She bent over and opened a drawer in one of the side tables and pulled out a huge ring of keys. She fumbled with ten or more of them in turn, muttering to herself, before poking one long slender key in to the back door. She swung it open and Craig was at once grateful for the bracing autumn air that rushed in and diluted the foulness of the place.
“Come on. Mustn’t be late,” she hissed, gesturing in to the yard.
Craig slipped on his trainers and stepped out, amongst yet more overgrown grasses and other plants. Brambles clung to the fence to his right and, at the end of the paved yard, a low gate lead straight into the dark of the wood. He pointed in front of himself.
She smiled, gripping the same bar of metal she’d struck him with earlier in her liver-spotted right hand.
“Come on Matthew, you know where the church is.”
Craig groaned and stepped forward, tramping down the weeds and nettles as he went. He pulled at the rusty catch until it gave and then heaved the gate open with a creak. He stepped out into the gloom of the wood. A few minutes along the overgrown path, he heard a droning sound from behind him, wondering at first if it was in his head, but finally realising it was the old crone, butchering some hymn or other that he half recognised. She paused every now and then to hit out at the surrounding trees and bushes with her beating stick.
“Is it much further?”
“Not much further, Matthew. You can see it in front.”
He scrunched his eyes, trying to focus against the growing darkness. Then he made it out. The peak of a roof. Reddish corrugated iron. It looked more of a lean-to than a church. He trudged on and watched as the shape grew larger as he approached. The church was a simple cabin, made of thin slats of dark wood. The corrugated iron sheets, in a red that might have been paint and might simply have been years of oxidation, had been balanced on top at an angle. The windows were dark. Surroundings deserted. He felt wind rush past his face and lunged away just in time to see the metal pole swing past his head.
“Get to the other side, Matthew. Father is waiting!”
Craig picked up the pace and hurried around the side of the cabin. When he got to the opposite side, instead of a door going inside, there was a cut away in the earth, wooden slats supporting the wood either side and forming a makeshift wooden staircase to descend into and under the shack. He thought about looking back, but remembered how close the metal had been to clattering against his skull and pressed on. Like stepping into a viscose liquid, the darkness transformed from the murk of outside to total, pitch blackness. He put his right hand out in front of him, feeling the wooden beam as he lowered his feet, one after the other, down the steps. He reached the bottom, somehow sensing that the room was less narrow than the stairway had been. He turned his head one way and then the next. He couldn’t make anything out in the gloom. Then he heard it.
The sound of inhaling, exhaling. Shallow breaths. Not the old woman’s panting behind him. Someone else. He flicked his head to the right and fixed his vision. From out of the darkness, he could just make out the whites of eyes, criss-crossed with bloodshot veins. An involuntary moaning sound began to escape his lips. He tried to hold it back, but couldn’t.
“Start screaming and I’ll gut you.” A rasped voice from behind those eyes.
“I’m n-not Matthew.” Craig was shaking like a leaf now.
“None of them have been Matthew, after the first one, boy. But watching that one drove her batty.” The words broke off into a laugh.
The next thing he heard was a grating sound, accompanied by sparks, before a match burst into life. The man with the bloodshot eyes lit a camping lantern and tossed the match to the ground where its flame expired into smoke. He adjusted the lamp until the room was illuminated by a gently quivering yellow light. It cast wavering shadows onto the walls as Craig searched the man’s face. He didn’t recognise him. He was visibly dirty, his skin and hair greasy. He wore several days of stubble and his clothes stank. Craig looked down the man’s outstretched arm and saw a long knife, curled at the end.
Then something else caught his eye. The ground was littered with oddments of wood. Different sizes, all in pale shades of grey. Bone. Craig felt his breath start to quicken and his eyes darted around the small space. He looked down from the gormless grin of the crone to the ground. Yet more bones and, behind her blubbery ankles, a skull.
“I can’t even tell you which one’s Matthew, now.” The voice prompted Craig to turn his face, to look at the bloodshot-eyed man again. “Sit down in the corner.”
He pointed with the knife, its blade catching the yellow light. Craig followed the instruction immediately and sat against the wall, careful to keep from touching the scattered bones. He pulled his knees into himself to hide his heavy breathing and the sobs that he feared could burst out at any moment.
The man turned his body slightly, to face the hag. He smiled and made a vague sign of the cross in the air with the glinting blade. She mimicked his motion with her right hand, her eyes glued to his.
“What have you brought me, Dorothy?”
“My Matthew, father. I always bring my Matthew to the church. For his sins.”
“He has to pay for his sins, Dorothy. You’re right to bring him to me.”
“Will he come home with me today, father?”
“That depends.” He looked back at Craig, who was trying to make himself as small as he could. His eyes widened. “That depends.”
He turned and was looming above Craig within two long strides, brittle bone crunching beneath his feet. He gestured with the blade once more.
Craig scrambled to his feet, keeping his eyes transfixed on the blade, lamp light dancing on the sharp edge.
Close to the wall where Craig had been hunched was another narrow pathway. Perhaps half the width of the stairway he’d come in through. Hugging the wall, he edged to the passage and began to squeeze through. He began to detect the scent of rancid blood and meat mingling with that of the moist earth all around him. The passageway can’t have been more than three or four metres long before he was out into another chamber, this one smaller than the last. As he entered, he saw stout church candles illuminating the room. They were sat atop an altar-like structure at the far end. In the centre was a pit, dug perhaps a foot deep. It was a circle and, inside were heaped twigs and logs from the woods around the church.
Beside the altar, in one corner, plastic sheeting had been pinned to the wall and the ground with what looked like tent pegs. Dried blood was smeared across the surface and a hunk of flesh lay there, the torn, discoloured skin playing host to a swarm of flies. Craig felt sickness churn in his stomach. He couldn’t be sure what part of the body it was, or if it was even human. He moved to the wall, pressing his body to it, and faced the man who stood at the edge of the pit. He reached into his coat’s inside pocket and pulled out a can of lighter fluid. He turned it upside down and squeezed the liquid over the piled wood in the pit. He cast the can to the ground and struck another match, dropping it burning into the pit.
The pile of wood came to life with a whoosh, beginning to roar as the flames ate at it. Craig felt the oppression of the heat on his body, perspiration beginning to build at his hairline. In the bright light of the fire, he could see the man was perhaps forty years old and looked filthier even than he’d realised. His trainers were caked in mud and leaves. Lacerations scored his hands and his face above the jawline on one side. He slipped off his long coat and dropped it on the ground next to Craig. He took another step forward, leading with the knife.
“You’re here to confess, Matthew?”
Craig looked into the man’s eyes and then over at Dorothy, the grotesque woman. She had her hands in front of her, her sausage-like fingers interlocked as she watched on, eyes maintaining their demented stare.
“All I did was boot the ball over the fence. I’m not Matthew. I’m not Matthew!”
He hadn’t meant to shriek the last part in quite such a piercing voice, but it was beyond him to prevent it. He slid down the wall until the he was sat on the moist earth, his bent legs held tightly to his body. The bloodshot-eyed man’s chest began to shake until his laugh broke free, the sound filling the small chamber. He walked over to the altar and picked up a new candle which was lying on a pile to the left. He held it over one of the lit ones, waiting until the wick fizzed into flame. He dripped wax on to the altar surface, before pressing the base into the warm liquid. He calmly returned to where Craig was sitting. He dug the curved edge of the blade under Craig’s jacket and flicked it up, tearing the seam to the sleeve.
“This candle burns in memory of the soul that will be banished from this world today in penance for its sins.”
As he spoke he pressed the blade tightly against Craig’s shoulder. The boy felt the heat of it as it tore through the old cotton shirt, piercing the skin and then the flesh of his shoulder. He closed his eyes tight to stave off the pain, while his free left hand clutched the lighter fluid can. He squeezed all that was left on to the muddy trainers of the blood-shot eyed man. He leaned back against the wall, felt the steel of the knife vacate the wound. Cold, damp air rushed in, unleashing a wave of seething pain. In the same motion, in spite of the agony, he kicked out with his legs. It was just enough and the man lost his balance. He stepped backward, the edge of his foot just touching the fire pit. The flammable liquid that had soaked into the fabric of his trainers ignited in a wave. He looked down, panic etched on to his features for the first time. He swung the knife wildly at Craig, the tip slicing through the skin next to Craig’s left eye. The boy had no time to worry about it. He pushed up with everything he had, his wounded right shoulder burning with pain. He shoved the man another step back with both hands and the other foot was alight. He was screaming now, that same vile rasp in his voice lending it a less-than-human quality.
Craig was already bolting toward the corridor and the other chamber. He shoved into the crone with the full force of his injured shoulder, his vision blurring with pain as he made contact. It had the desired effect and she staggered backward, hitting the earthen wall. She reached out with one hand and got purchase on Craig’s neck with three of her flaking yellow talons. He felt the skin tear with bright, present pain, and reached up with his hand to find blood was flowing, both from his neck and near his temple.
“Matthew… come here now! Come back here before I-”
He heard her voice alive with rage, followed by her muffled choking as the man’s blade sliced through the flesh and bone of her neck. She slid down the wall, dark liquid flowing from the wound and pooling on roll after roll of her languid, plump body.
Craig was already too far away to witness the hag’s death, flinging his injured body up the makeshift staircase into the forest. The man had taken the lamp with them into the sacrificial chamber and only the fresh air of the forest at the top of the stairs could tell him he was out in the open. He stopped still, tried to remember the direction they’d walked from. His eyes searched the darkness, examining every contorted limb of the trees around him. He was utterly clueless. Then he heard him.
“I will slice you from your balls to your gizzard, boy.”
Craig ran. As he ran he twisted his body, fighting his way out of the jacket. He flung it to the ground and felt the material of the shirt soaking with the warm blood that seeped from the wound. The unfastened part of the shirt near his waist flapped open, letting in the chill of the night. Clawed edges of branches grasped at his head and neck, threatening to gouge out his eyes, but still he ran. His heart pounded in his chest and his lungs screamed in breathless pain as his feet kept dragging him on. Still the thrashing sounds of the bloodshot-eyed man pursuing him got louder, while the acrid smell of burnt fabric and flesh gradually choked the air around him.
Finally he felt a wave of heat cover his face, hysterical tears streaming from his eyes as he struggled to run against his growing fatigue. Then he saw the cone of light in front of him. Torchlight. He felt an extra burst of energy and pushed himself on again. In a matter of seconds he could make out a middle aged man ahead.
“Help me. Please!”
The cone of light flicked onto Craig’s face. Against the full glare of the torchlight he could still make out the man’s expression of horror. But then the cone shifted, onto the man hunting him. Craig looked back and saw his snarling face, bloodshot eyes looking straight into the light, teeth gritted in determination. Craig ran past the man with the torch and could only turn and watch as the blade swung out and then arced, easily penetrating his torso above the hip. He fell to the ground with a thump, dropping the torch. The light pointed diagonally upward in to the canopy of trees, insects circling in the beam. The monster climbed on to him and lifted the blade high above his head.
“First you’ll watch boy, and then I will fucking d-“
The German shepherd leapt with enormous strength in its forepaws, slamming the bloodshot-eyed man to the ground. The blade flew into the air, reflecting light in all directions, so that Craig only saw the shadow of the dog’s pointed snout as it opened its jaws and ripped his throat like tissue paper, blood spraying in a dark cloud.
Craig reached the wounded man before the dog and it lowered its body, ready to pounce again if it had to, a low growl sounding its threat. The man, still conscious, raised his hand.
“Brutus, it’s ok.”
His left hand clutched at the wound in his torso and the dog immediately approached him, pacing back and forth, sniffing at his bloodied fleece jacket.
“My mobile. Left jacket pocket, son. Call… nnnnn… ambulance.”
His voice was weak and his skin had blanched. Craig scrambled into the pocket and pulled out the phone. He pressed a button, swiped for emergency call and pressed ‘OK.’
The ambulance workers arrived with a police escort some fifteen minutes later, the paramedics using the location of the man’s phone to track them down in the forest. They applied a field dressing to the abdominal injury and then set him onto a portable stretcher, before slowly carrying him out of the forest. The dog, it’s mouth still coated in a crimson mask, followed obediently, never taking its eyes off its prone master. The bloodshot-eyed man was pronounced dead on the scene, the blood loss from the dog’s attack had proved fatal.
The police questioned Craig there and then, after seeing his wounds patched up and wrapping him in a blanket. After they finished with their questions, he led them down to the shack by the light of their torches and pointed the way into the underground chamber. He decided not to go down with them, instead being led back to the car by a smiling female constable who told him more than once that he’d been immensely brave.
Meanwhile, the old crone was found slumped against the wall, the knife wound having sliced through her neck, severing the jugular artery. Her eyes still bore their vacant, crazed expression. In the weeks to come DNA would be taken from the jigsaw puzzle of bones that littered the floor of the chamber and matched to a variety of children and young teens who had gone missing from the area over the previous few years. One DNA sample, taken from a skull with a collapsed cheekbone, was linked to the mother, the now deceased hag, and confirmed as Matthew Parsons.