There was no electricity in the shed. Dan said this created 'atmosphere' - just seemed dark and gloomy to me. We couldn’t see each other properly. Ruth had brought candles and she lit them with my lighter, melting wax onto the wobbly old table and lodging them upright. Shadow and light flickered across her face. The candles seemed to make the shed darker, it lit the area where we all sat balanced on stacks of unwanted books or hunched on old boxes and crates, but behind us the darkness deepened.
‘How’d you find this place anyway?’ Moggy asked, her rich Scottish accent warming the shadows.
‘It’s Grandad’s,’ I said, earning a sharp look from Dan for breaking his air of mystery. ‘Or was,’ I added. ‘No-one’s been here since he died. He grew potatoes in the plot. Couldn’t grow anything else.’
‘Alright Simon,’ Dan said, smacking my arm a little harder than playful. ‘They don’t want our life story.’
Moggy took the lighter from Ruth and began playing with it, flicking it on and off. She smiled at me through the glow. Maybe Dan was right. No electricity was good.
‘What now?’ Ruth asked. ‘We’re just going to sit in the dark and stare at each other?’
Dan shook his head.
‘Course not, I came prepared.’ He bent down and rummaged about in the plastic bag at his feet. ‘Ta da!’ he waved a large bottle of cider in the air.
The girls rolled their eyes simultaneously and shared a glance.
‘Classy,’ Ruth muttered.
Dan’s face hardened and I could tell he was on the brink of losing his good humour. That’s Dan for you. He’s fine as long as everyone thinks he’s brilliant, but as soon as he thinks you’re laughing at him, you’d better watch out.
‘There should be some cards somewhere,’ I said, before he could ruin everything. It had taken ages to persuade the girls to come up here alone with us. What was the point of all that sweet talking if he was just going to lose his cool and get moody on them? I don’t think girls like that moody act as much as he thinks they do. ‘Let’s play poker.’
Moggy’s face lit up instantly.
‘Strip poker,’ Dan suggested.
‘Yeah, Dan, in a grubby shed, in the middle of November.' Ruth sighed and shook her head. 'You sure know how to show us a good time.’
Moggy giggled and tucked her chin into the collar of her coat.
‘Come on then Si,’ she said to me, kicking me lightly on the shin, ‘get the damn cards. And Dan, pour the cider, I could do with warming up.’
Dan frowned as he stared at the bottle in his hand.
‘I didn’t bring cups,’ he said at last. ‘We’ll have to swig from the bottle.’
‘Better and better,’ Ruth muttered, but she reached for the bottle anyway and Dan’s face cleared as he unscrewed the top and gave it to her.
I turned away, my stomach squirming slightly with excitement. Ok, so this wasn’t exactly the most romantic place in the world. And maybe letting Dan sort the drink wasn’t the best move. But the girls were still here and they were laughing and joking and they seemed kind of keyed up too. I could feel Moggy’s bright eyes on me and my stomach squirmed again. I took a deep breath and began rummaging around in the boxes where Granddad had stored his supply of cigarettes, drink and cards. Empty bottles clinked, whispery things brushed my hand, my fingertips slithered over the layer of dirt and sludge at the bottom. Finally I felt the wooden edge of the box he kept his poker cards in. Clutching it tightly I turned back to the group. Moggy was drinking from the bottle, her mouth twisting at the taste as she passed it back to Dan.
‘Here.’ I set the wooden box down on the table. It was a faded, plain box with a rusty metal latch to keep it closed, but the dancing candle light threw patterns across the worn surface and I remembered Granddad snatching it out of my hands when I was younger.
‘It’s not for playing with,’ he’d yelled, his bloodshot eyes bulging slightly while Dan and I slunk away from him. ‘I told yer to leave it be.’
Dan was looking at the box with a strangely sombre expression on his face. Was he remembering that same moment? Grandad was always an intimidating figure. Stinking of cigarette smoke and stale whisky. His eyes were yellow, and his skin seemed yellow too. He said it was jaundice from the jungles when he’d lived abroad... fought abroad. We were terrified of him, but he impressed us. He was tall and he kept his army figure right up until he died.
Moggy reached for the box. I grabbed her wrist.
‘Nothing... I just-’ How could I say I had a bad feeling about opening the box? It was just a box.
She smiled, her lips soft and kind. She twisted her wrist so that we were palm to palm. My hand tingled.
‘Sure,’ she said, ‘he was your granddad.’ She drew her hand away and gave a small nod. ‘Go on then, you do the honours.’
There was no other choice. I reached for the box. My fingers seemed to curl away from it, but I made them wrap around the solid shape. It felt warm. I drew it in close to my chest.
‘Grandad never let us use them,’ I said. ‘He said, they weren’t for playing with.’ I felt stupid as I spoke. Like a small child.
‘Come on,’ Dan snapped. ‘Grandad’s dead and the cider’s running out.’ He took another swig.
‘He wanted the shed burnt down after he died,’ I said, still staring at the box. ‘He left a letter to mum, said he wanted everything in it turned to ashes. She wouldn’t do it though.’
‘Simon.’ Dan leaned in close. ‘You’re kind of killing the mood here. Grandad was out of his head. He wanted to burn himself with it as well, if you remember - that’s why they sent him to the home. Now, either open that damn box and cheer up a bit, or give it to me and bugger off.’
The box was still warm in my hand and for a moment I swear it shuddered in my grip. I almost dropped it, but as I looked up I saw Moggy’s large eyes watching me. I must look mad to her. She’d never let me talk her into coming up here without Ruth at this rate. I swallowed down the anxiety that was starting to bubble inside me and turned my attention back to the box.
I unlatched the clasp. Lifted the lid and...
A tired looking pack of cards sat inside.
‘These are well old,’ Dan said, reaching past me and grabbing the pack out of the box. ‘The old git picked them up from Vietnam, or Cambodia or China or somewhere like that.’
‘Cool,’ Ruth took them from him. She slid the cards out of the cardboard pack and fanned them out.
I grabbed the cider and took a long deep drink, barely tasting it as it slid down my throat and into my stomach. My heart was beating madly and I had no idea why. My gaze was on the cards in Ruth’s hands, I couldn’t look away.
Ruth’s face twisted slightly.
‘Ugh,’ she said, ‘these are creepy.’
Moggy peered over her shoulder at them, her nose wrinkled.
‘What are these?’ she asked.
Ruth turned them so that they faced us. Dan and I both leaned in. I frowned, squinting in the light to make them out. There were no usual images of queens, or jacks, or kings, or aces. Instead there were photos of people. Some were Asian in green khaki uniform, some were western with big perms and hanging hoop earrings, some were older with white hair and creased faces. All them wore a look of terror – their mouths twisted in silent screams, or grimaces of pain, their eyes stretched with fear.
‘I don’t want to play with them,’ Moggy said, drawing away and pulling her coat tighter about herself. A shock of wind made the candle flames flicker.
‘Look,’ Ruth said, pulling a card out of the deck. ‘This one’s normal.’ She held up a jack. The usual sort of jack you’d find in any pack of cards. My heart seemed to freeze for a moment.
‘Ruth,’ I said, and I knew as I spoke that it was too late. ‘I think you should put the card down.’
Ruth turned to look at me. As she did so the card twisted in her hand. Not like cardboard. Like a living thing. Ruth let out a small cry of horror and tried to drop it. We all leapt back. The card wrapped itself around Ruth’s wrist, was slowly twisting up her arm.
‘Oh my god!’ Ruth was scrambling away from us, shaking her arm. ‘Get it off, get it off, get it off.’ Her face was stricken with terror.
Moggy and I lurched towards her at the same time. Moggy wrapped her arms about her.
‘Simon,’ she yelled, ‘pull that bloody thing off her.’
The card was like a red and white snake, entwining itself about Ruth’s arm. Her skin was turning an awful grey colour wherever it was touched. Ruth’s eyes were wide, her breath coming in convulsive gulps, unable to utter any words. The thing wound up higher towards her neck.
I grabbed at it. It was thick and muscled beneath my touch. And hot. Burning. I let out a cry of pain, snatching my hands back. Ruth staggered, her arm flailing wildly, knocking Moggy aside.
The thing was up her neck, under her chin, curling up and over her face.
I could hear Moggy’s terrified sobbing, behind me Dan was cowered against the wall. The thing now covered Ruth’s entire upper body and was working downwards. Waist, hips, thighs...
One moment she was there, a heaving mass of white and red. The next there was nothing.
I staggered back, knocking against our table. The candles toppled off. Silence fell with the darkness.
‘R-Ruth?’ Moggy’s voice filled the shed. ‘Ruth?’
I fumbled for a candle.
‘Moggy,’ I whispered, ‘do you have my lighter?’
I heard her moving over to me, her touch trembled on my arm, she pressed the lighter into my palm. It took me a couple of tries to get the spark to ignite. Each time Moggy’s face flared pale and sweaty in the brief illumination. Finally I lit the candle. The flame wobbled. Daniel was still pressed against the wall, his face stricken. Moggy stood beside me, her breathing ragged.
Ruth was gone. I stood up and moved forward, to where she had stood a moment before. A playing card lay in the dust at my feet.
I bent down and picked it up. I turned it over.
Ruth’s face stared up at me, frozen in a look of terror.