Mum opens the door and clicks the light on, but the bulb doesn’t look like the ones at home. At home the lights are bright and white, except the night-light, which is warm and shaped like a bunny. This light is orange, and makes everything in the room look like it’s been covered in orange pop. If anything the shadows are stronger than they were before the light was on, stark dark contrasts to the sickly orange.
“Here we are,” Mum says. “You get the whole room to yourself this time. A whole double bed! What do you think of that, Alice?” Mum is grinning, but Alice shoves her sleeve further into her mouth, chewing madly. “No, come on, darling. You can’t chew all your jumpers. How’s that going to look when you start school next year, hmm? Big girls have nice clean sleeves.”
Mum pulls the offending sleeve out of Alice’s mouth, so Alice clings to Mum’s leg instead, trailing a length of saliva across the denim.
“I want to sleep in your room,” Alice says.
“There’s no need for that. We can sleep in Grandma’s room, and you can have this whole room to yourself.”
“What about when Grandma comes back?”
“Well, by that stage we’ll probably go home. We’re only here to look after the house while she’s in hospital. But if she needs us around a while longer, then me and Dad will move in here, and you’ll be back on the camp bed.”
“We could do that now. So that Grandma has her bed ready for her.”
“You don’t need to sleep on the camp bed though. You can have a proper bed.”
“Alice.” The warmth has gone from Mum’s voice now, and Alice buries her face. With a deep breath Mum crouches down and takes Alice’s hands in her own. “Alice, I need you to be a big girl. We’ve had a long day, and we all need lots of sleep, okay? So you’re going to sleep here, and your father and I will be just down the hall.” Seeing that this doesn’t stop the tears building in Alice’s eyes, Mum rubs her daughter’s arms. “Hey baby, what’s the matter? You’ve slept here loads of times.”
But her parents were always there before, and the shadows weren’t so long then. “It’s scary.”
“Nonsense. It’s the same room it ever is. Now get changed for bed. I’ll go and get you a drink, okay?”
By the time Mum is back with a plastic cup of water, Alice is changed and in her favourite pyjamas. She still hasn’t gone anywhere near the bed though. It smells funny, and is really high up. Nearer all the shadows.
“Good girl,” Mum says as she sets down the cup. And then – before Alice can argue, or ask for the camp bed again – Mum picks her up and settles her into the bed. “Straight to sleep now, okay?”
“Can’t I have a story?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, my dear. We didn’t have time to grab any before we left the house. Tell you what, we’ll go out tomorrow and buy you some new books, okay? And another soft toy, because you’ve been a very good girl today.”
Mum gives Alice a kiss on the head, but Alice is too busy trying to work out what she’s done to be ‘very’ good. She barely knows what’s happened today. There was the phone call just before lunch, and then they were in the car, driving all the way up to Grandma’s. When they normally drive to Grandma’s there are sandwiches and drinks for the car, but today they’d had to stop and get chips and burgers instead. Alice had liked that bit, but she didn’t like the way her parents were barely talking during the drive.
And something else had been bugging her.
“Why does Grandma’s house need looking after?” Alice remembered last year when cousin Sally had gone on holiday, and Alice had been allowed to look after her pet guinea pig. That had needed feeding and cleaning and brushing. But houses don’t need any of that. Do they?
“We just need to house-sit for a few days, while Grandma’s in hospital. Now, get some sleep.” Mum gives her another kiss on the head, and tucks Alice in while she’s still trying to work out if Mum answered her question at all.
On the way out the door Mum turns the light off, so when the door clicks shut the room is completely dark. The air tastes funny, likes the shadows are smothering her like syrup.
Alice sits up in bed and squeezes the duvet around her. As much as she wants to call out to Mum, she knows exactly what Mum will say. ‘Stop being silly, Alice. Big girls can sleep in the dark.’
But Alice doesn’t feel like a big girl. How can she when she’s being swallowed by a giant bed?
Back in her own bedroom, as well as the night-light, there’s all the street-lights outside. A car is always driving past, no matter when Alice wakes up. She never has to wait long to hear someone laugh, or call out, or start singing. Here in the middle of all this green, in Grandma’s little boxy house with the straw roof, there aren’t any sounds.
Alice doesn’t like it. She wishes Mr Nana, her stuffed monkey toy, hadn’t fallen into a puddle when she was getting out the car. He’s still pegged up in Grandma’s weird green bathroom, drying out from the thorough scrubbing Mum gave him.
“I’m not scared,” Alice says to herself. “I’m not scared,” she tells the room.
“Good,” a voice says back to her. “You do not need to be scared.”
Alice freezes. “Who’s there?”
“My name is Patricia. Who are you?”
“Alice.” The other voice is weird. She talks like they do in the old films that Dad watches, before they’d invented colour and everything was black and white. There’s that funny ring to her voice, but there’s also something familiar about it. “Where are you?”
A faint white glow appears at the bottom of the bed, and as Alice’s eyes adjust she can imagine that it looks like a little girl, not much older than her. “I am here.”
“Oh. Hello.” Alice knows that it’s not right for another person to have appeared in her room, but it is only a girl. It’s not like a monster has turned up. “What are you doing down there?”
“I wished to see who was in my bedroom.”
“Your bedroom? But this is Grandma’s house. You can’t live here.”
“I used to live here. With my family, a long time ago.”
Alice’s breath caught and her eyes grew wide. “Are you a ghost?”
“I do not know. I do not think so. I think I am more… an echo.”
“Oh. We went on holiday to Cornwall last year, and Dad found a cave, and when he spoke into it his voice came back to him, saying the same thing he’d just said. He said that was an echo. Is that what you are then, words coming back through a cave?”
“I… I think so. Something of that sort of nature. Words from long ago, bouncing back and forward.”
“Oh. That’s cool. I’ve never met an echo before.”
“And I have never encountered anyone that will talk to me before. I do not normally show up. Tonight is different, somehow.”
“Maybe it’s because Grandma isn’t here?”
“Well, it’s her house, so while she’s here you can’t be. But because she’s not here, you can be here instead.” Maybe this was what Mum kept talking about with looking after the house. Maybe the echoes need feeding, or maybe they just want company. Patricia doesn’t look scary, and she certainly doesn’t sound scary. She’s less scary than the room full of shadows.
Something caws outside, with a noise straight from the haunted woods of Alice’s fairy-tales. Alice gathers the covers round even tighter and shivers.
“Do not worry. That was just a fox.”
“It didn’t sound like a fox.”
“What do foxes sound like to you?”
“I–” But Alice has never heard a fox. She seen them, sneaking about the large dustbins on the estate, but she hasn’t heard them. “They sound weird.”
“They sound normal to–”
There’s another noise, a loud thud inside the wardrobe on the far wall. Alice jumps, and so does Patricia.
Alice swallows and remembers what Mum said. It’s the same room she’s slept in before. And nothing happened then. “What’s that?” she asks, trying to seem disinterested. Trying and failing.
“I am not the only echo around tonight. That is the man that lived here before. He was not very nice.”
“What does he want?”
“I do not know. He scares me.”
“But you’re a ghost. You can’t be scared.”
“I am not a ghost. And that does not matter. Anyone can be scared.”
“My parents can’t be. They’re never scared, no matter what.” There’s another thud from the wardrobe, and Alice remembers all the times her parents put music on in her bedroom back home when the neighbours start thudding. Her parents are never scared when that happens. They just look at each other and nod, then go and do adult things and make the noises stop.
“Your parents are scared. I can feel them, right now. They are both very scared.”
Alice feels cold again, and the little warm bubble she’s made in the duvet doesn’t keep it away. “Of the thing in the cupboard?”
“No. Of what is happening in the hospital.”
“No. Grandma’s just getting a check-up. And Mummy and Daddy are never scared. I don’t believe you.”
“It is not nice to lie. Proper little girls do not do it, so I do not lie.”
“You’re wrong. They’re not scared.” To prove her point Alice throws the covers back, shivering as the chill air gets through her pyjamas. She drops out the bed and walks up to the door. The handle is a great round thing, and even with both hands on it, it keeps slipping and shutting again. But up close to the door she can hear her parents downstairs.
Alice freezes. The sound of Mum crying drifts up the staircase to her. Alice’s hands slip from the door knob.
The shadows in the room dance as the wind blows the trees outside, and Alice feels them clawing at her skin. The tears that have sat in her eyes all night finally fall, and Alice feels alone in the large, cold room. But who can she go to, if Mum is already in tears?
Another thud shakes the wardrobe. Alice races for the bed, leaping up and under the covers which she pulls back up to her neck.
“I’m not scared,” she mutters, as the tears keep falling. “I’m not scared.”
“Everyone gets scared,” Patricia says.
“No! I. Am. Not. Scared.” Alice hunches over and she’s shaking so badly that her shoulders already hurt. The tears won’t stop, and the shadows blur into one across her eyes.
The next thud makes her skip a breath. The shadows grow longer, and Alice falls to the side. Her breath comes in short, shallow pants now. The night is heavy, and she has nowhere to turn. Mum is so sad, and so scared, and there’s no space there for Alice…
A little glow of light appears over the side of the bed, and touches Alice’s hand.
“I would like to not be scared,” Patricia says, soft as a breeze.
“I–” Alice looks at the shadows and frowns. She thinks back to when the big boys in the park tried to take her scooter last summer, and she held them off all by herself. Mum was so proud of her then, saying what a brave girl she had been.
If no one else is going to be brave, then Alice will have to be.
She wipes her eyes on the back of her hand and pushes herself upright again. “Of course, Patricia. We can sing songs until the scary things have gone away. Hey – have you ever slept in a tent?”
“Come on then!” Alice grins and the shadows roll back. There’s another thud at the wardrobe door, but it’s softer this time, as though whoever – or whatever – is behind it is listening to what the girls are saying.
Patting the bed next to her Alice shuffles over to let Patricia on the bed. Alice grips the top of the duvet and flings it up and over the pair of them, tucking it in behind them. In the small space underneath, Patricia glows like a night-light. A cold blue night-light, with a big warm grin.
“This is fantastic!” Patricia says.
“Isn’t it? And while we’re in here, we’re safe.” Alice won’t believe otherwise. As long as she says they’re safe, they are. That’s how she stood up to the boys in the park. She was safe, because Mum was over on the bench. Here she’s safe, because the shadows can’t reach them under the blanket. Now, what else does Mum do when Alice is scared? “Hey, do you know any stories?”
“I know a few. Nanny reads us fairy-tales.”
“Great! I love telling stories. I’ll go first. Once upon a time, there lived a brother and a sister…”
Under the blankets the two girls, from now and from then, keep talking, trading stories and creating new ones. Outside the shadows swirl, listening in as well. The thumping goes away, as the other echo realises there is no prey for it tonight. The spirit of the house is still strong enough to keep him at bay.
The next day, Alice skips along next to Mum as they head down the hospital corridor. The new toy she was promised is tucked under her arm, and Alice has already named it. Now they just need to go and show Grandma, and tell her that her house has been looked after while she’s been gone. Alice is wondering whether to mention that she kept the scary echo in the closet, but in the shiny bright white hospital it feels very childish to mention it. Besides, bringing it up might scare Alice’s new doll.
Alice and Mum reach room 176, and Mum knocks. There’s a soft voice from inside, and Mum leads the way in, while Alice looks up at the name on the room. Cooper, P, it says. Alice much prefers the sign on her bedroom door at home. That one says Alice’s room, keep out. There are lots of people here, it seems only right that they should be told to stay out of Grandma’s room.
Inside Grandma is sat up in bed, her favourite shawl round her shoulders, a vivid streak of purple in the bland room. Dad is sat on a chair next to the bed, and he waves Alice over.
“Show Grandma your new toy,” he says as he lifts her up onto the bed.
Alice does just that, holding out her doll with both hands while not saying a word. She never knows what to say to Grandma, who seems so wise and old.
“Oh, that’s nice,” Grandma says. “I thought you didn’t like dolls though? All your other toys are animals aren’t they?”
“Ah, this one had to be a doll,” Dad says. “And what have you named this one, Alice?”
“Patricia.” Alice holds her new friend out again.
Grandma looks at Dad, but he raises his hands and shakes his head with a smile. “Don’t look at us. She came up with the name all by herself.”
After a pause as some unknowable emotion crosses Grandma’s face, she reaches out and shakes Patricia’s hand. There are tears in her eyes as she does. “It’s nice to meet you, Patricia. And what do you and Patricia do?”
“We tell each other stories.”
“Oh? Would you tell me some stories? They don’t have enough books here to keep me busy.”
“Of course!” Alice clambers up the bed and settles in next to Grandma under the covers, and starts retelling all the stories from last night.
When Alice is done, Grandma takes over, telling Alice wonderful stories of days gone by. Her voice is soft, with that funny ring to it, and there’s also something soothing about it, and Alice and Patricia snuggle up next to Grandma. They’ll warn Grandma about the shadows and echoes in her house later, when the stories run out.