Dreams and Shadows: Chapter One

dreams-and-shadows-coverWelcome to our brand new book of the month! Every month we’ll be bringing you an exciting brand new book that we part-serialize on the Gollancz Blog. This month we’re delighted to be able to share the haunting debut novel Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill.

Dreams and Shadows is one of my favourite books. It broke my heart. It terrified me. And it’s the kind of story that has stayed with me. Even now. Months after I finished reading the book. I still talk about the changeling baby. Or the genie. Or the Wild Hunt. I can’t stop talking about this book.

And that’s why we’ve launched our book of the month. These are the books we can’t stop talking about. Books that we know once you read the first few chapters you’ll be hooked.

So please, join us.

Dreams and Shadows begins the way all good books begin: Once Upon a time . . .

Because at its heart Dreams and Shadows is amongst other things a fairy tale. A story that’s too good to be true.

In fact, it begins as a love story.


The Beast the Absconds in the Night

Once upon a time, there were two people who fell very much in love. They met in a high school library, peeking over tenth-grade French books, his eyes sneaking up from a rather dense untranslated passage, hers waiting perched behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. He was a sucker for horn-rimmed glasses. Hearts thundered. Breaths shortened. Stomachs swarmed with butterflies. She smiled and his world stopped. He stammered, he sputtered, trying to smile back, failing in a train wreck of lips sneering back over teeth. And when his head slumped forward into his book, she giggled, for she knew that he was hers.From the first words they spoke, they rarely spent a silent moment together. Each shared a passion for conversation—one that drove most around them mad—and it was never hard for them to find something to talk about. Their first date led from a movie theater to the Dairy Queen, on to a slow walk home, talking at length about every aspect of the film—from Ewan the dreamy Scottish actor to the scene in which someone dove into a toilet. He reached down, took her by the hand, each finger tingling as they brushed against her milky white teenage skin. Their gazes locked, tingles spreading from their fingertips, across their hands, up the backs of their necks, down their spines, ending at a curl in their toes.

That’s when he felt it. His fingers intertwined with hers; he could feel her trembling like a scared kitten. While he’d noticed it earlier, he hadn’t really thought much of it, thinking that she was just cold, a frail leaf shaking in the breeze of the ice-cold air-conditioning advertised in block letters on the outside wall of the single-screen theater. No. She was nervous; she was scared of screwing this up. And he smiled, for he knew that she was his.

It was a perfect first kiss. He pulled her tight, kissing her as deeply and passionately as he knew how. Years later they would both laugh at the two stupid kids trying their first hand at neck- ing, but in that moment—in each other’s arms—it was bliss. Over time they’d get it. And years later on a hot, humid day in April, they stood before a courtyard full of their family and friends, formally announcing to the world, “Till death do us part.” And they meant it. Every word.

And with that he took her into his arms, kissing her as deeply and as passionately as he knew how. This time he got it right. Then the preacher announced them to the world. Jared and Tiffany Thatcher.

While they had never lived very far out in the sticks, neither expected to end up downtown in a condominium high-rise built for aspiring yuppies and college kids with rich parents—on the seventeenth floor, with a view that looked out over the lake, onto the southern, hipper part of town. It was expensive, especially with a baby on the way, but worth it. They were buying into the cliché, becoming a bedtime story for little girls, proof that dreams do, in fact, come true, that someday your prince will come, and everything else that goes with that.

They didn’t mind being a cliché or a bedtime story. Not one bit. It was a Sunday on which their first and only child was born.

He was strong, healthy, and had all the right numbers of fingers and toes. “A perfect specimen of the Thatcher genes,” as Jared put it. They had excelled at making a perfect baby; his name, on the other hand, had proved to be a bit of a hang-up. They’d beaten themselves silly trying to think of something clever, something charming, something that perfectly expressed the love they shared. But nothing came. And as the nurse approached them with the birth certificate, they sat huddled together with their beautiful, swaddling-wrapped baby boy, Jared waving her off, ask- ing for a few minutes more.

“Can you believe it?” he asked his wife. “How did we get here?” They gazed in wonder at their son, lost in memories of that first kiss. That night. That movie. And it hit them. “Ewan,” they both said at once. Their eyes locked, Jared taking his wife into his arms, kissing her as deeply and passionately as he knew how. It was perfect. It said everything. Ewan. The boy who would change
their lives forever.

Ewan Thatcher never cried, he never wailed, he only cooed. And depending on the tone, pitch, and warble, Tiffany knew whether he was hungry, needed changing, or just wanted to be held. He loved to be held, and Tiffany never wanted to put him down. “You’re gonna spoil that kid,” Jared would say, trying to hide his beaming smile. “No one gets to spend more time in your arms than me.”
“You’re the spoiled one,” Tiffany snarked back playfully. “You had your time. It’s his turn now.”

It was an uncommonly beautiful evening the night that Tiffany would last set eyes upon her son. All the windows in the house were open, a slight breeze brushing in past the curtains, tickling the skin with butterfly kisses. She thought nothing of the open windows; they were on the seventeenth floor and Ewan could barely roll over by himself.

Tiffany had just put Ewan back down after a late feeding, humming an off-key tune to coax him back to sleep.

And if she were listening, rather than humming, she would have heard the faint, distant sound of skittering claws across polished concrete.

Just outside her window, clinging to the underside of the balcony, was a writhing mass of brown, bulbous flesh—a silently snarling beast with a misshapen head and an uncommonly large brow resting above tiny, jaundiced, bloodshot eyes. Its balding head gripped slight patches of graying hair, wisps desperately combed over concealing the wrinkled flesh beneath. Muscles bulged out in odd places, beset by dripping flab.

Its giant monkeylike arms gripped the edge of the balcony as it writhed in agony at the tuneless sound escaping betwixt Tiffany’s lips.

For Dithers, a Bendith Y Mamau, Tiffany’s song was the last screeching wail of a strangled animal; the dismal, shrill sound of a pack of harpies swooping down upon their prey. She meant well, but that didn’t stop him wincing painfully at each misstruck note. Dithers flailed against the wall, praying the veil wouldn’t fail him and leave him exposed so high up. He held firm, thankful that he was dangling above another balcony and wouldn’t have far to fall were she to begin slaughtering a song he actually knew.

He’d heard bad singers in his life, but this mother hadn’t a chord in her throat that could strike so much as a single note, let alone string together a melody. She deserved what she had coming to her; she deserved it for what she was doing to music. Reaching back, Dithers checked the squirming leather sack dangling from a strap slung over his shoulder. All he needed was for that suckling beast to return to her bed so he could perform the single most important task of his life.

In his cradle, Ewan drifted into an infant’s slumber, the notes of his mother’s tune drifting in and out of his formless dreams. Tiffany smiled, knowing she had a good two or three hours more before he would gurgle and coo again. She lingered for a moment, marveling at the wonder in the crib. Her hand stroked the top of his head and he fussed—just a little—before settling back. Her song ended, and she retreated swiftly back to bed, stepping lightly so her footsteps wouldn’t wake him.

Dithers breathed deep, squinched tight his eyes, saying a silent prayer. In one fluid motion, he swung back, kicking off the bottom of the balcony, slinging himself around—up and over the bars— before landing graceful as a cat. He glanced around—no one to see him, not so much as a pigeon or an angel this high up tonight. He’d have liked to smile, but the job wasn’t over, too much still to go wrong.

Focus. Eyes on the crib.

He darted in through the open door, brushing past the gossamer curtains, giving a cursory glance to ensure he wasn’t seen. No one must know. No one. But the building was new, its other- worldly inhabitants yet to properly stake their claim to the nooks and crannies of every dark corner. All the better. He didn’t want a fight. He just wanted to grab the kid and go. With the kick of his foot, he was perched upon the crib’s railing. He took a brief moment—nothing more than an instant—to think about what he was doing, running over the checklist one more time.

Then he reached into his sack with one hand, scooping up baby Ewan with the other. In one rehearsed motion, he swapped the contents of his bag for the child in the crib. Then he was off, vaulting over the balcony, soaring blindly out into the night below without pausing to admire his own handiwork.

Dithers sailed seventeen stories down, his outstretched arm catching the trunk of a tree, swinging him, spiraling around, leaving a candy-cane scratch in the bark. His feet had barely touched the ground before he tore off into a full run, making his way behind a building, out into the darkness. In the sack behind him, enjoying the bumpy ride in a cushioned bag, a groggy Ewan smiled and cooed.

He would never see his mother again.

Seventeen stories up, the curtains still rustled. Beyond them, in the crib, a child looking remarkably like Ewan lay in identical pajamas. Spattered with vomit and feces, reeking of the thick smell of swamp rot, the child fussed, uncomfortable on the cozy mattress. There wasn’t the slightest hint of glamour in the air, not a bit of mountain laurel on the breeze. It was about as awful and antiseptic a place as he’d ever been. And so he began to scream.

Tiffany shot up out of bed as if it were on fire, tearing away the covers, running full speed toward the baby’s room. Something was wrong. Very wrong. For a baby who never made a noise louder than a cough to wail like that, it had to be a matter of life and death. She careened around the corner, stockinged feet slipping on the hardwood floor, arms flailing like a windmill to keep her balance, as she slid to a stop next to Ewan’s crib. The changeling shrieked and it cried and it screamed its little head off, the sound pushing in on her inner ear as if she were twenty feet underwater.

Reaching in to pick up her child, she stopped, her hands hover- ing above the baby. This isn’t right, she thought. “What’s wrong, sweetie?” she asked. “Tell Mommy what you need.” But the changeling continued its hellish squeal. Tiffany peered closer, her eyes trying to make out its features in the dark as she reached in, once again attempting to pick up her child.

Then the smell hit her, a rotting, fetid stench like week-old garbage littered with animal corpses, left to sweat in the humid Texas heat. She shuddered, covering her nose with the back of her hand to keep from gagging.

Looking again, she caught a glimpse of a single, sharp tooth. Is he teething? Already? Cautiously, she stuck a finger in its mouth, running it along bleeding gums. The little fiend bit down, sinking a single, jagged, cavity-ridden tooth into its new mother’s flesh.

She yanked back her hand, yelping, sticking the bloody finger in her mouth. The screaming stopped and the changeling opened its eyes, gazing upon Tiffany for the first time.
She could see the creature’s yellow, catlike eyes—black slits where the pupils should be—glowing in the dark of its crib. And she screamed, terrified of the monster staring back at her. The changeling smiled and—hearing the nourishing fright in its mother’s voice—let out a soothed coo.

Tiffany couldn’t explain it; she couldn’t find the words. Every time she opened her mouth, the story falling out seemed implausible, unbelievable even to her. With the baby wailing in the other room, Jared stared at his wife with a look she’d never seen before. He’d been in the room, examined Ewan a dozen times himself. The baby was fine. Clearly upset, but fine. There were no jagged teeth. No glowing yellow eyes. There was no monster in that crib. But something was wrong.

“It wasn’t a dream,” she said, bitterly. “I know what I saw.”

He reassured her, putting a sympathetic, worried hand on her arm. “I know you do, baby. I believe you.” But he didn’t.

“I want to take him to the doctor,” she demanded. “We’ll take him. But . . .”

“But don’t tell him what I told you?” “I didn’t say that,” said Jared.

“You didn’t have to.”

The pediatrician had kind eyes when she burst into tears in front of him. Of course, having only met her a few times before, he had no idea how out of character her hysterics were. And when she finally felt at ease enough to let her secret out, he remained unflappable, even smiling a little. He’d heard all this before; it was never good and rarely ended well.

“Ewan is fine, Mrs. Thatcher. He’s a perfectly healthy baby boy.” He looked over at the changeling who lay perfectly still, smiling, growing ever more content with his mother’s rapidly mounting anxiety.

“I don’t understand,” she said, trembling. “When I brought him in he was screaming his head off. He’d been screaming for eight hours straight. He’s not all right.”

“Ma’am, look at him. Whatever was wrong seems to have passed. What’s happening is completely normal. It happens all the time. The stress of a new child . . .”

“I know what I saw,” she snapped. The doctor didn’t flinch.

“I know. I believe you. Which is why I’d like to prescribe something.”

Tiffany relaxed for a moment, allowing herself to believe that someone finally understood—but that confidence was eroded when the doctor called Jared into the office to join them. Postpartum. That wasn’t the scary word. Postpartum was fine. Psychosis was the word that almost broke her.

The first day was by far the easiest. Tiffany took her medication, spent the day cradling the baby, sitting in the handcrafted rock- ing chair bought for her by her proud in-laws. The gentle creak of the chair on the floor was a kind reassurance of better times.

Creak. Creak.

The baby was quiet all day. Not a peep. Jared wanted to say something, but he thought better of it. At least Tiffany was at peace, and completely bombed out of her mind on some lithium derivative that cost nearly a day’s pay.

Every so often she would examine the baby. No fangs. Blue eyes. Tiny, adorable fingers with a faultless collection of diminutive fingernails. Perfect.

But as dusk set in, the baby changed. His brow bent out of shape, bulging a little to one side. A lingering smell wafted in on the breeze. And as the sun crept below the horizon, the baby squinted his yellow eyes.

Tiffany jumped, dropping the changeling square on its head, and the wailing returned. Jared ran into the room, saw his son crying on the floor, his wife standing contemptuously over their child. He froze. Tiffany looked up at him, pointing a crooked finger at the abomination on the floor. “That’s not my baby!” she cried. “That’s not my baby!”

Each day became progressively worse. Soon she couldn’t go anywhere near the baby, not to feed him, not to touch him, not to so much as look at him. The crying only worsened, so bad Tiffany eventually retreated into her bedroom, spending hours at a time with a pillow clutched over her head, though it never entirely drowned out the sound. The howls became whispers and soon the whispers carried instructions.

She couldn’t talk to Jared anymore. What was she going to say? She couldn’t tell him what the baby wanted her to do; the creature was becoming something far worse than a mere imposter. There was only one thing that would satisfy it, one thing that would stop its wailing.

She wanted to beat it with a brick, to crush its tiny skull to pieces, wringing the life out of its monstrous little neck, to toss it off her seventeenth-story balcony and watch it sail down into the tree line below. Oh, she dreamed of many dark and devious things in the dead of her sleepless nights—such foul atrocities she dare not speak them aloud lest she lose Jared along with her remaining sanity. The drugs helped a little—kept her fuzzy, unable to hurt her baby—but they couldn’t keep out the whispers.

After a week and a half without taking so much as a few steps out the door, the fridge was bare, the cupboards gathering dust. They needed groceries. Jared sat beside his wife, put a hand on her shoulder and asked her if she would be okay. Surprisingly, she sat up, threw her arms around him, kissing him square on the mouth. And for the first time in over a week she smiled. Then she kissed him again, as deeply and passionately as she knew how.

“I’m feeling much better, actually,” she assured him. “Really. Go. Just don’t be long.”

Jared felt as if a fifty-pound weight had been lifted from his life and he strode happily off to the store. And as he returned home and unlocked the door, he heard the familiar creaking of Tiffany in her rocking chair. Normalcy at last. The door swung open, and inside, on the couch, sat the baby, cooing and smiling, happy as ever.

Creak. Creak. Creak. An overturned chair. Creak. Horn-rimmed glasses upturned and cracked on the floor. Creak. A trickle of blood at the side of her mouth. Creak. Images. Flashes. Not enough time to process. There she swung, the most beautiful woman in the world, a rough, blister-dealing rope wrapped around her delicate neck, and tied to a beam above her. Creak. Slender toes three feet off the ground. Creak. Lifeless eyes still open, begging for respite.

Creak. Jared fell to the ground beneath his wife. Reaching up, tears already streaming down his cheeks, he gently stroked her foot. Creak. He grabbed hold, steadying her, and as he looked over at his son, wondering what he was going to do without her, he caught a glimpse of a wicked smile and tapering eyes. The change- ling giggled mischievously. With that, the sun buried its head behind the hills and there was the unmistakable sight of yellow and the shadow of a single jagged tooth.

At once Jared knew what his son had done. He knew what Tiffany had done. Most important, he knew what he had to do.

He rose to his feet, walked over, scooping the changeling into his arms, then methodically made his way down sixteen flights of stairs—the shrieking creature howling the whole way down. Both of them knew how this was going to play out. Jared lived but a block from the lake and he took his time, thinking only of Tiffany—not of the way he’d left her, swinging from the rafters, but the way she’d looked when he first saw her over that French book. He remembered her the way she had looked on that walk. The way she looked at their wedding. The way she looked when they first held Baby Ewan in their arms.

He remembered all the ways he saw her, including the time he saw her last, as he performed his slow and dastardly procession.

The block was quieter than usual, with no one so much as jogging or walking their dog. As he approached the darkening water, he paused, looking down at the child in his arms, but the creature’s howls reassured him of his decision. He leaned down to the water’s edge, right along a concrete slab that led to a steep, immediate drop-off into the lake, and plunged the changeling underwater. The shrieking stopped, a still quiet filling the coming night. Jared looked down, catching a glimpse of something lurking beneath the surface of the water. A shadow drifting slowly toward him.

He peered closer. Tiffany. She looked up, slowly rising to the surface, her arms outstretched, hair drifting in the current. But as she approached, her hair darkened, her skin grew pale, her eyes became black orbs swimming lifeless in their sockets. Before he knew what he was looking at, two watery arms took him by the lapels, pulling him headlong into its depths. He struggled, fighting, but could not reach the surface.

Two arms grappled him tightly, a woman holding firm upon his back, swimming them both ever deeper.

Jared was in the cold grip of the depths, his lungs swollen with mossy, alkaline lake water, gasping for a single breath.

The changeling floated helplessly a few feet beneath the surface. A second woman appeared, kicking like a dolphin, flinging herself out of the gloom toward the child above her. She grabbed the changeling, swimming him back to the surface, out into the night air.

“He’s ours now,” the woman whispered into Jared’s ear, her voice audible, without so much as a gurgle. Then came the black- ness, hollow, crashing, choking. And with that, Jared Thatcher drowned, sinking slowly to the bottom of the lake.

Above, the pale woman emerged from the water, the change- ling still shrieking in her arms, its tormented yowl shattering the stillness. “There, there,” she soothed, stroking his grotesque head while her eyes scanned the shoreline for any sign of witnesses. She smiled. “You’re home, child. You’re home.” The screaming stopped and the changeling cooed, smiling up at his new mother.

He was home. Home for good. And he hungered no more.